Door to a new world of knowledge. (John Minchillo/AP)
Facing $800 million in proposed cuts to public schools, New York City is slated to continue spending $84 million a year on textbooks. That number is staggering, especially given that many of the textbooks are older than the teachers using them, largely Eurocentric and in some cases dictated by partisan politics. We can make these learning materials more reflective of New York City’s diversity and put limited resources to better use by adopting open textbooks.
More commonly known as “open educational resources” (OER), open textbooks are free for educators to use, customize to their students’ needs and backgrounds and share with others. Open textbooks are freely available from nonprofit groups like CK12, OER Commons and OpenStax, and many are peer-reviewed and vetted for quality.
When students see themselves reflected in their learning materials, they are more successful in school and more inspired about their futures. Open educational resources allow teachers to better cater materials to their students’ experiences, incorporating up-to-date, real-world examples. This September, both the pandemic and the recent protests against racism will be top of mind for students. With open textbooks, teachers can easily incorporate information on COVID-19 and discussions about racial justice into their materials, to connect the realities outside of the classroom with the learning goals of the day.
Rooting out racial injustice must include the classroom, where textbooks too often perpetuate notions of white supremacy through a narrow focus on the achievements of white men. Expanding the narrative through open textbooks can help teach the rich diversity of shared contributions across cultures. From Arabic numerals and Katherine Johnson in math to Marie Curie and George Washington Carver in science, key figures and developments have been neglected in every subject, not only history.
Open textbooks meet the moment in another big way. As we recover from the first wave of coronavirus and do our best to prepare for a likely second wave, we need to be ready for continued remote learning. While open educational resources exist in print, they are most commonly disseminated in digital formats.
Districts across the country, including our own, have faced serious challenges switching to remote learning during the pandemic, but some districts that were already using open resources, like Liberty Public Schools in Missouri, were better equipped to transition to remote learning and keep their students engaged.
Incorporating new online tools is not always an easy fix. It involves eliminating old contracts and creating new partnerships and training students and teachers to use new technologies. Additionally, moving to digital textbooks requires new approaches to accessibility. Any “open” resource not sold by a name-brand publisher will invite skepticism, as should all educational materials. In addition to groups who organize peer reviews of open textbooks and keep them up-to-date, states and school districts apply standards tests similar to those used for traditional textbooks.
But there are high-quality materials out there if we’re bold and smart enough to look.
New York State has already recognized the benefits of OER in higher education. Gov. Cuomo has invested $24 million in OER since 2017 at the State and City Universities of New York, and these efforts have already saved students nearly $93.9 million. Now it’s time for K–12 classrooms in New York City to reap the same cost-saving benefits, as a growing number of districts across the country have already done.
As New York City cuts its budget to adjust to declining tax revenues, we can achieve real savings and significant improvements for our students and teachers at the same time. New York City should take advantage of free, high-quality open textbooks and move toward more culturally responsive, adaptable and digital learning that will help all of our students succeed, no matter their sip code, gender, or the color of their skin.