The new Common Core standards, which are essentially descriptions of things kids should have learned and know by various ages and grades, are now being adopted and adjusted to by elementary and secondary schools across the country. Common Core, besides providing the standards, encourages the practice of educating kids using content not created expressly for an educational purpose. In other words, teach kids with regular books, newspapers, magazines, videos; not just with books and educational materials prepared by textbook publishers.
So Common Core is a new reality that would tend to encourage greater use of books from trade publishers in school settings.
The other new reality producing change in the school market for publishers is ubiquity approaching universality of devices for digital reading. More and more kids of all ages and economic backgrounds have smartphones, tablets, and game devices that can be used to read ebooks.
Changing commercial environments create digital opportunities and they’re being seen in this arena. Our clients at Copyright Clearance Center are working diligently to get content made available to be found within the Smarter Balanced multi-state assessment (one of two multi-state, high-stakes assessments funded through Race to the Top grants from the US Department of Education), which enables the inclusion of that content in assessments that could lead to years of discovery by teachers and adoption by schools. (The assessment tool requires the student — for example — to read a poem or a passage. In order to use that assessment, the poem or passage would have to be licensed.) Another initiative we have become aware of is Biblionasium, which is a new community trying to bring together students, teachers, and parents around kids reading.
(Biblionasium helped us make a great discovery. They published recommended reading from each of their three constituencies. We noticed that only one title was in the top three recommendations for all three groups: students, teachers, and parents. The book is called “Wonder” and it is extraordinary. It seems to be written for pre-teens, but I couldn’t put it down. The world will be a better place if every kid reads this book whenever their skill level permits. It has a simple stated moral: “be kinder than necessary”. And it delivers it very persuasively.)
Amazon took a stab at a school marketplace play two years ago, trying to make it easy to enable teachers to load ebooks on Kindles across a class and then “taking them off” when the class was over.
That’s a nod toward a solution, but it falls far short. Teachers need tools and capabilities in and around the content and in and around its consumption that even go beyond what a parent needs to monitor a kid. And, regardless of what the platform can do, there’s still a pricing problem. Although publishers would like to get full ebook prices for every single copy placed on each new student’s device, that can’t work for schools. Buying books is cash-demanding enough, but at least the books can be reused by class after class, semester after semester, until each copy wears out.
Singer has been a teacher and KIPP charter school administrator. He has designed the Curriculet platform for leading a class through reading a book (or anything else) that gives students additional information and help right in line with their reading. Curriculet also gives teachers both the ability to add direction (quizzes, videos) and to monitor what their kids are doing. The enhancements a teacher adds to text are the “curriculets”; there can be one or many for any book or piece of content.
Speaking as an educator, Singer told me something in our meeting that startled me. Apparently, among 5th grade kids, 75 percent do a chunk of pleasure reading at least twice a week. By 12th grade, that number has dropped to 20 percent. So we lose two-thirds of the kids who are pleasure readers over the course of their junior high and high school educations. This is not only a great failure of our educational system, it is a big loss to publishers. They have an enormous collective interest in collaborating with schools in every way they can to make their books available in an environment where kids will be encouraged to read and enjoy them.
But, again, we come back to the challenges of book prices and school budgets. Singer told us a story about a teacher who wanted to teach “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” on the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. But buying 150 copies of the printed book was a non-starter. Schools can’t afford to make that investment except in books that they are absolutely confident will be taught year after year. So the same books continue to be taught. Each year they replace some fraction of the copies of “Scarlet Letter” or “Huckleberry Finn” that have worn out, but they never have to replace them all. And they know each new teacher will be comfortable teaching those books. So they continue and, as Singer explained, that’s why today’s kids read many of the same books in school that their parents and grandparents read.
So far, the digital book business for schools has only really been penetrable by companies with enough content of their own to make a license make sense, namely Pearson and McGraw-Hill. Because Penguin Random House is about half the trade market, they could conceivably do the same as ebook use matures. But just about everybody else depends on aggregators to deliver a selection of books large enough to make it make sense for a school district (let alone a classroom) to purchase a license. Consensus around trading terms for ebooks in schools has been slow to develop because of the fear publishers have that the digital copies in such a community setting (loaded with smart kids who might be aspiring — or extremely capable — hackers) could be dangerous to the future sales of that title in digital form.
But at the same time that Curriculet is offering a big advantage to the teachers with the capabilities of its platform, it also offers great comfort to the publishers whose ebooks it wants to use. Part of publishers’ motivation in charging standard (or even higher) prices to schools than to individuals is the (misplaced or not) fear of rampant piracy. Aside from the danger of them being hacked and broadly distributed, they could end up on a kid’s device for lifetime use even if they aren’t spread around.
None of these problems arise with the Curriculet platform. The book lives there; it isn’t taken off it. The student can read it as long as Curriculet allows them to read it; beyond that, they can’t. So publishers can be a bit more adventurous about what they allow into the platform and about the pricing models they explore. The good news for them is that teachers will be convening on Curriculet to share data and teaching insights; there’s a good chance they’ll be telling each other about books and sharing the teaching materials they’ve developed around the books (so they can find things the way I found “Wonder”). That means publishers will find being on Curriculet provides marketing impetus for a book. The better news is that the resulting discovery will turn into sales, not pass-alongs, because access to the content is controlled through the platform.
It’s a long way from a reality because Curriculet, now in beta, will only really hit the market later this spring. But this is a helpful development for schools and for publishers and it, or something like it, is promising for the future of publishers’ revenues from the school market.