Teachers Trust Teachers: The Rise of Open Educational Resources

How TeachersPayTeachers is harnessing the rise of open innovation in K-12 educational curriculum development.

Beginning as early as the advent of public education in the United States, teachers have faced the problem of finding reliable instructional materials.   Different state education standards, coupled with limited budgets for purchasing new materials, have led to many teachers feeling the need to supplement their school- or district-purchased materials by creating their own materials or modifying the materials provided to them.  A 2016 survey by the Thomas B Fordham Institute, a conservative education-policy institute in Washington, D.C. found that among math teachers nationwide, “Two-thirds report that they “often modify” the pace of their curricula. Fifty-five percent often modify when it comes to deciding which math topics to cover, and approximately one-third modify when it comes to deciding the order of math topics.[i]”  Recognizing that many teachers modify the scope, sequence, and even the content of their provided materials, the company Teachers Pay Teachers decided to use open innovation in the world of curriculum and instruction to provide a vast library of educational materials, crowdsourced from across the country, that other teachers can purchase for use in their own classrooms.

Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT) is an online marketplace where teachers can sell their teacher-created materials directly to other teachers.  Teachers can filter for materials that cover each of the individual Common Core Standards for ELA and Math, in each grade and domain (domain is a subject area, such as geometry).  Additionally, TPT offers an online community where teachers can review and rate materials that are available for sale.  TPT is organized much like a collaborative community, where governance is informal and teachers freely collaborate with one another to improve their product offerings[ii].  In comparison to the centralized curriculum development process at traditional education publishers, the TPT curriculum development process is highly decentralized and relies exclusively on open innovation powered by individual teachers.  Publishers have traditionally hired in-house curriculum experts, or contracted with notable academics, who produce materials for which the publishers own the intellectual property.  Teacher focus groups and field testing are included in the traditional product development process, but input is not typically widespread or crowdsourced, so the sample size of teachers evaluating any given product is often quite small.  By contrast, TPT allows any teachers who have created quality educational material to sell on its website (forgoing ownership of the IP) and uses crowdsourced reviews and ratings to determine which of its products is of the highest quality and should be promoted in search results.  This process of open innovation has seen great success; according to a July 2018 Forbes article, the platform counts 2/3 of American teachers as active users, and lists 3 million available resources[iii].

The main challenge that TPT is going to need to confront over the next few years will be how to get its teacher-sourced materials to have more widespread usage.  Despite the program’s strong popularity among teachers, its school-level purchasing program is only being utilized by 2% of the nation’s schools[iv].  This is likely because in education the end-user of most products (the teacher) is not the decision-making unit in purchasing most products.  These decisions are made at the school or district level by principals or administrators.  Traditional publishers use extensive sales and marketing teams to bring their programs directly to administrators, and gain credibility for their programs by having them evaluated by 3rd-party evaluators such as edreports.org.  Going forward, the biggest challenge that TPT will face is growing its footprint by appealing to the school administrators who make the majority of spending decisions in the educational materials market.  The average public school teacher in the US spends $479 on materials per year (see figure 1).  By contrast, instruction spending per pupil in Massachusetts is $9,713 per pupil, per year[v]. Some of this per-pupil money is spent on staff salaries, but regardless the pool of money available at the district level is exponentially larger than that which is purchased by individual teachers.  Going forward, TPT will need to face the fundamental question of how they can convince administrators to change their purchasing patterns and recognize that open innovation can produce educational materials that are as good as what is offered by the big publishers
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Figure 1:

[i] Bay-Williams, Jennifer. “ERIC Number: ED570138 Record Type: Non-Journal Publication Date: 2016-Jun

Pages: 66 Abstractor: ERIC Reference Count: N/A ISBN: N/A ISSN: N/A Common Core Math in the K-8

Classroom: Results from a National Teacher Survey.” Education Resources Information Center,

United States Department of Education, June 2016, eric.ed.gov/?id=ED570138. Accessed 12 Nov.

2018.

[ii] Boudreau, K., & Lakhani, K. (2009). How to manage outside innovation. MIT Sloan Management Review, 50(4), 69-76. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/224962173?accountid=11311

[iii] Jones, Lily. “Teacher-Powered: The Unstoppable Community Behind TeachersPayTeachers.” Forbes, 19

July 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/lilyjones/2018/07/19/

teacher-powered-the-unstoppable-community-behind-teacherspayteachers/#74b89f393c8d. Accessed 12

Nov. 2018.

