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Teachers write their own online textbook, save district $175,000 (therepublic.com)
312 points by tokenadult on Nov 6, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 100 comments

Have you ever been party to textbook adoption time? The textbook companies are buying dinners and drinks for the teachers, "conferences" for the department chairs and offers of all manner of paid amenities for the school district.

Obviously, with a pricing model that can afford sales costs like that and a price tag like $175,000 for district-wide adoption of a single textbook, the industry is ripe for disruption. At the same time, the industry probably has lobbyists poised to protect their model with "think of the children."

I know that my wife (who has been through several of these textbook adoption periods) is frustrated beyond belief based on the cost/benefit ratio of these textbooks as opposed to what the district could probably pay its teachers to produce themselves. I can only imagine that if this sort of thing spreads beyond a negligible percentage of schools making their own texts, the textbook makers will probably become more actively involved in stopping it.

> "think of the children."

My children routinely carried 5 kg of books from the age of 8 years old up to 10 kg at times now that's they're 12 and 14. If there's an industry that should die for the benefit of the children it's this one...

But for the time being the schools probably have something like 1 computer for 10 pupils, so the infrastructure really isn't there to switch to true online material -- Though a 200 euros tablet could replace easily a huge stack of books for a lot less money.

Unfortunately here in France the books must be certified by the ministry of education, making the lobbying power of school books editors much more efficient, because they only need to please a few government officials.

My child (11) goes to a school in a top tier CA elementary school, and he has never carried a single school book. Homework problems are all photocopies of typed up problem sets.

I take that back, the books he carries are the ones he reads for pleasure (the Harry Potter books are really huge, too). Once I get my Kindle Fire, I'm giving him my old Kindle, which should help with that.

Two really awesome advantages:

1. Teachers have a lot more motivation to produce a good textbooks - just like me they are lazy but want to be productive - so it is in their interests to compress as much info into the heads of children with the minimum amount of time and effort. This interest is aligned with parents and children.

2. The reduction in costs is a bonus to the parents of school-going children. That bonus can be utilised in a more productive way.

It is a bit sad that things like:

> The problem with mass-produced textbooks, Engelhaupt explained, was that they can cost $65 each and aren't aligned with Minnesota's math tests so the district would be paying for whole chapters that are never used.


> She said most high school textbooks are written to the requirements of Texas and California, the two biggest markets for the book publishers. It means often a third of the books go unused in Minnesota, she said.

appear to be the current state of things. Instead of targeting a good education in the subject, the norm today seems to be to teach k-12 students to pass the aptitude tests, not necessarily to learn the material itself.

But isn't that... test-driven design? ;)

I mean, if the tests have 100% coverage, there's no problem with the education only covering what's on the test, right? It just means kids have to sit through exams that are perhaps eight hours long.

(Which is fine, really, if those exams get split up so that they're given one exam per unit, rather than one humongous state-wide test. And while they're at it, if those exams were also, say, given online, accessible at the student's whim, and able to be repeated indefinitely without penalty (because of some form of procedural question generation), they could even be used as gates to determine when the student was ready for the next level of material...)

Agreed. If the kids are being taught the wrong things, you don't get pissed at the teachers- you change the standards/tests. Same as with any good software!

I think the problem is that students should be taught to think, not to pass tests.

I was taught to think, not so much by school but by a select few teachers and especially my father. I learnt metric growing up. When I started construction everything was done in millimetres and meters. I moved from the UK to Canada, where the construction trade is solely imperial (it's not like the UK where you can get legacy tape measures that have inces and meters, I have inches and feet) and I didn't struggle. It was about a month before my boss said "Doesn't the UK only use meters, are you coping with the change?"

Of course I coped, I learnt to think. A foot is a generalised measurement so that multiple people can work to the same measurements. A meter is a generalised measurement so that multiple people can work to the same measurements. If someone calls out to me "cut at 1321mm" I cut at "1321" the same as if they'd just called "cut at 52 inch".

I've seen guys, high school graduates (in the UK I only did high school until I was 16, and the newbies I get given did it until they were 18) and they're confused by the mere notion that an inch is divisible up to a 16th on a tape measure.

I personally cannot comprehend how they don't understand. How lacking is your education that you can't find 9/16ths on a tape measure? How lacking is your education when you can't cut a 22.5 degree angle from a 16x16 square (measure up to the half way point and trace a line to the 0 point giving you the desired pattern)?

My work doesn't even require a high school education to get hired and we've had some phenomenal employees who failed high school. The irony is we get bucket loads of retards who graduated high school.

There's a big difference between learning and merely storing data. The problem is that we're creating a generation of databases. I'm sorry, but I have computers, and phones, and fuck a pocket book that can retain data for me. I don't need a million kids to do that. I need a kid that can read a tape and cut an angle so that I can train them.

I don't know how I'm supposed to train someone who's passed high school that should so obviously have failed.

