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Students at Lovett Elementary, the Clinton, Miss. school district’s sixth-grade-only school. Credit: Jackie Mader

With eight fellow superintendents from eight states

Now is the time of year when U.S. public school districts spend a combined $8 billion on instructional materials while trying to ensure that schools receive the maximum value for their money.

Historically, most districts purchased from the same few providers. Because there aren’t many alternatives, they did this despite concerns about the quality of materials.

Our nine districts have been considering free or low-cost open educational resources alongside traditional options. All of our districts are members of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, an 86-district coalition recognized for innovation and leadership in education.

Some of our districts have pioneered the curation and authoring of this content, while others have participated in pilot programs. When league districts convene a few times each year, we share experiences with instructional approaches and materials with our peers, and we’ve all been encouraged by the success stories emerging from this work.

As purchasing season gets underway, we want to publicly address three common misconceptions.

The first and most troubling misunderstanding is that districts turn to open educational resources simply to save money. In reality, every district we know approaches open educational resources with a single goal: to accelerate student learning by bringing the highest-quality instructional materials into classrooms. Districts are reacting to a product landscape that has not consistently met our needs.

 “Everyone wins if the market produces more high-quality materials, and open educational resources are helping to helping to raise the instructional materials bar.”

As many states adopted new state standards in recent years, educational leaders voiced concerns that traditional publishers had not developed adequately aligned materials. Teachers concur: in a recent survey by Education Week, just 18 percent of teachers strongly agreed that their materials are standards-aligned. The challenges we faced finding strong, standards-aligned programs are the driving force for our exploration: if we can’t purchase suitable resources, we need alternatives.

The nonprofit EdReports completes reviews of core programs which illuminate the shortcomings of traditional materials. Notably: In reviews of 17 middle school math programs, just one was deemed standards-aligned across grades six to eight. Of the 14 elementary school math programs, only two products were found to be standards-aligned across grades K-5, again both published by nonprofits. In high school reviews, only three of 15 math programs are consistently aligned.

In addition, materials from traditional providers are often less flexible. The malleable and often-timely nature of open educational resources is useful in today’s schools; the proliferation of technology makes modular digital content more essential, increasing needs for adaptable instructional materials.

Textbook publishers have not shown a consistent ability to deliver materials that meet the evolving needs of districts. As new sources provide better options, they may even exert pressure on other providers to improve product offerings.

Second, a frequent critique of open educational resources is that we can’t ask teachers to take on the additional burden to curate and create materials, with the underlying assumption that this work is always borne by teachers. Indeed, teachers initially took the lead in bringing these resources into classrooms.

Increasingly, ‘early mover’ districts support OER at a district level, to reflect constraints on teacher time. For example, in the ‘COW Project ’— a collaborative initiative between three of our districts that is profiled here — teams of educators produced new Social Studies and Science unit content entirely from OER. Each district allocated meaningful time for participants to drive the work.

District sponsorship allows for the development of broader materials: entire units, rather than lesson plans. Districts can incorporate quality benchmarks, such as the use of standards-alignment rubrics, and set norms around the storage and sharing of those materials — in district LMSs and/or public platforms, and organized by unit and tagged by standard — to foster broad utilization.

While some districts may not feel ready to take on district-level open education resources projects, we want to raise awareness of these approaches, for we believe they are the game-changer.

The third and final common misunderstanding is that open educational resources are comprised of supplement-scale content, such as lesson plans, practice items, and articles.

In fact, high-quality, curriculum-scale open educational resource options are increasingly available to districts, with all the features of traditional, publisher-offered curricula: student and teacher materials, scope-and-sequence guidance, and associated professional development.

Openly licensed core programs may even outpace publisher materials in quality. In EdReports reviews, the openly licensed Eureka Math program is the sole middle school math curriculum to meet standards-alignment criteria. Standards author Bill McCallum has developed an open educational resources math curriculum for nonprofit Open Up Resources which has garnered positive feedback in district pilots.

We highlight these curricula because of their apparent quality and the providers’ capacity to deliver the professional development sought by districts when adopting core programs. The cost-free content and the potential for open licensing to foster continuous improvement of the materials are also appealing. Openly licensed core programs allow districts to get the benefits of these resources while focusing staff time on excellent instructional design.

The purchasing season creates an excellent opportunity for districts to explore open educational resources and understand potential applications.

While we support open source content creation, we are not “anti-publisher.” Our districts all purchase products from major publishers and will continue to do so when they offer the best instructional materials. We can’t say it enough: quality is our benchmark.

Everyone wins if the market produces more high-quality materials, and open educational resources are helping to helping to raise the instructional materials bar. The more districts understand this reality, the more our students and teachers will benefit.

Matthew Miller is the Supt. of Mentor Public Schools in Ohio, and was named one of the National School Board Association’s “20 To Watch” in 2016. He is joined by eight fellow Superintendents: Jared Cotton of Henry County Public Schools (VA); Patricia DeKlotz of Kettle Moraine School District (WI), who was named 2016 WI State Superintendent of the Year; Susan Enfield of Highline Public Schools (WA); Steven Holmes of Sunnyside Unified School District (AZ); Ned Kirsch of Franklin West Supervisory Union School District (VT); Michael Nagler of Mineola Union Free School District (NY); Thomas Ralston of Avonworth School District (PA); and Devin Vodicka of Vista Unified School District (CA), who was named 2016 CA State Superintendent of the Year.

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