Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Education reform and rent seeking -- textbook edition

A few months ago, Meredith Broussard ran a great expose of the role of textbook companies in the education reform movement (it's about other things as well, but that will get us started). I plan on discussing it more at length but the queue is getting long and I'd like to get this into the conversation as soon as possible.
The end result is that Philadelphia’s numbers simply don’t add up. Consider the eighth grade at Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia. According to district records, Tilden uses a reading curriculum called Elements of Literature, published by Houghton Mifflin. In 2012–2013, Tilden had 117 students in its eighth grade, but it only had 42 of these eighth-grade reading textbooks, according to the (admittedly flawed) district inventory system. Tilden’s eighth grade students largely failed the state standardized test: Their average reading score was 29.4 percent, compared with 57.9 percent districtwide.

One problem is that no one is keeping track of what these students need and what they actually have. Another problem is that there’s simply too little money in the education budget. The Elements of Literature textbook costs $114.75. However, in 2012–2013, Tilden (like every other middle school in Philadelphia) was only allocated $30.30 per student to buy books—and that amount, which was barely a quarter the price of one textbook, was supposed to cover every subject, not just one. My own calculations show that the average Philadelphia school had only 27 percent of the books required to teach its curriculum in 2012-2013, and it would have cost $68 million to pay for all the books schools need. Because the school district doesn’t collect comprehensive data on its textbook use, this calculation could be an overestimate—but more likely, it’s a significant underestimate.
If you have a moment, check out the webpage for the book in question and see if you can figure out why it's worth $115 (perhaps the Ernest Lawrence Thayer has upped its rates).

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