A “Textbook” Study of Knowledge-Wave Education Policy

For a great example of knowledge-wave thinking about education, take a look at the column about K-12 textbooks, written by Del. Christopher Peace, R-Mechanicsville, and published today in the Times-Dispatch. Peace doesn’t use the Toffleresque terminology of “Revolutionary Wealth” to put his argument into perspective, but I shall do it for him.

The problem, according to Peace, is that textbook publishers write their books for sale in California and Texas, with the result that educational agendas in those two states dictate content taught in the other 48. Furthermore, the books are expensive. Monopoly manufacturers sell two- to three-year-old textbooks at a premium to Virginia school districts almost as after-market goods. Translation into Toffler-ese: The textbook business is a classic case study of the industrial-wave, assembly-line, one-size-fits-all approach to education.

The Virginia Open Education Foundation is devising an end-run around Texas, California and the textbook publishers with the Virginia Open Textbook Project. The use of digital or print-on-demand technologies could save Virginia school systems a significant fraction of the $122 million a year spent on textbooks, Peace contends. Furthermore, “an open-education forum for print-on-demand textbooks could allow schools to digitally access and instantly deploy materials held in creative commons — similar to Wikipedia.”

Textbooks could be updated instantly to reflect critical new developments, such as the impact of 9/11 in social studies textbooks, or the demotion of Pluto from planet status in science textbooks. No more two- and three-year delays. Furthermore — Peace doesn’t say this, but it’s consistent with his logic — open-forum books could be easily customized for K-12 courses that come in different colors and flavors, encouraging experimentation and innovation in curricula. Translation into Toffler-ese: The Virginia Open Textbook Project exemplifies the potential of Knowledge Wave technologies and institutions to facilitate the inexpensive dissemination of knowledge.

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9 responses to “A “Textbook” Study of Knowledge-Wave Education Policy”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    There’s a directly related process known as curriculum mapping.

    The textbook issue IS a very compelling issue on it’s own – with respect to WHAT you are teaching and HOW you are accessing progress.

    For instance, in Virginia, the issue is .. what textbooks actually closely support our SOLS – not on in content – but in sequence of content.

    My wife informs me that right now it’s a real juggling act.. where one has to jump around not only inside of a text but between texts if you want to cover the material – that the students will be tested on.

    One could argue pejoratively that this is “teaching to the test” but I would ask those who disagree with this approach – what approach they would use.

    If you don’t have a curriculum standard then school-wide or school-system-wide or state-wide testing becomes next to worthless – which was exactly the situation before the statewide SOLs were implemented.

    Each School System, indeed (often) each school would decide not only on content but sequence of content – in essence -by their choice of textbook.

    SOLs threw a big monkey-wrench into this and even though there are now SOL-certified textbooks – in most cases what it means is that somewhere in the book – the SOL content is addressed but not necessarily in sequence.

    So you say.. “what’s the big deal”. Well.. how about a kid that transfers from Fairfax to Spotsylvania? (and we won’t mention to worse case of from Maryland to Virginia).

    The receiving school and teacher, in such circumstances, does not really know what the transfer student SHOULD know based on what grade they were in. Schools that have money can retest individual students to ascertain the areas they don’t know. Poorer schools cannot afford to do this.

    The result can be – for a kid who is not particularly proficient.. to start to have problems in learning subjects predicated on a foundation taught in previous courses.

    So I find the subject of this blog entry – compelling and provocative.

    Virginia COULD use on-demand publishing to more closely match SOLs textbook content and sequence to Curricum mapping though it is amazing to me that with one million students… that Va has so little leverage in the traditional textbook marketplace.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry, That’s very interesting background. I hadn’t given any thought to how textbooks might be out of sync with the Virginia SOLs. Although I am no fan of SOLs, I do regard them as an (unfortunate) necessity. Otherwise, there is no accountability whatsoever in the public school system. Perhaps getting textbooks that matched the state’s curricula would make it easier for teachers to teach what students need to know.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Let’s presume, for whatever reason, that SOLs will go away.

    Then I’d ask:

    1. – WHAT goes in the textbooks…
    2. – WHO decides?
    3. – will it be a statewide standard, a county standard or a per-school standard or a teacher standard?
    4. – what would be the process for changing content/sequence?
    5. – would we care about differences between.. schools, counties, states?
    6. – if a kid transfers in… how do we know what he “knows” and how would be go about filling in the blanks without making her sit through repetitive info?

    The content and sequence of the material in a textbook – is not about the textbook – it’s about your curriculum.

    final question – are uniform standards desirable? ( yes this is a stupid question (I think) – but a serious one).

    HINT: would you and I be communication on a computer without uniform standards?

  4. First of all, thanks to Waldo’s fabulous blog aggregator for aggregating the Delmarva Dealings post that linked to this great Bacon’s Rebellion post. While I disagree with DD’s snarky aside about the NEA, I never would have read this post on BR (since I’m a diehard leftie and don’t have Bacon’s Rebellion’s feed on my own RSS feeds) had DD’s link not been aggregated on VDB. 🙂

    Anyway, what struck me about Del Peace’s article is that he totally neglects some of the real innovators in his own area — Henrico County Public Schools, for instance, made history as one of the first public school systems in the entire nation to entirely do away with cumbersome, expensive, textbook adoptions in favor of more nimble, more customized curricular offerings through an online content management system and a full laptop adoption program for secondary students.

