What We Teach:
K-12 School District Curriculum Adoption Process, 2017
I. Elaine Allen, Ph.D.
Professor of Biostatistics & Epidemiology, UCSF
Co-Director, Babson Survey Research Group
Jeff Seaman, Ph.D.
Co-Director, Babson Survey Research Group
Nature of Curricula Decisions
Factors Driving Selection
Awareness of Licensing and Open Educational Resources
Open Educational Resource Material Adoptions
Cover design is by Mark Favazza (www.favazza.com).
under a Creative
Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Report available at: www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/oer.html.
This research would not be possible without the assistance of a number of organizations. First, we wish to thank The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for their considerable help in framing the project, as well as their support of the data collection, analysis, and report creation. Their background and knowledge of open educational resources and contacts within the open education community was invaluable in defining the focus of the study. We also wish to thank the Global Healthy Living Foundation for their support in the administration of the Hewlett Foundation contract.
This report has benefited from reviews and feedback from many experts. We wish to thank Nicole Allen, Michelle Austin, Layla Bonnot, Angela Haydel DeBarger, Kate Gerson, and Cable Green, all of whom improved the report though their suggestions. All remaining issues are the sole responsibility of the authors.
The report presents results derived from a nationally representative sample of K-12 district administrators. We want to thank all those who took the time to provide us with their detailed and thoughtful responses. We understand that you are very busy people, and appreciate your effort very much. This report would not be possible without you, and we hope that you find it useful.
I. Elaine Allen
Babson Survey Research Group
Some of the key findings from this study of 584 K-12 school districts, collected in the spring of 2017, representing 48 states and the District of Columbia:
· 77% of districts made at least one full-course curriculum adoption decision in the past three years.
· Larger districts (over 2,500 students) are the most likely to engage in adoption decisions (84%).
· Two-thirds of all districts make decisions in more than one subject area, with one-third selecting in two subject areas and one-third selecting in three or more.
· Most districts make an adoption decision for Mathematics (59%), followed by English Language Arts (44%), Science (29%), and History and Social Studies (19%).
· Almost all districts include teachers, district-level administrators, and principals in the decision-making process.
· Teachers have decision-making power in 94% of districts, followed by district-level administrators (75%), and principals (73%).
· Outside experts and parents are included in the adoption process in about half of all districts, but rarely have decision-making power (outside experts 21% and parents 18%).
· Districts cite five or more factors as being "very important" or "critical" in their adoption decision. The top three are comprehensive content, working with existing technology, and cost.
· Cost is far more important among districts with high rates of children in poverty (52% say it is "critical") than those with low rates of child poverty (26% say it is "critical").
· Districts adopt material from more than a dozen sources, but the top three publishers (McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) command the market.
· The overwhelming reason districts cite as the reason to engage in an adoption decision is a need to select new material to meet changing standards.
· A majority of districts are replacing curricula resources that have been in use for 6 to 10 years.
· The entire adoption process takes less than a year, with most running 4 to 9 months.
· A majority of districts begin the process by considering 3 to 5 curricula alternatives, and narrow that number to 2 or 3 for final evaluation.
· District decision makers are reasonably aware of copyright and public domain licensing, but are far less aware of the Creative Commons alternative.
· Awareness of open educational resources (OER) is low, with only one-third of districts aware of the term and its licensing.
· Awareness and adoption of specific OER materials is higher than awareness of the term itself; two-thirds of all districts are aware of at least one open full-course curriculum alternative and over a third have actively considered at least one.
· Open licensed full-course curricula materials have been adopted by 16% of all districts.
· Districts with a high proportion of students in poverty have adopted open licensed full-course curricula materials at twice the rate of districts with low rates of child poverty (22% as compared to 10%).
The objective of this study is to better understand the process by which K-12 school districts select curricula materials in four critical subject areas: Mathematics, English Language Arts, Science, and History and Social Studies. A single adoption decision by a single school district has the potential to impact what thousands of students are taught and learn. Curricula decisions not only determine the specific elements that will be taught in class, but also have considerable impact on how that material is presented and taught. This research has two primary goals:
· To understand the process by which K-12 school districts select and adopt full-course curricula materials, with an eye to understanding how that process might be influenced.
