"We don't have that list," an administrator at the Philadelphia Office of Curriculum and Development told me. "It doesn't exist."
"How do you know what curriculum each school is using?" I asked.
There was silence on the phone for a moment.
"How do you know if the schools have all the books they need?"
According to district policy, every school is supposed to record its book inventory in a centralized database called the Textbook Storage System. "If you give me that list of books in the Textbook Storage System, I can reverse-engineer it and make you a list of which curriculum each school uses," I told the curriculum officer.
"Really?" she said. "That would be great. I didn't know you could do that!"
So I did what computer programmers do in this kind of situation: I created a workaround. I built a program to look at each Philadelphia public school and see whether the number of books at the school was equal to the number of students. The results of the analysis did not look good. The average school had only 27 percent of the books in the district's recommended curriculum. At least 10 schools had no books at all, according to their own records. Others had books that were hopelessly out of date.
I visited some of these schools and asked students how much access they had to textbooks. "We had books at my high school, but they were from, like, the 1980s," said David, a recent graduate of Philadelphia public schools. A junior at a public high school complained to me that her history textbook had pictures of testicles drawn on each page.
When I visited an algebra class at the Academy at Palumbo, a magnet school in South Philadelphia, a math teacher, Brian Cohen, seemed surprised by the information I presented to him. Palumbo's records showed that the school used Fast Track to a 5: Preparing for the AB and BC Calculus Exams, a book published by Houghton Mifflin. However, the quantity of books in the system read "0."
"That's strange," said Cohen after I sat in on his Algebra I class. "I'm not sure why it says we have zero copies." Had that branded curriculum had been selected but never ordered? Or had the books had been ordered but intercepted somewhere along the way?
I asked if we could go look in the book closet and Cohen took me down the hall. On the way, we stopped to chat with a colleague of his who taught calculus. "Do you have enough books?" Cohen asked.
"I do now," she said. "Some school in West Philadelphia closed, and I managed to get all the textbooks from there. I had a friend who hooked me up." But she wasn't using Fast Track to 5; she had a different calculus book that wasn't on my record sheet.
Urban teachers have a kind of underground economy, Cohen explained. Some teachers hustle and negotiate to get books and paper and desks for their students. They spend their spare time running campaigns on fundraising sites like DonorsChoose.org, and they keep an eye out for any materials they can nab from other schools. Philadelphia teachers spend an average of $300 to $1,000 of their own money each year to supplement their $100 annual budget for classroom supplies, according to a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers survey.