How Open Licensing Can Improve Teacher Professional Development And Textbook Quality

7 min read

As reported in EdWeek, 68% of school districts in the United States are planning on buying new Common Core aligned textbooks.

This represents an enormous amount of money. The districts that buy new curriculum will also need to devote significant resources to teacher professional development. Among states and districts spending money to prepare for the Common Core, early trends don't look good. As part of Los Angeles Unified School District's iPad 1 billion dollar iPad rollout, the district bought professional development content from Pearson. As the contract with Pearson clearly states, the District doesn't own what they bought, they can't modify it, and they can't share it.

In New York State, the Education Department spent millions of public dollars to fund the development of new material that is now privately owned. While versions of the material are available online, the licensing of them limits how they can be used. Additionally, the NY State Education Department paid a significant amount of public money for teacher professional development, and no information about that is available online.

Fortunately, other districts can learn from the mistakes of LAUSD and New York State, and do a more responsible job spending public money. At the risk of stating the obvious, when a school or district shovels public money into a third party vendor, that money is gone from the local economy, forever. In the case of LAUSD, they have a set of resources that they cannot alter, and will need to re-license in three years, to the tune of around 60 million dollars. In the case of New York State, the materials they bought to support teachers via professional development do not appear to be publicly accessible, although the contractor that delivered them is now selling the same services to other schools and districts.

If a consortium of small districts - or a group of schools within a larger district - pooled resources, they could create better textbooks and better teacher professional development at costs that are likely less than what they are currently paying. By supporting this work with open licensing, they could make this work sustainable, and pass savings on into the foreseeable future.

At a high level, here is how this could be done:

  • If every teacher within a school shared 3-5 of their best units from each course they taught, that translates into a significant amount of useful content that is relevant and successful within a local context.
  • If a group of districts agreed to pool the resources shared by teachers from the different schools within the district, the shared content would likely translate into full coverage across a significant portion of the academic requirements across the districts.
  • Teacher professional development could be modified into guided working sessions; the purpose of these working sessions would be to clean up, refine, and revise shared curriculum as needed. Districts could hire subject-matter experts (or use the expertise within their teaching or district curriculum staff) to review course materials, and to work with teachers. Teachers could also work with their peers, and the combination of peer to peer feedback with input from subject matter experts would provide a feedback loop that helped keep teachers grounded in subject matter expertise, and subject matter experts grounded in the realities of the classroom.
  • The nature of the teacher professional development would shift throughout the year. Before the school year started, classroom teachers would look at and revise existing materials. During the school year, teachers would meet in peer groups and annotate the materials they used, noting what worked, what didn't, and how the lessons could be improved. At the end of the school year, they would collect their notes, and create a summary of needed edits for the course materials. These edits would be based on the collected observations and experiences of classroom teachers. As needed, selected classroom teachers, Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs), district-level curriculum staff, and outside experts could revise and modify curriculum over the summer to prepare it for use in the upcoming school year.

This would require significant effort, and a degree of courage and vision within school districts. Creating new curricular materials isn't easy, but it's worth noting that every textbook company is doing it, and that the private companies taking public money are doing it. Within these organizations, many of the authors writing "professional" curriculum have no K12 classroom experience whatsoever. While authoring content takes time and effort, the process is known. Because of the speed at which Common Core adoption is being pushed, many districts are overwhelmed, and it feels easier to throw money to an outside vendor to make the "problem" go away, if only temporarily. But pouring public money out of the district into private hands isn't a viable long term solution. Empowering teachers - or really, providing the opportunity for teachers to empower themselves by direct involvement in the tools they use in their daily work - is the type of local, sustainable investment that reaps dividends over time.

It's also worth noting that this general process could also be applied to developing high quality, locally relevant formative assessments: get the best of what teachers are already using, clean up as needed, get outside support as needed, and revise based on use and observation within the classroom.

One of the many points of releasing material - and especially material that documents the creative and learning process - under an open license is to allow those who come after you the freedom to not reinvent the wheel. Because of the adoption of the Common Core standards in the US, districts across the country are all now scrambling to invent their own version of the wheel.

Whether you like or dislike the standards, their impending adoption creates an opportunity to rethink our dated habits of teacher professional development and sourcing curriculum. Folding curriculum review and peer feedback into teacher professional development has the potential to transform professional development into something actually useful for teachers. Because the content authors are local, updating the curriculum as needed becomes a more routine, less costly experience. By combining teacher professional development with content authoring and training, districts simultaneously save money on instructional texts, maintain local control over instructional texts, and develop a more skilled, more informed pool of professional teachers. If districts form working partnerships with other districts, isolation within schools and districts could be reduced. If the content was developed through both face to face meeting and online working spaces, teachers would have technology literacy and social learning embedded into their job in a meaningful, relevant way.

Most importantly, releasing both the written curriculum and the professional development planning materials under an open license would allow other districts to adopt and modify either set of materials as needed. Using this process would allow districts to re-allocate money spent on products and services back into people and programs and kids. From an equity place, this would help districts with less money get increased access to higher quality learning materials. From a public policy place, this helps ensure that public money continues to benefit the public.

Most importantly, using openly licensed and editable texts helps us frame education and learning in a more accurate context: education, learning, and growth is a process of interactions (with texts, with people, with ideas) in which a text can be a starting point but not the end goal.

Closing Aside

In this piece, I did not talk about the myriad potential benefits for learners that occur when students become creators alongside their teachers. I was trying to keep a focus on the aspects related to teacher professional development.

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