Leading Curriculum Reform Efforts Using Open Educational Resources

Blog Post
Oct. 5, 2017

Over the past five years, education leaders and researchers have become more focused on the need for quality, standards-aligned curricula. Now the question is: Where will these curricula come from? Will education continue to rely on traditional publishers, buying whatever is available in the curriculum marketplace, or is there another way? This blog series spotlights a growing trend: states and districts are turning to open educational resources, or OER, for curriculum in core subject areas. Today’s post highlights several new reports on state curriculum reform efforts, demonstrating the growing role played by OER. The second post discusses the connection between curriculum and teacher professional development, highlighting how OER is enabling a new ‘open pedagogy’ in districts. The third post explores the role states are playing to drive innovation and improve quality in the curriculum marketplace.  

“What we teach isn’t some side bar issue in American education; it is American education,” wrote David Steiner, executive director at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, in a recent review of curriculum research for StandardsWork, Inc, a nonprofit focused on the implementation of rigorous, high-quality academic standards. The research underscores one conclusion that Steiner had already reached while leading New York’s state education department from 2009 to 2011: Curriculum is the critical link between academic standards and assessment—and it is of equal importance for ensuring students’ academic success.

Under Steiner’s leadership, New York was one of the first states to bet big on upgrading schools’ curriculum as a way to improve teaching and learning. Today many more states are following suit, providing districts with examples of high quality materials and information about the quality of resources on the market. But if improving curriculum was such a quick fix, why hadn’t states bought better resources sooner?

In 2010, states were all facing a similar challenge: Most of the materials in the marketplace were low quality, poorly aligned to the rigorous new academic standards the majority of states had just adopted. Left with few options, several states and districts opted to try a new approach to curriculum—they developed and used open educational resources, or OER. The Steiner review, several other new reports, and recent interviews with state leaders are illuminating just how central OER have been to curriculum reform efforts over the past five years. The growing use of OER also highlights several ways in which the open sharing of curriculum can increase academic success for all students.

First, the term “open educational resources” refers to an important quality of the materials: They are freely available, and also shared under an open content license. Materials available under an open content license—unlike those that carry a traditional “all rights reserved” license—can be download, used, shared, and updated by districts, schools, teachers, students, and any other users. You can’t legally make copies of a textbook; take it apart and rearrange the sections; modify content that is out of date; or translate sections into other languages. OER give you the ability, and the legal permission, to do so.

Initially, many of the OER available were worksheets, lesson plans, and activities. These individual pieces were useful for teachers to supplement what they were teaching, but were not comprehensive. Increasingly, full textbooks and curricula—materials that cover what students are learning for the entire school year—have been developed and published as OER.

The most significant example of widespread use of OER to date has been the EngageNY curriculum, developed for the state of New York. In 2010, after receiving a $700 million federal Race to the Top grant under Steiner’s leadership, the state of New York began to outline what they would need for a comprehensive, quality curriculum that was aligned to the new state standards. John King, the U.S. Secretary of Education who succeeded Arne Duncan during the Obama Administration, worked to bring this curriculum to life in 2011 when he was serving as New York’s Commissioner of Education. In a recent interview, he told me that his team decided early on that the EngageNY materials would be available for free online.

That openness has led to strong adoption—not just in New York, but around the country. According to a 2015 RAND Corporation survey, 44 percent of elementary school math teachers and 34 percent of elementary school English teachers in states using shared academic standards reported using EngageNY materials. While shrinking a bit in the higher grades, the survey still indicated that about 30 percent of high school math and English teachers used EngageNY materials as well. (A 2016 follow-up report from RAND digs more fully into how teachers are using these materials, and how OER can support the implementation of new standards.)

“We had no idea that the materials would have the reach that they have had across the country,” King said. He added: “That the RAND study shows it’s the most used [set of] materials to teach college and career ready standards is breathtaking.”

Building in part from the success of New York, the state of Louisiana also began to think about ways to encourage districts to adopt high quality curriculum. The state started out small,  according to a Fall 2017 article in Education Next written by Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “Louisiana began publishing free, annotated reviews of K–12 textbooks and curriculum programs in ELA and math, sorting the materials into three ‘tiers,’” he wrote. As Pondiscio’s article highlights, one of the only two Tier One math programs on Louisiana’s list was OER—the EngageNY curriculum.

There were no comprehensive English language arts curricula that cleared the highest tier for Louisiana’s educators (though Pondiscio writes about several that target specific grade levels), so the state began to work with its teachers to develop its own. According to a 2017 report from the Aspen Institute, teacher leaders worked with staff from the state department of education, along with outside content experts, to produce comprehensive ELA Guidebooks for every grade level. The Aspen paper notes that in addition to tapping the expertise of their teachers, developing the materials themselves “provided the opportunity to prioritize themes and texts that reflect Louisiana’s culture.” Alongside their free reviews of other textbooks and curricula, the state made its Guidebooks 2.0 available as OER on their website, free for any other educators to download, use, and adapt as needed.

New York and Louisiana aren’t the only states to embrace the use of OER. As I wrote about in August for Slate, Texas has worked to develop OER for several high school courses, including five Advanced Placement textbooks in biology, physics, and economics. Further, 20 additional states have signed on the U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen campaign—as well as over 110 school districts throughout the country—and are working together to think through how their states can support the use of OER.

These examples illustrate several of the benefits of openly sharing curricular materials. First, because states have chosen to freely share them, all students have the ability to benefit from them. Further, as Louisiana shows, states are able to build upon one another’s work. “No other school district has to build math from scratch again if they don’t want to,” Ryan Merkley, chief executive officer of Creative Commons, told me in a recent interview. Creative Commons, the nonprofit that developed the most frequently used open content licenses around the world, has seen this same kind of collaborative, iterative work spread across education, science, the arts, and other areas when content is openly licensed. Finally, the fact that these resources are openly available enables anyone to see and review them—this has the potential to lead to more and better curriculum review and research moving forward. (All of these benefits are areas that New America will continue to research and write about over the coming years.)

As RAND’s Julia H. Kaufman and V. Darleen Opfer wrote in a recent blog, “meaningful, big improvements are far more likely if states work together to develop shared resources for educators and learners.” OER are critical tools for fostering state and district collaboration, driving curriculum reform forward to improve learning outcomes for students.

Related Topics
Open Curriculum in PreK-12