Textbook Crisis

We have a textbook crisis here in the overly-large school district.

Ok, “crisis” is probably too hyperbolic for what’s going on but there’s still lots of chatter around the topic of the electronic versions, and most of it isn’t positive. Plus the superintendent has heard from some loud and influential parents on the matter, which in turn makes the situation a “crisis” we get to fix.

The story started a few years ago when our school board decided we needed to begin using digital textbooks with an eye to replacing the paper editions, the price of which is steadily climbing. So, they waved their magic wand and told the super to make it happen.

As a result, last year social studies teachers in upper elementary and middle school got online texts for some of their classes, ones that are little more than enhanced pdf files embedded in a really crappy interface that both teachers and student found difficult to use.  But we moved on anyway and this year we have online math books which include a combination of Flash, pdf, and web-based materials.

So, what’s wrong with that?

I don’t have time or temperament to cover all the problems so let’s just hit the highlights.

First, the books are online and cannot be put on a stand-alone reader, which means they won’t work on the most affordable devices available like Kindles and Nooks. Also making the materials inaccessible in places without an internet connection, like school busses, and difficult to use in homes with multiple people all trying to access a single machine.

Then there’s the matter of the Flash and Java-based content which isn’t playable on iOS devices and, it turns out, is inconsistently supported on Android devices running a variety of different versions of the OS.

I also find it interesting that the publisher’s tech support centers close around 6pm. How many kids do you know that even start their homework before that time?

Then there’s the lack of equipment available for students to use at school, especially during times when it must be dedicated to testing. And that’s becoming all year round with our increasing craving for data (aka practice tests), a rant for another time.

However, the biggest problem has nothing to do with any of the technical problems. Or with the publishers, and the fact that they are far more interested in “protecting” their products than in providing quality instructional materials.

The worst part of this crisis is that our school board and administration are so short sighted that they continue to buy what the publishers are selling: generic, unmodifiable crap that’s written at a slightly higher interest level than most Wikipedia articles, with mediocre graphics and worksheets containing the same rote process problems that have been around for decades, if not centuries.

Math instruction in K12 needs a major overhaul and we should start by throwing out the generic textbooks (adding video and animation is just window dressing) and then take a serious look at what math skills kids need to have when they graduate.

A good chunk of what we do is irrelevant and useless, not to mention boring, just like the textbooks, digital or otherwise.

Crisis in Context

Today, as I watched the Twitter commentary about speeches on our education “crisis” at the Education Innovation Summit*, I was also cleaning some crap out of my cube, a long delayed task.

Just by coincidence, I ran across a folder of magazine and newspaper stories about the education crisis buried deep in a drawer, carrying headlines like “Saving Our Schools” and “What’s Wrong with Our Teachers”.

They were dated 1983 and were reporting on the Nation at Risk report released in May of that year. “A scathing report demands better teachers and tougher standards”, according to Newsweek.

Also in the mix was material from three or four years earlier, including an issue of Time declaring “Help! Teacher Can’t Teach” (subheaded “The multifaceted crisis of America’s public schools”) and a package of articles from our local newspaper under the banner “Our High Schools: Is Education Secondary?” with more stories of bad teaching.

However, after more than three decades of “crisis”, what’s changed?  Out in the real world, most everything about the way people work, communicate, and learn has shifted radically. The same publications reporting in the early 1980s are now gone or floundering around to find a new business model.

In the classroom, however, not much is different. Some computers, a big expensive whiteboard you can touch instead of a chalk board, emailing parents, and lots and lots of standardized tests.

The fundamental structure of schools remains the same. Instruction is still firmly rooted in the model of teachers delivering information to students and expecting them to recall a certain percentage of it at some point.

We still ask kids to write for an audience of one, and construct filters blocking the outside world from leaking in and preventing students from communicating with any part of it.

The goals of K12 schools certainly haven’t changed, most still being focused on preparing every student to be passed on to college, whether or not that is the best path for their skills and interests.

Oh, and whatever problems we have, it’s the teachers’ fault.

Ok, nothing new here. Same old ranting, although this time with a little bit of context for the current, continuing education crisis.

* It you take a look at the cast of characters at that meeting, you’ll notice no real educators in the speaker list and the major players in the profiting-from-public-education industry as sponsors. Innovation? What innovation?

I also love the “Sold Out” banner. Pretty much describes American education policy.

An End of the Year Rant

I know that for most of the world, we just passed the calendar’s halfway point with the days getting shorter and warmer at the same time, at least in the Northern Hemisphere.

But no matter how you measure it, this school year is done and no one I know is sorry to see it go. Not that the one just beginning is shaping up to be a winner either.

It’s all about the budget, of course.  Two years worth of a crappy economy has resulted in no raises for everyone, contract cuts for some, larger class sizes and reduced support for teachers.

Despite all that (and more) the big bosses here in the overly-large school district are sending the message that none of this is supposed to affect what we do.  Everyone is supposed to provide the same level of service – more, actually – with less time, people, and resources.

In other words, nothing changes.

And that attitude is probably our biggest problem.

Even without the economic mess, the education system in this country should be changing, drastically, and this crisis should have been an ideal catalyst to force that process.

We should be using this opportunity to seriously reassess our traditional concept of “school” and what students need to know and be able to do when leave the formal educational process.

Instead our “leaders” work overtime (and expect us to do the same) to maintain the status quo, expecting that when the financial storm ends everything will go back to “normal”.

Failing to understand (or acknowledge) that “normal” was not working for an increasing number of students even before our money problems started, and will serve the needs of an even smaller percentage after the crisis has passed.

I still believe we need public schools in this country.  Places, whether physical or virtual, where educators organize communities to help students learn essential skills, those that can’t be assessed using multiple choices.

However, if a strong, relevant system for public education is a serious national goal*, it’s going to take a conscious, determined effort.

It won’t happen by paddling in place waiting for the rescue boat to come by.

Ok, now that I have that rant down in electrons, I can focus my attention on the rest of the month.

I will be working during July but it’s a relatively quiet period around here as most of the people I work with are away, allowing me some time for bigger picture thinking, working on longer term projects, and reading stuff by people I’ve never met.

And, at the end of the month, I get to spend most of a week advancing my own learning with some folks from Google, immersed in their Earth and Sketchup programs.

Whatever your summer break looks like, make it a good one.

*And I’m not entirely sure support for the concept in the general public is particularly high, and is likely declining.