McGraw-Hill Sees the Light


Educational publishing giant McGraw-Hill made headlines a few weeks ago when teachers and parents discovered corporate logos and brand names in math problems in a middle-school math book considered for adoption by Texas schools. Educators wondered aloud if – along with the fast-food and soft drink ads in the hallways and playing fields – the nefarious practice of “product placement,” now so common in Hollywood movies, had finally made it into textbooks.

Company spokesmen quickly dismissed that notion, explaining that no money had changed hands and insisting they had only sought to make math more engaging for kids. They have no financial interest, the company explained, in how many shoes Nike sells or how many hamburgers McDonald’s moves.

But McGraw-Hill does know how to sell textbooks, especially in the South, where it perennially whips its competition in the multibillion-dollar grade-school textbook market. And the company does have something to hide, although the secrets have nothing to do with basketball shoes or burgers. What’s been hidden are the marketing secrets of the nation’s top educational publisher at work in the nation’s biggest (and most conservative) market: Texas. These techniques provide an unofficial primer for the newly initiated: what they never taught you in business school. In 1997, McGraw-Hill had an outstanding year, with big wins in the South helping the company capture over 40 percent of the nation’s elementary school market. The publisher’s reading series, Spotlight on Literacy, swept through Georgia that summer like Sherman marching to the sea, winning roughly double the share of its nearest competitor. But McGraw-Hill’s real victory was in Texas, where a series called Adventures in Time and Place won an unprecedented 60 percent of the state’s potential $72 million adoption budget for elementary social studies texts. Faced with the prospect of a difficult campaign in Texas – selling history in the face of persistent right-wing accusations of multiculturalism and unpatriotic revisionism – New York-based McGraw-Hill resorted to a tactic that General Sherman would never have embraced: they capitulated. The company retreated, however, only to advance. What follows is an account of McGraw-Hill’s triumphant Texas Textbook Campaign.

Working the Board

On the fifteen-member Texas State Board of Education, Republicans hold a nine-to-six advantage over Democrats. But the crucial division is between the Christian conservative faction (which grew to six members in January) and the moderate Republicans and Democrats. Beginning in 1993, with the election of conservative Christian Bob Offutt, Christian activists – with the help of a state Republican party machine they now firmly control – have targeted Board of Education elections once largely ignored by both parties. The Board’s fundamentalist faction has taken its direction from the Christian Coalition, and carried on a campaign of obstructionist politics, railing against the “Austin education establishment” – their term for the confluence of education interest groups, teachers’ unions, and state bureaucracies controlling the public school system. Until the Legislature reacted and the Board’s authority to review textbook content was limited by statute in 1997, the fundamentalist faction held a stranglehold on the textbook adoption process, practically bringing to a halt the state’s efforts to adopt desperately needed new health textbooks in 1995. But despite attempts by Governor Bush and moderate Republicans to limit their influence (including threats to abolish the elected board), fundamentalist board members have since found other avenues to maintain control over the book adoption process. They have made critical appointments to textbook review committees, where Christian activists, determined to punish insufficiently conservative publishers, pore over textbooks line by line. Individual board members have even promoted personally approved textbooks, using their names to advance the interests of certain publishing houses in school districts – where the endorsement of an elected official can help sell textbooks.

So working the board, even with its diminished authority, remains crucial. Nobody works the board better than McGraw-Hill, as the 1996-97 adoption cycle amply demonstrated. At a Christian education expo held on the outskirts of San Antonio last spring, veteran fundamentalist Board member Offutt, a pediatric dentist from San Antonio, related a textbook adoption “success story.” According to Offutt, an unnamed publisher – which The Observer has learned was McGraw-Hill – contacted him in mid-1995 to discuss the upcoming selection of new social studies books in Texas, to replace books that had not been updated in over nine years. The Board was not even scheduled to receive drafts of textbooks until the following spring, and at the time Offutt received his call, McGraw-Hill’s social studies series, Adventures in Time and Place, was still in the manuscript phase. As Offutt recalled, the company representatives sought advice about how their editors might make their version of history “more palatable to the conservative philosophy.”

