Governor Schwarzenegger last month announced a first-in-the-nation plan to offer free digital math and science textbooks for high school students. Facing a $24 billion budget deficit, the governor touts the need for “such innovative ways to save money and improve services.” Shifting the curriculum online might help reduce the state’s yearly textbook tab of $400 million, but technology alone will do little to improve the quality of California’s public schools.
Surrounded by nearly one million high-tech workers and a world-class university system, California’s public school students should lead the nation in achievement. Instead, students entering high school rank among the bottom five states in math, and second to last in science. Digital textbooks could allow the best and brightest scientists to bring the excitement of innovation into the classroom, but not if bureaucracy locks creative ideas outside the door.
State education officials tightly regulate the curriculum, and instructional materials must pass an arduous top-down review process. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, introducing new tools, concepts, or ideas is a 28-step “complex maze” spanning four years, and involving two state agencies, two committees, a state Curriculum Commission, and several expert panels. The LAO concluded in 2007 that “this highly prescriptive process can be linked to less competition among publishers, more limited district choice, higher cost, questionable quality, and little useful information.”
This centralized and inflexible approach is incompatible not only with digital textbooks, but with the ability to compete in a 21st century Internet economy. An open online textbook allows everyone to contribute knowledge in real time, experiment with new ideas, and help build a learning resource that is always current and constantly evolving. This strips power from regulators, but does not sacrifice accuracy or quality.
A 2006 study published in the journal Nature found that scientific entries in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, which anyone can edit, were comparable in accuracy to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia’s open model, however, has generated vastly more knowledge, with 10 million entries compared to 112,000 for Britannica’s closed model. In California’s closed education system, only four major publishers offer products that meet the state’s rigid mandates, and one recent review found 427 factual errors in five textbooks alone.
Some of the most promising ideas for injecting competition and innovation into the textbook market originate in Silicon Valley. In 2006, for example, Sun Microsystems started Curriki (www.curriki.org), an interactive clearinghouse for educators worldwide to share, rate, and improve online lessons. Today it hosts more than 60,000 members and 24,000 digital resources. Another nonprofit, the Palo Alto-based CK-12 Foundation (www.ck12.org), allows anyone with specialized knowledge to help create Web-based “FlexBooks” that teachers can start using immediately. Ironically, these will likely fail to meet the requirements for use in California’s own public schools, while other states are embracing the Internet’s potential to revolutionize education.
In March, Virginia partnered with CK-12 to create the “21st Century Physics FlexBook: A Compilation of Contemporary and Emerging Technologies.” While California’s cumbersome bureaucracy will produce digital versions of the same old flawed and outdated materials, Virginia’s teachers will have the flexibility to introduce emerging technologies as they emerge.
Science and technology evolve with the speed of Silicon Valley, while educational tools are stuck with the lethargic pace of Sacramento. Competition creates choices and improves quality, but education officials should focus less on changing how information is delivered, and more on where. If students in public school classrooms cannot access the cutting-edge materials they need to succeed in a digital world, they should have the freedom to bypass the government’s education monopoly and choose a private alternative.
The government doesn’t pick which televisions, laptops, or digital music players Californians should buy because government cannot possibly predict how innovations will perform in the marketplace. Are education officials any more qualified to pick which digital textbooks will succeed in the classroom? When all digital tools can freely compete based on measurable outcomes, the best ideas will rise to the top, and so too will California’s students.