September 8, 2005 – Viewing Your Child’s Textbooks and Checking Out the Curriculum

Updated from time to time.

By Mary McGarr

When you as parents went to school, probably the source for the curriculum in your classes was a textbook.  That still seems like a reasonable source to me, but things have changed.

One of the first things to check after school starts each semester is your child’s textbooks. Ask your child, K-12, to bring his books home, one at a time, for you to peruse. In asking him to do this, you will discover whether or not he has his own texts and whether he is allowed to bring them home.

The first surprising thing that your child may say to you is “I didn’t get a book for that class.” Chances are your child is telling you the truth.

There may be legitimate reasons why he doesn't have a textbook. Perhaps the KISD administrator in charge of ordering books failed to order the books in time or to order enough of them. (Not ordering happened one year.) Perhaps the school is following the current fad of eliminating the text in favor of something else.  Your child may be tuned in to a computer instead of a teacher.  KISD spends millions of dollars every year trying to keep the latest in technology on your child's desk--and never mind that all technology is pretty much outdated in three or less years.  Trendy technology will soon replace that nice teacher of whom your child is so fond.  Not much you can do about it--especially if you rush to the polls every three years to vote for the latest bond referendum!

For example, spelling books were phased out many years ago, and instead, your child was asked to learn how to spell from lists of words.  The lists of words were eventually placed on the KISD web site.  You could even view the previous year’s spelling list words if you wished.

After I wrote this column the first time, spelling books came back. (Who says I’m not effective?)  Bringing them back is OK by me.  Students need spelling books.  I would have to look at one, however, to see if they’re the right kind of spelling books.  If they still include terms and phrases like “estimated spelling,” “visual markers,” and “mature spelling,” or if there are no rules to go along with the words being learned, or if they are not grouped logically, then I would have to say that the “cover” may have changed, but the innards remain the same.

Let me refresh your memory regarding your own spelling lessons.  First of all you probably had a book, so you could take it home and look at it, and a parent could help you read through the directions and the explanations and the words.  The words were usually grouped by letter or the same sounding vowels or some other logical method of tying certain words together, so that when you learned them there was something to hang on to that made sense and was memorable.  Usually you had a pre-test after you had looked at the words, wrote sentences using the words; maybe you even had a Spelling Bee using the words, and then you took a spelling test on Friday.

No one ever came up with any empirical evidence that this method of teaching spelling didn’t work. Everyone I knew at my elementary school could spell unless they just didn’t have the mental capacity.  Someone, probably an out of work administrator, decided that what worked did not earn him any money, so he made up, out of the blue, another method of learning  to spell.  He toured the offices of his employed administrator friends with a sales pitch, and VOILA!  he made a sale to one school district, and soon there were others that fell for the scam. The spelling guru became rich, and children everywhere suffer because they’ve never ever really learned how to spell.

Ever notice how many foreign born students or home schooled students win the National Spelling Bee?  There’s a reason.  Their parents are at home teaching them how to spell the old-fashioned way!

But back to my textbook advice.

Look at each text that your child DOES have.  Look at the people who wrote it.  Google them to see what else they do.  Look at the book.  Is it mostly pictures?  What is the content of the pictures? Is it colorful?  Is it TOO colorful?  Did the publisher spend more time making it pretty as opposed to putting good content in it? Does the book exhibit any political bias--one way or the other?  It shouldn't. Find out if there are “ancillary” materials that go with the text.  Sometimes the stuff they don’t want parents to see is in those. Often the ancillary materials include a workbook that stays at school, a handbook that accompanies the text, videos and so forth. Look to see where and on what page exactly, the actual subject matter of the course actually begins.  If your child is only using technology, as to see a copy of the software that is being used.  Look at who makes it and who its authors are.

