Research and Reflections, Standards-Alignment Information

On Curriculum: How Pinterest and TpT Exacerbate Inequity

The danger of fragmented materials and the power of a cohesive, knowledge-building ELA curriculum

This article was originally published on the blog Mr. G Mpls and was reprinted here with the permission of the author. The original post can be accessed here.

The Importance of Content Knowledge and Curriculum

The daily instructional choices of teachers are increasingly being embraced as key levers for reducing educational disparities in schools. Using the Glossary of Education Reform definition, a curriculum should be understood broadly as:

  • the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn
  • mandated learning standards or learning objectives
  • the units and lessons that teachers teach
  • assignments and projects given to students
  • the books, materials, videos, presentations, and readings used in a course
  • tests, assessments, and other methods used to evaluate student learning

Peculiarly, in the U.S. there is a glaring reluctance to explicitly identify and closely monitor the curriculum and background knowledge taught to students in each grade level and subject. Part of the hesitation is likely rooted teachers’ desire for a certain degree of autonomy and freedom in their classroom.

However, there is another part of the content-knowledge-rich curriculum discussion which makes many educators rightfully uncomfortable. This is the question of who chooses what knowledge is taught? This is an important question that has been largely avoided because much curriculum discussion has been reduced to whether or not individual lessons or assessment items are aligned with sterilized and skill-focused standards.

So while schools have avoided going near the question of who chooses what knowledge is taught, it is becoming evermore clear that an answer has emerged regardless. Google, Pinterest, and Teachers Pay Teachers have become teachers’ go-to source for homegrown curricular materials and (below-grade) leveled texts which has resulted in a haphazard, fragmented, and ultimately inequitable curricula.

In this piece I argue for a renewed focus on an explicitly identified, critically-analyzed, multi-cultural, knowledge-rich curricula to supplement the current lens in the U.S.  dominated by standards, mandated assessments, and highly variable student-facing work.  This curriculum should not be made from scratch (no need to reinvent the wheel), but rather grounded in existing high-quality curriculum and modified and/or supplemented when necessary.

Steiner (2017) provides a clear rational for why curriculum deserves more attention in the report Curriculum Research: What We Know and Where We Need to Go:

  • Curriculum is a critical factor in student academic success.
  • Comprehensive, content-rich curriculum is a common feature of academically high-performing countries.
  • The cumulative impact of high-quality curriculum can be significant and matters most to achievement in the upper grades.
  • Because the preponderance of instructional materials is self-selected by individual teachers, most students are taught through idiosyncratic curricula that are not defined by school districts or states.

In summary, educationally top-performing countries across the globe indicate the importance of a high-quality, content-rich curriculum, yet in the U.S. we remain mostly focused on skills, rather than domain-specific content knowledge. The next section examines the worrisome trends of curricula fragmentation and disorganization.

Google, Pinterest, and TpT Fill the Vacuum

In the absence of meaningful discussion about the content knowledge and curriculum taught at each grade level, state and national standards have filled the vacuum, leading to a fragmentation of content knowledge and obsession with dubious transferable comprehension skills like “finding the main idea.” To teach to these skill-based standards, teachers might utilize a district-provided curriculum set, or they will turn to the internet.

It is clear where many daily curricular decisions that shape children’s educational lives are being made – Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers. Fast Company just named Teachers Pay Teachers the most innovative education company in the world in 2019 for “helping teachers improve their curricula.” More than 70% of teachers in the U.S., Canada, and Australia report using Teachers Pay Teachers.

A RAND Corporation survey found that self-developed or self-selected materials (Google, Pinterest, TPT) are the most popular online resources used by teachers, followed by district-provided materials. A report from the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University found that many 4th-8th grade teachers are dependent upon materials they develop themselves or those shared by other staff members at their schools. Eighty percent of ELA teachers and 72 percent of math teachers say they use such materials at least once a week.

In summary, teachers are spending unsustainable amounts of time outside school (an average of 7 hours weekly!) searching for, developing, and sharing curricular materials that greatly vary in quality, depth of knowledge, and sequence. While some may claim Pinterest and TpT help teachers in a pinch, the daily use and growing reliance on low-quality and poorly-sequenced curricula only exacerbates educational inequity for students desperately needing access to “the best stuff.”