[iv] Ibid

[v] 2016 Annual Survey of School System Finances, U.S. Census Bureau

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14 thoughts on “Teachers Trust Teachers: The Rise of Open Educational Resources

  1. I love the idea behind Teachers pay Teachers. It is a tremendously valuable resource that many teachers use. Nearly all of my colleagues have used TPT at least once before.

    I concur with the author that it has been and will continue to be a challenge for TPT to sell their materials on a broader scale. One reason is what the author mentions – in the curriculum world the buyer is vastly different than and often disconnected from the user. Principals and district administrators often lack the perspective and insight into what teachers actually want. They purchase curriculum based off of reputation or 3rd party ratings without thinking about how the teacher views the material and how effective it will actually be when presented. Far too often textbooks and other curricular materials get placed on a shelf to collect dust.

    The other challenge with TPT is that many teachers do not see it as an end to end solution. TPT is a great resource for a one-off lesson if you are pressed for time or stuck on the best way to introduce a topic. I currently do not know anyone who would go to TPT and purchase an entire unit end-to-end. If TPT hopes to move beyond ad-hoc downloads and into unit or course-long level purchasing, TPT must think about how they change this brand perception in the market.

  2. This is a thoughtful and compelling essay, one i very much enjoyed reading. The pen is mightier than the sword, as the author well knows.

    TPT is exciting because it not only solves a problem that seems not just urgent but unjust. Its strength is that it allows teachers to help each other, rather than relying on the public education infrastructure that underserves them.

    Scale is clearly something that TPT has to figure out in the coming years, but i also wonder how it controls for quality. Are higher-quality materials priced higher? If it is able to scale and there is money to be made, how can the platform avoid the same dynamic that has lead to the problem of underfunded school systems in the first place?

  3. Wow, this was really eye-opening. I didn’t realize that the average public school teacher spends ~$500 out of pocket each year. That’s incredibly upsetting and further drives my appreciation and respect for teachers in public schools.

    On the question of how to disrupt the current publisher / school administration relationship, I wonder if TPT could offer some lesson plans or courses for “free” as a way for schools to try out the platform and the material. Afterwards, compare the cost of the TPT materials vs. the cost of the traditional publisher textbooks, and the benefits. It sounds like the TPT materials would be more cost effective, and be able to deliver better results. Then it would be a simple decision by the administrators to move towards TPT.

  4. This is inspiring to read about and provides a glimmer of optimism for the all teachers, parents and students alike. Not only are the resources valuable for different use cases, but the inherent collaboration and sharing of ideas surely has compounding effects.

    While it’s disappointing that TPT’s school-level purchasing program is only being used by ~2% of US schools, I agree with J.W.P and question whether such an “enterprise-level,” end-to-end solution is what TPT should strive for? The archaic world education procurement is slowly moving towards a new paradigm with eLearning and it seems that TPT is very good at solving the problem it is trying to solve: sharing materials, lesson plans and best practices among teachers. It seems that moving towards targeting school and procurement administrators would fundamentally shift the orientation of the platform and might create some unwanted consequences? However, despite the thought that TPT might need to be constrained to the sharing of information (similar to Wikipedia vs. paid published resources), I do believe that more can be done to help both i) compel teacher and school engagement and ii) help teachers pay for materials. To Nancy’s point, $500 out of pocket is absurd and I think any and all efforts should be made to help teacher’s supplement curricular materials with additional resources from the likes of TPT. Given the decentralization of schools, it seems difficult to obtain, but potential channels might include teacher’s associations and unions (and their relationships with different states / school systems) as well as local / state legislation? To me, momentum is all this TPT party needs to gain critical momentum, although it will take some time.

  5. This was super compelling, and I was particularly astounded by the statistic on how many teachers in America currently use the platform. I think given the great disparities in spending and funding across public schools in America (as evidenced by your Massachusetts example), open-sourced platforms such as these will act as a great equalizer, and I would be curious to know how the company plans to expand potentially even internationally or to other underserved communities (e.g. remedial education, vocational learning, etc). I wonder also how effective public school systems and charter school systems can be in heralding open innovation platforms amongst their communities and networks, and how they can better propagate usage of platforms such as Teachers Pay Teachers.

