Friday, October 2, 2009

Another technology integration issue: Howard Stephenson waxes wrathful and wastes tax payer dollars on “textbook reviews” that he doesn’t understand

Robert Gehrke broke this story almost a year ago and I’ve been meaning to comment ever since. I posted a bunch of articles on the subject separately. I highly recommend you read them all, but especially the first one listed: the Nov. 29, 2008 article by Robert Gehrke titled “Did Utah Senator’s Advocacy Go Too Far?”

The quotes listed are all from that same Gehrke article. The article triggered a 2-hour radio response from Senator Stephenson titled, "Stupid in Utah: How the Utah State Office of Education hurts kids and teachers."

Howard Stephenson and a legislative committee chose certain private companies in 2003 to support by awarding them state contracts and funds. Olene Walker vetoed the bill because it was inappropriate for the legislature to favor certain vendors, a position which Stephenson later agreed was correct when interviewed by Gehrke last year.

One of those favored companies was “ProCert Labs, which is seeking to review Utah's textbooks, pinpointing where concepts in the state's core curriculum are taught to help instructors teach the required lessons. The work could be worth millions.” Their funding got vetoed in 2003, but in 2007 Stephenson supported a bill mandating that private “textbook reviews.” I listened to the Red Meat Radio show on 12-06-08 when Stephenson defended his actions and interviewed the owner of ProCert, Paul Hoffman. Hoffman and Stephenson talked about how hard it was to know what was in a textbook, how time-consuming for teachers to figure it out, and how inefficient and pointless the current teacher review process was compared to the “21st Century” methods of ProCert using computers. Using my professional judgment, I will call BS on those claims. It boggles my mind how far Stephenson will go to waste money on anything deemed “21st Century” in education, even if he obviously has zero idea about the reality of the situation. In this particular case, a large amount of money is being directed to private companies to add repetitive detail to a process that can be done by willing teachers in one day for the cost of a substitute.

The state core curriculum standards are mandated topics to be taught in certain subjects each year. There is some educationese in parts of the text, but most people can easily understand the statements of what is to be taught. The current textbook vetting process on the state level is merely an initial screening to ensure that the textbooks cover the core curriculum and to give a brief impression of usability. The books that do not cover the required concepts will not be approved for districts to purchase; the others will be placed on an approved list along with the small blurb written by the reviewing teachers. The teachers who participate in secondary textbook reviews are volunteers who go to the State Office for a day to peruse stacks of new books from their subject. The only compensation they receive is lunch, and the state office pays the districts for their substitutes. The actual purchasing decisions will be made at the school and district level by educators who will examine the books regardless of who makes that initial review.

Reviewing the textbooks to see if they cover the Utah State Core is easy. Here is the state core for Algebra. A layman using the table of contents and index of an algebra textbook and flipping through the chapters could determine whether those state core standards (irrational numbers, Pythagorean Theorem, linear equations, formulas, graphing, etc.) were covered. A teacher familiar with the core and the subject matter can do it that much more easily and in a relatively short period of time. Just determining what is covered in a textbook is not rocket science and does not require expensive computers.

Here are the state core standards for geometry, biology, and 9th grade English. Look through them at the ordered list of standards and objectives. Would it be that hard to determine if a Biology book merely covers ecosystems, matter, organisms, cells, organs, genes, DNA, evolution, biological classification, etc.? I believe most readers of this blog could make that determination in 30 minutes or less. I know that actual Biology teachers can easily do it. An English text just has to teach Reading skills, Writing skills, and Inquiry skills, meaning research and logical thinking. The stories, plays, poems, lesson plans, etc. it uses to teach those skills are not mandated.

ProCert just wants to take a lot of time and money to break down the book page by page and tell you exactly what percentage of the book was spent on organisms, what percent on cells, etc. In a perfectly funded world, I would at least be curious about that data, but in our Utah schools struggling for funds, does that data measurable improve student learning as compared to teachers reviewing the books now? The answer is no.

There are stylistic, presentation, and quality differences between books that neither the quick teacher review or ProCert’s page counting and classifying address. Fotunately, it doesn’t matter. When a school decides to buy new Biology books (which given our strapped funds is NOT a common occurrence anyway), the teachers and administrators involved are going to look at the textbooks they consider. No one looks at the initial screening reviews, points a finger at the approved list, and justselects a book. The approved list saves them some time from looking at books that obviously are not adequate to Utah standards, but the teachers involved are going to evaluate the format, examples, graphics, lessons, etc. regardless of a good review. Having a more detailed review of what percent of pages are devoted to each topic according to ProCert isn’t going to hasten this process or really provide much meaningful information. No one will say, “Oh look. Company X is selling books with 2% more pages devoted to informational text than Company Y. Let’s buy sight unseen.’ It could point you to a company if there were drastic differences in coverage (which there generally won’t be between major publishers), but decisions on the actual quality of those pages devoted to geometric proofs, ecosystems, or short stories will be made by those purchasing the books.