“That’s Course Number 101 in publishing,” according to former Simon & Schuster vice president of sales, George Delano, who spent twenty-eight years in the industry, including stints as national sales manager for Scott Foresman and regional vice president for McGraw-Hill. “In Texas in particular,” he told the Observer, “you’ve got to play to the very conservative faction, so it’s most important to run your product, your manuscript, by key board members.” In addition to a regional sales manager, every major publisher employs a lobbyist who works the Texas Board. McGraw-Hill uses Mike Toomey, a former Houston legislator who also served as Bill Clements’ legislative liaison before turning to the lobby, where he is considered a big gun. Toomey’s close ties with conservative Republicans make him a natural choice to work the fundamentalist faction on the Board. Toomey also represents Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a PAC created by right-wing millionaire James Leininger, the state’s single biggest funder of conservative Christian candidates and issues. Leininger underwrote Offutt’s campaign for the Board, along with those of every other conservative Christian member.

But working the Board means more than just wining and dining the conservative members. You’ve also got to meet the folks that call the shots in the movement. Offutt said he steered McGraw-Hill representatives to three fundamentalist advocacy groups based in Texas: Anne Newman’s Texas Family Research Center; Education Research Analysts (better known as Mel and Norma Gabler); and WallBuilders, a fundamentalist ministry headed by David Barton. According to Offutt, the company conferred with each of these groups before submitting Adventures in Time and Place for adoption the following spring. Questioned later about his story, Offutt declined to name the publisher involved, acknowledging frankly that “they probably wouldn’t want to be associated with a radical right group.” But that’s precisely the point, according to Delano: “You’ve got to make these groups feel like they’re in the loop, so that they feel they have some ownership over the final product.” Conservative Board members keep them in the loop. Barton and Newman (along with Neal Frey, an associate of the Gablers) held positions on the Board-appointed curriculum review committees which set the standards for subject-matter textbooks must adhere to.

Just who are these people? For years, San Antonio homemaker Anne Newman has been a one-woman grassroots lobbying machine, churning out newsletters and resource guides for conservative board members and concerned parents, on topics ranging from the state’s sex education curriculum (reference her 1993 guide, The Sex Pushers) to her current animus – the Goals 2000 federal education reform initiative. Stocky, dour, and seemingly blessed with a bottomless capacity for the daily drudgery of moral outrage (duplicating bulletins, poring over T.E.A. documents, reading textbooks line by line), Newman is a frequent choice for textbook review duties and attends every Board meeting, where she never strays far from the conservative members. Her stern matronly presence is complemented by the pleasant, airy demeanor of the Texas Eagle Forum’s Stephanie Cecil, who also never misses a meeting. While the smiling Cecil works the press table, Newman shuttles whispered messages from member to member.

For thirty years, the better-known Gablers – Mel and his wife Norma – have been ferreting out communism and exposing un-American themes in textbooks. With their assistant Neal Frey, the couple conducts exhaustive reviews of selected texts, submitting extensive lists of “errors” both real and imagined. In analysis and testimony, the Gablers cling to a brand of Cold War patriotism that has become almost quaint, as when they attacked one history text for including a segment on Langston Hughes. To the Gablers, the acclaimed African-American poet is best remembered as simply “a known communist,” whose main mission was to overthrow the U.S. government.

