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October 1, 2016

For Sale: Your Lesson Plans

Many teachers now buy and sell lesson plans in online marketplaces. What are the implications for teachers and students?

Instructional Strategies
Curriculum
Leadership
Professional Learning
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Vera Corbett Ahiyya is a kindergarten teacher by day and an avid user of the website Teachers Pay Teachers by night. Since June 2012, the educator has purchased more than 530 products on the site, including lesson plans, worksheets, center activities, and classroom decorations. She has sold nearly 8,400 of the same, earning roughly $25,000.

Corbett Ahiyya came upon the site when she moved from Texas to Massachusetts. "I realized I needed more activities to help me feel successful in teaching a new curriculum," she says. She found some resources that helped her, and later decided to create and sell her own products. Today her online store, called "The Tutu Teacher," features hundreds of colorful products designed with attractive fonts and playful images, including printable vocabulary word cards and packets of morning worksheets for kindergarteners.

Teachers Pay Teachers (or TpT, as it's known by users) is one of several online marketplaces where teachers can buy and sell their lesson plans and other instructional materials. As the largest of these sites in the United States, TpT says that it has 3.8 million active users and that teachers have earned $200 million by selling their wares since the site's founding by former teacher Paul Edelman in 2006. London-based site TES operates in a similar fashion with close to 8 million users. Smaller competitors include the likes of Teacher Lingo and Buy Sell Teach.

These marketplaces differ from Open Education Resources (OER) like EngageNY and OER Commons in that the latter resources are free and have a degree of oversight. Amazon also recently entered the OER market with its new site, Amazon Inspire, which offers no-cost lessons posted by teachers and third-party vendors. (See "How to #GoOpen for more information about OER.)

By contrast, the for-cost marketplaces function like Etsy for teachers and predominately attract elementary educators. Sellers post their products for sale—typically PDFs for buyers to print—complete with a description and sample preview of the item. (Not all products cost money. Some sellers offer free downloads to attract new customers.) Consumers browse the marketplaces for lessons to fit their grade level and subject area, with the opportunity to ask questions of the seller and view ratings from other buyers. Most lessons and units go for under $10. For instance, a highly rated 105-page download of Halloween math and literacy activities sells for $8 on TpT. After a customer buys a product, TpT takes a commission from the seller—40 percent for users who have a free account with the site and 15 percent for users who pay about $60 per year for a premium account.

Growing Popularity

Why did these marketplaces become so popular? First, teachers seek out lessons to fill gaps in their curriculum. "Off-the-shelf textbooks often have holes that are identified by districts or teachers," says Morgan Polikoff, associate professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education in California. "Some of the higher cognitive demands from the standards are not well covered by textbooks, so they can be augmented with projects and assignments." In other cases, teachers are simply looking for a fresh way to teach a concept they've covered year after year.

The Common Core standards likely facilitated the emergence of the marketplaces in the last few years, according to Polikoff. Before Common Core, it was difficult to market a lesson as being aligned to standards from multiple states. "But now you have one set of standards in 42 states," he says, making it easier for teachers to share across state lines.

And then there was the issue of timing. When teachers heard that Common Core was coming down the pike, many scrambled for lessons. In fact, some teachers created and shared their Common Core lessons online well before most publishers had a chance to print standards-aligned materials. Of course, the promise of "Common Core-aligned" materials is a cautionary tale. "Users need to take claims of alignment with a large grain of salt," says Polikoff. "That's true of traditional textbooks, and it's true of individual lessons."

Ironically, some users say they buy lesson plans to save money. "I used to spend $20 or $30 on a teacher resource book only to use one or two activities," Corbett Ahiyya says. "But with the abundance of products and resources on TpT, I can spend $3–$5 on a resource and know I'll use it over and over."

Benefits for the Profession

One of the most prominent reasons that these sites have flourished is also one of their key strengths. Most lessons are for teachers and by teachers, tested with students and for use with students, which isn't always the case with materials from publishers. "There's a certain legitimacy that you've already done this with students," says José Luis Vilson, a middle school math teacher in New York City who has written about the topic. "There's teacher empowerment there."

To the point of empowerment, it's worth noting that sellers on these sites can be dubbed teacherpreneuers. They're breaking down their classrooms' walls to share practices that have the power to improve the profession. In doing so, they've merged their traditional teacher roles with those of small business owners. Sellers spend evenings, weekends, and summers designing merchandise and answering customers' questions. They promote their products on blogs and social media—predominately Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram. Corbett Ahiyya, for one, has more than 15,000 Instagram followers, and she also presents at conferences.