The angle from the origin to the point (2, 1) isn't 22.5 degrees – it's arctan(1/2) = 26.6 deg. In fact, the slope of the point you want should be sqrt(2) – 1 = 0.414, not 0.5.

> I think the problem is that students should be taught to think, not to pass tests.

No one disagrees.

However, saying "students should be thought to think" is useless. We need to know to if they're being taught to think.

And no, "trust teachers" doesn't work. The testing fetish is a response to generations of kids who can't think taught by teachers who said "we're teaching kids how to think".

Are there bad tests? Yes. Are there perfect tests? No.

But that doesn't imply that testing is unnecessary. It just says that testing is hard.

"The testing fetish is a response to generations of kids who can't think taught by teachers who said "we're teaching kids how to think"."

Funny, I thought it was driven by too many politicians who'd taken management 101 and learned to "measure everything". Do you have a cite? (Honestly wondering).

The only way to administer tests at scale is with multiple choice and number 2 pencils. The easiest way to pass a multiple choice test is to memorize a bunch of crap and not bother thinking.

I'm not saying that all testing should be abolished, but it's pretty clear that testing is insufficient -- any real learning-to-think that goes on with a testing-dominated system is going to be the product of teachers going above and beyond, and totally unmeasurable so those teachers will never be rewarded (and probably punished).

"The only way to administer tests at scale is with multiple choice and number 2 pencils"

I think that there's an alternate way, but it comes at a cost: we have to de-standardize the tests. Here's how I see it playing out.

Jill is an eighth grade match teacher with thirty students in her class. When testing time comes around, she writes an exam for the state which she feels represents what an eighth grade math student should know. She sends a copy of the exam to the state. In return, she receives thirty different exams from the state, each written by a different teacher and assigned to exactly one of her students. She distributes the tests assigned to each student. At the end of testing, she sends back the completed exams. In return, the state sends her thirty answers to her exams, which she grades as she sees fit. Finally, she sends her grades in to the state.

The state then looks at how Jill's student performed on the assorted exams that they were given. The raw score isn't at issue, but rather how they performed compared to the other students who took that specific exam (e.g. how many standard deviations that they were above or below the mean). If most of her students scored above average, we're happy. If most of her students were below average, we question why.

Since the teachers don't know what will be on the test, they can't coach the students to memorize answers. Thus, the teachers who teach the students to think and handle unfamiliar situations will be rated higher by the test than students who simply regurgitate what their teacher taught them.

> I think that there's an alternate way, but it comes at a cost: we have to de-standardize the tests.

Why do you think that "standardized test" means "same questions for everyone"?

Also, we're actually not that interested in the score at the end of the year but in the difference between what the kids could do at the beginning and end of the year.

That's kind of brilliant, although I could see it being a clusterfuck in actual implementation, 30 isn't enough per-test to get meaningful statistics for one thing.

It also involves a total lack of control from the top-down, so it'd probably be resisted pretty strongly. I really like the basic idea, though.

>> "The testing fetish is a response to generations of kids who can't think taught by teachers who said "we're teaching kids how to think"."

> Funny, I thought it was driven by too many politicians who'd taken management 101 and learned to "measure everything". Do you have a cite? (Honestly wondering).

You haven't seen the "Asian kids are doing better" and "schools are failing" stuff? Really?

> The easiest way to pass a multiple choice test is to memorize a bunch of crap and not bother thinking.

How would "memorize a bunch of crap" work for an algebra test? Unless "crap" means "rules of algebra and how to apply them"....

How about three examples of this "learning to think" that can't be measured with a test? (Skill in playing a musical instrument is arguably one, but mostly at the extremes. However, ranking Carlos Santana vs Jeff Beck isn't the problem.)

I suspect that your definition of "test" is too limited, which says more about you than it does about testing.

"I think the problem is that students should be taught to think, not to pass tests."

OK. How do you propose to determine whether a student has been taught to think? Whatever your answer is, that's your test. Maybe it's questions like "build me a catapult with these materials and tell me how efficient it is" or "explain how so many Latin words came to be part of the English language and give examples". Answering those would demonstrate thinking ability. But that would still be a test.

Tests are important. If they are made well, teaching with the test in mind is fine.

Whether we're testing and teaching the right things is another question. But "students shouldn't be taught to pass tests" sounds to me like "buildings shouldn't be built using blueprints." How can you know whether you've succeeded if you have no stated goal or way to measure results?

Sure they should be taught to think, but do you have any good ideas on how that should be done?

Tests are used because a metric is useful for identifying weak schools so that they may be improved. Do you have a better metric?

Arguments for, or against, a topic chosen at random. Submitted as an essay, and graded by at least two independent readers. It may not scale, but it's a better metric.

So you learn how to game essay-writing competitions. Big whoop. The most brainwashed people I know are arts graduates, who think they know "how to think".

