Thursday, June 11, 2009

Textbooks: Practical or Financial Burdens?

This topic came up as part of an on-line group I regularly participate in. The question we were discussing was why textbooks are considered a financial burden for school districts? More importantly, why it is school districts are more and more reluctant to devote financial resources to them?

The question is more complicated than many people realize and there are multiple wars occurring over these issues on several fronts. There is the state mandated curriculum war. Many local districts have simply refused to buy textbooks until states set a curriculum and decide to live with it for several years, without changing it. In essence they want a freeze on updating, moving, or altering what should be taught and when it should be taught so they can obtain some financial value for the resources they are investing in. Realistically, our knowledge base doesn’t advance so far that we couldn’t supplement the few scientific and historical corrections and additions we make in the span we determine should be the life of a curriculum for a state. However, since cities and towns can’t predict what that life will be, many have just chosen not to invest in texts.

The argument arises that students have access to wonderful resources on the Internet. There are many positives to Internet learning. Our media resource teacher used to create subject home pages of approved websites for research on specific learning topics. It was great supplemental material. However, now imagine this woman responsible for providing and maintaining that all materials utilized by students are still accurate and appropriate. This means all the curriculum, not just the few specific targeted sites requested for certain projects each year. While many believe the cost is cheaper, imagine the intense labor costs of maintaining a database of approved web curriculum resources. You can not just post them and hope they stay accurate. As any of us who visit the web know, sites disappear. The quality may improve, or fail completely to meet our standards. The only way to know, is to continually visit.

One of the advantages of the old fashioned textbook, or even supplemental purchases, are that once made, for better or worse, you know the material you have. You know its strengths and its weaknesses. After spending hours verifying its accuracy, you can tell children where the mistakes are,corrections can be made. Once a teacher knows the book, he/she will not have to recheck the book again; it does not alter or change as the year progress. Until a new book is bought, the book remains present with the same material missing and the good quality material it brings to the unit of study.

The war will continue to rage as people look to throw away the old and move on to the new. I am in favor of some of what modern technology has done for public schools. I like the new Smart Board Technology that has computerized the old white boards we use with kids. It enhances education, not merely using technology for the fun of using technology. There is some talk of computerized textbooks that would be read on some kind of computerized reader, instead of a physical book. The upside from what I’ve been hearing is that schools would be able to essentially buy a package that would allow them cheaper upgrades when the new volumes came out if they bought a specific package upfront. So instead of selling or trashing old textbooks, they would be deleted and reinstalled. That is something worth considering for students who do well reading from a computer.

However just as we have students who struggle to read from books we are going to have to decide what to do for students who do not function well with computers. Moving blindly to a new technology, abandoning the old, without considering the implications can cause trouble. This occurred for some districts in Massachusetts when they completely computerized their writing programs, feeling that since adults wrote better with word processors, logic followed that children would, too. There was just one major fault with their logic about removing handwriting as regular activity in their curriculum, students were still tested manually. Only in very rare cases are students in our state allowed to use computers to take their state exams on. Testing scores fell dramatically and handwriting during writing assignments was reintegrated into the writing program. Technology was still a priority and a goal, but the school realized their goals weren’t realistic in the framework of the state’s requirements. As we move forward with technology, we do need to think beyond how we feel and to think about the consequences of our choices. Getting excited about change is normal. However, there are reasons to think it through.

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