You are all aware of the terrible financial crisis in California... and the subsequent failure of bond measures that were designed to help alleviate a portion of that crisis.
Well, since that failure, there have been all sorts of new ideas on what to cut out of the budget.
The newest bid to save the state money, proposed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the idea of converting public schools to digital, rather than print text books.
Some of his arguments in favor of the switch are compelling. However, I wonder about the consequences he left out of his glossy sales pitch.
Details below the fold.
He lays out his case in a recent op-ed piece in the San Jose Mercury News.
California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg's printing press.
It's nonsensical — and expensive — to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form. Especially now, when our school districts are strapped for cash and our state budget deficit is forcing further cuts to classrooms, we must do everything we can to untie educators' hands and free up dollars so that schools can do more with fewer resources.
It's a bit of weak introduction, but I'll keep reading (for the children's sake, of course!)
Starting with high school math and science books, this initiative paves the way for easier access to free digital texts in California's schools. By frequently updating texts as they are developed, rather than continuing to teach from outdated textbooks, we will better prepare our students.
If California is to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy, this initial focus on math and science texts is critical.
I think science books are a good place to focus. The pace of discovery and innovation in biology, chemistry and technology are staggering, and printed text books are bound (no pun intended!) to be out of date before they reach classrooms.
However, the discoveries in the field of math research are way beyond high school level. Even if a high school is teaching through college level calculus, nothing is likely to make those texts outdated. So I'm not sure if that makes as much sense. I can possibly see that there may be an argument for innovative math teaching methods being more quickly integrated.
I think that math and science are absolutely critical in education. But, I wonder if this initiative should be expanded to include history, civics, and economics. We are living in very interesting times in those areas, and there it nothing like relating concepts to student's real-life experiences to help students learn and retain memory of those principles.
California must take the lead on using 21st century technology to expand learning and serve our students, parents, teachers and schools better.
These kinds of digital instructional materials are rapidly becoming available. Across the state and around the world, well-respected educators have designed customizable texts to meet the unique needs of their students. Federal grants have funded research that is free for public use. And now California has put out an initial call to content developers, asking that they submit high school math and science digital texts for our review. We hope the floodgates are open. We'll ensure the digital texts meet and exceed California's rigorous academic standards, and we'll post the results of our review online as a reference for high school districts to use in time for fall 2009.
Last year, the state earmarked $350 million for school books and other instructional materials. Imagine the savings schools could realize by using these high-quality, free resources. Even if teachers have to print out some of the material, it will be far cheaper than regularly buying updated textbooks.
So here is some of the meat of the proposal.
It's an obvious requirement that these resources are free. Otherwise, we wouldn't save save much money. But it's nice that he already has an initiative as a starting point.
The fact that they will be vetted to current educational standards is also a strength of the proposal. It would be dumb to sacrifice the quality of education for the sake of balancing the budget. That is especially true when the state considers long-term benefits of well-educated tax-payers (they make more money, so they pay more taxes, plus they are more likely to be innovators and technology developers).
In my opinion, the biggest weakness of the proposal comes in that last paragraph... the savings seems piddly in light of a $25 billion deficit. The governor quotes a figure of $350 million dollars? And that was for the whole state, for all text books and "other instructional materials".
The proposal is only for high school science and math texts. Which can only be a fraction of the $350 million. Even if this initiative saves a third of that total (which is probably generous, but I don't know exactly), that is only about $115 million. So that is less than half of a percent of the state budget deficit. Unless Arnie has another 200 of these initiatives up his sleeve, it's silly to even propose that it's part of the solution to the budget crisis.
In theory it sounds like a good idea. But the sales pitch is misdirected. It should focus squarely on what it will accomplish... bringing the most current information to the students.
And furthermore, the program needs to be designed so that it does not have serious unintended consequences. For example, we need to be assured that children who do not have internet access at home will not be put at a disadvantage by this move. The children who fall into that category are likely to have a host of other disadvantages already, let's not make their lives any harder.