Poor-Quality Materials Abound on Lesson-Sharing Websites, Report Says

By Sarah Schwartz — December 10, 2019 6 min read
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It’s common for teachers to go looking for lessons and classroom resources online—digital marketplaces like Teachers Pay Teachers or Share My Lesson offer seemingly endless pages of user-created materials that teachers can use to supplement their schools’ curricula, or in some cases, piece together one when none is provided.

Teachers rely on sites like these to save time and fill resource gaps. But many educators have argued that the materials available aren’t high-quality.

Now, a new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute confirms some of those concerns. Reviewers evaluated more than 300 resources from three online platforms—ReadWriteThink, Share My Lesson, and Teachers Pay Teachers—for alignment to the Common Core State Standards and overall quality. Most of the materials, 64 percent, received an overall rating of very poor or mediocre.

In the years since the release of the Common Core State Standards, the nonprofit EdReports formed and began to evaluate curricular materials against new requirements.

For the most part, EdReports reviews comprehensive core offerings. But most teachers aren’t just using the curriculum that their school or district provides (if teachers are provided a curriculum at all). A 2016 study from the RAND Corporation found that 98 percent of secondary math teachers and 96 percent of secondary English-language arts teachers were using materials that they had developed or selected themselves.

In many cases, these supplemental resources are coming from crowdsourced marketplaces, where teachers don’t have access to independent reviews of the materials they’re downloading.

For this study, researchers Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the USC Rossier School of Education, and Jennifer Dean, an educational consultant, created a rubric that could do this kind of vetting.

Their criteria look at how well these resources aligned to the shifts in instruction outlined in the Common Core State Standards—like requirements that materials build students’ knowledge, give them opportunities to work with complex text, and ask them to cite textual evidence. They also considered other aspects of curriculum quality, like rigor, usability, and inclusion of diverse cultural perspectives.

To build the rubric, they adapted criteria from a prior Fordham study on assessment quality and existing tools that evaluate materials against the common core—like EdReports, the EQuIP rubric, and the state of Louisiana’s curriculum rubrics. Polikoff and Dean also partnered with four reviewers who had experience evaluating resources against the common core.

Reviewers looked at more than 300 of the most-downloaded resources for high school English-language arts, across three lesson-sharing platforms:

  1. ReadWriteThink, a hub for free, peer-reviewed ELA lessons managed by the International Literacy Association and the National Council of Teachers of English;

  2. Share My Lesson, another free lesson site, from the American Federation of Teachers; and

  3. Teachers Pay Teachers, a for-profit marketplace where any former or current teacher can sell resources or list them for free.

The study focused on multi-day units and some single-day lessons, rather than one-off worksheets or activities. Most of these units were book studies, with reading and writing comprehension tasks built around one or more anchor texts.

Overall, the reviewers’ analysis painted a bleak picture of these marketplaces.

Most materials—56 percent—weren’t aligned to the majority of the standards that authors said were covered in each resource. (Eight percent weren’t aligned to any of the standards that the materials’ authors claimed were covered.)

There’s an incentive for creators to tag their lesson with as many standards as they can, said Polikoff, in an interview with Education Week. On many lesson-sharing websites, users can search by these tags. Listing more standards means showing up in more search results.

“The consequence of that is that a lot of these materials are overtagged,” Polikoff said. This means that it’s often up to teachers to figure out whether a resource actually aligns to the standards it claims to meet.

Even if teachers find a lesson that does address the standards they’re looking for, quality varies. Overall, reviewers thought that the anchor texts in these lessons—the fiction or nonfiction books that the reading, writing, and speaking tasks are organized around—were strong selections. When books didn’t meet this bar, it was often because they were below grade level, as determined by Lexile measures, one assessment of text difficulty.

Even so, materials didn’t fare well on measures of cultural relevance. About two-thirds of lessons didn’t include authors from diverse backgrounds.

Text quality also varied across sites: ReadWriteThink and Share My Lesson scored higher than Teachers Pay Teachers. Reviewers made these judgments on qualitative evaluations of the book’s quality of writing and importance, as well as measures of grade-level appropriateness.

On average, reviewers ranked the reading, writing, and speaking tasks in the lessons as low- or mediocre-quality. Prompts often weren’t text-dependent, instead asking students to draw on personal feelings or other knowledge. The vast majority—86 percent—didn’t offer any support for differentiation. (One bright spot in the analysis: Most of the resources didn’t have major errors, and were well-organized and visually appealing.)

The reviewers also looked at how the multi-day units built knowledge—how they covered the historical or literary context for the ELA text, or made connections to subjects like social studies, science, or the arts. More than half of the units didn’t build knowledge, or did it weakly, devoting more time to “skill building, simple recall, or personal interpretation,” according to the report.

When it came to assessing student learning, reviewers found that most lessons and units (69 percent) included assessments that covered most or all of the core content in the lesson. But about half of all materials didn’t include rubrics that would help teachers understand how the assessments were meant to be scored.

Curation Could ‘Shore Up’ Gaps

Researchers looked at some of the most popular resources on these sites. But it’s hard to know whether downloads and star ratings are good metrics of teachers’ true feelings about a resource.

In interviews with the research team, teachers talked about feeling pressure not to critique their colleagues’ work, even if they thought it was subpar. “They went way out on a limb to put it out there, and I don’t want to seem like I’m criticizing ... We get bashed constantly, by administrators, the press, parents, etc., so I can’t see making it any worse for anybody,” one teacher is quoted in the study as saying.

Still, it’s apparent that the materials teachers are downloading aren’t always meeting their needs. Teachers told the researchers that they’re often making modifications to materials before they use them.

More curation has the potential to solve some of these problems, Polikoff said. For example, he said, Teachers Pay Teachers could vet the materials on their site, and spotlight a few dozen that are of the highest-quality.

See also: On ‘Teachers Pay Teachers,’ Some Sellers Are Profiting From Stolen Work

And especially when users are paying for materials, it’s a big problem that teachers don’t have a way to preview and vet the entire resource before they purchase, Polikoff said. (Currently, Teachers Pay Teachers—the only one of the three sites in this analysis to charge for materials—has a limited refund policy, and some requests are subject to review by side admin.)

“There’s also a role on the school district side, or maybe even a state department of education, to help curate,” said Polikoff. Districts could identify the potential gaps in their core curricular materials, and point to supplemental materials that they think would “shore up those weaknesses,” he said.

Charts via the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.