When a state or district has or had money to buy new textbooks, textbook selection committees comprised of curriculum specialists, teachers, administrators and others review the available options and select the books that best fit the curriculum. The complex process takes many months, and may include previews of the choices in districts around a state, before the best new textbook is chosen.
The process lumps the learning styles of 90% to 98% of the students into one learning style, although every classroom teacher knows that all students learn differently. The needs of between 2% and 10% or more of the students are never considered.
New textbooks arrive – they’re shiny and clean without the wrinkles of old age. When the new school year begins in the fall, general education teachers muddle through as best they can, adapting the one textbook to the varied learning styles of a large classroom of students. Some teachers have better strategies for coping with the differences than others.
However, the shiny, clean new textbooks are also sent “over” to Special Education, to teachers who had no role in the selection process but now must spend many months and many, many thousands of dollars depending on the size of the district taking the textbook apart, converting it into a format “their” students can read. Perhaps a student needs a book in braille; transcribers get to work. Another student may need large print and a magnification device isn’t available. Aides enlarge and copy the book. Perhaps a student needs a book in audio format; after many hours spent searching the various sources for audio books with no luck, the Special Educators decide to have someone read the book to the student at another cost to the district. Scenarios like these are replayed again and again, year after year, with eager bright students left frustrated, isolated, failing, and losing their self-confidence simply because they don’t have their textbooks on the same day as their peers. What’s wrong with this picture?
Districts can save the dollars spent on these conversions with two changes in their textbook purchasing processes. Recently, attendees at the National School Boards Association, the Learning Disabilities Association, the Assistive Technology Industry Association, and the Computer Using Educators conferences agreed with the premises. Both changes will require process modifications which will not be easy.
First, include Special Educators in the selection process. Their requests may be quite simple. For example, be sure to ask the publisher to put a digital copy of the book in the NIMAS format in the NIMAC. Publishers are required to do this by law for free. Accessible media producers like Bookshare can convert the books into an accessible format for a certain percentage of students, also for free. Then, require the publisher to provide a digital copy of the book to your state or district at the same time. These books are not set in type by hand. Digital files do exist! These requests will greatly alleviate the problem.
Secondly, if your district or state is considering digital textbook adoptions, again include Special Education in the process. With their help, you can research the file format that you’re purchasing. Is it PDF? If so, for some students your district will once again undergo the same costly conversion processes. Is it HTML? That’s just a web page, but if it is web page with lots of multi-media video, some of your students won’t be able to access the content. Is it available as DAISY or ePub? These two formats offer more flexibility to meet the learning styles of many students in all classrooms.
I know there’s lots more to learn about which formats work for which students, but it can be learned. The knowledge probably exists in your district, county, or region already. I hope this post provides food for thought and stimulates conversation and innovation.
Lastly, perhaps in this post you recognized the concepts of UDL, or Universal Design for Learning, applied to book purchasing. The bottom line message is to think about all students when buying books. In the long run, districts will find badly needed cost savings. I’ll return to UDL later.