SRI Education researchers examine K-8 free-use educational resources 

Researchers review freely available and adaptable teaching and learning resources for K-8 education curriculum and professional learning.

All too often, the lived experiences of students and the knowledge of their communities gets excluded from the classroom – and this is particularly so for students from historically marginalized backgrounds. Traditional learning materials often fail to affirm students’ linguistic and cultural heritage, and they don’t always promote practices that encourage students to be active in their own learning.

But a new study, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, says that while teaching and learning resources include culturally relevant pieces, curricula alone is not enough to spur critical thinking about current or social justice issues in the classroom. 

To conduct the evaluation, the authors of the study — SRI Education researchers Carrie Parker, Daniela Saucedo, and Krystal Thomas — examined four K-8 programs between summer 2021 and fall 2022 that utilized open educational resources (OER), which are teaching and learning resources that have an open intellectual property license that permits their free use, adaptation, and repurposing.  

The researchers focused on English language arts, mathematics, and science by looking at the design, implementation, and impact of each program. In addition to reviewing curriculum and professional learning materials for each program, the team held focus groups with curriculum developers and users (school district administrators, teachers, and students). 

“We found that each OER program incorporates key aspects of open education and culturally responsive and sustaining practices in different ways,” said Parker, Senior Principal Education Researcher. “Each had particular strengths, such as building a classroom culture of care, promoting high and equitable standards, and fostering student agency and ownership.” 

However, researchers also found that K-8 OER programs provide few resources for teachers’ and students’ critical exploration of current or social justice issues—a necessary component of culturally responsive and sustaining practices.  These practices focus on affirming students’ identities and experiences, developing their sociopolitical consciousness, and using the strengths and knowledge they bring to the classroom.

An ongoing challenge for K-8 OER developers, the team learned, is determining whether open educational principles are sufficiently embedded in teachers’ understandings of their curriculum and culturally responsive and sustaining practices, or whether they need to more explicitly communicate to teachers how open educational principles can improve their practice.

The researchers said teachers need both materials and professional learning experiences that help them understand how the curriculum can meet the diverse needs of their students. K-8 OER programs offer innovative approaches to address the challenges of adapting OER materials to students’ contexts and promoting collaborative learning, but high-stakes assessment systems hinder these efforts. 

The pressure of preparing for standardized testing takes up class time and limits adaptation of the materials, leading teachers away from collaborative learning. As a result, students’ growth as curious and creative learners is devalued in the classroom. 

“Open education and culturally responsive and sustaining practices offer frameworks for envisioning a transformative education,” said Saucedo, former Education Researcher at SRI Education. “But top-down systems of education with restrictive testing requirements disadvantage students of color and restrict the generation of new knowledge.”

They also learned from teachers that successful implementation of K-8 open education, including changes in teaching practice, requires continuous professional learning aligned to the curriculum. And students described feeling ownership of their learning and participating in a classroom culture of care when teachers provide student-centered learning and create a space for discovery and problem-solving. 

This evaluation provides a framework that can help K-8 OER developers consider models that expand how teachers and students think about current social issues, find ways to operate beyond the confines of high-stakes assessment systems, and expand access to the professional learning necessary for teacher transformation.

To read about the study methods, participating programs, and detailed findings, see the  final report, Open Educational Practices and Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Practices in Four K-8 OER Programs. Three briefs and the final report can be found on this page. 

Read more from SRI