Disrupting an aging industry to improve teaching, education

Published 9:20 am Saturday, December 13, 2014

by Ashley Bateman

Teachers will have real opportunities to navigate and choose subject content for specific areas of instruction they feel best fit their students and needs.

A new initiative announced recently by Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Steven Staples has the potential to substantially upgrade the content taught in schools across the commonwealth, and empower classroom teachers in ways that strengthen student outcomes.

This comes at a valuable time for students, and for teachers as well. Nationally, teachers’ professional frustration is high and getting worse — their job dissatisfaction recently measured at its highest point of the past 25 years. A 2013 study by the Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development found that U.S. public school teachers reported among the lowest rates worldwide in feeling that their input impacted change.

Most U.S. teachers believe that their contribution doesn’t matter much when it comes to the content they teach or how they teach it, and that what input they do have has little impact on their jobs. Teachers who were included in decision-making reported feeling a greater value and confidence in their work.

It has also been an unfortunate reality that classroom innovation and improvement are often stunted by limited access to quality teaching tools.

But the new plan places Virginia’s schools on the verge of escaping that logjam, with its educators leading the way.

The agreement with Copia Interactive centers on a smart strategy for delivering classroom content. The company will offer access to a virtual marketplace of various preapproved e-textbooks and additional resources. A teacher might select one chapter from one textbook and a second from another by a different publisher. Or teachers may choose to stick with a textbook they already use.

While formal studies on student outcomes of this program’s ongoing work are currently being conducted in Australia, New York and Utah, the near-term benefits for Virginia students certainly seem appealing.

As individual school divisions implement the new statewide contract, teachers will have real opportunities to navigate and choose subject content for specific areas of instruction they feel best fit their students and needs.

Historically, traditional textbook companies tether schools to cumbersome contracts, locking them into years of usage, even as information becomes dated. A multibillion-dollar industry, traditional textbooks represent only a small percentage of education spending, but severely restrict flexibility in content delivery. Three large publishers dominate the textbook market for grades K-12. However, as much as educators may like or dislike different lessons in the textbooks they use, they are locked into long-term contracts to use them exclusively.

While the state Department of Education has signed onto the Internet-based textbook market model, most schools are ill-equipped to implement basic online assessments, let alone digital-content-based learning.

Recently, measurements run by the department found that only 28 percent of Virginia schools have adequate broadband Internet access to be considered digital-learning ready. That means only about one in four students could take advantage of the new initiative. State education leaders are pursuing new strategies to increase and strengthen school Internet access, a priority for the McAuliffe administration.

For educators to fully utilize an online textbook marketplace, students must also have access to devices like tablets, laptops or desktop computers for reading online, digital content.

When the new program begins in January, it will focus initially on textbooks for learning foreign languages. Virginia school districts tend to rotate the subjects they buy textbooks for, and gradually all subjects will be made available.

The innovative, Internet-based model aims to disrupt the status quo, offering resources at a rate the restrictive hard-copy marketplace makes prohibitive. With the new tool, teachers will have a valuable new way to provide input into instructional decisions. Students in the state are sure to benefit, as instructors attain a more flexible venue of learning resources.

ASHLEY BATEMAN is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute. Contact her at bateman@lexingtoninstitute.org.