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Creators of EngageNY Start New Archive of Free Common-Core Materials

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The materials on EngageNY, the online library of common-core-aligned curricula hosted by New York state’s education department, have now been downloaded more than 45 million times, far surpassing many people’s expectations for the free resource created just five years ago.

But with the website’s federal funding source having all but dried up, a new group launched today is stepping in to further EngageNY’s mission. The organization, known as UnboundEd, plans to both build off of EngageNY’s success and tackle another problem that teachers are facing: Their students, especially those from low-income communities, aren’t prepared to meet the Common Core State Standards’ tough grade-level goals.

“What we see as the biggest challenge in schools is managing a divide between rigorous high standards for all students and the real developmental consequences of poverty,” said Kate Gerson, the managing partner for programs for the new nonprofit organization, and a former lead architect of EngageNY. “We’re trying to give [teachers] the support to work through that divide.”

The nonprofit UnboundEd will both host the new free website, populated with EngageNY’s and other K-12 common-core materials vetted by the team members, most of whom previously worked as classroom teachers, and provide paid in-person educator trainings. Of the 23 people now on staff, about a third came over from the EngageNY project.

The organization has raised more than $5 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Bloomberg Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, IBM, and the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. (The Gates and Carnegie foundations support some coverage in Education Week; the Helmsley Charitable Trust helps support its video capabilities.)

Currently, there are about 5,000 total lessons, modules, units, primary sources, and texts on the new site, which also went online today. While most of the curricula are from EngageNY, there are also some instructional materials from Illustrative Mathematics, a curriculum project led by common-core writer William McCallum. The UnboundEd team plans to add more open-source materials over time.

“Some folks need a comprehensive curriculum for the entire year, so we’ve built an experience for them,” said Alex Kasavin, the group’s director of product development. “Some are looking for a lesson to teach this week or next week, and we’ve built a different experience for them drawing on the same resources.”

The site also has a series of guides meant to help teachers better understand what individual standards are really asking students to do, and what skills come before and after each grade-level benchmark.

“When you’re working with students living in poverty, most often they’re coming to you with parts of the [learning] progressions they’ve missed in previous years,” Gerson said. “This gives very concrete examples and advice for what you do if you have a kid coming to you two or three years below grade level—what lessons you insert, how you adapt the good, free curriculum to meet the needs of your kids.”

'Like a Free Puppy'

EngageNY, which was funded through New York state’s $700 million federal Race to the Top award in 2010 and launched the next year, has generated wide interest among teachers within and outside of the Empire State. The site has had more than 13 million users, according to the state’s education department. And a recent survey showed that 44 percent of elementary math teachers and 30 percent of secondary teachers in common-core states are using materials from EngageNY.

But the Race to the Top funding period has come to an end. (The state education department would not answer questions about other funding sources or how many people are still working on the EngageNY project.)

The website is still in wide use—in fact, New York’s education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, announced the release of a “New EngageNY” in January, which would include a redesign and better access on mobile devices. The state has also recently added some social studies materials to the site.

However, it’s unclear whether the reading and math materials will be updated or added to.

Jay Diskey, the executive director of the Association of American Publishers’ PreK-12 Learning Group, speaking generally about open educational resources, said updating materials is a must. “OER is sometimes talked about as free beer, but in reality it’s more like a free puppy which one has to take care of over time.”

The UnboundEd website is an effort to expand on the work done through EngageNY, and give it a fully funded new home.

A sometimes-cited criticism of EngageNY materials is that they weren’t built with proper supports for English-language learners, though some guidance on that topic was added after the fact. UnboundED will also launch without additional supports for ELLs, but Gerson said the group is working with experts on this and is “very devoted to including the scaffolds and supports for ELLS and students with special needs.”

The designers of the new site also emphasize that they are not chasing downloads—the UnboundEd content will eventually be compatible with a variety of other platforms. “We are not trying to be a replacement solution for learning-management systems and content-management systems and digital delivery tools,” said Steve Midgley, the senior technical advisor on the project. “We’re not trying to say we’re better than that. That’s a common narrative in the ed-tech space, but that’s not our narrative.”

Instead, “our goal is to get these materials in the hands of as many teachers and in front of as many students as possible,” said Gerson. And while the capability isn’t quite there yet, “we want to meet teachers where they are right now, with whatever platform they are comfortable with.”

There are other groups working to expand the availability of free, open instructional content as well. The K-12 OER Collaborative, for example, is a multistate effort that allows both educators and for-profit vendors to take and build on its educational resources.

However, as Diskey cautions, open materials can have some limitations and challenges. For instance, OER developers can sometimes have trouble obtaining copyright permissions. “Literature selections, rights to a photo, a table, a map, a passage from another book—these [permissions] must be secured if they’re copyrighted,” he said. “Educational publishers routinely know how to clear permissions. ... A number of OER developers have been unpleasantly surprised that they can’t find readily available images for free.”

Teacher Trainings

In addition to offering free curriculum resources, UnboundEd is also putting on four- and five-day professional development “institutes,” which districts will pay to have representatives attend. About 1,000 teachers and administrators have already been trained through these institutes in Boston and Washington over the last year. This summer, the group expects to bring in about 700 additional educators.

The institutes undoubtedly emphasize particular philosophies on how the new standards should be taught. In English/language arts, the organization focuses on building background knowledge to improve reading comprehension—a notion also espoused by groups like Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit professional-development group founded by the lead writers of the common-core standards, and the Knowledge Matters campaign, inspired by retired professor E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s work.

Teachers learn to use text sets, or groups of readings around a single topic, to expose students to similar words repeatedly and help build vocabulary.

“My real big takeaway for reading was that the content knowledge we want [students] to gain should drive the reading strategies,” said Lori Butterfield, the principal at Guilmette Elementary School in Lawrence, Mass., who attended a standards institute in February.

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In math, teachers learn to focus on the most important concepts for each grade, even for students who come in below grade level. “The way I was operating as a teacher, I would be reactive,” said Megan Fehr, a 3rd grade teacher at Guilmette who also attended the institute. “If kids came to me with some gaps from 2nd grade, I might spend a lot of time teaching standards from 2nd grade, to the detriment of 3rd grade.” Now, she inserts a lesson here or there as needed, but continues to emphasize the grade-level concepts so her students don’t fall further behind.

UnboundEd will continue tweaking its website and professional development offerings as needed, the creators said. “Our goal is to continue to get smarter as an organization about what teachers need to know how to implement these standards successfully,” said Gerson.

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