Ottumwa school district file photo

OTTUMWA — Anyone who has ever used a high school textbook knows what kind of state they’re in: hardly bound, covered in graffiti and filled with photos from another decade. So what happens when they need to be replaced?

Recently, the high school science department has had to answer that very question.

Marci Dunlap, secondary curriculum director for the Ottumwa school district, said keeping instructional materials up to date is a problem for every department, but it’s especially challenging for science teachers. This is largely because of the nature of the field.

For example, the current OHS biology textbooks are 11 years out of date. While this wouldn’t affect fields like math, which change very little over time, the fact that science is such a rapidly evolving field means the books are missing a number of key concepts, which teachers had to supplement with units they’ve created from outside sources.

“There’s no end to what teachers will do to develop the right type of learning situation for the students,” said Dunlap.

However, things have been changing at the state level. That’s pushed these books even further out of date.

Starting several years ago, the state of Iowa mandated all public schools update their teaching materials to match its new Next Generation Science Standards. These new standards take a different approach to science instruction, with a focus on critical thinking and real-world applications of concepts.

Where textbooks in the past tended to discuss ideas without tying them together, NGSS textbooks take a “3-D learning” approach. Under this new model, each chapter is introduced with its central concept, which is discussed in terms of its real-world applications as the chapter progresses. Then, unlike textbooks in the past, the chapter’s ideas are tied to concepts from other chapters so a student can get a sense for how interconnected the ideas are.

According to Dunlap, much of what drives the push is also an effort to make students better at reading technical, nonfiction material, a crucial skill which many simply lack.

“If you think about the science subtest on the ACT, so much of that is reading and interpreting graphs and drawing conclusions from the data, and it really is abstract thinking,” she said. “It might sound juvenile, but having a text with good graphics is really important for science reading.”

At OHS, replacing the biology textbooks fell on the teachers. Since each instructor is well versed in the state’s new science standards, they received a number of sample copies from different publishers and vetted each one themselves. They did so with a rubric that measured how well each book matched the NGSS, as well as other criteria like readability.

The selection they made, which should replace the current books at the end of this school year, comes with an extensive online copy students will be able to access from their Chromebooks. This e-book comes with other student resources like practice quizzes and study aides like flashcards. Since each student will have access to an e-book, each biology classroom will receive a single physical set, instead of each student receiving their own book.

This raises another question. If the physical textbooks will only be discarded in another decade, and each student has access to an online version, why buy physical textbooks at all?

Dunlap said the rationale is twofold. For one, the price difference between a set of physical classroom textbooks with an accompanying e-book subscription and an e-book subscription exclusively is negligible. So buying a set of physical books is necessary because of another social question the district needs to take into account.

“We’re still in an era where we have to pay attention to this. Not all kids have access online. They don’t have internet at home,” Dunlap said. “So the compromise really was a classroom set of books, instead of a book for each student. Then we’re trying to determine how many digital accounts we need so kids can get access to what they need throughout the course of the day.”

Although the textbook has been selected, copies can’t be purchased until the amount has been approved by the school board. That should come to a vote and be decided sometime later this month.

Jack Langland can be reached at


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