What Textbooks Are Schools Using? Districts Aren’t Keeping Track

By Liana Loewus — January 14, 2016 2 min read
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If you want to find out what math textbooks a district is using, just go ahead and ask the central office, right? According to University of Southern California researcher Morgan Polikoff, it’s not quite that easy.

Polikoff is in the throes of an ambitious study on textbook adoption, in which he and a group of students are looking at which textbooks are being used in the five most-populated states (California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas).

He took a moment out of his research to write a blog post today, in which he explains that many, many districts simply can’t offer a list of the books their teachers are using.

“Knowledge of what is going on inside schools strikes me as the most basic function of the district office,” he writes. “And yet I would estimate around 10 percent of the districts that have responded to my FOIA [i.e., Freedom of Information Act] requests have said they have no documents listing the textbooks in use, and probably another 30-50 percent clearly have to invent such a document to satisfy my request.”

As Polikoff explained in an interview, California does collect textbook information from districts, but it’s in PDFs so there’s no standard reporting language. Deciphering that information has been one part of his research project. For the other four states, he’s sent three rounds of FOIAs to individual districts and so far about three-quarters have responded. (In a recent wrinkle, he found out that Texas also has textbook-adoption lists for its districts.)

An ‘Unduly Burdensome’ Request

In his blog post, Polikoff quotes a letter from a district that he told me was Chicago. Pulling a list of math and science textbooks by grade, the letter said, would be “unduly burdensome in nature and would require extensive resources to both search for information, which would most likely require a manual school-by-school search, and analysis to determine the other data points you are seeking.” Chicago denied his request. (Under the law, districts don’t have to create a document if one doesn’t exist.)

The New York City school district has sent six letters asking for one-month extensions, Polikoff told me. He expects to be denied there eventually as well.

“This is totally anecdotal, but districts that don’t know or don’t give me information tend to be at two extremes—either huge districts or unbelievably small districts with, like, two schools,” he explained. That said, many large districts in Florida, including Miami and Hillsborough County, have sent him textbook lists.

Polikoff has also studied textbooks’ claims of alignment to the Common Core State Standards, which he says are generally a sham. He will present initial findings from this research study at an Education Writers Association conference in February.

One interesting tidbit on the results he did give me, though, was that many places told him they’re not using textbooks at all. “Especially in New York, there are a fair number of districts that are using EngageNY,” an online collection of free common-core-aligned materials managed by the state, he said. “It’s got to be a quarter.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.