Friday, August 27, 2010

The Minnow Gets Its Fins Rapped

Back in the day, naughty children would get a rap on the knuckles from the nun. What with nuns being few and far between these days, it's up to lay teachers like Bernie Ruane to handle the corporal punishment.

She's given educational publishers a severe, though vocal, rap on their greedy hands. Ms. Ruane, the president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, is quite put out about business practices in the educational publishing world. That means you, Mr. Barry O'Callaghan and all your colleagues at HMH-Riverdeep etc.

Hard-pressed taxpayers are wondering why their local school board is ordering new textbooks for subjects that don't change. After all, two plus two has always made four, and why would a brand new edition of a mathematics textbook be needed every couple of years?

So if a new edition isn't necessary, why are publishers dropping editions after a year or two? When the school needs one or two more copies to accomodate increasing class size, the book isn't available and the school board has to buy a brand new set, at an expense they are hard-pressed to meet.

As Ms. Ruane notes, her syllabus hasn't changed so why should she teach from a revised edition?

The financial picture at HMH-Riverdeep etc. has certainly changed over time. In spite of John Paulson's cash infusions, the whale-swallowing minnow continues to deal with a heavy debt burden. The only way to get out from under is to turn a profit. The only way to turn a profit (now that every possible synergy has been realized) is to sell books.

Seeing as there's little profit to be gained from selling a few additional copies of the same old textbook, it makes perfect business sense to revise and renew every few years. New illustrations, new ways to teach algebra and pre-calculus. Fresh approaches to literature and beginning reading.

If Ms. Ruane got her wish and school boards could buy fewer books, there would be a decline in educational publishing. Without a profit motive, fewer publishers would produce educational materials that could not be updated frequently. Fewer publishers would mean less competition and prices would rise. In the end, the school boards would pay the same amount of money for a smaller quantity of materials.

Besides, old books are filled with crib notes and we all know what kind of trouble Harry Potter got into when he was issued that book of spells.

And we all know what kind of trouble Barry O'Callaghan got into when he set out to grow his little minnow into a mighty whale of a publishing house. A drive to cut back on school textbook purchases just might drown him.

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