Free Agents


Andy Rotherham is a co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a contributing editor for US News & World Report, and one of the most insightful people I know. (Although he is a Red Sox fan, which is kind of a bummer.) Andy and I recently caught up in Washington, DC, where we discussed the economics of curriculum and the trend towards open educational resources.

Dear Andy:

Spring has sprung! It’s baseball season, the most wonderful time of the year. Football’s fine. March Madness has its moments. But they all just seem like appetizers to me: warm-ups to baseball’s main event. As you know from living in DC, much of the talk is on Bryce Harper, the 23 year-old wunderkind who’s expected to sign the biggest contract in baseball history. “Forget $400 million,” the Washington Post demands. “Harper should be worth more than $600 million.” I laughed when I read that. $400 million. $600 million. If these numbers sound crazy…

…They’re not.

Harper sells jerseys. Harper fills seats. However much he ends up making, it’s likely to be a bargain compared to how much the team’s owner will get in return. Can you imagine how much season tickets will cost when Harper hits his prime? How much the team will make from broadcast rights? Bryce Harper creates much more value than just home runs: More wins mean more fans, which mean more hot dogs, more beer, more expensive outfield ads, etc. Since the owner benefits from all of this, $600 million may actually be a wise investment. This is where the free market works well: when the person who makes the investment also reaps the reward.

Free Market Breakdown

But that’s not always how it works in education. In education, the people who buy products aren’t necessarily the same as the people who use them…who aren’t the same as the people who benefit most from them. Even though there exists a free market for educational resources, the gap between purchaser and beneficiary means the market doesn’t work as efficiently in education as it does in other industries.

A 2015 study estimated that improving math outcomes in the United States — just getting to the OECD average — would increase the GDP by $2 trillion over the next 35 years. If we matched the performance of Canada, we’d add $10 trillion. If there existed a resource that could help accomplish this, then we as a country would want every school to use it.

But we as a country don’t make that decision; Uncle Sam isn’t a person. Instead, purchasing decisions are made in thousands of districts by thousands of people, each of whom faces a range of constraints and none of whom can possibly internalize the long-term economic consequence of his or her choice. As a result, decisions are often made that make sense at the individual level but are suboptimal for society.

Consider a school district that’s adopting a new math curriculum and is debating between two options. Product A was developed by a team of experts, is highly respected, challenges students to think deeply, but is expensive. Product B is a lower quality resource that’s much less demanding but is also fairly cheap. As a society, we’re obviously better off if administrators choose Product A. In many cases, though, they have limited budgets and will choose Product B. While this is a perfectly rational decision, it comes with a real social loss: Teachers and students risk missing out on a better educational experience, and one that would benefit us all.

The best educational resources cost money to make, and companies need a way to sustain themselves. At the same time, district administrators are often highly sensitive to price. If the company sets the price to maximize revenue, it will reduce the overall social value. (For the sake of argument, social value is defined as the quality of the resource times the number of people who use it.) If the company sets the price to maximize social value — $0 — it will make no revenue at all. There’s simply no way to maximize revenue and social value at the same time, and most companies are likely to opt for the former. The social loss that results from this isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s simply the inevitable result of relying on a free market to address a public good, and the irreconcilability of how much a resource costs and how much it’s worth.

Traditional Approaches

Fortunately, there are institutions that exist to maximize social value where the market can’t. For generations, a handful of textbook publishers dominated the curriculum market. Some of the products were good. Some of the products were not. But almost all of the products were paid. As the internet has lowered the cost of distribution to almost nothing, the government and foundations have begun to invest millions in free open educational resources. This OER movement holds tremendous potential to transform how educators access instructional materials and is already saving schools and districts significant money. Yet while the typical approaches that funders take successfully result in free resources, they don’t always result in good ones.

