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On Open-Source Instructional Materials

Last month, the General Electric Foundation announced that it is making an $18 million grant available to Student Achievement Partners, intended to help teachers understand the kinds of shifts in instruction that will be needed to implement the new Common Core State Standards and to create a storehouse of instructional materials that will enable teachers to implement the standards in their classrooms.  The work will be led by David Coleman and others who have been deeply involved in the development of the Common Core State Standards and will be undertaken in collaboration with seven school districts, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Council of Great City Schools, and the national teachers' unions.

Instructional materials will be developed by a wide circle of those connected with the program and only those materials that the "curators" think worthy will be made publicly available to anyone who wishes to use them "for free."  This last point is, as they say, non-trivial.  It is solidly in line with a policy preference earlier expressed by the Gates Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and others that any curriculum materials developed with their funds be available as open-source materials, available at no charge, through public web sites.

The people who will be leading this work are among the nation's most capable and the overall design of the development program makes sense to me at many different levels.  This is a very promising development.  What I want to talk about here is the assumption that the nation's schools and the public are best served by a system in which curriculum materials are available free from public web sites.

Many years ago, in the late 1950s, the then-new National Science Foundation (NSF) was ramping up its massive effort to modernize the nation's mathematics and science curricula.  It was succeeding in mobilizing some of this country's most eminent mathematicians, scientists and engineers in the development of new curriculum for the schools.  The issue it faced was what to do with the materials starting to come out of that pipeline.  The NSF concluded that, inasmuch as the materials had been produced with public funds, they should be put in the public domain and should be available for use in the nation's classroom at no cost to the schools.

But this policy quickly failed.  At one level, it failed because it did not provide for the recovery of certain costs that someone would have to bear to gather together, assemble and distribute the instruments and materials—from ingenious inexpensive microscopes to brine shrimp—needed for the science experiments.  At another level, it did not solve the problem of how to make sure that texts acceptable to the market would be edited and proofed, graphical materials would be created, pages would be laid out, and all the other work necessary to publishing texts and support materials would get done.  And, finally, the NSF's policy did not take into account a simple fact:  What schools and districts use is what salespeople from publishing houses sell to them.  If it isn't sold, it does not get through the schoolhouse door.

Much of the work done under the NSF banner was simply brilliant.  But it was not getting into schools and was not being used by teachers.  So the NSF changed its policy.  It licensed the not-for-profit organizations to which the development grants had been given to retain the intellectual property rights to the materials that had been created with NSF funds, and required those organizations to enter into negotiations with commercial publishers to publish the materials and distribute them to schools at competitive prices.  The NSF further authorized the not-for-profits to retain the royalties received from the publishers and to use those royalties to revise the curriculum materials as needed, to create more of them, and to support the implementation of the materials with training offered to the teachers using them.

This gave the developers incentives to enter into negotiations with publishers who often found ways to accomplish the goals of the developers at lower cost, but who also often insisted on making changes in the curriculum materials that would make it more likely that they could be sold at prices the schools would be willing to pay.  Because salespeople sold them, the schools bought them.  Because developers were committed to sound implementation of the programs on which they had been working on for so many years, they often created powerful programs of professional development for teachers to enable them to teach the new curricula well.  This professional development would otherwise have been unavailable.  Because they knew that this was how the development process would end, the developers became much more interested than they had formerly been in developing materials that schools might actually purchase, and so listened to their future customers earlier in the development process.  So the realities of public education ended up being a more important factor in the design and development process than they had ever been before.

I know of no better or more powerful example of public-private partnership in the public education arena than the one I just described.  It was a golden era in American mathematics and science education, never matched before or since.

One could, I suppose, say that this cautionary tale is simply outdated and therefore irrelevant.  Today, the product of the development effort is a file on a disk or some other digital storage medium, which can get posted to the cloud, from which it can be retrieved by any district with access to the internet, and loaded onto student's iPads in the dark of night.  No one needs to sell anyone anything.  No physical text is any longer needed.  Perhaps there is no need for the education publishing industry.  Perhaps the whole paradigm just described is antiquated.  And, finally, the incentives school people face have changed.  In the old days, the incentives to keep teachers, parents and the community happy were strong and the incentives to improve student performance (often a source of controversy) were very weak.  Now the incentives to improve student performance are much stronger, and maybe that will be enough to overcome the probability of schools buying what they are sold in favor of actively looking for something that is most likely to improve student performance.  Maybe advertising and four-color printing won't matter very much in schools' "purchasing" decisions anymore.

Or maybe not.  In my experience, the kind of quality associated with the best of the NSF-supported curriculum development programs is very expensive, far more than text publishers typically invest.  That said, it is not at all unusual for text publishers to invest $10 million or more in the development of one text.  And they usually have to borrow most of that money.  American foundations have been extremely reluctant to invest in curriculum development for decades.  The Department of Education does not do it.  If we destroy the market for the textbook publishers, who will come forward to fund curriculum development in the United States?  A great way to destroy it would be to convince American school districts that they ought to get the stuff for free, from web sites curated by responsible people like the ones that GE is funding, or the ones that the two national testing consortia are planning to offer.  But what good does it do to have responsible curators if there is not very much well-developed material to curate?  Who will find the brine shrimp, store them, package them up so they can survive long enough for students to use them, and send them all over the country?  Who will worry about updating good material when it is outdated?  How will we get the word to the people who are now reached by the salesmen for the publishers?  And do you really believe that school staff will stop reading advertisements in their professional education magazines and start doing searches for materials based on analysis of sophisticated data?

Open-sourcing is a great idea when seen through the telescope of people who would rather pay less than more for anything they want.  But we are talking here about creating material that takes a long time to develop and a development process that is very expensive if done well.  We are also talking about a function, the development and use of curriculum materials, that is typically not very successful unless the materials are matched to standards and the assessments are based on the curriculum and the teachers are taught how to use the materials well in a powerful instructional context.  I find it very hard to believe that open-sourcing will promote the development of such systems.

We'll see.
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