During the past decade, the idea of education as a 21st-century civil rights issue has surged. Many of our nation’s public schools that serve large numbers of low-income communities frequently face funding challenges that result in inadequate facilities and educational resources. While efforts have been made to address these disparities, one of the cornerstones of a quality education has largely gone overlooked: access to curricula, textbooks, and other instructional and self-directed learning materials that drive rigorous academics.
Less affluent districts often struggle to provide their students with quality, up-to-date materials aligned with today’s more demanding state standards. Research in the past few decades has shown that teachers in schools with predominantly minority or poor populations are more likely to consider their teaching materials inadequate. One 2015 report from nonprofit organization The Education Trust found that the highest-poverty public school districts nationwide receive about $1,200 less per student in state and local funding than the lowest-poverty districts.
And in about half of the 100 largest U.S. cities, most African-American and Latino students go to public schools where at least 75 percent of all students are low-income, according to The Atlantic’s 2016 analysis of federal data. Without access to quality instructional materials, high standards and high expectations represent an empty promise to students of color and traditionally underserved students.
But there are solutions. Open educational resources, or OER, could begin to help bridge this gap in learning materials for students of color. Last fall, the NAACP issued a resolution advocating that state education agencies encourage and support local school districts in using open resources. The resolution asserts that “teachers and schools must have high-quality academic resources, which has not been the situation for many African-American students.”
The use of OER in K-12 education has been growing for more than a decade. While the resources have often been used as supplemental learning material, they also include a broad range of high-quality, freely available or openly licensed materials that deepen the learning program—from complete curricula and textbooks to lesson plans. They are also produced by thousands of organizations and individuals—from NASA and museums to school districts, and individual educators themselves. And they often include curricula and course guidelines that states and districts can use to ensure that teachers have the best tools available to improve their instruction at scale.
Emerging research demonstrates that K-12 and higher education students perform just as well—if not better—when teachers use high-quality OER in the classroom. A 2014 study by researchers at Brigham Young University of more than 3,000 students in grades 9-12 found that using OER in place of textbooks improved academic performance in chemistry. And a 2015 study of more than 16,000 college and university students across the country found that students performed as well or better when using OER instead of traditional materials.
National coalitions should advocate to ensure that OER gains support at the federal level.
Significantly, many of the K-12 resources have been aligned to a variety of state curriculum standards and evaluation rubrics; several states have also created OER hubs that are available to all teachers to adapt, revise, and share as they wish. This gives states and districts more local control of content and curriculum.
The NAACP’s recent ratification of the resolution to advocate and promote the use of OER suggests a way forward that brings together the resources of state education agencies and the grassroots influence of civil rights advocates. Now, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (a leading OER nonprofit of which Lisa Petrides is the founder and CEO) and the NAACP (for which Barbara Dezmon serves as a state education chair) are working to identify key policy changes that need to be made. Together, we are coordinating state efforts to expand the availability and use of these resources to address the persistent achievement gaps facing our schools. Our goal is to advance an education agenda that encourages states and districts to:
- Bring together a broad coalition. This alliance should explore how open educational resources are being used in states and work with civil rights groups, teachers and union leaders, heads of parent organizations, and community leaders to create a shared agenda that ensures that those resources are responsive to community needs. State coalitions should help ensure that state education leaders, policymakers, and legislators understand the value of making OER more broadly accessible. National coalitions should advocate to ensure that OER gains support at the federal level. They can do this by reinforcing the emphasis on technology in learning found in the Every Student Succeeds Act and changing long-standing procurement policies that presume resources are available only from commercial publishers.
- Learn from existing users of OER—both in and out of schools. Classroom teachers, librarians, college faculty, cultural agencies, education technology companies, and other stakeholders can help advance the use of open resources in ways that meet the needs of all students. Vermont, Wisconsin, and Washington are among the states that have assembled teams of educators to evaluate materials to ensure that resources align with state standards. These teams also help evaluate and curate materials that have been shown to be particularly effective in increasing success in teaching state standards in subjects, including STEM.
- Invest in training for teachers, librarians, and other school professionals. Make recommendations for increasing awareness, investment, and training in the use of OER. In schools across the country, we have seen teams of librarians and teachers work together to curate and learn to use OER content. While ESSA provides new flexibility for technology-focused professional development, providing resources and materials to encourage school-level use of open resources is one of the strongest levers to encourage their adoption at scale.
- Provide technical support to districts. The biggest issue for some districts is that technology is not available—there’s little support to help educators access and use OER, which can often be found online. State education agencies should provide both technical support and training to empower districts and schools to help educators work with the technology to access these materials.
- Shift resource allocations. While OER should not be treated as merely a replacement for more-expensive textbooks, states and districts can take advantage of cost savings on classroom materials to support professional development, technical support, and OER training.
Thanks to a renewed focus on education as a civil rights issue, high expectations for all students are gradually replacing the soft bigotry of low expectations. But until we level the playing field with a realistic plan to provide learning resources at scale, a quality education will remain another unfulfilled promise for the students who need it the most.
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2017 edition of Education Week as Open Educational Resources Bridge the Learning Gap