Rise of the Open Curriculum

Type: Article
Topics: Curriculum & Assessment, School Administrator Magazine

March 01, 2016

Students working on math with free supplies harvested online
Elementary school pupils in Grandview, Wash., work on math problems using free instructional materials harvested online by their teacher. (Photo by George Graf)

Leaders of Grandview School District in rural central Washington concluded four years ago that their textbooks would not prepare their students, a third of whom have limited English skills, for the new Common Core State Standards.

In fact, the district’s middle schoolers were performing among the bottom 5 percent in the state. So Grandview educators took the unusual step of tossing their textbooks and turning instead to free, openly licensed educational resources online to build a curriculum better suited for their students.

“We wanted to use high-yield teaching strategies that were not always reflected in the basal textbooks,” said Superintendent Kevin Chase.

Today, the district teaches math and language arts in preschool through grade 10 from lessons that staff members created out of materials harvested online. It soon will do the same in grades 11 and 12.

Teachers and students are benefitting from the conversion, Chase said, adding, “I honestly think the teachers realize they are teaching kids at a much higher level than they were.”

An Enormous Leap

Few school districts have made this enormous leap so fully into the world of what is being called open educational resources, or OER. But a growing number are gearing up to do so:

  • Eleven states have formed a K-12 OER Collaborative to create high-quality educational resources for math and language arts aligned to state standards.
  • The U.S. Department of Education in October launched its #GoOpen campaign, encouraging school districts to use openly licensed educational materials, and 10 districts pledged to replace at least one textbook with open materials within the next year.
  • The federal education department in October appointed Andrew Marcinek, a school technology expert, to become its first-ever open education adviser.
  • Eighty-three percent of district technology leaders predicted the majority of their districts’ educational content will be digital within the next three years, according to a 2015 national survey by the Consortium for School Networking.
  • Twenty states were planning initiatives relating to open resources, according to a 2014 Council of Chief State School Officers survey.
Abundant and Free

More education leaders are concluding that the growing abundance of high-quality open educational resources can better personalize education, prepare students for higher learning standards and fit schools’ increasing use of technology. Online materials also are more flexible, easier to keep current — and free. They can range from podcasts to digital libraries to educational games.

When school districts invest in traditional textbooks, Marcinek says, they “might be locked into six or seven years” of lessons in subjects such as history and science that quickly become outdated. They can instead invest that money in laptops and tablets that students can use to access more current digital information, he says.

The increasing interest in technology and open educational resources is part of a larger trend to individualize education and content in an era when teachers want “to mix and match things,” says Keith Krueger, chief executive officer for the Consortium for School Networking. “You can go deeper where you want. Not every (student) has to do exactly the same thing.”

Educators have access to an exploding collection of open resources, from clip art and the free video lectures developed by the Khan Academy to lesson plans on Shakespeare and EngageNY instructional materials developed by the New York State Education Department. Two organizations, Curriki and OER Commons, provide online repositories of open resources. What’s more, Creative Commons, a nonprofit that promotes open licensing, will lead workshops on OER for schools across the country. Amazon, Microsoft and Edmodo, a network for teacher and student collaboration, have teamed up with the U.S. Department of Education to provide an infrastructure that will help people find education materials and data in the department’s Learning Registry and elsewhere.

Whether or not they are ready to plunge into open materials, school district leaders should be educating their teachers about what is available and how to gauge its quality, says Reg Leichty, founding partner of Foresight Law + Policy in Washington, D.C., and counsel to the Consortium for School Networking.

“Educators are going to be out in the world looking for resources to help them do their job,” he says, “so they should be educated about how to make the most of it.”

The Staff’s Challenge

Educating teachers became a bigger part of the Grandview district’s shift to open resources than anyone had expected. The district, which is situated 45 minutes south of Yakima in farm country that has drawn a large Latino population, enrolls about 3,600 students, 550 of them migrants and 92 percent Latino.

After experimenting with open resources for a couple of years under the guidance of Wilma Kozai, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, the district embarked four years ago on a rare quest to design its own math and language arts units for all grades with the use of various online resources such as EngageNY. District leaders wanted to make instruction more rigorous and standards-based, Kozai explains. They wanted students to learn concepts, to gain a grasp of the underlying principles of math and reading, before they learned procedures, Kozai says.

