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My youngest is a senior in high school. I volunteer at the school's bookstore. It's not uncommon for an individual book to be $75-$100, or more. The text book profit center has shifted down a few grades - until the high schools figure out how to subscribe to internet sources.

The political economy around public school textbooks and standardized tests is such that finding cheaper, better alternatives, of which there are many, and were many before the web, has proven impossible.

Ever 20 years or so (I was involved last time and was in middle school-high school the previous time), scholars from various disciplines get involved in "school reform" intended to make the curriculum in grade schools have some resemblance to how scholars think about their subjects, using contemporary ideas and facts. This invariably involves throwing textbooks and standardized tests out the window, because they trivialize thinking (and much of the time are simply dead wrong—I can look at almost any textbook and find "facts" that were disproven generations ago). (I have a lot of criticisms of Wikipedia, although it has improved greatly over the last couple of years as scholars seem to be deciding to contribute their expertise for free, but compared to your typical grade school textbook, it is thorough and accurate.)

It isn't just the textbook/testing industry that is a problem. Being able to work from various materials and activities and involve kids in ways that develops both their intellect and knowledge base requires good teaching. You can't standardize to make accountability easy (like you can measuring the quality of teaching by how well a teacher teaches to the test). And parents tend to be upset if their kids learn something they didn't learn.

College textbooks are another matter. There really are some subjects, mostly in the sciences, where a well-thought through introduction to the subject that can also serve as a reference book, with tables and pictures, etc., is probably the best way to go. (You don't need textbooks for literature or history, you used to need them for art, and social sciences are a mixed bag.) For the most part, textbooks have use for introductory courses (including professional school) or some specialized courses, mostly in sciences. The problem is textbooks cost a lot. This is one area where competition seems to fail (competing textbooks all cost a lot and student bookstores all have the same mark-up).

What I do, whenever possible, is develop my own materials in lieu of a textbook (like distributing lecture notes). This is also an area where finding a way to pay the creators of professional on-line content becomes necessary to transforming the system. I could easily get a half dozen colleagues around the country to contribute sections in their area of expertise to an on-line textbook, edit it ourselves (or hire an editor), and distribute it for students at a fraction of what a textbook costs (and be able to update it regularly). But this isn't something we would do if we don't get paid. (The same goes for quality curriculum materials on line for grade school.)
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