More Changes in Store for the Traditional Textbook Model?
- By Geoffrey H. Fletcher
Rob Eissler, Texas Republican legislator from The Woodlands, is adamant about the need to keep students in school and that a key to doing that is having engaging instructional materials. "The old form of content delivery is not the preferred form by the coming generation," he told me. "Their culture is different, and so is their mode of communication. Rather than have us force kids to the old way, we need use their way of learning and communicating. That's why I co-authored this bill."
In a press release about this bill, co-author Dan Branch, Republican from Dallas, said, "We owe it to our students to give school districts more flexibility to utilize interactive, digital content. A traditional textbook is a vehicle for content delivery, but for many students, that vehicle is quickly becoming a horse and buggy."
The bill is House Bill 4294, and it passed out of the House Public Education Committee the week of April 13. In short, the bill would modify the current process of adopting textbooks in Texas, one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the country. It would:
- Allow the state textbook fund to be used to purchase technological equipment;
- Create a commissioner's list of electronic textbooks and instructional materials that would bypass the Texas State Board of Education, a notorious gauntlet fraught with politics; and
- Require that school districts purchase a classroom set of textbooks adopted by the State Board of Education for each subject and grade level in the state curriculum.
If the bill does become law, what does this mean for school districts and students in Texas and across the country? The simple answer is: "It depends." It depends a lot on the commissioner's rules that will be created to implement the commissioner's list. The devil may indeed by in those details. But following are two brief scenarios illustrating my guess after talking with people in the legislature, the Texas Education Agency, and people who have been involved from all sides of this bill.
Traditional Independent School District
This district is comfortable and happy with the way their textbooks have worked in their schools. They would order all their books from the State Board of Education's list, many of which have electronic components. The state would pick up the cost and ship the books--one per student per course that is available that year, as usual. HB 4294 changes nothing for Traditional ISD.
Innovative Independent School District
This district would order the classroom sets for a course as required from the State Board of Education list. For the ease of math, let's say that the Algebra books go for $50 per student. Innovative ISD has four classes of Algebra at 25 students per class, for a total of 100 students. They are allotted $50 (per book) x 100 (students) = $5,000. They order one class set (only one classroom) of the books off the SBOE list $50 (per book) x 25 students = $1,250. That leaves them $3750 to use for electronic textbooks, instructional materials, and associated technology from the commissioner's list. Granted, $3,750 won't buy you a lot of technology with your content, but this is content and technology that Innovative ISD would have had to buy with state or local funds before HB 4294.
I also see the potential is enormous for students, for school districts and for the market.
Johnny Veselka, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), noted, "HB 4294 is critical for our Texas schools and our students. It will allow local school districts the ability to choose cutting-edge, relevant curricula that will best meet the needs of our students." He told me this is consistent with work that TASA has pulled together over the last two years in Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas. (Go to tasaonline.org, and click on Visioning Institute.) Relevant is a term that Representative Eissler used as well. "If the resources are interesting and relevant, students will get excited and be less likely to drop out," he said. At the press conference for this bill, virtually every speaker from the co-authors of the bill to representatives from nine different organizations supporting the bill all talked about student engagement in some form.
For districts, it could mean greater use of the materials they receive from the state. As THE Journal held hearings as a part of the Congress on the Future of Content initiative, our task force heard tale after tale of shrink-wrapped pallets of books in warehouses that were not being used. Kari Rhame, president of the Texas Computer Education Association, was quoted in the press release echoing the same problem: "We shouldn't tie the hands of our school districts by forcing them to spend money on books that are simply sitting in warehouses collecting dust."
It also will give districts additional money to purchase the technology that they need to take advantage of these electronic textbooks and instructional materials with the change that allows districts to use textbook funds to purchase technology. While the commissioner's rules are still a matter of speculation, everyone familiar with the intent of the bill says that districts will not be able to just purchase any technology they want with textbook funds; instead, a technology purchase will have to be tied directly to the electronic textbook or instructional materials on the commissioner's list. Even with that limitation, this bill would be a boon to technology companies. If districts can purchase electronic textbooks and instructional materials with state textbook money instead of local funds as they need to do now, that will leave them additional dollars to purchase technology.
The instructional materials market, however, is where the biggest changes could occur, which in turn will reinforce the changes for students and districts noted above. That seems to be the intent of Representative Eissler. He said, "I told the technology folks that if the market knows the revenue will be there, then the market will invest." In other words, with the incentives both to school districts to purchase electronic materials off the commissioner's list and to companies for a less odious process to getting materials available in the state, and the virtual guarantee that the State of Texas will fund electronic materials, there is a huge market here. Smart companies will be gearing up to enter the market immediately.
House Bill 4294 still has a long way to go--being passed by the House, getting through the Senate, and then getting signed by Governor Rick Perry of Texas--but indications are it has a good chance. Eissler is chair of the Public Education Committee and, along with co-author and Chair of the Higher Education Committee Representative Dan Branch, Republican from Dallas, has lined up an impressive set of co-authors, not to mention support from an array of organizations and associations, including the Texas Association of School Administrators, Texas Association of School Boards, Texas Computer Education Association, Texas Association of Manufacturers, Texas Association of Business, TechNet, TechAmerica, the Texas Reform Caucus, and, of all people, the Texas Conservative Coalition.
There also is a chance that the bill could be merged with one of two other bills circulating the Texas Legislature, including Representative Hochberg's (D-Houston) HB 2488 or one of the bills altering the duties and responsibilities of the State Board of Education.
Geoffrey H. Fletcher is the deputy executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).