Thursday, September 14, 2006

Adventures in textbook adoption

For the last six years in our social studies department, our sixth and seventh graders have been subjected to two horrible textbooks from the Houghton-Mifflin publishing company. The sixth graders' text is called A Message of Ancient Days, and the seventh graders use Across the Centuries. Whoever decided upon these two books ought to be shot. In a perfect world, sixth and seventh grade students ought to easily be able to read and comprehend these texts; unfortunately it is a world that does not exist. The two texts are written way above most of the students' heads, and having them read it is pretty much useless. Our eighth graders use The American Nation by Prentice-Hall. It is a superior book to the Houghton-Mifflin crap, but it is still nothing to shout about.

Mercifully, last school year, we social studies teachers were told that it was time for textbook adoption, which is supposed to happen every seven years. We went to all the different presentations after school that were put on by the publishing companies. The publisher reps brought samples of the merchandise and even snacks and bottled water. The Holt publishing company sent me a complete sample of their textbook and support materials, complete with CD-ROMs that have powerpoint presentations, short films that introduce each chapter, test generators, and all kinds of other bells and whistles, along with a great textbook that is much easier to read and comprehend without being dumbed down too much. I received that Holt sample near the end of last year when I was teaching all seventh grade. I ditched Across the Centuries and made class set copies of the Holt textbook with which to teach; it was that good. We were also "wined and dined" by Teacher Curriculum Institute (TCI), McDougal-Littell, and Prentice-Hall. Along with Holt, they all had an impressive product. Then along came Glencoe-McGraw Hill. They had everything Holt did, and then some. All their maps in the textbook were provided by National Geographic, they had instructions for manipulative graphic organizers that students could construct for each chapter, and unlimited support from the reps. We were told by the Glencoe reps that we could have as much tutoring on all the bells and whistles as we needed. Each teacher would also receive a laptop and computer projector for use in the classroom; as impressed as I was with Holt, Glencoe was even better. My coworkers agreed, as did the social studies teachers at the other middle school in our district. We were told by the district administration to make our decision, and we did: we chose the texts from Glencoe-McGraw Hill. We were to have the texts and all support materials by the beginning of the school year. Do you think this all worked out? C'mon folks, we are working with bureaucracy here!

Enter the HOSTS program. It is the latest educational fad that is supposed to solve the omnipresent achievement gap over which educators obsess. Here is a description of the program from their website:
HOSTS Learning helps students achieve through a research-based, proven learning system that addresses the needs of every student in learning reading and math.

The system is designed to aid teachers in creating individualized academic plans that can be delivered in the classroom, to small groups in or out of the classroom, or in one-to-one mentoring sessions before, during, or after school.

This system helps schools and districts close the achievement gap and accelerate the learning of all students using a program that research has confirmed helps students gain an average of 2 grade levels in a single school year.
As our librarian described it to me, the program spends 100% of our discretionary funds in order to help about 5% of our students. My district decided that they wanted to implement the HOSTS program in all of our schools. Over the summer, teachers were sent for training, including a language arts teacher at our site. The only catch for my district was how the heck were they going to pay for all this?

From what we teachers have discovered, it seems some rather shady accounting of dubious legality was performed to make HOSTS in our district a reality. First, all money for English Language Learner (ELL) programs was diverted. Then all Title I money was diverted. Then the $100 that every teacher in the district gets every year to reimburse us for classroom expenditures out of our own pocket was diverted; sorry teachers, if you buy anything for your classroom, you are paying for it this year. Worst of all, the money that was slated to replace our inadequate number of ratty, torn up, out-of-date textbooks that do not align with our state standards was also diverted. A few days before this current school year started, we social studies teachers were told, sorry, you're going to have to get the current textbooks out of mothballs and issue them to your students; we hope there is enough to go around (there wasn't and isn't). But, we were told to never fear, the district will get the money for the books soon, and we would get our Glencoe books that we chose in our adoption.

