Editor’s note: This article is part one of two written by the expert review team from Fordham’s recent study, The Supplemental Curriculum Bazaar: Is What’s Online any Good?
It makes sense that teachers looking for new, ready-to-go, engaging materials get online—and fast. Such resources promise to make their instruction better and lives easier. And it seems like there’s a gold mine of great stuff out there! Right?
We all understand why so many teachers report that they regularly turn to the Internet to find supplemental resources to meet their instructional needs. Yet until recently, we haven’t understood much about the quality of these add-on materials. Our recent study, The Supplemental-Curriculum Bazaar: Is What’s Online any Good? sought to shed much-needed light on what’s available at the supplemental-curriculum bazaar—and how teachers shop there.
We examine over three hundred of the most downloaded materials across three of the most popular supplemental websites: Teachers Pay Teachers, ReadWriteThink, and Share My Lesson. Given the vast array of materials available online, we opted to restrict our analysis to supplemental materials for high school ELA, an area where teachers are especially likely to supplement their core curriculum materials.
So what did we find? Below are some of the biggest surprises we encountered, as well as overall strengths and weaknesses of the supplemental curriculum bazaar.
One happy surprise was the wide range of topics and resources available on the websites. But we also found a correspondingly wide range in quality and depth. We were surprised at how few of the supplemental materials seemed strong and worthy of use and how many were mediocre or worse. Some reviewers were surprised and pleased to see that so many of the supplemental materials were visually appealing, which would likely help keep students engaged. Yet this surface visual appeal often masked a lack of actual instructional value.
Poor alignment was another surprise. While we expected to see strong, specific ties to individual college and career readiness standards, we often found that the materials claimed to cover more standards than were realistic (e.g., all grade nine and ten reading literature standards, several speaking and listening standards, and some writing standards). When a lesson or unit was aligned to a multitude of standards—a common tactic employed in order to get resources to show up in more user searches—this was a major red flag signaling a lack of actual alignment.
It was also surprising that so many lessons claimed to span a wide grade level range (e.g., all grades six through twelve ), as we expected that well-aligned lessons would be specific to at least a narrow band of standards (e.g., grades nine and ten only). This is critical because the standards do vary from grade to grade and because students should grapple with increasingly complex texts and ideas year by year. We need to expect student growth!
Another unhappy surprise was how little assistance the materials provided for struggling learners or students with “unfinished learning.” Two problems were most acute: a lack of knowledge building and lack of actual instruction for writing. Many resources left us wondering, “How can teachers make sure students already know enough to succeed at this reading or writing task?” and “How might teachers help struggling students do this task?”
It was also eye-opening to see how disorganized the materials were on some sites—with many different files to open and insufficient guidance about order of use. This approach sharply contrasted to the well-organized and consistent format used on ReadWriteThink.
Finally, everyone was surprised by the data about how many teachers use these materials!
Given these major concerns, we see several disadvantages to teachers using popular sites to find materials to supplement their core curriculum.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that teachers cannot trust that supplemental materials will actually help them teach or assess academic standards. The materials we reviewed indicate that teachers are required to do too much evaluation and modification—tasks they wouldn’t have to face if the sites were reliably aligned and of consistently high quality. The needed modifications are often significant. Many of the materials don’t lay out a coherent plan for standards-based instruction or tie activities or lectures to specific standards. Nor do the materials help students build knowledge about a subject or literary work, as the standards require.
If teachers use supplemental resources that are not aligned, student progress will suffer. Students will not be engaging in the rigor of the work the standards require, and struggling students are unlikely to improve. Less experienced teachers—who might be most likely to use the sites—might be the most disadvantaged because they could have difficulty recognizing an inadequate lesson and adapting it to meet their students’ needs. In our experience, many times the problem isn’t that teachers can’t be trusted to observe and repair problems. Rather, it’s that teachers aren’t typically allotted sufficient time and collaboration to sift through materials of such varied quality. Another concern is that using supplemental materials will result in the fragmentation of students’ “experienced curriculum.” If teachers are frequently searching for new and engaging materials—and we know they are—acurricular coherence could be a casualty. This problem seems most probable when teachers use the materials in fragmented ways, such as grabbing interesting-looking activities, rather than ensuring that supplemental materials really do fit comfortably with existing materials and contribute to logical, sound development of knowledge and skills.
Another huge disadvantage to teachers is the relative lack of cultural responsiveness in the online materials overall. The failure of the sites to include diverse authors and works in their offerings is an obvious problem for teachers who are looking for add-on resources appropriate to their own classrooms.
Student assessments were also problematic and, in many cases, counterproductive. While many resources lacked assessment tools entirely, many of those that included them did not reflect the same level of cognitive complexity, the demand for close reading and analysis, or the requirement for writing to sources that are found in district- and statewide assessments.
Finally, reviewers noted that, while using supplemental materials is intended to save teachers time, sifting through the overwhelming volume of materials online—and then modifying them—is hugely time-consuming!
However, despite these areas of concern, it’s clear that these resources are filling a big need for educators, and there are several advantages to their use.
First, one word: time. When the lessons are high quality, there’s an obvious time-saving advantage, since making everything from scratch is enormously time-consuming. For harried teachers with multiple classes to prep, and especially for new teachers who don’t have experience to fall back on, the online sites offer resources that are ready to be used in a pinch. For example, downloading someone else’s PowerPoint slides—that might even come with notes for implementation—can be a real time saver. Online materials can serve as good starting points whenever teachers are struggling for ideas or materials for a lesson. For most people, it’s easier to have something to tweak than to start from nothing.
There’s also a lot from which to choose. If teachers find an online unit covering the literature or topic they are teaching, something inside there might be good, and the things that aren’t quite right could possibly be modified.
And finally, when the online materials have been created by expert teachers and are high-quality, they can result in better instruction, which is obviously a huge advantage to teachers and students.
Overall, our analysis left us feeling wary about the quality of the most popular resources being downloaded, and concerned about how teachers are using them.
Stay tuned next week for part two where we explore the best and worst ways teachers are using these resources, and the role district and school leaders might play in mediating the use of supplemental materials.