School systems desperate for standards-aligned curricula find hope

More than supplemental, Open Up Resources takes OERs to the next level.
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Open Up Resources is a nonprofit collaborative formed by 13 U.S. states that creates high-quality, standards-aligned open educational resources (OERs) that are openly licensed under CC BY 4.0. Unlike other providers, Open Up Resources provides curriculum-scale OER options; they believe that while many people seem to know where to find supplemental materials, most curriculum directors would not know where to look if they were planning a textbook adoption next year.

After an article I wrote about OERs last year, I had the opportunity to interview their community evangelist and Chief Marketing Officer, Karen Vaites. In this interview, Karen elaborates on this: "School districts spend more than $8 billion annually on instructional materials, yet districts struggle from a dearth of standards-aligned curricula."

Don Watkins (DW): What is your background? How did you get started in open educational resources?

Karen Vaites (KV): I came to Open Up Resources after working for the Common Core authors at Student Achievement Partners in 2012. Back then, the first core programs were coming to market with claims of Common Core alignment, and all around me I saw significant concern around the major alignment shortcomings of those materials. Four years later, EdReports reviews tell us that there are still far too few aligned curricula, and I am excited to see Open Up Resources fill significant holes in the materials market, such as middle school math.

DW: What is Open Up Resources and how did it get started?

KV: Open Up Resources is a nonprofit developer of curriculum-scale, openly-licensed materials that address significant voids in the K–12 market. We evolved out of the K12 OER Collaborative, a coalition of 13 U.S. states that teamed up in 2013 to foster the development of comprehensive, high-quality, standards-aligned core programs.

At the conclusion of a competitive RFP seeking curriculum-scale OER providers, the Collaborative tapped Illustrative Mathematics, led by Common Core author Dr. William McCallum, to author our first offering, a middle school math curriculum. Open Up Resources launched in 2016 as a separate and neutral entity that will further the mission of the Collaborative by:

  • Partnering with organizations that have the capacity and expertise to produce curriculum-scale OER across content areas and grade levels
  • Providing quality control and distribution for those materials
  • Providing the ancillary supports necessary for districts to implement our curricula with fidelity, such as professional development and printing services

DW: What problem is the Collaborative trying to solve?

KV: School districts spend more than $8 billion annually on instructional materials, yet districts struggle from a dearth of standards-aligned curricula. The nonprofit EdReports highlights significant gaps between district needs and publisher offerings: For example, in their reviews of 16 middle school math programs, only one program was deemed standards-aligned across all middle school grades. This program wasn't even created by a traditional textbook publisher; it's an openly-licensed curriculum developed by a nonprofit.

States, districts, and standards authors assumed that K-12 publishers would rapidly align their instructional materials, especially textbooks, to the new, widely adopted state standards. Unfortunately, that did not come to pass. Because textbook publishers have not shown a consistent ability to deliver materials that meet the evolving needs of K-12 districts, organizations like Open Up Resources are stepping in to support school systems in their efforts to raise the bar for teachers and students.

One key reason that we will publish our curriculum as OER is to ease district adoptions. We want to ensure that aligned materials are accessible to all students as rapidly as possible. The cost savings and instructional equity associated with OER is certainly attractive to districts.

DW: How is Open Up Resources different than, for example? Do you have tools for teachers to modify and adapt your resources for classroom use?

KV: The biggest thing that differentiates Open Up Resources from is our provision of curriculum-scale materials, designed for full-year use, and complete with scope and sequence guidance, professional development options, and the other key features that districts expect when purchasing core programs from traditional publishers.

Today, when we talk with educators, it's clear that when they hear OER, they think of small-grain assets: lessons, articles, poems, assessments, math item banks, etc. Most OER options have been lesson-level or unit-level, and thus OER is typically used as a supplement.

The most important thing for district and school leaders to understand is that the market is now delivering curriculum-scale OER options, and thus OER should be evaluated by curriculum directors in core program adoptions, not just by teachers and coaches seeking classroom materials.

If you compare Open Up Resources with the other organizations that have been developing curriculum-scale OER, we are different in a few ways:

  • Experts author our content. For example, Bill McCallum, a lead standards author, is developing our math curriculum with his team at Illustrative Mathematics. When a standards author creates curriculum, it will be genuinely standards-aligned.
  • Standards alignment is our primary objective: We exist to fill gaps in standards-aligned curriculum options, so we measure our content against the strongest rubrics for standards alignment.
  • All curricula are refined in large-scale continuous improvement cycles before we release them as OER. For example, we have 175 teachers in six districts using our materials in a large-scale beta. They are submitting student work and feedback to the authors, so that the curriculum is strengthened by teachers before we release it to the world.
  • Advanced support for ELLs and students with disabilities is built into the curriculum. We are collaborating with Stanford's Kenji Hakuta on those.
  • Implementation support for districts: professional development, learning management system (LMS) integration, printing services for non-1:1 districts, and other support to foster easy district adoption.

DW: As a 501(c)(3), who are your principal funders?

KV: We receive philanthropic funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.

DW: According to your bio on LinkedIn you partner with the country’s foremost materials experts in creation of OER. Who are they?

KV: Open Up Resources has contracted with Illustrative Mathematics and its founder, Dr. William McCallum, to build a full set of curriculum for middle school math. Dr. McCallum is one of three principal authors of the Common Core State Standards, and the other principal authors are also supporters of OUR’s work: Phil Daro is a member of our Board of Directors, and Student Achievement Partners is one of our quality assurance advisors.

We will announce our English Language Arts (ELA) curriculum options later this school year.

DW: What format is the OER available in: PDF, open document, ePub, podcast?

KV: Our content is available to our partner districts in digital and hard-copy formats:

  • Online via our website
  • Via a number of common LMS systems by way of Common Cartridge
  • Printed and bound (for a deeply discounted printing fee)
  • Printable via PDF

DW: How can a school get involved with Open Up Resources?

KV: Our materials will be openly available to districts for 2017-2018 adoption, complete with the professional development and support services to foster successful implementation. To learn more about our programs or to preview samples materials, please contact us at

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Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, M.S. Ed. in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator.

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