Aaron Tang

November 13, 2007

Pop quiz. How much money do America’s public elementary and secondary schools spend each year on textbooks? Tens of millions of dollars? Hundreds of millions? Billions?

If you answered “billions,” you were right. $4.4 billion in the 2006-2007 school year alone, to be exact.

Why is that important? For two reasons. First, it’s an incredibly large amount of money that, if freed up for other purposes, could yield potentially significant results. For instance, if you spent the money on a financial incentive program to reward high school students in the lowest-performing and most disadvantaged urban and rural school districts, you could offer several thousand dollars a year to students and families who otherwise demonstrate very little interest in academic success. If you spent it as an incentive for the top 10% of teachers, you could offer those outstanding educators a $15,000 per year bonus.

Second, it is important because a recent set of developments in the education reform world, as reported in USA Today,have the potential to actually free up the money for other purposes. The major development is the merger of open-source, web-based technology with curriculum experts to make textbook materials and other lessons available online for free. The most significant program to date is free-reading.net, a resource that teachers can use to help them provide early reading instruction to elementary students–particularly those who are behind grade level. The resource gathers the collective wisdom of teachers who have used different resources, gets tips on what works and what doesn’t, and even provides free videos to teachers that show how a given lesson should be taught.

If you think about it, there’s little reason why a Wikipedia-type textbook shouldn’t be created in all subjects ranging from chemistry and biology to world history to algebra to reading. If a wide base of subject-area experts can agree on a fair and unbiased presentation of each subject, and if different teachers can actually contribute to and comment on different lessons in real-time, wouldn’t that only serve to benefit students?

So what is stopping schools from moving in this direction more rapidly? Well, the textbook industry has 4.4 billion reasons to stamp out competition from free online curriculum sources. So far, there has been little evidence to support the conclusion that asking little johnny to carry around multiple six pound textbooks from class to class and to and from home is good for his brain, let alone his back. But if research in the coming years can show that free online textbooks and curriculums are no worse (or are even better) than their printed counterparts, let’s hope that this won’t be an area in school reform where what’s best for students is trumped by some other interest!

Aaron Tang is the Co-Director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches 8th grade history in Saint Louis, MO.