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Closing the Books

Closing the Books
Credits: Maksym Yemelyanov

Ann Hutcheson-Wilcox still remembers how textbooks were a fixture of her education—required reading that formed the backbone of learning for much of her schooling. But the Skyline High School parent said that during the past five years, she’s seen the use of textbooks by schools dwindle to the point that she wonders if her teenage son might have forgotten the basics of how to use them.

When her son cracked open his Spanish textbook on a recent school night—because he was assigned a set of exercises in it—it was as if he had to re-familiarize himself with how to use it, Hutcheson-Wilcox said. It didn’t occur to him to read the section before answering the questions, and she had to remind him it had a dictionary and an index at the back to refer to for help.

“He doesn’t know to navigate a textbook,” she said. “And for him, it’s monotonous—he just wants to go straight to answering the questions he’s been assigned. And if he doesn’t know what to do, he’ll just look it up on Google first—or if there is a word he doesn’t know, just use the dictionary online.”

The traditional print textbook is increasingly becoming a thing of the past in classrooms throughout Oakland—and the nation, many educators say. Although the use of textbooks varies greatly from grade level to grade level and teacher to teacher at schools throughout Oakland, more teachers are forgoing the use of the traditional textbook in their classrooms due to a variety of factors, including the transition to Common Core—the new set of national standards for K-12 education.

Many teachers have also shifted to more digital educational tools like Google Classroom, Google Docs, class websites, and open-educational resource websites like Khan Academy, which offer customized, high-quality electronic lessons and exercises for math, science, and other subjects, at low or no cost.

For many students, “you just have this tomb of a textbook—they can’t relate to it anymore,” Hutcheson-Wilcox said. “And having this big, heavy textbook with tiny print that you come home and read from is so limited compared to all the different ways a person can learn something today.”

Flint Christensen, director of the Computer Science and Technology pathway at Skyline, in the Oakland hills, said he decided during the past four to five years to phase out textbooks in his curriculum because he found that online programs, like Khan Academy, are not only more fun and engaging for kids, but also much more effective in providing immediate feedback about whether students are answering questions and learning math concepts correctly. Such educational websites can tailor their exercises and lessons to each student’s individual needs, he said, based on how well the student fares on one question to the next. Consequently, students don’t waste time answering a set of questions incorrectly from a traditional textbook, only to find out a couple days after completing the exercises from their teacher that they’ve done them wrong—and are then forced to do the exercises all over again.

“Textbooks are a dinosaur, just waiting to go extinct,” said Christensen, who taught math for 12 years before switching to teaching computer science this year.

Similarly, Andrew Burt, who teaches history at Skyline, said he’s embracing the move away from textbooks because the books assigned to his courses by the Oakland school district are at least 10 years old and reflect “straight, white, male versions of history.”

“The ‘world history’ textbook is aggressively Eurocentric,” he continued. “But for most of my students, the world shouldn’t just be Europe. It’s an opportunity for them to learn about areas of the world that they come from: Latin America, Africa, Asia.

“So, I use textbooks from time to time to compare the textbook account to the ‘real’ version of events and what the textbook left out and why they would leave that part out,” he added.

While some students and teachers prefer the structure and familiarity of textbooks, many more seem to prefer the move away from them. Textbooks “are written by the victors, and they don’t show the whole picture, so you are basically learning one side’s account of what happened, rather than learning about multiple sides,” said a Skyline High school student, who asked not to be named.

However, some parents complain that the decreasing use of textbooks, particularly in many middle and high school math classes, makes it harder for them to help their kids with their studies, said Davis Chambliss, deputy chief of teaching and learning at Oakland Unified School District.

Chambliss also said that, because of the long wait for publishers to write quality textbooks aligned to Common Core, particularly for middle and high school, the school district has developed its own digital curriculum in math from elementary math to Algebra II. The curriculum relies heavily on photocopied handouts that teachers adapt for their own use and then distribute to students on a lesson-by-lesson basis.

In fact, the use of handouts is so common now at some schools that it can be a problem for sites that don’t have functioning copy machines or can’t afford ink and paper, said Sterling He, a math teacher at Skyline.

Another problem, Chambliss said, is that the state only approved its curriculum framework for Common Core this year. As a result, publishers are only now rewriting their textbooks. They typically wait to do major rewrites until they have direction from the state on how to align textbooks to state standards.

“So, our history and social studies textbooks are 10 to 12 years old now, because we didn’t want to spend, frankly, millions of dollars buying new textbooks that weren’t going to be correctly aligned to the California framework—but teachers are really supplementing with other materials to make sure they are also aligned with Common Core,” Chambliss said.

Also, the district’s long-term desire is to move to all digital platforms, but one of the biggest challenges is that not all Oakland students have the necessary technology and wireless access at home. “So, it’s a challenge,” Chambliss added. “Definitely, we’re in a transition period here.”

Still, He, who teaches geometry and advanced algebra at Skyline, said he likes using the district-created math curriculum for Common Core, because it’s engaging for students. However, he said that, depending on the individualized needs of students in each class, he has found that using a textbook might be more helpful, especially if the class is made up of a lot of students who are repeating a math course after Common Core-aligned curriculum didn’t work for them. On the other end of the spectrum, he has also found that high-performing, academically advanced students sometimes benefit from using a textbook, because it allows them to move faster through lessons and get more practice at mastering computational skills, along with the math concepts.

Oakland fifth-grade teacher Dana Watchorn said she has been teaching math and social studies without textbooks for the past four years, preferring to teach those subjects in a way that speaks more to her students’ real-life experiences. For example, instead of using the district-issued social studies textbook, she has her kids read A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. And she has created a series of project-based math learning lab experiences that students rotate through every week that make learning math fun, she said.

“And I’ve had a lot of students this year be like, ‘Hey, you’re tricking me into liking math,’ because they don’t realize what they are doing is math when they are doing it and are having fun,” said Watchorn, who teaches at Sequoia Elementary in Oakland’s Dimond district. “And they seem to have a change in perspective when they realize that math doesn’t have to just be busy work—it’s everywhere around us.”

Even though OUSD has been slow to purchase new textbooks for middle and high schools, the cash-strapped district has purchased some new workbooks for elementary schools—although teachers don’t always use them. Watchorn said she feels badly that the supply closet of her classroom is stocked with three years’ worth of elementary math workbooks that the district purchased new each year. The workbooks are still wrapped in plastic, gathering dust. These books have to be on hand for the school to stay in compliance with state law—the Williams Act—which mandates that every campus has a set of textbooks that each student can take home and use in class, even though in some classes they are not being used.

“They send us new materials every year, which is frustrating me, because it’s a waste,” she said. “I worry that there are some schools where students don’t have textbooks at all. I wish I could give mine to those students who could usually use them.”

John Affeldt, a managing partner at Public Advocates—a nonprofit legal group that helped bring a lawsuit with other groups including the ACLU against the state to ensure that there would be improved educational equity—noted that only 30 percent of teachers statewide reported they had enough textbooks for their students to take home at night.

He acknowledged that the implementation of that law has been complicated in recent years with the shift from textbooks to less traditional instructional materials due to Common Core and emerging technological tools. But keeping unused textbooks around in classroom to prove you have equal access to textbooks is not how the law should work, he said.

“It’s a misinterpretation of the law,” he said. “The law is not about giving sufficient access to irrelevant textbooks, but proving you are giving equal access to whatever the presented and provided instructional materials are actually being used in the classroom.”

This report was originally published by our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.