Computer scientist and journalist Meredith Broussard recently wrote a skeptical perspective on the uses and benefits of computers called Artificial Unintelligence.

One of the stories she tells where technology has failed to help is about parts of the American school system in Philadelphia. She discusses an attempt to use data to improve local school standards (as measured by standardised tests). She reports:

After six months of this, I discovered that the test could be gamed. Not by using a beat-the-test strategy, but by a shockingly low-tech strategy: reading the textbook that contains the answers.

So the standardised scores can be raise significantly by having access to the right books. But this is a problem (perhaps not just for Philadelphia):

One of those problems—shared by districts in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities—is that many schools don’t have enough money to buy books.

She reports that a single book The Elements of Literature costs $115 but that in 2012-13 her local school had an allocation of jut $30 per student to buy books for all subjects not just literature. And the book budget was eliminated entirely in the next two years.

Her argument is partly that technological magic bullets don't usually fix many key problems. But, more specifically, that parts of the American school system have a very obvious way to improve their performance–make sure all students have access to the right textbooks–but fail to achieve it.

The USA is one of the richest countries in the developed world. Can it really be true that the quality of its education in many regions is held back by something as simple as a lack of textbooks?


Broussard's argument is also summarised in this article in The Atlantic (which is more accessible if you don't have the book). While the issue of whether teaching from textbooks related to standardised tests rather than providing a good general education is an issue and, perhaps, an important one, it isn't the question here.

Given that this is how the USA measures educational achievement and given that textbooks seem essential to achieving good performance, do schools have enough books? Perhaps they should educate people differently but that is not the question here (feel free to pose the separately as a new question). The question is: do schools typically have enough books to do a good job given the current system?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Oddthinking
    Sep 3, 2018 at 3:25
  • Reminder: Comments are for improving the question, not expressing your political views about educational institutions.
    – Oddthinking
    Sep 3, 2018 at 3:26
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    Please make it more clear how the second quote does not already answer your question. (The last sentence is now a bit mushy. How about 'enough' … 'as measured by'/ 'required by law'?) Sep 3, 2018 at 11:41
  • @LangLangC IF the quote is true then the question is answered. The question is: is that statement true? That quote is the claim. More specifically, given the tight relationship between having enough of the right books to do well in standardised tests: do schools typically have enough books for their students to do well in the tests? And it isn't the law that requires the books it is the performance in tests.
    – matt_black
    Sep 3, 2018 at 11:47
  • Ah. But: "Test performance" may introduce another variable here. That is perhaps less axiomatic and more confounded as believed. –– Spitballing: Has every student the needed textbooks? Are there provisions for every student to access a textbook? Is that provided by public funding if the student's family is too poor to buy it for themselves? In any case, I believe a harder and/or more direct criterion for "enough" might be better. Sep 3, 2018 at 11:56

1 Answer 1


I will not comment on Broussard's larger argument, but the factual question about textbooks is straightforward. Yes, it is common for local school districts in the United States to lack adequate textbooks by the standards of any advanced industrial country. Even where the number of textbooks is adequate for the size of the student population, the quality may not be, i.e. old and outdated books are used.

This issue has been more or less considered common knowledge here in the United States for decades and has been widely reported in the press. In April 2018 the New York Times published an article with several examples of the problem from around the country, including photos of the textbooks in use. Here is a sample of other news stories from local outlets over the last few years, of which many more can easily be found:

I have not yet seen an independent, nationwide assessment of the problem. However going back to 1996, a groups representing textbook publishers and a teacher's trade union conducted a survey of 878 teachers.

Sixteen percent of the teachers who responded to the survey said they did not have enough textbooks for their students, and 46 percent of the teachers reported that they were unable to assign homework because there were not enough textbooks for students to take home.


The survey also found that 25 percent of the teachers reported using textbooks that were more than 10 years old. Slightly more than half the teachers said their students were exposed to outdated information as a result of using old textbooks.

You also raise the question of how such a thing is possible. Here it may be helpful to keep in mind that public school administration in the United States is highly decentralized. The federal government provides less than 10% of the money that supports public schools. Often the states and cities with the greatest need also have the weakest local tax base. In middle-class suburban communities, textbook shortages are rare because these local districts are the most able to adequately fund their schools.

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    My surprise at reports of the frequent lack of sufficient textbooks in many American schools is greatly lessened by your reminder that this is a feature not a bug: once the tax base that pays for schools is mostly local it almost guarantees that the areas that need the most educational improvement are the ones who can least afford it.
    – matt_black
    Sep 4, 2018 at 17:08
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    An important question here is how much of this is due to lack of funding and how much is due to lost/destroyed/stolen textbooks? Sep 5, 2018 at 0:02
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    @LorenPechtel the inability to replace lost/destroyed/stolen textbooks implies a lack of funding. There must be some "spillage" built into the budget of any system in which children manage assets.
    – Tashus
    Sep 6, 2018 at 1:24
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    @Tashus Of course there must be allowance for some breakage. The problem is the schools with shortages tend to have high breakage rates. Sep 6, 2018 at 4:14
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    @SalvadorDali: subjects for which the textbook manufacturers makes the "standardized" tests. That's the actual point of Boussard's article. "standardized tests are not based on general knowledge. As I learned in the course of my investigation, they are based on specific knowledge contained in specific sets of books: the textbooks created by the test makers. All of this has to do with the economics of testing. Across the nation, standardized tests come from one of three companies" Sep 12, 2018 at 13:20

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