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Publishing industry shake up: New curriculum standards pave the way for the little guy

In the U.S., the K-12 industry for textbooks and other educational materials generates $7.8 billion in revenue.
In the U.S., the K-12 industry for textbooks and other educational materials generates $7.8 billion in revenue.
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As new curriculum standards sweep across the country, the market for educational materials and textbooks is about to get a boost from districts that will have to restock. And just in time. Sales had been declining for three years.

"There should be a huge bump," said Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board Of Education. 

Kirst explains that many school districts had been holding off on buying books as they waited for the new standards to be implemented.

"This will be like what I hear is happening in the car industry where the average car is 11 years old and finally people have to get rid of them," he said.

California is among 45 states nationwide plus Washington, D.C. already in the process of adopting the Common Core standards for math and language arts. The new standards, which have been pushed by the Obama Administration, represent a significant change in the country's historically state by state system of education standards. 

New science standards are also coming soon. After a several-year process that included multiple rounds of public comment, new science standards crafted by 26 states across the country will be released later this week.

Everyone agrees that all of these curriculum standard changes represent a major shift in K-12 education in the U.S. What’s less clear is how textbooks and educational materials producers will keep up.

For decades, the $7.8 billion industry has been dominated by a handful of big companies known as the “the big three”: Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

But because of changes in technology -- and because some states like California have de-centralized the book-selection process, industry watchers said the field is opening up. Tim Nollen, a senior media analyst for Macquarie Capital, said the new curriculum standards provide an opportunity for smaller companies to break in.

"I think everything could change," he said. "Their field of competitors is much larger now than it ever used to be."

Non-profits are developing materials. So are teachers. And some states are providing their curriculum for free. Nollen said no one knows which companies will end up on top. 

Tony Artuso, director of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's science, technology, engineering and math products, said the shift in curriculum in science is particularly profound, requiring entirely different teaching materials. The change requires less reading and regurgitation and more hands-on learning that involves actually doing science.

"The class will look a whole lot different," he said, "because you’ll have groups of kids working on challenges and developing prototypes and testing them." 

Martin Storksdieck, director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council, worked on the science framework that the new standards are based on. 

"There is a sense that the textbooks have to change," he said. Many of today's textbooks are too lengthy and lack in depth, he said. "It's impossible to get through them."

Storksdieck said he's seen some promising ideas by publishers in response to the new standards --  but also resistance.

"Textbooks would have to really pare down to the essentials," he said, "and then provide that kind of content that says: how do you explore this now."

Kelly McGrath, a science editor at Pearson, said coming up with new materials won't be easy.

"The new standards are really intentionally disruptive," she said. When she shows teachers drafts, they have been taken aback. "They're pretty complex and overwhelming."

The challenge, McGarth said, is for companies like Pearson to figure out how to create what teachers need. 

They have some time.

In California, math text books that include the Common Core standards are anticipated by the 2014-15 school year. English books with the new standards will follow in 2015-16, according to Kirst. Books incorporating the new science standards, if California decides to adopt them, would hit classrooms in 2016-17.