In reality, they know how to use hollow rhetoric to make a convincing case for their own prejudices, and present straw-man arguments to pretend you've covered both sides of an issue. They also find some way to "twist" the question, if it's easy.

The most important part of essay writing is not to be a perfectionist, and try to think too much. You come up with a few points (supported by examples, augments, or references - depending on the requirements), throw in some formulatic meta-discussion (i.e. '... though it may be more important to ask "why", not "if" ...') and get the fucker done. Don't worry to much if you're right or not, just make the bloody sausage. Oh, and try to predict what the markers (generally soft-left yuppies, who went from school to college back to school) will want to hear, or will get their attention - they have dozens (or hundreds) of similar papers to read and do not want to think.

My point isn't that essay writing is necessarily harmful. It's just another mostly useless technique to learn, and probably adds up to something if you can mix it with other techniques, and a little knowledge.

I'd say it takes a lot more thought to game essay-writing than it does to game multiple-choice.

I think every tape measure I have ever seen in Canada has had both inches and metres.

This is kinda how Montessori schools do it - at least the one here where my partner teaches. They aren't online, but the student gets to chose to some degree what they are working on, however they can only move onto the next level of a subject once they've passed the 'works' that come before it. The grading of a work involves marking problems correct and incorrect. Note that this is 1st - 3rd grades

"I mean, if the tests have 100% coverage, there's no problem with the education only covering what's on the test, right?"

No. There are many books on the problems with high-stakes testing, and covering the 'right' material is only one out of many issues.

So what are the other issues?

Way too many to list. Also, there are many different types of standardized testing, and each has its own set of benefits and drawbacks.

If you want to read a more intellectual take on the issues with high stakes testing, Alfie Kohn has some good books on this. If you want to know the specific problems with No Child Left Behind, then Diane Ravitch's new book probably does a good job explaining it. But it's difficult to really understand the issue without reading a lot of different books on education in general, since testing by definition is designed to enforce its own normative preconceptions.

What you are describing in your last paragraph sounds a lot like Khanacademy...

the root problem is that school funding and teacher's reviews are linked to the students' performance on standardised tests. another significant problem that this causes is that teachers who work with the kids who most needed it are harshly penalised by the way the metrics are structured (e.g. someone working with troubled kids from poor backgrounds, who manages to raise their standardised test scores from an F to a C, and, more importantly, taught them how to learn, will still be rated far worse than someone who has simply drilled a classroom full of bored upper middle class kids till they can do well on the tests (whether or not they have actually learnt anything))

this article, for example, is a good read on the subject: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/06/27/ed...

...someone working with troubled kids from poor backgrounds, who manages to raise their standardised test scores from an F to a C...

Such a teacher will receive a very high score according to most modern Value Added Modelling assessments (such as the one the article complains about).

In fact, it's the teachers of upper middle class kids who are hurt the most by VAM. If the VAM predictor says your student average should be 95/100, it's hard for your students to beat that by a significant margin.

I don't understand funding based on performance on standardised tests. I mean it's one thing if you double-blind it, but who wants to be the parents of the kid in the control group who get zero education to see how well the teachers actually improved their students abilities.

The only reprieve I have for standardises testing in the UK was that a teachers opinion of you doesn't reflect on your ability to get grades. I was a d-average student in one of my classes. I never got marked well for my essays, etc. I took the exam expecting failure and received a B, comparing with friends I found I was only a few marks short of an A. The teacher never liked me, because he never liked my brother, because my brother was a cocky asshole. If I'd have been graded by him, I would have failed.

I'm curious what is so different in Texas and California math where a full 1/3 of the curriculum is different? Is it manifest in the difference when these students get to colleges?

I'm not sure, but it could be that the math text books are just plain bad. I did a rant about this a few years ago when a friend was homeschooling her kids: http://boston.conman.org/2004/01/21.1


Great Feynman quotes!

Its the third that's bible-based maths. :-/

Well at some point you are always teaching to a test of some sort. If I teach my students about X I will test them on X (either through extended pieces of work or through tests and exams) and not Y.

The trouble with many texts is that they aren't tailored to any particular course (mainly I imagine because courses vary so greatly even within countries). This is why it's really great to see lots of resources like Khan Acadamy out there where things are more focused on concepts rather than courses and you can pick and choose what you need to learn about.

One of the problems with teaching that I've seen since I started is that many people produce their own sets of resources, but there's very little sharing going on when you consider the total population. Considering the networks of really knowledgable people out there, we really don't need textbooks; we just need smart people willing to collaborate more and the technology to make that accessible.

Edit: With some afterthought, some of this is probably a systemic problem with the bureauracy which has large scale contracts with publishers and so on, and thus little interest in using the resource they already have (ie their teachers).

When implementing some new courses here in Westeran Australia the department of education implemented groups of teachers to produce sample material, but it wasn't particularly well funded or promoted nearly well enough to make it very successful, and it was only accessible to other government schools and not independent and religious schools (Catholic, Anglican systems etc). It would have been nice (and completely surprising) for the systems to work together or set up an independent body to manage something like this.