    Many other school divisions in Virginia are also moving toward integrating online materials and tools to complement and supplement traditional textbooks and traditional face-to-face teaching models. Fairfax County Public Schools has made a HUGE investment in online tools and content as well (although FCPS still does traditional full-scale textbook adoptions as well).

    I was a public school teacher in Virginia for many years before leaving public education for the private sector. I worked for a for-profit company that develops online infrastructure for colleges, universities, and K-12 districts to put courses and course materials online (including many Virginia colleges and K-12 districts). I no longer work in either field right now, so I’ve got no dog in this hunt aside from being a concerned citizen with the real-world experience to know we can do much better.

    When I taught, I volunteered hundreds of hours on textbook adoption committees over the years. It is staggering how much each school division spends on gigantic tomes that don’t really fit what we need. Although all major textbook publishers spend a LOT of money on correlating their national texts to Virginia SOL’s (they ALL publish detailed guides to map their books, down to individual page numbers, paragraphs, reproducibles, and test questions) to each Virginia SOL, it’s a cumbersome and tedious process for teachers and school divisions.

    In my experience as a middle and high school teacher, I lived through two full scale textbook adoptions costing millions of dollars and resulting in the purchases of HUGE glossy expensive literature anthologies. They were SO huge and expensive that we couldn’t afford one for each student, so the district bought one for each “desk”, or approximately 25-30 per teacher. I had five classes, so I could never send the books home with the kids. That meant we had to spend a lot of money reproducing supplementary material and, of course, creating our own supplementary material. It was far more work for each individual teacher.

    At most, I only ever used those huge anthologies for 20% or so of what we actually did in class, at most. But they ate up almost all of our budget, leaving very little money to purchse novels that kids could actually take home and read, much less other material.

    But how great would it have been to have access to online content, totally aligned to Virginia SOL’s, that students could access at home and teachers could reproduce for offline access at will?

    So much of the glossy content of these incredibly expensive huge textbooks is flash and bang, with very little content. Teachers hate it and feel like they have to work around it. But school boards are stuck in the same old, same old rut and have very little courage to try something much more innovative.

    I hope Del. Peace and others will follow up with sharing more detail about what other innovative school divisions like Henrico are already doing to address this situation. Henrico’s adventure has not been without its challenges, but other school districts would do well to learn from its successes as well as its shortcomings.


    Addressing a few other commenters above:

    1. Unless you want teachers to become automatons (and, sadly, some people do), there is no way anyone should or could come up with a perfect synchronization of curricular scope and sequence across the entire state. Not only will someone in 7th grade in Spotsylvania County not be studying the same topic in any given month as a 7th grader in Fairfax County, one student in the same grade isn’t necessarily going to be studying the same topic as another person in the same grade across the hall in the same school! This kind of synchronization is neither practical nor desireable.

    Sequence, of course, is very important in some subjects (such as mathematics) and not as important in others (such as Language Arts) depending on curricular area of focus. Anyway, a lot of people who’ve never taught or thought about student outcomes seem to get their panties in a wad about whether every single child across the state is doing the same thing every week, and that’s simply not important. What’s far more important is, in any given year, what do students know and what skills do they have, not when do they learn them and what particular tools, projects, materials, or approaches did individual teachers use in order to impart this knowledge?

    2) In my experience, the WORST drain on the most important, expensive, and valuable public education resource we have in Virginia — that is, our public education teaching force — is duplication of effort.

    I spent HUNDREDS and HUNDREDS of hours creating my own teaching material — my own handouts, my own quizzes, my own lesson plans. Sure, we had some big anthologies that we could use occasionally, and sometimes we photocopied teacher materials that came with those textbooks, but many of us were out there on our own creating our own stuff simply because the textbook content didn’t suit the SOL’s or didn’t suit our local curriculum or didn’t suit the needs of our student population.

    When I taught in Arlington, for instance, I spent a tremendous amount of time creating my own material because the textbooks adopted by the county were far too EASY for most of the students in my grade level at my school. We had to create material that was much more challenging, and frankly the publisher material was embarrassingly BAD at times. In another school district in another state, I spent a lot of time creating material because we didn’t have enough copies of the expensive textbooks for every child to have one, and our student population, sadly, had much lower reading levels than the text that was adopted, so students were having difficulty mastering concepts that they could have mastered with more accessible text (without changing or “dumbing down” the CONCEPT standards at all.)

    What was INSANE, in my opinion, was that I knew I was spending an hour writing a quiz on, say, figurative language in _The Kitchen God’s Wife_, knowing there were dozens of teachers all over the state who were also using that novel in their classrooms and who had created some great Virginia SOL-aligned lessons and activities related to it…but I was doing the same thing. Multiply that frustration times every single assessment for every single book, and that’s a whole lot of duplicative, wasted effort!

