Public schools have a fraction of the books they need to teach kids how to pass standardized tests. One parent has built an app to help fix that. So why isn’t the District listening?
By Roxanne Patel Shepelavy
It seemed a simple enough endeavor: Meredith Broussard’s first grader needed help with his homework. Broussard, a Temple data journalism professor, should have been easily able to comply. Instead, she found herself stumped, alongside her 6-year-old, over the question: What are natural resources? “There is not a single right answer for the question,” says Broussard. “I’m a college-educated person, but I couldn’t figure out the right answer without the textbook. And my son didn’t have the textbook at home.”
Broussard knew that one question on one night of first grade homework wouldn’t make or break her son’s future. But she also knew that in two years, he and his classmates would be taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). Which led her to wonder: Could a shortage of textbooks be the reason Philadelphia school students fare so poorly on standardized tests?
Standardized tests are written by the same companies publishing textbooks. Yet for the last two years, the Philadelphia School District budget for new textbooks has stayed flat — at zero dollars.
As she catalogued in an article in The Atlantic, Broussard’s research over several months led almost immediately to a surprising discovery: The standardized tests that school children around the country take every year are written by the same companies that produce the majority of the country’s textbooks—McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt or Pearson. In Pennsylvania, McGraw-Hill is part of a consortium that works with the state to grade the PSSA; McGraw-Hill also produces the books—including Everyday Math—that schools use to prepare kids for the tests. This means that scoring well on the PSSA requires, at the very least, learning the materials included in McGraw-Hill’s textbooks. It also means that adapting to new Common Core standards requires new textbooks.
But for the last two years, the Philadelphia School District’s budget for new textbooks has stayed flat—at zero dollars. So, new tests and new standards. But no new books.
Standardized tests have become the most significant (and in some cases only) way in which we judge academic success—for students, for teachers and for schools. Poor results can mean not only that a student fails to graduate, but also that a teacher loses pay or promotion, or that a school loses funding—or closes altogether. In Philadelphia, PSSA scores declined slightly in 2014, with less than half of students scoring proficient or better in math and reading. Broussard notes that having the right textbooks would not magically raise those numbers. “Even if they had all the books, they’d still need papers, and pencils, and copiers and lunch,” she says. But it borders on the absurd to judge a teacher’s skill, a student’s knowledge and a school’s success without providing them the exact tools for the job they’re being asked to perform. Continue reading