David Barton’s rise to right-wing prominence is more recent and much more auspicious. In 1989, Barton self-published The Myth of Separation, a pseudo-historical, poorly argued polemic purporting to prove that the American tradition of separation of church and state is based on a historical fallacy resulting from a misreading of the writings of the founders. Barton followed his book with a popular video titled America’s Godly Heritage, which has been widely promoted by the Christian Coalition, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, and the Eagle Forum. Barton’s video traces virtually every social problem in America – from declining S.A.T. scores to increasing alcoholism – to the Supreme Court’s anti-school prayer decisions of the early 1960s. (In his 1988 book America: To Pray or Not to Pray?, Barton claims that God himself gave him the idea for the project – specifically directing him to find the exact date school prayer was banned and chart that date against records of national S.A.T. scores.) Since 1991, Barton has made his living on the lecture circuit, touring the nation almost continuously while his suburban Fort Worth ministry continues to crank out a catalogue of “Christian recontructionist” publications. Christian reconstructionism, explains Sam Smoot of the Texas Freedom Network (an Austin-based group that monitors the Christian right), is a movement that “seeks to recreate society within a biblical framework,” often promoting a reinterpretation of American history along scriptural lines. The result is frequently a mischaracterization – if not outright fabrication – of history.

Take the example of Thomas Jefferson’s famous Danbury letter of 1802, in which he argued for a “wall of separation” to maintain limits on government’s interference with religion and religion’s incursion into affairs of government. In the original version of the video America’s Godly Heritage, Barton not only gets wrong the date and source for this seminal metaphor, he attributes a completely fraudulent quote to Jefferson, in which Barton has the founder referring to a “one-directional wall,” which “keeps the government from running the church but makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government.” Jefferson, of course, said no such thing. Embarrassed by this and other errors, in 1995 Barton was moved to publish a sort of mass retraction: a list of twelve “questionable quotes” from the founding fathers, which Barton now recommends his many admirers stop propagating.

Barton’s lecture-cum-sermon on Christian-American history is much in demand among the fringe groups of the far right. In 1991, he spoke at a retreat in Colorado sponsored by Pastor Pete Peters, whose Scriptures for America ministry is affiliated with the racist and anti-Semitic Christian Identity movement. (According to a report by Rob Boston in the journal Church and State, Peters’ congregation at one time included members of a neo-Nazi group called The Order, the same local neo-Nazi group implicated in the 1984 murder of Denver talk-radio host Alan Berg.) But Barton, it must be said, is not without more respectable affiliations: in 1997, he was elected vice-president of the Texas Republican Party.

WallBuilders’ research director Bill Suggs confirmed that at the company’s request, he reviewed McGraw-Hill’s fifth grade American history manuscript, chapter by chapter over a six-month period. WallBuilders maintains an extensive library of what Suggs reverentially calls “original sources” – including, to say the least, some fairly arcane selections. Suggs opens his library to writers seeking to supplement the conventional wisdom on especially sensitive topics, such as Christopher Columbus’ role in the conquest of the New World. To flesh out the McGraw-Hill chapter on Columbus, Suggs says he referred editors to a little-known text called The Book of Prophecies, an incomplete collection of manuscripts assembled by Columbus between voyages to the New World. (Italian Columbus scholar Roberto Rusconi collected and edited the text in 1984; the University of California Press later published an English edition.) Finding himself the target of persecution in Spain, Columbus sought to demonstrate the special role of the discovery of the Indies in the larger project of liberating Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim control (and also, of course, to emphasize his own central role in the project). Columbus went to great lengths – most historians would say over the top – to show how essential his work was to the future of Christian supremacy. But for Suggs, The Book of Prophecies, however obscure and self-justifying, is the backstory to the conquest of the New World that Texas school kids haven’t been hearing. “There’s a trend to see him as this dead white male conquering native cultures,” Suggs said. “These sources help bring out the religious perspective on his mission.”

Eventually two McGraw-Hill representatives came to Fort Worth to have lunch with Suggs and discuss his suggested revisions. “They said, ‘We like that … we like that … we felt we were okay on that,'” Suggs recalled, adding, “We feel they’ve done an excellent job in reaching out to the conservative community.” McGraw-Hill’s conservative outreach certainly paid off: Adventures in Time and Place was the only series to win unanimous approval by the Board-appointed textbook review committee.

