Is the Use of "Beyond Textbooks" Violating Arizona Law? You Be the Judge

As of this writing, over 90 Arizona schools and school districts have adopted a K-12 educational program called Beyond Textbooks (BT).  BT was designed by the Vail School District in Tucson, Arizona, and they have had great success using it in that district.  The instructional program at Vail is considered a model of student achievement.  

After Arizona's State Board of Education formally adopted the Common Core State Standards on June 28, 2010, demand for Vail's Beyond Textbooks program grew.    

BT asserted that it was "Common Core ready."  BT also touted its program as a "teacher tool," which provides "congruency in what standards to teach, the level of rigor, when to teach them, and for how long."  The BT "wiki" also contains "formative assessments for math and reading standards, plus over 25,000 digital resources in the form of lesson plans, websites, worksheets, ideas, presentations,etc."  

The cost to adopt Beyond Textbooks in Payson has been less than $30,000 per year.  (BT's fees are based on the number of students.)  

However, that "bargain" price tag is deceptive.  Back in early 2013, Payson hired 5 new administrators (a Director of Student Achievement, and four Student Achievement Teachers), funded in part by federal tax dollars.  Their mission was to boost test scores, and to successfully implement Common Core.  Their task was also to "train teachers on programs like Beyond Textbooks."  BT was a small piece of a much more expensive pie:  Implement Common Core State Standards (renamed Arizona's College and Career Ready Standards by Gov. Jan Brewer in August 2013.     

(Sadly, a year later, the ratings for both Payson's middle school and high school dropped from a B to a C.  Test scores for the middle school dropped significantly as well.)  

On June 20, 2013, the Payson governing board voted unanimously to adopt Beyond Textbooks, in spite of concerns raised by newly elected Board member Shirley Dye, about it not being accessible to parents and possibly being dropped by another district .   

What Could Possibly Be Wrong?

Over a year ago, I began to make inquiries about BT's adoption in the Payson school district, because I had heard that neither parents or the general public had access to any of it whatsoever.    Only "authorized" users could view BT, and those users were limited to teachers and some school administrators.   My concern was that it contained textbook/curriculum materials, and parents and the general public should be able to see what is being taught to the children in the Payson School district.  

Here are the reasons given for why the public is barred from seeing what's being taught to children. 

In an email dated Dec. 17, 2013, Payson Governing Board President Barbara Underwood advised me:  "The only thing I know about beyond textbooks in regards to parents viewing the material is this:  The program is set up with material, test, and answer sheets for every lesson.   How I understand it, is if parents got into the program it would be like giving them the teachers manual and they would be able to prepare their students for the test by having the answers. "  

In an email dated Dec. 20, 2013, Payson's Student Achievement Director Brenda Case advised me:  ..."we would never block parents from their child’s learning or the content that we are teaching." ..  "Beyond Textbooks is in fact a teacher tool (not curriculum) and parents do not have access.  This tool is aligned to the AZ. State Standards for College and Career Readiness."  Only by scheduling an appointment with Ms. Case was I able to see a few pages from Beyond Textbooks.   

In an email dated Jan. 20, 2014, Kevin Carney, executive director of Beyond Textbooks, advised me: "Beyond Textbooks is a teacher tool, not a parent or student tool."  He also stated in a Sept. 25, 2013 article titled "Teachers learn about New Tool to help meet Federal Standards": "It's not curriculum; it's a framework." Superintendent Ron Hitchcock called it a "tool for teachers."  

Those are all buzzwords used to avoid calling it what it is.

A Textbook by any other name is still a Textbook

Public review of textbooks prior to formal adoption by school boards is so important that, in Arizona, it is a state law.  Parents have the right to see exactly what materials their children are required to read and study in order to "meet standards."  The taxpaying public has a right to see these materials, too.  See ARS 15-721.  Notice the following pertinent sections, especially the definition of a "textbook."  

F. The governing board shall:

3. Make available at the school district office for review by the public, for a period of sixty days prior to formal selection of textbooks, a copy of each textbook that is being considered for selection.

G. For the purposes of this section, "textbook" means printed instructional materials or digital content, or both, and related printed or nonprinted instructional materials, that are written and published primarily for use in school instruction and that are required by a state educational agency or a local educational agency for use by pupils in the classroom, including materials that require the availability of electronic equipment in order to be used as a learning resource.