You probably took all the same courses your child is taking so you are quite capable of judging his texts. Read the text. Does it make sense? Are there factual errors? Read the questions at the end of the chapter. Are they about the factual material within the text?  They should be.  Perhaps you will see some other kinds of questions that ask your child to do some activity, or interview some person, or do something else of which you may not approve. Are those questions more touchy feely than academic? The questions might also be directed toward you the parent.  Sometimes the questions are very personal, and one wonders what it is the school is trying to find out about the child’s home life. The questions should be about the subject matter, and they should elicit from your child the knowledge that he acquired by reading the text.  On the other hand if your child has no texts, you are pretty much left out in the dark unless you go to the school and ask to sit in on a few classes.  Of course your being "out in the dark" is by design.  The schools don't really want you to know what your children are being taught.

If you get REALLY interested in what they are teaching your child, you can ask, through an open records request, for a copy of the curriculum for that course--textbook or software.  They are obligated to give it to you.  In KISD, thanks to “alignment” both “vertically” and “horizontally,” and KMAC lesson plans, (or whatever curriculum  management system they are using this year) every kid in town is supposed to be pretty much on the same page at the same time doing the same thing.  HOW BORING!!!

A little effort on the part of parents might open a lot of eyes about what students are being asked to read or view and learn.

 Maybe I will be wrong about your child‘s situation, and you will find that he has accurate, well written texts taught to him by a caring, articulate, and intelligent teacher.

I hope you do.

On the other hand, and as time passes, you might find that your child has no textbook in one class or all of his classes.  That may become the norm.  What is replacing the textbook?  Is it a well-educated, academically schooled teacher who is very knowledgeable about the subject matter?  That might be OK. Some teachers are so good they can walk into the classroom every day and simply teach the class--no lesson plans, no all night preparations, no computer system to guide the way.  They just start teaching!

Or it might be a computer.  That might not be OK.  (I personally believe that a computer cannot take the place or even supplement a smart teacher, but then that’s just my opinion.) Or is it a hackneyed lesson plan from KMAC/CCAP that may or may not be suitable?  You might even find some Common Core work sheets coming home.  That would of course be against the law, as our Governor as well as the Attorney-General of Texas have outlawed the use of Common Core materials.

Is the school sending home a text to remain at home so your child doesn’t have to carry a book for that class back and forth?  Ever stop to think what that practice costs the taxpayers?  You should. 

Ask your child if he actually uses the text.  Ask about how the teacher teaches. Does she ever get out of her chair?  Does he monitor tests so no one cheats. Does she actually teach or does she prepare notes for students to copy? You might even want to visit the school (ask permission and make an appointment) to see for yourself.  It’s not hard to see what’s happening in a classroom, even if they’re ready for you when you come to visit.

I remember as a school board member, I sometimes asked to visit this or that classroom.  They always knew I was coming, and yet…

I once visited a second grade math teacher at a Katy elementary school.  Of course they always sent an administrator with me, so I didn’t abuse the privilege very often as I didn’t want to waste their time, but on this day, the Assistant Superintendent was with me.  We sat in the back of this particular classroom, and the teacher was teaching addition using pennies for “manipulatives.”  The funny thing was, she couldn’t spell penny! The word was written as “penney” all over the chalkboard.  I couldn't get past that to appreciate her mathematical acumen.

Another time, as board members, Larry Moore and I visited Katy High School.  The principal was with us, and he opened the door to go into the classroom. Although  it was a small class, all the students were sitting on the desk tops eating snacks and drinking cokes and watching an “R” rated video movie.  We just sort of backed out the door.  The principal was embarrassed, and neither Larry nor I could think of a thing to say.  What CAN you say?  Unfortunately, I’m sure that sort of thing goes on way too much in our schools, and it isn't really funny at all.

Parents need to ask pertinent questions about what goes on in their children’s classes.  If you care about your kids, you will find ways to figure out what goes on at school. Just for the record, I think it’s more important to be concerned about what your child is being taught at school than whether or not he is “happy,” or on the “A” team in a sport, or if she will have great "memories" of high school when she is fifty years old!