Saturday, March 7, 2015

Open Source Education- better products, lower costs, greater transparency

In 1998 Netscape released their source code and made it available to everyone. People in the Open Source community realized this was a great time to teach others about all of the ways a community working together to improve software is better than a company with limited talent and resources building software for sale. If you know about the open source community of Linux users/builders you probably wonder why the same ideas aren't used in Public Education. I have spent several hours thinking about that myself.
In 1999 the Open Source Community sent a petition to the Federal government to encourage the use of Open Source software. Now much of our Public Sector is run with Open Source software. Since the federal government knows about Open Source we should consider applying these principles in Public Education Policy. 
An Open Source approach is currently being used on a limited basis in Tullahoma, Tennessee city schools. Tullahoma was alarmed at the rising cost of textbooks and perhaps disappointed by the errors, misspelling and how quickly these products became dated. This small town decided they could do a better job than the commercial textbook companies and custom tailored their texts to local curriculum. Now instead of having to follow textbooks designed for larger states they have a textbook which can be modified in real time to keep up with real world happenings. Their texts are online and searchable for their students. Tullahoma City Schools brochure states: "TCS is unique in that our teachers create the content taught in their classes. An Open Source initiative is well under way in Tullahoma City Schools offering digital textbooks as the tool of choice." TCS is also a one to one district for 3 through 12. Students are welcomed to bring their own deviceTheir approach is unorthodox and inventive. They are forging their own path and sharing resources in their district. Although not available to all this is certainly a step in the right direction. 
This is not Tennessee's first foray into Open Source principles in Education though. Twenty years ago Metro Nashville Public Schools selected educators to collaborate on creating a series of tests to help teachers insure their students were up to speed with the grade level skills. The Math Instruction Program, MIP, was well thought out and extrememly well organized. This was the best testing initiative I have ever seen. it was not created by professional test makers or textbook writers. It was created by a group of TEACHERS the Nashville district brought together 20 years ago.

            At the same time the district pulled together a group of Reading/Language Arts teachers. The program they created was not on par with the Mathematics program. MNPS conducted focus groups and one of the teachers, Julia McConnell, suggested the district organize the Reading tests into a notebook with a table of contents and dates to administer. It was a nice improvement but she was not credited with her suggestion.  
  So if we used an Open Source approach to education in Tennessee what might that look like? First people who contributed beneficial ideas to education in our state would be recognized and remembered. The resources created for education would be available to all. Teachers who are strongly invested in education such as people who have taught 15 years in a public school and have advanced degrees in pedagogy could apply to be part of the states Open Source Core. This core of teachers could write our textbooks and testing materials for a year and then rotate back into the classroom. Then the cohort for the following year could add to our library. The textbooks could be available on line or printed by some of our local textbook companies such as Ingram or Harper Collins which now owns Thomas Nelson.
There is no reason to pay millions in tax money to companies who prevent teachers from discussing the tests after testing. Relationships with companies who prevent parents from knowing about the questions and sections the children are asked to read should be ended. Secrecy enforced by contracts the testing companies have with our governments not only prevent improvement to the tests but also may be a violation of the sunshine laws. There is also no reason to continue to fund inferior text books and tests with typos and incorrect information.  Open Source is a solution.
  If we switch to an Open Source model. The tests could be released at the end of the testing cycle and new ones could be generated. Errors on the tests could be identified and questioned. Faith would be somewhat restored in the veracity of annual tests. Typos in the texts we are using to teach could be identified and corrected if the texts were editable by our school system or by the Open Source Core. The millions of dollars we could save could go into one to one initiatives, wrap around services, and even after school enrichment programs.
Not only would students benefit by getting a better more closely vetted product They would also enjoy better use of education funding. If well qualified professional teachers created the test we might get some usable data. We are not getting much from the current tests. [For more information on what the current tests measure check: Map Comparison: Level of Poverty to Level of Performance] The students are extremely stressed during testing and a month of instruction time is lost attempting to help students navigate the test itself. We could hire several dozen teachers for a year to create these materials and the cost savings even after funding their salaries would be significant. The students would experience less stress because the tests would be worded for better understanding and would be aligned to the textbooks and curriculum taught. The students would regain a large portion of the test prep month because it would not be as needed as it is right now. Currently our test makers have no oversight by parents and no accountability to anyone. Let's change that.
         Special thanks to Jared Polis for Congress for supporting Open Source in Education through legislation. 
Also thanks to Becky Mostello for bringing this to our attention.

         If we do not make changes we may be facing a revolt.  You can read about it at:

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