In June 2014, the Payson Governing Board once again adopted BT, again without making any of the materials available for public review.  The terms "curricular materials," "curricular resources," "curriculum documents," and "instructional resources" are used 6 times to describe what BT provides, per the Intergovernmental Agreement between Vail and the Payson Unified School District

If BT isn't "Curriculum," what's this?

In June 2014, the Center for Digital Education gave Vail an award:  “Beyond Textbooks named a Recipient of Digital Content and Curriculum Achievement Award".  

"The award was presented to the District for its “Beyond Textbooks” program. The program gives access to Vail’s “instructional playbook.” It delivers curriculum digitally, as well as allowing teachers to share their best lesson plans, resources, and ideas. Beyond Textbooks is being used by 100 school districts and charters."

Utah doesn't hide its K-12 resources from parents and the public

Utah, on the other hand, provides an open source free database.  It aligns with their standards and their calendars. Teachers and parents have access. Unlike Beyond Textbooks, Utah's K-12 resources are online, open, and transparent.    No one needs to "schedule an appointment" with a teacher or school official to see it.  See Utah Education Network.  

There is no doubt that textbooks are being replaced by digital content, and this presents challenges to ensure that parents and public who pay for all of it have access to it .  See Curriculum of the Future: How Digital Content is Changing Education 

Some parents in Maricopa School District aren't happy with Beyond Textbooks   

According to this Jan. 15, 2015 article "Beyond Textbooks under microscope at MUSD," parents are speaking out against Beyond Textbooks' curriculum map and uncertainty about aligning standards and assessments.  

"The program was implemented at MUSD during the 2013-14 school year in an effort to reach an A rating. It is a replication of an instruction program at the Vail Unified School District, long held as a model of school achievement.

"Beyond Textbooks Formative Assessment does have its challenges, as Watson outlined in his presentation Wednesday night. Those include the number of assessments required.

"Board members Torri Anderson and AnnaMarie Knorr expressed parents’ frustration at assessments not lining up with classroom studies and test results not being sent home."

The schools don't have money for Teachers, Programs, and Textbooks?

Surely you've heard the arguments to support property tax overrides:  Without an override, the schools will be forced to cut teachers and programs.  See "Override failure would cause loss of 15% of teachers," "What the Override Money Covers," "Support Override and those who support it,"  

And now, we learn that the schools can't even afford to buy textbooks?  Yet, these are the same "experts" who regurgitate the Common Core State Standards' talking points. 

Something doesn't quite add up, does it.

The issues are much larger than whether or not state law has been broken

No matter how many times school governing boards, administrators, and Beyond Textbooks authoritatively states otherwise, the fact is, by its design, Beyond Textbooks pushes parents out of the equation.  The truth is that the schools have access to what our children are being taught in Arizona's classrooms.  Parents and the tax paying public do not.

Another issue is that it should be clear by now that all across Arizona, children are being used as test subjects in yet another half-baked educational experiment.     

Are you sure you want to turn your children over to the educational "experts"?  Most teachers are great.  However, they are hired by and answer to Administrators.  

Sources:

Beyond Textbooks Partners  

Beyond Textbooks:  What is it?  

About Vail School District 

Timeline for Implementation of 2010 Arizona Mathematics and English Language Arts Standards.  

Beyond Textbooks: Common Core Ready     

The Beyond Textbooks Wiki  

Beyond Textbooks FAQ  

Payson Unified School District Governing Board Minutes:  June 20, 2013.  

Beyond Textbooks Log-In for "Authorized Subscribers and Users"  

Payson Student Achievement Director Vows to Boost Test Scores  

Student Achievement Teachers Hail Gains 

Student Achievement Teachers:  What will they do?  

Teachers learn about New Tool to help meet Federal Standards.  

School Rating Falls:  Payson Struggles as other Districts Rise.  

Test Scores Crash Land in Middle School  

Arizona Revised Statute 15-721  

Intergovernmental Agreement between Vail and the Payson Unified School District

“Beyond Textbooks named a Recipient of Digital Content and Curriculum Achievement Award" 

Utah Education Network 

Curriculum of the Future: How Digital Content is Changing Education 

"Beyond Textbooks under microscope at MUSD"

"Override failure would cause loss of 15% of teachers" 

"What the Override Money Covers" 

"Support Override and those who support it"