Yesterday Chairman Grusendorf Introduced Texas House Bill 4, “relating ot the use of technology in public schools.” This legislation includes changing the language of the Texas Education Code (TEC) where the word “textbook” is used to “instructional materials.” This has huge implications for education in Texas and across the nation. You can bet textbook publishers across the globe are taking notice. Parents, educators, and students should too.

The chair of the Texas House Education Committee has introduced a bill into the current 79th legislative session that should be of interest to anyone involved with or interested in public education. The 34 page bill was filed/introduced on March 1, 2005, and the original text (now subject to committee review and lots of negotiation, no doubt) is available as a PDF file. To view updated info about the bill’s progress, visit www.capitol.state.tx.us and enter “HB 4” in the field beside Bill Action and Vote History.

Initial Analysis: Textbook Publishers Are Likely Worried

HB4 changes the text of the Texas Education code, so everywhere the word “textbook” is currently used, it is replaced by the words “instructional materials.” Additionally, the phrase “library books” is changed to “library materials.”

The import of this change is potentially huge. The bulk of education dollars in the state of Texas as well as other states in the union currently go toward teacher salaries and textbooks. Here in Texas, my impression is that our typical textbook adoption cycle is every 5-7 years. This is a politically charged process from what I understand: if textbook companies do not “make the cut” in Texas, it is possible they will not make it nationwide: our market is so large and influential.

If approved and made law, HB 4 would open the door for alternative curriculum materials, including electronic/digital media resources like web-based materials and CD-ROMs, to be purchased by Texas school districts and campuses in lieu of traditional paper textbooks. With a typical 5-7 year textbook adoption cycle, a major problem with textbooks (in some content areas more than others) is that material can be out of date as soon as it is printed. It is not possible to revise and edit a textbook in the same way an electronic curriculum document (like a webpage) can be.

Schools participating in our statewide Technology Immersion Pilot (TIP) program as well as others are likely to be enthused about HB 4 and this language. It would allow districts to use large amounts of state funds previously set aside for only textbooks, to purchase anything fitting in the broad category of “instructional materials” as defined in Section 31.002 of the TEC.

Textbook publishers are likely dismayed at this proposed language. Once a textbook is approved for use in Texas, the publisher has an almost guaranteed revenue stream, although there are different alternatives available (I think) for most content areas. The language in this bill seems targeted directly at the powerful and influential textbook publishing industry, and I feel certain their lobbyists are well aware of what this could mean. It will be interesting to see what tactics are used by those lobbying groups and what rhetoric emerges in public policy discussions relating to HB 4. Providing school districts with more flexibility to purchase instructional materials / curriculum that can meet the needs of their student populations seems like a solid concept that will be hard to oppose. But I would guess the textbook publishing lobby will try.

Laptops At Home and School?

The TIP project requires that students use laptop computing devices at school, but it is my understanding that some participating schools do NOT allow students to take the laptops home and keep them 24/7. That is not the case with the two school districts here in West Texas that have partnered with the TTU College of Education (Floydada and Post), however, I understand it is the case with some schools. HB 4 contains language (on page 7 of the original bill text PDF file) that “A student’s parent is entitled to request that the school district or open-enrollment charter school the student attends allow the student to take home any instructional materials used by the student…” The previous language of this section (TEC 26.006(c)) used the word “textbook” instead of instructional materials. This language (again, if approved and made law) would seem to mandate that students in schools where laptops are used to obtain curriculum would all have the opportunity to use their laptops not only at school, but also at home.

Not letting a student take their laptop home would be precisely analogous to not letting a student take home their textbook.

Can We Measure Everything that Matters for 21st Century Literacy on a test?

On page 8 of the original bill text PDF file, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is charged to “develop or acquire ongoing, electronic, interactive, formative diagnostic assessment tools…..” Translated, this means that the State of Texas would move toward doing its standardized assessments on computers.