Why is the material taught different? Surely all kids should need to learn the same information.

Why is Minnesota cutting out so much of the math that California and Texas teaching? The students often end up going to the same colleges, where they will need to do the same work?

Off the top of my head: could be a breadth/depth thing, could be that the books are a union of California and Texas (in which case CA and TX also have the problem of unused chapters), or it could be that the time not spent on those chapters is spent on something that MN brings in with supplemental reading already or just teaches without a textbook.

It almost certainly isn't just that MN is a simple subset of the CA/TX material, or else the Byron district's scores wouldn't have gone up from the new material.

I went to school in Minnesota, and I think I know what they're talking about, at least when it comes to the math curriculum: we never had a trigonometry class. Sure we learned trigonometry, but it was never a dedicated class. Instead it was always a unit attached to what we were currently working on, whenever it made sense.

End result: we learned the same material, just in a different order.

Because no one actually knows exactly what the best things to learn are for human beings. Plus, it's constantly changing.

Secondly, different teachers have different experiences and teach differently. We're human!

How could it be the same? The only way I see is to remove as many human elements as possible (teachers most notably). Are we headed that way?

Why is the material taught different?

States are the ones responsible for picking what material to teach their children. This is why material can be different.

There is so much that we could teach our children, there isn't a clearly defined set of "This is what is best to teach them", so different people will produce different sets of things to teach. This is why material is different.

Perhaps Texas only teaches addition, California only teach subtraction - they used to also include multiplication and division but the kids tested poorly on those and it was dragging the grades down.

I suppose (well, hope) that the point of these statements is that their curriculum differs in some aspects. Maths (like all topics in school) is too wide to teach everything, so they had to pick their battles.

The 30% that aren't covered in the mass market books have to be provided by the teachers as additional material, while 30% of the books are not used in school. For $65, I'd expect more, too.

On the upside: Assuming that the additional material isn't provided centrally, these teachers who wrote the book have more exposure to writing course work than their colleagues in Texas, who get optimized books.

I think it's great that these teachers are taking initiative to make up for the system's deficiency (i.e. expensive textbooks targeted towards the biggest markets). However, I agree with this - I would hope that the goal would be enhancing learning, understanding, and appreciation of the subjects as opposed to passing the standardized tests. Granted, the two are not exclusive, but I think focusing on the first is more likely to lead to the second than the other way around.

Yeah there are hundreds of examples of open textbooks for both the K-12 and college levels. It's nice to see a few school districts (and colleges - like Western Governors) officially adopting them and replacing the old books. However, again, thousands of instructors are already doing so individually ('edupunks' :)

Here are some open textbook sites:





Related are the many wiki-based books & notes created in or for courses. For example:



Here's a curated list of open texts for mathematics: http://linear.ups.edu/curriculum.html

Is there a process of iterative refinement for any of these books?

Perhaps a useful idea would be some kind of version control system; allowing people to fix errors, trim needless fluff, and improve examples.

This could be funded by schools and by philanthropic grants.

How long before textbook publishers start threatening to sue districts that use these sorts of texts? Or start playing with prices, such that districts are 100% "publisher X" get discount pricing, while other districts get "a la carte" pricing at 3-5x other districts?

Yes, I'm a bit far out about this stuff, but education is big business and the more this sort of idea spreads, the more it erodes publishers' profits - they'll fight back sooner or later (maybe it's already happening?)

What would they sue them for? Not adequately meeting requirements of niche markets?

If that were an actionable offense, you'd be able to sue half the startups in Silicon Valley.

This situation reminds me of the telcos suing local governments for trying to provide broadband services to their constituents. Never mind the fact they local governments where only doing it because the telcos were neglecting them as they were too small a market to bother with...


Exactly what I thought. They'll sue because government, through its public employee teachers, are competing with business.

A) you can bring a lawsuit for anything - just the threat of tying up small districts might "keep them in line".

B) there may have been some unspoken agreements with earlier decision makers which, while not contractual, might still constitute some good faith issue.

I really think there's probably less a chance of lawsuits specifically, and more likely variable pricing, with "use of free texts" thrown in as an equation that's not shared with anyone but mgt and sales teams.

> What would they sue them for? Not adequately meeting requirements of niche markets?

These people would lose their very lucrative business. They'd let their lawyers figure out something to sue for, but the decision to find some way to sue would be based on the prospect of losing sales, not on knowing what legal wrong they had suffered.

Remember SCO? They kept up that lawsuit for about a decade. Good lawyers can find some reason to sue.

Typical solution would be to introduce a requirement that teaching materials had to meet some national standard- for the good of the children - the standard would of course be set by the major publishers and the certification wouldn't be available to anyone else.

My thoughts exactly.

