Special Report
Meeting District Needs

Districts Put Open Educational Resources to Work

By Sean Cavanagh — June 10, 2015 4 min read
Fourth grade teacher Kassie Hibbard leads a math lesson in her classroom at Nelson Elementary School in Bethel school district.

A growing number of educators and policymakers are being drawn to open educational resources, convinced that the free, malleable, and shareable academic content offers advantages that traditional commercial materials cannot match.

Backers of open resources, many of which are housed online, say they can help schools save money on the costs of instructional materials and build greater collaboration and confidence among teachers as they use and refine that content.

Many districts making the switch from commercial to open resources, however, are still in the nascent stages of that transition. Only now are the practical benefits—and potentially substantial upfront costs—coming into focus.

In the following two stories, Education Week breaks down the experiences of a pair of districts in Washington state that have taken different approaches to adopting large chunks of open content.

The first is the Bethel school system, south of Seattle, which has replaced a commercial math program for elementary grades with one provided by EngageNY, an open resource developed by the state of New York and meant to align with the Common Core State Standards.

The second effort is even more ambitious: the Grandview district’s replacement of all its commercial instructional products for prekindergarten through early high school math and English/language arts with an assortment of open resources the district selected and organized on its own.

Momentum in States

Across the country, attempts to nurture and sustain open resources for use in districts like Bethel and Grandview have been supported by philanthropies, nonprofits, and universities. State policymakers seem to be keenly interested: 26 states are promoting open educational resources in some form, and 18 states have taken steps to share them with districts, according to a report released last year by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

One of those states is Washington, where the legislature three years ago directed the state’s education agency to create and vet a library of open materials, which today includes about 60 resources in English/language arts and 24 in mathematics.

In Washington state, “you have a lot of districts taking this out of the ‘this-sounds-like-a-good-idea’ phase to ‘what is this really going to look like when we put this together?’ ” said Barbara Soots, the open educational resources manager for the digital learning department within Washington state’s office of the superintendent of public instruction.

Bethel and Grandview both pursued open resources in large part because they were not satisfied that commercial curricula were closely aligned with the common core. They called on their teachers, and other content experts, to help them find the open resources that hit the mark.

Leaders of both districts predict their efforts will save money over time, though they acknowledge the initial change has required them to devote more money—and much more time—to teacher training and other planning than if they had not made the shift.

The potential financial savings for districts switching to open resources will vary. But K-12 systems that primarily use digital content are likely to save the most, because they can start using new academic materials without incurring big, new printing costs, said TJ Bliss, a program officer who works on open resources for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif.

(The Hewlett Foundation provides financial support for Education Week‘s coverage of “deeper learning.” The newspaper retains sole editorial control over its content.)

A 4th grade student holds up a dry-erase board with his answers during a mathematics lesson at Nelson Elementary.

It’s safe to assume many districts switching to open resources will have to devote large amounts of time and money to finding what they need and preparing teachers to use new materials, Mr. Bliss said.

Yet that work brings rewards, he argued. In going through that process, teachers get “some of the best PD they’ve ever had.”

Building Good Curricula

Commercial publishers often cite the heavy burden schools face in finding and curating open content—as well as concerns about its quality—as reasons to be skeptical of its benefits.

Lisa Carmona, the senior vice president for New York City-based McGraw-Hill Education‘s K-12 product portfolio, said schools served by her company’s resources get more than raw content; they get an array of support to help them make sense of that information.

“Building a good curriculum, let alone a great one, is a challenge,” Ms. Carmona said. Content, on its own, “is different than curriculum, and is different than an entire ecosystem.” Too often, she said, open content is “missing a lot of those underpinnings.”

Still, many states and districts are intrigued enough by open content to take the leap.

One of the largest open-resource undertakings is being led by the K-12 OER Collaborative, a coalition of 12 states and a group of nonprofits developing resources in English/language arts and math. The collaborative recently hired 10 developers to craft two- to three-week open-resource units, which will become the basis for yearlong curricula, as part of a nearly $30 million project.

EngageNY, initially supported with federal Race to the Top funding, provides open, common-core-aligned English and math resources to K-12 audiences. New York officials say the materials have been downloaded 20 million times by districts and teachers in the United States and abroad.

Ken Wagner, New York’s senior deputy commissioner for education policy, said commercial companies are likely to continue to play a critical role in the market in the years to come. At the same time, more districts also may choose to rely on private vendors for “wraparound” services to support educators, while they turn to open sources for core academic content.

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