Gathering textbook adoption data part 2 (or: even when it should be easy, it ain’t)

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).

California is one state that makes textbook adoption data public, bucking the national trend. This is a result of the Eliezer Williams, et al., vs. State of California, et al. case, where a group of San Francisco students sued the state, convincing the court that state agencies had failed to provide public school students with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers. As a consequence of this court case, California schools are required to provide information on these issues in an annual School Accountability Report Card (SARC). The SARCs are publicly available and can be downloaded here.

This is great! Statewide, school-level textbook data right there for the taking.

Well, not so fast. For starters, with the exception of about 15% of schools that use a standard form, the rest turn in their SARCs in PDF form. And the state doesn’t keep a database on those 85% (obviously). So the only way to get the information off the SARCs is to do it manually, by copying from PDFs [1]. Thus, over the course of the last year, with the support of an anonymous funder, we’ve been pulling these data together.

As it turns out, even when you can pull the data from the SARCs, there are at least three major problems:

  • Large numbers of schools that simply don’t have a SARC in a given year. Apparently there must be some kind of exemption, because this would seem to violate the court ruling otherwise.
  • For schools those that do have a SARC:
    • Textbook data that are missing completely.
      • Or that are missing key elements, such as the grades in which they are used and the years of adoption.
    • Listed textbook titles that are so vague (e.g., “Algebra 1”, when the state adopts multiple books with that title) or unclear (e.g., “McGraw Hill”, when that company publishes numerous textbooks) as to be somewhat useless.

As a consequence, like in the NSF study, we’ll be reaching out to all districts with non-complete data via email or phone to fill in the gaps.

Of course the data will never be perfect, and they’re better than is available anywhere else. But if the purpose of the court ruling is to provide some measure of public accountability through the clear reporting of this kind of information, it’s not clear to me that the SARCs are currently fulfilling that role. Perhaps the state doesn’t care to or doesn’t have the manpower to enforce the ruling. That’s unfortunate, not because it makes this research more challenging, but because it deprives disadvantaged students of the remedy that the court has decided they are due.

[1] For reference, there are around 1000 districts and 10000 schools in California.


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