Last night, the social studies department chair (who happens to be Che Guevara) made a speech at the monthly board meeting about our textbook dilemma. For props, he brought along a couple of examples of the books with which we and our students are working. The books are basically being held together by scotch tape. Additionally, our ELL teacher also spoke at the meeting, asking the board to have the district administration explain where exactly our ELL and Title I money disappeared to. Meanwhile, the district superintendent sat at the meeting and stewed. Apparently, the fit hit the shan. Today, the super called all his principals together for a meeting. After that meeting, my principal sent an email to all the teachers in my social studies department, asking us to write down how many books we are short, because not all students have one. We were to each write down how many we needed, and then sign our signature to that piece of paper, and we had to have that signed piece of paper to our principal by 4pm today. The problem is that the principal (and the superintendent) want to know how many of the old books we are short. What this means is that the super's idea of fixing this problem is buy hundreds (probably thousands) of dollars of the old textbooks in order to be in compliance with a recent lawsuit that mandates that every student in California have access to a textbook. Read that again, this means that the district super wants to waste a goodly amount of money by buying more copies of the current (old) textbooks that we are trying to get rid of! What is worse, is if that were to happen, all incentive by the district to find the money to replace those textbooks would be gone, and we would most likely be stuck with A Message of Ancient Days, Across the Centuries, and The American Nation for who knows how many more years.

So today, there was a rebellion in the Social Studies department at my school. The four of us met in Che's classroom after school, and came to a decision. We discussed, and I typed up a letter that all four of us signed that told the principal and the super how many books we needed, but not the books that the principal and super had in mind.

I should have sent a copy of the letter to myself so I could post it here, but what it essentially said was that we needed at least 780 textbooks from the Glencoe-McGraw Hill publishing company that we had agreed to adopt last June. We then gave the number breakdown of how many books we needed for each 6th, 7th, and 8th grader at our school. The super and our principal wanted the number of A Message of Ancient Days, Across the Centuries, and The American Nation books that we needed. Instead, we gave them what was more or less an ultimatum: Glencoe, or nothing at all.

I have to admit, I felt kind of queasy signing that letter. I am not used to sticking my neck out like this (but I need to have the strength to do it more often). I especially respect my two coworkers who don't have tenure, but signed the letter anyway. Such is the way of the teaching world that if you piss off the higher-ups by doing something like this, they can opt not to renew your contract, and they don't even have to tell you why. After we all signed the letter, Che and I (the tenured teachers) walked to the principal's office to give the letter to her. She wasn't in her office, so we had to leave it on her chair. As we walked back to our classrooms, Che offered his hand. As we shook, he said, "Here's to fighting the good fight," to which I replied, "We must all hang together, or we will surely hang separately, in the words of Ben Franklin." Che liked that one.

So, we shall see tomorrow if there is to be any fallout from this. Even though the letter was left with our principal, who we are standing up to here is the district superintendent. But what we are banking on here is that with this misappropriation of funds hanging over him, we have him on the ropes and we are not going to give him a breather by letting him weasel his way out of part of his troubles by putting a band-aid on the textbook problem. Crazy times!

Good Day to You, Sir

11 comments:

bluejay said...

Good luck, and "hang" in there!

t said...

Isn't it terrible that you have to fight tooth and nail to educate the next generation? One would think that it would be the school district's top priority.

Good luck. Let us know what happens.

Polski3 said...

BRAVO for your battle ! I hope you get your new books. As for ACROSS THE CENTURIES, Damn, we coulda sent you 300 of them....they went into the dumpster, even the ones that were brand spankin' new or barely used.

With your current history text situation, are you in violation of the Williams Act? This is a great hammer against the administration and board. What does your association (union) say about this? The more "militants" you get involved and legal rights you have on your side, the better your chances for victory. But, damn, WHY should this fight even have to happen? You have any parents speaking to your principal, the super, or the board???? Complaining parents tend to get listened too more than the teachers.

We adopted the McDougal-Littrell texts for grades 7 - 8 History. Quality of texts is not what we expected, in terms of kids are tearing pages just by turning the page, or the page is coming loose from its binding. THIS is our current fight.....

Let us know how this pans out.

The Principal said...

Just had to smile at your adventure and say that "it just doesn't get any better than this". Remember, you are in public education, and this is pretty typical everywhere. You learn to grin and carry on. BTW, in California the S.S. book you mentioned for the 7th grade was the only one on the last state adoption list for that grade level. Hard to read and understand, but somehow met the "criteria". Have a great day!

