Supporting the Collaborative Development of OER Aligned with the Common Core: A Policy Brief

Executive Summary

Forty-seven states and territories have fully adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English language arts and mathematics. The implementation of CCSS will be extremely costly to states, in part, because many districts will have to purchase new instructional materials and textbooks aligned to the CCSS out-of-cycle. Several policy options exist to help states deal with these costs, including increased federal funding, increased federal regulation of textbook publishers, and support of collaborative development of open educational resources (OER) aligned with CCSS. I recommend the third option because it not only offers a budgetary respite, but because it gives states unprecedented flexibility in instructional materials management.

The Problem

Reports estimate that implementing the CCSS will increase educational expenditures during the transition period (Pioneer Institute, 2012; Fordham Institute, 2012). A significant portion of these cost increases will occur because districts and schools in states that adopt the CCSS will need to purchase new instructional materials that are aligned with the new standards. This is a pressing problem for many states that are already experiencing budget deficits and struggling to figure out how to maintain (let alone increase) current educational spending.

Background and Context

Most of the states and territories in America have agreed to adopt the CCSS. States’ reasons for adopting common standards are varied. However, the main purpose of the CCSS according to the coalition that wrote them (which included state governmental and educational representatives from across the nation) is to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them” (Common Core, 2012). Specifically, the developers and adopters of CCSS see the standards as a way to equalize opportunity for student learning, ensure consistency in educational expectations from state to state, and help maintain or increase America’s competitive edge in a global economy.

Despite the hype and rhetoric around widespread adoption and upcoming implementation of CCSS, at least one report warns that many states have not paid due attention to the fact that the adoption of CCSS is going to cost a lot of money (Pioneer Institute, 2012). This report explains that cost increases will likely occur in four main areas: (a) professional development, (b) testing, (c) technology and infrastructure support, and (d) textbooks and instructional materials. Focusing on just the fourth area, textbooks and instructional materials, the Pioneer Institute estimates that “states will need to spend approximately $2.47 billion in one time costs to obtain [CCSS]-aligned English language arts and mathematics instructional materials ” (2012). Even more startling, this cost estimate does not include the adoption of CCSS in science or any of the other proposed subject-matter areas.

The Pioneer Institute report is based on the current average cost of language arts and mathematics textbooks as sold by for-profit publishers. However, the report did not consider the rapidly growing availability of open educational resources. OER are instructional materials – including textbooks, modules, videos, and even entire courses – that are specifically licensed for reuse, remix, revision, and redistribution. This type of licensing allows for the development of essentially free educational content (Wiley, Bliss, McEwen, in press). Even more importantly, OER can be developed collaboratively, aligned to CCSS, and freely shared between and within states. Currently, there are over 500 million openly licensed educational resources (Cable Green at Creative Commons, personal communication, November 2, 2012), with more being developed every day. However, there are not currently any cross-state initiatives to develop textbooks and other instructional materials aligned specifically to the CCSS.

Policy Options

There are several policy options for addressing the increased costs of instructional materials necessitated by the adoption and implementation of the CSSS. First, the federal government could increase payouts to states to help cover costs. Second, the federal government could regulate for-profit textbook publishers and require them to decrease profit margins on materials sold to public schools. Third, state and federal governments could support the collaborative development and adoption of open educational resources aligned with CCSS. Each of these options has advantages and disadvantages for states.

The first option, federal assistance for instructional materials purchasing, is easy and simple because it requires little from states in terms of planning, implementation, and change. With additional federal funding specifically earmarked for purchasing of CSSS-aligned materials, states could carry-on with business as usual and not individually experience additional budgetary constraints in their instructional materials allotments. However, with this option, the American taxpayer will still have to cover the additional $2.47 billion dollars it is estimated to cost states to adopt new materials. In addition, it is extremely unlikely that federal funding for states would come without additional strings attached, a generally unfavorable policy situation for most states.

The second option, increased federal regulation of textbook publishers, would certainly have the advantage of decreasing the cost of instructional materials. However, federal invasion into free-market enterprise is often more politically controversial than increased educational spending. This option is not likely to succeed given the powerful influence of the textbook industry within Washington, DC. In addition, few federal legislators are going to support a policy that so clearly and directly disables a major national industry. In the end, passage of this policy option has a low probability of success and implementation is even less likely.

