By Anne McCarthy

Over the summer, Jay Diskey spoke with the New York Book Forum about his long career in educational publishing, what the future of publishing may look like, and the pandemic’s profound impact on the industry.

Diskey is the former chair of the International Publishers Association’s education committee, and for many years he led the Association of American Publishers’ education division. Earlier, he was a member of the senior staff of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce. In the early 1990s, he served as a special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Education. Today, Diskey is the principal of Diskey Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C. consultancy specializing in education policy, curriculum reform, publishing, and technology.

Some readers might not be as familiar with educational publishing as others; can you please offer a basic definition of el-high publishing (k-12) and higher ed publishing?

So, “el-high” means “elementary and high school,” but the term has really transitioned to “K-12” education in the United States. “El-high” continues to be used internally by some educational publishers, and it’s often also used in some statistics programs.

For many years, K-12 publishing was driven by the major tool, which was the printed textbook supplemented by materials like readers and various workbooks. Over time though, over the past 25 years – as digital media has made more of any impact on this market – the textbook began to morph into something else. Right now, the major tool in the classroom is often called the “core program,” or “comprehensive program.” It may be a textbook, but more often than not it is usually a licensed digital program with some accompanying supplemental printed materials.

Also, another term that’s used frequently in K-12 educational publishing is the term “adoption.” Adoption is when a state or a school district reviews a program from a publisher and then makes a decision on whether to adopt it. The adoption reviews vary greatly; some are rather cursory; others are in-depth and take months. In addition to the district reviews, 19 states have their own state adoptions – they want curriculum control and adherence to various standards and specifications. They exert that curriculum control by reviewing the materials and making adoption decisions.

In terms of the ultimate buyer, the ultimate buyer is the school district. And there are a lot of those in the United States, ranging from very large – i.e., New York City schools – all the way down to small districts which may only be one elementary school and one high school. But there are 13,600 districts in the U.S.

In terms of post-secondary, it’s a much different market. The student buys the book on the recommendation of a faculty member. In some cases, the departmental faculty will decide what books are used, particularly for the freshman and sophomore years. That market is really a student consumer market, whereas the K-12 market is a school district market.

As the pandemic took hold, physical schools closed, and remote learning became the most accepted method of “attending school.” Can you talk about the differences in success rates between public schools and private schools?

For the success rates – i.e., high school graduation rates, retention rates – of private and public schools following the pandemic, that’s not known. [Those rates] typically take several years to generate. Data collection and analysis take some time.

Moreover, the other thing that happened during the pandemic was that the federal government in the United States and the state governments told schools that they did not have to hold their regular state assessments. In other words, they put the brakes on testing for a year. Apart from the pandemic, generally private schools do have the highest success rates; it’s around a 95% graduation rate for private schools, and the most recent statistics for public schools is around 85%.

And how about the success rates between public schools in affluent regions, versus those in economically challenged regions?

What’s interesting is that there are – and I won’t name names – there are some economically challenged states that have higher high school graduation rates than affluent states, like Massachusetts, which has recently been rated number one for public education. Now, why is that? Critics say that some states that are economically challenged post higher graduation rates have looser standards for graduation. So, there are lots of factors that come into play. I think when it comes to evaluating state and school district performance, it’s best to look at a range of important metrics or indicators, such as quality of teaching, student test scores, adequacy of funding, teacher training, graduation rates, and more. And even building in basic measures of equity is very important.

What is meant by the term “digital divide,” and how does it play a role in the remote learning scenario?

The “digital divide” is a term that emerged soon after the internet age was born. Initially, it referred to hardware and the internet. Now, you don’t hear so much about hardware; it’s the broadband divide that’s discussed. And the digital divide refers to whether an individual or a community has access to high-speed broadband, which, as we all know, is critically important to economic opportunity, job creation, education, and civic engagement. A lot of great strides have been made over the past 20 years in bridging the digital divide – again, meaning who has broadband and who doesn’t. In terms of actual statistics – according to the Federal Communications Commission, in urban areas, 97% of Americans have access to high-speed service. Now that means they have access, but they may not use it, or they may not have the computers to use it. And in rural areas, that number falls to 65%. On Tribal lands only 60% of citizens have access. It’s not a good statistic at all. All told, nearly 30 million Americans lack access to broadband.

Fortunately, the federal relief and stimulus packages that have been passed, like the Cares Act, over the past year, have measures for broadband funding. One of them passed in December [2020] has a billion dollars in funding for broadband in Tribal areas. And, right now, tribes across the country are filling out grant applications to get broadband grants. It’s really a historic time for broadband infrastructure.

The digital divide affects all citizens, particularly those living in underserved communities. There are many parts of this country where broadband is still unavailable. Congress and President Biden are making great strides in closing the digital divide.

New York City announced that by the fall of 2021, all learning will return to the classrooms. What is your response to that, and how do you see the rest of the country proceeding?

I think both federal and state public health officials have asked communities to follow the science. And, the U.S. Department of Education has issued a significant body of guidance to support school districts and schools’ reopening. I assume New York City Schools have based its decisions on science and the U.S. Department of Education guidance. I can’t quibble with that. However, ​with the emergence of the delta-variant of COVID-19, implementation of the guidance has been difficult. The Centers for Disease Control recently updated its guidance to recommend that students over the age of 2 wear masks indoors. This is a recommendation — not a mandate, which means it has been left to the states or individual school districts to determine masking policies. The result is a confusing and controversial hodgepodge of policies across the country.

