Classrooms today look much different than they did even just a couple decades ago. The number of students of color enrolled in public schools, for instance, has increased, and they're expected to be the majority of high school graduates by 2025. Likewise, the number of students with disabilities, English learners, and LGBTQ students in pre K-12 has increased steadily over the past 10 years.
For all these different types of students, there are just as many different learning styles and needs. Consider students with disabilities. They may need learning materials with adaptable text or professional development guidelines for teachers. English learners, meanwhile, may require materials with more visuals to scaffold English acquisition. Different still, it's important for queer students to see people like them recognized—and normalized—in the curriculum.
But here's the rub: We know that meeting these needs is critical to success—students learn better when they see themselves reflected in the curriculum, when they feel safe in school, and when they feel respected by their teachers and peers. And yet, many schools aren't equipped to meet students where they are—and a big part of that problem centers on schools' and students' limited access to high-quality materials. More and more, though, that's beginning to change.
Low-income students, a group among which other minority groups are overrepresented, are much less likely than their peers to have access to high-quality textbooks. This contributes to poorer educational outcomes: The national high school graduation rate is 83 percent, but for students with disabilities, it's 63 percent. The picture for students of color with disabilities is even bleaker: 66 percent and 62 percent for Latinx and black students with disabilities, respectively. Only 63 percent of students still classified as English learners in high school graduate, and there's no such data for LGBTQ students.
In addition, many of the students who do graduate do so without ever having seen themselves reflected in the material they learned. Though a handful of states are interested in adopting culturally responsive teaching practices, many don't know where to begin. In 2016, California became the first state to adopt an LGBTQ-inclusive history-social science framework for pre K-12, but, two years later, this more mindful approach to textbook publishing remains an anomaly rather than a precedent. Even when inclusive educational materials are available, they're traditionally proprietary, uneditable textbooks, making it difficult for teachers to revise and remix materials to better fit their students.
Recognizing this gap in meeting students' diverse sets of learning needs, many school leaders are now beginning to ask: How can we create more inclusive learning materials to engage and meet the needs of all students?
The challenges people face when grappling with this question are the same ones that shape nearly every education policy debate: cost, logistics, and guidance. Although creating new, inclusive curricula is an attractive goal for many states, the cost of doing so is prohibitive and the administrative logistics too time- and labor-intensive. What's more, states that can afford the time and money don't know where to look for best practices. Even though inclusive teaching is becoming trendier, the idea is still nascent. In other words, there are few data points on efficacy and outcomes, leaving schools with next to no guidance.
Even so, open educational resources, or OER, may point to an answer.
OER come in many forms—from curricula to teacher professional development resources—and exist either in the public domain or under a license that allows them to be freely used, edited, or shared with others. These characteristics are what distinguish OER from proprietary materials: To count as OER, they must be both free and able to be reused, adapted, and distributed.
Because of their adaptability, often under a Creative Commons license, OER provide a unique opportunity for educators to access learning materials, and then tailor them to the specific needs of their classroom. This is particularly important for teaching diverse groups of students. Where culturally responsive curriculum redesign must include funding to print textbooks that often fail to reflect student diversity and quickly become outdated, OER could instead be used to give students access to high-quality learning materials that educators could then continue to adapt as understandings of student needs and identities change.
Take, for example, EngageNY, a digital repository of Common Core-aligned curricular materials managed by the state of New York. The platform offers teachers English language arts and math curriculum guidance for pre K-12, including scaffolding instructions for English learners. Teachers can access these materials for free online, download and edit them, and translate content into multiple languages. These materials also allow for teachers to embed relevant images or local examples into lesson plans, making the content more accessible. This is particularly important for teachers outside New York who want to use these materials, of which there are many, and are looking to bring resources in line with their students' needs.
Indeed, OER repositories can serve as hubs for digital materials, allowing teachers to access and share culturally relevant materials across schools, districts, and even states. Where traditional materials can be costly, difficult to implement, and designed without diverse needs in mind, OER can help fill the gaps.
Many districts are already taking advantage of OER, but more momentum is needed to ensure that OER materials are adopted, created, and implemented with diverse learners in mind. Together, state and district leaders, non-profits, foundations, and private companies can all play a role in guiding and supporting districts and teachers to leverage OER to better support the students who may need it most.
This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.