One traditional approach that funders take is to commission the development of a new resource that, once it’s complete, will be free and openly licensed. Examples include the EngageNY math and English Language-Arts curricula and the upcoming OER K-12 Collaborative project. As intuitive as this approach is, it’s also risky. There’s a risk the resource won’t get done or that it won’t get done on time. As they adopt the Common Core Standards, schools and districts are making curriculum decisions now that may last for years. If a resource is delivered after that window has closed, its impact could be limited. Even if a resource does get done on time, there’s a risk it won’t be as effective as its funders had hoped. When the $8 million EngageNY curriculum first came out, assessment specialist David Wees and a team of teachers carefully reviewed the high school curriculum and concluded that “while some of the tasks were valuable, the overall structure and pacing of the materials made it difficult to implement.” While many others have had better experiences, and while the open license ensures that educators will be able to improve and refine the resource over time, the experience still illustrates the inherent Forest Gump-ism of new resource development: You never know what you’re gonna get.

Another approach that funders take in providing OER resources is to create platforms for aggregating existing content. Here the thinking is, “Educators have already created the lessons. They just need a way to share them.” This approach works well when it comes to sharing recipes on Foodily or design ideas on Pinterest. However, teaching and curriculum development are different roles; they involve different skill sets and require different resources. After they launched, the aggregator sites Curriki, OER Commons, and BetterLesson were inundated with low-level one-offs — fraction handouts, skills worksheets — that may have been good in a pinch but didn’t meaningfully improve instruction. Of course, the sites did contain some quality materials, but how were administrators supposed to integrate a thousand different lessons by a thousand different authors into a single coherent curriculum? To its credit, BetterLesson eventually removed its crowdsourced content and re-launched with materials developed by a team of master teachers; it realized that a sharing approach could not solve what is fundamentally a quality problem.

Given the high cost of many educational resources and the budgetary pressures that many districts face, I think the government and philanthropists are wise to address the issue of cost. Yet while the approaches they take — funding the development of new resources and the aggregation of user-generated ones — do result in free, they don’t always result in good. The OER movement exists largely as a response to the economic influence of corporate publishers, and its success will depend on how well it can provide educators with high-quality alternatives. If it fails to do this, it may be the publishers themselves who benefit most.


Of course, there are great resources out there: resources that are expertly crafted and substantial enough to have a meaningful impact. It’s just that many of these are commercial resources. The products exist; they’re just behind a paywall.

Fortunately, that’s a pretty easy problem for funders to solve. If our goal is for teachers to have unfettered access to the highest-quality instructional materials, and if the main obstacle is that those materials are paid, then why not try to make them free? Instead of focusing entirely on developing new resources, why not jailbreak the best existing ones?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art can acquire a painting to make it publicly accessible. The Library of Congress can acquire historical documents to make them publicly accessible. When it comes to educational resources, though, there’s no such mechanism. I think there should be.

In 1990, Key Curriculum Press released The Geometer’s Sketchpad, a software which many in math education consider one of the most important (and beautiful) technologies ever created. Not only did teachers use it, but KCP helped curriculum developers incorporate it into their materials. Unfortunately, the software market shifted, KCP struggled, and in 2012 Sketchpad was sold to McGraw-Hill. As is often the case, the product was lost in the shuffle of the larger organization, which effectively treated it as an internal resource. As a result, the educational community was unable to capitalize on Sketchpad’s full potential to transform students’ relationship with math. McGraw Hill had every right to make this decision, but it came with a high cost: the Mona Lisa sold to a private collector.

Between 1991 and 2011, the National Science Foundation funded 34 different projects that involved Sketchpad. Today, the federal Office of Educational Technology advocates for “openly licensed educational resources that can be used…without cost.” If the government can support the development of a product, shouldn’t it have the ability to support its public unlocking?

Of course, it’s not just when companies have trouble that such a liberation makes sense. Like Sketchpad before it, the free online graphing calculator from Desmos is the foundation upon which a tremendous amount of value has been built. Teachers. Students. Publishers. Every day the math education community relies more and more on Desmos, and for good reason: It’s an incredible tool. Yet just because a resource is free doesn’t mean it’s safe. In the past decade, Pearson has spent more than $2 billion acquiring other companies. If Pearson bought Desmos, the loss would be immeasurable. If banking has too big to fail, should education have too good to lose?

