Open-source textbooks lower costs

Free “open-source” textbooks are lowering students’ costs at a Virginia community college.

Consumer Reports for textbooks wants to be the Consumer Reports for textbooks and other instructional materials. The nonprofit will review materials for alignment to the Common Core, usability, teacher support and differentiation.

The first reviews, due out in a few months, will deal with Pearson’s enVision Math, McGraw-Hill’s Everyday Math, Houghton Mifflin’s Go Math and other widely used K-8 math curricula.

Classroom teachers will be the evaluators, reports Politico.

The non-profit is funded by the Gates Foundation and the Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Textbook quality matters, writes USC Education Professor Morgan Polikoff on Common Core Watch. And improving textbook quality is a lot easier than improving teacher quality.

First, textbooks aren’t people. There is no union seeking to protect the interests of textbooks.

. . . Second, textbooks and online curricular materials can be improved over time through research and tinkering in ways that teacher effectiveness cannot. Especially if we collect better data, we potentially could learn about effectiveness at a granular level—for instance, which of these X lessons is the best at getting Y type of kids to learn division of fractions?

. . . Third, textbooks are incredibly cheap relative to other educational inputs. While U.S. schools spend billions on textbooks annually, the per-student cost of curriculum materials is, at most, 1 or 2 percent. …choosing a high-quality textbook over a low-quality one may be as effective as moving kids from a fiftieth-percentile teacher to a seventy-fifth-percentile teacher.

Common Core creates a nearly-national market for learning materials, Polikoff points out. There’s a very strong incentive for publishers to get this right.

Polikoff also hopes will “call out” the “dreadful assignments” that pop up in social media as “Common Core curriculum.”

Test answers are in the (missing) book

Pennsylvania’s state exams can be “gamed” by a “shockingly low-tech strategy,” writes Meredith Broussard, a Temple professor of data journalism. All it takes is reading “the textbooks created by the test makers.”

Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing because they don’t have the right books, she writes in  The Atlantic.

On  the 2009 Pennsylvania exam, third-grade students were asked to write down an even number with three digits and how they know it’s even.

Here’s an example of a correct answer from a testing supplement put out by the Pennsylvania Department of Education:

This partially correct answer earned one point instead of two:

Everyday Math’s third-grade study guide tells teachers to drill students on the rules for odd and even factors and be able to explain how they know the rule is true, Broussard writes. “A third-grader without a textbook can learn the difference between even and odd numbers, but she will find it hard to guess how the test-maker wants to see that difference explained.”

I’m not shocked that tests are aligned to textbooks. What’s truly disturbing is Broussard’s research into whether Philadelphia schools have the right books. She found district administrators don’t know what curriculum each school is using, what books they have or what they need.

According to district policy, every school is supposed to record its book inventory in a centralized database called the Textbook Storage System. “If you give me that list of books in the Textbook Storage System, I can reverse-engineer it and make you a list of which curriculum each school uses,” I told the curriculum officer.

“Really?” she said. “That would be great. I didn’t know you could do that!”

Principals use their own systems for tracking supplies and books. Short of support staff, schools stack books in closets and forget they’re there. Teachers scavenge materials from closed schools and spend their own money to supplement their $100 a year supplies budget.

Broussard built a program, Stacked Up, which found the average Philadelphia school has 27 percent of the books it needs. But that’s just a guess because nobody really knows who’s got what.

‘Core-aligned’ math books are a ‘sham’

It’s a “sham” to say new math textbooks are “aligned to Common Core standards, says William Schmidt, co-director of Michigan State’s Education Policy Center. After analyzing more than 40 textbooks being used by 60 to 70 percent of students, Schmidt found 800-page behemoths  stuffed with material that isn’t in the standards.

“Core-aligned” math books “do not look that different from the previous versions,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate education professor at USC. Polikoff analyzed three “Common-Core aligned” fourth-grade math textbooks adopted in Florida and one commonly used textbook that is not aligned to any particular standards.

He found that 15 to 20 percent of textbooks cover topics outside the Common Core standards, while 10 to 15 percent of the standards are not reflected in the texts.

What is missing? Questions and problems that get to the higher levels of cognitive demand, he said.

Teachers will need to beware, said Polikoff. “If they follow the book they will not be teaching the Common Core.”

Down with history textbooks

Long, fact-laden history textbooks are “boring and intimidating,” writes teacher David Cutler in The Atlantic.

Textbooks present history as unchanging, but as time passes, our understanding and interpretation of the past constantly evolves.