    Rather than throwing so many hundreds of millions of dollars at out of state for-profit vendors who sell us hugely expensive, ill-fitting, quickly obsolete textbooks, our state DOE should invest far more money in paying qualified Virginia teachers to publish their own teacher-created material (that would, of course, be vetted for quality and accuracy by curriculum adoption committees of experts just like every single textbook already is today), and then make that material available on an open-source basis to ***every Virginia teacher*** and every public school division at no cost.

    Many school divisions already invest in teacher-created content (hiring, say, a team of the best social studies teachers in the district to work collaboratively and intensively over two summer sessions developing lesson plans for 10th grade SOL’s) but very little sharing goes on across districts and some districts invest little or nothing in this. They expect their teachers to spend hundreds of hours developing their own content on their own time for free, and then have no mechanism for sharing this content. (Most school districts don’t even have email groups for all teachers in particular subjects, for instance, so they can share material easily online!)

    Ask any great teacher what they think about the vast majority of textbook “teaching ideas” and most will say that they’re crap…that they either came up witht their best ideas themselves or they learned them from other great teachers over the years. Many writers of textbooks have never been in classrooms (or have been removed from them for decades) so their suggested activities and lesson plans are very far removed from what really works with real kids. Having the state DOE provide mechanisms for great teachers across Virginia to share their content and ideas across school divisions would pay huge dividends not only in student outcomes put in teacher productivity and professional satisfaction.

    One of the best school districts in the country, Fairfax County Public Schools, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying teachers to develop high-quality, interactive content for their FCPS Online High School courses. These courses are now fully packaged with lessons, materials, online tests, discussion board topics, etc., all directly aligned to Virginia SOL’s. But FCPS (rightly) is not just going to give that content away to other VA school divisions for free. And if FCPS tried to charge some other county, say, $10,000 a year to license that content, another county would likely think that’s an outrageous price — yet wouldn’t blink an eye at spending hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars on new textbooks from Prentice-Hall or some other national publisher for one subject…and those textbooks would NOT fit directly with VA standards, would NOT be customized for VA, and would not be easily adapted like online content can be.

    I didn’t mean to write such a rambling treatise…obviously, I’ve got strong opinions on the subject, and rather than responding off the cuff in a comment here, I ought to work on my own post about this.

    Great discussion topic!

  5. One more comment in response to Larry’s about uniform standards…

    There are MANY standards in place to support greater sharing of learning content among Virginia school divisions.

    In addition to Virginia SOL’s, to which all Virginia school divisions adhere, there are nationally accepted standards for technological interoperability of learning objects and learning content.

    From what I’ve read on the bare-bones site of the Virginia Open Education Foundation, I’m not convinced that their choice of platform and format is best, but as long as their content conforms to generally accepted standards of learning object interoperability, any Virginia school division that uses a SIF-compliant platform should be able to share content, assessments, etc., with another.

    The real debate, I think, should be around how to equitably and fairly place a value on the content created by Virginia teachers and/or paid for by Virginia school divisions and then share that valuable content among school divisions. Many school divisions have started these discussions, and it looks like VOEF has developed some draft legislation aroudn this (though that link doesn’t seem to be operable right now). I’m really curious to see what they come up with as model legislation.

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Maura, Thank you for your long and extremely informative post. You’ve illuminated an aspect of the problem that I’d never given any thought to. It sounds like the Virginia Open Textbook Project needs to have a companion piece — a “Virginia Open Teaching Materials Project” that enables teachers to share tests, homework assignments, classroom guides, etc., so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I would urge you to approach the Virginia Open Education Foundation with that very idea.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Maura, Now that I read your second post, I see that my idea might be a little naive. But an “open forum” of some sort would seem to be the way to go. Didn’t Roxane Gilmore try something similar when her husband was governor? I vaguely recall a link from the Governor’s website.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Maura – I second Jim’s remarks about the thoughtfulness of your comments.

    One thing that I’ve noticed as a parent of two FCPS students, too often I see school/teacher-generated materials that contain factual errors. I’m not taking a shot at anyone, because my life is certainly not error free. But some of these mistakes seem quite fundamental. For example, I just recently saw some handout materials that confused the Pilgrims and the Puritans. The errors carried through to the test.

    I don’t know what a solution is, because I agree that some of the best materials for instruction come from teachers, who often have picked up ideas from others and then improved upon them. We don’t want to destroy the ability of teachers to innovate. It is quite possible to reach a common goal, including making sure that SOL materials and concepts are covered, by different paths.

    On the other hand, I spent a couple thousand dollars for remedial help for my son because his third grade teacher was incompetent and failed to teach the basics of third grade math. Something serious is wrong here.

    I also think that, if a school district spends money developing resources, it is not unreasonable to receive a fair license fee from other districts. As you note, districts think nothing of spending big bucks with commercial suppliers.

  9. Chris Peace Avatar
    Chris Peace

    How can I reach Mara? I did not intentionally leave Henrico out of the discussion. This piece was the first salvo in what I hope is a thorough debate about this concepts benefits. In fact, I am assembling a list of those interested in participating in a state study. Please email me to let me know your interest and qualifications: delcpeace@house.state.va.us

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