APM Reports found that the controversial educational publishing company has sold instructional materials and professional resources in almost every state, earning at least $1.6 billion over a decade.
Teaching children to read is not just a critical piece of elementary education. It’s also big business.
In 2019, school districts spent more on English language arts programs for elementary schools than on all instructional materials for middle and high schools combined, according to the Association of American Publishers, an industry trade group. That year, school districts spent $1.33 billion on reading programs for kids in pre-K through sixth grade.
Heinemann Publishing — which puts out curricula by Lucy Calkins, and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell — has been among the largest players in that market. What hasn’t been clear is just how much money Heinemann earns and how widespread its products are. That’s what APM Reports wanted to find out.
Heinemann began publishing books in the U.S. in the late 1970s. Based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, it released books, mostly by college professors, about how to teach. Forty years later, the company has changed considerably.
Heinemann has grown into one of the most influential — and most controversial — educational publishing companies in America, even though its name is not widely known outside schools. It has expanded beyond professional books and now produces assessments, intervention programs and full-on curricula.
Heinemann’s current owner, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hasn’t disclosed how much money the company has made in recent years. The last time Houghton Mifflin Harcourt made Heinemann’s revenues public was in 2013, when the company’s sales were $159 million.
APM Reports combed through publicly available documents and spoke with former employees to gain a glimpse of the company’s finances since then.
Starting in 2006, Heinemann went on a 14-year growth streak. In recent years, it has been a $300 million operation, the company’s former finance director has said.
By examining corporate earnings reports, APM Reports found that Heinemann brought in at least $1.6 billion in sales in the 2010s, before the pandemic snapped its growth streak.
Much of that money comes from districts across the country. APM Reports sent records requests to the largest school districts in every state — 100 districts in total — asking if they had purchased materials from Heinemann in the past decade. We obtained records for 89 districts. All but five said they’d purchased Heinemann materials.
That means at least 84 of the largest school districts across the country have bought products from Heinemann since 2012.
Many districts spent millions of dollars on the company’s programs and trainings. For example, New York City’s Department of Education spent $21 million over a decade, the largest amount of any district. That wasn’t the only significant total: Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia spent $14 million; Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, $11 million; the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida, $9 million.
In total, Heinemann made at least $226 million during the past 10 years from those 84 school districts. They represent just a handful of the roughly 13,000 districts in the United States, but they account for a lot of its students, about one-sixth of the country’s total K-12 enrollment in public schools.
The methods for teaching reading and writing contained in Heinemann’s materials are standard in many classrooms today.
The company published works by some of the most prominent authorities in literacy during the past half-century: Marie Clay, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Frank Smith, Fountas and Pinnell, Calkins, and Jennifer Serravallo. Their books have come to define the “balanced literacy” philosophy that most educators say they subscribe to.
But most controversially, some of the books and curriculum have perpetuated a theory that’s commonly referred to as cueing. The theory holds that students can be taught to problem solve unknown words with multiple sources of information, like context and picture clues. It’s a strategy that cognitive scientists have refuted in repeated studies. Other publishing companies put out programs based on this theory, but Heinemann’s products are among the most popular.
Over the past four decades, Heinemann built a brand that teachers have trusted and relied on. The company’s books spoke their language and defended their expertise — at a time when its authors said politicians and scientists were telling teachers how to do their jobs. The company made “Dedicated to Teachers” its trademarked tagline. By the time Heinemann began releasing curricular materials, teachers were already familiar with the authors and their theories. And schools bought their books and programs — hundreds of millions of dollars worth.
Felt like a family business
In the late 1970s, Heinemann, a British company, wanted to break into educational publishing in America. The founders who set up the branch in the United States — primarily Philippa Stratton, a former teacher who became the American office's first editor — set out to find books that classroom teachers would want to read. In doing so, she created a new market.
“Our challenge was that we were a teeny tiny publisher in a huge market in which behemoths of school and college publishers reigned,” Stratton told the Portsmouth Herald in 2017. “We couldn’t — and frankly didn’t want to — compete with them, so we had to find a niche.” They set out to write books just for teachers. “Really, those professional books didn't exist before we started publishing them,” Stratton said.
In the early days, Heinemann felt like a family business, former employees said. They worked out of a converted factory in Portsmouth. Editors, without an intercom system, yelled across the office about the latest drafts. Authors would stop by to hang out. The company’s small but growing staff marked their heights on a door, like you’d do in a childhood home.
“I remember there were like two people in customer service, two people in order-taking. It was almost like every department had two workers. It was like Noah’s ark,” said Temple Ireland-Rosenberger, who worked in sales at Heinemann during the 1990s. “There was urgency, in that we wanted to help educators; it wasn’t urgency as in, ‘Oh my gosh, I have so much to do, how do I get this done?’ But it was definitely still with urgency in a different way: ‘We’ve got to help teachers.’”
Stratton began her search for new material by looking through Heinemann’s archives to see what was selling. She noticed that American educators were interested in Marie Clay, a New Zealand researcher who’d come up with a theory about how children learn to read and developed an intervention for first-graders based on her theory. That began decades of publishing books and instructional materials based on the idea that children could learn to read by using cues from the context, pictures or initial letters to determine words they didn’t know.
The books proved especially popular with teachers, the people who Heinemann wanted to appeal to in those early years. “These teachers go through so much,” Ireland-Rosenberger said. “So when they find something that works, now you’ve got word of mouth. And it’s like, oh, you know they’re going to pass that book down the row of classrooms to say, like, ‘This helped me, this helped me, this helped me.’”