For many teachers, the opportunity to supplement their income is a welcome one—and a factor to consider when evaluating these marketplaces. Jeffrey Carpenter, assistant professor of education at Elon University in North Carolina, embraces the idea of teachers sharing resources without cost. "But I also understand that in some states, if you're a beginning teacher, you can qualify for food stamps. If you're creating good curriculum materials to make teaching a sustainable profession, who am I to judge?"

There's another benefit for the profession. Virtual professional learning networks have sprung up from these sites, similar to those on Twitter. "I'm constantly looking for opportunities to connect with my colleagues," says Corbett Ahiyya. "I've made connections with teachers from all over the country—teachers who have purchased from me, teachers who also sell, and teachers who share the same passion for teaching as I do." In this environment, the marketplaces allow for the spread of new ideas, with financial incentives for sellers to share their best lessons.

"I think there's the possibility of innovation," says Polikoff. "Under a traditional textbook-heavy system, it's unlikely that we're going to learn too much about the specific best way to teach multiplying fractions. In contrast, if there were 10 or 15 lessons about multiplying fractions on a website, over time you could learn which was the most effective." He notes that this kind of innovation is far in the future, especially with a lack of common assessments to evaluate the practices.

For all of these strengths, there are just as many concerns. From an ethical perspective, some argue that selling lesson plans cheapens the profession. They wonder what happened to the good old days of openly sharing ideas with colleagues—free of charge. (Critics contend that this notion buys into the stereotype of teachers as altruists. Would any other professional be judged for moonlighting to earn some extra cash?)

Legal questions abound, too. If a teacher creates a lesson for his class and uses it as such, who owns the work? That lesson likely belongs to the district, according to an article from the National Education Association (Walker, 2010). Unless the teacher's contract specifically states that he or she owns copyright for material he or she produces, the Copyright Act of 1975 dictates that the lesson is "work-for-hire," meaning that it belongs to the district. In fact, Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland drafted a policy in 2013 stating that teacher-created instructional materials for use in its schools are property of the district—even if they're created on a teacher's own time. The policy created an uproar and was later scrapped. In an interview with The New York Times, Robert Lowry, deputy director at the New York State Council of School Superintendents, went so far as to ask whether districts should get a cut of teachers' profits (Hu, 2009).

This topic also seems apt for a lesson on plagiarism. "There are instances where teachers change a couple of things from a lesson they got for free and pass it off as their own," says Vilson, the New York math teacher. One top seller was challenged for selling materials that were allegedly too similar to those from a phonics education program. Other sellers have been warned about the use of graphics they don't own, such as Dr. Seuss images.

What It Means for Curriculum and Instruction

This pick-and-choose approach to curriculum could also have an effect on instruction. For Polikoff, it raises concerns about overall coherence. "Say what you will about textbooks, at least they're constructed with the intention of coherence," he says. "It's very difficult for me to imagine that a lot of teachers are able to craft coherent curricula with resources picked from the web."

And although some lessons are tested with students, there's no guarantee they will be the most effective tools for all students. Even the best ideas need tailoring. That's one of the reasons Vilson doesn't purchase lessons (or follow publishers' lessons to a T, for that matter). "I find myself having to modify lessons for my students," he says. "Thank you for the idea, but now I have to go teach it to my kids and figure out how that works."

One of the biggest concerns is the lack of vetting. Beyond product reviews left by previous buyers, there is little in the way of quality control.

Case in point: Researchers Jenni Gallagher, Katy Swalwell, and Elizabeth Bellows conducted a qualitative case study of a lesson called "The Wedding of Q and U" (Gallagher, Swalwell, & Bellows, 2016). This particular lesson—or in some cases, unit—is a viral sensation in early childhood circles, with hundreds of YouTube videos and countless Pinterest pins. "It seems to have spread quickly across online teacher-sharing resources, including Pinterest, teacher blogs, and Teachers Pay Teachers," says Gallagher, a graduate assistant in research and teaching at Iowa State University.

The lesson is designed to teach students that the letters q and u go together. A class (usually kindergarteners) participates in a mock wedding where q (represented by a female student) and u (a male student) are married in alphabetic matrimony. Many of the weddings feature full-fledged bridal parties of bridesmaids and groomsmen. Some of the YouTube videos show decorated gymnasiums full of parents and family members snapping pictures of students wearing costumes and holding props. Photos on blogs and social media depict elaborate wedding cakes decorated with qu words.

The research team conducted a content analysis of the resources shared online for this lesson, noting that certain handouts and activities were used repeatedly. For instance, TpT users can buy packets that include vows and wedding invitations for the ceremony.

"At first, we were shocked by how much time and how many resources were being dedicated to a lesson that is really quite simple—that just seemed like bad pedagogy," says Swalwell, assistant professor of education at Iowa State. "We also noticed that it's not even accurate from a literacy standpoint. As any good Scrabble player can tell you, there are words in which q and u do not go together."

But they were more troubled by the lesson from a social studies perspective. "The little girl often plays the q and vows to 'not get jealous when u has to go out with other letters'—a sentiment that seems to reinforce the ideas that girls should be understanding of boys' dalliances," says Swalwell. "Aside from these troubling gender norms, we noticed patterns of extreme heteronormativity—there was not a single same-sex wedding—and monoculturalism." From the music to the minister, each wedding had heavy Protestant, Anglo-Saxon overtones.

When the researchers compared these implicit lessons with the National Council for the Social Studies' standards, they found that the wedding unit fell drastically short. "Rather than support these goals, the qu wedding resources seem to actually prevent these understandings from developing," Gallagher says. "Students would not be able to describe any differences in how cultural groups celebrate relationships or marriages after this lesson because the findings indicated only a very narrow conception of what weddings look like."

"Our analysis of the teacher blogs indicate that Internet resources that were considered cute and fun were highly valued," Gallagher says. In other words, robust, thoughtful content takes a backseat to the bold colors, catchy graphics, and fun value that seems to be a selling point in online marketplaces. By no means is this problem unique to online marketplaces—and in no way do all lessons come up short in this manner—but the marketplaces no doubt proliferate the exchange of ideas without a gatekeeper to ask questions about instructional ramifications.

Informed Producers and Consumers

So it seems that the question isn't whether teachers should buy and sell plans in online marketplaces—they are doing so. Perhaps the focus should shift toward training teachers to be informed producers and consumers.

Polikoff knows of a district that decided to curate materials from the web and post them on its website after realizing that many of its teachers were buying plans online. "If teachers are going to use things that aren't in the textbook, at least they can be on the same page and have a better sense of quality," he says.

Polikoff believes it's a smart approach, especially if a district knows that the curriculum is coming up short in certain areas. "It requires some capacity at the district level. Having one person who is an expert in curriculum lead that work as opposed to individual teachers doing it is both more efficient and more likely to be successful," he says.

Still, teachers who wish to purchase lesson plans on their own might use a rubric to independently evaluate the quality of a resource. The nonprofit group Achieve has published rubrics for evaluating OER, including factors such as alignment to standards, quality of assessments, and opportunities for deeper learning (Achieve Inc., 2011). There's no reason why scoring guides such as these can't be used to judge purchased lesson plans as well.

Gallagher and Swalwell are taking a more proactive approach with their preservice teachers. "We've begun to introduce the case of the qu wedding in our elementary social studies methods course," says Gallagher. She leads a discussion about the problematic social studies concepts in the lesson and then instructs undergraduate students to search online and evaluate other lessons on the web for similar issues.

"We hope that more teacher prep programs are paying attention to this because more and more teachers are using these sites," Swalwell adds. "What tools are we giving teacher candidates to engage with the sites in ways that are professional, productive, and effective? We want to give them as much practice as possible sorting through what is 'good' and 'bad' and learning that 'cute' or 'fun' activities are not sufficient reasons for doing something meaningful with students."

References

Achieve, Inc. (2011, November 18). Rubrics for evaluating Open Education Resources (OER) objects. Retrieved from www.achieve.org/files/AchieveOERRubrics.pdf

Gallagher, J. L., Swalwell, K. M., & Bellows, E. M. (2016). The QU wedding: Examining a case of problematic hidden social studies. Manuscript in preparation.

Hu, W. (2009, November 14). Selling lessons online raises cash and questions. New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/education/15plans.html

Walker, T. (2010). Legal controversy over lesson plans. Retrieved from National Education Association at www.nea.org/home/37583.htm

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