I don't know about lawsuits but I do expect increased lobbying of the state legislatures to make it illegal. They certainly won't just take these changes lying down.

I'd also be afraid they'd put lobbying efforts into state legislatures to make home grown text books illegal or set standards that are difficult to meet for teachers and which are easy for big publishers.

One of the physics teachers at my school wrote a textbook for his students. He did so because he wasn't happy with whatever you can buy. I haven't taken the class yet, but it's supposed to be one of the best at my school.

The district won't let him sell the book to his students, so they have to print it out online. (It's here for anyone that's interested: http://www.tamdistrict.org/Page/3217)

I have little doubt that a group of people well educated in any given subject can do better than the average high-school text book. They're often riddled, not just with mistakes, but fundamentally wrong lessons. First year university physics courses often review a substantial amount of high-school material to correct fundamental mistakes in students understanding of the basics.

I think the problem lies with the notion that people who teach physics are more qualified to write a text-book than people who do physics. The result is a pretty text-book that uses all the latest teaching tricks, but teaches things that are wrong.

I'd like to see text-book companies moderate some kind of collaboration between teachers and do'ers to produce a book that is both correct in its content and easy for students to learn from. In a sense, first year physics profs can also be viewed as the ultimate consumers of minds educated by high-school texts. They have a good idea of what students need to learn in high-school to be well grounded in their subject area for their first year of university. Instead, we design text-books to help students perform well in standardized tests that frequently prioritize the wrong things and make the same mistakes as text-book writers.

I have a U.S. history textbook that starts off every chapter by listing the California standard that will be covered.

It's pretty lame, but the good teachers are totally capable of making sure they cover the standards that people seem to value so much, while still teaching they're own unique experience or style. It just sucks because first year teachers are handed the bare curriculum/standards/readings and don't realize how much freedom they have to make it way better.

>I have little doubt that a group of people well educated in any given subject can do better than the average high-school text book. //

I don't understand this comment. The only person I know that's involved in creating high-school textbooks (UK) is certified by the subjects professional body and has 40 years experience teaching their subject; as well of course as a Uni education in the subject.

People writing textbooks are surely (paraphrasing) 'groups of people well educated in the given subject' with years of experience teaching the material? If not, what on Earth are they doing writing textbooks?

Also why don't States just buy in the whole syllabus and materials that other States have developed and save their time and money - it's not like Physics or Mathematics or whatever is a different subject according to the State you live in.

> First year university physics courses often review a substantial amount of high-school material to correct fundamental mistakes in students understanding of the basics.

Partly this is because physics is hard and people use analogy or simplified models. These are fine for high-school understanding, but more advanced students need correct understanding.

How do the kids cope with the book being online? Last year my wife, who's a Biology/Chemistry teacher ran out of books. Cause the kids take them, never bring them back and the school doesn't enforce any kind of book return policy. Anyways, she ran out of physical books to give her kids and tried to get them to use an online version of the books. Magically 90% of the students had no internet access. Mind you these are kids with iPhones and Android smartphones. The book was pdf and was accessible through any web browser. The kids ended up complaining and the school ended up finding the money to buy new books.

Lazy kids have the power to change a lot :)

I think kids are supposed to print out the relevant chapter before a lesson. It's probably a waste of paper, but at least the teacher can make sure everyone has the reading in class.

I've never actually seen a digital learning experience, whether it's a textbook or online lesson or whatever else, work. Things like the Khan Academy are great but you have to be motivated to use them. It's too easy for people to blame their inability to focus on the technology being hard to use.

I'm reading it now, and this is a great little book.

I particularly like how many of the illustrations and examples came from students (presumably course projects of some sort) in earlier iterations of the course.

Yeah I think one of the assignments at the end of the year is to take a photo demonstrating some physics property. There is some really cool photos that come out of it, and he puts the best in the book.

my general relativity prof in grad school used our class to beta test his new textbook-in-progress. it was nice because we got free photocopies of each chapter, and in return were expected to point out mistakes etc.

Oblig. feyman link on textbooks in schools: http://www.textbookleague.org/103feyn.htm

As someone with a failed education startup in my past, this makes me deliriously happy. It means that there are still teachers out there who haven't had all the initiative beaten out of them yet.

That said, yes, education publishing is a huge business. It's really only a matter of time until the publishers take over the digital publishing space, too.

On the one hand this is brilliant and a good 'rebuttal' to the expensive textbook market. I think that this style works particularily well with subjects such as Maths where there is little to no disagreement or controversy on the subject matter taught (unlike say biology in the USA).

But that raises a concern of mine, where every school creates their own textbook, they are free to include their own side or angle of a particular topic, much to the detriment of their students. Sure this can be done in the current situation, but I would wager it would be easier to get experts to review one or a handful of textbooks rather than one for every school.

Maybe some sort of cooperative organisation is what is required here, to share the best of the cooperatively created textbooks around.