Contacted by the Observer, the president of McGraw-Hill’s School Division, Roger R. Rogalin, expressed skepticism about Suggs’ story. Although he said he had not heard of WallBuilders or Bill Suggs, Rogalin confirmed that the company routinely shops manuscripts around to different reviewers. “We value scholarship most highly,” he explained. Of course, he added, “There’s scholarship, and then there’s scholarship. It’s important to try to get a balanced view, and to involve people with different perspectives.” Does that typically include the perspectives of a ministry? “I’d say that would be very unusual,” Rogalin answered. He offered to look on the credits page of the book to see if David Barton or Bill Suggs were listed as contributors (they are not). “I don’t think we contracted with WallBuilders,” Rogalin concluded. “I’d have to go back and look, but I don’t think we did.”

Refining the Product

Power lunching with influential and devoutly conservative Texans such as Suggs is one thing, but how far should a publisher go in allowing fundamentalists to shape the actual product? According to Holt, Rinehart & Winston President Bill Talkington, the object of having different groups review materials (which he acknowledged is common practice) is simply to get as many viewpoints as possible, not to tailor the product to a particular interest group’s specifications. In fact, Talkington actually pulled Holt, Rinehart’s health
textbooks out of the running in Texas in 1995 rather than make changes that he told Educational Marketer at the time were “potentially injurious” to students and might not have given kids enough information about “life-threatening issues.” Talkington has since become more pragmatic (he now says his decision was “purely economic”), but he still defends the integrity of the process. “I don’t think you really see that much impact or influence on changing curriculum,” he said. “I would be amazed if publishers did that.”

Talkington might benefit from an inside look at McGraw-Hill’s operation. In mid-September of last year, when the company was preparing a set of reading texts for the upcoming Texas adoption, School Division President Roger Rogalin called the entire reading department – about thirty-five writers and editors – to a special luncheon meeting in the third floor conference room of the company’s Manhattan offices. According to a department editor who asked to remain anonymous, also present were senior company officers, including School Division Vice President Daniella Pivelli and editor-in-chief Diane Altman. The subject was marketing strategy – Rogalin announced that the company’s goal was to win one quarter of the $100-million reading market.

To inspire the troops, Rogalin recounted the story of how the company had won the Texas history adoption. “He told us,” recalled the editor, “that what put us over the top was what we did with the Gablers.” What McGraw-Hill had done, in essence, was to make the Gablers de facto editors for the Adventures in Time and Place series. Rogalin described how the company had presented the entire manuscript, chapter by chapter, to the Gablers, who returned the chapters with their suggested changes. “Then our editors reworked it, right down to the ground,” using the Gablers’ marked-up version as a guide. “Everybody in-house knew what was going on at the time,” said the editor, “so it was not really a surprise. But it was just amazing, the cynicism with which he described this process to us.”

Rogalin says he recalls the meeting quite differently. “Anyone who said that is clearly mistaken,” he insisted. “I never said anything of the sort. I didn’t represent that to any editors or any employee in any way, shape, or form.” However, he did confirm that the Gablers were one of “fifteen or twenty” reviewers for the series. The Gablers caught several errors which were corrected before the book went to press, Rogalin said, although the company did not accept all of their revisions. “Did they influence the content, or the direction of the content? No.” The final product is still “the author’s perspective, but it’s informed by scholarship from different groups,” Rogalin concluded. “And apparently it was pretty successful, because we did very well in the state in 1997.”

Despite Rogalin’s disclaimers, the reading editor told the Observer that during the September strategy meeting, Rogalin went on to apply the history-book lesson to the upcoming reading adoption. The key to selling reading books to conservatives, he explained, is simple: phonics, phonics, phonics. Conservative Christians prefer phonics over the alternative “whole language” method (which uses selections from literature to teach reading), because phonics appeals to their preference for rote memorization and the general “back to basics” mentality. Moreover, phonics largely precludes the use of literature as a learning tool, which eliminates a potential avenue for “psychosocial instruction” – that is, presenting students with ethical dilemmas, multicultural perspectives, or anything remotely Judy Blumesque. In the past two years, Rogalin noted, even Texas Governor George W. Bush has jumped on the phonics bandwagon. Accordingly, McGraw-Hill’s reading series, Rogalin told his editors, will emphasize phonics through the third grade. “He said he thought that was the best way to go – but he means financially, not pedagogically,” the reading editor said. “Anyone can tell you that by the third grade, you need to be moving past phonics.”

