Reading, Writing, Rithmetic Without Books?

Celeste went to our youngest son’s open house yesterday at Meadowlark Middle School.
She said that in at least two of his classes the students will not be
receiving textbooks.  Rather there is a classroom set that will be
shared by all of each teachers’ classes and they are looking into
making the materials from the textbooks accessible online.  Celeste’s
question to me: "So where do all our tax dollars for education go?"

This question seems particularly relevant in the wake of my post yesterday and Esbee’s post about school supplies and the "Letter to the Editor" in the Winston-Salem Journal
re. why our kids’ supposedly free education still requires parents to
come up with money for school supplies.  When the school doesn’t supply
textbooks for students then we’re talking about failing at the most
fundamental level, not on the level of "nice to have" extras.

You could argue that this is simply our schools moving into the 21st
century, BUT if you’re going to make that move then you darn well
better make sure that everyone is able to move with you.  Some
questions that immediately pop to mind:

  • What about the kids who don’t have internet access at home?  If
    the answer is "They can go to the library" then I have to ask, "What if
    the library is closed at 6?" or "How do they print off any materials
    they might need?", or "How do they get to the library if their parents
    are working" or "What if the library is open but all the computers are
  • What if your access goes down for the evening?  Will you be given extra time to turn in your work?
  • Finally, from the way the teachers were talking about it Celeste
    wasn’t sure that the book materials would definitely be available
    online?  If they’re not how are we as parents, some of whom haven’t
    looked at this subject matter in over 25 years, supposed to help our
    kids with their homework?

Like I said this might work if the school system had provided every student with a laptop and if WinstonNet
had gotten their free wireless network up and running so that everyone
had free internet access.  But neither of those things happened and
they probably won’t happen anytime in the near future, so the "digital
divide" still exists and if the schools are putting reference materials
online then they are putting those kids on the wrong side of the divide
at a further disadvantage.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m no Luddite,
and I wish the teachers at our kids schools would use the online tools
available to them even more than they do, but I also would expect that
if they want to communicate with parents then they wouldn’t just post
it on the website but also send a note home.  Believe me, there are
plenty of people still out there who don’t check the website or don’t
check their email everyday.  Shocking as it is to someone like me it’s
a reality.  So until they can be absolutely sure that every child and
their family has access to the online tools the school system’s
administrators need to stick to their knitting and provide the students
with the basics they need to do their learning.

I’m going to try and find out if this "classroom set" of textbooks is a system-wide policy with the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools.
I’m going to contact the school district and see if someone will talk
to me, so stay tuned.  Maybe we’re misunderstanding what the teachers
said, but my gut tells me this is a cost saving measure with the
schools, and if that’s the case then they can consider me the leader of
the pack in fighting against any future bond initiative until they get
this mess fixed.  Before they lay another brick I want to see textbooks
in every student’s hands.

Update 8/21/2008 – Last night at dinner I was talking about this with the kids and my daughter Erin informed me that they had classroom sets for her science class last year and that her teacher had said that if they wanted a book at home they could buy their own copy on Amazon.  This floored me because I had no idea that was the case last year (neither did Celeste).  I also remember a couple of occasions last year when I asked Erin why she hadn’t brought home her book and she’d merely said that she wasn’t allowed to bring them home, and I found this ridiculous.  Of course she never mentioned that there was only one set of books…I could write a book on how teenagers tend to not understand context in their communications…and that might have helped us understand this seemingly ridiculous policy.  Heck we might have even purchased the book, as much as it would have ticked me off.  As it was I thought the teacher was trying to keep the kids from damaging or losing the books.  Either way it seemed totally wrong that you’d assign a child homework and then not let them have access to the textbook.  BTW that was the only class that Erin got anything less than an A in all year.

Our youngest had a classroom text last year in his math class, but we were able to access the information online so it didn’t create a problem.  Again, we didn’t realize this was because there was only a classroom set of books, but just thought he was being a typical lazy 11 year old boy by leaving his book at school and his teacher was doing us a favor by making the stuff available online.

Finally, our oldest, who is going into 10th grade, told us that he had a couple of classes with class sets of books but that the school had an arrangement with the publisher for online access to the texts.

I guess none of this came up because we’re lucky enough to have a wireless network at home so that the kids can easily access the internet from one of their computers.  The oldest, Michael, saved up and bought himself his own PC because he was fed up with the "dinosaur" that we’d set up for the kids (one of my old wife’s old work computers) and when the dinosaur was too slow the kids could use one of our computers.  Now that I’m aware of why we’re constantly doing this stuff online I’m a little perturbed and concerned for those students who don’t have the resources at home.


3 thoughts on “Reading, Writing, Rithmetic Without Books?

  1. Dwight Defee

    A very interesting post…thanks. While you are investigating perhaps you would make a query about copyright laws. My suspicion is that posting a copyrighted text to a web site without permission is a “No-No”. Perhaps the teachers are writing their own textbook so they can simply print a copy for students who do not have internet access. Hey, think of the implications of that…if they write it and copyright it, can they charge the School System a usage fee (or royalty or whatever)?
    You may ask why I don’t research this issue on my own: Well, I no longer have children or grand children in the WSFCS (I do have a granddaughter enrolled at FTCC where she is being asked to fork over more that $100.00 per textbook). Clearly something needs to be done but I am just an ornery old curmudgeon willing to help my granddaughter but too tired to fight city hall or WSFCS.
    I look forward to your follow-up posts.

  2. Jon Lowder

    Thanks Dwight. You bring up some very good points about the copyright. The “fair use” aspect of copyright definitely doesn’t cover dissemination online, even to a limited group of users like a classroom full of students. Heck, the textbook companies would definitely love to sell 3x more books I’m sure.
    I doubt the teachers will write their own texts. For one thing I think the texts have to be approved by the school system, and for another I doubt they have the time or desire to do it.

  3. leatherwing

    I graduated in ’06 from UNCG. Many of our textbooks (at least in the Comp Sci, Math curricula) had online supplements, in a few cases the entire text was available online. Usually there is a code in the front of the book that is used to register on the publisher’s site and is good for 6 months or so. Students who bought used books were usually unable to register unless they paid an extra fee.
    If the school’s textbook publishers use a similar model, it might create problems for any students who take a class after the initial semester that the textbook was purchased.
    On the other hand, some classes issued codes to the instructor that were good for all students in the class for one semester. A model like that would not require new textbooks each semester or school year.
    At any rate, the copyright issue is being addressed by the publisher.


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