Opinion
Curriculum Commentary

Where Are the Books?

By Jay Urwitz — December 13, 2011 4 min read

A group of visitors is touring a high school in a down-at-the-heels Northern city. But the building seems in good repair, and the hallways are clean. We head into the 11th and 12th grade chemistry class, which has eight big, square lab tables with that black slate top that signals to all nonchemists that serious experiments are done here. In the center of each table are four to six good-looking chemistry texts. Hey, this doesn’t look so bad.

Looks deceive.

That stack of books is a Potemkin village. The books cannot be taken out of class. The students have no others, and many don’t have an Internet connection at home to get the lessons online. So teachers cannot assume that students have been able to do any homework.

The assistant superintendent who was with us said students without an Internet connection at home could: (a) go to the local library (which has limited hours) and queue to use a computer there for 20 minutes; (b) use their once-a-week computer-lab period to tackle chemistry assignments (and others); or (c) try to obtain a pass to use the few computers in the school library during study hall.

Given the lack of spending on instructional materials in the last few years, the preserve-the-books-for-classroom-props movement has to have spread like fungus."

So, with no books and extremely limited Internet time, if they don’t catch on to the chemistry concepts and formulas on the first pass with the teacher, those students may never get a second chance.

How widespread is the lack of out-of-class instructional materials? There does not seem to be any recent statistical analysis, although plenty of news articles about schools across the nation—from Philadelphia to Caddo Parish, La., to Detroit to New Mexico to east-central Illinois—detail a lack of learning materials. The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics show instructional-supply expenditures declining to $13.3 billion, out of $593.1 billion in total school funding, in fiscal year 2009, from $16.1 billion, out of $584.7 billion, in fiscal 2008. This overstates the amount of actual content, since it includes chalk, erasers, paper, scissors, and paste. And, given the harsh economic circumstances and the lack of an organized materials constituency in states and districts, we can only assume that the aggregate squeeze continued downward in fiscal 2010 and 2011.

Very few districts have a districtwide policy on taking books home. It seems that the decision is usually made on a school-by-school basis, on the simple availability of books or on how much the principal trusts that books will come back. District and school websites almost never say what policy is in this regard, and those that imply that textbooks might be taken home, by stating the expectation that they will be returned, do not also state that students should be allowed to take them home. Not one of several calls made by a colleague of mine to the principals’ offices at high schools in several big cities this year led to an answer to the question of whether the schools let students take materials home.

Given the lack of spending on instructional materials in the last few years, the preserve-the-books-for-classroom-props movement has to have spread like fungus.

There is literature on the great gains that students can make with superior materials. There is a federally funded organization dedicated to evaluating the effectiveness of particular curricula, the What Works Clearinghouse. But there are few U.S. studies on what happens when you have virtually no materials to actually use, probably because researchers think this is more suitable for studies in third-world nations. But studies that have been done in materials-starved schools in the United States show a significant difference from comparable student demographics where the children have adequate texts. Indeed, studies such as these were foundational for the 2004 settlement of the Williams v. California class-action lawsuit in California, which alleged a failure to provide resources for low-income school districts. The settlement required that students have access to instructional materials not just to use in the classroom, but to take home as well.

Some of my fellow visitors on my big-city high school trip were investment types who had previously taught economics and business at the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale and Columbia universities, and the University of California, Berkeley. I asked whether it was only we math-challenged folks who would never get a formula without poring over the texts, and I was told that even the most math-savvy had to study the formulas and equations and would never have gotten it on one exposure.

So, every indication is that those students are toast.

What can be done?

First, since less than 2.2 percent of the national K-12 education budget goes for instructional materials, school systems might do a rigorous review of what gets the greatest bang for the dollar—for example, if increasing class size by one student would free funds, would students do better with texts to take home and a slightly larger class? If the classroom copies of a text cannot be lent out, are there stripped-down, less expensive editions that students can take home as quasi-workbooks? Finally, can those schools that stay open late make the one-time expenditure for multiple new computers for their labs to avoid long lines for quiet time and an Internet connection?

If we don’t do one of these, I have a great money-saving idea. End the charade of schooling without materials. Give would-be students a few dollars for folding chairs and point them directly to the street corners.

A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Where Are the Books?

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