Furthermore, before being uploaded to TpT or Pinterest, there has likely been little to no critical analysis regarding the diversity of thought or representation of various perspectives. What students are learning is often left up to a capitalistic free-for-all riding on individual teacher choice.

Taking Curriculum and Background Knowledge Seriously

Instead of the current reliance on ad-hoc, home-brewed materials, imagine teachers coming together to explicitly identify high-quality curricula, subject-specific vocabulary and key concepts to be covered in their respective grade levels.

Teachers would simultaneously build their own subject content knowledge while critically analyzing the curricular choices and materials utilized in each grade. And, curriculum could be revised and improved yearly. Let me be very clear – this curriculum would be deliberately designed to not be Eurocentric, and would represent a variety of perspectives, cultures, civilizations, and time periods.

Through this process, teachers would also identify cross-curricular connections, pinpointing high-value background knowledge that can be developed over time using a wide variety of literature. This practice of explicitly identifying and refining curriculum is not new and has been described and modeled brilliantly by the Reading Reconsidered team. The four key components of their ELA curriculum are:

  1. Knowledge Organizers: a concise table with all key vocabulary, concept knowledge, time-lines and maps that enables routine retrieval practice. Harry Fletcher-Wood has an excellent post here on creating knowledge organizers and  Miss Sayers has an excellent series on how to use Knowledge Organizers here.
  2. Embedded Nonfiction: Frequent use of shorter, non-fiction texts to supplement novels.
  3. Embellishments: Artifacts (maps, pictures, videos) included to further understanding.
  4. Knowledge-based questioning: pre-planned questions reinforce content knowledge.

While some may still immediately cringe at the idea of a planned, knowledge-centered curriculum, Daniel Willingham reminds reading teachers in “School Time, Knowledge, and Reading Comprehension” that teaching background knowledge should be considered an integral part of teaching reading:

“Much of the difference among readers is due to how wide a range of knowledge they have. If you hand me a reading test and the text is on a subject I happen to know a bit about, I’ll do better than if it happens to be on a subject I know nothing about…teaching content is teaching reading.”

Furthermore, if educators aim to reduce and destroy persistent, systemic educational gaps in society, we must equip students with the knowledge that has traditionally only been reserved for the privileged and elite. Doug Lemov writes in Reading Reconsidered that teachers’ inclusion of challenging, grade-level text is the most important decision a teacher makes every day. While it is tempting to bend to student choice, YA fiction and graphic novels, these books are not sufficient to reverse educational disparities.

“The fact is that some books matter more than others, get discussed more than others, both in life and by other texts. Only those who already know those books can afford the luxury of dismissing this fact. Our purpose is not to suggest that every book students read has to be a classic in the traditional sense, but rather that students who use education to gain access to new opportunities are most likely to rely exclusively on school for the cultural knowledge that will serve them in that journey.”

Takeaways

I hope that in the future, no child will ever respond to the question “what are you learning in school?” with “how to find the main idea.” Rather, our students should be able to answer that question citing a wide variety of high-quality literature that has exponentially increased their background knowledge and ability to critically analyze the the world.

This curriculum will not magically come from Google, Pinterest, or Teachers Pay Teachers, nor will it happen overnight using a pre-packaged textbook set from a publisher. Rather, a deliberately-planned, content-knowledge-rich curriculum will be the result of years of preparation and revision with colleagues, and its benefits for students and teachers will only grow with time and effort invested.

17 thoughts on “On Curriculum: How Pinterest and TpT Exacerbate Inequity

  1. Unfortunately the exact same thing is happening in mathematics. The pre-service teachers that I teach are going into classrooms where Pinterest and Teachers pay Teachers provide the curriculum. They then look to those same avenues to get their lessons. Dressing mathematics up in a “fun activity” that contains incorrect content will only exacerbate the issues we are facing in mathematics.

