Do Books Matter?

County Lags In Buying Them, But 21st Century Alternatives Abound

Posted: March 15, 2013

Textbooks help guide students on Wednesday in Chris Noll’s college prep geometry class. Rockingham County says it’s way behind on its textbook purchases. (Photos by Nikki Fox)
Textbooks are stacked for use at Turner Ashby High School. Rockingham County says it would cost $4.8 million to get back onto the state’s suggested purchasing schedule for books, but the situation may not be as dire as it seems, thanks to a host of high-tech alternatives.
HARRISONBURG — The textbooks East Rockingham High School teacher Becky Lam uses in her U.S. history classes don’t include the first Bush administration.

Details of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are nowhere to be found on the glossy pages and students can’t flip to the Iraq War in the index. If the name of the nation’s first black president appears, it’s only as Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama.

For any events since the start of the 21st century, the books are completely useless.

And those are just a few examples of what textbooks in the Rockingham County Schools division look like for certain subjects or grades, due to slowed purchasing cycles caused by a dearth of funds.

“We are tremendously overdue in textbook adoptions in terms of the K-12 curriculum,” Rockingham County Superintendent Carol Fenn said, adding that it would cost $4.8 million for the division to get back onto the purchasing schedule suggested by the state. “It has piled up  [and textbooks are] becoming a growing, pressing need.”

In Harrisonburg, public schools are on track with the state’s recommended purchasing cycle, according to officials, but delayed textbook replacement is a problem for 55 percent of divisions across Virginia, according to superintendents who responded to a 2011 survey.

“When we’re talking $85, $90 a textbook times the number of students we have, the amount we’re looking at is astronomical in these budget times,” said Johna McFarland, director of English and social studies for county schools.

And while teachers acknowledge the necessity of textbooks in today’s classrooms, the issue of outdated books is not nearly as pressing as it would have been before the Internet Age.

As pedagogy changes, in part because of the growing resources available through technology, local teachers say textbooks are becoming superfluous and conversations are ongoing about what the future of classroom instruction looks like.

“In reality, all I need to do is go to the Internet and I can pull up more resources than I ever could out of the textbooks,” said Lam, who used textbooks as her main teaching tool when she began her career 30 years ago. “It used to be your textbook was your No. 1 resource, and that’s not necessarily true anymore.”

Lam and Mountain View Elementary School teachers Callie Schaeffer and Lauren Bunch point to online resources available through the Virginia Department of Education, the school division and various other sites and materials as sufficiently making up for any textbook gaps.

“You don’t want to rely really heavily on just one methodology [in the classroom] anyways,” said Schaeffer, a fifth-grade teacher at Mountain View now in her second year of teaching. “Even if there were brand-new textbooks, we would certainly [also use] other methods of instruction.”

It’s an attitude shared by Bunch, also a second-year teacher. Both said technology was an emphasis in the college courses that taught them about instruction and lesson plans.

“We had to incorporate technology in all of our lessons, which now is something we are constantly doing in our classrooms,” Bunch said.

Added Lam: “I think that the new teachers today coming out of college [are] just so well-trained in where to go for information that we might be going down the road to textbooks being kind of irrelevant.”

The paradigm shift in teaching methods is illustrated in the priority put on growing technology budgets in local schools and in policies that allow students to use their own electronic devices in class at the discretion of teachers.

“Ten years ago, we didn’t have that capability,” Lam said. “So 10 years ago, I would have said, ‘My textbook’s out of date [and] that’s a problem,’ but not so much anymore.”

Each year, the county spends about $500,000 on “consumables,” which includes workbooks and other materials that need to be updated annually.

Harrisonburg City Schools, which is a considerably smaller division than Rockingham — there are 23 public schools in the county compared to eight in the city — has a $353,000-a-year textbook budget and is on track with the state’s recommended purchasing schedule, according to Lintner.

The Virginia Department of Education launched a project in 2009 to study the feasibility of putting more textbook alternatives in classrooms.

While the notion of moving to online texts may not be 100 percent practical yet, school administrators believe there will come a day when textbooks may not be at the center of curriculum.

“We are looking at creative ways to use technology in lieu of just purchasing tons and tons of textbooks,” Lintner said.

Still, that may not ease the budget concerns on administrators’ minds.

“When you’re talking about technology and you’re talking about the online versions of things that you can do, the first thing you’ve got to think about is can you put every one of your students …  in front of a computer?” said Scott Bojanich, director of secondary education for county schools. “It could be and generally is cheaper to look at an online version of a textbook, but now you have to consider, like when you buy a car, all the accessories that go with it.”

Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or

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