The third option, support of collaborative development and adoption of OER, will dramatically reduce the cost of instructional materials related to the adoption of CCSS. In addition, this option will allow states to ensure that the materials they are using in their schools are aligned not only to CCSS, but also to other state-specific standards and outcomes. Despite these advantages, the collaborative development of OER will require cooperation between states and dedication to a high quality product – a sometimes difficult accomplishment. What’s more, states will certainly feel pushback from the textbook publishers they have purchased from for many, many years. States will have to muster collective courage to burn some corporate bridges – even with publishers that operate within state boundaries.

Policy Recommendations

The estimated costs associated with the adoption of new instructional materials aligned with the CSSS are too high for most states to cover with current budgets. Something needs to be done if states are going to be able to actually afford to successfully adopt the CCSS. While there are several options for solving this issue, including increased federal funding and federal regulation, we recommend that federal and state governments enact policy supporting the collaborative development and adoption of open educational resources that are aligned with the CCSS. In particular, we offer the following policy recommendations:

First, the federal government should establish grants to state consortia for the development of OER aligned to CCSS. These grant programs must require that all instructional materials produced with federal funds be openly licensed using a Creative Commons attribution or non-commercial license (CC BY o r CC BY NC). Because there is no legal precedent for federal support of state instructional materials expenditures, this is a bold, precedent-setting recommendation.

Second, states should re-allocate some of their current instructional materials budget to grant programs that interstate district and school consortia could use to develop OER aligned with CCSS. The State of Washington, for instance, proposed a policy that would require 1.5% of the instructional materials budget be used for OER development (H.B. 2337-original, 2012). This bill was eventually revised to match the particulars of WA instructional materials allotments, but the original model is intriguing. As with the recommended federal grants, state administered grants should have open licensing requirements.

Third, states should enact policies and regulations that specifically fund OER development initiatives in the context of the CCSS. The State of California very recently passed legislation to this effect that will result in the development of several openly licensed textbooks to be used in community colleges (S. 1052, 2012). Similar bills aimed at K-12 are sorely needed (WA H.B. 2337 is a shining example).

Fourth, states should allocate some of their instructional materials and education budgets to hire staff that can oversee and implement inter and intra-state collaborations on OER development and adoption. Without administrative support, development projects are not likely to succeed or move quickly enough.

Implementation of these policy recommendations will solve the looming problem of increased instructional materials costs related to the adoption of CCSS. In addition, development and adoption of OER aligned to CCSS will allow states unprecedented flexibility in revision and adaptation of instructional materials to state and local standards.


CA. S. 1052. (2012).

Common Core State Standards Initiative (2012). Preparing America’s for college and career. Accessed at on November 2, 2012.

Fordham Institute (2012). Putting a price tag on the common core: How much will smart implementation cost? Washington, DC: Murphy, P., Regenstein, E. and McNamara, K.

Pioneer Institute (2012). National cost of aligning states and localities to the Common Core Standards. Boston: Author.

Wiley, D., Bliss, T., & McEwen, M. (In press). Open educational resources: A review of the literature. Handbook of Research on Educational Communications & Technology (4th ed.).

WA. H.B. 2337 (2012).

Texas Legislature to OER Community: Where are you?

Last week I had the chance to chat with Rep. Scott Hochberg, a Texas legislator from Houston who has been heavily involved in getting OER policy passed in his state. He’s had remarkable success with bills like H.B 2488. This bill, in particular, has allowed the state board of education, which creates the approved instructional materials list for Texas, to include OER on that list. This is only POTENTIALLY impactful policy because, while school districts have authority to use OER, there has not been a lot of motivation to use it or go looking for it. It’s inefficient to have 1000 school districts looking for and approving OER.

As Rep. Hochberg explained it, the problem is that the OER community (especially producers of OER directed at K-12 audiences) do not seem too interested in getting involved in processes where they have to do something to get materials approved. In fact, traditional publishers have continued to have great success in Texas, despite all policy doors being open for OER. One of the reasons traditional model continues to dominate is because there are strong economic reasons for traditional materials publishers to jump through all the hoops. For instance, there is a big profit motive for Pearson to submit its textbooks. The same motivations are not there for OER producers. Thus, if you’re an administrator and you have Pearson knocking on your door and showing you stuff (which, by the way, is already approved by the state board), then OER becomes less appealing – even though it’s cheaper and possibly of equal or better quality.