  6. Thanks a lot for the insightful posts. I wonder how the big publishers are reacting to the surge of crowdsourcing materials. In addition, does TPT have any mechanism to make sure there is no IP infringement issue for the materials that are sold on their platform?

  7. Sam – Thanks for sharing these insights. I feel like an analogy can be drawn between the music industry pre-streaming and the education publishing industry. It is owned by a few large incumbents with massive market share due to the structure of the market. The incumbents are well-entrenched, have massive marketing budgets, and its questionable the degree to which they are interested in serving customers vs. the bottom line. Although music streaming is not “open innovation”, it is largely democratic and gives consumers choice, while still remaining a profitable enterprise. The more we can build technologies that disintermediate the slow-moving incumbents in this industry, the better! This move may be slow, and it will require the support of teachers, parents, and politicians.

  8. I really enjoyed this essay! It seems like TPT has a huge opportunity to be the platform for teachers to share best practices with each other. I’m hopeful that as TPT gets more and more teachers on their platform, they will have more bargaining power to influence the administration to officially incorporate the materials into their lesson plans.

  9. This is a really interesting application of open innovation – thank you for the research. I am interested in understanding what factors will shape the reach of the program going forward. Agreed with comments above that increased usage will create a multiplier effect on user base.

  10. For teachers, by teachers! Thank you Sam for a great article. It seems like TPT is a great resource that teachers can access to augment their existing resources and improve the quality of teaching in the classroom. Having said that, it was great discussing in class about the adoption rate of TPT. When I read your article, I was worried that there might not be enough teachers using the platform, so it was great to hear that it is widely used albeit to different degrees.

  11. Thanks for sharing, Sam!

    It is extremely interesting to see how teachers are actively leveraging open innovation & the sharing economy to boost the quality of education for children. As you mention, the key hurdle that TeachersPayTeachers must overcome is getting administrators to see the educational benefit of crowdsourcing (a portion) of their educational content.

    Perhaps, administrators can first target this crowdsourced educational content to school districts that are severely underfunded (as these communities have the most to benefit). Alternatively, administrators can focus on the cost benefit of crowdsourced content to alter their purchasing habits. Either way, TeachersPayTeachers does a great job of disrupting the education industry. Traditional publishers should watch out!

  12. Great article! While monetary compensation could be an attractive revenue source for teachers who are not usually paid well, I am not sure how attractive this program is for teachers. Why would a good teacher share their own material which differentiates them from the rest of the teachers?
    Also, how does TPT vet the information shared by teachers? Do they check the teachers’ degrees to ensure they are credible?
    I completely agree with your concern on scalability of this program given how rigid schools tend to be about their programs and since schools prefer to unify the curriculum across classes that are taught by multiple teachers who do not necessarily use TPT. I also wonder if TPT will be able to expand geographically given the language differences between countries and the variance in their curriculums.
    It would be interesting though if TPT opens it up to students who are interested in learning new subjects or to parents who homeschool their children. Of course the pricing model would need to change in that case.

  13. Great piece, thank you for raising these important issues! I think the idea behind Teachers Pay Teachers is very compelling especially from a community perspective where teachers can engage with others to understand what materials are working versus not. I do wonder, however, whether scale is feasible here without collaborating with the large publishing behemoths in some way. It might also benefit TPT’s mission given I imagine many schools are heavily biased towards using materials from well-known publishing houses as it establishes credence in their curriculum.

  14. This was particularly eye-opening and was very interesting to read. It got me thinking about the public education system as a whole. Teachers are the ones that interact with students on a day-to-day basis and they recognize how difficult it is to apply a general curriculum to different classes. Does the system need to empower teachers more and take some decision-making ability away from administration? Does it make sense to give teachers a subsidy to dictate their own lesson plans? With the new focus on the different types of learning styles in students, TPT sounds like it will shine in the new educational environment. However, where do we need to go to start this change? Policy? Administration? Teachers? Or maybe even parents? And if TPT does begin to scale, how difficult will it be to make sure that the whole system is stable and sustainable as more money pours into the system? Education and money don’t always like each other.

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