It’s a horrible thing to say and it sure isn’t politically correct, but editorial people in the publishing industry – unlike when I first started twenty-five years ago – today, they’re driven by sales, pure and simple. And anybody who tells you that’s not true is full of bunk,” says George Delano. What effect does the dominance of marketing have on the product? Alexander Stille reviewed United States: Adventures in Time and Place, along with four other new American history texts, in The New York Review of Books last summer. He found that in the case of the four major publishers, efforts to please both the left and the right – what he somewhat charitably termed a “conspiracy of good intentions” – had produced dumbed-down texts, with every paragraph a carefully negotiated compromise. Though Roger Rogalin speaks of “the author’s perspective,” in modern textbook publishing the concept has become meaningless. Textbook history is history by committee, and the committee includes armies of contract writers, marketing experts, activists (of every stripe, but primarily conservative), and initially – but more than one step removed – actual historians.

Although books are informally screened by advocacy groups from across the spectrum, conservatives have much more influence than the so-called “multicultural left,” by virtue of the strong conservative presence on both curriculum-setting committees and the state boards of education in Texas and – as a result of Pete Wilson’s appointees – in California, the other crucial textbook market. Publishers have duly responded to the prevailing winds of American politics. Those winds were once regional; publishers used to produce special editions exclusively for Texas. That’s no longer the case, according to Delano – not because Texas has become less conservative, but because “quite honestly, the entire country has swung around to the right.”

Hawking It To the Districts

From the Texas Panhandle to deep East Texas to suburban Plano, few political movements are as well organized or as ubiquitous as the religious right. A smart marketing strategy can put that organization to work for you. In January of 1995, following a bruising, months-long state battle over health textbooks, David Irons, then regional vice president of McGraw-Hill’s Glencoe division, sent a marketing pitch to Texas school district superintendents. Irons pointed out that of the four texts that survived the adoption process, only Glencoe received a near unanimous approval. How did Glencoe get through the process unscathed? Irons cited five good reasons [emphasis in original]. Glencoe Health, he wrote, (1) “is the only health text that is exclusively abstinence based”; (2) “does not contain a discussion about alternatives to abstinence such as ‘protected sex by wearing a condom'”; (3) “does not promote a Pro-Homosexual lifestyle or an Anti-Family agenda”; (4) “had limited changes and revisions out of the nearly 300 changes that the others health publishers were required to make”; and (5) “is the only health text endorsed by the Texas Council for Family Values [Anne Newman’s former group], the American Family Association of Texas, and Concerned Women of America.”

“That’s way over the top,” said a marketer with experience in California and Texas. “But McGraw-Hill is known for that kind of thing.” Asked about the memo, Rogalin said that while he could not speak for Glencoe (“that’s a different division”), “from an industry standpoint, if you get an endorsement from any group, you advertise it.” Any group? “Well,” he conceded, “I guess if it’s the Young Communists of America, you wouldn’t.” You don’t need the Gablers to make that exception, but most objective observers would also consider the right-wing groups listed in Irons’ memo similarly extremist. Take the American Family Association, for example. Nationally, much of the group’s resources are spent fighting what it calls “the gay agenda.” So much so, that Cyberpatrol, the most commonly used internet screening software, currently blocks access to the A.F.A. web site, citing the group’s “intolerance” – a category designed chiefly to filter out neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups. Though numerically smaller than the Texas chapter of the Christian Coalition, the A.F.A. of Texas has considerable clout, particularly with the Board of Education. Last summer the A.F.A., led by Wyatt Roberts, convinced the Board to dump all the Disney stock held by the public school fund – because of Disney’s marketing, through its Miramax subsidiary, of presumably “immoral” films.

