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