Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why and How K-12 Students Should Buy and Sell Their Own Books (Even and Especially in Poor Schools)

Schools are strapped for cash.

Textbooks and other resources are expensive to purchase and replace. Nobody is really held accountable for mismanaged books.

Students are protective of their own property (see what happens when you try to take their phones away).

Students are destructive or careless with school property (walk into any public school classroom and check the condition of the laptop keyboards or the ask the teacher how many textbooks are lost every year).

US public schools currently employ a model for purchasing resources something like this: department chairs, principals and superintendents make purchasing decisions for books and computers. Tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent, usually at the beginning of a fiscal year (summer) or end of a fiscal year (to spend down slack in the budget or take advantage of a windfall). Resources arrive, usually weeks or months later. Teachers receive the resources, often times with little or no training. They take the resources to their classrooms, and may or may not set them up. An administrator may or may not check on their usage. Class sets of textbooks are probably given out, and students may or may not sign liability forms, cover the books with paper or laminate, write in the books, or forget the books when the bell rings.

When the student gets home he or she drops the bookbag with a *thud.* The textbook binding and corners take their first blow. Each day, if the book is carried, it is battered and maybe even soaked by spilled beverages and freak rainstorms. If it is left at home, it may remain unread, or disappear under the bed, or get used as a snack tray in front of the TV. At the end of the year the teacher runs around trying to collect textbooks, match numbers and names to spreadsheets and lists, and inspect the books' condition. Unless the book fails to appear or appears as though it barely survived a fire, the teacher probably doesn't bother to comment on significant wear and tear. Even if the book never appears, the student may still end up getting a pass. Respect for school property and authority are damaged along with the books. 100 books purchased in one year disappear 10 at a time, and after two or three years, the school probably only has 50-70 usable books.

In some schools, when students clear out in June, don't be surprised if the janitors end up sweeping books off the floor and throwing them in the trash.

What if there was a different way of doing all this? A way that encouraged students to cherish books? Gave students the option to interact with their texts, even writing in the margins? A way to save schools money? Reduce stress between teachers and students? Teach responsibility? Allow schools to innovate? Force schools to think harder about the value of the resources they choose?

Here's my program. It will probably never happen, but just imagine:

  • Public Schools have a book store, just like college. When the curriculum requires certain texts, the store will stock enough books so all the enrolled students can purchase the books.
  • Students can purchase the books at retail price at the bookstore, or go elsewhere. At the bookstore, 0% interest payment plans are offered to any student who needs it, unless they previously failed to make monthly payments. In that case they can pay up front, offer collateral (a cell phone or pair of sneakers might do it), or complete some form of community service to earn the books.
  • Students can apply for subsidies for books. They would fill out a short application and/or complete an interview. Why should you get books for free? Will you take care of the books? Academic or community service achievement can qualify a student for such support.
  • Students OWN the books. If lost, too bad for the student, (s)he need to replace it. More importantly, students are encouraged to KEEP the books. We tell students: "Write in them. Highlight them. Build a personal reference library. Use books from the previous grade in that research paper. Pass them on to younger siblings. These books are VALUABLE, even more than money."
  • Students can resell the books to the school. Books in like new condition get 100% of the purchase price back. Lightly worn books get 90% back. Books in good condition but that have notes and highlights get 70-80% back. Books that are heavily worn will not be accepted.
  • Provided books are used the following year, used copies will sell for the same price they were bought back for. If bought-back books are discontinued in the curriculum, they can go in a used book store that the school runs, and they sell for 50% or less of the cover price. Proceeds from the used book store fund library and technology resources for the school.
  • Since schools are presenting the cost of resources transparently and up front to parents, they need to think carefully about what they purchase. Is that $120 history or biology textbook the best way to teach that subject? Maybe field trips, copy machines, microscopes, primary sources or after school programs, NOT paid by the parents, would be a better bet.

Whenever we set up a system in a school, we need to think about what habits and lessons it reinforces. Our current system infantilizes and belittles students and families, and wastes public resources. I believe my proposed system would go a long way to reinforce discipline, choice, and the value of knowledge. Maybe someone will test it?

What do you think? Could this work? If it did, should this system be applied only to books, or other public school resources as well?

[Note: I support equitable funding of schools and think our school funding model overall is a disaster. I am not positing this as a solution to poor schools, just a solution to battered books and the disdain for reading.]

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