Stop with the Book Dungeon

You’ve heard of the Philly Shrug? Whelp, here’s it is, loud and proud. In this article from, we are regaled by a familiar tale of incompetence and waste: the School District of Philadelphia must pay people to get rid of books they bought so they don’t rot in the basement of a school they closed.

Lumbering bureaucracy leading to staggering waste, like your childhood blanket or a classic Law and Order. And nothing compliments delicious confirmation bias like scrumptious hot-takes. Oh, the armchair librarians were out and it was their goddamn Super Bowl.

Parents can take them! No, send them to the neediest schools. Make Dr. Hite hand deliver them. Wait, why not give one teacher from each school a shopping bag and let them go nuts1.

The commonality here, besides a warm heart and good nature that should really temper snark, is that none of the commentators has spent much time in a school. Go now, ask a Principal about all their extra closet space. Or shelf room. Or people to stock, inventory, maintain, and re-box in 3 months.

Go to any school that’s been around longer than 5 years, I can guarrentee they have textbooks gathering dust. Most schools have an unwritten rule that about throwing books, old computers, or anything in a dumpster. The outcry, we are told, would be worse than the rot.

Finally, someone actually talked to the closest thing we have to a teacher, SRC Chair Marge Neff. Neff explained that, as these books were purchased in the Ackerman administration, they are probably too old to be of any value.

“Oh posh!” The machine of outrage demands to be fed. Old or not, these books had to be of use. Mike Newell, who is by all accounts is a great reporter, sums up the reasoning:

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Oh boy.

Let’s start with the third premise: “Huckleberry Finn” is fantastic. “Ender’s Game” is a new classic. But our kids are far more likely to identify with Jim and Alai, and far less likely to give a damn when almost the entire library is built of dead, white men. We need diverse books; our“timeless” American curriculum looks nothing like America.

Here’s my “Book Lovewish list. I’ve read a bunch of them and, note that this is coming from a serial literary neophobe, they are just as valuable as “Catcher in the Rye”.

Moving on: if you need any indication that Math class needs a total makeover, I encourage you to sit through a traditional math class. If you make it (or not), read through Dan Meyer. I’m not one for the “National Crisis!” storyline, but there’s ample evidence that change has to come.

Science is static? Tell that to Kansas.  Or Pluto.

The assumption is that kids are missing content. Ridiculous. Young people today have the greatest collection of human knowledge ever assembled.  They don’t need books as much as they need context. They needs guides, ways to make the content real and applicable. They need adults.

The book dungeon in Bok2 was not ignored as much as it was ignorable. For all the positive energy, the outrage was more about the zeitgeist than the schools. The Philly Shrug feels good! It’s fun to scream “BLLLAAAAH CORRUPTION” because corruption and incompetence can be fixed.

Here’s another thought: What if an incredibly complex system of incredibly complex systems was serially starved for resources, meaning that people had to focus on keeping the lights on instead of distributing outdated books? That doesn’t stoke the comments section or bring in the hit counts. On the other hand, they’re not keeping nurses or FAFSA counselors in cellophane – and even if they did, I’m not sure I could fit one in a shopping bag.

You want a scandal? Bok Technical School was a successful school in a very poor community. It was closed as part of a larger plan, paid for by private philanthropy groups and hidden from the general public. This plan has been mostly abandoned, not only for political purposes but because it has been a fiscal disaster for the District. Nobody has been held accountable – in fact the people in charge of the District quietly gave themselves a raise.

Mismanagement is bad. More books would be nice. If this is a way not to talk about the private-public partnerships, almost always more beneficial to the private, that have become a de facto and de jure faction running public schools, we’re not going to help anyone.

Simple solutions to complex problems are fools gold – pretty, fun to find, and ultimate worthless.

  1. I didn’t make these up. I couldn’t 

  2. which everyone knew about, FWIW 

Against the Gospel of Chromebooks

Have you heard the Good News?

Ed-tech problems have been solved. The glorious, the infallible Chromebooks have descended from the Omnipotent Cloud. Rejoice, repent, log in. 

If there was a war for technology in the hands of our students, Chromebooks have crossed the Rubicon. They have the product, the company, and the hashtags. The army of Google Certified educators and innovators who will literally stop in their tracks to tell you about how their kids just adore1 cloud-based computing. 

Google is a great company and I’m personally involved in ordering Chromebooks. But the worship of a $300 laptop sets off my spider sense. 

First, Chromebooks are cheap, not just inexpensive. The plastic is thinner, the keys break and the cover provides little protection. The mouse pad is not quite as responsive as I’d like. The processing power is solid, but hardly spectacular, and there’s very little internal storage. No one who knows computers would argue these are “good” computers; getting a great “bang for the buck” should not prevent us from wishing we had more “bang”.

Chromebooks rely on web tools exclusively for producing student work. That’s fine in the case of Google Docs, but dealing with sound creation or video editing is, even assuming perfect bandwidth conditions, treacherous. Heck, I am writing this on Google Docs, but building a brochure, magazine, or “professional” documents requires more bells and whistles.

Chromebooks aren’t good and cheap, they are good because they are cheap. They are austerity made functional. 

Let’s go back to “professional”: Education leaders love pontificating on creating schools that mirror “the real world”2. In said world, does anyone use a computer with limited processing and no internal memory? Yes, people with salaries and weekend ski-memberships use Chromebooks – to watch Netflix or putz around the house. 

Go ahead and ask what computer your favorite ed-tech journalist is using. I bet it has internal storage and a sweet video card. Chromebooks are a cheap simulacrum of the “real world”. I don’t want to say the same for schools.

Cheap is great, often necessary, but it also means educators stop asking some the harder questions.

  • Do educators really confuse “price” and “value”? 
  • Have teachers been prepared? How many use Google Docs for collaboration, rather than just a glorified word document? How many have students share with each other? How many use technology to connect with people outside of their school?
  • More likely: How many have figured out that giving every kid a laptop means they’ll shut up and look busy?

The bottom line here is the bottom line. $330 for a laptop is almost 4 times cheaper than a Macbook. Can’t beat that, right?

Oh. Wait. No.

Strip Windows, add some open-source software, run them through the Epoptes remote-management suite. More privacy, more features, more freedom. If a child figures out the command line and breaks through, hire them as tech support.

So what’s stopping me from doing this ? Simple: I’m not allowed to mass order netbooks, or anything else. Like most districts, we are bound by pre-established vendor contracts. Educational technology choices are almost never about the kids.

And now, I will order 33 Chromebooks3. I will probably love them. To save money, I will keep them in a refurbished Gateway cart. I’ll store the 32 Macbooks somewhere where they graciously die, and my technology students can harvest their organs.

I remain happy, I remain unsatisfied.

  1. stretch that vowel sound for effect 

  2. sidebar: this phrase needs to die. Thanks 

  3. And pray the district respects the contractual limits on class size