The Collaborative Curriculum: When Teachers and Standards Authors Build A Core Program Together

The nonprofit Open Up Resources (OUR), in partnership with Illustrative Mathematics (IM) and a pilot cohort of educators, is developing the first collaboratively-developed math curriculum and will make it available as an Open Educational Resource (OER) for broad-scale use in 2017.

So, what’s it like for teachers and materials developers to collaborate on curriculum development?

A 21st-Century Collaboration Model

“It’s definitely exciting to be part of developing a free full-course curriculum,” says Melina Dyer, a math coach at Evergreen School District in Washington. “What OUR gives to us that’s different from other providers is that this is the most authentic approach to developing curriculum that is high quality, rooted in the standards, supported with the right PD, and takes an activity-based approach to delivering instruction.”

Collaborative authoring happens in two phases. First, Bill McCallum and the team at Illustrative Mathematics—one-third of whom are active classroom teachers—author each unit. It receives QA reviews for standards-alignment, depth, rigor, and engagement. Then, the teacher refinement phase occurs as 175 teachers across six school districts bring the materials into classrooms.

In order to ensure a cycle of rapid iteration and continuous improvement, the educator feedback on the materials is collected in multiple ways:

  • Real-time chat: Pilot teachers chat with curriculum authors, as well as their peers, via a dedicated Slack channel. 
  • Lesson and unit surveys: Teachers complete a survey at the end of every lesson, as well as after the conclusion of a unit. “I use the survey tool I give feedback on what worked, and what didn’t, in every lesson,” says Gayleen Gomez, a teacher at Galt Unified School District (CA) and a member of the pilot cohort.
  • Student work exchange: Teachers regularly submit student work to the team at IM as a way to show how kids engage with the materials. The student perspective fosters further refinement and ensures that tenor of the curriculum resonates with its audience.
  • On-the-ground observations: OUR conducts monthly site visits to observe the curriculum in action, gather in-person feedback, and ensure teachers have the support they need to implement the curriculum.
  • Direct communication: The IM and OUR teams are directly accessible to teachers via email and phone.
  • Newsletters: OUR’s bi-monthly teacher newsletters highlight the latest learnings and share recent content updates based on teacher feedback.

How Is Teacher Feedback Refining the Curriculum?

Teacher feedback gives OUR and IM an instant read on what’s working, what’s not, and what to build next. This year, teachers are providing detailed feedback on things like student assessments, curriculum development, instructional delivery, and even professional development.

While student assessments were already built into the program, teacher feedback helped the IM team realize the need for an accompanying assessment rubric. Now teachers are chipping in to help build it—this is a great example of PLCs in action.

In addition, teachers and math coaches are evaluating the professional learning supports OUR provides in conjunction with the curriculum. “We piloted the PD modules with our teachers this fall, and they were great,” says Dyer. “Fundamentally, the curriculum is based on rich tasks: kids talking math, kids wrestling with ideas, and teachers helping building ideas over time rather than introducing an idea and expecting mastery in practice immediately. We offered the feedback that it’s helpful during a PD engagement to share with teachers what’s working in other districts and classrooms, because for many educators this instructional approach requires a shift in practice.”

Teachers are also guiding OUR’s web design and user experience. “We’ve given feedback on how to make things easier to read and manipulate,” says Debra Spector, another piloting teacher. OUR uses that feedback to improve its user interface, as well as to expand, organize, and cross-reference the entire curriculum.

Finally, teachers are sharing feedback on the practical realities of using the curriculum in the classroom. “I give feedback on time allotment, because our greatest challenge is knowing how long it actually takes to deliver a lesson,” says Gomez. As a result, the IM team is streamlining lesson prep, recalculating time estimates, and adjusting lesson content to be more reflective of the realities of the classroom.

Results so far

Halfway through the school year, collaborators are seeing the effects of this new approach to curriculum development and delivery. Here’s what teacher-contributors have to say:

Increased student engagement

“At first I wasn’t too excited to jump into a new curriculum, but based on my students’ reactions to the content -- the level of engagement, their participation in the hands-on elements, and my sense that they had a deeper understanding of the concepts -- I now love it. These things are actually relevant to kids, and so they love it, too.”

Improved teacher trust

“I feel comfortable giving upward feedback and I have confidence that the team wants to get this right,” says Gomez. “From my perspective it clear we’re working with a team of people at Open Up and IM who want to do well, and who want teachers to do well.”

Rethinking traditional curriculum development

“Our district is huge on collaboration and we welcome it,” says Spector. “We use collaboration to become better teachers. I have never been able to jump in with a curriculum this early in the game. I love that you’re putting the curriculum into teachers’ hands -- I think that’s how all core curriculum should be developed.”

Why Is Teacher Voice Essential Right Now?

The vast majority of teachers already use OER or homemade resources to fill in the gaps left by traditional curriculum providers. “Since our state adopted the Common Core, we’ve been piecemealing together curricular materials,” says Dyer. “In fact, in the past we’ve used Illustrative Mathematics’s supplemental resources!”

This entrepreneurial attitude, as well as OER’s rise to prominence in K–12 classrooms, can be attributed to publishers’ inability to adequately and meaningfully support standards-aligned core programs. Take a look at this review of 17 middle school math programs and you’ll understand the dire situation we’re in—only one program was found to be in true alignment to the standards, and it’s an openly licensed curriculum.

Additionally, after a traditional textbook adoption, school districts are often locked into a static curriculum for years. “We’re moving so fast in terms of what we’re teaching and what students are learning,” says Spector. “Students have fully embraced 21st-century tools and technologies, and yet there are school districts out there using 20-year-old textbooks.”

Collaboration among content authors, content providers, and content users, is the next step in the evolution Open Educational Resources. It’s OER 2.0.

“While I bring mathematics and standards expertise to this work, the teachers on our writing team are experts on how to engage students in our math materials. Their input is the true secret to success in our curriculum development process,” says McCallum.

“This is an opportunity for classroom teachers—those on the front line who see first-hand the impact of instructional materials on their students—to give direct feedback to curriculum authors,” says OUR’s Larry Singer. “For the first time, practicing teachers will have a direct effect on the development of high-quality, openly licensed, core instructional materials.”

This is not just a win for teachers—it’s also a great way for content authors and experts to learn what teachers really need, what’s resonating with kids, and what’s having the greatest impact on student achievement. Considering the high cost, rigidity, and lack of alignment in traditional textbooks, it’s an offering that so many districts need.