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Find Hidden Savings in Textbook Purchases

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.

One Comment

  1. Deborah Armstrong

    Also there is often no real reason to stop using last year’s textbook especially if it’s already been converted in to alternate formats. Sure, subjects like Astronomy and medicine change constantly, and political science needs updating with each election. But do we really need new high school american history books each year? Decisions to use new textbooks are often more motivated by publishers’ marketing than they are by the actual needs of real students.

    And in my opinion, this is a crime as long as education is publicly funded. I don’t want my tax dollars going to keep publishers rich!

    Consider this as well: sometimes a popular book on the same subject, intended for the lay public makes more interesting reading than the textbook. It is cheaper, often already available in alternate formats and is easier for a student to acquire a used copy. But it requires decision-makers to think out of the box, to for example realize that Jared Diamond’s books on the successess and failures of civilizations make for great reading in a course on the rise and fall of societies. Science teachers who use the fine writing of Isaac Asimov, Brian Green, Stephen J. Gould and James Gleick will awaken a love for science in students that cannot be duplicated by the typical dry textbook. Barbara Tuchman makes history come alive, yet she isn’t read in schools! And that is a shame because you could read Ms. Tuchman in high school and probably even convince your mom to read it and discuss it with you!

    And if you really want to make history fun, have them comparing Larry Schweikart with Howard Zinn!

    I know instructors will argue that they need the textbooks for the discussion questions and related exercises. Are we paying teachers to pick all their exams and assignments from the teacher’s edition — are we letting publishers, in effect do the teachers’ homework for them! There’s a parallel here with big pharma pulling doctors’ strings! Health care costs so much because it is in a similar trap.

    I read Steven Pinker and Oliver Sacks when I want to learn about psychology, not some dull textbook! Yet our educators continue to be prisoners of the publisher’s need to monitize the customer base!

    Note that opinions expressed are mine, not opinions of my employer, De Anza College, nor bookshare!

    — Deborah Armstrong, Alternate Media, De Anza College.

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