There’s a scene in The Wire, the HBO TV series about the travails of urban life in Baltimore, in which the idealistic young teacher, an ex-cop, goes to the school basement to scrounge for materials. With a student in tow, he finds stacks of brand new, untouched, still shrink-wrapped textbooks sitting in piles in the supply closet.
Summarized in that scene was a stark message: if school officials failed to deliver the books to the classrooms, if teachers hadn’t asked for them, what kind of learning expectations did they have of the students?
In November, Tykia Hicks, a freshman at Sayre High School and a member of the Philadelphia Student Union, complained to the School Reform Commission that in several of her classes she had no textbooks to take home.
That led Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to order a textbook audit, and by Christmas a team led by Chief of School Operations Tomas Hanna had visited 27 high schools. He said some schools had exemplary practices and others chaotic textbook tracking systems, though Hanna wouldn’t identify any of them.
He did say, however, that he came upon some Wire-like scenarios. “We found in places that there were books in closets that kids needed; they were there,” he said. “There were more than enough books in a majority of these schools we visited.”
In a stern letter to principals emailed just before winter break, Ackerman wrote: “The audit revealed more than textbooks in closets. We found that books, calculators, core curricula, and other learning resources are being underutilized or not used at all.…We now know that the core materials needed for effective teaching and learning are available.”
However, there are not necessarily enough books for students to take home.
On that issue, Hanna’s team found policies and practices all over the map. Some high schools have schoolwide policies and others leave it up to teachers. Some have enough books for students to take home, while others don’t. Some enforce a policy of making families pay or make restitution for lost books, while others don’t. Some principals are on top of textbook distribution and tracking, while others aren’t.
Hanna said that the District sent a survey to all the schools and also conducted site visits. They asked teachers if they had enough books to put before each student in each class in core subjects, not whether they had enough for each individual student to take home. Teachers often have several sections of the same class.
The District, lacking a comprehensive inventory of its textbook supply, plans to extend the audit to all schools before the end of the year.
Ackerman, for her part, has promised better textbook tracking and inventory by this spring, but has said students will have to wait until next year for a uniform policy that all students can take books home.
When students don’t have books to take home, they are limited in doing homework, and much class time is taken up by reading rather than discussion.
"We can’t say to our children, who are averaging two years behind grade level, that they are getting a good education and not provide them with homework that is meaningful, rigorous, and helps them catch up,” said Benjamin Franklin High School principal Chris Johnson. “We can’t talk about being an academic institution without providing the resources for students to become successful. Homework is a major part of that. In order for children to do homework, they have to have the resources available at home.”
Hanna agreed that without the ability to take books home, education suffers.
“Certainly teachers have to demonstrate …if [students] don’t have [books] at home, how they are adjusting their teaching,” Hanna said. “It’s an issue.” His audit, though, was “more about whether the resources are there, not necessarily what the teaching is looking like.”
Providing enough textbooks for schools and students has been a perennial problem here.
“The issue of textbooks has been an issue at many levels as long as I can remember,” said Fred Farlino, a former long-time principal and chief operating officer who retired earlier this year.
In the past, the District has created a textbook hotline, required that teachers allow students to take books home, and devoted more dollars to buying and updating instructional materials, he said.
Every superintendent since Constance Clayton has made it a priority. Clayton’s mandate that all students be allowed to take books home was spottily enforced, with many teachers citing lost books as a reason to keep them in the classroom.
Since 2004, the District has spent about $124 million on new textbooks. Before that, schools purchased their own books, rather than centrally, a policy changed under Paul Vallas, because of emphasis on a new standardized curriculum and for efficiency.
But, Farlino said, the District has never gotten its arms around the issue, primarily because so many books are lost and the District is always pinching pennies.
“Kids lose them, or we didn’t have enough money to get what we needed,” he said. “School budgets never could support the purchase of textbooks to the level that we needed. You need a classroom set and extras” for students to take home.
What happens now is that while textbook purchases are made centrally, school budgets are charged for the books through an allocation for materials. And often, they don’t have enough money for all that they need.
“This year, the District did not provide high schools with core texts in foreign languages,” said Masterman principal Marge Neff. “We had to buy them ourselves,” she added – by dipping into some of the school’s discretionary funds.
While the District has a policy to make students pay for lost and damaged books, enforcement is inconsistent. Teachers complain that students disrespect books – Farlino even got a call once from the city’s water department that children were throwing the books down sewers. One year, the students at a single large comprehensive high school lost or damaged hundreds of books worth $30,000.
Hanna said that the District is seeking to purchase a tracking system for centralized inventory that would use barcodes or chips. But, he added, there are not any proven, ready-made products for districts this large.
As the District struggles to keep track of its books, some argue against over-reliance on textbooks that can dumb down instruction and restrict project-based learning. Textbooks are often obsolete shortly after publication and expensive to replace. Many have accompanying DVDs or online sites, including several used in Philadelphia, but not every student has computer access.
“The whole other issue: Does everything have to be based in the textbook?” asked Leigh Zeitz, a professor at the University of Northern Illinois and an expert in educational technology and curriculum and instruction. “If all learning is based in textbooks, how much of it is student-centered?”
Neff said that at Masterman, a magnet for high-performing students, there are more projects, and textbooks frequently aren’t at the center of instruction, so often students don’t take them home.
But for many students, a lack of textbooks means a lack of any materials. Sayre senior Candace Carter said that her English class didn’t have a textbook until November; those months weren’t filled with rich learning experiences. “Before that, we copied down vocabulary words,” she said. Throughout her high school career, she has been able to take books home in some classes but not in others, she said.
Carter and other members of the Philadelphia Student Union said that more books appeared at their high schools after they raised the issue publicly.
“I think it’s affected my education. I didn’t get the full effect of using textbooks and getting information from an actual textbook at home, being able to read and go over it on my own,” she said. “It kind of set me back a little bit.”
Johnson, the Ben Franklin principal, said “it’s mind-boggling that students don’t have enough textbooks to take home.” He and his staff meet parents and students at the beginning of the year to make sure that they understand the consequences of losing them.
“Each class has a classroom set, and the children’s parents have to sign off on a form for them to take books home,” he said. “If the parents don’t sign off on a form, students aren’t allowed to take the books home.”
Most do, he added. “There’s no way that any child in the world could get a good education if they don’t have the textbook at home,” he said. “It’s almost like if you’re in college – you don’t buy the textbook, you’re not going to pass that class.”