“Teaching procedurally did not work for more than half of our kids,” she says. “We believe you have to struggle to learn. If you are not struggling, you are not learning.”

Grandview’s staff struggled, too, not only to build its curriculum but also to use it. Norma Morales, an instructional coach for elementary grades, helped write the elementary language arts learning units. “I was writing at night and coaching during the day,” she says. “It has been a long road.”

The school district saved $130,000 by not buying textbooks, but it then invested much of that into preparing teachers how to use its homegrown lessons, Chase says. As consultants and instructional coaches developed learning units, each typically for five to 15 days, teachers were trained how to use the lessons — and to master them. If their lesson included fraction problems, they were expected to work the problems.

“We have professional development every single day in our district,” Kozai says.

Positive Outcomes

Many teachers initially resisted the switch from textbooks to open resources, but most say they would not now want to go back. “The majority of our teachers are loving it,” says Stephanie Stanton, an elementary math coach.

Chase, who has been Grandview’s superintendent for 11 years, says the personal construction of new instructional tools has made teachers perform “better and better. … Their content knowledge has grown exponentially because of the work they have done around learning these units of study.”

The learning units are closely connected to Common Core standards and produce consistent instruction, Chase says, noting visiting educators often comment on the coherence they see across the grades. Math lessons, for instance, focus first on underlying concepts. The language arts lessons all reflect the district’s philosophy of balancing whole-class instruction with shared and guided reading in groups and independent reading.

Student performance has climbed districtwide, especially in math. Students in 3rd and 4th grades, who’ve been exposed to the new curriculum for most of their schooling, are achieving close to the state average, far higher than in the past. The portion of students meeting state math standards climbed over four years from 35 percent to 59 percent in 3rd grade and from 24 percent to 51 percent in 4th grade.

“We are definitely on the right track,” says Morales, who coaches elementary teachers on the new methods.

Other districts in Washington, such as the Bethel system south of Seattle and Spokane Public Schools, are making major commitments to open resources and getting some guidance from Barbara Soots, a program manager for the state education department focusing on the use of open educational resources. The state created Soots’ position, the first in the country, in 2012, and she has already been talking with Marcinek, her federal counterpart. Soots’ office identifies open resources aligned with the Common Core standards and shows school systems how to do the same.

“We are hitting a critical mass,” Soots says. “There are a lot more folks who are aware of it and interested in it.”

Texts to Technology

Despite its heavy use of online resources, Grandview does not rely heavily on tablets or other computer technology, Chase says. Students read print versions of books and write and work math problems on paper. But another small rural district in central Illinois turned to open resources and used its savings to build its technological infrastructure. Three years ago, the 300-student Williamsfield Community School District, located 30 miles northwest of Peoria, combined $8,000 it had budgeted for a math textbook series with its federal funding to buy a fiber optic network and tablets for every classroom from preschool through grade 12 in its single school building. It has continued the same strategy for the last two years and now checks out a tablet to every child in 5th through 12th grades.

The district used a free, open math scope and sequence developed by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas as a framework to build lessons with other open resources such as EngageNY and the Illinois Shared Learning Environment. As in Grandview, teachers put in two years of demanding work curating materials for their lessons. They now are finding the technology makes it far easier for students to follow independent, personal paths to proficiency, according to Tim Farquer, the superintendent.

“We can do a much better job of tapping into what kids are passionate about,” he says. “You let the student drive the learning.”

Farquer believes “the level of student engagement is visibly higher.”

Williamsfield is one of six school districts designated by the U.S. Department of Education as ambassadors to help other districts use open educational materials. So is the Upper Perkiomen School District with 3,200 students in Pennsburg, Pa. The 2,400-student Mountain Empire Unified School District, which sprawls over 660 square miles east of San Diego, is among 10 districts that have accepted the federal education department’s challenge to replace at least one textbook with open resources within the next year.

A Resource Pool

Grandview is putting all the lessons it has developed online for others to use for free. Williamsfield plans to do the same. Those lessons will be part of a growing library of open materials being developed by schools, districts and state education departments across the country.

“I see the pool of resources getting richer and richer,” says Farquer.

So does Marcinek, the recently appointed federal official overseeing the spread of open resources in schools. He sees the movement contributing to educational equity.
“Hopefully,” he adds, “this will close the digital divide so all kids have access to high-quality resources.”

Additional Resources

Readers can find more about the use of open educational resources from these sources.