Ask any college student and they’ll tell you that course textbooks are a racket. But pose the same question to a middle- or high-school student and they’ll shrug with an air of hormonally augmented indifference. High schoolers don’t typically need to purchase their textooks, but borrow them from the school library or individual department. Just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch, there’s no such thing as a free textbook. The school district picks up the tab instead.
The high school textbook industry is controlled by a few very powerful publishers that sell one-size-fits-all books at a premium price to schools. Some basic texts can cost as much as $65 a piece, even when bought in high volume. A school in Blaine, Minn., for example, budgeted $200,000 for a new set of math books that would need to serve the department for 10 years. Why spend that much money when the teachers can write the textbooks themselves?
That was the bright idea of math teacher Michael Engelhaupt of Blaine High School, who led a team that wrote, organized, produced, and distributed a new textbook for the Anoka-Hennepin school district. Overall, reports the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Engelhaupt and his colleagues saved the district $175,000. You do the math.
Not only did Blaine’s math teachers save a lot of money, they ultimately made a textbook better-suited to their students. For one, students can access the textbook online (both at home and in the classroom), rent it from the school library, or buy a physical copy for $5. Many mass-produced textbooks cater to students in Texas or California, where the market is bigger and the testing standards are different. Depending on the state, many textbooks have entire chapters that go unused in the classroom. Thus, Engelhaupt and company custom tailored the textbooks to the district and state curricula
“The district spent about $10,000 paying Engelhaupt and the other teachers to develop the material,” according to the Star-Tribune, “which he said was about their regular hourly rate. Another $5,000 went toward making the material accessible to students without Internet connections either at home or in the classroom with hard copies and DVD versions.” What’s even more exciting for the math teachers that put in the legwork is that their department will have extra money to put to other uses. Again, the Star-Tribune: “The Anoka-Hennepin teachers also persuaded the district to spend the savings on the math department. The details haven’t been worked out, but it could include more classroom computers and more teacher training.”
This is exactly the type of idea the country needs to consider as it engages in a larger, deeper conversation about education reform.