· To understand the degree to which K-12 school districts are aware of the concepts of open educational resources (OER), and the extent to which they have adopted OER materials.
Understanding the adoption process is critical to understanding how to foster the adoption of "better" curricula materials, where "better" could be related to the content included in the curriculum, the methods of instruction that the curriculum encourages, or the nature of the curricula materials themselves (e.g., open licensed).
The "build it and they will come" approach, where an alternative is so compelling that districts rush to adopt it, will NOT work. School districts do not engage in an adoption process because they have found a compelling curricula alternative. Almost all decisions are driven by a belief that the current materials no longer meet current standards, not by the characteristics of potential alternatives.
There is no single decision maker. Adoption decisions are collaborative, with multiple players having decision-making power (almost always including teachers and district administrators, but often joined by others) and a second tier of those who can advise, but do not have decision-making power (typically from groups such as outside experts and parents).
For all the players involved, decisions are made reasonably quickly, taking less than a year from start to finish. There is little evidence, given this decision speed, of any extensive "try it before you buy it" piloting of materials on a test basis before adoption.
While the pool of potential curricula publishers is very wide, the "big three" publishers (McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) command the lion's share of all adoption decisions. While no other publishers come close to the scope of adoption of these three, that does not mean that others are not being adopted - they are, albeit at much lower rates than the big three.
As might be expected by a process involving this many decision makers, there is no one single factor that is cited as driving the decision - most districts cite five or more factors as being "very important" or "critical" to their decision. For all the variety of factors playing a role, there are three that are most common: comprehensive content, working with current technology, and cost.
What then is the most effective way of reaching a district making an adoption decision and influencing that choice? Based on the results of this research, there appear to be a few guiding principles:
Be easy to find when the district begins looking. The selection of potential curricula to include in the evaluation process happens very early. There is a narrow time window, of several weeks to at most a few months, where the potential candidates are selected. The advantage of the big three publishers is considerable, but not overwhelming - most districts look at 3 to 5 alternatives. The curricula material needs to be easy to find; if it is not discovered during the initial selection window it will not be considered.
Clearly meet all appropriate standards. The vast majority of adoption decisions are driven by a district’s perception that they need material that aligns with new standards. Any potential product has to clearly articulate how it meets those standards if it is going to make it into the field for consideration.
Be on the state approved or recommended list. In adoption states, where all choices must be made from a list of approved products, any product not on that list does not have a chance. For states with a "recommended" list, as opposed to a required list, being on the state list gives you a big leg up. The one mitigating factor that allows for potential adoption of items not on a state recommended list is the large number of players in the decision process. Many are unaware of the existence of a state-level list.
Work with the widest array of technological infrastructure options. Being able to slot any new curricula materials into the district's existing technology is critical across all types and sizes of districts.
Low cost. Cost is important for all districts, and critical for those with greater numbers of lower income students. It is not clear that cost is the primary driver of the decision, but it clearly has an important role in selecting among competing options in the final phase of the process.
Comprehensive content. The most important criteria in the decision remains the content of the curricula materials. It is also subjective - what one district considers "comprehensive" may be seen as "lacking" by another. All materials being considered need to appeal to a wide range of people and roles. Successful adoption means approval by teachers, district administrators, principals, and parents.
Open Educational Resources
The Hewlett Foundation defines open educational resources (OER) as:
OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.
The stated level of awareness of the terms and concepts of OER among K-12 district decision makers is very high. However, that awareness does not extend to knowledge of open licensing. Nearly three-quarters of respondents say that they are aware of OER, but if we count only those who are also be aware of Creative Commons licensing, this drops to only one-third.
Awareness of specific open license products is much higher than awareness of OER concepts. Two-thirds of all districts report that they are aware of at least one set of OER full-course curricula materials, and 37% of districts have actively considered at least one OER curriculum for adoption. OER curricula materials have been adopted by 16% of districts.
