Digital textbooks can save money, improve learning
By Arnold Schwarzenegger | Special to the san jose Mercury News
6/7/09 -- Today, our kids get their information from the Internet, downloaded onto their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cell phones. A world of up-to-date information fits easily into their pockets and onto their computer screens. So why are California's public school students still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?
California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg's printing press.
It's nonsensical — and expensive — to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form. Especially now, when our school districts are strapped for cash and our state budget deficit is forcing further cuts to classrooms, we must do everything we can to untie educators' hands and free up dollars so that schools can do more with fewer resources.
In February, we helped schools weather this storm by freeing up categorical restrictions on spending, and we must continue making these changes so more dollars go directly into the classrooms.
That's why I am so excited about the digital textbooks initiative California just launched. Starting with high school math and science books, this initiative paves the way for easier access to free digital texts in California's schools. By frequently updating texts as they are developed, rather than continuing to teach from outdated textbooks, we will better prepare our students.
For example, many textbooks still describe television technology in terms of cathode-ray tubes, without even mentioning LCD or plasma screens that are being sold today. If California is to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy, this initial focus on math and science texts is critical.
These kinds of digital instructional materials are rapidly becoming available. Across the state and around the world, well-respected educators have designed customizable texts to meet the unique needs of their students. Federal grants have funded research that is free for public use. And now California has put out an initial call to content developers, asking that they submit high school math and science digital texts for our review. We hope the floodgates are open. We'll ensure the digital texts meet and exceed California's rigorous academic standards, and we'll post the results of our review online as a reference for high school districts to use in time for fall 2009.
California must take the lead on using 21st century technology to expand learning and serve our students, parents, teachers and schools better. Even in good economic times, state government should always strive to use taxpayer dollars to the greatest effect. But especially now, it is imperative that we find ways to do more with less.
Last year, the state earmarked $350 million for school books and other instructional materials. Imagine the savings schools could realize by using these high-quality, free resources. Even if teachers have to print out some of the material, it will be far cheaper than regularly buying updated textbooks.
If the clamor for digital music and online social networking sites is any indication, young people are the earliest adopters of new technology, and cutting-edge product options are cropping up as quickly as the latest Facebook fads. However, there are those who ardently defend the status quo, claiming our vision of providing learning materials to students for free would risk a high-quality education.
That's nonsense. As the music and newspaper industries will attest, those who adapt quickly to changing consumer and business demands will thrive in our increasingly digital society and worldwide economy. Digital textbooks can help us achieve those goals and ensure that California's students continue to thrive in the global marketplace.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is governor of California. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.
Connecticut District Tosses Algebra Textbooks and Goes Online
Librado Romero/The New York Times - In Rebecca Stern’s class at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., students can get a lesson online in class or at home.
By WINNIE HU | The New York Times
June 8, 2009 - WESTPORT, Conn. — Math students in this high-performing school district used to rush through their Algebra I textbooks only to spend the first few months of Algebra II relearning everything they forgot or failed to grasp the first time.
So the district’s frustrated math teachers decided to rewrite the algebra curriculum, limiting it to about half of the 90 concepts typically covered in a high school course in hopes of developing a deeper understanding of key topics. Last year, they began replacing 1,000-plus-page math textbooks with their own custom-designed online curriculum; the lessons are typically written in Westport and then sent to a program in India, called HeyMath!, to jazz up the algorithms and problem sets with animation and sounds.
“In America, we run through chapters like a speeding train,” said John Dodig, the principal of the 1,728-student Staples High School here. “Schools in Singapore and India spend more time on each topic, and their kids do better. We’re boiling down math to the essentials.”
That means Westport students focus only on linear functions in Algebra I, taught in seventh, eighth or ninth grade depending on student ability, and leave quadratics and exponents to Algebra II, eliminating the overlap and repetition typical of most textbooks and curriculum guidelines. Westport has also scaled back exercises like long formal proofs in geometry, revising lessons and homework assignments to teach students to defend their answers to math problems as a matter of routine rather than repeatedly writing them out.
Westport’s curriculum overhaul joins other recent critiques of mile-wide, inch-deep instruction in the long-running math wars within American education. In 2006, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics called for a tighter focus on basic math skills. Two years later, a federal panel appointed by President George W. Bush urged that pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade math curriculums be streamlined after finding that math achievement for American students was at “a mediocre level” compared with that of their peers worldwide.