>> But that raises a concern of mine, where every school creates their own textbook, they are free to include their own side or angle of a particular topic

True, but who's to say a major publisher has experts and know what they're doing? Signs point to the fact that they don't.

Also, they all have to teach to the standardized tests anyway, so they don't have a massive amount of say.

a third of the books go unused in Minnesota

The regional issues raised in this article are a great example of how computers still have a lot of world-changing to do. Doing things the old-fashioned way is sometimes just senseless when there's an alternative.

I applaud the effort, but I will bet money on a follow-up story about a copyright lawsuit filed by some publisher.

My guess is that suing free textbooks out of existence will be a losing proposition on every level, so nobody will try.

Obviously, the optics will be terrible for the textbook company. That's problem one.

Problem two: The first strategy of a lawsuit is scorched-earth: Force your opponent to settle out of fear of legal expenses or an unpredictable jury. But:

Foundation Executive Director Neeru Khosla said the foundation started five years ago because she and her husband, Vinod Khosla, the founding CEO of Sun Microsystems, wanted to improve math and science education in the country.

Gosh, I wonder if Neeru and Vinod Khosla know any IP lawyers who'd be willing to help their nonprofit foundation defend some public schoolteachers?

The remaining strategy is to win the case. Maybe one of the schoolteachers was actually foolish enough to copy a whole chapter from a copyrighted book. Oops. Congratulations, that book goes off the web [1]...

... to be replaced by a different book with a new version of the infringing chapter, written by a completely different schoolteacher.

Given that mathematics is hardly a trade secret, it's going to be hard to squelch all of it.

The textbook companies should save their money for lobbyists and free gifts.


[1] I wonder if the foundation hosting this textbook has a DMCA safe harbor defense. You would think so. But this is probably a good place to point out that I Am Not A Lawyer, IP Or Otherwise, So I Know Nothing.

That strategy isn't as cost-effective as sending the principal to Cancun for a "conference."

A compelling article. I'd love to see open-source textbooks on github/bitbucket to be built to html/pdf and easily portable to kindle/ipad, etc, etc. The ability for students to submit bugs and patches would be awesome and empowering for them.

This type of approach seems to beg for collaboration between schools. If something like this can be done for such a fraction of the normal price, what's stopping a school from molding this existing text to their own curriculum or building their own book from a repository of texts and other existing "open-source" books? Then they could allocate spending elsewhere.

I remember seeing Clifford Stoll on CSPAN saying something along the lines of "Rich Schools will have good teachers, poor schools will just have computers."

The article reminds me that this will extend to textbooks.


I'm curious about how an Amazon Publishing house stepping into the education arena might offer some disruption to the Texas Board of Education on their indirect grip on textbook standards. I suppose there is a chance of lobbing being replaced by a gaming of the system, as it were, but it might allow more visibility into the content that is being used in the your child's district. There is still the problem of the electronic media versus physical copies but maybe a Raspberry PI at ~$25 would make it more appealing.

I've been waiting for something like this to happen. If the teachers' unions could get behind this on a national level and coordinate the creation of open access online texts for all subjects, then I might start thinking that they're something other than dinosaurs worthy of extinction. They have no reason to support the publishers' goals of keeping prices high since less money spent on textbooks is more money that can be spent on salaries, and their political power would counterbalance the corporate lobbying.

Maybe I missed it in the article, but what online tool were they using to develop the textbook?

Maybe I missed it in the article, but what online tool were they using to develop the textbook?

The tool is called CK-12 FlexBooks, and the link


is near the bottom of the submitted article.

They seem to have used something called Flexbook from the ck-12 foundation [1] mentioned in the article; here's some tutorial videos [2]. Here's a link to their text [3].

I'm actually not a big fan of the text. I skimmed it a bit and I don't think it's as well written as one might hope for. In particular, I hate when formulas just appear with no explanation of how they where derived, and in sections 1.2 to 1.3, the use of big names such as "Fundamental Counting Principle" makes stuff sound more intimidating than it is. I think the discussion about the cardinality of the sample space when you have events that are order sensitive vs order insensitive (ie just counting permutations) could be clearer. Nonetheless, it's an awesome start and the teachers involved should be congratulated.

[1] http://ck-12.org

[2] http://www.ck12.org/about/tutorials

[3] http://print.ck12.org/www/2630552d0bf13d39a2850c0e9f0a523f.p...


The thing that I was most amazed at in schools was the lack of sharing resources. There was very little sharing between teachers in the same school and even less between schools.

This seems like a massive waste of time as most of these teachers spend a large amount of time creating these resources and most of these schools teach very similar syllabuses.

Creating resources like this textbook is a great step forward, if more teachers could collaborate to create really great resources it would not only improve the education provided to students but also free up teachers from spending all of their time creating custom resources.

It should be a requirement to be hired as a teacher that a person be capable of writing (or significantly contributing to) a quality textbook of the subject matter they are going to teach.

