It isn't time for final goodbyes just yet, but Metro Nashville Public Schools and other Middle Tennessee school systems have begun to part ways with social studies textbooks.
In a first for MNPS, the district opted not to purchase social studies textbooks this year when the time came to replace outdated versions every six years.
Instead, Metro administrators have asked teachers to use online websites, interactive videos and primary resources as the main way to teach history, geography and other social studies topics. Though older textbooks will still be in classrooms, and teachers can use them as resources, they are no longer the central focus.
It's a "digital classroom" these days, officials say, and teachers need flexibility to use curriculum not offered in the old-fashioned print textbook.
"The textbook should not be the primary resource for teachers," Metro's Chief Academic Officer Jay Steele said. "It is a resource only, and it's one of many resources."
The purchase of new math textbooks is up next year, and MNPS is still weighing whether it will buy them.
Cost wasn't part of the calculus, Metro officials insist. They say funds the district normally uses for social studies textbooks — $5.3 million in 2008 — simply went to purchase digital materials instead. New textbooks, however, were still purchased for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses that fall under social studies.
While Metro's textbook shift has been made only for social studies, officials emphatically reject the suggestion that the subject is being shorted as more attention in standardized testing seems to go to math, reading and science. It's just the opposite, they claim.
"The idea that if you don't have a five-pound hardcover book that you're getting less of an emphasis in a subject is wrongheaded completely," Metro schools spokesman Joe Bass said. "If we really want to leverage the unbelievable amount of information that's on the Internet, we need to start using technology in smarter ways."
As Tennessee shifted to higher academic standards in social studies this year, some other Tennessee school districts, including Sumner County, Tullahoma and Memphis-Shelby County, have also opted not to buy new social studies textbooks. In contrast, school districts in Rutherford and Williamson counties went ahead with buying new books.
"We honestly never considered not buying those resources for our students because we feel like it's important for our students to have the latest edition of whatever we're using," Williamson County Superintendent Mike Looney said.
He said relying too much on online resources puts a "very heavy burden" on teachers to research materials.
Textbook omissions have raised eyebrows. Some wonder whether kids who lack the Internet at home will be at a disadvantage. Though the district acknowledged many students lack computers at home, MNPS officials say materials can be printed off for them to study away from school.
Testing will begin on the new social studies standards in 2015-16. Results will be used in teachers' annual evaluation scores, but social studies is not part of the state's accountability system for districts and schools.
"It's tested in Tennessee," said Mark Finchum, president of the Tennessee Council for the Social Studies, acknowledged. "But those scores — it doesn't seem like anyone pays much attention to them."
Bill Carey, executive director of Tennessee History For Kids, which produces online material and booklets on social studies, said Nashville teachers started alerting him about the decision in March.
"Textbooks have their limitations, and the Internet is an incredible resource," Carey said. "But with these new social studies standards requiring them to do so much more, some Metro teachers, especially in middle school, are worried about their ability to cover these new standards."
But Paul Beavers, a world history teacher at Hillsboro High School, said he hasn't heard too much grumbling about the move. He said teaching has already started to shift more digitally — "and if we're buying a bunch of textbooks, that's going the opposite direction."
"That engagement makes a huge difference," he said of online resources, "at least in my classes."
Metro's move to stop buying textbooks has been a full year in the works. A team led by 50 teachers helped create a collection of online resources, videos and other tools aligned with Tennessee's new standards.
"It's not really that we're doing away with textbooks," Metro's Steele said. "It's adding more resources to teachers' menu of options and allowing them to be creative and innovative with their curriculum."
Steele said textbooks are "out of date as soon as they are printed" and that the Internet is better equipped to stay up to speed. He said many teachers have already embraced the changes, but acknowledged others might not.
"We know that there's going to be a group of naysayers — I'm sure you'll hear from them — that will take a little bit of more time and convincing that this is the way students want to learn," Steele said. "The No. 1 thing is it's about the way students learn and how they demonstrate mastery, and they need new technology to do that."
Dan Lawson, superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools, said the online system used by its social studies teachers is accessible via laptops in class or, "if they want to go old school," they can print out information.
"The reason for a lack of a purchase for us was not so much about the new standards that have rolled out," Lawson said. "It really wasn't so much about anything for us other than an opportunity to refocus some resources and acquire more technology."
Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.