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VA: Online math textbooks — worth $7.7M — don’t add up for school district

By   /   November 15, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

FRUSTRATION: Parents, teachers and students are having problems accessing online textbooks. But many wonder how Fairfax County Public Schools could afford them.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

FAIRFAX — A great technological leap forward is taking Virginia’s largest school district backward, say critics of a new math program.

Fairfax County Public Schools’ decision to purchase $7.7 million in online textbooks surprised parents — who had been told the school system had no money to spare — and is frustrating teachers and students who say the Internet-based system isn’t working for them.

“The ‘books’ cannot be put on a stand-alone reader, which means they won’t work on the most affordable devices like Kindles and Nooks. The materials are inaccessible in places without an Internet connection, and difficult to use in homes with multiple people all trying to access a single machine,” said Steve Greenberg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers.

Administration spokesman John Torre acknowledged that glitches have occurred, but said the purchase of the Pearson online texts — selected in a competitive-bid process — was the most cost-effective option.

“An online textbook license is $11 less expensive than one hard copy textbook,” said Torre, who noted that the district had not purchased math texts in 12 years.

Though Torre said teacher training had been conducted since June, Greenberg asserted, “There was no effective pilot run on the program.”

Since classes resumed this fall, instructors have been burning through paper to provide hard-copy lesson materials to students.

Kirsten Rucker, PTA president at Oakton High School, said the campus exhausted its October allotment of paper by the 10th of the month.

“My children’s math teacher does not assign homework out of the text anymore due to concerns of access,” Rucker told Watchdog.org. “Ideally, our student population would have access to both an online and full-time, hard-copy text, but if we had to decide on just one, it would without question be the hard-copy text.

“I think the huge error is that the digitized books are not at all user friendly. I would be very comfortable using the term ‘user frustrating.’”

This is about upper-level administrators recklessly attempting to look progressive,” Greenberg said. “In my opinion, it reflects incompetence at the highest levels.”

REED: The purchase “wasn’t discussed in the context of the budget deliberations. It just kind of came out of the clear blue.”

“It was done much too quickly,” agreed school board member Patty 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. It just kind of came out of the clear blue.”

In a statement to Watchdog.org, Torre said the district “is committed to preparing our students to be 21st century learners, and incorporating online textbooks into instructional practices is one of the ways we are doing so.

“Textbook publishers are indicating that the industry will be embracing online publishing and moving away from hard copy textbooks over the next few years.”

Yet, Torre added, “We also understand the need to use common sense with this change, especially from the standpoint of our students, families and teachers.”

The district previously introduced an online social-studies program, but it was tightly targeted for seventh-grade history and high school government classes at selected schools.

To fix problems with the district-wide math program, Torre said FCPS is considering buying additional print copies to address the concerns raised about pupil access.

He also said publishers are working on a program that will enable the online texts to be downloaded — a function not currently available.

At a teachers’ advisory council meeting Wednesday, Superintendent Jack Dale, who is scheduled to retire June 30, vowed to “make sure” that every student who needs a hardbound math text will get one.

While Greenberg appreciates Dale’s pledge, he said it raises more questions about fiscal transparency.

“If the district can go back and get books, where will the money come from?” he asked.

Skeptics figure that the promised upgrades — along with the purchase of untold additional textbooks — will end up erasing any upfront savings.

“’Just give us some more money and we can fix the problem.’ That’s their answer,” Greenberg grumped.

“In the meantime, principals, teachers, parents and students are left to just deal with it.”

Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or (571) 319-9824.


Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.