Awareness and adoption of OER curricula materials is indicative of awareness of the particular product, and does not imply an awareness that it is an OER openly licensed product. A sizeable portion of districts that have reviewed and adopted OER curricula material remain unaware that it is OER.
The objective of this study is to better understand the process by which K-12 school districts select curricula materials. The project is focused on adoption decisions in four critical subject areas: Mathematics, English Language Arts, Science, and History and Social Studies. The report focuses exclusively on materials that provide a full-course curriculum. Supplemental materials, or curricula materials that are used for only a portion of a course, are specifically excluded.
In addition to examining the overall curricula selection process, this study also explores a particular class of educational materials: those classified as open educational resources (OER). The Hewlett Foundation defines open educational resources (OER) as:
OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.
An important aspect of the examination of the use of educational resources is the licensing status of such materials – who owns the copyright to the materials, and does the district have the right to copy, reuse, modify, and redistribute the content? The legal mechanism that educators are most familiar with is that of copyright. As noted by the U.S. Copyright office, copyright is:
A form of protection provided by the laws of the United States for "original works of authorship," including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations. "Copyright" literally means the right to copy but has come to mean that body of exclusive rights granted by law to copyright owners for protection of their work. … Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.
Not all material is copyrighted. Some content may be ineligible for copyright, copyrights may have expired, or authors may have dedicated their content to the public domain (e.g., using Creative Commons public domain dedication).
Public domain is a designation for content that is not protected by any copyright law or other restriction and may be freely copied, shared, altered and republished by anyone. The designation means, essentially, that the content belongs to the community at large.
An intermediate stage between the traditional copyright, with all rights reserved, and public domain, where no rights are reserved, is provided by Creative Commons licenses. A Creative Commons license is not an alternative to copyright, but rather a modification of the traditional copyright license that grants some rights to the public.
The Creative Commons (CC) open licenses give everyone from individual authors to governments and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. CC licenses allow creators to retain copyright while allowing others to copy, distribute, and make some uses of their work per the terms of the license. CC licenses ensure authors get credit (attribution) for their work, work globally, and last as long as applicable copyright lasts. CC licenses do not affect freedoms (e.g., fair use rights) that the law grants to users of creative works otherwise protected by copyright.
The most common way to openly license copyrighted education materials – making them OER – is to add a Creative Commons license to the educational resource. CC licenses are standardized, free-to-use, open copyright licenses.
The K-12 district respondents are very familiar with the full-course curriculum adoption decision for their districts. Over three-quarters say that they are “very” familiar, with an additional 17% being “somewhat” familiar.
Surveys were directed to and responses were received from persons in a variety of roles in the district, including Superintendent, Business/Purchasing Director, Instructional Technology Director, Curriculum/Instructional Director, and Directors for individual subject areas (e.g., mathematics, science, or reading). The number and composition of the roles varies considerable by district size. Smaller districts are far more likely to have one person performing a critical role for decisions in multiple subject areas, while larger districts might have separate teams for a science decision than for a mathematics decision.
Nature of Curricula Decisions
Over three-quarters of districts have made a full-course curricula decision in the past three years, with two-thirds of these making decisions in more than one subject area. The most common subject area is Mathematics, followed by English Language Arts.
Full-course curricula adoption decisions are very common among K-12 districts. Over three-quarters of districts have made at least one such full-course curricula decision in the past three years. Note that this number only counts districts that have made full-course curricula adoption decisions for Mathematics, English Language Arts, Science, and History and Social Studies. Those making adoption decision for other subject areas, or selecting other than full-course materials, are not included.
While all types and sizes of districts show a similar pattern, districts with more than 2,500 students are more likely (84%) to have made full-course curricula decision for Mathematics, English Language Arts, Science, and History and Social Studies than smaller districts.
Districts are making multiple decisions across many grade ranges and subject areas. One-third of districts made an adoption decision for a single subject area, one-third selected new curricula materials in two subject areas, and one-third selected more than two subjects.
