Where Are All the District’s Textbooks?

by Christopher Paslay


At a recent School Reform Commission meeting, a freshman at Sayre High School complained to District officials about her school’s lack of textbooks (Shortage of books plagues some city schools, Inquirer, 11/20/08).  She explained that each of her classes had only one set of books, and that she wasn’t issued an extra copy to take home.  As a result, it was difficult for her to complete projects and homework assignments.


Dr. Ackerman, the District’s superintendent, was extremely frustrated by the news.


“Every year, this is a big issue,” Ackerman said. “We spend millions of dollars, and where are the textbooks?”


Ackerman insisted she would immediately address the situation, and planned to ask schools how they’ve been spending their money set aside for textbooks.


If my experience at Swenson Arts and Technology is similar to other schools across the city, Dr. Ackerman need not waste her time asking principals about textbook money.  Funds are properly being spent on books; during the 2005-06 school year, after Paul Vallas spent millions making sure every classroom had more than an ample amount of instructional materials, textbooks arrived at city schools by the truckload. 


No, the problem isn’t money.  It’s what the students do with the books once they are issued to them.


So where are all the District’s textbooks?  They are everywhere, to answer Dr. Ackerman’s question bluntly.  They are under student’s beds and in the backs of their closets.  They are stranded at their mother’s house in Fishtown, or are sitting in the basement of  their father’s place in West Oak Lane.  Some are at the apartment of a one-time boyfriend, girlfriend, or significant other; some are riding merrily on the back of the Market-Frankford El.      


I kid you not.  I’ve had all manner of relatives return lost books to me at school: grandmothers, aunts, uncles, stepfathers.  It’s amazing how a child can make his or her textbook magically disappear, vanish into thin air like an illusion by Criss Angel. 


Where are all the textbooks?  Right where the students leave them.  They go into an academic hibernation of sort, not to return until June when teachers start demanding them back.  Of course, not all textbooks come out of hibernation.  A good portion of them disappear for good.  Gone.  Poof.  Outta here.  Down the rabbit hole and into the Bermuda Triangle. 


Getting textbooks back from students is an extremely trying endeavor.  Too many Philadelphia teenagers are woefully irresponsible.  Why?  Because they are conditioned to eternal accommodations, used to being given second and third and fourth chances.  So the first time you say, Please return your textbook by Friday, you only get about 20% cooperation.  Kids know that they’ll get a second and third opportunity (it’s the Philadelphia School District way), so they blow-off the first request to return school property.


Committed teachers like myself don’t allow these roadblocks to stand in our way.  We keep after our students like madmen (or madwomen): Please return your textbook, please return your textbook, please return your textbook . . . until we make that coveted breakthrough; at this point we get about two-thirds of the books back.       


By now the year is almost over; at this point we must start calling parents.  Calling and pleading with mom and dad to have their son or daughter return their $75 American Literature Text ASAP: Johnny MUST return the book or there will be a hold put on his records.   


And still we don’t get them all back; in the poorer schools, where a large number of students transfer or metaphorically drop off the face of the planet, teachers can’t even get half of them back.      


So textbooks die and go to textbook heaven.  When you figure that there are over 167,000 students in the Philadelphia School District (and that each text is worth close to $70), it’s no surprise that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of textbooks are lost every year in the city.


So what do schools do?  They do what Sayre High School is doing: They conserve by keeping one full class set of texts in the classroom and not allowing students to take them home.  This way, none get lost or damaged.  Homework assignments and projects are given through supplemental materials or photocopies.  And if a student absolutely needs to take a book home, he or she can sign out a copy and promise to return it after a period of time.   


Where do all the textbooks go?  Ask the thousands of Philadelphia teenagers who fail to return them.  As the saying goes: If you don’t use it, you lose it. 


Tragically, this seems to be the case in too many Philadelphia public schools.

3 thoughts on “Where Are All the District’s Textbooks?

  1. I must add a few thoughts to the well written Text Book article by Mr. Paslay. The first issue is accountability. Can we teach responsibility to the students and parents? In the house of accountability, the students and parents take up almost 100% of this issue. However, are they held accountable? Not that I know of. SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME THE POLICY AND THE RESPONSE IF NOT FOLLOWED.
    A second (behind the scenes issue) is if teachers step up (again) and take on more of the burden, they INTEND TO set up NORMAL CONSEQUENCES of not returning property. Some teacher leaders say they will hold report cards, some teachers (for seniors) say they will hold diplomas. If books are not returned by June some teachers say that the students who are delinquent with the book return –WILL NOT GET NEXT YEARS BOOKS!! Seems like “real life training” to me. Yet there are higher powers that stop that training and “enable the problem” by insisting that YOU CAN’T HOLD THEM RESPONSIBLE; THEY DON’T HAVE THE MONEY TO PAY; YOU CAN’T HOLD THEIR REPORT CARD, ETC. Usually it is at the District Level or the Region Level who stops the training/consequences. Sometimes the principals won’t push, but most principals know they have to be accountable, so they will hold the child/parent accountable. By the way, Catholic Schools teach accountability very well!! If you owe debts in Catholic Schools you will not get report cards, diplomas, or even an official record of credits earned (if you transfer out). They have very few students/parents who don’t take care of their books or their debts. A final thought. I believe, in fact, I know that students and parents ARE CAPABLE OF BEING RESPONSIBLE. But if outside sources or uptown sources lower the bar of expectations and state ‘THEY ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE BECASUE THEY CAN’T BE HELD TO THE SAME STANDARD” then the problem will never be solved. AND THE FACTS PROVE THIS POINT–I talked to 25 and 35 year vets in the school district and this “lost text book” issue has been around forever. Nothing has changed. NO ACCOUNTABLITLY, NO RESPONSIBILITY, NO CONSEQUENCES—-NO CHANGE!! Say hello to the “no text books” issue again this year, and the next, and the next, and the next.

  2. I have to agree with Mr. Sinclair. And it also rolls over to other issues of accountability. With the issue of uniforms, the students are not held accountable. That’s because the parents have programmed their children to say things like, “It was in the laundry.” If they’re late? “My mom didn’t wake me up.” It’s not just parents. I’ve heard 3o-year veterans say, “We can’t give Johnny a detention because he mother didn’t do the laundry. That’s not fair.” Where does it end? When teachers such as Mr. Paslay and Mr. Sinclair become the norm and not the exception.

  3. Thanks again, Chris, for telling it like it is. There is absolutely no student or parent accountability in the Philadelphia School District, just as there is no student or parent accountability in the No Child Left Behind Act. Dr. Ackerman has been quoted as saying, “We can’t change what goes on in the home; therefore the accountability lies on the adults who service the children.” Students are late to school because there are no consequences for lateness. Many school administrators close their eyes and refuse to enforce rules because they are not backed by the superintendent. Yesterday I issued take-home novels to my seniors for independent reading. One student became angry, slamming the book down and refusing to fill out the book slip. When I asked him why he was reacting this way, he told me that his mother will write a note that he is forbidden to take home books because he always loses them and she has to pay for them. “How old are you?” I asked him. Here is a senior, who misses classes to attend college presentations in the school, but won’t take the responsibility for holding a book. What college is he planning to attend? It’s time to make students and their parents accountable for books, punctuality, behavior and learning. If it takes a village to educate a child, then why are parents and students given a free pass out of the village?

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