Stacked Up

Do Philly students have the books they need?

What we know about books in Philly schools


By Meredith Broussard

Stacked Up is a new tool for looking closely at what books are available (and are missing) in Philly schools. When we began this project in January 2013, we were surprised to discover that the rules and norms around textbooks are complex and chaotic. To help you cut through the noise and figure out what's going on at your neighborhood school, we've put together a guide to what we know about books in Philadelphia public schools as of August 2013. All of the data and policies you see in Stacked Up pertain to the 2012-2013 school year.

Who decides which books teachers are supposed to use?

Teachers can use any books or materials from a list published by the District. This list includes textbooks, workbooks (aka "consumables"), manipulatives, science kits, some online assessments or activities. For example, math teachers at Empowerment Schools are supposed to use books from a curriculum called Everyday Math for grades K-6, Prentice Hall Math for grades 6-8, Holt Algebra 1 for grade 9, Curriculum Press Discovering Geometry for grade 10, Holt Algebra II for grade 11, and Prentice Hall Precalculus: Graphical, Numerical, Algebraic for grade 12.

Teachers can also find and choose additional materials like online activities, worksheets, art projects, or age-appropriate books -- but they only get $100 a year to fund these. After that $100, teachers have to pay for additional materials themselves. Usually, teachers negotiate with their principals for additional funding. If this is not available, they can work with parent groups to raise the funds or use an online fundraising tool like Donors Choose. "Most already work in schools with bare bones classroom budgets," said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan. "To supplement their meager $100 annual allotment for classroom supplies, they pay hundreds or thousands of dollars of their own money every year for paper, materials, food, and other items for their students."

Who buys students their basic books?
Officially, the District buys its students a new set of textbooks every time it adopts a new district-wide curriculum. A new district-wide curriculum might happen when a new chief academic officer is hired, or when educational philosophies shift. The District buys a school its first complete set of materials. Each principal is then responsible for replacing lost, stolen, or destroyed materials from that set; principals are also asked to replace consumables every year or as needed.

How much is each principal given to buy books and materials for students?
A principal gets a budget every year and chooses how to spend it. That budget includes a per-student allocation that is supposed to be spent on books and materials. In a 2012 SDP Guide to School Budgets, this per-student figure was $24.27 for each elementary school student, $30.30 for each middle school student, and $27.51 for each high school student.

Will $30.30 buy a student all the necessary consumables in each subject (math, reading, social studies, and science) plus supplies?

Generally, no. You can use Stacked Up to figure out what it would cost to buy the recommended materials in each school's curriculum.

What jargon do I need to know to understand the book situation?

The key terms are curriculum, planned instruction, and assessment.

In the simplest terms, books and instructional materials are considered part of “planned instruction” under Pennsylvania law.
Here are some excerpts from the Pennsylvania Public School Code (emphasis mine):

(h) Public education provides planned instruction to enable students to attain academic standards under § 4.12.

Planned instruction consists of at least the following elements:

(1) Objectives of a planned course, instructional unit or interdisciplinary studies to be achieved by all students.

(2) Content, including materials and activities, and estimated instructional time to be devoted to achieving the academic standards. Courses, instructional units or interdisciplinary studies of varying lengths of time may be taught.

(3) The relationship between the objectives of a planned course, instructional unit or interdisciplinary studies and academic standards specified under § 4.12 and [to those determined in the school district’s (including charter schools) or AVTS’s strategic plan under § 4.13] ANY additional academic standards as determined by the school entity.

(4) Procedures for measurement of the objectives of a planned course, instructional unit or interdisciplinary studies.

The word “curriculum” can be confusing because people use it to mean different things in different contexts. Generally, “curriculum” refers to a plan for educating kids. The District has a curriculum in each subject for each grade, a school has a curriculum, and an individual teacher has a curriculum. In theory, all three levels work together for students’ benefit.

Here are a few Public School Code definitions:
§ 4.3. Definitions. The following words and terms, when used in this chapter, have the following meanings, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise:

Academic standard—What a student should know and be able to do at a specified grade level.

Curriculum—A series of planned instruction aligned with the academic standards in each subject that is coordinated and articulated and implemented in a manner designed to result in the achievement at the proficient level by all students.