Bill

nebraska girl said...

Thank you for going to the mat for your kids. How are you supposed to teach with texts that the kids can't understand. And how can the school get away with mis-spending the ELL and Title I money? Keep fighting the good fight.

Mark Montgomery said...

Your post is a testament to the crazy way we choose, use, and abuse textbooks in this country. So often, the "solutions" are centered around numbers of textbooks and the publication date of textbooks, and the bells and whistles the publishers offer as inducements.

The central issue is, and always should be, which textbook is best for the students?

I'd be interested to know what sort of criteria you and your colleagues used in choosing the Glencoe book.

I was also interested to read about HOSTS. It's an inordinately expensive program, and I'd like to see the data demonstrating that student achievement rises (for all students) in schools using this system.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post!.

Chanman said...

Mark,

Thank you for commenting on my humble blog.

The criteria we used was rather diverse (I usually hate to use that word, but if the shoe fits...). I was looking for a textbook that was written at a level that our students could actually comprehend, while at the same time wasn't as boring as hell. I liked the fact that all the maps in the text were supplied by National Geographic. I have always found their maps to be very easy to read. The text also started out each chapter with something called Foldables, which are graphic organizers that students can easily construct, and then must maintain for the duration of the chapter as we study it; adding notes and points along the way. It is a great way to hook them at the beginning of each chapter.

We all liked how the book aligned to a tee with the California state standards. The standards are stated at the beginning of the book, there was an index in the TM that gave the page numbers where each standard and sub-standard is addressed.

The ELL materials that came with this Glencoe textbook were superior to the other texts. Our CST scores seem to live or die depending on how well our ELL students do on those state tests, so anything we could have at our disposal to better teach the ELL students was a plus.

The supporting materials included a test generator on CD-ROM that we could use to make customized tests. I hate using pre-made ones from a workbook because I don't always cover everything on that particular test. The CD-ROM makes it possible for me to pick and choose the questions without having the rewrite the whole test over again like I have had to do in the past. Additionally, the CD has a program that will record student performance on each question and will give me instant feedback on which questions the students knew and didn't know so well, thus giving me a much easier way of knowing what to reteach.

Finally, one of our social studies teachers is a big-time Chicano activist, so with the 7th and 8th grade texts, he went right to the chapter(s) on Meso-America. He thought Glencoe did a respectable job with the Aztecs, Mayas, and Inca, so that put him in the Glencoe camp as well.

And yes, we all thought it would be great to receive a laptop and computer projecter with which to revolutionize the use of visuals in our classes. I for one have learned from experience that using visuals in history class is an invaluable way of getting the students interested in the subject matter. The Internet is full of great photos/maps/images, but it can be difficult to either photocopy them, put them on an overhead, or show them on my t.v. screen (I currently have my computer monitor running through my t.v. so I can show images that way, but the images are too small). So yeah, this was definitely and bell and a whistle, but one that I would love to implement into my daily lessons.

Thanks!
Chanman

Mark Montgomery said...

Dear Chanman,

Thanks for the exhaustive "play-by-play" of the adoption process.

I was dismayed, however, that your district did not have any stated criteria. You told me all about the bells and whistles. You told me that the book "aligns to a tee" with the California standards, but you didn't go into whether "alignment" is the same thing as "quality content". You say the ELL materials are superior, but you do not give the criteria by which you judged their superiority.

There are clearly things you like about the text you chose. But "liking" something is not the same as judging whether the book and its contents are likely to get your kids to achieve those content standards the state expects them to achieve.

I am not blaming you. The process you describe is the one that most districts in American use to choose their textbooks. It's all about "feeling" and "instinct", and not at all about systematic reviews of the materials based on rigorous and transparent criteria.

I also want to say that just because a book has a relationship with National Geographic is no indicator of quality. In our independent evaluations of some of Glencoe's other books (which also have the National Geographic imprimatur), the Glencoe/NGS books rated near the bottom of the pile.

Again, your situation is not unique, and I really do hope you found the best book to help your students achieve the content standards. Because while the bells and whistles may wow us, if we neglect to review a book based on its educational value, we're not doing our jobs.

Thanks for an interesting, eye-opening post.

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