It's a mystery to me why school textbooks are not a solved problem, after 100 years and tens of thousands of schools.

Book Manufacturers instead of worrying about what this might do to the book industry, it'll help if they think how to make it an advantge to us. Tweaking always helps:)

This is great but the reality is also, "Professors write their own textbook, cost students $175,000 and an arm"

I don't understand. It doesn't mean the district spent less of their budget, it just means it can spend it on more meaningful things like promoting sports and the arts.

You don't understand. What happens is that once the teachers/professors (this happens more often in universities) realize that they can force the students to use their textbook, they do a deal with a publishing company and sell the book to the students for $120 a pop.

Yeah, this is unfortunately common, but it's also fairly common for professors to give their students a free book, or one that costs whatever the university bookstore charges for printing a spiral-bound softcover book. That usually happens with professors whose class notes grew over the years to the point where they basically formed a textbook, but for various reasons (disinterest, saturated market, etc.) they didn't take the final step of actually publishing a textbook.

The €5 textbooks I buy from my professors have consistently been the best textbooks, much better than the €120 textbooks in other courses.

Instead of mass-produced textbooks, the more than 3,100 sophomores in the state's largest district are learning from an online curriculum [...] distributed over the web.

I thought the whole point of the article is that the alternative taken up was a digital one. The scenario you describe seems unlikely, and very cynical.

Maybe unlikely in this particular case, but plenty of college professors write their own books and then make them required reading for their students.

This is why the licensing of the text is absolutely crucial. Unfortunately the article didn't mention it at all.

Or pop machines!

Okay, the book they wrote is at


and I started reading it.


No one should take a course from that book. The authors of the book don't know the subject.

That book won't be a prerequisite for anything important.

So, if want a first course in probability and statistics, then get a college textbook and/or just go to college.

More generally, in college in the US, in math, physical science, and engineering, quite good texts are easy to find, and the best texts are excellent. Moreover, the prerequisites for college are quite basic, essentially just the '3Rs' where for 'rithmetic' we do include algebra and plane geometry (trigonometry and solid geometry would also be good).

So, in K-12, just get the 3Rs and then start with college texts and/or just college.

In particular, for anything much past the 3Rs, just f'get about K-12. Bluntly, as illustrated by the book of this thread, the K-12 system is rarely able to teach anything worthwhile much beyond just the basic 3Rs.

This conclusion is not new: Once I looked at AP calculus. Don't. The people who wrote the AP calculus materials don't understand calculus. Instead, for calculus, just get a good college text and dig in. I learned from Johnson and Kiokemeister, taught from Protter and Morrey, and have seen several other good college calculus texts, e.g., from Thomas. When I was studying and, later, teaching calculus in college, there was no shortage of good texts. Just why K-12 has so much trouble getting good calculus texts is strange and tragic.

Once I looked at some materials on optimization, i.e., linear programming, developed by the K-12 system in North Carolina. Don't. Those materials fill several much needed gaps on the library shelves and would be illuminating if ignited. The authors didn't understand linear programming.

The site


has some excellent quotes from Feynman looking at K-12 texts. Feynman was correct, and apparently the situation has not changed.

My qualifications: I hold a Ph.D. from one of the world's best research universities; there I did research on optimization and also on stochastic optimal control. For calculus, I've done well studying it, advanced calculus, and well beyond, taught calculus in college, applied calculus in business and to problems of US national security, and published peer-reviewed original research using calculus. For optimization, I've studied it at advanced levels, applied it in both in business to problems of US national security, taught it in college and graduate school, and published peer-reviewed original research in it. My startup has some original, crucial, core, powerful, valuable 'secret sauce' that is based on some advanced topics in applied math including 'analysis' (way past calculus), probability, and statistics.

Not everybody on HN is able to judge textbook's quality, so I'd like to clarify:

There's nothing wrong with relative quality of this textbook, compared to regular high school textbooks on this subject. The thing is, all high school textbooks are total crap.

I wouldn't go as far as to state that author don't know the subject (although, saying from experience, it's highly likely). The problem is that they don't teach anything substantial, and what they do teach, is vague and unclear. The chapter about distributions and density functions is total nonsense.

Serious probability course covers all contents of this book on one or two 2-hours lectures, in much, much more general setting (i.e., probability being the measure on measurable space). This book seems to be meant for 40 hours (one hour per section). It's not like undergraduates are 20 times smarter than high school kids. They just want to learn it, or at least to get a passing grade. The same is the case with high school kids, but the amount of actual work to get a passing grade there is negligible, and they're motivated accordingly. High school teachers cannot just give a failing grade to 80% of her class, because it would mean that there's a problem with her, not with her students. She also cannot depend on necessary prerequisites to serious probability theory to be already known, because it's not, just like university professors cannot depend on probability to be known, because if one learns from books like this, it's not. Without system reform, there's not much that can be done from bottom up.

