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Can an 'Open' Math Curriculum Compete With Commercial Publishers?

A major middle-school math curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards today goes live for all to download, use, and adapt for free, in what will serve as a major test case as to whether open curriculum resources can truly compete with traditional textbook publishers.  

The release of Illustrative Mathematics 6-8 Math, published by the nonprofit Open Up Resources, represents the confluence of three trends that have had a huge impact on curriculum development in recent years: Open educational resources, or OER; the common core; and concerns about curricular coherence—how it aligns across grades. 

The curriculum has been released under a Creative Commons license and can be used even for commercial purposes, as long as it is properly attributed to the author and publisher. Illustrative Mathematics, the nonprofit partner that crafted the curriculum for Open Up Resources, is led by William McCallum, one of the primary mathematics writers of the Common Core State Standards.

Larry Singer, the CEO of Open Up Resources, said the curriculum offers a different value proposition to districts than traditional publishers. Usually school districts purchase new textbooks and get some professional development, often of indifferent quality, thrown in for free. Open Up Resources' pitch to districts is essentially the inverse: to give the curriculum for free digitially and couple it with high-quality professional development. (The group also offers printing services for a fee for districts that want paper copies.)

In a sense, it also differs from what's often been a cafeteria-tray approach to using OER. As my colleague Sean Cavanagh has reported, districts are intrigued by OER, but they've raised issues of scope and alignment, since it is a lot more difficult to ensure rigor and coherence across grades when you are using a patchwork of materials.

With that in mind, Open Up Resources joins a small handful of other providers that are banking that districts value curricula that's both coherent and flexible—and will pay for premium PD to learn how to make the best use of it.

"It's not enough that it's high quality; it has to be consumable by a school district," Singer said. "Traditionally with OER, a teacher downloads it and starts using it on his or her own, but doesn't have training to use it."

The nonprofit got about $14 milliion in backing from various philanthropies to produce Illustrative Mathematics 6-8 Math, including funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Gates also helps support coverage of college- and career-ready standards in Education Week, which retains editorial control over the articles.)

And the return on that investment? Open Up Resources expects to generate about $4 million in revenue by the end of 2017 and $40-50 million by the end of 2018, Singer said.

Currently, more than 160 districts have submitted purchase orders for support services related to the first version of the curriculum released today. That includes printing services and professional development on how to teach it.

Pilot Learning

Open Up Resources piloted the curriculum in 32 schools across six school districts. The version released today includes all the changes made as a result of feedback. Chief among those changes were improvements to the teacher-facing editions, based on findings from the 175 teachers who piloted the curriculum.

"A lot of it was how the teacher can use the materials to understand the goals of the lesson better," Singer said.

One of the major critiques of the OER movement has come from those who question whether providers can generate enough revenue to keep the materials fresh, relevant, and evolving. (This has been one complaint about New York's popular EngageNY materials. A new group, UnboundEd, is taking up that challenge now.)

Asked about this question, Singer said his organization is planning to begin a user group that, for a membership fee, can pilot enhancements to the curriculum before they're released for free to all. That network will also be instrumental in learning how the curriculum works across different contexts. 

McCallum said his team also will create a tool that helps users customize the curriculum without undermining its core architecture: "Teachers like to make modifications, and we want to help them do that in a thoughtful way." 

Such advancements may hinge on how successfully the new curriculum proves to be out on the open market. So this is a story to watch.

Brand new to the OER discussion? We've got you covered with this great video explainer.

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For more on OER and Open Up Resources:

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