As Texas Schools Go Digital, Parents Say They Need to Be Educated Too

Jan 21, 2016

Cynde Kaply sits in front of her open laptop, looking at the teacher website for her daughter’s social studies class. Her daughter is in middle school in Leander Independent School District. The website is supposed to have all the online resources her daughter uses for class.

“Even this doesn’t have as much as I would’ve thought," Kaply says as she clicks to a page that lists six different units. “There are some sub pages, let me see. Oh, they have video notes.”

Kaply clicks on the video notes. 

“And I need permission," Kaply says, looking at the screen which says she needs permission to access the notes.

As educational material increasingly goes online-only, some parents find it difficult to find material to help their children with homework and, in some instances, are locked out by login hurdles.

There’s also a link to the online textbook. But that requires a log in, too.

“So this I have come across quite a bit," she says. "What happens is as a parent I don’t always have the permissions that the kids have. The problem is there’s no common place to look for information."

Under state law, Leander ISD must allow parents to check out hardcover textbooks, which Kaply says she did. When Kaply and her son tried to use them at home, she says the hard textbooks were completely foreign to him.

“There were many times I couldn’t find the answer in any of them," Kaply says. "I mean, I’m college educated. I’ve been doing this a long time. I am a teacher, or was a teacher. I couldn’t find the answer.”

Kaply turns to her son’s notes, known as an “interactive notebook," where teachers hand out notes or quizzes and other things that they’re supposed to glue into their notebook. That’s what they study from.

As schools phase out hard textbooks that students can bring home, some parents are finding it more difficult to understand what their students are learning, or how to help them with homework.

“It looks like some type of textbook you would find in a third world country," says Lori Hines, a parent of four who lives in Austin, as she shows her daughter’s notebook with a hand-written table of contents, taped-in worksheets and a few notes. Leander ISD says the notebooks are an organization strategy, but, for parents, sometimes they are the only accessible resource. 

Kaply and Hines aren’t the only parents struggling to navigate the new ways schools are teaching children. Across Texas, schools are replacing hardcover textbooks with other resources: digital textbooks, printed worksheets and online tutorials.  As schools phase out hard textbooks that students can bring home, some parents are finding it more difficult to understand what their students are learning, or how to help them with homework. 

To understand why things have changed in Texas public schools, it's important to go back five years to the 2011 legislative session, when lawmakers passed Senate Bill 6. The law allowed school districts to choose their own textbooks and instructional materials. It also changed the way school districts pay for those books.

Lori Hines, an Austin parent of four, shows her child's second grade math workbook, which is photocopied and stapled together. Her child did not have a math textbook to bring home.
Credit Kate McGee/KUT

In the past, the State Board of Education approved a list of textbooks. School districts chose what they wanted, ordered them and the state paid the bill. School districts also got $30 per student for technology.

“Well, what they did with Senate Bill 6 is they took the money they were going to give you for textbooks, the money for technology allotment and they merged them," says Rosa Ojeda, president-elect of the Instructional Materials Coordinators' Association of Texas. Once the state combined the two funds, they gave the money to the school districts and said they could use it for print (and online) instructional materials, technology or professional development training for technology.

For many school districts, the new law meant drastic changes in funding for materials. In 2015, Leander ISD, which has about 36,000 students, received a planned two-year allotment of $7.1 million for it’s instructional materials. Before the change in law, Leander received $17.6 million dollars just for textbooks. During a 2014 Leander School Board meeting, the district’s technology director, Scott Monroe, said less money meant they had to make changes.

“There’s no way we could use that to purchase all the textbooks we’ve been getting before," Monroe said.

At the same time the state combined textbook and technology funding, it also removed the price cap on textbooks.

“It used to be that we would set maximum cost we would pay for any textbook," says Debbie Ratcliffe, spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency. 

But, the state found if it set a price limit, the publishers always charged up to the cap. Lawmakers believed removing the price cap and creating competition would lower the price of print and electronic textbooks.

“So far that hasn’t really happened," Ratcliffe says. "The electronic materials tend to be the same cost as the print materials.”

Rosa Ojeda says all these changes mean districts have had to get creative with the money they had. Do they use it all for online resources, do they continue to use just textbooks, do they use it to invest in new technology or a mix?  With all those options, Ojeda says it’s understandable that parents are confused. Districts, schools and even classrooms can now use completely different teaching styles and instructional materials.

“As parents, that’s not the way we were taught," Ojeda says. As classrooms and textbooks change, she says it’s a school districts responsibility to educate parents.

State School Board Member Tom Maynard agrees: schools need to work with parents.

“That doesn’t mean they have to take off of work and drive up to the school to do it," Maynard says.

That’s exactly what Leander ISD father David Preslar had to do for his second-grade son after he taught him math the way he had been taught in school.

“The teacher came back and said, 'No, no, no that’s not what we’re doing. That’s confusing him," Preslar remembers. "So I said 'Help!' And I had to go meet with the teacher and learn how to do second-grade math.”

Preslar says there’s not enough communication between the school and parents. 

“They come home with this blank worksheet. There’s no instructions," he says. "There’s no education for parents about what the child is supposed to do and the child brings you this sheet and says ‘I have to solve this problem.’”

KUT asked Leander school officials about these concerns. District officials say there will be growing pains as the district shifts to more online resources. If parents can’t get what they need from teachers or a teacher website, the district suggests they contact a campus administrator.