Stop the (textbook) presses

December 24, 2013 

Stop the (textbook) presses! On their face, the numbers are frightening.

During the last financial crisis, the state cut yearly funding for textbooks from $111 million to $2.5 million. While some of that money has been restored, today the money available per student for textbooks is about 20 percent of what it was five years ago. Quite predictably, there are calls to reinstate funding to its prior levels.

Money for textbooks is like money for road maintenance. You can get away with cutting money from the budget for a year or two, but the effects are cumulative. With road maintenance, eventually you end up with interstate bridges falling into the Mississippi. Is anything so drastic in the cards for our schools?

In 2013, I worked 210 assignments as a substitute teacher in middle and high schools in Cary and Apex. I have covered classes in practically every subject. It is rare that I use textbooks in class. I doubt that my lesson plans have required textbooks on as many as five occasions.

I recently discussed the issue with a number of experienced teachers. Few, if any, told me they wished more money were spent on textbooks. Growing numbers of teachers do not use textbooks at all.

At one time, textbooks were used as guides to the lessons that must be given in class for a particular subject and grade, a kind of road map.

Now, the Wake County Public School System has adopted a program called CMAPP (Curriculum Management Applications), which guides teachers in core subjects and many electives. I have seen a demonstration of this program, and I wish I had had such a tool the year I worked as a middle school math teacher.

All teachers and students have access to Discovery Ed, a website that offers curricular resources, electronic textbooks, assessment services and professional development. I have used this website in class. At one school where I work, four teachers go to board offices each month to receive training in using these electronic resources. They share what they have learned with the rest of the faculty on teacher workdays.

One experienced middle school teacher I spoke with teaches both math and science. She does not use a textbook for science but has managed to secure two sets of textbooks for her math classes. Another teacher who teaches the same math class in her school does not use textbooks, and the first teacher’s students get to keep a textbook at home and use the other set in school.

I am told that social studies teachers are more likely to use textbooks. I suppose the Civil War ends the same way no matter how dated or modern the textbook. That said, in my experience, social studies teachers in high school are far more likely to be using videos than textbooks.

At Green Hope High School, some teachers in the Career and Technical Education Department share the same set of textbooks. These are kept on a dolly and are wheeled between classes for use by the students.

Most older textbooks are available online. While there may be a small minority of students who do not have access to a computer or the Internet at home, that number is small and presumably falling.

Media centers have also seen a cut in resources, and they, too, have developed strategies for coping.

One media specialist told me they buy few, if any, nonfiction books. Students have voted with their fingers and use computers to do research. The book-buying budget at this particular school is augmented by contributions from the PTA and donations from the book fair. They buy fiction books only from series and authors popular with the students.

Where does Washington stand on the issue? Federal actions speak loudly and eloquently.

Washington gave $8 million to Elizabeth City State University so that school could develop French language textbooks to be used in schools in Senegal. Somehow that has become a higher priority than having textbooks in our own schools.

For once, Washington might have it right.

Almost everyone in our state agrees that our teachers deserve to be paid more. I am going to propose that the state increase some of its spending to pre-recession levels. However, we should spend the additional money on increasing teacher pay as opposed to buying more textbooks that could end up being used as door stoppers.

Who knows? There might even be a few dollars there for substitute teachers. One can only hope.

Contributing columnist Marc Landry can be reached at

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