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Online Math Textbooks Rankle Teachers, Parents

Critics say program rolled out without sufficient preparation

Shortly after the start of the school year in September, Kirsten Rucker had scheduled an X-ray appointment for one of her twin sons — both juniors at Oakton High School — after class.

But when she asked him to bring his homework while they waited for the doctor, he said he couldn't. It was all online.  

She thought they would find a way to bring it with them. She found quickly she was wrong. 

They could access the material, but couldn't print pages. They tried to copy and paste from a PDF file, but were blocked by the software. They pulled up a print screen, but the words ran together, jumbled across the page. It wouldn't load on a reader, or an iPhone.

They went to the appointment empty handed, and when her son returned late that evening, he worked even later into the night grappling with the system trying to finish his assignment. Rucker said he discovered — that night and in the weeks since — there was no search function to locate subjects in the text, no index for the answer guide.  It was hard to keep track of complex equations glancing between his worksheet and the screen.

The experience is one shared by a growing number of Fairfax County Public Schools students, their parents and teachers say, as the system makes the jump to an online textbook program in mathematics this year.

The system already has in place online programs for foreign language and social studies, but the switch to online math textbooks was different: Unlike its predecessors, the online math initiative had no pilot program — the success of the online social studies pilot left FCPS feeling like "it was ready to move forward," school officials said.

But parents, teachers, and school board members made clear this week — in PTA meetings, school board forums, mass emails and letters to administrators —  that the program is instead pushing achievement and learning back, calling the initiative "a big disaster" with no clear solutions; a "domino"–like tumble of one issue after the next.

Some board members said Thursday they were concerned not only about  the immediate technology, access, communication, equity and financial issues the program has created, and how it will affect scores on a new and challenging math SOL, but in a broader context, how the board can prevent decisions like this — made largely without teacher buy-in or informed board discussion — from happening again.

"It's a far more complicated issue than a simple math textbook adoption and I don’t think this was a fully informed, vetted decision. This wasn't piloted. The school system didn't realize they made the mistakes we now face ... and if we don't understand the mistakes that got made before we could repeat the process again," said school board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), who asked the board Thursday to schedule a December work session on the issue.

"This isn't the first time that we've had an issue like this," member Patty Reed (Providence) said.

'It Just Kind of Came Out of the Clear Blue' 

In the 2010-11 school year, the system launched a pilot for a social studies online textbook program, FCPS spokesman John Torre said. It involved 7,937 students and 113 teachers in seventh grade history and high school government classes, across eight middle schools and 10 high schools.

Based on that program's success, the system decided to bring online textbooks for all core social studies classes in grades seven to 12 the following year, with a contract that included online subscriptions and some text copies available to students during and after school, Torre said.

The system "hadn't purchased new math textbooks in more than 12 years," Torre said, so when the system was due to purchase them this year, they proposed going online. The board authorized the $7.7 million purchase this summer, after the fiscal year 2013 budget was accepted. Unlike the social studies program, the online math textbooks were purchased for students grades k through 12 across the county.

"It was done much too quickly," said Reed, who voted against the purchase. "I had reservations right from the beginning about why all the sudden did we need to do this. It wasn't discussed in the context of the budget deliberations [that spring]. It just kind of came out of the clear blue."

One teachers union says the decision went against a recommendation rejecting a proposal for the program and a specific request from educators to hold off on implementing any new initiatives — with a new teacher evaluation system and changing standards for several state Standard of Learning subject tests.

"What they ended up doing was exactly the opposite of what we asked them to do," said Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers. "I get the impression that we’re completely ignored half the time."

The 2012 FCFT Member Perspectives Survey, taken by more than 450 members between Oct. 16 and Nov. 2 , shows many respondents think not only was the timing "terrible," but some of the material, training and much of the interface is terrible too.

A copy of the results are attached to this article.

"We were shown the online textbook a week before school opened," one teacher wrote. "We didn't get a hard copy of the new textbook til much later as well."

Torre said demo accounts were available for teachers in April.

Some teachers have abandoned the book altogether and are creating lesson plans from other materials.

How many times that has happened and where is not clear, though Torre noted schools could not opt out of the textbooks. Reed asked for that kind of data before the board discusses the issue in December.

"I have 24 students and only received 5 textbooks and was told I was not getting anymore. I do not have enough access to technology and therefore have to print everything. I have students who have no access at home and I don't have enough books for them to borrow," wrote one teacher in the survey.

Another wrote of a concern the school system hops from trend to trend "without much closure from one to the next."