Planned instruction—Instruction offered by a school entity based upon a written plan to enable students to achieve the academic standards under § 4.12 (relating to academic standards) and ANY additional academic standards as determined [in strategic plans under § 4.13 (relating to strategic plans)] by the school entity.

How much do books and materials cost?

Through its centralized purchasing office, the District has negotiated favorable prices with the major educational publishers. Principals and teachers are supposed to look at the lists of available materials and negotiated prices, and decide what they want for their classrooms. Then, the principal is supposed to place an order for his school through the Procurement Department, paying for the books with money from his book budget.

How can we tell how many books are in a particular school?

We can't. "Right now, I cannot get on the computer and tell you what's in school X," said District spokesman Fernando Gallard. "I could call the principal and ask for a report and create you a report -- if the principal had the time, the people resources, and were inclined to do so because of some sort of need ... But we can't do that right now."

How are the principals supposed to keep track of books currently?

There is some confusion on this point.

According to Steve Spence, deputy for the office of school support services, "It's not micromanaged at a central office level. A principal that has very good skills with technology might develop an inventory system that they keep online. Another principal who is not so good with technology might have just a person who counts the books, carries them from one location to another, puts them in the closet, and visually checks that they're there."

Deirdre Darragh, spokeswoman for the District, e-mailed a different policy:
"Representatives from each department in Central Office participate in the “School Opening” process. Meetings begin in late March and continue until school opens in September. A dashboard is kept by the School Opening team to monitor the progress of every school in the District in preparing for the first day.
Principals are first contacted in late March about conducting inventory at their schools via the Principal Information Board. Assistant Superintendents follow up and support principals in the process, and reminders are sent out in the weekly updates from central office to principals during April, May, June, July and August.
The goal is to have inventory submitted and inputted into the dashboard by mid-August."

Donna M. Runner, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, had a third interpretation: "Principals report on their textbook inventory system what they have in the building. They are responsible for purchasing what they need from their student allocations. If the inventory is wrong, then that would have been the principal self-reporting and not being accurate."

Academy at Palumbo Principal Adrienne Wallace-Chew declined to be interviewed on the subject of textbooks. “They’re only giving us enough money next year for a principal and teachers,” she said. “Why would there be any more money for textbooks?”

What if everyone used a single centralized digital system, so the District and the public could see which books are in which schools?

Brian Cohen, a math teacher at Academy at Palumbo and the school's ed-tech expert, said: "Nobody knows what other schools have unless they have friends there. The ideal system would be one where a principal could look at how many books they have, and look at how many books they need, and figure out which school they could get them from. This [data in Stacked Up] makes me think it could happen."

Would it require expensive new technology to check and make sure every school has the books they require for the fall?

No. As I wrote in June, the District used public resources in 2009 to create the Textbook Storage System, which is available to every school. All principals would have to count the books in their school (which they probably did already when they closed the schools in June) and type the quantity of usable books into the system.
Stacked Up is built on the incomplete data from the Textbook Storage System. If that sounds strange, it is. When I requested the data from the Office of Curriculum and Assessment in January, I was told that it was a complete list of the books at each school in the District. When I went back to fact-check in May, surprised that our analysis showed widespread textbook shortages and at least 10 schools that appeared to have no books at all, District spokesman Fernando Gallard said: "That report does not reflect what's in the schools... I don't know who made that representation to you when they gave you that report." He continued: "We're not using the software, and we are using a manual system... We have a system, it's not automated, yes. It does not represent what we have in schools, no."
I'm still curious to discover if there are or aren't enough books in schools. Between now and Sept. 5, 2013, if any principal or teacher would like to use Stacked Up to analyze school records that are not in the Textbook Storage System, I will happily volunteer to feed in that information and create a report.
Similarly, if you see information in Stacked Up that you think would add to the public's understanding of the issue, get in touch.

The District recently laid off 3,783 teachers and staffers, including many librarians and secretaries. Are there enough staff members in the schools to help the principals keep track of books?

We don't know. We do know that librarians are trained in counting and cataloging books. However, there are few librarians left in the District. Before the Doomsday Budget and the layoffs, there were only 43 librarians and 20 librarian assistants serving the District's 149,535 students.

How do I make sure my local school has enough books?
Check out our suggestions for getting involved.


View the source on Github.