In 2020, while traditional classroom learning came to a halt, school systems across the United States essentially halted purchasing new educational materials. How do you see spending being impacted in 2021 and 2022?

Indeed “halt” is the right word; the purchase of K-12 materials came to a screeching halt. It crashed by about 35% last spring [2020], which was quite an incredible drop. I’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years and I’ve never seen a drop like that, not even during the 2008-2009 recession, which was quite severe.

In terms of this year, it’s looking like it will be a good year for K-12 sales. States and school districts are playing catch-up and they’re using state and federal relief and stimulus funds to fuel purchases. For those relief funds, the government has allocated $200 billion to support K-12 education. It is the largest single investment in U.S. K-12 history. The average annual spend on K-12 publishing for the government is usually around $60 billion. So, this $200 billion is more than three times what the average federal spend is, so it truly is historic. School districts are using that to establish learning recovery programs and to buy new equipment, new digital licenses, textbooks, and supplemental materials. According to the Association of American Publishers’ statistics program, K-12 sales were up 24% through the first quarter (end of March). Keep in mind that Q1 is usually seasonally flat. Most school districts purchase in the spring and summer, so Q2 and Q3 are the big quarters for sales of K-12 instructional materials. I think there will be more good news to come.

Do you see dollars being allocated for printed materials or digital materials moving forward?

It’s a mix of both, and that’s the way educators look at it. The print versus digital debate has been around for quite some time. But I now primarily see that debate as something that occurs within the industry and its supply chain. There are schools that have preferences, but many buy blended products. In most cases, purchases of core K-12 instructional materials are a blended product such as a digital license and supporting print materials. This makes it difficult to parse digital share and print share. But it is important to note that sales of traditional print textbooks have been in a long-term secular decline since 2007. Nothing will reverse that decline. There is no going back to the print textbook from the digital world we live in; I’m someone who likes print, and I liked a lot of the textbooks that I had in school and college, but I don’t think that there will ever be a return to what is known as “print learning.”

Going forward, policy trends in the states point to digital learning. A significant number of states have recently passed legislation to upgrade digital learning infrastructure in light of problems with remote learning during the pandemic. For example, in May, the California State Board of Education passed a new 500-page digital learning plan. Other states are following suit with their own legislation and/or regulations. Having said that, medium matters. There is certainly a place for print in the classroom. I feel that classroom educators are slowly finding the appropriate print/digital balance.

There was a study recently commissioned by the Book Manufacturers’ Institute that concluded that a vast majority (69%) of parents prefer printed materials over online materials if they must support one or the other.  More than 80% of parents from all backgrounds believe that during COVID homeschooling, their jobs would have been easier if materials had been physical as opposed to online. Can you talk about the findings of both the survey and the white paper?

Let me speak first to the white paper penned by Dr. Naomi Baron Professor Emerita of Linguistics at American University in Washington, D.C. I think the white paper is spot-on. Medium matters. Both print and digital content have their respective purposes in the classroom. In terms of the BMI survey, I don’t see it having a significant impact. K-12 publishers follow market demands. The market began a shift to a blended print and digital environment a long time ago. But at times, it’s a bumpy shift. There are 13,600 school districts in the United States, and each one of them is in a different place in terms of the media and materials they use.

Can you speak a bit about educational materials with respect to diversity matters; and can you give us some insight into the process that the educational publishers go through to try to be as inclusive as possible when assembling materials for a new reading program?

During those adoptions I mentioned – those district adoptions and state adoptions I described earlier – many of the adoption states, if not all of them, established regulations for what is called DEI education. That stands for “Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive” education. This began in California in the 1970s when something called social and legal compliance regulations were put into the adoption, to make sure that textbooks had content and depictions of current American life.

For example, the regulations sought to ensure that photos and illustrations weren’t just of white men doing business, that there were also women, and people of different races in business and professional roles. In the textbooks I grew up with in the 1960s, women were frequently depicted as mothers and women who did not hold jobs outside the home. The DEI movement over the years has extended to all school districts and states to make sure that depictions and content adequately reflect the ethnicities, races, and genders of contemporary America. That’s not to say that there’s no debate over this. States, to this day, frequently debate over what to include in the curriculum. For example, there have been frequent debates about the depiction of trans people in Florida and Texas. Often, America’s social debates involve impacts on curriculum.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly 2/3’s of fourth graders in the United States are reading below grade level, and by the time they graduate from high school, they are still reading below grade level. Can you comment on what this means to educators across the country and how do we, as a country, address this incredible statistic?

There really are some startling statistics about reading proficiency in this country, and I think most parents, most adults, are shocked when they see those sorts of statistics. The U.S. ranks around number 15th in the world in terms of literacy, which is pretty amazing and concerning. However, there is some good news, and it is this: over the past 3-5 years, there’s been a major trend in the States to enact K through grade 3 intensive reading programs.

It’s a major trend in K-12 education in this country; these are intervention programs that are designed to make sure kids are reading by the time they leave grade 3. And there’s a lot of money going into these programs. For example, North Carolina this spring passed a sweeping literacy bill designed to do exactly what I mentioned – to support kids with special tutoring and interventions. I would say that somewhere between 30 and 40 states have passed reading legislation in the past 3-5 years to try to correct the problems that have been identified. So, there is some good news here.

Thank you, Jay, for your time. The New York Book Forum appreciates you sharing your insights and expertise with us. We look forward to seeing how educational publishing continues to evolve and develop.