    1. Sorry to hear you’re dealing with similar problems. I can say anecdotally that in my teacher training I was actually *encouraged* to use TpT and Pinterest as part of my coursework :/

  2. I agree with is whole heartedly. I hope society and those who are so very concerned realize that school districts are not providing the needed materials, or after the materials (curriculum) is purchased we are stuck with it for 6 years or whatever the contract is. Irregardless of how poor it is. So what do educators do, search to find something that meets the curriculum. We do not just willynilly grab something out of thin air (tpt). We plan, read, discuss try to pull together something. And this cost comes out of our pocket. What is boils down to is $, training and the amount of staff. And of course one of the biggest factors, which is nowhere in your article, parent involvement. We could have the best of everything, but if the parents aren’t involved and believe education is important it is pretty tough. I would like to know how the parents feel about their child’s education in these other countries that are doing so much better than the U.S. I am sure they do not take it foregranted. And the population (students) that is being compared, does it include everyone? Those children with disabilities? The teachers of the U.S. want the best for their students.

    1. Thanks for reading!

      I hope this piece did not come off as teacher-blaming. I do believe we want the best for our students, and like you point out, many teachers are provided with little to nothing.

      I do hope this article serves as a wake-up call, and can spur more focus on the importance of empowering teachers (and saving us time and $) with cohesive, high-quality curricula.

  3. I don’t see the problem being Pinterest or tPt. I agree there is a problem if teachers are simply seeking activities to make their classroom “fun”. I have taught for 21 years and have had a provided curriculum, vocabulary, and test for every subject provided by the counties I’ve taught in. However, if I taught fractions to first graders the same way for 21 years based on the materials provided to me, my students would fail to understand the concepts and in turn be unprepared for the next steps. The materials in my current county are not only lacking, they are boring beyond belief. I’ve frequently sought materials to supplement and engage my students instead of relying on only what has been given to me. Not only would my students fail, I would receive failing evaluations because student engagement is ranked so highly. Compliance and participation are the norm but highly engaging activities are what is now expected. As teachers you are penalized if your classroom is not attractive, well run, organized, and your students highly engaged. In my mind the answer is clear, concise expectations of what each grade level is to teach and what students are expected to know. What materials we use to achieve that end should be the decision of the teacher who has the most contact with the students and knows their interests, strengths, and weaknesses. Certainly some literature is more “valuable” than others but a child needs material that interests them. It’s mighty hard to engage a 6 year old in a book that is far above their experience level. They honestly need experiences outside the home, parents who are engaged in their schooling, proper nutrition, adequate rest, and experienced teachers. Teachers need to be trusted as professionals who are capable of deciding will their students learn to identify fractions with pizza or doughnuts or whatever. They don’t need to adhere to the given materials like robots. Teaching is being turned into some sort of script that teachers are expected to adhere to with fidelity. It should be expected that teachers teach using whatever materials and methods are best in their professional judgement.

    1. Beverly Thomas makes some valid points. The overall tone of this piece seems to have an axe to grind with curriculum materials sought outside the district-provided materials.

      Teachers are professionals. They know their students better than any other professional in the building. It’s time John Q. Public treated them as such.

      If I find a resource on TPT, an idea on Pinterest, or create one, myself, that is my way of seeking out materials and tools to best meet the needs of my students. Does the author not trust the teacher’s ability to make critical decisions related to curricula? Shame.

  4. This is spot on. The eurocentric materials on tpt are very troubling. The cutesy stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans and Pilgrims are an example. They should have no place in our classrooms, yet are widely available.

  5. “Rather, a deliberately-planned, content-knowledge-rich curriculum will be the result of years of preparation and revision with colleagues, “
    To accomplish what this quote (from the article) implies in a 50 minute daily planning period that is never truly daily is impossible. Teachers do not have enough hours in a day to create curriculum, teach it, document everything each child does, while completing RtI paperwork, EIP paperwork, grading, lesson plans that are 3-6 pages long for ELA each day, be evaluated several times a year, be on camera every day all day , call parents, read emails from admin. , attend meetings, bus duty , drop off kids at lunch, pick kids up from lunch, and many, many other things!! It is unrealistic to expect teachers to do all the things asked of them in 2019!! Teaching was my dream. Sadly, I awoke to the realities.

  6. In my state, it’s becoming increasingly more common for districts to go 1-to-1 and then stop purchasing official curriculum materials such as textbooks.
    Teachers from my district gathered research (easily distributed there are always 2 sides), personal testimonies, and current student survey data that all indicated that we should adopt new books. Admin stalled for a while and said no. We won’t adopt new texts (including online texts) ever.