I'm not versed in the entire complexity of the issue at hand here, but isn't putting the text book in the hands of teachers a kind of reform?

Wouldn't having a teacher, or teachers, write their own text books give them better control over what to teach?

Couldn't a collection of teacher add something to the curriculum through the text book and watch it get adopted higher up structurally based mostly on the fact that if the teachers teaching those students specifically added material they found was necessary then it must be important enough to require it officially.

The story is written as a money saving venture first, and then a better alignment of course material to state standards, but I'd also like to think it might democratize what those state standards should be amongst a population of professionals who interact on a daily basis with the people who have to test against those standards.

You're qualifications also include using the name HilbertSpace [1] on Hacker News.

Seriously though, I've recently graduated from an undergraduate institution where the mathematics courses were rigorous and proof based. While I thought I was learning a lot of math in High School (I was working hard, which should mean I was learning, right?), it did very little to prepare me for any sort of real mathematics. I think this was a function of both the textbooks and the teachers.

However, when I entered college, for most of my mathematics courses, the professors taught out of their own books. Some of these were published texts, but most were collections of notes they had refined over years of teaching. In every case, I much preferred these to doing math from a random textbook. The professors just taught better when they were using their own book.

Part of this may be that better professors are more likely to write their own book. However, I think there actually would be value from K-12 teachers writing or at least collaborating on the main body of their course material. It might help to remove the scenario where a student asks a teacher a question, and they give an answer that directly contradicts what is said in the book.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilbert_space

Glad you learned some math in college.

Commonly in K-12, the best 'math' taught is plane geometry because there, at least when it's a theorem proving course instead of paper cutouts, which sometimes happens, can see in clear terms the roles of the big three -- definitions, theorems, and proofs. You can also see the role of one more -- intuition, especially its best form, geometric intuition. Right: Intuition doesn't prove anything, but it can be one of the best ways to guess what is true and how to prove it. For more, eventually you can get a useful intuitive feeling for a topic.



which at face value is supposed to be about women in math but describes Harvard's Math 55. At least at one time for that course the three main texts were:

Paul R. Halmos, 'Finite-Dimensional Vector Spaces, Second Edition', D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., Princeton, New Jersey.

Walter Rudin, 'Principles of Mathematical Analysis, Third Edition', McGraw-Hill.

Michael Spivak, 'Calculus on Manifolds: A Modern Approach to Classical Theorems of Advanced Calculus', W. A. Benjamin, New York.

Working successfully through those three is quite sufficient to understand proof-based college math!

Those three are all old; in particular Halmos wrote the first edition of his book in 1942 when he was an assistant to von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study.

I had Rudin's book in college but later rushed to work carefully through both Halmos and Spivak ASAP after college.

Instead of Spivak, I preferred:

Wendell H. Fleming, 'Functions of Several Variables', Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts.

Might also consider:

Lynn H. Loomis and Shlomo Sternberg, 'Advanced Calculus', ISBN 0-201-04305-X, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts.

For exterior algebra, now can get in English:

Henri Cartan, 'Differential Forms', ISBN 0-486-45010-4, Dover, Mineola, NY.

Since mentioned Halmos and since this thread is about probability and statistics, should mention that Halmos was one of the best in those topics in the US in the 20th century.

Halmos was a student of J. Doob at University of Illinois as in:

J. L. Doob, 'Stochastic Processes', John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1953.

and has a very nice start on probability in:

Paul R. Halmos, 'Measure Theory', D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., Princeton, NJ, 1950.

Halmos also wrote:

Paul R. Halmos, "The Theory of Unbiased Estimation", 'Annals of Mathematical Statistics', Volume 17, Number 1, pages 34-43, 1946.

and also the crucial:

Paul R. Halmos and L. J. Savage, "Application of the Radon-Nikodym Theorem to the Theory of Sufficient Statistics", Annals of Mathematical Statistics, Volume 20, Number 2, 225-241, 1949.

Yes 'Finite-Dimensional Vector Spaces' is really a finite dimensional introduction to Hilbert space which mostly have to attribute to von Neumann (who once reminded Hilbert what it was).

The set of all real valued random variables X such that E[X^2] is finite forms a Hilbert space. The amazing part is completeness, and there is a proof in:

Walter Rudin, 'Real and Complex Analysis', ISBN 07-054232-5, McGraw-Hill, New York.

which also has a nice chapter on Hilbert space.

Yes, having professors write their own books is now more common and can make a course more efficient for the students. It was long the case that a student had to copy the 'text' off the board or just take notes and turn them into a text. Now with TeX and LaTeX, PDF, and the Internet, finally the word whacking for the math can often be less work than the math!

Still, it will be difficult to improve on some of the best texts, e.g., Halmos. Rudin went through at least three editions of his 'Principles', and the level of polish started high and increased. A good book is actually NOT easy to write.

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