Apr 6, 2009

A Pox On Textbooks

BEDA 6 - Things I Would Change #1

If I were princess of my own school, what would I do differently?

Textbooks would never be ordered.

They are big, bulky, expensive, and in my opinion full of very biased and incomplete information. And even when textbooks are digital, the content is still so watered down from political and economic pressures that they are less valid than normal tertiary reference sources.

Here is one example of the lack of breadth and depth of textbooks. My colleague and I recently did a presentation on non textbook print digital resources for the social studies curriculum. We ran a quick discussion of the Japanese Internment during WWII. We had letters, pictures, signs, and interview, and a scanned image of the actual order signed by the president to move citizens into these work camps. It took me about one hour to gather all of these sources. Everyone got to choose one piece of information to review for 5 minutes. Then we discussed it in a large group setting for another 15 minutes. Everyone learned something and there were some emotional discussions. When I asked the teachers who much space the textbooks devoted to this subject, I was told "less than a whole paragraph and one tiny picture." BTW - we have many students in our school with Japanese heritage.

School districts spend millions of dollars per year on textbooks, and I per school district. I am not exaggerating. This money, at least in Indiana, comes from one of two places.

The first thing schools do is bill the families for these texts. Most call this book rental. School fees are getting really, really expensive. My daughter, who is in High School, brought home her book rental last August and the cost was almost $300. At about the same time, my mother just happened to give me some documents from my high school days in the late 80's. There was a receipt for book rental that amounted to $35. Book rental fees included some technology funds and other "disposable" fees as well (for toner, printer paper, and some supplies), but most of that money goes to pay for textbooks. Textbooks that I believe are worse than a lot of the free information on the web.

Unfortunately not every family can afford to pay their school fees every year. Our family is firmly on the middle class scaffold, but that $300 fee was a punch in the gut of our budget. So, what happens is that many, many families just do not pay these fees, ever. When $300 is all you have for food or day care, or your light bill..., well priorities are priorities.

What then happens is that the schools encourage students fill out forms for financial aid (free and reduced lunch as we call it) from the state to supplement what they cannot pay, or schools just don't get money for a student, period. If students do not complete the application for aid, or are deemed to be financially able to pay, some schools will send parents or guardians to a collections agency. Mostly that money is not recovered and if it is, the attorneys get a big chunk off the top. So schools in poor areas take a loss every year on textbook fees, and somehow in Indiana our property taxes or other state/local funds need to make up the difference.

No matter how much money schools recover (or not) for book fees, the publishers always paid. Of course they do, they are for profit organizations. They are in the business of making money, not in educating children. This, IMHO, is a huge conflict of interest. Not because publishers and authors of original work don't deserved to be paid. It is a conflict because these companies know that their client base (students) is basically unable to make their own choice for purchase because they are captive to a compulsory system that requires them (or the state) to purchase approximately one book per student per subject per year. The average high school students will have lug around more than 40 books in their 4 years in high school. This is a much different scenario then say, students and teachers deciding that it is worth to all read Elie Wiesel's, Night. This book was not written primarily for the purpose of making money off of schools.

Publishers spend millions on marketing to schools, especially schools in states like Indiana, where the DOE committee adopts a set amount of textbooks on a 5 to 7 year cycle. Schools are expected to choose from the vendors on a list approved by the state. It seems that publishers will do or say just about anything to get their product in front of administrators and teachers. And in some cases their marketing messages are getting downright insulting.

Last semester I was writing a curriculum review for a prepackaged curriculum along with other students in my class. One teacher wrote her review on a software/textbook/testing program that was all nice and shiny and shrink wrapped. Here was their selling point. The "Teacher Proof" curriculum. WT? In my line of work, them's fighten' words. What has our profession come to when a publisher can feel safe make those claims while marketing to the same people they are insulting?

Many states do not have compulsory text book adoptions. I think the ration of adoption states to non-adoptions states is close to 50/50, but I would have to double check this claim, my info is a bit old. Even Indiana is realizing mandatory textbook adoption is a waste of time and money. This year the DOE released a statement about the lack of quality in social studies texts (see: http://thejournal.com/articles/24033). However, still districts have the last word, and many teachers opt for the crutch of textbooks rather than choosing their own curriculum from better sources.

What would I do instead of textbooks?

Teaching and learning would be based on authentic literature, peer reviewed non fiction sources, primary source material and user created content. This would includes print, digital, and multimedia genres. All information collected would be written/produced from a variety of viewpoints (not just the rich white guys of old).

Students would read periodicals, picture books, trade books, short stories, plays, etc... in the original, unabridged form. Often the students would self select reading materials and as they get older and would evaluate the content they use in their learning. However, one of the main roles of the teacher or teacher-librarian would be to keep up with new information, creatively and collaboratively collect and create information, evaluate information for credibility, and then push it out to students, families, and the community.

Instead of purchasing millions of dollars for 6+ to 1 technology (each student has more than 6 books per year), we would invest in that old fashioned sharing technology I still like to call a library. Support your school libraries and there will be thousands of current and quality print and media materials that can physically circulate. Students would receive and create digital content on school provided Netbooks or inexpensive laptops. This isn't a stretch of my imagination. Schools are already doing this.

I would also invest in Internet connectivity for the community to ensure that all students had free and equal access to the same information. But more about that tomorrow...

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