The civil liberties group People for the American Way wrote McGraw-Hill objecting to Glencoe’s marketing tactics, particularly its pandering to homophobia. In June of 1995, McGraw-Hill C.E.O. Jack Witmer responded with a lengthy rationalization of his company’s district lobbying effort. Witmer called Irons’ gay-bashing letter “a one-time response … to a specific political situation,” and denied that it was part of any marketing strategy. Strategy or isolated tactic, the letter worked brilliantly: shortly after Irons sent it, the A.F.A. mailed its own review of all four health books to its membership, advising them to get behind Glencoe Health in their districts. A few weeks later, conservative Board member Donna Ballard (since defeated) distributed her own letter, referring local superintendents in her region to the A.F.A. review. Witmer’s disclaimer notwithstanding, Glencoe’s publisher/activist synergy proved so successful it earned David Irons a promotion.

In 1996-97, McGraw-Hill’s social studies series picked up endorsements from the Gablers and from a conservative Texas think tank called the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is underwritten by James Leininger – the Christian right tort reformer and big funder from San Antonio. The Gablers sent out a brief fax to school districts across the state, citing a purported ranking of the four adopted social studies series, based on the preferences of “a great majority of participants in the Texas adoption process.” The Gablers claimed “the consensus was that McGraw-Hill’s Adventures in Time and Place is the least controversial and most positive series.” Yet according to Jane Humphries, chair of the 1996 Texas Council for the Social Studies textbook review committee, no such ranking system was ever used in the evaluation of the textbooks, all of which were approved by the State Textbook Review Committee.

About the same time, parents around the state received a four-page “action alert” from Chris Patterson, education analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The foundation’s list of recent publications reads like Newt Gingrich’s personal bookshelf – everything from school vouchers to tort reform, as well as instructions in privatizing every imaginable government function. “Unless members of the public advise districts to purchase the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill textbooks,” Patterson wrote, “many students in Texas will learn little about dates, places, events and people. Instead of academics, students will learn how to feel about personal, social, and political issues.” Conservative board members had relied heavily on Patterson and the Foundation in earlier battles, particularly in the lengthy fight over revision of the state’s curriculum standards in 1996, for which Patterson produced a devastatingly meticulous assault on the work of the Texas Education Agency. Patterson says she read every book in every series from cover to cover to produce her evaluation of the history texts, but received no money from any publisher. Rather, Public Policy Foundation underwriter James Leininger picked up the tab, not only for the review, but also for the direct mail campaign that spread the word about McGraw-Hill’s good work throughout Texas.

“Do I think the process has become degraded? Absolutely,” says George Delano. He says he often had ethical reservations about some of his own company’s tactics, which included hiring a PR firm to plant attack editorials aimed at competitors’ math books in the Dallas Morning News and the Sacramento Bee (the “fuzzy math” or “rainforest algebra” brouhaha that erupted simultaneously in Texas and California two years ago). Yet some of the conservative complaints are valid, Delano maintains. Reading scores really did plummet in California when phonics instruction was largely removed from the curriculum ten years ago. Now, he says, the pendulum has swung violently in the other direction, the result of a combination of a highly politicized atmosphere in education and big money at stake for publishers.

The McGraw-Hill reading editor echoes Delano’s fears. “There’s no forum for criticism of the pedagogy in these books at all,” he said. “So what’s to stop someone from kowtowing to a group with an obvious political agenda?” Ultimately, teachers and students in public schools harvest the fruit of the process: history books full of colorful charts and banal descriptions of nothing at all; reading books bereft of interesting things to read. “Conservative ideas don’t guarantee a more fundamental education,” concluded the editor. “I mean, how ‘basic’ do you want to get? We could teach them to make stone tools, too.”