Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My conflict of interest disenfranchises my students

For the first time in my 22 years of teaching physics in the San Juan Unified School District, I am to have no voice in the decision of which textbook we will adopt for physics.

At our first adoption committee meeting, I disclosed that I knew (and had worked with) the author of one of the titles under consideration. Two meetings later, the district coordinator in charge of the meetings pulled me aside and expressed her concern that I had a conflict of interest. She advised that I should not enter into deliberations over the adoption of the high school physics textbook.

Do I really have a conflict of interest? I did work with Paul Hewitt on Appendix F (Additional Problems) of the previous edition of Conceptual Physics: The High School Program. I was given a one-time, contributor payment. And I am an author on the lab manual for Conceptual Physical Science, Conceptual Physical Science Explorations, and Conceptual Integrated Science. None of those lab manuals are connected to any textbook under consideration for the physics adoption.

I assured the coordinator that if every high school in the country adopted Hewitt's text, my profit would be exactly... zero. And if no one in the country adopted Conceptual Physics, my financial loss we be the same: zero. (Well, for a loss I suppose it would to be negative zero.)

However, the San Juan Unified School District sets a low threshold for "Conflict of Interest." Since I do receive a royalty payment from Pearson Education and Pearson Education does have a title under consideration, I am deemed to have a conflict.

Is the bar set too low? I know a teacher who grades teacher exams for National Education Systems (NES). Prospective teachers seeking certification must pass an NES exam. The exam involves written responses, and those written responses must be scored by readers. My colleague is such a reader. The compensation he receives comes in the form of a check. The check comes from Pearson Education, who acquired NES in 2006.

By SJUSD Board Policy, my colleague would have a conflict of interest in textbook selection if Pearson Education (who owns Prentice Hall and Addison Wesley, among others) offered any titles for consideration. The policy declares conflict for those who are "employed by or receive compensation from any person, firm, organization or any of its subsidiaries or controlling entities submitting instructional materials to the district."

I'd be willing to bet a nickel that my colleague could, in fact, serve on an adoption committee and enjoy input in the process. Completely undetected. The district has no vetting process. (Not unlike the lack of vetting that's common to Homecoming Dance Cleanup Committees.) They would not know of his clear and present conflict. And he wouldn't imagine that he had any such conflict and would not imagine any reason to recuse himself.

Amusingly, I was allowed a voice in our 2001 deliberations. I first and foremost advocated that each teacher be allowed to choose the book of his or her preference. My choice was a book that was, erm, dedicated to me! (Yes, Hewitt's Conceptual Physics.) In my defense, I made full disclosure of that fact to the district science coordinator at the time. But in a case of "no man is a prophet in his own land," she thought that I had simply doctored the dedication page to include my name. LOL!

This adoption is the fourth one I've been involved with and affords me the opportunity to work with my fourth district science coordinator. Just an observation.

Other observation: too bad my physics students will have no voice in the physics adoption process, just because I author a lab manual for courses they will never take.


jenny said...

This is so unbelieveable to me given the context. Why punish an instructor for their academic contributions outside the classroom when no payout is at stake?

I remember reading Conceptual Physics FOR FUN in high school after I had finished the rest of my homework, and much of what Hewitt wrote still resonates with me today (or at least, what I remember from it 10 years down the line). For someone who often struggled in her math and science classes, that speaks volumes (to me at least).

How large is the voting constituency?

Anonymous said...

Have you considered the fact that this might work another way? I am wondering if anyone else has come across something
exactly the same in the past? Let me know your thoughts...