Special Report
Curriculum

Teachers, District Devote Time to Open-Resource Transition

By Sean Cavanagh — June 10, 2015 3 min read
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Under pressure to find materials aligned to the common-core standards, and dissatisfied with commercially available options, the Bethel, Wash., district set out on an ambitious new path.

The school system this academic year replaced its commercial K-5 math curriculum, Everyday Mathematics, with open educational materials from EngageNY, resources crafted by the New York state education department and widely used in schools around the country.

Making the shift from commercial to open resources—even limited to one subject, and only for elementary grades—was far from easy for the 18,000-student district.

“It was a big gamble,” said David E. Hammond, an assistant superintendent for elementary education in Bethel. When a district buys a commercial academic product, accountability falls directly on “the big textbook company,” he said. “With OER, you really bring that responsibility in-house. It’s up to us to look at the materials and say, ‘This meets the needs of our kids, our teachers, our community.’ ”

Bethel teachers’ and administrators’ worries that Everyday Mathematics was not adequately matched with the Common Core State Standards was compelling teachers to spend hours searching for resources to fill in gaps, Mr. Hammond recalled.

The choice of EngageNY occurred somewhat organically, he said. District leaders heard elementary school officials talking favorably about the New York modules as an alternative to commerical materials. “Oh, you’re using it, too?,” Mr. Hammond said he kept hearing.

Bethel’s shift required teachers to invest large chunks of time learning a new—and by their reckoning, highly demanding—curriculum, in a short amount of time.

Nor was the changeover cheap. The district, which has a yearly budget of around $200 million, has spent $268,000 this year on new materials associated with moving to open resources, such as printing and videos to help teachers.

High-Stakes Choices

But if it sticks with EngageNY, Bethel will save money, Mr. Hammond predicts. The district’s ongoing annual costs are likely to be only about $150,000, Mr. Hammond said. And the district would stand to reduce costs by $500,000 to $800,000 over a 10-year period if it does not pursue costly adoptions of commercial products, he said.

Carrie Thornton, a teacher at Nelson Elementary School in the district, said she’s bought into the new open content.

The 4th grade educator said she and her peers worried there were “gaping holes” between Everyday Mathematics and the common-core standards and tests. Since Bethel selected EngageNY, Ms. Thornton and her peers have spent hours trying to decipher its content, and how to present it to students, in scheduled professional learning communities and informal meetings during the school week, and before and after school.

Ms. Thornton said EngageNY’s lessons are laid out like “little vignettes"—easily digestible pieces of information for educators and students.

“It almost gives you a glimpse inside someone else’s classrooms as you’re teaching,” she said.

Lisa Carmona, a senior vice president for McGraw-Hill Education, which publishes Everyday Mathematics, said her company has invested heavily in aligning it with the common core and upgrading the curriculum continually.

“It takes a long time and a lot of effort to develop curriculum,” Ms. Carmona said of McGraw-Hill’s efforts. “The stakes are really high for these districts.”

Schools’ faith in Everyday Mathematics is evident in its omnipresence—the company estimates about 2 million U.S. students are using it—and in studies indicating it has had a positive impact on student achievement, she added.

The move to the common core has prompted districts around the country, like Bethel, to concentrate on giving teachers a deeper understanding of content—and that’s a good thing, Ms. Carmona said. McGraw-Hill Education’s focus on creating content that can be customized to meet educators’ individual needs will help on that front, she argued.

In Bethel, meanwhile, teachers’ time spent mastering EngageNY is bearing fruit, Ms. Thornton said.

“It has been a lot of rethinking things, redesigning things,” the teacher said. But ultimately, her students now “can verbalize what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.”

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