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Math Teachers: Open Resources Come With Risks

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics released a statement this week advocating for coherence in math curricula.

It may not seen like a groundbreaking stance. But in an era when teachers are increasingly asked to develop their own programs instead of following along with texts, the math teachers' association warns of the risks that arise when schools rely too heavily on open educational resources

The organization's official position: 

A coherent, well-articulated curriculum is an essential tool for guiding teacher collaboration, goal-setting, analysis of student thinking, and implementation. In a time when open educational resources are increasingly available, it is imperative that teachers be provided with curricular materials that clearly lay out well-reasoned organizations of student learning progressions with regard to mathematical content and reasoning.

Open educational resources can range from individual lesson plans created by nonprofits or individual teachers to entire curricula like many of the offerings of the Common Core-aligned EngageNY program. The key is that, unlike traditional textbooks, the materials are free to users. The federal government has embraced the trend in its #GoOpen campaign, which supports and encourages schools and districts to use open resources.

But the NCTM warns that there are risks that come along with diving into the world of open education resources and abandoning more complete curricula. The statement highlights three major challenges: 

  • Teachers may not receive support for creating coherent learning progressions out of the various open resources;
  • The quality of resources will vary even more extremely from school to school, presenting an equity challenge;
  • Open education resources won't offer communities the chance to vet and consider different academic programs, since individual teachers are creating their own programs. (Read Palo Alto Online's coverage about math curricula in the heart of Silicon Valley for a sense of how engaged some communities can be in math curricula).

From the statement: "Although districts, schools, and teachers have greater access than ever to tools and resources for developing their instructional materials, the skill required to develop high-quality curriculum materials is both vast and complex, but neither widely understood nor appreciated."

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics isn't the only group concerned about the future of curriculum in the age of open resources. Education Next recently published a long article on the origins, current state, and future of the open resources movement by Michael McShane, the director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute in Kansas City, Mo., which advocates for free markets and individual liberty. 

McShane points out that while the open resources movement means teachers can access free materials, the production of academic curricula is not free and requires both expertise and time. It's unclear how that expertise and time will be compensated in a world in which all materials are free.

It's also a significant task for teachers to assess the quality of various open resources and pull together great materials for their classes. At least one charter school network where teachers initially developed their own educational materials instead of using textbooks decided to move away from that approach, citing concerns about quality and teachers' loads. 

McShane wonders about the consequences of the federal government's embrace of the idea when so much is still up in the air. 

The piece is worth a read for anyone interested in the current state of curriculum and the textbook industry. McShane also appears on this week's EdNext podcast to discuss the issue.


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