Stephen Anthony Guerriero, a 20-year classroom veteran, shares his experience.
Districts have increased spending on new instructional materials, but many teachers are still sourcing from Google searches. Here’s why this is a problem.
Since 2020, schools and districts have supercharged their procurement of new curriculum materials, especially ones that are tech-forward and accessible online. The combination of a sudden, unexpected need to move students online during the pandemic and an inflow of federal funds through massive COVID-relief packages passed in rapid succession, schools found themselves with full pockets in an exponentially expanding marketplace. This was a problem and an opportunity.
For a lot longer than my 20 years in the classroom, teachers have been supplementing with instructional materials they find themselves or use their own money to purchase. With the widespread availability of web-based resources, teachers were often navigating troves of potential material to use with students. Over time, I found myself feeling like a librarian or a museum curator, in that just as I spent time looking online for good content, I was spending even more time curating that content. The issue was one of quality: I was never at a loss for the sheer volume of worksheets, readings, ready-made lesson plans, or extension activities available from all corners of the Internet. A big problem was that much of what I found was of mediocre quality, or worse.
Looking back, I have several questions for my own situation, and for other teachers like me:
- Why was I spending so much time searching for new supplementary materials?
- How could I assess the quality of what I found?
- What happened to that accumulation of materials once I started collecting them?
- What impact was ‘Google-sourced’ material having on my students’ learning?
Why was I spending so much time searching for new supplementary materials?
There’s a reason that the IRS allows qualified teachers to deduct unreimbursed classroom expenses from their taxes (up to $300 in 2022). It’s a tacit acknowledgement that teachers are searching for and using materials that are outside of district-provided resources. There are often several reasons for this, but the main one has always been that the materials provided by the district were either outdated or inadequate to get my students where they needed to be. Without knowing it, I was participating in a great mismatch between my needs as a teacher, and the materials I had available to do my job. And it was falling on me and my colleagues to make up that difference.
I witnessed this firsthand as a pandemic-era teacher who needed to move quickly and without warning to an online model, then a hybrid one, to teach my students safely. Even as a fairly tech-forward teacher, I was scrambling to find and curate excellent resources to help me do the job. I was spending lots of time online, on Google or any number of free resources to try and patch together what I needed—sometimes creating materials from scratch.
What I really needed was a vetted, quality-controlled collection of resources. I ended up patching something like that together, but it took so much time—time and energy I wasn’t then able to direct to students. My biggest issue was that I had to search for what I needed, scour through materials to make sure they were accurate, fit the standards I was expected to teach, and modify lots of them to work for my students. Later, I would share and receive materials that my colleagues also created, but even that process was stilted by lots of back-and-forth emailing, a mountain of Google Drive folders, and I still modified them for my class.
Unlike pre-pandemic days, it wasn’t so much that I was spending money on instructional materials, it was that I was spending so much of my time. As every teacher knows, time is their most precious resource, the one element they never have enough of, and can never get back. What I needed was a way to reduce how long it was taking me to find, vet, and implement the curriculum materials I was using. I needed high quality, teacher-ready lessons that I could trust to be well-crafted, aligned with the learning standards of my district, and that other teachers who used them could vouch for their effectiveness.
How could I assess the quality of what I found?
This is where that trust comes into play: I needed to trust that the materials I was using were going to work for my students. Thinking back, I am still amazed at how important the job of finding and vetting materials—curation—was such an important element of my job as a teacher, and yet I had had no formal training. I didn’t have a systematic way to evaluate new or existing resources for the qualities I needed them to have. Mostly, it was haphazard and very time consuming. Often, I would need to use a resource once to actually see how students would respond, and then assess effectiveness.
What should happen instead, what would be ideal in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, is that districts would be adopting curricular materials that provided those elements I was looking for: effectiveness, appropriateness, and trustworthiness. I needed to have the district provide me with a curated toolbox—one that only included tools that were excellent quality, proven with students and used by teachers, and that would give me an element of choice to account for my specific students’ needs.
Instead, we need to empower teachers with a library of proven, teacher-ready lessons that are easily accessible and can be implemented with minimal friction. Some state programs, like the Massachusetts CURATE program, actually help districts and teachers evaluate and adopt new curriculum materials that are standards-aligned and have track records of success. These kinds of comprehensive programs help teachers be more efficient, and help districts take on the role as an efficient facilitator of teacher empowerment.1
What happened to that accumulation of materials once I started collecting them?
As I started finding, collecting, and using resources with my students, I found that over time I had essentially a library of material that I knew I could use without having to constantly check on Google or Pinterest for more. While that library, mostly in the form of lots of documents, web links, PDF files, and video clips, represented lots of time curating and refining by me, I couldn’t help but think of how inefficient it was that all of my colleagues were also doing this same type of curation. It seemed such a poor use of our time considering that by adopting some time-saving tools at the outset, we could have skipped to the work of helping kids learn much sooner. Instead of creating my own, how wonderful would it have been if a vast portion of this work had been done for me, and all I’d have to do is choose which instructional tool I liked best, and which would be most useful in the moment?
