Sunday, April 24, 2011

Does your school district keep track of its textbook inventory?

For about five years, I've been urging that our school district provide the board of education with a report on the state of our text book inventory.  The superintendent has agreed to provide that report, but it has taken a lot longer than I had hoped it would.  The first surprise has been that our district does not keep track of our textbook inventory in a way that is usable.  That has caused me to wonder if other districts have the same problem. 

Nobody seems to know when our district stopped keeping an accurate inventory,  but certainly, by the time that I joined the board of education in 2004, it is clear that our district did not maintain this information.   Based on my experience as a teacher, I had assumed that each teacher, or each department, would be accountable to someone in each school to account for the number of textbooks, and that this information, in turn, would be kept at each school.  But, as it happens, it has taken a lot of work to rebuild an accurate inventory of what we have, and the work is still not done.
I believe that our district, and yours,  needs an inventory of what we have for several reasons.
  • Some student continue to report that they are attending classes which do not have individual textbook for every student.   If that is true, we need to know that, so that we can understand the academic consequences.  If a particular course doesn't need a textbook, that's fine.  But if a course doesn't have a textbook for each student because we aren't budgeting enough money, then that is not acceptable. 
  • Textbooks are capital assets of the school districts.  Let's say that an average textbook, and the workbooks and other materials that come with the book, costs $75.   Assume that the typical student has four textbooks.  (I'm just pulling that number out of my hat at this point.)  But that would mean that we'd have about $3 million dollars in textbooks, when valued at cost.  From a sheer accounting standpoint, the public has a right to expect that we monitor that asset, so that we can be sure that lost books are replaced, that we have neither too many, nor too few in stock.  Surely we should know where we are keeping millions of dollars worth of instructional assets. I'm not discounting the fact that locally, teachers and principals are most certainly monitoring textbooks in some way, but the difficulty in obtaining a count, on request, suggests that there are significant flaws in our current system. 
  • We cannot effectively budget for maintenance of the textbook stock, if we don't maintain information on the number of textbooks we have, their age, their currency, the ratio between students taking the course and available textbooks.    If you assume that we have about 50,000 textbooks in stock, and if you assume that the average replacement cycle is 6 years, and if you further assume some books are lost or damaged beyond repair, that would translate into about 9000 new books purchased per year.  If you accept the $75 per textbook cost, then that translates into about $675,000 just to maintain the textbook supply in adequate condition.  (Sometimes, the state changes the standards for a particular subject matter, and that forces you to unload a set of books and replace them out of cycle.  In Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Education recognizes an average textbook and testing supplies cost for non-public schools at about $85, for purpose of the non-public school budgetary allotment, so that number seems about right.  Prudence would seem to require that we make sure at budget time that we know whether we are maintaining our stock and assuring that every student who should have a textbook actually has one.
  • In tough budget times, there is a grave risk that decision makers will make temporary cuts in textbook and other capital-like assets in order to shield the district from unwise staffing or other reductions.   However, because school budgeting tends to focus primarily on cuts rather than increases, there is a danger that these temporary cuts may become permanent, and over time the deterioration of textbook stocks will become systemic and built into the budget assumptions.
  • Once the textbook supply for a particular course falls below the number of students taking that course, it can lead to permanent changes in the delivery of instruction.   The course can no longer rely on the textbook as required reading.  The teacher may be forced to deliver material by lecture.   Students begin to believe that reading a textbook is not necessary or beneficial to the learning process.  
  • Proper use of textbooks is essential to teaching students to learn independently.   Learning from a text, a journal article, a manual, or some other written material is an important life skill.  If we require students to learn from a lecture, or from a worksheet, we are disabling them from a critical higher learning strategy necessary in most productive careers.
As we discuss this issue, I hear people say that keeping track of the textbook budget isn't maybe as important as it used to be, because everything is going digital.  To that I say, keeping track of what you are purchasing, and how much you are purchasing, is an essential part of  making decisions about whether you can replace textbooks with some form of digital replacement.    Frankly, I think textbooks still represent a critical part of the curriculum.

We can have a discussion, and we probably should,about whether textbooks are going out of style.   I tend to be really skeptical.  I believe that textbooks may go digital, but you still need a textbook of some kind, whether it resides in a book or on a compact disk, or on a server.   The old paradigm was that you purchased enough books for the number of students taking the course (plus a suitable number of extras).  The new paradigm may well be that you purchase enough digital licenses for the number of students who will use the textbook software online.   But you still need to manage your textbook inventory, whether the textbooks are digital or in hard copy format.

I agree that the textbook of tomorrow is likely to facilitate individual learning.  It may have links to online tutorials, online quizzes, online enrichment opportunities and accelerated learning tracks.   The textbooks of the future will be more productive than the textbooks of the past, I believe, and as such they are certainly not going to be any cheaper   Just as a bulldozer is more expensive than a shovel, so the digital textbook of the future is likely to be more powerful and more expensive than the textbook of the past.

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