In 2015, the Department of Education’s i3 Fund invested $125 million to develop, test, and scale innovative products and services. It’s a fantastic program, but it might be even more fantastic if the government added a fourth option: develop, test, scale, liberate.

Ayn Rand Wasn’t All Wrong

I’m not the only one to propose the unlocking of private resources into the public domain. On his blog, OER advocate David Wiley recently excoriated academic journals for charging such high prices that many scholars and researchers are prevented from accessing the knowledge they need. “What privately held property could possibly benefit the public more than the scholarly record,” Wiley asks, before floating a novel solution: eminent domain.

As a thought experiment, I think this is fascinating to consider. What I’m proposing, though, is much less extreme than the governmental usurpation of intellectual property. While I value the maximization of social good, I think eminent domain would undermine the incentive to create and result in a dangerous Catch-22: The better the resource, the more likely the government would be to take it…and therefore the less likely the author would be to create it. OER advocates tend to emphasize derivative uses of educational content — with what happens next — but that’s a moot point if it doesn’t happen first. It’s entirely academic if John Galt bolts.

Schools spend approximately $12 billion each year on curriculum and other instructional materials, and there are plenty of companies whose goals are well served by the traditional market. Even if there were a mechanism for the public unlocking of existing resources, it would be a company’s decision to pursue it or not. For those that did, though, the benefits to the educational community would be far reaching.

Not only would educators be able to more easily incorporate the newly liberated resource into their classrooms and schools, but others could include it in their offerings, too. Curriculum developers could build lessons around liberated tools without worrying about license expirations or price increases. Teacher trainers could create workshops around liberated exemplar content, making professional development more impactful and immediately applicable for teachers. In the transition to the Common Core Standards, districts around the country are organizing their next generation of curriculum. Unfortunately, many are cobbling together disparate resources that are either too low-quality or too granular to have a meaningful impact. The larger, better, and more consistent the libraries they have access to, the better the experience they’ll be able to create for teachers and students.

Of course, proponents of OER have lauded such downstream benefits of free resources for years. However, the benefits are only meaningful if the resources are good, and the current funding approaches aren’t optimized for quality. Not only would an option to liberate the best existing resources offer an immediate benefit to educators, but it would also help to realize the potential of OER itself.

Heading Home

As with any new model, there are questions around how such an unlocking would work. Who will be responsible for distributing the resource? How will we keep the product up-to-date and ensure its sustainability? These are good questions. They’re also questions that apply in the existing model. Unlike with the development of new resources, though, the liberation of existing ones is a more certain investment: It would remove the uncertainties around completion, delivery, and quality, and ensure that funders know exactly what they’re going to get. More importantly, it would allow them to immediately provide educators the top-quality resources they need…and that we as a society want them to have.

Having read all of this, you may be wondering whether I harbor some secret desire for Mathalicious to be free. Philosophically, I do not; money is just a form of energy, and I think the world is a better place when consumers direct it back to creators. As a practical matter, though, I recognize that the free market is not optimized for social value and think the world a worse place when educators must choose between price and quality. I think Mathalicious is an extraordinary resource and would love for teachers to have unfettered access. To the extent that payment gets in the way of this, then yes, I would like Mathalicious to be free. But this is about more than just Mathalicious; as a community, we’re better off when educators can evaluate all resources on quality alone.

As a country, we face huge educational challenges: training and supporting teachers, providing them with high-quality tools and resources. This is hard work. Creating exemplary products is difficult, which is why there are so few of them. But once they exist, the easiest thing we could do — the least complicated step we could ever take — would be to make them free. Would the liberation of the best existing resources by itself fix education and add $10 trillion to the GDP? Of course not. But when it comes to the specific issue of instructional resources, it’s an elegant solution to a persistent problem: Free resources are often bad and great resources are often paid.

I’d love to figure out a way for great resources to be free. I’d also love for the Nationals to re-sign Bryce Harper. Because however much his contract ends up costing, that kid can play. And it’s about time we won the World Series.

April 3, 2016