Textbook Budgets and Book Distribution Tightly Connected with Standardized Test Scores

How do things go so wrong in a huge and tragically underfunded school district?  Meredith Broussard, an assistant professor of data journalism at Temple University, has published a stunning piece in The Atlantic that explains how the School District of Philadelphia has lost control of any accurate inventory of its textbooks and their distribution and how the school district’s financial crisis has contributed to this catastrophic situation.

The stakes are high in these times when students, teachers, schools, and school districts are being held accountable by their collective students’ standardized test scores.   According to Broussard, however, having the right textbooks is more important than ever these days because textbooks are likely to be tightly linked to the students’ eventual test scores: “This is because standardized tests are not based on general knowledge.  As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers… Across the nation, standardized tests come from one of three companies: CTB McGraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or Pearson.  These corporations write the tests, grade the tests, and publish the books that students use to prepare for the tests… Put simply, any teacher who wants his or her students to pass the tests has to give out books from the Big Three publishers.”  Standardized tests now require students to be able to explain the rationale for their answers even on the math test—in the way it is presented in the textbook that is designed to prepare them for the test they are going to be required to take.  And as the standards change and tests are updated, school districts need to be able to replace books that quickly become dated.

Through school visits and interviews with teachers and the School District of Philadelphia’s officer for school support services, Broussard  learned that, although a data tracking system was set up several years ago to record book purchases and quantities delivered to specific schools, budget cuts in the past two years have in most of the schools eliminated the administrative staff responsible for inputting the data.   “But we forget that data and data-collection systems are created by people.  Flesh-and-blood humans need to count the books in a school and enter the numbers into a database… But severe state funding cuts over the past several years have meant cutbacks in the school district’s administrative staff.  Even the best data-collection system is useless if there are no people available to manage it.”  And then big city school districts in very poor communities must coordinate the distribution of books despite high student mobility.  “Keeping track of supplies is one problem; keeping track of the students who will use them is a whole other challenge.  In Philadelphia schools, many students are in foster care or navigating other precarious living situations, which means they frequently switch schools.”

In the past two school years, however, a  far more serious situation has arisen.  “Another problem is that there’s simply too little money in the education budget.  The Elements of Literature textbook costs $114.75.  However, in 2012-2013, Tilden (like every other middle school in Philadelphia) was only allocated $30.30 per student to buy books—and that amount, which was barely a quarter the price of one textbook, was supposed to cover every subject, not just one… At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the book budget was eliminated altogether.  Last June, the state-run School Reform Commission—which replaced Philadelphia’s school board in 2001—passed a ‘doomsday budget’ that fell $300 million short of the district’s operating costs for the 2014 fiscal year…  Philadelphia schools were allotted $0 per student for textbooks.  The 2015 budget likewise features no funding for books.”

Broussard suggests that federal and state public policy ought to be designed to take into account the realities for a place like Philadelphia.  “Stop giving standardized tests that are inextricably tied to specific sets of books.  At the very least, stop using test scores to evaluate teacher performance without providing the items each teacher needs to do his or her job.  Most of all, avoid basing an entire education system on materials so costly that big, urban districts can’t afford to buy them.”

These days all the rhetoric about standards and curricula and tests merely assumes that all school districts can provide adequately for their teachers and their students to play by the rules of the game.  Broussard’s article ties together a mass of on-the-ground realities in Philadelphia and to one degree or another in many huge and poorly funded school districts.  Although we are told all the time that money really isn’t the variable that makes a significant difference, Broussard shows us many ways funding affects the management of a school district and the realities in the classrooms.

3 thoughts on “Textbook Budgets and Book Distribution Tightly Connected with Standardized Test Scores

  1. Pingback: Textbook Budgets and Book Distribution Tightly Connected with Standardized Test Scores: Problems in Philadelphia | PAChurchesAdvocacy.org

  2. Pingback: In Philly, Governor Tom Corbett’s School Reform Commission Cancels Teachers’ Contract | janresseger

  3. Pingback: In Philly, Governor Tom Corbett’s School Reform Commission Cancels Teachers’ Contract | PAChurchesAdvocacy.org

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