Textbooks are one-sided, offering a top-down, often white-male-centric view of history.

Without a thesis or any semblance or argument, textbooks don’t accurately reflect how most scholars (at least good ones) write and present history. Teachers should assign readings that model effective historical writing.

Teachers “who don’t know history or the historian’s craft” use textbooks as a crutch, Cutler writes. “Teachers who depend on textbooks are likely to test what is in the textbooks: long lists of facts.” Students memorize, then forget.  

“Kids don’t study history to ‘learn the historian’s craft’,” responds Robert Pondiscio on Facebook. “They study history so that they have some context in place and time for their own lives, and cease laboring under the misconception that the world was handed down to them in present form as they find it.”

And it’s just not true that teachers or textbooks present history as “a long list of facts,” writes Pondiscio. 

Textbook costs squeeze students

Two-thirds of college students didn’t buy a textbook last year because of the cost, according to a U.S. PIRG survey. Students average $1,200 per year on books and supplies, estimates the advocacy group, which is pushing for free online learning materials.

Number sense or nonsense?

Twitchy features Common Core math problems that try to teach number sense.

From News12WX RichHoffman[email protected]

3rd grade common core math. See image. I have a math minor and it doesn’t make sense to me.

Embedded image permalink

Saxon’s Core-aligned seventh-grade math book is riddled with errors, writes Michelle Malkin.

Core-aligned means . . . nothing?

In part 3 of Dispatches from a nervous Common Core observer, AEI’s Michael McShane wonders what it means for curriculum to be “aligned” to the new Common Core standards. An Amazon search for Common Core yields more than 32,000 results, he writes. Most are aimed at teachers. Nearly all claim to be “aligned to the Common Core.”

Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement by Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins (et al) seems to be most popular.

Kathleen Porter-Magee, the Fordham Institute’s Common Core expert, is unimpressed:

“Part ideological co-opting of the Common Core (CCSS) and part defense of existing—and poorly aligned—materials produced by Heinemann, the book is the leading edge of an all-out effort to ensure that adoption of the new standards requires very few changes on the part of some of the leading voices—and biggest publishing houses—in education.”

Calkins tells readers that the Common Core marginalizes “the low-level literacy work of sound-letter correspondence,” a “patently false” and “damaging” rewriting of the standards, writes Porter-Magee.

“Even the best-selling book on the topic might not be aligned to the Common Core,” writes McShane. “What about the other 31,999?”

. . . pretty much anyone can slap a “Common Core Aligned” sticker onto a textbook, professional development module, or supplemental resource. It is incumbent on states, districts, and schools to wade through all of these, but given the enormous volume of resources out there, they’re drinking from a fire hose. Without some meaningful vetting process, all of the benefits of the nationwide market for new tools will be washed away in the flood of misaligned materials.

That’s problematic, writes Bill Evers, who worked on California’s standards, in an email. “If all the teaching materials labeled Common Core are weak and not aligned, then the program will not bring about whatever improvement in achievement that it has the potential for (not much in my opinion) and will waste a considerable amount of money.  On the other hand, if the Common Core-niks establish a common vetting office, that would be the final step in instituting a national curriculum.”

CC pilots a no-cost-for-books degree

Business students won’t need to buy books or other materials to earn an associate degree at Virginia’s Tidewater Community College. Faculty have agreed to use “open educational resources.”

Are iPads worth it?

Are iPads and Other Classroom Gadgets Really Helping Kids Learn?  Maybe not, writes Peg Tyre on Take Part.

Wall Street is pouring money into education technology companies, but the enthusiasm may be cooling: Investment in education technology declined in 2011, Tyre writes.

Every new wave of technology that has been tried in classrooms—radio, television, videocassettes, desktop computers and smartboards—has ridden a wave of enthusiasm, rapid adoption and, then, brutally dashed expectations.

“First, the promoters’ exhilaration splashes over decision makers as they purchase and deploy equipment in schools and classrooms,” said Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and author of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classoom in an email to me. “Then academics conduct studies to determine the effectiveness of the innovation [and find that it is] just as good as—seldom superior to—conventional instruction in conveying information and teaching skills. They also find that classroom use is less than expected.

While some teachers are using iPads in the classroom in effective ways, most are not, writes Tyre. And hoped-for savings may be illusory.

Adding in training, network costs and software costs, iPads cost school districts 552 percent more than textbooks, writes Lee Wilson of PCI Education on his blog. Wilson’s chart is below.


In a Broad Foundation debate, panelists ask: Which is more important, great teachers or great technology? (I guess we can’t have both.)