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Florida Board of Education Pushes for Elimination of State-Mandated Textbooks

School districts in Florida may soon have freedom to choose which textbooks and educational materials to use in their classrooms, including digital materials, such as e-books and Internet resources.

In a letter to members of the Florida Board of Education (BoE), Vice Chairman Roberto Martinez suggested that the BoE should make the elimination of state-mandated textbook adoption a legislative priority for 2013.

Under the current rules, the state decides which textbooks districts may purchase, although districts do have some limited flexibility to purchase materials not on the list. With the proposed change, districts, principals, and teachers would be free to use their own professional judgement in the selection of educational materials, as long as they can demonstrate that students are learning what is required by state standards.

"It's going to give the teachers and principals the flexibility to use whatever they think needs to be used," said Martinez. "If they want to have the kids use textbooks, they can use a textbook. If they want to have kids use primary source materials--it could be a handout; it could be newspapers--let them do that. If they want the kids to use the technology to look for articles or get a presentation that's been recorded on YouTube, they can do that."

However, educators would still be accountable to the state to ensure they're teaching what the kids are supposed to be learning.

"We have a very developed system of accountability for the schools," said Martinez. "We mandate the state standards, we mandate assessments to see whether the kids are learning those state standards, and we mandate an accountability system holding the schools accountable if the kids don't learn what they're supposed to learn. So we require outcomes. My objective would be to let the superintendents, working with principal and teachers, come up with the learning materials that they think are best to teach to those standards. I would give them the freedom to do that."

This legislation change would make it easier for educators to adopt new educational technologies that promote student engagement and can be personalized to the needs of individual students, according to Martinez's letter to the BoE.

"It can help to customize learning to the needs of the child, so the child can go at their own pace. And it can be, by the way, a very fast pace; it doesn't necessarily mean a slow pace, but you can adapt it to the pace of the child," said Martinez.

"You can have kids working in different groups, some at their own pace, some kids that are more accelerated helping other kids, with kids interacting collaboratively," added Martinez. "And then, you can have the teacher going from group to group. I'm talking about blended hybrid learning, where you have a teacher go around and work with different kids, and you have digital learning as a tool that she or he can use to make the learning process more exciting for the kids and maybe bring in a lecturer from Africa to talk about something. Suddenly, you're getting a presentation from somebody across the world as opposed to just the teacher in the classroom, or just looking at the pictures of somebody on a two-dimensional piece of paper."

"Why do we even need textbooks? We have this wealth of information at our fingertips," said Steve McLaughlin, the language arts and social studies coordinator for Okaloosa County School District in Florida, referring to the Internet. " We have this huge resource library where kids can draw information."

Currently, districts can spend 50 percent of their budgets on things other than state-adopted textbooks and instructional materials, according to Alexis Tibbetts, superintendent for Okaloosa County and president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "What we're encouraging teachers to do is to move out of their textbooks, find resources through the Internet and other places that link and align better with our standards," said Tibbetts. "This is allowing us, by 2014-2015, to use more than 50 percent of our budgets on digital resources."

The proposed change could also help districts save money by enabling them to purchase materials on an as-needed basis, rather than a mandated cycle, and take greater advantage of free and open-source materials.

Currently, textbooks have a five-year adoption cycle, according to Tibbetts. When there is a change to learning standards, as with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, the textbooks need to change to reflect those new standards. With paper textbooks on a five-year adoption cycle, it may take years for students to get access to textbooks that match the current standards.

"I think that's anachronistic," said Martinez. "I don't think we need to wait years to give the kids learning materials based upon the latest standards. I want to eliminate all of that."

And textbooks are expensive, both in digital and paper format.

"Publishers tell us that they're going to charge us almost the same for a digital textbook as they do for a hardback textbook because they say the expense is in the research and the platform," said Tibbetts.

"The pro is that the digital textbook can be updated so much easier, and you don't have to buy a brand new textbook every five years as standards change and information changes, like in the world of science," said Tibbetts.

However, digital textbooks also require students to have a device to read the book. "What we're most afraid of, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, is that for a while it's going to be more expensive," she said. "We're going to have to purchase devices; we're going to have to purchase digital textbooks for some students; and we're going to have to purchase the hard copy textbooks for some kids."

But Tibbetts said she envisions a time in the near future when teachers will primarily use resources that are on the Internet, and not even use a textbook, and that vision could soon become reality if Martinez's proposal becomes law.

"I'm talking about giving the teachers access to whatever are the best learning tools in the world that she or he can find that are acceptable to the principal and within the district policies, without putting any restrictions that it's got to be the approved textbook mandated by the Board of Education that is fixed for a period of six years," said Martinez. "I think that's ancient history and we need to be moving towards the future now."

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