Westport school officials say their less-is-more approach has already resulted in less review in math classes, higher standardized test scores and more students taking advanced math classes. The percentage of the district’s 10th graders receiving top scores on state exams rose to 86 percent last year from 78 percent in 2006. Advanced Placement calculus and statistics classes enrolled 231 students this year, from 170 in 2006, and a record 44 students will be able to take multivariable calculus this fall, up from four in 2006.
But while Westport’s new approach has attracted interest in the math education world, the vast majority of schools in Connecticut and elsewhere continue to race through dozens of math topics in each grade because of concerns that cutting back could hurt student performance on state assessments and SATs.
Hank Kepner, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said that most schools choose among prepackaged math curriculums, which have to be expansive enough to meet wide-ranging standards for every state, and that he had not heard of another district trying to write its own.
“I give them kudos for trying it,” he said. “But I’m worried that not many districts will have the amount of support needed to pull off a new curriculum and sustain it.”
Patti Smith, a vice president at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a major national supplier of math textbooks to schools, said she did not believe Westport’s curriculum could maintain the same level of quality and consistency as a published math curriculum. Her company spends two years developing a curriculum using hundreds of math specialists and field-testing in schools.
“With all that is expected of teachers and students today, building a mathematics curriculum that has the depth to meet the needs of all classrooms is a very hard thing to do,” she said, pointing out that for a school district’s teachers, any time they spend “building content is time they are not working with kids.” (The math textbooks Westport is phasing out are by McDougal Littell, now part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)
But textbooks are not immune to the streamlining trend: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has written an Algebra I textbook for Florida schools that is about 200 pages shorter than the 1,000-page national version.
Here in Westport, the math curriculum has been compiled from original lessons and assignments as well as material adapted from Web sites, books, training sessions and conferences. Math teachers say their curriculum seeks to balance traditional teacher-directed instruction with student-exploration exercises, and in some cases diverges from Connecticut standards, which, for instance, call for quadratic equations to be taught in Algebra I.
“They’ve sidestepped the math wars because they have a rational curriculum, well-taught, and they get great results, so how can you argue with that?” said Steven Leinwand, principal research analyst at the American Institutes for Research, who helped Westport develop its math curriculum.
Frank Corbo, the head of Staples’ math department, said the district spent about $70,000 to develop the new math curriculum — half to pay two dozen teachers to work on it over the summer, and the other half to pay HeyMath!, whose Web server in Singapore gives students 24-hour, 7-day-a-week access to class lessons, tutorials and homework assignments. He said that the district will soon save at least $25,000 a year on textbooks.
In interviews, several Westport teachers and parents said the slower pace has helped their children focus more deeply on difficult concepts, and students say the shift online has made math easier to understand with cool graphics, animation and real-world context like global warming. “Math for a lot of kids is not fun,” said Lee Saveliff, co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Staples. “For kids who are computer literate, this helps them get a connection to the material.”
But the transition has not been without glitches. Some of the new word problems featured children with unpronounceable names like Trygve. Students have forgotten their passwords to log into the math program, and some online lessons had too few practice problems, sending students back to their textbooks.
In precalculus class the other day, Sarah White taught a dozen juniors and seniors about sine and cosine curves by inviting them to “play around with graphs” in a HeyMath! lesson. As a student touched an on-screen graph, the curves jumped and slid — an exercise that used to take 10 minutes or more on graphing calculators. “Kids would punch in wrong numbers and use the wrong mode,” Ms. White said.
Jahari Dodd, 17, a junior who earns B’s in math, said the online lessons were a welcome change from the dense pages of numbers and equations in his precalculus textbook. “I’m much more of a visual learner,” he said. “If I can’t see it or have some kind of image with it, it’s much harder to grasp.”
Kirk Massie, 15, a sophomore, said that he prepared for his midterm in Algebra II by replaying class lessons at home. “You don’t have to ask questions, you just rewind,” he said. “If you forget or it’s late at night, or you don’t have time to talk to the teacher, it’s right there and it takes a minute to log on.”
But he added that was not yet ready to close his math textbook for good. “It’s just weird not having something on paper that I can just look at,” he said.