Suppose you set out to study the impact of textbooks on teacher practice and student learning. The only way to begin such a study would be to pull together data on which textbooks were used in which schools.
You’d think this would be easy to do. After all, we live in a data-driven culture, and you can find just about any bit of information about your local school via a few seconds on Google (or the state department of ed website).
Well, you’d be wrong.
As I mentioned last post, I have a couple grants to study textbook adoptions. These grants are concentrated in the five largest US states by population (CA, TX, NY, FL, IL). Of these, only Florida keeps track of textbook adoptions at the district level. The other four states, comprising roughly 4,000 school districts, do not keep track at all .
This means that if you want to know which textbooks are being used in these 4,000 districts, you have to ask people. As far as I know, there’s no other way to do it. So that’s what we’ve done. We created a beautiful website where district personnel can go to report their textbooks. Then we gathered contact information for district personnel in all these districts and sent them a series of emails inviting them to participate and offering a chance at a $500 incentive to do so.
Suffice it to say the response rate was not what we hoped, even after several rounds. So we’re moving on to round two. We’re sending state-specific open-records request to every non-responsive school district in these states, pointing them to the website. And a couple of weeks after these requests arrive, a horde of USC undergraduate researchers will begin sending personalized emails and making phone calls to districts. Essentially, we hope to hammer all 3,000-ish non-California districts in our sample into submission.
I’m telling you all this not because it’s especially interesting (I probably should have picked a better topic for my early posts on the blog) but because it shows the absolutely absurd lengths one needs to go to in order to gather what should be a freely available, extremely basic piece of information about schools.
Of course my hope is that my projects are successful and that I can gather this information on almost all districts. But if I can’t, I at least hope I can convince some people that this is a piece of information we should be tracking. It costs essentially nothing to do, it does not endanger privacy in any way, and it’s very useful from both a research and an equity point of view.
 California actually does keep track to a certain extent; I’ll talk about the Golden State in a future post.