    If not for researching online, I only have texts that are 10 years old and use cassette tapes and buying CDs as relevant examples for learning economics.

    I make my classes for geography and World History less eurocentric by using outside materials compared to the old texts I have.
    Although it’s a bit difficult to do that well and meet standards because standards are pretty eurocentric.

  7. But what happens when we are given a curriculum – and it is substandard? I teach middle school science. The new online tool we have been given had almost no hands-on labs. Worse, although it claims to be ngss standards aligned, it has glaring gaps. Photosynthesis is taught _without water_. Waves are presented only in terms of visible light (no sound. No discussion of amplitude, frequency, wavelength, or medium. No mention of the rest electromagnetic spectrum. I go to the internet to help me fill those gaps

  8. It goes against every fiber of my being to charge other teachers for ideas that, in the end, will only help other students. As a teacher I feel that everything I do, every worksheet I create, and every ingenious way I have to teach any child should be shared with my peers in an open forum, so that they too can share it with their students.

    1. Though I am sure the resources purchased by your school from big companies are just fine. Why shouldn’t they be forced to share openly as well?

    2. I have to disagree.
      Teacher’s time is valuable. Why is it okay for publishers to charge districts hundreds of thousands of dollars for texts and worksheets but apparently not for teachers to make like $4 on a resource that took countless off contact hours and days to create?

  9. I agree with this article 100%. I worked in many schools that have purchased curriculums that teachers are expected to follow by the book and have not yielded great results. I have also worked in districts that have not used purchase curriculum and I’ve tried to piecemeal things together through online resources teacher pay teachers Etc. in my opinion what needs to be done is start with the standards and use the resources the district provides as well as other resources combined with effective teaching practices and have teachers, instructional coach, curriculum directors create a curriculum that is useful to teachers. This should be a living document that we reflect on and adjust as a school community for its effectiveness for student learning. No one curriculum will ever meet everyone’s needs and not ever educator has the same level of expertise. Every child deserves our best.

  10. Interesting article. I am a “seasoned” educator with 34+ years. I just returned from a l just returned from a large state math conference. It was easy to notice that some of the most popular sessions were those that dealt with “cutesy” activities and Interactive Notebooks (INB). Teachers are expected to make class time more activity based, and interactive. The development of such are time intensive. I’ve always felt that educators are not given adequate prep time – thus they are turning to Pinterest and TpT. Some material on these sites are good, some not. Too bad that all are not easily editable. I’ve always said it is not about creating, but about recognizing good potential and tweaking to fit what is needed.

  11. I politely disagree. The reason I ever got on to TPT at ALL was because I was having to write so much of my own material. To devalue all of the hard work and research I put into my science resources for my own students (and store) is honestly offensive. If curriculum developers had any idea what classroom teachers actually need, there would be no TPT.

  12. It’s true that there are low-quality resources on TPT. It’s also true that there are very high-quality resources on TPT that real teachers created from their own experience and expertise, then spent 50+ hours creating a product. After reading the comments here and this blog post (which I actually agree with to an extent), it’s obvious that teachers’ professional knowledge is still not being respected.

    Do you believe that teachers cannot figure out which content on TPT is high-quality and will help their kids? Do you not trust the teachers placing their resources on TPT as professionals? Do you believe that someone would spend 100 hours on a resource to perfect it, make it high-quality, and worthwhile to other educators (all outside of contract time) to give it away openly? That type of mindset is not apparent in other professions. Do you expect other professionals to give their time and ideas away for free? Nope. Why is it that teachers are treated this way? We are valuable. Our work, time, and expertise are valuable. We shouldn’t feel pressured into working for free all of the time, honestly. If our mindset is this way, then technically, shouldn’t we expect companies like Pearson to give us their curriculum for free? If I were not selling a product, I wouldn’t put my blood, sweat, and tears into it; I would make due with what I had or try to find something… possibly on TPT. 🙂

    That being said, TPT is actually working hard to urge sellers to update and create products that aren’t Eurocentric. They are also coming up with various ways to make the products free for educators, while still having avenues to pay the hardworking sellers.

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About the Author: Jon Gustafson is a 5th grade teacher in Minneapolis, MN. He regularly blogs about curriculum and cognitive science at mrgmpls.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter @MrGmpls