How To Go Open-Source with K-12 Curriculum

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat as part of a First Person series I wrote on curriculum 10 years ago (!). I’ve added a few updates into the original, as well as a short reflection on progress since then.

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Dec 20, 11:20am EST

In my last post, I made the case for why educators should collaboratively develop and share curriculum materials. Now I’ll offer some ideas about just how that can be done in a world that seems set up to keep teachers working in isolation.

The opportunity presented by the widespread adoption of the Common Core Standards can be harnessed by a collaborative design model that has proven extremely effective in the field of software development. This model is known as “open source.” When you hear that term, you most likely think of “free software,” and much of the open source movement has been oriented around concepts of equity in access that lends itself to that conception. But what has been most revolutionary in the open source approach is not simply that the products created are sometimes free, but rather that the process of production is entirely transparent and accessible to anyone based on a GNU-style license of software code. This license turns the traditional notion of property on its head by basing ownership upon the right of distribution, rather than exclusion (for more about this concept and the success of the open source model, read Steven Weber’s provocative and insightful book).

If we agree that public education is indeed “public,” and therefore part of the commons, then it is no great stretch to suggest that the content we teach to our students should also be purveyed with transparent and accountable public access. The fact that most of our curriculum — when it is even acknowledged — is developed under proprietary license speaks to the fundamentally flawed priorities of our society. Do we consider it more important to protect the rights of corporations than that of children? In the field of education, unfortunately, this question is far more than rhetorical.

I strongly believe that the curriculum we design and implement, as in open-source software, should be produced and distributed under a non-proprietary license, such as the now well established Creative Commons license. This will open access to curriculum to anyone who finds it useful and applicable, whether a home-schooler, a private school, charter school, or public school teacher. It allows anyone to take that content and modify it as they see necessary, so long as they give credit to the makers of the content they used. And when they modify it, they can then present their modifications back to the community, to be embraced and modified yet further.

Our federal government has signaled support for recognition of open educational resources (OER) by establishing a new technical framework for sharing, which can be viewed on its Learning Registry website (UPDATE: That website and effort no longer exists. I think there were rocky politics that it ran ashore on around student privacy, in addition to the rocky politics of the Common Core at large. I’m murky on what exactly happened, if you have any info on this, please let me know so this can be updated accordingly). I’m excited by the potential that the framework — a form of metadata, called paradata, that can facilitate a sophisticated and evolving system of embedded data — can provide in linking disparate OER across the web.

The next step is in ensuring that this curriculum is developed in a collaborative manner that recognizes expertise and fosters excellence. I believe this requires a common vision and starting point for effective curriculum design. Curriculum design models I have found that are based on solid and equitable principles are the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) models (UPDATE: I found SIOP useful at that point in my teaching career, but have since moved beyond it. In NYC, we work to ensure full, equitable access to grade-level tasks, texts, and content for all our English language learners (ELLs) in core classrooms and curriculum through scaffolds and integrating abundant opportunities for reading, talking, writing, listening, and thinking). Using these models, I have created my own templates for unit and lesson design. You can view and copy my unit plan template here, and my lesson plan template here. Disagree with something in my templates or feel something must be added? Then modify it and share it! These are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License, after all.

Teachers, consider this — our curriculum will either be developed for us, or we will develop it ourselves. And which curriculum would our nation prefer — one developed by non-public interests that stand to gain loads of money, with little accountability or oversight? Or one developed by our professional public educators that work directly alongside our children everyday, in collaboration with content experts in higher education and other areas of professional practice? I believe the answer is clear.

I have outlined in this series of posts the dramatic about-face that is required in educational reform. We must focus directly within our schools, directly into our classrooms, and target the product that will have the greatest impact — both immediate and over the long haul — on our nation’s future: the content that we deliver to our children every day.

In creating a curriculum that can target inequity and enable all students to achieve in our society, we must address these factors:

  • Curriculum must explicitly address the non-academic skills proven necessary by research for life and career success, such as social skills, self-control, perseverance, and character
  • Curriculum must be unified to clearly delineate the underlying foundations of content
  • Curriculum must be an adaptable, living creation developed collaboratively by actual teachers and content experts via networks operated under a GNU-style license

If you believe in any of these precepts, then I encourage you to follow some of these steps:

  1. Go to the Shanker Institute and sign your name to support the concept of a core curriculum
  2. Advocate for scheduled and paid common planning time that is consistent and structured
  3. Join or set up an EdCamp “unconference” and host an open source curriculum development session with educators
    • UPDATE: ResearchED, originally started in the UK, has since begun happening periodically in the US, and has a similar ground-up, practice-focused spirit.
  4. Go to my website on open-source curriculum development to see some of the baby steps I’ve taken in this direction — or start your own! <– UPDATE: This site is long defunct. In a nutshell, I was testing out using LaTeX and Github as a method for version control of curriculum development. I didn’t have the technical know-how, time, nor persistence to maintain it or move it forward from there. Since then, Google Docs has advanced substantially in this regard. It could also be interesting to explore something like the ActivityPub protocol (what Mastodon is a demonstration of) to do this. See WriteFreely as a demonstration of using ActivityPub for blogging, for example.

Some further updates and reflections since this was first posted 10 years ago . . .

There have been some slow but promising advancements since I wrote this a decade ago.

New York published open source curriculum on the EngageNY website that was widely drawn upon, and continues to be drawn upon, as part of the effort to have Common Core aligned materials available. They were rough around the edges — I was working at a middle school at the time and we elected to use the Expeditionary Learning EngageNY ELA curriculum — but they provided the field with a direction.

Expeditionary Learning, now EL Education, continued with its work, and now has redesigned materials built from those original units, as well as a K-5 curriculum that has a lot of good stuff in it and is more user friendly.

Those EL Education materials, along with what has become one of my favorite K-5 curriculum, Bookworms, and math curriculum, are supported by OpenUp Resources.

While I was a teacher, I also contributed to few iterations of LearnZillion ELA materials. They’ve gone in a few different directions from “freely available” since then (and become Imagine Learning), but they partnered with Louisiana to make Guidebooks, and Illustrative Math materials as well.

CKLA has continued to make available free curriculum and resources.

Match Education has a K-12 ELA curriculum and 3-Algebra 2 mathematics curriculum, Fishtank Learning, available.

Our field has come quite a long way on high quality curriculum materials in general over the last decade. While it has not been the ground-up open-source teacher-driven swell that I was originally envisioning, it has still been heartening to see that a much higher quality set of comprehensive materials are now available, some of it freely accessible outside of the purchase of printables and texts.

Still a long way to go in getting folks to understand what “open source” means beyond “freely available,” however, as well as in moving districts to adopt higher quality materials instead of TCRWP, F&P, and the other antiquated and content-lite stalwarts that remain pervasive.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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