Even before the recent coronavirus pandemic, nearly all educators reported going online to obtain instructional materials. Such resources promise to make our instruction better and lives easier. But now that K–12 schools in almost all states have shuttered their doors for the foreseeable future, teachers are relying on online resources more than ever. Yet up until recently, very little was known about the quality of materials available on popular supplemental resource websites.
Last December, the Fordham Institute published The Supplemental-Curriculum Bazaar: Is What’s Online any Good?, which shed much-needed light on what’s available in the supplemental-curriculum marketplace—and how teachers can best mine and use these resources. We examined over three hundred of the most downloaded high-school-level English language arts materials across three of the most popular supplemental websites: Teachers Pay Teachers, Share My Lesson, and ReadWriteThink. (We restricted our analysis to materials for high school ELA, as this is an area where teachers are especially likely to supplement their core curriculum materials.)
So what did we find?
Given the wide range of topics and resources available on these websites, we unsurprisingly found a correspondingly wide range in quality and depth. On the positive side, we were pleased to see that many of the resources available online are well-designed and visually appealing, which can help keep students engaged. They were also generally free from errors and referenced high-quality texts.
Unfortunately, in many cases, a material’s surface appeal often masked a lack of instructional value. Many materials were poorly aligned to the standards to which they claim alignment, were not cognitively demanding, and rarely provided teachers with good supports and assessments for scoring student work. Many of the materials also didn’t adequately address the needs of low or high achieving students or English language learners, so they would require significant adaptation and modification. And while teachers might gravitate towards using the most frequently downloaded and/or highly rated materials available on these sites, we unfortunately found that many of these too disappointingly missed the mark.
So what are time-strapped teachers now scrambling to teach students remotely to do?
One solution is to partner with colleagues to choose one promising unit and refine it together before using it, so that it might be suitably integrated into the existing curricula that needs such improvement. In short, teachers can efficiently build an effective unit without having to start from scratch and can adapt it so that it’s appropriate for their students (and an online environment).
Online materials can also be used to glean lessons and activities for students who need instruction at more basic levels or at lower levels of cognitive complexity. As indicated, however, there is virtually no “built-in” assistance relative to struggling learners or for students with “unfinished learning,” so this approach requires thoughtful evaluation, and again, modification.
Instructional leads can also be of great support to teachers. For example, instructional leads in Jefferson County Public Schools (where one of us works) are currently curating supplemental sources for teachers and identifying high-quality resources (i.e., that align well to standards and strategically scaffold and progress student learning) to support teachers in various content areas. They’re also taking advantage of the generosity of many companies that are providing high-quality resources free of charge at this time. In addition to getting strong supplemental resources into teachers’ hands quickly, they’re also working to help teachers identify what qualifies as “high-quality” supplemental resources in the future.
When schools are able to resume more normal operations down the line, school districts and states could also provide professional development by curricular staff to show teachers how to use promising materials as fodder to develop their own high-quality instructional units for online lessons. They might also help teachers utilize these resources more effectively by developing a review process or an evaluation rubric that schools can use on their own to appraise materials (perhaps drawing from, or building upon, existing high-quality evaluation rubrics, such as those used by EdReports).
Given the many challenges educators are currently facing as they quickly adjust to teaching to an online format, being able to rely on online supplemental websites is more important than ever. When those materials are created by expert teachers and are high-quality—as some of them surely are—they can result in better instruction. Our challenge now is to make sure that many more materials fall into that category.