Still Missing: Textbooks

When the only textbooks you have are classroom sets, you can do your job as a teacher, but it’s like doing it with your hands tied.

The year is almost 2021, and if you have no association with Idaho schools, you may not be aware that about 95% of our districts don’t actually have textbooks and haven’t had them for decades. You won’t be aware of this because educators don’t talk about it, journalists don’t talk about it, and it’s definitely not on policy makers’ radar. We do have books but they don’t go home with kids. For the last 20-30 years, we have used “classroom sets” of textbooks that can’t leave the classrooms. This has a profound effect on our education system and it negatively affects student engagement-how much time and energy students spend learning in school-in nearly every classroom in our state on a daily basis.

How it works

I first discovered this issue when I taught at Nampa High 14 years ago. I was assigned to teach several sections of Freshman English courses and had a total student count of around 120 students. I noticed that I only had 30 copies of the textbook we would be using. Since all of our short stories, the play we covered, the novels we were to read-all of which I wanted kids to mostly read at home-were in the text, I assumed a mistake had been made since I needed at least 120 texts. 

I went to the school library to report the mistake: “Hi, I’m missing about 90 textbooks that I’d like to bring to my classroom.” The librarian was incredulous, “You can’t be missing 90, you’re only supposed to have 30.” Well yes, I had 30, I replied, but I needed 90 more so I could issue the texts and send them home when I wanted kids to read something. The librarian laughed at me. “You’re new; that’s not how things are done here. If a kid wants a book to take home, they must check them out from the library.” “Ok, I’ll issue the 30 and have my other 90 students check them out.” Again laughter, “Oh, we only have 10 copies in the library.” 

So this is the way it worked: There are classroom sets of texts, but these books don’t leave the classroom. In theory, students could check books out from the library, but with only 10 copies of any one text, there was a perpetual waiting list, so this was only in theory. The reality is that in everything you planned, you had to remember that books would only be available in the classroom. How do you assign homework if the kids will have no materials to take home? Either you have to be really creative, or you don’t assign homework. The system promotes that. 

I tell my story here for two reasons: 1.) Almost all school districts operate this way. During my first year teaching in this system, I called around the state. Aside from a few school districts (Boise still has texts that go home with kids but none of the other Treasure Valley districts do), I discovered that everyone was in this boat. I would estimate that about 90-95% of school districts operate this way. 2.) This situation is the way most districts in our state have operated for nearly 30 years! Textbooks that went home with students began to be phased out in the 90’s. This is such a long period that no one-including many current teachers and administrators-remembers the old system and how this affects the classroom. This is even more prevalent today than it was 14 years ago, and no one is talking about it like it’s a problem. 

Why this is a problem

Using classroom sets of textbooks is a problem mainly for 2 reasons: First, it really hampers teachers’ ability to assign homework. That means that in most of our districts, the system guarantees that almost all schoolwork is done in the building instead of at home. This doesn’t register as a problem until students go to attend college, where textbooks will go home and they’ll be expected to do virtually all their work at home. All colleges operate under the expectation that every 1 hour spent in the classroom is coupled with 2-3 hours of independent work outside the classroom. We promote advanced courses in high school precisely because they promote more work outside the classroom, preparing students for this system. If students have spent years under a system where all work is done in the classroom and now find themselves in a new system where almost all work is done outside the classroom, many struggle because they are not used to being forced to work outside the classroom. This is why so many students do poorly their first college year and one of the biggest contributors to why they ultimately wash out of college.

Second, this dramatically slows down the pace of the classroom. Remember that all work has to be done in the classroom? This means that teachers must build time for that work, which slows everything down. In addition to that, if students are going to start and finish the work in the classroom, to be fair, the teacher must pace that work to the slowest kid in the room. Students work at different speeds, and if they aren’t going to have the resources outside the classroom, you pace to the slowest or you punish the slowest. What this means is that without books that go home, the work in our classrooms moves at an excruciatingly slow pace. If you were educated in this system and were fast at doing school work, likely your memory of school includes massive amounts of waiting. The system promotes that. When you have books that go home, you say, “I’m giving you 20 minutes to work on this in class; what you don’t finish here must be finished at home” but 95% of our teachers don’t have that option. When you add these two things together you have a double-whammy of negative student engagement: students can’t be engaged outside the classroom and when they are engaged inside the classroom, they have to move at a snail’s pace. When you take the two together, it means that districts who have books that go home with students have dramatically more student engagement than those who don’t, and those who don’t represent about 95% of our districts!

Many of the readers of this article are old enough to remember being educated in a system where books did go home with kids. Our teachers had the advantage of us having a resource at home that our children do not. Our teachers could assign homework, today’s teachers cannot. Can you imagine reading an entire novel in class rather than at home? If the book doesn’t go home, that’s exactly what you do. Or I should say that this is what our children do. This lack of books really cheapens the quality of education at the most elemental level, and no one-no educators, no members of any education task force, no journalists and no policymakers-even discusses this as a problem. And the many bills our legislature passes concerning teacher evaluation don’t address this issue, the biggest problem 95% of our schools have.


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