March 2, 2016
A letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register last week exposes a new concern for teachers: Could funding for professional development soon be consumed by textbook companies?
“In my 13 years as a public school educator, I have never attended effective professional development provided by a textbook publisher,” wrote Janice Arthur, a middle school teacher in Johnson, Iowa, in her letter. She continued: “to imply that teachers need only a textbook and a teacher's manual to educate today's students shows a profound ignorance of the profession.”
To imply that teachers need only a textbook and a teacher's manual to educate today's students shows a profound ignorance of the profession.
It seems to be what the Iowa House Education Committee has done in introducing HF 2312, which expands the use of state education funding earmarked for teacher professional development (PD) to include the procurement of textbooks and other curricular materials that include teacher PD.* Through the addition of a single clause, the bill would allow districts to divert up to $30 million in annual funding set aside for activities focused on improving teachers’ instruction to buying off-the-shelf teaching materials and training. This approach could not only diminish the importance of investing in high quality, targeted teacher PD opportunities (as Arthur incisively points out), it also fails to consider a larger trend in the educational materials marketplace: the increasing movement toward open educational resources.
But first, is it possible that state legislators think that textbooks—a learning resource for students—can also be a helpful learning resource for teachers? Today’s textbooks are commonly sold with accompanying materials for teachers, which may include discussion questions and sample responses, answers to student problem sets, and other tips and tools for incorporating these resources in the classroom. Textbook publishers often provide school districts with in-person teacher PD workshops on their products. The degree to which teachers actually find these resources useful varies, but the research on PD indicates that generally these types of passive, “sit-and-get” training sessions have little impact on teacher practice or student learning.
While there are too few rigorous studies of what good PD looks like, what research does exist suggests that active activities, such as wrestling with problems or collaborating with colleagues, is more likely to benefit teachers than a one-time workshop or reviewing a teacher’s textbook manual. In an interview, Arthur said that “We don’t need to spend money that way anymore. We don’t teach out of the textbook, we teach from the standards.” She said further, “The days of opening a teaching manual and doing what it says on page 3 are long gone.”
The days of opening a teaching manual and doing what it says on page 3 are long gone.
How then could open educational resources, or OER, reflect the new reality of teaching? The adaptability of these resources is key. OER are by definition openly licensed—as opposed to off-the-shelf proprietary texts—meaning they are free for the public to use, share, and most importantly, to improve upon. Teachers regularly need to modify lessons and materials to meet the needs and interests of their students, while ensuring that the key content and skills are covered. And this process of modifying educational resources is exactly the kind of active PD that research has shown is most likely to benefit teachers.
In Louisiana, for example, the Department of Education has recognized the value of leveraging OER to allow teachers to meaningfully engage with academic content. The state department is currently working with teachers to develop OER Louisiana English language arts curriculum and adapt existing OER in mathematics—including New York’s openly licensed EngageNY curriculum—to meet the needs of their classrooms.
Rebecca Kockler, assistant superintendent of academic content at the Louisiana Department of Education, explained that since the state began the work of adapting OER nearly four years ago, they have really relied upon their teacher-leader advisors, a group of around 100 of the top educators in the state: “We’ve leveraged them since we’ve been doing this work here. They help us build our resources and test them out in the classroom.” This process of building and testing resources also comes with a rigorous quality review process, with both teachers and content experts at the department vetting materials before they are adopted. Moving from the state teacher-leader advisors to teachers statewide, Kockler said, “You do have to help people understand how to use [OER], but once you get over that hump, teachers don’t want to go back.”
You do have to help people understand how to use [OER], but once you get over that hump teachers don’t want to go back.
And it’s not just Louisiana. New York, Illinois, and Washington have already supported the development and sharing of OER, and just last week a national #GoOpen effort was announced featuring 14 new statewide commitments (as well as 40 district commitments) to support OER adoption in schools. At the federal level, the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor have even supported the development of OER through their own grantmaking.
Iowa teachers like Janice Arthur have already recognized the invaluable professional learning that comes from deeply engaging with their standards and content. Describing the most recent updates to her English language arts materials, she said, “Four years ago, I worked on a literacy leadership team to align our curriculum to the Common Core. One of the first things we did was set aside our old curriculum, and started building our new curriculum from the standards.” In doing so, her team drew upon their old resources, but some of what they had wasn’t at the level of the new standards, and they replaced it with new materials drawn from multiple sources.
But unfortunately, Arthur’s team can’t widely share these materials with others who might benefit— they were based in part on copyrighted textbooks and other resources which prevents this type of dissemination. While Iowa is missing from the list of states committing to support OER adoption, the state should consider how OER could turn its zero-sum proposition for using teacher professional development dollars for textbook purchases into a net gain.
*This article has been updated to reflect an updated version of the bill; the original bill introduced was HF 2034. "