What is a school without books?

Philadelphia schools are set to open in a month with fewer resources than ever. With layoffs and some programs cut as a result of the School District's doomsday budget, schools are equipped primarily to teach the basics: reading, math, social studies, and science.

Or are they?

Evidence suggests that only a handful of schools have enough books and learning materials to adequately teach students under the district's academic guidelines.

Textbook shortages have been a problem in Philadelphia for at least a decade, according to Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Former Superintendent Paul Vallas responded to a public outcry about shortages in 2005 by purchasing millions of dollars' worth of books. The district responded again in 2008, buying thousands of books and creating an online textbook management application that principals, teachers, and staff could use to inventory and track books in each school.

Unfortunately, the system failed. Few schools are using the software, and district officials have no way of knowing what books are in what schools. To add to the chaos, thousands of books from the 23 schools that are closing are being redistributed. However, without accurate numbers, any redistribution is bound to be unequal.

Using its existing technology, the district could easily prevent textbook shortages. It could count the number of books, count the number of students, figure out which books teachers want for each subject and grade, and ensure that each principal has enough money to buy new books. With better data, it would be easier to share resources: a teacher with surplus books could share them with a teacher who has too few. As students change schools during the year, principals or teachers could easily make sure that the appropriate books change hands as well.

I've had this utopian vision in mind for a while. In January 2012, I obtained the data from the district's textbook management system and collaborated with Axis Philly to investigate whether each school had enough books to educate students in the four core subjects.

The results are shocking. At least 10 schools appear to have no books at all, according to district records. A few schools seem to have plenty of books; others seem to have books that are wildly out of date; some seem to have only the books that fit the curriculum guidelines established by a chief academic officer who left the district years ago. Records for each school and its book situation can be found at stackedup.axisphilly.org.

A 10th grader at Parkway West High School told me that students often have to share books in class and can't take them home to do homework. Many books are in poor condition: "There were pictures of testicles drawn on every page," she said of one of her ninth-grade books. There are books in her school, but there are no records - meaning there is no easy way to tell whether students have the materials they need to learn.

At Parkway West, only 28 percent of students received proficient or advanced scores in math on the 2011 PSSA standardized test, and 41 percent scored below basic competency. As the school struggles academically, it's worth asking whether part of the problem has to do with books. Are there enough? Are they up-to-date?

It may seem old-fashioned to talk about books in our high-tech world, and some might argue that we should simply upload all course materials online. However, as a college professor with a background in computer science and Web development, I would argue that printed books are still the right tool for most classrooms. Digital textbooks require expensive infrastructure, and would require a computer or tablet for every student. Plus, all of the computers need to be working at the same time. In my experience, there are always a few broken ones in any roomful of computers. Furthermore, not every student has sufficient digital resources at home to do online homework: 79.2 percent of Philadelphia's public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

We should absolutely teach technological literacy in schools, but that doesn't mean technological tools are the best means of teaching every subject with every student. Books have worked in education for thousands of years: They are effective, cheap, easy to use, and require very little maintenance.

The least that state, city, and district officials can do is ensure that Philadelphia schools open the new year with enough books in every classroom.


Meredith Broussard is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple University. E-mail her at merbroussard@gmail.com.