Learning Curve

Teachers’ needs drive a growing online marketplace

Stan Alcorn Dec 12, 2014
Learning Curve

Teachers’ needs drive a growing online marketplace

Stan Alcorn Dec 12, 2014

Yes, schools and school districts buy the bulk of K-12 educational materials, an estimated $8.3 billion a year. A growing slice of that pie, currently worth about $900 million, is the “supplementary digital materials market,” which consists of all types of online or downloadable handouts, curricula, educational games and worksheets.

And this year, 10 percent of that spending will happen on a single website: Teachers Pay Teachers. And most of that will come from teachers, themselves. 

Unlike publishing behemoths like Scholastic and Pearson Education, Teachers Pay Teachers doesn’t actually make anything. Instead, it’s an online marketplace for teachers hawking their own wares, kind of like a pedagogical Etsy.

“It’s teachers who don’t make a lot of money reaching into their own pocket and saying, ‘For this great thing that another teacher made, I’m happy to spend my coffee money,’” says Teachers Pay Teachers CEO Adam Freed. “And, in aggregate, there’s a lot of coffee money out there.” 

And it’s growing fast—thanks, in part, to increasing pressures on the teaching profession.

*  *  *

The East New York Middle School of Excellence takes up the second floor of a brick fortress in one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods. On a recent Tuesday, teacher Devon Whitham is walking up and down the tiled hallways, looking for a laptop, hustling late students and beating herself up over last period, when she did a lesson on pronouns for some of her English Language Learners–native speakers of Arabic, Spanish and Bengali.

“I felt like it was too hard for my newcomers, and too easy for the kid who’s been here for two years. And I think probably was right at the level for one student,” she says.

“Is that a relative success?” I ask.

No,” she responds. “Ultimately, no.”

 Whitham, like every other teacher in New York’s public school system, is supposed to get all her students to meet the same Common Core standards set for their grade level — even when a seventh grader is currently reading English at a first grade level. The school doesn’t provide any kind of curriculum for that.

“When I feel like the expectations on me feel impossible, it’s easy to sort of get really angry,” