Online curriculum warehouses are a widely-utilized resource for curriculum materials and also big business. Probably the best known of the bunch is Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT), which boasts on its website that two thirds of U.S. teachers have downloaded at least one item from them, to the tune of a billion downloads in 2020 alone. When we analyze student work artifacts for audits, we frequently find materials from TPT; in fact, I can’t think of an audit I’ve done in the last 5 years that didn’t have at least a handful of artifacts from TPT. They are, literally, everywhere in U.S. schools. Their prevalence begs two important questions: Why do teachers use them? And, Should they be using them? Luckily, they’ve begun to attract scholarly attention so there is now good research that helps answer both of these questions. We also have some interesting survey results that shed light on the reasons behind the reach of these marketplaces.
Who and How Often?
A combined Northern Arizona University-Elon University survey of 1300 teachers in 2022 found 78% of respondents used the TPT site at least once a month. The caveat here is that the survey was disseminated via social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) so the sample doesn’t reflect all teachers, only those teachers engaged in social media. How that impacts use of TPT is not measurable. An earlier American Teacher Panel survey from 2017 found that 73% of teachers said they had used TPT, so the results are similar. That survey also reported that 55% of ELA teachers said they used TPT for curriculum materials at least once a week. What I couldn’t find was whether there were big differences in usage by content area. My suspicion is that there may be at least some because of the heavy focus on ELA and Math to the exclusion of other content areas in many schools — meaning teachers often have more extensive resources in these areas. Purely anecdotally, we’ve seen a lot of TPT stuff in elementary social studies and a fair amount in science in our audit work.
It’s worth mentioning that three quarters of respondents that used the site said they had paid for materials out of their own pockets. This feels like a significant point but how it’s significant isn’t clear. We know teachers are generally underpaid, so the willingness to use their earnings to purchase lessons may be indicative of a deeper problem pushing teachers to use TPT. Enter the next question…
The most common response on the NAU survey (61%) was that concepts and skills were insufficiently addressed in existing district curriculum materials. One of the study’s authors noted that teachers cited “insufficient curriculum materials but exactly what they mean by that is unclear. We did have folks who said, ‘I have no curriculum. My state, my district, or my school gives me nothing,’ But other respondents said, ‘I have some curriculum, but my state just adopted Common Core or some variant of that, and so some of the curriculum is just kind of off.’” Still others said the curriculum provided for them was fine but they wanted materials that were more entertaining or engaging for students.*
The problem with the survey results is that they are primarily measuring teachers’ perceptions of their situations. Whether or not those perceptions accurately reflect what their districts provide (coverage, quality) is an open question and not one that is (or could be) answered by the survey.
A study from Fordham Institute in 2019 interviewed teachers about why they supplemented with TPT activities, and their responses were similar:
- to fit a particular skill,
- to provide differentiation for a range of learners,
- because the teacher didn’t know how to do something required by their curriculum,
- because what they are currently doing isn’t working and they need new ideas, and
- to save themselves the time and stress of creating their own materials.
Further, a recent Kappan article asserted that some teachers used online warehouses like TPT to try to find materials that were more diverse and more inclusive than those provided by district curriculum options.
The theme across all of these studies is that the district curriculum was found lacking in some way and teachers went outside of that curriculum to try to fill perceived holes. They felt strongly enough about these holes that they were willing to spend their own money. This is entirely in line with CMSi’s findings in audits: a high prevalence of online artifacts from TPT or similar places goes hand in hand with survey results indicating that the teachers don’t believe the district curriculum is sufficient or their belief that there is no curriculum and they are on their own (which is sometimes true and sometimes not).** Occasionally, it also indicates a lack of horizontal or vertical coordination/articulation and alignment where multiple teachers (or even whole grade levels or schools) are operating as lone rangers.
Now for the $65,000 question: Should they be using Teachers Pay Teachers and other online resource repositories?
There’s a lot to say about this next bit, so we’ll save it for Part 2.
*And this is fine, to a point. CMSi’s position is that teachers should be free to use whatever resources they choose to meet the learning needs of their students. Their expertise should inform what they select and our recommendation to districts is that while objectives and mastery definitions (what students learn and how they will demonstrate that learning) should be held tightly by the district, the resources, student groupings, and activities (how students learn) used to achieve those objectives should be held loosely, i.e. not dictated by the district. However, this does not mean that resources may be plucked from anywhere; selected resources must be high quality and aligned to district goals for student learning and instructional delivery and district definitions of mastery.
**We see this a lot when we survey teachers for curriculum audits; teachers often indicate that they are using resources other than the district curriculum because the curriculum isn’t there, isn’t good, or is hard to access or use.