Lots of issues are raised here. I addressed some of the critical, perhaps unasked questions in February 2005 in a presentation at the Texas Computer Education Association’s annual conference entitled “Luddite Literacy: Digital Tools or Toys in the 21st Century Classroom?” (PowerPoint slides as well as an online video of my presentation are available.) One of the biggest ones is whether or not this vision of using technology as a more intrusive and ubiquitous stick to constantly assess student knowledge and skills in standardized assessment formats is the vision of 21st Century education that we really want to move toward.

I am convinced that much of what matters in education cannot be measured. Yet we live in an era of unprecedented high-stakes testing, where if it is not “officially measured” by the district and/or state, for all practical purposes “it does not matter” in the classroom environment. As Dr Willard Dagget and his team of researchers have found, huge amounts of instructional time in the classrooms of America today are wasted preparing for standardized test elements that are anticipated, but not actually utilized in these tests. We can all agree we want to raise levels of student achievement and teacher expectations of student performance. But how do we do that? Dagget has been working with the commissioners of education from all 50 states to try and answer that very question. The Model Schools Conference in Nashville in June 2005 may shed some more light on possible answers. Schools that are performing consistently in the top 1% of standardized assessments are doing school differently: they are changing the bell schedule at high school (gasp!), changing the ways teachers and students approach the curriculum, and providing classroom TIME to learn topics in depth that is so vital to the development of authentic critical thinking skills.

So, while the language in HB 4 may be positive in-so-far as it enables schools and educators to more flexibly utilize district instructional materials funds, it may have intended or unintended consequences that should be carefully considered in our era of faith-based school accountability. (I should probably explain in further detail my use of that term, but I don’t have time now.) Hopefully, if schools adopt digital tools and services like StandardsMaster by Renaissance Learning, assessment will be able to take place on a regular, ongoing basis throughout the year rather than at artificial, single “snapshot” test times. This could help make the assessment process more authentic, helpful to teachers, and less intrusive to the educational environment.

Definitions of “Instructional Materials” and Other Terms

On page 9 of the original bill text PDF file, the new definition of “instructional materials” is provided in the amended TEC 31.002(1):

“Instructional material means a medium for conveying information to a student. The term includes a book, supplementary materials, a combination of a book and supplementary materials, computer software, interactive videodisc, magnetic media, CD-ROM, computer courseware, on-line services, or an electronic medium.”

The new definition of “publisher” is:

“a person who prepares instructional materials for sale or distribution to educational institutions. the term includes an online-service or a developer or distributor of electronic instructional materials.”

So by this definition, are Wikipedia authors publishers? Am I? I think so, although we may not respectively benefit from the state “instructional materials” revenue stream.

“Technological equipment” is defined as:

“hardware, a device, or equipment necessary for instructional use in the classroom, including to gain access to or enhance the use of electronic insructional materials….”

So student and teacher laptop computers count, under this definition, as instructional materials.

The bill’s text (see pages 11-12) still provide for a six year review process for instructional materials, and a two year / 24 month publication notice requirement prior to the start of the school year for approved instructional materials. However, it provides that TEA will “revise the adoption cycles under Section 31.022 to ensure that not later than the beginning of the 2007-2008 school year, electronic instructional materials will be available for each subject and grade level for which the board has adopted essential knowledge and skills.” This provision seems likely to speed along the traditionally slow process of getting new “materials” approved for Texas school district purchase and use.

One phrase which caught my eye was the provision (on page 14, Sec 31.02(b)) that “each instructional material on a conforming or nonconforming list must be free from factual errors.” Electronic resources, particularly websites, perhaps more visibly than traditional textbooks can raise issues of inaccuracies, fact versus opinion, bias, etc. It will be interesting to see how these approved instructional materials are permitted to link out to Internet resources by other authors (subject to change and revision, of course) which could, in the estimation of some, contain “factual errors.”

The proposed change to TEC Section 31.031 provides that “The publisher of an adopted electronic instructional material may offer the material to school districts and open-enrollment charter schools on a subscription basis.” This opens the door for schools to subscribe to fantastic web-based educational services like Nettrekker and KidBiz3000, using funds previously reserved for textbook purchases.

