It seemed a simple enough endeavor: Meredith Broussard’s first grader needed help with his homework. Broussard, a Temple data journalism professor, should have been easily able to comply. Instead, she found herself stumped, alongside her 6-year-old, over the question: What are natural resources? “There is not a single right answer for the question,” says Broussard. “I’m a college-educated person, but I couldn’t figure out the right answer without the textbook. And my son didn’t have the textbook at home.”
Broussard knew that one question on one night of first grade homework wouldn’t make or break her son’s future. But she also knew that in two years, he and his classmates would be taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). Which led her to wonder: Could a shortage of textbooks be the reason Philadelphia school students fare so poorly on standardized tests?
Standardized tests are written by the same companies publishing textbooks. Yet for the last two years, the Philadelphia School District budget for new textbooks has stayed flat — at zero dollars.
As she catalogued in an article in The Atlantic, Broussard’s research over several months led almost immediately to a surprising discovery: The standardized tests that school children around the country take every year are written by the same companies that produce the majority of the country’s textbooks—McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt or Pearson. In Pennsylvania, McGraw-Hill is part of a consortium that works with the state to grade the PSSA; McGraw-Hill also produces the books—including Everyday Math—that schools use to prepare kids for the tests. This means that scoring well on the PSSA requires, at the very least, learning the materials included in McGraw-Hill’s textbooks. It also means that adapting to new Common Core standards requires new textbooks.
But for the last two years, the Philadelphia School District’s budget for new textbooks has stayed flat—at zero dollars. So, new tests and new standards. But no new books.
Standardized tests have become the most significant (and in some cases only) way in which we judge academic success—for students, for teachers and for schools. Poor results can mean not only that a student fails to graduate, but also that a teacher loses pay or promotion, or that a school loses funding—or closes altogether. In Philadelphia, PSSA scores declined slightly in 2014, with less than half of students scoring proficient or better in math and reading. Broussard notes that having the right textbooks would not magically raise those numbers. “Even if they had all the books, they’d still need papers, and pencils, and copiers and lunch,” she says. But it borders on the absurd to judge a teacher’s skill, a student’s knowledge and a school’s success without providing them the exact tools for the job they’re being asked to perform.
Broussard’s second discovery was even more alarming: Several schools in the District don’t even know what books they have or, in some cases, what books they need. She uncovered a central database called the Textbook Storage System, in which schools are supposed to list all their books, so that (in theory) they can be distributed to students across the District, or supplemented as needed. But the system is outdated and woefully inaccurate. That’s because, according to SDP spokesman Fernando Gallard, the District doesn’t use it. Instead, most principals count the books in their schools and submit a typed list to the District in an Excel or Word document. Over the first two months of the year, Gallard says the central office then redistributes the books to schools, depending on how many students have actually enrolled that year. “It’s a building management issue,” he says. “It’s the principal’s duty to make sure supplies are there.”
Broussard developed Stacked Up, a web-based interactive tool that allows the public to find out which textbooks are at any school, which are needed, and how much it would cost to buy them.
But keeping track of books is an arduous task. A principal or assistant has to physically count the books in every classroom and closet; input the information into some sort of file; and update it when necessary. That can take hours, and with diminished staff, most District schools no longer have a designated assistant to keep track of materials. In one example Broussard highlighted, the District’s printout showed zero math books at a South Philly magnet school; in fact, there were 24—sitting in a box in a locked office until the day Broussard showed up to look for them.
Broussard is a data-driven journalist who used to be a software developer for AT&T Bell Labs and MIT Media Lab. She describes herself as a “hack and a hacker.” She knew there had to be a better way. So she built it. In partnership with a (now defunct) non-profit, Broussard developed Stacked Up, a web-based, interactive tool that allows the public to find out which textbooks are at any school, which are needed, and how much it would cost to buy them. To start, she populated Stacked Up with the scattershot data from the Textbook Storage System, and curriculum information and book prices from the District’s website. At Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philly, for example, Broussard found that the 8th grade has 42 copies of “Elements of Literature” for 117 students. Purchasing the remainder would cost $8,606.25—an amount a parents group could reasonably raise or a philanthropist could donate, knowing exactly how the money would be used. “I figured you could use this tool to calculate what it would take to fix this problem at this school, and then maybe find someone to write a check,” Broussard says. “I wanted to empower people to be able to solve this problem.”
Using Stacked Up still meant that someone had to count the books. So Broussard found a way to take the onerous task off the hands of overworked school administrators: A $1.99 iPhone app with a barcode scanner called Bookcrawler, intended for cataloging personal libraries. With a team from Mentorhacks, a civic hackathon sponsored by the Urban Technology Project, Broussard devised a system to allow volunteers to scan all the books in a school; download the information into a database; and then send it to the District. Broussard could then put the data into Stacked Up. A parents group, for example, could spend one day in June scanning all the books in a school; once Broussard updated Stacked Up, a principal would know within hours what they’d need in order to start the school year with enough books.
One school has 42 copies of “Elements of Literature” for 117 students. Purchasing the remainder would cost $8,606.25. “I figured you could use this tool to calculate what it would take to fix this problem, and then maybe find someone to write a check,” Broussard says. “I wanted to empower people to be able to solve this problem.”
School District officials have shown little interest in adopting Stacked Up, or the Bookcrawler app, since Broussard showed it to them about a year ago. But Broussard is not giving up. She says she is willing to input the data into Stacked Up herself, if a school can get volunteers to count their texts with Bookcrawler. (See below for a link to a website that details how to do this, and how to contact Broussard.)
At the District, Gallard acknowledges that knowing how much money is needed for a school’s books could be a useful project. But he says it may not be the most important thing needed at any particular school. “If you want to raise money for a school, you need to ask the principal what she needs the most,” says Gallard. “It may not be books. It may be paper, or something else. Only the principal can really answer that.”
To Broussard, Stacked Up is about more than just supplying books to any one classroom. It’s about putting a solid number on the cost of changing curricula. “If state lawmakers knew exactly how much it would cost to buy new books for every student in every school, they might think twice about changing curriculum standards,” Broussard notes. She has a vision for how her work could make a real difference: She imagines every school counting its books; Stacked Up calculating the cost for new ones; the state funding their purchase; and every kid in every school getting one. Until that happens, she deems any discussion of school reform, and test scores, and failures, irrelevant.
“Only when books are in the hands of every student, when we have everything they need, can we figure out if the school reform standards are working,” says Broussard. “If not, we can go to Plan B—whatever that is.”
To read more about Broussard’s investigation of the District’s textbook shortage, see her July article in The Atlantic.
To contact Broussard, or get started on the project, email merbroussard @ temple.edu.