As I write this, another legislative session has begun, The governor is armed with his education task force’s suggestions, a senator has proposed to raise the sales tax for education in exchange for stripping districts of their ability to run supplemental levies, and the house has just passed a bill to limit re-voting on school district supplemental levies. In other words, things are normal in that we have an educational task force and legislators are busy in their usual task of finding ways to reduce ways to fund schools. In this background, though, what no one is talking about is the fact that the majority of our schools don’t have textbooks and that this is a monumental issue affecting the quality of our education.
I first discovered this issue when I taught at Nampa High 13 years ago. I was assigned to teach several sections of Freshman English courses and had a total student count of around 120 students. I noticed that I only had 30 copies of the textbook we would be using. Since all of the literature we covered was in the text, I assumed a mistake had been made since I needed at least 120 texts. Normally, students read much of the literature at home so class time can be devoted to discussing and understanding the material.
I went to the school library to report the mistake: “Hi, I’m missing about 90 textbooks that I’d like to bring to my classroom.” The librarian was incredulous, “You can’t be missing 90, you’re only supposed to have 30.” Well yes, I had 30, I replied, but I needed 90 more so I could issue the texts and send them home when I wanted kids to read something. The librarian laughed at me. “You’re new; that’s not how things are done here. If a kid wants a book to take home, they must check them out from the library.” “Ok, I’ll issue the 30 and have my other 90 students check them out.” Again laughter, “Oh, we only have 10 copies in the library.”
So this is the way it worked: There are classroom sets of texts, but these books don’t leave the classroom. In theory, students could check books out from the library, but with only 10 copies of any one text, there was a perpetual waiting list, so this was only in theory. The reality is that in everything you planned, you had to remember that books would be only be available in the classroom. How do you assign homework if the kids will have no materials to take home? Either you have to be really creative, or you don’t assign homework. The system promotes that.
I tell my story here for two reasons: 1.) Almost all school districts operate this way. During my first year teaching in this system, I called around. Aside from a few school districts, I discovered that everyone was in this boat. I would estimate that about 90-95% of ID school districts operate this way. 2.) This situation is the way most districts in our state have operated for nearly 30 years! Textbooks that went home with students began to be phased out in the 90’s. This is such a long period that no one-including many current teachers and administrators-remembers the old system and how this affects the classroom. This is even more prevalent today than it was 13 years ago, and no one is talking about it like it’s a problem.
Many of the readers of this article are old enough to remember being educated in a system where books did go home with kids. Our teachers had the advantage of us having a resource at home that our children do not. Our teachers could assign homework, today’s teachers cannot. Can you imagine reading an entire novel in class rather than at home? If the book doesn’t go home, that’s exactly what you do. Or I should say that this is what our children do. This lack of books profoundly affects the quality of education at the most elemental level, and no one-no journalists, no educators, no members of the education task force, no legislators-even discusses this as a problem, but this is one of our greatest educational problems and no solution is even in the planning stages.