Group for Technology and Implementation

The bill provides for the creation of a new group within TEA, apparently, the “Group for Technology and Implementation” (TEC 32.0011 page 30). Given the mass layoffs at TEA in the area of instructional technology in the last few years, I am sure many would view this as a welcome change to again have the agency staffed with educational technology specialists. Given the amount and scope of funds that will potentially (and most likely) be involved in the purchase of electronic/digital instructional materials, the director of this group and his/her staff seem likely to wield considerable clout and influence on the future course of Texas public education.

HB 4 also calls for the creation of “an advisory committee of business, education, and public members to assist the group and permit the group to monitor changing technology in business, industry, and education.” If HB 4 becomes law, I wonder if I could become a part of this committee? Certainly this group will, along with the TEA Group for Technology and Implementation, play a pivotal role in shaping our changing educational landscape.

Technology Allotment

The current “technology allotment” assigned per student in Texas school districts is funded by the set-to-expire Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF). Hence it is not a surprise that HB 4 calls for a new technology allotment (TEC 32.005(a) p 31) “of $300 for each student in average daily attendance in grade six or above and to an allotment of $30 for each student in average daily attendance in grade five or below.” Importantly, however, only school districts that are “identified by the agency (TEA) as meeting the goals of the long-range plan for technology under 32.001” are entitled to this allotment.

This announcement is in line with the recommendations submitted on 31 Jan 05 by a special committee tasked by the Texas House Education committee to scrutinize educational technology issues in the state. These were reviewed by Anita Givens at TCEA on February 9th. This new allotment amount for technology represents a substantial increase, as the current allotment is only about $30 per student.

The HB 4 language goes on to specify things that these technology allotment monies can be used to fund, which include:
– wireless laptops (termed “wireless electronic mobile computing devices”
– productivity software
– electronic learning software
– library and other research tools
– electronic assessment tools
– electronic learning tools to improve communications
– classroom and school management systems
– teacher professional development
– additional infrastructure required to support technologies and goals outlined in the TEC

Standardized Testing Online?

At the end of the HB 4 text, a provision is included to move the state toward an educational environment “under which a student may, in addition to traditional instructional materials, be provided with secure Internet access to each instructional material used by the student.”

It also provides that (in section 39.0232(b)) “to the extent practicable and appropriate, the agency shall require school districts to administer to students the computer-adaptive assessment instruments” mandated in Section 39.023.

In other words, the current TAKS test would move to an online environment. Now there is a topic worthy of much more thoughtful reflection and blog postings.

Conclusions

I will conclude by reflecting that much of this proposed transformation of Texas education to use electronic instructional materials pre-supposes robust, high-speed access to the Internet for all students and teachers. How is this going to practically shake out for rural schools? I have had the perception for some time that high-speed, broadband Internet access will continue to become more ubiquitous and low-cost in dense population areas (with a larger consumer market), but it does not appear to be “naturally” coming to rural America because of the lack of economic incentives.

Maybe legislation like HB 4 could be a driving impetus to bring large pipelines of Internet access to the rural United States? If the natural forces of our market economy are not going to deliver the 21st century information superhighway in a more robust form to rural citizens and students, it may take the intervention and regulation (gasp!) of government to bring that about.

Will this be a good thing? Certainly in many ways, although it doubtless will have a dark side as well.

But whether it will be deemed good or bad, the fact remains that these proposed changes to the Texas Education Code seem likely to happen. Who is going to argue against the fundamental premise of HB 4, that schools and those they serve should have greater flexibility to purchase the types of instructional materials which best suit the needs and requirements of their students? I’m not sure. What is certain is that for the last century, the textbook has been the cornerstone of the curriculum in our schools. It appears likely that this cornerstone is about to be replaced. The change will not be overnight, but it may happen sooner than nay-sayers think.

My bet is that this legislation will have broad bi-partisan support. As we move further into our new era of increased use of educational technology, it will be more important than ever to identify the mix of factors that can make 1 to 1 technology immersion projects, as well as the entire educational process, more effective, engaging, and worthwhile. That will likely be the focus of my dissertation over the next year and a half. It’s going to be an interesting ride, with high stakes on many fronts for all stakeholders.

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2 Responses to House Bill 4 Could Dramatically Shape the Face of Public Education

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