Of the many changes that occurred with the shift to teaching Common Core State Standards perhaps the most noticeable to students, parents, and teachers alike was the move away from using textbooks in English Language Arts and Mathematics. It wasn’t by design that textbooks went away, but it is by design that Wake County Public Schools is bringing back a unifying curriculum in certain areas.

When school opened this year, students and teachers in third and sixth grades were introduced to a new Language Arts curriculum, and a new math curriculum greeted students and teachers in the high school Algebra I course, known as Math I. There’s still no physical textbook, in the traditional sense, but for the first time since the adoption of Common Core there’s a central text tying everything together. In fact, the whole curriculum, including all textbook-type materials are available online for everyone to see, use, and modify. Yes, modify.

The genius in these new curriculum products WCPSS adopted is their adaptability. It is a movement in education known as Open Educational Resources, OERs, and it is disrupting the traditional textbook-driven curriculum adoption model. OERs are similar in concept to the open source nature of software and Web-based applications. There’s a decentralized community of experts and moderators who contribute to the body of knowledge, but well-defined guardrails to keep everything on the same track.

For most of the 20th century, textbook publishers would print books based on the needs of the largest state school districts like Texas, California, Florida, New York, or for a region of the US, such as the Midwest. This allowed publishers to keep costs down, but it meant states and individual school districts had limited choices in finding resources which exactly matched the state’s academic standards. For example, a publisher’s eighth-grade History textbook might include some material that is taught in sixth or seventh grades in one state or another.

By the early 2000s – the early days of the No Child Left Behind Act – publishers offered more robust textbook and curriculum resources which were more closely aligned to each state’s standards. Oftentimes these products included cursory training for teachers on the components and how they would interact with one another.

Common Core changed that seven years ago. With 42 states fully adopting the Common Core State Standards, including North Carolina, it was the first time the US had anything close to a “national curriculum.” Despite that, new textbooks, however, did not catch up right away. At the same time, North Carolina was still feeling the effects of the Great Recession so money for new textbooks was scarce. In fact, money for new textbooks has not returned to the state budget yet.

Even if textbook money were available, North Carolina recently changed its curriculum standards again after the General Assembly passed a law removing the Common Core Standards. By the time the textbook publishers caught up to Common Core, the Core standards were gone as far as North Carolina was concerned.

Without textbooks and unifying resources, school systems like WCPSS created their own curriculum products for use by teachers, but teachers were also free to seek or create their own resources which were aligned to the standards. Supplementing by teachers is not new to education, but it is a practice which mushroomed with the lack of textbooks.

Such widespread supplementation led to the rise of shared online resources that were both free and paid, and which varied widely in quality and efficacy. It was up to the individual teacher to judge whether something was not only aligned to the standards, but also properly rigorous and easily differentiated for varied learning styles. Many teachers turned to free social sites like Pinterest and pay-as-you-go sites like Teachers Pay Teachers. The latter leveraged the creativity and expertise of teachers to create and sell curriculum products which would also be rated by users similar to Amazon products.

As handy as it was for teachers to have online access to free and low-cost options which met their needs, these were not solutions to suit a district of nearly 160,000 students. It also created the possibility that students in one school would have a highly supplemented curriculum while students in another wouldn’t, and there was no way to truly measure whether one method is more effective than another. Not to mention teachers were purchasing these products with their own money.

This is where OERs have the advantage over both traditional textbook-based curriculum and the open-ended search for independent resources. OERs have the advantage of being curated and created by experienced professionals who have expertise in curriculum development, but the ease of access and adaptability of a teacher-created resource. Updates to the main curriculum can be made more easily than in a printed textbook-centered environment. A good example is the case when astronomers decided Pluto was no longer a planet in 2006. Believe it or not, there are still some school districts out there which have textbooks old enough that still say there are nine planets including Pluto. The advantage of the OER model is that it can be updated with the correct information about poor Pluto’s new status.

The two products that WCPSS has purchased provide that unifying anchor for the curriculum so that every third grader, for example, is using the same materials at the same point in the school year as everyone else. This is how an OER like the EL Education curriculum for third and sixth grade language arts is an advantage. Instruction is based on a common pacing guide, common objectives, and common materials. Most importantly, though, is the availability of common assessments.

Before the EL Education adoption, the only way for WCPSS to measure student progress throughout the year was to use quarterly benchmark assessments known as CASE21 tests, which resembled EOGs in how they were administered using test books and bubble sheets. This method, however, created a new tier of testing which contributed to lost instructional time. Although there’s nothing to indicate that the OER-based assessments will replace CSAE21 and be used as district-wide benchmark testing system as of this writing, there is the potential to build in more frequent classroom assessments that are part of the regular instructional practice anyway whose scores can be aggregated at the school or district level for measuring student progress.

The same can be said for the Math I courses across the district. The curriculum from Mathematics Vision Project (MVP) is designed by educators with expertise in curriculum and assessment. Math I is also an important subject for initial mastery. For starters, it is the foundation to all high school and college-level mathematics. Second, it is taught at many different levels with high-performing seventh and eighth graders taking the course in middle school, and high school freshman taking it as a required course. Student performance on the Math I EOC is also one of the factors contributing to the high school accountability scores.

Both resources come to WCPSS with the same bona fides as a curriculum developed by a for-profit, traditional textbook publisher, but without the package and copyright limitations that often accompany publisher content. The very core of OERs is the ability to adapt it to local needs. In particular, WCPSS may find that parts of the curriculum don’t require as much time or emphasis as prepared by EL or MVP, or conversely there may be areas that actually still need additional resources. Regardless, WCPSS has the ability to modify the curriculum.

Modifications aren’t made at random, either. The curriculum from both vendors was vetted by school system staff through several months of deliberations. While the goal is to adopt a curriculum with the least need for changes, any necessary modifications would’ve been discovered during this process and changes were planned well in advance. However, planning an implementation are different scenarios. Once the curriculum is rolled out this year, gaps or overlaps may arise which need to be corrected for next year. Each of these curriculum adoptions will also roll up with the students until EL is implemented in all grades 3-8, and MVP is taught in Math I, Math II, and Math III. This will create a continuum that will allow the district to track progress year-to-year.

The final major piece of the puzzle is parents. They will have access to the curriculum once again. In the days of a printed textbook, parents could get a comprehensive understanding of the concepts taught in school through the textbook. When textbooks went away seven years ago, parents lost that option, and many were left piecing together what was being taught from homework materials. With these OERs, everything is available for review online for free. Parents actually have access to a more detailed level of the curriculum than ever before. It’s all there for them to read, print, save, and follow along at home.

While OERs are new to WCPSS, they’ve been around for a while. MIT famously moved a few years ago to put large amounts of its curriculum online for free for anyone to use. And many parents have become very familiar with the soothing intonations of Sal Khan’s voice over at Khan Academy, a free, video-based math and science instructional tool which has evolved from a series of helpful videos to actual self-paced courses that anyone can follow from kindergarten math through college level Calculus.

WCPSS also may be among the first school systems in North Carolina to adopt entire OER curriculum options, but it won’t be the last. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has joined the national #GoOpen initiative that is encouraging education communities to adopt OERs. This effort’s aim is to establish OERs as a viable option for school districts who are looking beyond the static textbook. DPI lists several OER options for school systems to use, and many of them are affordable or free to K-12 schools which will be a huge benefit, but especially for low-wealth districts.

Ultimately, the goal of any curriculum adoption, regardless of format, is to make sure students have access to rigorous and challenging content which inspires them to learn and master the skills they will need to become productive adults. The OER movement is just one way to achieve that goal, and it shows a lot of promise.

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