"It is like people are trying to justify their jobs by creating and pushing certain agendas into the trenches where the teachers are actually working with the TRUE customer which is the students," the teacher continued. "Seems like a lot of top down management decisions are made with no regard for the foot soldiers (teachers) and how they have to SURVIVE each day with the LATEST and GREATEST trend pushed by someone that does not even teach/interact with students. Can we get used to and perfect things that are working well before we change it all up again? Or can we use the new stuff to enhance the current stuff instead of starting over?"

Limited Access to Hard Copies

Hard copy books are available for check out by students, Torre said, but parents and school board members are saying that is not enough. Not all students can stay after class to check out the books because of sports, clubs, activities, doctors' appointments and transportation issues. Some principals have used their discretionary funds to purchase hard copy books for some classes, Rucker said. Some parents have paid out of pocket so their children can use a book in class and at home; Madison High School sold hard copies of some books at its back to school night this year, Rucker said.

Sixty-two percent of teachers who responded to FCFT's survey said they don't have enough textbooks to accommodate students' needs.

At a more basic level, accessing the material at all is an even larger problem for students in high poverty areas.

"A large portion of my students lack the technology at home to access anything online, let alone a math textbook," one teacher wrote.

And parents and schools in that area cannot afford to supplement with hard copies the way schools in more affluent communities can, Rucker said.

"It's the same old, Have's and Have Not's problem,” one teachers said.

FCPS is now considering buying additional print copies to address the concerns raised about access, Torre said, also noting "students are not required to purchase or own their own computers. Students have access to school computers during the day and after school," and "... some schools have programs where students can check out computers for use at home and all students are allowed, with parental permission, to bring their own laptops or tablets to school to access online textbooks."

"We've been told we can use the mobile labs, but they are slow (more time), not always available, not always charged, difficult to get.....in other words, their own logistical hurdle and I have no time for any more problems to solve," a teacher responding to the FCFT survey wrote.

Though training for teachers began in June, Torre said, with sessions offered several times since then, some teachers said more time was needed to implement the program successfully.

"I spend too much time learning to navigate this book when trying to plan and too much time getting 'lost' as I plan and teach," a teacher responding to the FCFT survey wrote, noting they ended up printing more material to compensate for the issues with the online material.

As a result, some schools have been burning through paper much more quickly; Rucker, Oakton High School's PTA president, said the building ran out of paper for October by the 10th of the month.

On Thursday, Superintendent Jack Dale told the board he and staff would put together some solutions before a December work session discussion on the issue, to fast-track changes.

When Dale mentioned conducting community engagement, Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) thought the board needed a public hearing to fully engage all stakeholders on the issue.

Reed said she would like to hold the publishers more accountable for links that are broken and materials that are not performing, noting if they are not delivering services outline in a contract then the system should explore holding payment or cutting the contract until they do, if possible.

Rucker, who led discussion among 40 parents at a PTA meeting organized around the issue Wednesday night and is planning a broader discussion among county high school PTA leaders Nov. 15, said the response she has gotten from system administrators has been one of concern and willingness to work through the issue. But the system needs to act fast, she said.

"I think this is a learning experience. It was a tremendous failure but we don't want to lose the year," Rucker said. "I think the school system needs to react quickly to make sure we don't lose time. We are a community and we are in this together and whether or not they went about that the wrong way, my interest is what we can do going forward.”

W R November 09, 2012 at 06:38 PM
For kids with ADHD, the 6th grade online math textbook is a nightmare. Too much navigation is required, causing kids to constantly flit from one page to another; too much crowding of material on the page, with the main text squeezed to the right by a looong list of "helfpul" links which is, itself, inconsistent from one page to the next; ads (!) which are distracting; you have to scroll up/down and left/right in order to capture all the text on a given page because it is not sized correctly to a Mac user's screen; You can't simply 'turn the page' -- you have to go back to the table of contents in order to click on the link for the next page (!) etc... I'm not against online textbooks, but this is more of a prototype, not a polished user-friendly product. Fx County needs to put parents of kids with ADHD on the review panel. If the final product ends up being user-friendly for a kid with ADHD, then that would bode well for how user-friendly it will be for non-ADHD students, too.
Tiffany Velishka November 10, 2012 at 12:05 PM
I agree we need to prepare our students for the continued advances and use in technology. However, old fashion text books need to be made available to all students. Availability of high speed computers with high speed internet is not wide spread. The gap between high achievement/high income students and the rest of the world will only widen if the districts who don't make textbooks readily available.

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