Not all subject areas are equally represented among these adoption decisions. Most districts have made a curricula decision for Mathematics (59%), followed by English Language Arts (44%), Science (30%), and History and Social Studies (19%).
Adopting a full-course curriculum is a group activity. Teachers almost always play a role, typically joined by administrators and principals. Parents and outside experts are included by about half of the districts.
Factors Driving Selection
There is no single factor that drives a district selection process, with most districts citing five or more factors as "very important" or "critical" to their decision. Comprehensive content, working with current technology, and cost are cited most often.
Not all factors are of equal importance across all types of districts. The cost of materials is one example. Districts that have over 25% of their population aged 5 to 17 living in poverty cite cost as critical to the decision process twice as often as districts where less than 10% of the population aged 5 to 17 live in poverty.
Districts select full-course curricula materials from over two-dozen publishers. Three of these, McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, are used far more often than all other publishers.
The vast majority of district adoption decisions are driven by an external factor: changing standards. Districts typically consider 3 to 5 alternatives initially, narrowing that number to 2 or 3 for a final decision. Most decision processes take the better part of a year to complete, with only 10% taking longer than that. The curricula materials being replaced are usually 6 to 10 years old.
The second most cited reason, “Other,” further reinforces new and changing standards as the primary driver. The districts that selected Other as the primary driving factor for undergoing their review and decision process were asked to provide a writen explanantion of their response. The vast majority of these explanations listed multiple factors, such as a regular review and changing standards. “Changing standards” were cited in almost all of the these responses. Over three-quarters of all districts cited changing educational standards, at least in part, as the reason for curricula adoption decisions. Any change to these external factors, such as mass adoption of new standards or stabilization of standards for a period of time, will have a large impact on future district adoption rates.
Curricula decisions are being made by K-12 districts on a fairly regular basis. Only 1% of the decisions were to replace materials that had been in place for 1 or 2 years, with 13% replacing materials that were 3 to 5 years old. The majority (57%) of all districts were making an adoption decision to replace materials that had been in place for 6 to 10 years.
Most districts use a multistep decision process, building a large initial list of possible alternative curriculum sources and then narrowing that list down for the final stage of the decision. While the majority of districts (51%) include four or more alternatives at the beginning of the process, many of these are eliminated early in the process. Only 21% of districts do a final review that includes four or more alternatives; the vast majority include only three (42%) or two (26%) options for active review.
The curriculum decision process takes a number of months from beginning to end, but rarely exceeds a year in length. The modal length for the process is 6 to 9 months, with 33% of all districts reporting this time. More districts complete the process in less time than this (22% report 4 to 5 months; 14% report 2 to 3 months) than those for whom the process took longer (17% report 10 to 12 months; 10% report that the process took over a year). Only 1% of districts completed the process in a single month.
Awareness of Licensing and Open Educational Resources
Awareness of copyright and the public domain is much higher among districts than is awareness of Creative Commons licensing. Nearly three-quarters of respondents claim some level of awareness of OER, but this drops to only one-third when awareness of licensing is included. Only 40% of districts have any level of awareness of the federal #GoOpen campaign.
Respondents were asked about their level of awareness of copyright, public domain, and open licensing. The availability of open licensing and the ability to reuse and remix content is central to the concept of open educational resources. This makes it critical to understand the level of awareness of these concepts, if we are to understand if districts are selecting materials because of licensing, or for other factors. 
Most respondents report that they are aware of the copyright status of classroom content (83% “Very aware” or “Aware”) and public domain licensing (63% “Very aware” or “Aware”), but fall short on awareness of Creative Commons licensing. Less than 40% of respondents report that they are aware of Creative Commons licensing.
Survey respondents were asked to self-report their level of awareness of open educational resources. As noted in previous reports, the exact wording of the question is critical in accurately measuring the level of OER awareness. Many respondents have only a vague understanding of the details of what constitutes open educational resources. Many confuse “open” with “free,” and assume all free resources are OER. Still others will confuse “open resources” with “open source,” and assume OER refers only to open-source software.
