Gathering textbook adoption data (or: shouldn’t this be easier?)

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 [1].

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.


[1] California actually does keep track to a certain extent; I’ll talk about the Golden State in a future post.

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4 thoughts on “Gathering textbook adoption data (or: shouldn’t this be easier?)

  1. This sounds like exciting and important work. I would enjoy hearing more about the rationale for your selection of states. While choosing highly populous states allows you to speak to the experiences of a large number of students, I wonder if it may overlook greater misalignments that may exist in other states. My understanding is that textbook companies have traditionally produced textbooks that align with the standards in the biggest markets (Texas, California, Florida, etc). Consequently, schools in other states have had to work with such materials despite the lack of application to their state’s standards. In my own experience teaching middle school science in Mississippi, approximately 50% of our state standards were not included in the adopted textbooks leaving us to pull from other textbooks or create original material. Of course, this point may be mitigated if Common Core can sustain more commonality in standards across state lines, but it still seems like an area of inquiry worthy of study.

    I also wonder about heterogeneity in use of textbooks within district or within school. What happens after adoption? What happens 10 years after adoption? With sufficient autonomy, it wouldn’t be surprising to me if some teachers opted to continue with a favorite older textbook or if others chose to not use textbooks at all. I wonder if drilling down in a single district by asking teachers about their use of textbooks would reveal anything of interest.

    In any case, I look forward to seeing what you find from this work.

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  2. Chris, these are two excellent points. I chose the states I did strictly because I thought it would help me get the grant funds (greater impact). Not the best rationale, but it is what it is. I do think it would be interesting to consider smaller states that have less sway over these decisions.

    And the use question is one I get all the time, and that I think is exceedingly important. Of course, tracking use is even more challenging than tracking adoption, but that’s something I hope to look into in the future.

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  3. […] A few posts ago I wrote about the challenges in getting a study of school textbook adoptions off the ground. Suffice it to say there are many. This post continues in that thread (half of it is just me complaining, the other half is pointing out the absurdity of the whole thing, so if you feel like you’ve already got the idea, by all means skip this one). […]

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