An awful lot of districts don’t know what textbooks are used in their schools

That’s one of many takeaways of my textbook research so far. I guess to many people this is no surprise, but it seems crazy to me. Knowledge of what is going on inside schools strikes me as the most basic function of the district office. And yet I would estimate around 10% of the districts that have responded to my FOIA requests have said they have no documents listing the textbooks in use, and probably another 30-50% clearly have to invent such a document to satisfy my request [1]. Instead, I get a lot of letters like this:

Thank you for using the [district name] FOIA Center.

The FOIA office has been advised by the appropriate departments that the records you seek are not kept in the normal course of business. That is, a full and complete list of all mathematics and science textbooks currently in use by grade and the year the textbook was first used. As written, this request is categorical and unduly burdensome in nature and would require extensive resources to both search for information, which would most likely require a manual school by school search, and analysis to determine the other data points you are seeking. For these reasons, [district] is denying this request pursuant to [state statute] and invites you to narrow your request to manageable proportions. If [district] does not receive a revised request from you within five (5) business days of this response, this request will be closed.

Apparently to many folks this kind of arrangement is just fine–school sites should be able to decide all this stuff themselves. I can buy the argument that schools should have autonomy over curriculum materials (though I doubt that’s very efficient or good for kids), but even if you believe that’s the case, shouldn’t the district at least track how their money is being spent?

This is one of the research questions that’s emerged over time as I’ve gone through this textbook project, and it’s something I’ll investigate just as soon as I finish this round of FOIAs. My hypothesis? I suspect Ilana Horn is right about the consequences of this kind of non-leadership by districts:

I hope we’re wrong, but I doubt it.


[1] Districts don’t actually have to do this under the letter of FOIA law. So I very much appreciate the efforts.

This study is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1445654 and the Smith Richardson Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this study are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funders.


8 thoughts on “An awful lot of districts don’t know what textbooks are used in their schools

  1. Have you tried re-framing your request to omit the “year the textbook was first use” parameter? It might be that at least some districts do have the lists you seek, but they don’t include that bit of information because it isn’t necessarily important for their purposes.


    • Good suggestion! When I get a denial letter/email I always tell them I’m happy to accept whatever information they have and from whatever source. That usually nets me some information. Unfortunately the adoption date is necessary for some of the work I want to do.


  2. Hello Morgan,

    My name is Bruce Hamilton, Program Director for Destiny Resource Manager – a software solution to help school districts manage all of their resources, including textbooks. It s true that more than half of K12 school districts do not have a system for managing their textbooks, However, we have over 20,000 schools (about 20% of K12) using our system and may be in a better position to help answer your questions. You can see more about it at under ‘Resource Management’. Thank you.

    Bruce 1-800-Follett


  3. Betty Brown
    In my district, the administrations know which books are used in the schools. All the schools in our district are using the same books. This is done by the administration staff because they are ordering the books.


  4. Betty Brown
    The district that I’m a teacher in has recently consolidated from two districts to one large district. I believe that is why they know what books are being used in the schools. I can see why larger districts do not have a clue what books are being used in the schools. Those books could be outdated and giving the students a disservice for their education. I still believe that all students can learn at their pace with the proper materials.

    What do you think?


  5. Hi Dr. Polikoff,

    I found this post (and the study overall) to be very interesting! A few months ago I was conducting secondary research to see if the Language Arts curriculum in the United States reflected White culture, in order to explain (in theory) race-related issues of educational inequity. One of the elements I wanted to use was school textbooks, and this was so hard to find! I ended up relying on literature reviews, but in the future I would like to see more accountability on the part of the school districts, because curriculum materials such as textbooks are an integral part of the learning process. Without a sample of these textbooks, it is almost impossible to complete educational research assessing the most basic vehicle of American education.


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