This year, I have reflected a lot on the way that districts adopt curriculum and what this means for OER. First, some background…

The curriculum adoption and purchase decision in K-12 schools is a complicated process. There are many players involved including states (in “adoption” states, the states actually determine the list of curricula that schools may purchase with state funds; in “open territory” states, the state may only issue a so-called “approved” list, leaving more discretionary power up to local sites), districts (who are typically the most direct “decision makers” subject to the whims of committees and all these others), schools, and individual teachers. Sadly students are generally not included in this process.

Districts usually have curriculum committees which include a broad range of constituents involved in final decisions. And as any publisher rep can tell you, navigating through these curriculum committees is a lot of work, and that must be done before any sales are made.

credit: Flickr user timuiuc

The monies used to buy textbooks typically come from the state, which leads to the unusual situation in which districts, schools, and teachers are not particularly incentivized to economize on curriculum purchases. (This is very different from higher education, where students buy textbooks, creating a clear economic incentive to reduce cost.)

Furthermore, the current environment of K-12 schools is one of extreme accountability at every level. Whether you think it’s right or wrong, nearly every decision in schools comes down to maximizing achievement (as defined by the system) and minimizing risk. In these days where people’s jobs are on the line for not making achievement scores, this is serious business. (See “Demand, district adoption, and ‘silver bullets.’“)

Then there’s what actually goes on in the classroom after the curriculum adoption and purchase is made. This may or may not have anything to do with what’s been adopted (thought this is less the case today than it has been in the past). Some of the best and brightest teachers I have known have left their district-adopted curriculum on the shelf, instead using other scavenged materials that they feel best meet their learners’ needs.

So into that complicated context enters OER.

Many of us have had a goal to increase OER adoption in K-12. The reasons are many. It’s a wiser use of public funds (which after all, pay for all of this in the end). It’s a way to loosen the stranglehold of commercial interests on education. It’s a way to empower teachers and learners.

However, the more I think about it, the harder the fit for OER into the formal adoption process in K-12. The process demands rigorous time and attention on the part of the curriculum “sales force,” whether the curriculum is free or for sale. That is very difficult for OER producers and publishers to do, given the fact that there is no economic incentive. (Creating an economic incentive, such as through ancillary product and service sales, may be a key to this…but that’s another post!)

The more radical side of me also asks, “Is this really the goal we should have?” If in fact, some of us don’t buy into the premises of mainstream K-12 education right now, e.g. high stakes accountability; rigid, prescribed curriculum; lack of teacher discretion, should we try to fit into its strictures?

Maybe open learning is a more worthy pursuit than adoption of OER. More on that in a future post.

Reflecting on my year of open – part 3/OER and districts
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