In the end, Rep. Hochberg expressed his frustrations with the OER community not doing more to “get in the faces” of potential OER adopters at the K-12 level in Texas. There is so much potential in Texas right now. At least one policymaker is crying out for the OER community to take advantage of it!

Why I Advocate For Open Education

I asked my extremely intelligent wife to read my previous post before I published it to the world. She said she thought it was well-written (thanks, hun), but also said it sounded like a simple regurgitation of a bunch of things I’ve learned about open education and OER. She explained that based on the title, she was sort of expecting something along the lines of an opinion piece that explains why I think open education is important and why I spend so much time doing what I do. My wife was spot on. I did not intend to opine about the virtues of openness in that post. Instead, my intention was to provide a cogent technical argument for why and how open education, and OER specifically, can increase access to education. But the editorial conversation with my sweetheart got me thinking, and in between my pushing the publish button and her giving birth to our fourth child (good job, dear, you were awesome!), I decided to face the critical questions head-on: Why do I think open education is important and what drives me to study OER?

The short answer to both of these questions can be found in a single quote from an at-risk community college student: “I have no expendable income. Without this free OER textbook, I would not be able to take this course.” This student was considered “at-risk” of dropping out of college for primarily economic reasons.

Of course, there is a longer answer to why I advocate for open education.

First of all, I realize that education costs money. Teachers, in order to devote their lives to teaching, have to make a living. Research that generates new knowledge cannot be conducted in a vacuum (well, some types of chemical and astrophysical research require a vacuum, but that’s beyond the point). Technologies to assist in the contextualization and sense-making of new knowledge are not cheap to develop or to implement. The very important, but often overlooked, curators of knowledge (like librarians) cannot be expected to do their critical work pro bono. Valid assessments that show that sense has been made do not write themselves (trust me on this one; sometimes I moonlight as a psychometrician.)

In fact, I don’t know of many people who are trying to make an argument for completely free education. Sure, there are excellent opportunities now for individuals to gain access to content (and even pedagogical sense-making) at little cost to them personally. But, as argued above, the generation, distribution, and meaning-making of content all cost money at some time and in some way.

The real advantage of open education and OER, especially, is that they allow for a redistribution of the costs of education toward better ways to improve student success. For instance, money saved on textbooks through the adoption of open educational resources (like the nearly $25 million in estimated savings in Utah this year) could be used to hire more (and better) teachers, make the teaching profession more competitive, or promote the reality that teachers are, in fact, professionals (as well as help teachers improve their profession through advanced PD). As an aside, some may argue that perception of teacher professionalism is not an important educational factor. A recent report from OECD, however, would counter this by arguing that all of the top performing countries on the PISA have high public regard for teachers as professionals. The United States, on the other hand, does not (just ask any teacher you might know).

These are just a few examples of how OER could positively impact education. Other possibilities include redistribution of funds toward more educational research, improving teacher education programs, developing and implementing new educational technologies, and so forth. I haven’t included any direct student benefits of OER here, but they are very important as well and will certainly be discussed in future posts.

The main point is this: Education is not free. Those who want a credential should probably always be expected to pay something for it. But why should they continue to spend money on components of the educational enterprise that no longer cost much at all, like the copying and distribution of educational content? The at-risk community college student I quoted above was willing to invest in a formal, credentialed education. However, the significant – and now mostly unnecessary – costs of educational content threatened to become a barrier to her success.

Another point is this: Some education can be (essentially) free. Individuals who are not interested in, or cannot afford the base price, for a credential, now have access to massive amounts of educational content. These people can access the inherent benefits of knowledge without working toward a formal degree. And millions are doing so on a daily basis, thanks to generous and forward-thinking people who realize that they don’t need to keep the content (or even the sense-making) secure, just the credentialing process. MIT’s OpenCourseWare is a model example of this type of openness in education. And there are many others.

So there you have it. I advocate for open education because I see how it can break down potential barriers to student success and create opportunities for learning at every level of society in nearly every society on the planet.

I would love to know why you advocate for open education as well. Or, if you see holes in my argument, please engage and tell me where I’ve missed the boat…or even the train.