Policy and Advocacy | In Print

Who Will Vet the Textbooks of the Future?

The best free show in Austin every November is a meeting of the Texas State Board of Education. That’s the meeting each year that features hearings on proposed textbooks. Individuals from every end of the political, social, and educational spectra--affectionately called the Wingnuts--testify to the quality of the textbooks proposed for adoption in the entire state. 

Because Texas is one of the country’s largest single markets for textbooks, in the past the outcome of those hearings and the education board’s deliberation have affected schools and students from Alaska to Alabama--but things are changing. Beginning this year, that impact will be diminished due to changes in Texas state law that will allow school districts to select their own textbooks, even if the state board deems them unacceptable. The local superintendent and school board must certify that the district is teaching all the state standards and has sufficient materials to do so, but that is their only limitation.

Taking the absolute power to declare winners and losers in the textbook market away from the state and giving it to the local districts also gives the latter some flexibility, but it raises a legitimate question: If the state vetting process is diminished or demolished, who has the authority to decide which textbooks comply with state content standards and thus are “okay” or “any good”? That leads to a second, even more important question: Given the steady--and quickly growing-- accumulation of digital content available to school districts, who decides which of it is aligned to state content standards and is “any good”?

Let me pause for a moment to review traditional state educational textbook policy: For years, about half the states in the country--sizable markets like Texas, California, and Florida among them--selected winners and losers at the state level. The states decided what they wanted in their textbooks and the publishers tried their best to fill the orders. The states--usually on the advice of committees of practitioners from school districts and universities--would pore over the proposed textbooks looking for evidence of alignment with state content standards. Some states even paid attention to additional standards such as pedagogy, proportionate depiction of diversity in race and gender, and other, occasionally hidden, “standards.” 

Committees made recommendations to the state (often a state board of education), hearings were held, and winners declared. School districts then selected their textbooks from among those given a passing grade by the state vetting process.

Along with many other things concerning educational materials and textbook policies, that approach to vetting content is changing. Districts are beginning to realize how much technology and digital content is available to schools and want more flexibility in how they use their funds. In response, some states now allow “textbook money” to be used to purchase technology or even professional development and technical support. As control of the purse strings has loosened, other components of the textbook selection process, such as vetting, have become more flexible as well.

Indiana is a good case in point. Not only did the state legislature change the definition of a textbook to include digital content, it now allows textbook funds to be used to purchase that content and to pay for technology as well. At the same time, it took the state almost completely out of the vetting process. Now, the state looks at proposed “textbooks,” determines the extent to which they address the Indiana state standards, and publishes a list documenting the alignment or lack thereof. 

With one exception, school corporations (as districts are called in Indiana) do not have to use the list in their decision-making if they choose not to. That exception is in the area of reading, where the state still creates a list of winners from which school corporations are required to choose. In general, however, as Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett says, “We’ve stopped pretending that the state board of education is the biggest school district in the state.” 

Putting aside for the moment the obvious question of whether or not state-vetted textbooks were any good for all the students they were supposed to serve, let’s consider how school districts are to be assured that the vast array of content available now is aligned to state content standards and therefore “any good.”

Open Season
In other words, how do we move from a one-size-fits-all-textbooks world where everything is vetted by the state to one where educators can sift through an insurmountable raft of materials available from various media today? How do we sort through the various intellectual property rights issues and find our way to a world in which teachers take responsibility for their own materials and use the ultimate vetting tool--student success?

The ideal approach may be that taken by the Open High School of Utah, which pays faculty $10,000 to create the content and curriculum for each online course. All the content and materials are licensed as open educational resources (OER), allowing them to be shared, reused, remixed, and otherwise altered by anyone to fit the individual needs of students. Then, once teachers begin using the materials, they monitor how well students are doing and, if they are not doing that well, attempt to analyze what impact the course materials may be having. They then modify the materials, reteach, and then reassess how well the students are doing. 

The thinking is that, in creating the course in the first place, teachers have amassed a lot of the content and are familiar with much more. The answer to whether it is “any good” is whether student learning is positively affected. This approach is rubbing off elsewhere in the state, as the Utah State Office of Education recently announced it will develop and support open textbooks in the key curriculum areas of secondary language arts, science, and mathematics. The office will encourage districts and schools throughout the state to consider adopting these textbooks for use beginning this fall.

The state of Maine has launched a project that, while still in its early stages, also shows great potential. Maine used its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Title II-D money to fund a grant program focused on integrating OER into the daily math curriculum. The goal is to provide professional development that will increase awareness of OER and build an online community for sharing and evaluating OER beyond the grant cycle.

Working with two Regional Service Units and the nonprofit Education Development Center, the state created a comprehensive package of math instruction resources for teachers that focused on a few key algebraic concepts that students seemed to be floundering in. The professional development was designed to use OER and technology tools to support the connections between and among assessment practices, curriculum, and instruction. (See “The Water Bed Effect.”)

One team created a series of lesson sets organized by targeted mathematics topics, such as the distributive property, that included lesson materials, diagnostic assessment tools, information on analyzing data, classroom implementation and instructional resources, and a post-assessment tool. A typical lesson includes screencasts as demonstrations of student thinking or a guide to implementation of the materials.

After significant training, teachers analyzed student data and selected instructional resources and areas of focus using online applets and student explorations. They reassessed the students, reexamined resources, and, over the course of the year, the teachers and development team modified resources and created new ones.

Not every district or state has the grant money to generate these kinds of professional development and instructional resources, but the beauty of OER is that they don’t have to. Any educational entity can start with what Maine has already done, add to it, and do so legally since it was developed under a Creative Commons license that not only allows, but encourages, such sharing, remixing, and reusing.

The vetting of the content doesn’t come by way of teachers saying something doesn’t work or is no good. Instead, the content gets modified and made better--at least for the teacher willing to improve it. And the process does work: Student achievement gains were as high as 20 percent in pre- and post-matched classes. 

In addition to projects such as Maine’s, organizations are creating tools for teachers to use. Achieve is an independent, bipartisan organization that was intimately involved in the creation of the Common Core State Standards and is the project manager for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the two major Race to the Top assessment consortia. It has created eight rubrics to help teachers and other users determine the quality of OERs, although they can be applied to all content. Achieve also is working with OER Commons to create an online evaluation tool. 

Other tools under development that I have viewed--but cannot yet speak about in detail--will rate content in ways similar to Amazon’s rating system or will use a system like Facebook’s to “like” content. Developers of these products feel that if crowdsourcing is useful in the commercial world, why not in education? 

As more technology enters the classroom; as the creation, distribution, acquisition, use, and reuse of content becomes more flexible; as we move more fully into an iTunes world and out of one in which state boards of education pick winners and losers, will there still be a place for today’s comprehensive textbooks? I believe they have a lot to offer, but their creation, distribution, and acquisition will necessarily evolve to meet the needs of educators. This change in vetting is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.