Market Focus: 'The Dog Ate My Homework' Just Doesn’t Fly Anymore
Who hasn’t tried the excuse, “My dog ate my homework,” on a teacher? Success with that excuse now is nearly impossible, according to experts in educational book publishing. So much of what teachers currently do involves digital materials and tools that, short of a network failure or computer glitch, a student would be hard-pressed to come up with a similar excuse.
There is one main constant in education—that students are there to learn from the teacher. Other than that, everything else seems to be changing, from how the lesson is delivered to where it is delivered and how the student responds. And educational publishers have had to adapt along the way.
While this market segment is united by a set of challenges that other noneducational publishers do not face—such as government funding and complying with differing state standards—the big picture for educational book publishers also includes quite a few unique snapshots. Despite the fact that all of these publishers are trying to accomplish the same goal—to facilitate learning—they are often going about it in such different ways that many prefer to be identified by the market niche they serve: basal, supplemental and higher education, to name a few.
K-12: Targeted Content Making Gains
Rather than particular titles earning top sales spots, educational book publishers say that certain subjects are really top dog.
“Language arts provides the key to all other learning,” says William E. Evans of his best-selling subject.
Evans, co-founder and chief executive officer of Evan-Moor Educational Publishers of Monterey, Calif., adds that math, science, social studies, physical education and the arts round out the most popular subject areas, in descending order of sales. After all, he says, Evan-Moor’s best-selling supplemental education products for elementary grades correlate to the amount of time teachers spend on these subjects in the classroom. And, he says he’s seen little change during the past couple of years in terms of the materials teachers are buying from Evan-Moor to supplement the core—or basal—textbooks.
Basal textbooks dominate the U.S. instructional market for K-12, with a 40-percent share, says Kathy Mickey, managing editor/senior analyst in the education group at Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Simba Information.
But, as educational publishers know all too well, basal textbooks can’t be all things to all students. In fact, some basal funds have been rerouted to supplemental products during recent years, says Greg Worrell, president of the Scholastic Classroom and Library Group. He adds that paperbacks aimed at improving reading skills for K-5 students are selling well for the New York-based children’s book publisher, and there’s a trend among schools to focus on providing “highly motivational content” for boys, who are often hard-to-reach readers.
Some targeted content, such as graphic novels dedicated to helping special-education and English-language learners enhance their reading skills, are doing quite well, says Tim McHugh, co-owner of Saddleback Educational Publishing of Irvine, Calif.
This kind of differentiation, or customization, is quite necessary, experts say.
“Students learn in different ways,” says Jay A. Diskey, executive director of the school division of the Association of American Publishers. “I think that the school publishing industry has done a terrific job over the past several years of creating a lot of RTI (response-to-intervention) product. These are instructional materials that are designed to help certain types of struggling learners succeed in their goals. And these are the types of things that simply weren’t around for a long of period of time. RTI recognizes that there’s all types of learners out there and that each student needs to be served with specific types of instructional materials.”
Instructional Materials for Teachers Selling Well, Too
Corinne Burton, president of Shell Education and publisher of Teacher Created Materials Publishing—both of Huntington Beach, Calif.—reports that teacher training and development materials are her companies’ strongest sellers. Perhaps inversely correlated, she says sales of test-preparation products are taking a hit. “Test prep has run its course in many areas, and school districts are realizing that the best way to prepare students for standardized tests is to provide a strong curriculum, with trained teachers to implement the curriculum,” she says.
The (Digital) Learning Channel
District by district, technology is taking hold in American schools. Evans cites examples of students receiving homework by e-mail, then sending it back to their teachers to be graded. At the same time, as one district eliminates print textbooks and all students use laptops, another remains devoted to paper and ink.
Therefore, publishers have to be ready for students and districts who are technologically advanced, as well as those who are not, he says. (Evans points out that Evan-Moor is among the publishers that can provide electronic technology, including, for instance, lessons that can be projected from computers onto classroom whiteboards, which are similar to overhead projectors but can provide computer functionalities on the whiteboard screen that operate by touch instead of click.)
“A textbook no longer is a single print book, but a program that incorporates material in print, digital, audio and visual formats,” Mickey says.
“It’s a push-pull thing,” seconds Charlene Gaynor, chief executive officer of The Association of Educational Publishers, an organization that represents supplemental educational publishers. “I mean, there’s a lot of people who are real advocates of educational technology. But for a long period of time, the schools couldn’t do it because they didn’t have computers, [or] the school wasn’t wired for the Internet—there were all of these technology barriers. So the pioneers were ahead of the curve, and there were a few companies that were basically developing content strictly for the computer.
“There certainly was not a critical mass of schools [demanding this content] at that point,” Gaynor says. “But a lot of things have changed that have accelerated the potential. For example, there’s Wi-Fi now. You don’t need to have every computer plugged into the wall. It’s a lot easier to make even an old school building a wireless zone. So that’s No. 1; No. 2, computers have gone from this huge thing that needs to sit on a desk and be plugged in to these little battery-driven laptops that a kid can carry around; and, No. 3, the price has come down dramatically.”
Diskey says he thinks the digital revolution will continue on its steady, step-by-step, district-by-district march.
“We’re dealing with more than 14,000 school districts, more than 90,000 public schools. This country has a large and decentralized education system,” he says. “So it’s impossible to pinpoint which schools and which districts will move in one direction or the other. It will depend on the support of their local communities in terms of their tax base. … It will depend on state and federal support. … The school publishing business at the K-12 level is one that faces a lot of regulation at the state and local levels; it is a market that is heavily dominated by government procurement. School districts and states procure instructional materials, not individual consumers.” On the other hand, “One of the reasons that postsecondary has been able to move very rapidly toward digital is that it is a consumer market,” Diskey says.
Higher-Ed: Rise of the E-Book
While it’s true that higher-education publishers may not have the same hurdles as those in the K-12 market, they do have their own challenges and opportunities.
“Universities are looking for ways to reduce costs and improve efficiency in meeting the needs of their students,” says Susan Spilka, director of corporate communications for Hoboken, N.J.-based publisher John Wiley & Sons. “For students who generally pay for their own texts, the e-textbook model and lower-cost print options have the potential to reduce the average cost of college education considerably.”
Additionally, the colleges themselves are seeking increased accountability and assessment abilities from educational publishers. Hence, Spilka says, customization, personalization and digital solutions are an integral part of Wiley’s present and future, and probably will be that of higher-education publishing, as well.
For instance, global purchases of WileyPLUS—which provides more than 200 textbooks in online form with accompanying homework and management tools, and an online gradebook—have increased 41 percent through the third quarter of the fiscal year, she says.
Scholastic Education President Margery Mayer predicts that professionals will emphasize 21st-century teaching and learning in order to provide students “with the high-level literacy skills they will need to compete in the global economy.”