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In Search of Publishing's Big Picture

As CEO of Houghton Mifflin, Harold Miller tried to create a coherent whole, particularly in the area of K--12 textbooks

As CEO of Houghton Mifflin, Harold Miller tried to create a coherent whole, particularly in the area of K–12 textbooks

By Joe Levine

When Harold (“Hal”) Miller sat down to write a book several years ago, it was not to create a monument to his own success. Instead Miller, who had joined the publishing company Houghton Mifflin in 1950 as a textbook salesman and retired in 1990 as its chairman and CEO, set his sights on the company and publishing itself, both of which were undergoing profound changes. The resulting book, Publishing: A Leap from Mind to Mind (Fulcrum Publishing, 2003), features interviews with more than 100 people, from best-selling HM authors such as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith and the Caldecott-winning children’s writer Chris Van Allsburg to obscure sales reps in far-flung territories.

Yet Miller’s authorial approach says a lot about his operating philosophy as head of HM, which grew under his leadership from a privately held, middle-of-the-pack company to a publicly traded giant.

“When you’re running a publishing house, you have a whole bunch of entrepreneurs working for you looking for successful material,” Miller said in a recent interview by phone from his home in Massachusetts. “Your job is to take it all and give it a reputation with the public, so that you end up with a respected house that stands for something that matters.”

Miller’s concern for the big picture reflects his own educational experiences. Growing up in New Paltz, New York, during the Depression, he attended a one-room school house until someone at the state level decided to combine several such schools into a larger “laboratory.” The students, it turned out, were the guinea pigs: the new school was used simply as a training facility for untried junior teachers, who rotated in and out in six-week stints.
“That may have made a bit of a reactionary of me,” Miller says, with a chuckle.

Miller took classes at Central College in Pella, Iowa, for a year before enlisting in the Marines in the wake of Pearl Harbor. He was sent to Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania to study to become an officer, but one day “they lined a bunch a bunch of us up, counted us off, and told us we were being transferred into the Navy.” The next stop was midshipmen’s training at Cornell, followed by service in the Pacific Islands in the amphibious forces. It was 1946 by the time Miller returned to Franklin & Marshall to complete his bachelor’s degree.

“It all felt pretty disjointed—not quite like a complete education,” he says.

Perhaps to compensate for that, Miller decided on education as a career and enrolled at Teachers College in 1947. He taught high school in New Jersey while earning his master’s degree in school administration, but was particularly influenced by George Hartmann’s course on Gestalt psychology, which holds that human perception has an inherent tendency to create form from chaos.

“Gestalt says the sum is greater than the individual parts,” Miller says. “It may sound like a cliché, but that became my bible as a CEO.”

It was also a notion that more aptly described the textbook publishing business of that era—and possibly the K–12 education system, as well—than today’s version.

“Not long after I joined HM as a sales rep, I was at a dinner in San Antonio, and the school superintendent there said to me, ‘You know, Miller, we’re all in the same business—educating kids,’” Miller recalls. “And I always regarded it that way.”

Most of the sales reps, like Miller, were former teachers and education school graduates. The CEOs of other big textbook publishers had, like himself, come up through the ranks. The business was “author centered”—that is, focused on finding experts, mostly from universities, to not only write textbooks but also make advisory visits to schools and districts.

At the same time, the “big three”—McGraw Hill, Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, and HM—were the primary purveyors nationwide of achievement tests, which they aligned with the major standardized textbooks they were publishing. The companies created the tests in partnership with experts at universities.

“When I was head of the achievement test unit at HM, we had Bob Thorndike working with us, and he was brilliant—he spent his whole career working in intelligence testing. On the advice of Thorndike and E.F. Lindquist, we were the first to norm both the I.Q. and achievement tests to the entire population at the same time. We analyzed results of tests at the pupil, classroom, district and state levels to pinpoint difficulties students were having, so that we could help them with new programs, curriculum and texts, then and there.”

The result, he says, was that “particularly in elementary education publishing, we knew more, during the ’70s and ’80s, about what was going on in the classroom than anyone else.”

Perhaps not everyone would agree with Miller’s belief that such a system produced the best results for students, but there’s no refuting his contention that the system has since dramatically changed. In the 1970s, there were nearly 40 different textbook publishing houses. By the late ’80s, the industry was going through massive consolidation, with foreign companies acquiring many U.S. firms.

“Many of these big conglomerates were looking to cut costs, and they outsourced all the grade-level work at the expense of sequential development and basic editing,” Miller says. “It went from being a time of intellectual leadership to a time of financial leadership.”

At the same time, the consensus over what should be published began to fragment. Texas, California and other states created curriculum committees that set philosophical parameters for curriculum and textbook selection. Their focus was increasingly on meeting the demands of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that called for all U.S. students to achieve “proficiency” in math and reading by 2013. States took different approaches, and often reversed field when scores failed to improve.

“So with basic literacy, a state would be saying, ‘We’re all about the literature,’” Miller says. “Then, when that didn’t produce the scores, it was ‘We’re all about the phonics.’ And then back again. So a publisher got pulled around if they wanted their materials adopted.”

Miller believes the country is moving away from the test-driven ethos of NCLB. He is also optimistic about the potential of computers and the Web, even though some have suggested that new media pose the biggest threats of all to old-style textbook publishing.

“The underlying requirement, whether for a textbook or a piece of software, is providing a workable approach to teaching—and to enjoying learning as a result,” he says. “HM had 75 percent of the national algebra text business because we had an author, Mary Dolciani, whose approach enabled teachers to teach quadratic equations. There’s always going to be a need for that.”

Although Miller wrote Publishing: A Leap from Mind to Mind six years ago, he views the project as ongoing and has continued to interview people in the publishing field.

“If I wrote about myself,” he says, “I wouldn’t be learning anything.”

Published Friday, Dec. 17, 2010