Working without a Safety Net

by Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley

As a superintendent, some of the most frequent questions I hear are:  “Why doesn’t my child bring home a text book?” and “How can they learn without a book?” The answers to these questions are two-parted – one part is  financial, and the other a shift towards digital teaching and learning. Both paths have brought challenges and opportunities to our classrooms here in New Hanover County Schools.  The end result is that we have had to quickly adapt and change what is happening in our schools.

The financial problem has its roots in the recent recession, from which we are still working to make a rebound from. In order to cut costs, the State had to reduce the amount of funding that went to textbook adoption and replacement. That funding has not been restored to pre-recession levels and remains about 50% below what was funded in 2008. This has limited the ability of districts to buy new or even replacement textbooks for schools. Instead of a textbook for every child, schools now struggle to keep even class sets available for use. Limited resources have required districts to shift funds to other options and materials.

The second and larger factor in the transition away from physical textbooks is the shift to digital teaching and learning. In 2013, the State mandated a shift to digital resources instead of paper textbooks, which served as a precursor to the adoption of Digital Learning Competencies for the Classroom Teachers. This can take several forms to include complete digital textbooks such as the Discovery Ed Digital Science textbook that we use here in North Carolina. Another way is to collect various online resources for teachers to use for  classroom instruction preparation.

Digital textbooks can be an amazing resource with in-depth materials and interactive pages that cannot be found in a traditional textbook. The downside though, can be the cost for annual subscriptions and updates. Another potential downside is the hardware requirement. Laptops, iPads, Chromebooks and other devices are expensive to buy and maintain. North Carolina does not have a dedicated revenue stream for technology purposes. Here in NHCS, we have thousands of devices with a limited staff to maintain them.

North Carolina, like many other states, has made a commitment to adopting a “digital-age education system that fully harnesses the power of modern technologies” with the goal of ensuring that students in our system are prepared for a “rapidly changing, interconnected, technology-driven world.” As a part of this commitment, North Carolina is focused on providing access to high-quality, openly-licensed educational resources (OERs). The shift to aggregating OERs is one that has the potential to truly transform what we are doing. It does require a new level of preparation and planning on the part of educators. For decades, a textbook offered teachers, especially new teachers, a rough outline to follow when prepping lessons and materials for classes; however, textbooks were often not aligned to State curriculum standards and lacked sufficient rigor. North Carolina is working to create a digital platform – #GoOpen – that provides access to a wide variety of resources aligned to the current State standards. This shift has not only changed what we teach, but how and where we teach, along with how we access resources to support student learning. This process will take time and has caused frustration for many teachers who spend their time finding other resources from sites that are often not aligned to North Carolina Standards and lack the rigor that our students need.

Can this approach really work? The data clearly shows that it can. The chart below shows the growth of students in Chemistry classes in NHCS (based on student results for the NC Final Exam). The scores have increased each year and continue to be well above the State average. There are similar results for other subjects as well.

This shift to online resources does raise another concern – the ability for everyone to have access to the content. For many of our socio-economically disadvantaged students, there is a new digital divide. Those who can easily access information at home and those who cannot. This transition cannot happen until the State fully funds technology and digital resources for all students. And, the transition should not be seen as an effort to replace paper books in the classroom. There is still a tremendous learning benefit from books, and we should encourage students to read in both digital and print formats.

So, to that parent who wonders where the student’s textbook is, I say it is still out there, but it is in a form that you may not recognize.

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