‘Open’ Ed. Provider Steps Into English/Language Arts Market

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Open Up Resources, an organization trying to battle commercial publishers for school district curriculum contracts by delivering openly licensed content, is expanding its offerings beyond math through a new partnership with a provider of English/language arts materials.

EL Education, a nonprofit based in New York City, will serve as a subcontractor to Open Up Resources under an arrangement announced today, offering curriculum and support services in grades K-5 around the country.

Open Up Resources, whose CEO is Larry Singer, a former Pearson executive, announced its intentions last year to try to wrest K-12 deals from traditional publishers by inviting district buyers to consider open educational curricula–free resources that educators can share and alter as they see fit.

The organization’s pitch to school districts is relatively straightforward.

It provides core curriculum to school districts for free, while charging them for various wrap-around support services, from printing to professional development for teachers. Singer is convinced that districts that select Open Up Resources will save money on their bottom line by avoiding the big costs of purchasing core content—and instead only having to choose from a menu of relatively low-cost ancillary services.

To date,  the nonprofit Open Up Resources has offered only middle-school math curriculum through a nonprofit it contracts with, Illustrative Mathematics, content that is currently being piloted in districts around the country. Open Up Resources handles much of the up-front services with districts and contract management, including printing, and marketing to school systems, while Illustrative Mathematics offers PD and other help to educators making the curriculum work on the ground.

As the pilots end, Open Up Resources’ goal is to win contracts to provide math curriculum with districts around the country for the 2017-18 academic year. Illustrative Mathematics is led by William McCallum, a professor of math on leave from the University of Arizona who was also a lead author of the Common Core State Standards.

Into the Market

EL Education, formerly known as Expeditionary Learning, also has deep connections to both the common core and the world of openly licensed English/language arts content to the Open Up Resources project.

The organization has been one of the content providers for EngageNY, a hugely popular repository of common-core aligned content that has been downloaded an estimated 45 million times by users around the United States and the world. Materials that EL Education has provided to EngageNY have been downloaded 8 million times, the nonprofit estimates.

Scott Hartl, the president and CEO of EL Education, said the arrangement with Open Up Resources appealed to him because of the potential to reach many more districts and offer them a variety of support. He believes Open Up Resources will contribute sales and marketing might to help expand EL Education’s reach.

“The partnership with Open Up Resources is essentially a statement that great content has to be joined with great PD support,” Hartl said, adding that, “Great content is essential, but inadequate [on its own] to deliver the change in instruction that kids deserve.”

EL Education was chosen as a vendor–as was Illustrative Mathematics–from an RFP process that was established by the K-12 OER Collaborative, a multistate organization created to establish and share open materials, which was Open Up Resources’ predecessor. More than 260 organizations originally responded to the RFP.

Reviewers judged the applications and whittled them down based on a number of factors, particularly the quality of the providers’ materials and their alignment with Open Up Resources’ goals, said Singer.

“What makes them attractive, in addition to the high quality, is their history of working with struggling schools in high poverty,” Singer said of EL Education. “For us, that was the ideal partner, one that had a focus on school improvement.”

From a legal standpoint, Illustrative Mathematics and EL Education are subcontractors with Open Up Resources, which will be the main contractor with school districts seeking to use its curriculum and resources, Singer explained.

Open Up Resources then offers a suite of services and support for districts to choose from, each of them at a price. Some of those services are provided by Open Up; other services, such as PD, are offered by Illustrative Mathematics and will be offered by EL Education. Revenues from those services flow to the entity that provides them, under the agreement with the different parties.

All of the materials created by Illustrative Mathematics and EL Education are “open” educational resources–typically defined as materials that either live in the public domain or are created on a license that allow them to be freely shared, remixed, and altered as educators see fit. As their popularity has grown in recent years, some commercial providers have come to see them as a threat, while others have sought to integrate them into their products, weaving them into proprietary offerings.

Many open resources today are backed by philanthropic funding, an arrangement that some for-profit companies say is flawed and unsustainable. Because they don’t bring in a flow of revenue in the way that commercial products do, the the argument goes, open resources are less likely to be continually updated and improved, and grow stale over time.

Singer says that Open Up Resources is still planning to count on foundation funding to pay for the creation of brand new academic content. But the revenue that Open Up Resources and its partners draw from support services will fund the continued improvement of the core curriculum it offers.

And other batches of curriculum, in other grade levels and possibly other subjects, are on the way, he said.

“We don’t expect [English/language arts] to be the last curriculum we bring to market,” Singer said.

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