Multiple wordings for these questions were tested for prior Babson Survey Research Group reports. The version used here was found to have the best balance in differentiating among the different levels of awareness, while avoiding leading those with no previous knowledge of the concept.
One half of all respondents say that they are either “Aware” or “Very Aware” of open educational resources. A smaller portion (15%) report that they are only “Somewhat Aware,” and over a third say that they are not aware.
As described earlier, district administrators may have only a “fuzzy” understanding and awareness of open educational resources. By combining responses to additional questions about the licensing, we can get a more precise understanding of their true level of awareness. Since licensing is critical to the concept of OER, examining the difference between respondents who report that they are aware of OER and those who report that they are aware of both OER and Creative Commons licensing gives us a good indication of their depth of understanding of OER. If respondents who report that they are unaware of Creative Commons licensing are removed from any of the “aware” categories of the measure of OER awareness, we create a much stricter index of OER awareness.
The level of OER awareness drops when we apply this stricter definition, implying that respondents may be claiming to be aware of OER, but they have only a limited understanding of the concepts. Those classified as “very aware” dips from 19% to 13%, “aware” drops from 31% to 15%, and “somewhat aware” from 15% to 6%. The overall proportion classified into any of the “aware” categories changes from 65% when awareness of Creative Commons is not required, to 34% when it is required.
District administrators in smaller distrcits (those with less than 1,000 students) are considerably less aware of OER than their counterparts in larger districts. The proportion who are “Very Aware” is only 6% amoung the smallest districts (compared to 17% in districts with more than 2,500 students).
The U.S. Department of Education created the #GoOpen campaign to encourage the use of open educational resources. The campaign was launched in October 2015.
The U.S. Department of Education’s #GoOpen campaign encourages states, school districts and educators to use openly licensed educational materials to transform teaching and learning.
Open Educational Resource Material Adoptions
K-12 school districts have a greater degree of awareness of OER materials than of OER concepts and definitions. Two-thirds of all districts are aware of at least one OER full-course curriculum, with 37% having actively considered at least one for adoption. A full 16% of districts have adopted at least one full-course OER curriculum.
Other studies by the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) have demonstrated that educators are unreliable in reporting if they use open educational resources. In addition to only a fuzzy understanding of the concepts of OER, most respondents were not fully aware of the licensing terms of the products that they were considering and/or adopting. In order to get a more reliable indicator of OER product awareness and use, it is necessary to pose the question in a form that elicits reliable responses. This study uses the same approach as previous BSRG studies of OER adoption, presenting respondents with specific lists of products and asking them if they know of the product, have considered it, or have adopted it. District administrators may not know the details of OER definitions, or the licensing terms of specific materials, but they do know the names of products that they have examined or adopted.
Respondents were presented with a list of K-12 full-course curricula materials, all of which are classified as OER, covering a total of 14 different combinations of subject area and publishers. The options presented were:
· Eureka Math (Great Minds)
· Secondary Math One: An Integrated Approach (Mathematics Vision Project)
· Secondary Two Mathematics: Integrated Pathway CCSS (Mathematics Vision Project)
· Secondary Three Mathematics: Integrated Pathway CCSS (Mathematics Vision Project)
· The Utah Middle School Math Project (University of Utah Middle School Math Project)
· NYS Common Core ELA Curriculum (Expeditionary Learning)
· NYS Common Core ELA & Literacy Curriculum (Public Consulting Group)
· Core Knowledge Language Arts (Core Knowledge Foundation)
· Integrated Science: 2014-15 or 2015-16 (Utah State Office of Education)
· Science: 2015-16 or 2016-17 (Utah State Office of Education)
· Biology: 2015-16 or 2016-17 (Utah State Office of Education)
· Chemistry 2015-16 or 2016-17 (Utah State Office of Education)
· Earth Science 2015-16 or 2016-17 (Utah State Office of Education)
· Physics 2015-16 or 2016-17 (Utah State Office of Education)
Eureka Math Great Minds is both the best known and most widely adopted of these OER alternatives. The two New York State English Language Arts options and the Core Knowledge Language Arts products have somewhat lower overall levels of awareness, with much lower consideration and adoption rates. The three Secondary Math alternatives show very similar results, with lower rates of awareness and consideration. The seven Utah State options follow behind, with overall levels of awareness ranging from 15% to just under 10%.