Districts, as they look for the best way to leverage their COVID-relief funding, need to keep teachers and students at the forefront of their planning. The hunt should be on for easy-to-access resources that represent the best ideas of experienced teachers—not informally as often happened through tremendous investments of teacher time at an individual level—but at scale. We need a way for teachers to crowd-source the effectiveness and reliability of specific lessons and materials, helping teachers be that curator of high-quality tools we want them to be. Districts are also best positioned to ensure that materials are standards-aligned and represent the learning goals of the state.
Over time, teachers collect libraries of materials but they are not centrally accessible. Even worse, if a teacher decides to move on from the classroom, or changes jobs, or retires, what happens to all of that curation work? It vanishes. Instead, an actual curriculum platform with a resource library for this material, and the refinements made by experienced teachers, would help. Instead of a haphazard system of files, folders, and PDFs, districts should work to collect and keep all of this great material in a single place, accessible by new and veteran teachers alike. Ideally, the platform would be searchable (unlike Google Drive, which is really only browse-able), and the materials reusable. Considering how great resources and teaching tools are preserved and shared needs to be a part of the vetting process when districts think about adopting any new curriculum product.
What impact was ‘Google-sourced’ material having on my students’ learning?
Here’s where we come to the real impact of high-quality classroom materials versus the searching many teachers do for supplemental content found online. This speaks to why the curation job teachers are doing takes so much time―there’s so much out there that just isn’t good. And that doesn’t necessarily mean poor quality, although that is a factor. It means that so much out there wasn’t right for me, for my students. I had to wade through so much ‘meh’ content to get something—or sometimes it was just one piece of the something—that worked. But, aside from the time it took to find these resources, there are other important drawbacks.
We know that next to a great teacher, having high-quality instructional materials is one of the most determinative factors in student success. That’s why the stakes are so high for finding and using great content. Research has shown that when teachers find materials on the open web, the results are often lacking. They may be unaligned to state and district standards, or have lower quality or outdated content, reflect poor pedagogy or worse. Oftentimes those materials that hit all the right SEO terms to get them towards the top of Google represent older, free, or publicly sourced materials. Sadly, much of that kind of content can be inadvertently promoting stereotypes by using outdated language, or not represent best practices when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. This problem is even more pronounced if you consider that students in districts with fewer resources, often urban and with diverse student populations, are those whose teachers are most often searching online for supplementary materials.2
Aside from these more obvious drawbacks, there are other issues that can make individual teachers searching out materials online problematic. Often, teachers are doing this work individually, leading to differentiated classroom experiences that can affect student outcomes. Because materials are often not aligned to district standards, it’s difficult to ensure that these materials are appropriate and targeted towards a shared learning goal. So at the end of a long time-consuming search, teachers may have found reasonably good resources, but that may not actually align to what students need to learn.
Ideally, districts would provide teachers access to a closed system—curated and stocked with excellent materials that are aligned to standards, easily implemented with students, and that facilitates teacher collaboration. We need to take this task from teachers to free them up to work directly with students; not only would they enjoy better efficiency, but the district is able to capture the quality control and housing of this library of resources. Why waste funds, and then ask teachers to pay out of pocket for supplementary materials of mixed quality. Instead, we need to involve teachers in the process, while not leaving it all to them to search out what they need.
Now, as districts look for the greatest impact to improve student learning outcomes from the relief money they’ve received, we need to help them leverage teacher perspectives to do so wisely. The optimal process would involve teacher voice in what works, what doesn’t, and what tools are most appropriate for students. Districts maximize their investments when they help teachers become great curators of content and resources for classroom use. We don’t want our teachers having to scour the web for the gem in a huge volume of mediocre: we want to capture the best quality materials and keep them accessible and shareable. We want teachers to see their toolbox as a useful way to amplify great teaching, not as a constant search for something new.
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1EdReports “Why Materials Matter”
The assignments teachers select or create tend to be lower quality than what the district or state provided.
[Citing: TNTP. (2018). The Opportunity Myth. Retrieved from: https://opportunitymyth.tntp.org/]
2EdReports “Why Materials Matter”
Teachers working in schools that have a high proportion of students who receive free and reduced lunch are searching for materials online at higher rates.
[Citing: Opfer, V., Kaufman, J., Thompson, L. (2016). Implementation of K-12 State Standards for Mathematics and English Language Arts and Literacy. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1529-1.html]
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Stephen Anthony Guerriero, M.A., M.Ed., is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He was a twenty-year Social Studies educator at the middle and elementary levels with Needham Public Schools and previously Dedham Public Schools (Massachusetts). Stephen received a Master of Arts in Ancient Greek and Roman Studies at Brandeis University; a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston College; and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations, Italian Studies, and Latin at Boston University.