‘Open’ Curricula Offerings Expand to Social Studies

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 10, 2017 4 min read
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Move over, English/language arts and math: Publishers in other content areas are starting to realize the potential of so-called open education resources, or OER, in subjects like history and social studies.

The nonprofit Core Knowledge Foundation has released what appears to be among the first fully OER social studies curricula, currently for grades 3 to 5 and soon to expand to grades 6. Parts of it were available earlier this year, but the entire curriculum for all three grade levels was not put online until August.

Core Knowledge is known for being the brainchild of E.D. Hirsch Jr., whose work has focused on building students’ background knowledge via a content-rich curriculum. Hirsch’s ideas were influential in the development of the Common Core State Standards, though he has said that the standards are still too focused on things like reading-comprehension skills and other strategies.

This isn’t Core Knowledge’s first toe in the pond of OER, which generally means that materials can be downloaded for free, modified, and shared, though sometimes not for commercial gain. The group was one of two tapped by New York to create a free OER curriculum in ELA that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The result was widely used throughout that state and by others.

“The whole experience we had with OER through language arts made all of us very aware of the expanded impact and influence that we could have through an OER initiative,” said Linda Bevilacqua, the president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. “The kids and schools I really worry about are the ones that are most at risk, that are struggling, that don’t have the resources to get materials and so forth, and this seemed like a way to try to make materials accessible to people at hopefully low cost.”

As a nonprofit, much of Core Knowledge’s revenue is made by offering training on its various curricula.

History Challenges

To be sure, other curriculum providers have made some strides in offering free online materials through sites like the OER Commons.

The Independence Hall Foundation, a nonprofit in Philadelphia, offers some free history textbooks; and there are individual lesson plans available from the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. And history offers some unique possibilities, with the digitization of archives: The National Archives, for example, offers DocsTeach, which gives access to thousands of primary source documents.

But overall, there are few genuinely complete open social-studies curricula that have teacher-facing materials and guides, and that are coherent from grade to grade, said Doug Levin, an ed-tech consultant and an expert on OER.

That’s partly because history is a more complicated content area in some respects, he added: It gets political quickly, as anyone who has been paying attention to current controversies surrounding the Civil War and Confederate history can attest. It is also generally a smaller market compared to ELA and math, which still dominate the school schedule, particularly in the early grades.

Copyright Returned

The architecture of the new Core Knowledge series actually dates back about 16 years. Back then, publishing giant Pearson and the Core Knowledge Foundation teamed up to create the Core Knowledge History and Geography series. In effect, Core Knowledge created the framework that listed the topics and skills to be covered at each grade level, while Pearson created the materials and sold them commercially.

As the materials got older and needed freshening up, Bevilacqua negotiated to get the copyright on them back from Pearson. Then, the nonprofit set about getting content experts to review the accuracy of those materials and to update them to reflect advances in the field.

“If someone had told me ahead of time I wouldn’t have believed them, but history is probably the area with the most changes in a relatively short period of time,” Bevilacqua said. “We planned to reutilize portions of what had been in previous materials and we’d hear from the reviewers, ‘No, no—that’s not accurate anymore.’ ”

Aside from the rewrites, the new curriculum has a much more extensive teacher guide; the prior version had minimal teacher supports. It also has some other new features, like a timeline that accompanies every chapter, “virtual” field trips (think gothic architecture at Notre Dame cathedral), and in American History, a “pathway to citizenship” feature that relates to things that emphasize civics, including the themes that show up on the citizenship test given by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services—and increasingly, by states to high school students.

The group has made most of its professional development, free, too, although it expects to offer in-person services related to the curriculum in the future. “I suspect there will be a demand for that,” Bevilacqua said.

Image by Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.