This study of the K–12 curriculum adoption process used descriptive analysis relying extensively on a survey instrument designed specifically for the project. The instrument was patterned after similar instruments used by the Babson Survey Research Group to study textbook adoption among higher education faculty and use of online and blended learning among U.S. K-12 districts.
The “universe of interest” for this study is composed of all public school districts in the United States that operate schools. Information on these districts was taken from the Common Core of Data (CCD) from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/ccddata.asp).
The study used three survey submission processes:
· An email invitation was sent to randomly selected school districts using a commercial source for email addresses. A reminder email message was sent two weeks after the first message. Both the invitation and the reminder message contained a unique URL that, when clicked, would open up the survey form in a web browser and pass the unique survey ID.
· Additional randomly-selected school districts were sent a paper copy of the invitation along with a paper copy of the survey form. The invitation and survey form each contained a survey activation code and a URL for submission, that, when entered, would open up the survey form in a web browser.
· Schools districts receiving the paper-based invitation also had the option to complete the paper survey form and submit using an included postage-paid business reply envelope.
All potential respondents were informed of the funding source for the study (The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation), and who was conducting it (“researchers at Babson Survey Research Group”). They were also told the following: “All survey respondents are provided complete anonymity, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation does not see individual-level results. No personally identifiable information is released.”
Analysis for this report includes responses from 584 K-12 school districts. These responses represent 48 states and the District of Columbia. The average number of students for the reporting districts was 6,278, with the overall sample accounting for 3,490,735 students.
The survey form was composed of two portions: one that applied to all respondents, and a second section to be completed only by those districts that had made a full-course curriculum decision in Mathematics, English Language Arts, Science, or History and Social Studies over the previous three years. The invitation letter and the survey form itself were carefully worded to encourage responses from all school district representatives, regardless of whether they had recently made such a decision or not.
All data collected were entered into an online database, either directly by the respondent or, in the case of paper-based responses, by the researchers. Each entry included the unique survey ID number that was used to link the response to the description data of that school district contained in the Education's National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data. The data linked from this source included location information (city, town, state, urban/rural), the grade range in the district, the number of students in the district, and the number of teachers in the district.
As noted in previous BSRG reports, a critical issue in measuring the level of OER awareness is exactly how the question is worded. Many confuse “open” with “free,” and assume all free resources are OER. Still others will confuse “open resources” with “open source,” and assume OER refers only to open source software. Because of these differing levels of understanding, the phrasing of the awareness question needs to be specific. The version selected (listed below) was found to have the best balance in differentiating among the different levels of awareness, while avoiding leading those with no previous knowledge of the concept.
How aware are you of Open Educational Resources (OER)? OER is defined as "teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others." Unlike traditionally copyrighted material, these resources are available for "open" use, which means users can edit, modify, customize, and share them.
I am not aware of OER
I have heard of OER, but don't know much about them
I am somewhat aware of OER but I am not sure how they can be used
I am aware of OER and some of their use cases
I am very aware of OER and know how they can be used in the classroom
Based on our testing, the results from this question may still slightly overstate the level of OER awareness, but this was considered a better option than leading the respondent. By using a series of additional questions, the results from this question can be adjusted to remove those who might have thought that they were aware of OER, but when probed did not have knowledge of all of the aspects that make up the concept.
Because licensing for remixing and reuse is central to the concept of OER, a question about the respondent’s awareness of different licensing concepts was asked of all respondents before any questions about OER awareness itself:
How aware are you of each of the following licensing mechanisms?
By combining the responses from the OER awareness question with those of the licensing questions, a combined index of awareness can be constructed.
 There is not a universal definition of an "adoption state", however, those normally considered are Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.
 State of the Commons report: https://stateof.creativecommons.org
 This is a consolidation (combining grade ranges and offering years) of a list of full-course OER materials provided to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation by EdTech Strategies, LLC.