Tossing Out Textbooks

from Technology & Learning

How a Tucson high school customized its curriculum around its laptop program.

In 2005, Tucson, Arizona's Empire High School made headlines for its decision to forgo textbooks in favor of the digital resources that a wireless one-to-one environment could make possible. Now in its third year, this "inverted" curricular model designed around the laptop program has proven key to innovation and is recognized community wide as necessary and natural to success.

In early 2004, Matt Federoff, the director of technology for Arizona's growing Vail School District, the district's superintendents, and Cindy Lee, the designated principal of the district's soon-to-be-opened Empire High School, visited four one-to-one programs. Although Empire High School's mission—"to provide teachers with a variety of resources and to prepare students for the real world"—differed from the more traditional goals of the other schools, Federoff, Lee, and the superintendents saw one-to-one as key for real-world preparation.

They brainstormed ways they might fund such a program—and more important, exactly how they might utilize it to meet their district-wide goal. They concluded that if they got rid of textbooks and computer labs they would have nearly enough to pay for the laptop program. But, without textbooks, where would the curriculum come from?

Federoff remembers this as a crucial moment. Keeping their goal in mind, they decided to develop a curriculum driven by state standards and to use resources, whether print or digital, that align with those standards.

The community trusted Empire High School when it tossed its textbooks—now the program is a model district-wide.


For Empire, the math worked. Doing away with textbooks saved approximately $500 a student, which left only a $300 discrepancy between that and the $800 laptop price it cost to purchase the computers through the Arizona School Facilities Board. To raise additional funds, the district sold land it owned.

Federoff notes that parent and community support has been central to the program's success. The district has garnered tremendous outside support by actively soliciting parent feedback and participation. Bond override elections have passed at a ratio of four to one. "We don't think we are smarter than our community," he said, "so when we want to do crazy things like throw out our textbooks, our community trusts us to do that."

The Hardware/Software Model

The 737 students who attend Empire are issued Apple iBooks for use in classrooms that feature movable seminar tables, lots of outlets, and a projector to which the laptops can connect. Students are required to purchase laptop insurance from the school for $80. In the case of damage, students are responsible to pay a $100 deductible. The school employs an Applecertified repair technician and uses the money collected through the self-insurance policy to pay for parts and theft.

Each laptop comes loaded with Microsoft's Office 2004, Apple's iLife '08 (which includes GarageBand, iMovie, iDVD, iWeb, and iPhoto) and iWork '08 (which includes Pages and Keynote), and Adobe's Macromedia Dreamweaver. Students use these programs to do group work and multimedia projects, to take class notes, and to develop presentations. They also use the laptops to retrieve and complete assignments and to send them back to teachers through Pearson's PowerSchool Webbased student information system.

Homegrown Curriculum

Teachers develop curriculum largely through Web sites and free digital resources. "For many of the content areas there is so much free material out there," Lee says. Teachers found themselves often having students work with online primary documents and peer-reviewed sites rather than reading pages in a textbook. "Our kids have the opportunity to do more higher-level thinking and be more independent learners," continues Lee.

The school did look into course-specific, prepackaged digital resources but didn't find anything that met its needs. Instead, the school found that teachers and administrators could create the content based on state standards, and the result was a new approach to instruction.

Teachers at Empire High School developed a digital curriculum driven by state standards, built around its laptop program.

Professional Development

Professional development technically began before the school was completed. Lee interviewed candidates with an eye toward those with high standards, a vision, and a gift for working with kids. Technology skills were not high on the priority list.

Before the school doors opened, Lee established a base curriculum by working for eight months with a group of nine in-district hires. With regular meetings and communication, the group calendared state standards by quarters, and then matched them up with a range of customized resources. This group was charged with mentoring others who came onboard.

Vail's district calendar includes a short eight-week summer, with all staff required to work the week before school starts in late July. Much of this preschool week was also devoted to finding and developing additional curriculum resources—primarily from multiple online resources. One exception to the in-house resource development is the school's subscription to the online databases offered by ABCCLIO. The history publisher offers multimedia databases, reference information, and teacher resources to schools in history, geography, and social studies, and has become the main component of Empire's social studies curriculum. In math, teachers also use the McDougal Littell CDs to create assignments. But for most disciplines, they employ a multitude of free online resources.

With most of the professional development done in-house, time was set aside as needs arose. "We talked a lot, and the administration was highly involved in classrooms from the beginning," Lee says, "so we really knew how it was going and when it was time to attack a problem or give people a break."

Going Forward

As more and more resources become available online, both Federoff and Lee expect curricular materials to improve and hope that vendors will begin to use the model set by ABCCLIO, which offers educators catalogued resources rather than canned lesson plans. "Bits and pieces are critical to this metaphor," Federoff says. "I don't want the whole package. Think of iTunes. I want one song on side two, not the whole album." He also looks forward to a day when the hardware will be smaller and more durable.

Federoff is very much a realist, recognizing that technology alone cannot transform education and that it's a challenge to get past preconceived notions of how high schools should run. Of getting Empire up and running, he says, "I knew there was more that I couldn't see. I think we're a little closer. I can see a little further now."

Tom McHale is an educator in New Jersey.



Adobe Education

Apple Education

Empire High School

McDougal Littell

PowerSchool (Pearson)

Vail School District