Blog: The Educated Reporter

Why Tracking Textbooks Should Matter


Textbooks can have a tremendous effect on what children learn, and an upcoming  analysis from a University of Southern California researcher seeks to find out which books are in use in five large states.

But it’s hard to say which books are in use in which schools.

Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, set out to collect and analyze this information. He discovered, however, that few state agencies track this information. He turned to a tool common to journalists: freedom of information requests.

Interest in textbook adoption increased after most states adopted the Common Core state standards, a set of academic standards for English language arts and mathematics. Soon after, books and materials claiming to be “Common Core aligned” appeared in the marketplace.

Research shows textbooks influence teaching and learning, Polikoff said at a recent EWA seminar in Los Angeles, so research on this area could reveal ways to improve schools. Polikoff chose to look at textbook adoptions in California, Illinois, Texas, New York and Florida.

The variety of textbooks in use after the Common Core was adopted has increased, according to his preliminary research.  (Here’s a link to Polikoff’s Feb. 25 presentation at the Education Writers Association seminar in Los Angeles.)

But getting that information has been harder than Polikoff anticipated. Texas provided uniform district-level reports with an overview of which books and other instructional materials are in use in public schools. California shares this information on report cards, but the information has proven to be incomplete and difficult to understand, he said.  For instance, in California, he discovered that districts and schools were not fulfilling the spirit of a court order that is supposed to give parents information on which textbooks are in use.  And in the three other states examined, Polikoff said he had to file public information requests to school districts.

His work, which is still ongoing, requires a team of people to manually review responses. Some responses came in the form of hand-written lists of books. And he’s discovered that some states are more likely to share this information than others. New York, for instance, seems to have a culture of denying information requests, he said. Florida, on the other hand, has strong open records laws and countywide school systems so school officials have turned over the information with less of a fight.

Local reporters could replicate this work by requesting this information from districts or schools in their state or region, Polikoff said. He expects to publish several studies on his work – including the adoption of test-preparation material use in Texas – in the coming months.