School textbooks trying to keep up with digital options

01/21/2013 12:00 AM

01/21/2013 7:26 AM

Horry and Georgetown county educators gathered last week to get more information on the elementary and middle school math materials the state has adopted, one of many caravans held around South Carolina by the S.C. Department of Education.

The caravans allow publishers to present their selected textbooks, as well as any additional items or digital features that are included. District officials then have until April to tell the state which option to buy for their classrooms next fall.

The state puts millions into textbook purchases, but it is still not enough to ensure they are updated in a timely fashion. State regulations are a stumbling block to moving toward more digital options, and districts that want materials outside the box must acquire them on their own dime.

Adopting instructional materials is a 12-step process that goes from determining which subjects get new textbooks, to whether materials are aligned with appropriate standards and legislation, and which bids are accepted. From beginning to end, adoption takes about 1 ½ years.

“It’s a very long process, and we have several adoption cycles going on at one time,” said Jay Ragley with the state Department of Education.

Textbooks were on a five-year replenishment cycle when funding was adequate, but the dollars haven’t been stretching far enough over the last 10 years, said Bert Owen, Horry County Schools’ representative on the Instructional Materials Advisory Committee. The panel meets once a year to determine what is adopted and in what order.

Owen said the committee works with a starting figure, then makes its way down a prioritized list of subject areas that need to be funded. Some of the subjects, like math, require more textbooks than an art or music course would, and an area must be skipped if there is not enough money left to fill an entire request.

“Each year, you have this tremendous pile of subjects but not the funding,” Owen said. “We all felt the same frustration over all these needs we have – it’s an impossible task.”

Ragley said instructional materials need to be current with new standards set in the four core subjects over the last three school years, and more changes will come with the Common Core State Standards the state has adopted, which will be fully implemented in 2014. He said state Superintendent Mick Zais is seeking $53 million to purchase instructional materials in 2013-14, which would be a significant increase over this year’s allocation of $34.6 million, $13.7 million of which are nonrecurring funds.

Electronic textbook and interactive versions add new opportunities for instruction, but Ragley said the state’s lengthy review and adoption cycles make it almost impossible for publishers to develop appropriate materials and make money, although Zais is looking at ways to deregulate the process. Owen said there also is a question of access because every child needs equipment and the ability to get online, which is not true for students in all S.C. counties.

“Local districts are always free to adopt their own materials,” Ragley said, “but they have to use their own dollar.”

That isn’t a realistic option in a time when budgets continue to be slashed, and districts must get creative in bringing more technology into their classrooms.

Today, Horry County Schools will begin a pilot project with Discovery Education’s social studies techbook. Edi Cox, HCS director of online learning and instructional technology, said U.S. history students at Myrtle Beach High School and sixth-graders at Whittemore Park Middle School will beta test the techbook to see how it aligns with standards for the state and Common Core, and how much engagement it provides for students.

Last year, Loris Middle School purchased the Discovery Education science techbook, Cox said, but this opportunity was offered by the company to select districts, such as HCS, that are members of the League of Innovative Schools. She said this month, the company will provide techbook training for teachers, who will be reporting feedback throughout the semester on engagement and technical or content issues.

“This is not a textbook replacement, but it will be used as an additional resource to enhance or supplement the course,” Cox said. “This gives students some interactive content to capture their attention and get them more excited about learning.”

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