Dan Tobin, who later worked with Stratton for 14 years, also noticed that kind of professional book “immediately took off and it became a very lucrative business.” What made it such a success? Tobin said there’s almost a distrust of the expert, a sense that experts don’t know what it’s actually like in a teacher’s classroom. “Teachers are lectured to by a lot of people,” he said. “We all went through school and we all learn to read, and we all think we’re experts. And teachers sort of get it from all sides.”
Many of Heinemann’s titles at the time had a distinctly progressive approach to education. Heinemann authors were in favor of instilling values like a love of learning. They did it across subjects, from language arts to math. And they always focused their materials on the importance of teachers.
Stratton left Heinemann in 1993 to start a new publishing house. Three years later, Heinemann had its biggest hit yet when Fountas and Pinnell published “Guided Reading,” a book that helped define the “balanced literacy” approach. As of 2019, it was still Heinemann’s top-selling professional book. Recognizing its success, Heinemann set up a division just for these two authors to produce more books, videos and lessons.
Heinemann, meanwhile, would be caught in a tumble of corporate mergers. The small publisher of teachers’ professional books would transform.
Under new management
In 2008, Heinemann became part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in a merger that created America’s biggest educational publisher. By then, Heinemann had begun adding curricular products to its catalogue, and its revenues were growing.
Employees said developing curriculum was a natural extension of the company’s business. It helped teachers put the ideas from Heinemann’s famed professional books into practice. And teachers welcomed materials from their favorite authors.
“I don’t think I’ve met anybody in K-12 that doesn’t know who Heinemann is. So they have a very strong reputation,” said Christine Wells, formerly an account manager at Heinemann in the early 2000s. “I mean, until this day, I can’t walk into a curriculum coordinator’s office without seeing a bookcase lined with Heinemann titles.”
Educators were receptive, even on sales calls, Wells added. “I felt like every time when I called and I said I was from Heinemann, people kind of were almost like relieved, like, ‘Ohh.’ … They just liked Heinemann, and they trusted Heinemann. They cared about improving schools and helping teachers become more effective.”
The company published some of the most widely used materials for reading instruction. Heinemann began with “Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment Systems,” released in 2007, to help teachers identify a student’s reading level. And their Leveled Literacy Intervention, released in 2009, promised to help struggling readers catch up. In 2010, the company published Lucy Calkins’ “Units of Study for Teaching Reading.”
Under Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the products became some of the most widely used in American schools.
One former Heinemann employee, Lisa Luedeke, said the company changed under the new ownership. In a 2008 meeting, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt executives made clear that Heinemann wouldn’t have the same independence that its prior owners had allowed and that executives wanted higher sales numbers, she recalled.
“People came out of it pretty shaken up,” Luedeke said. “Things shifted. It became very much about the bottom line … and so there were a lot of pressures put on everybody. When Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought us, it was a very clear sense that … the demands were going to be higher in terms of revenue and growth.”
Curriculum, intervention and assessment products became the main focus. Employees who’d worked on professional books started leaving. Luedeke called it an exodus. “We all thought we were going to work there for the rest of our lives, I think, and so it was a little bit shocking,” she said.
Richard Gentry, a former Heinemann author, also noticed a change when Heinemann began to deprioritize its professional books. “What was behind that was making money,” he said. “You have a program and get districts to purchase your very expensive program. Why not? Why fool around with staff development books?
“I think it was just created by the opportunity that Fountas and Pinnell and Lucy Calkins presented for them,” he added.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt needed that revenue. The parent company was overleveraged, with billions of dollars in debt, and filed for bankruptcy in 2012. But it quickly recovered and went public the following year. With Wall Street analysts watching, sales goals were pushed higher and higher, former employees said.
“It’s one of those companies that you wish you could have frozen in time and just kept the big corporation out of it and let people do what they’ve been doing, laissez-faire, you know?” said Gabriel Price, formerly an account executive for Heinemann in the mid-2010s. “We just loved teachers, we loved literacy, we loved the kids.”
A source of profit and controversy
Heinemann’s programs would be consistent money makers for its parent company. In 2012, Fountas and Pinnell’s products alone generated roughly $60 million in sales, about half of Heinemann’s revenues, according to a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt report at the time.
But Vicki Boyd, Heinemann’s general manager from 2015 until 2022, said in an interview with APM Reports she still didn’t think of Heinemann as a traditional educational publishing company. At the time of the interview, she was still the company’s general manager. She left Heinemann in July.
“I would say we’re still not a textbook company,” Boyd said. “We never aspired to be a textbook company or to produce textbook-style curricula. I think we found a voice through that work. And that voice resonated with teachers. Because what teachers saw was a portrait of classrooms that looked like theirs,” she said. “It inspired teachers, and it reminded them what they got in the field for. I think that thread continues to run through everything that we do: everything we do emanates from a deep respect for teachers.”
Critics say Heinemann’s products perpetuated a reliance on solving unknown words using cues. And, they contend, the products also didn’t systematically build students’ knowledge of the world, with especially limited support for vocabulary instruction.
Recently, EdReports, a nonprofit that examines instructional materials for alignment with Common Core standards, scored Heinemann’s two main reading programs, Fountas and Pinnell Classroom and Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Reading, the lowest of any K-2 core reading program it had ever reviewed.
Two Heinemann authors, Calkins and Serravallo, have revised their materials to remove references to the cueing strategies that encouraged figuring out written words based on context and picture clues. They said those strategies were mistaken. But Fountas and Pinnell have reiterated that they still believe in teaching children those strategies.
“You know, our authors disagree, and we think that’s good. We think debate is a good thing,” Boyd said. “It’s necessary that we bring our different ideas in competition with one another, and this is where we stand to do the greatest good for children.”
Boyd said she believed Heinemann has been so influential because teachers learned from the company’s materials and believed they worked. “When they put the materials to work in their classroom, they’re learning alongside children,” she said.