Two years ago, when schools in Baltimore County, Md., embarked on a complete overhaul of their beleaguered libraries, reformers employed technology to boost accountability systems. Their efforts resulted in a fully computerized approach to tracking resources both on and off the shelves.
Now, educators there are considering applying a similar technique to textbook management. The total technological solution would allow Baltimore schools to track and evaluate textbooks by way of online databases, electronic review forms, and bar codes corresponding with student accounts.
According to Della Curtis, coordinator of the district’s library information services office, the concept evolved from the success of technology initiatives she spearheaded in 2000, securing $10.5 million to upgrade the district’s grossly inadequate school library system.
Curtis said the new systemtraditionally reserved for library resourceswould be one of the first to provide an all-technology approach to textbook management.
“We are really paralleling how we handle library resources and taking a similar approach to how we handle textbooks,” Curtis said. “Textbooks in school districts are not as well-managed as they should be.”
Still in the planning phase, the system would employ a host of technology options designed to help educators monitor, evaluate, track, and share textbook resources throughout the school system.
Under its current design, the plan calls for each individual textbook to be outfitted with an electronic bar code, which would identify that book in the context of a massive online database, letting schools track the status and location of any book from anywhere in the district, Curtis said.
Educators familiar with the program say the concept alone holds promise.
One benefit is that a database-driven system would provide a central location where educators could turn to take stock of what texts are available, Curtis said. Currently, many schools find it difficult to keep tabs on what texts are in circulation throughout various buildings and which books are gathering dust in the book rooms.
“Now you are using technology to file information instead of going into a desk drawer or file cabinet,” Curtis said.
But the benefits of increased automation don’t stop there, said Karen Cordell, principal of Dogwood Elementary School in Baltimore County.
According to Cordell, who is responsible for educating and maintaining order among 650 elementary-aged students, having textbook resources available via computer means she can spend less time on inventory and place her focus where it should be: on education.
“Principals want to be out in the halls working on instruction, not in the book rooms counting texts,” she said.
The proposed system also promises to help schools place more effective textbook orders. Online evaluation forms would let educators rate and critique the effectiveness of certain texts. Although the idea is not altogether new, having the forms online will make the data infinitely more accessible come decision time, Curtis said.
“We could share the evaluation of textbooks,” she said. “It’s crucial that we share the knowledge and share the reviewsmuch the way they do in professional journals.”
According to Art Stritch, who supervises Baltimore County’s office of library and information services, the benefits associated with automated textbook management are especially pronounced in larger districts. Baltimore County, for instance, must provide textbooks for more than 107,000 students. Multimillion-dollar investments aren’t always easy to monitor when relying on a paper-based system, he said.
“Soon I won’t have to get on the phone and interrupt someone’s day to ask: What is that calculus book you are using? Because it’s right there on my desktop,” he said. “I can give people the information that they need quickly.” Proponents of the program hope additional tracking features associated with the computerized bar codes will help drive down the number of texts that are lost or stolen by year’s end.
“To be effective and efficient, we have to work with a system that allows us to keep track of and maintain our resources,” said Lynn Bloom from the school system’s office of internal audit.
“It’s very hard for us to keep track of what we have,” Bloom said. “The volume of individual items is just too great.”
Cordell agreed: “Schools do lose materials over the course of a year.”
But Curtis said she would expect a fully computerized system to drive down the costs associated with replacing lost books by holding students responsible through the use of personal accounts similar to those used in the schools’ modern library system.
“We will have a greater accountability for who has what,” Curtis said.
To reinforce that accountability, the system automatically will identify students who have failed to return textbooks, sending letters to unsuspecting parents.
Despite the potential for increased accountability, even some of the concept’s most adamant supporters acknowledge that initial costs, along with the additional work required during implementation, could keep the system from ever becoming a reality.
“Whenever you are talking about technology, you are talking about dollars,” said Bloom, who added that it might be difficult to convince school boards of future savings in the face of high initial costs. Those costs, she said, would include software, scanners, training, and professional development programs.
“The initial workload will be huge,” Stritch said. “But once it’s done, it’s done. You can continue to build on that initial investment.”
“The benefits would outweigh the costs in the long haul,” Cordell said.
Currently, Curtis and her design committee are searching for a company that promises to deliver on the services the district has requested.
“Companies have bits and pieces of these processes,” Curtis said. “But there needs to be a total technological solution, and there is no reason why there can’t be.”
Baltimore County Public Schools