ProCert is not qualified to evaluate the quality of material in a given textbook and does not pretend to provide that service. Paying them thousands of scarce education dollars for an initial screening is inefficient and wasteful. Howard Stephenson has obviously not taken the time to familiarize himself with how textbooks are actually chosen in schools and districts, and is thus “throwing money” at a gimmick that someone successfully pitched him. I listened to his words on the radio that morning, and he displayed zero knowledge of textbook purchasing procedures and just agreed with everything ProCert’s president claimed in his free sales pitch on the show. As quoted in the article, “Stephenson dismisses those in-house screenings as "schlock reviews" that are practically useless for teachers.” Where did he get that information? I’d bet from ProCert. His reliance on outside sources and distrust of educators fosters mutual distrust from our side. He holds the hoops and plays the music while we jump through them. (And why was Stephenson that personally and minutely involved? He claims that ProCert was not a Utah Taxpayer’s Association member [a claim we have no way of verifying since it’s a secret list], and Paul Hoffman debunked Gehrke’s assertion that Hoffman was related to lobbyist, Ruland Gill. Even with that denial, Rolly still claimed that Gill was related and involved in lobbying the USOE. I have trouble believing there was not some ulterior connection somewhere that got Stephenson invested in this “textbook review” idea. The “Welfare for Waterford” bill was supported by a prominent, ex-legislator and lobbyist, Cap Ferry. What was the ProCert connection? )

I am unsure to what extent ProCert or some other outside company is reviewing textbooks currently. The Gehrke article mentions that the law requiring outside review passed in 2007, that the bidding process got tangled in controversy, that the legislature subsequently amended the law in the 2008 session (I don’t know what that amendment did), and that as of Nov. 29 last year, the contract had not been awarded. I can say that the traditional textbook review/screening process was still going on at the State Office of Education last year. I can also confirm that the two employees Stephenson wanted fired were in fact either reassigned or fired before Gehrke’s article was even written. The textbook department had new directors still adjusting to their responsibilities in Fall 2008. They had only been in their positions for a few months and were reluctant to discuss what had happened to their predecessors, although they implied that the former directors were still employed at the state office somewhere.

The point is that technology does not always make a process more effective or cost-efficient. Mindlessly turning education over to the huge educational material industry will not ensure quality. (Think about the college textbook racket for a point of reference. These “educational” companies do not always have the best interest of students in mind.) Legislators need to work with actual educators to find technologies that truly improve learning for the students and not just take as gospel the claims of every slick-talking salesman out there.



Tom said...

I think it's important to point out what the "old" system was, and how much it cost: *volunteer* educators (5 members, "people not employed in education" (5 members) and a university dean of education (1 member) would review requested textbooks *for free* to see if there was sufficient alignment with the Utah curriculum. The state picked up some travel and incidental expenses, but did not provide other compensation for the significant amount of time that was involved. I don't recall anyone having an issue with it until a private contractor wanted to get paid to do the same work.

See UCA 53A-14-101. Also, the 2007 bill, HB 364 that made the initial change, and 2008's 2S SB2, lines 466-488, which clarified that a) more than one vendor could be approved [this cause a surprising amount of ruckus with some people], and b) the State Board of Ed could create rules about what qualifications entities would have to meet to be eligible to review textbooks.

UtahTeacher said...

Thanks Tom! My experience was a little different. I participated in the textbook review one time after responding to a request relayed through our district curriculum people. I showed up at the USOE and went through stacks of textbooks in my subject matter with 10-12 other people who I thought were all teachers. We worked in groups of 3-4 and my group was composed of current teachers from different districts. Each group had copies of the state core for all of the secondary grades and examined the books to make a preliminary evaluation if the core was adequately covered. We could choose from 3 designations for the book I think. Something like unacceptable, suitable for use as a primary text for a class (ignoring the fact that many classes in do not confine themselves to just following one book), and suitable for supplemental classroom use. We typed that decision and a blurb on our initial impressions of the strengths and weaknesses each book, and then filed them in the little system they use. We got a little potato bar for lunch, along with some cookies and drinks as we worked. I don't think I received any additional compensation, even mileage reimbursement.

I felt we were effective in identifying some textbooks that obviously weren't suited for our state and leaving some basic information to start from for others considering a purchase. I don't think paying thousands of dollars for the exact percentages of the number of pages devoted to each topic would provide a huge benefit to those making such decisions.

Your information about people being upset by open bidding and quote are revealing:

"I don't recall anyone having an issue with it until a private contractor wanted to get paid to do the same work.

I would love for someone to post on the current status of textbook review and how much is being paid to whichever vendor is currently providing basic coverage information to experienced educators.

Tom said...

The funds to pay the contractors aren't technically coming from state coffers. It is a hurdle publishers must meet (on their own dime) before selling to schools in the state.

Sponsors of the program asserted this review would be of zero cost to the state. By mysterious coincidence, the prices of most textbooks sold to the state suddenly went up after the program started.

So ... the actual costs to Utah are a little hard to pin down.