While education leaders debate innovations in school management and teaching strategy, it’s important not to forget one of the most basic ways to improve student achievement: Actually give them books.
Kristian L. Holden, a researcher for the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research, found spending a little less than $100 per student for new textbooks led to significant improvements in reading and math performance in some of California’s poorest and lowest-performing elementary schools.
“This definitely suggests that textbooks in the right situation can make a big difference,” he said. “It’s a two-part policy. You need to be able to identify where there are likely to be shortages, and have a system in place to address those shortages.”
Lawsuit Creates Natural Experiment
Back in 2000, 72 districts sued the state of California for massive underfunding of schools. Several teachers testified to having only a single set of textbooks to share among all their students, meaning students had to share books in class and could not use them for homework at home. One middle school had waited so long for new books that the history textbook did not include the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the 2004 class action settlement, California set a standard requiring each student to have his or her own textbooks and instructional materials to use in class and at home, and provided new money to buy the books.
The settlement raised per-pupil money for textbooks from $25 to more than $54, but the state also provided $138 million specifically for the lowest-performing 20 percent of schools. Some 150 elementary schools serving more than 105,000 students got $10 million in textbook funding from the additional fund.
Holden compared achievement on the state reading and math tests from 2002 to 2011 in schools that were just above and below the cut-off for additional textbook funding. The increase was on average .15 of a standard deviation per school—in the same ballpark as reducing the class sizes by 10 students. The effects were about the same for reading and math.
The findings come as more districts explore free online curricula, after the Every Student Succeeds Act allowed districts to channel technology block grants toward creating and using open-source instructional materials. The online materials could help cash-strapped districts update their curricula more often, but Holden warned that low-income, high-minority districts like those in the California study also are more likely to have lower-quality internet access.
Sustained Book Funding an Issue
The effects remained significant for about three years, before the additional textbook funding ran out. Holden found about 10 percent of the textbooks in the Los Angeles county district needed to be replaced each year to stay current, at a cost of about $16,000 a year, so one big lump sum didn’t fix inequities for long.
Moreover, low-performing secondary schools that received the additional textbook money saw no significant change in test scores. Holden was not able to drawn any conclusions about why that might be, because the pool of middle and high schools receiving money was much smaller than that of elementary schools.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.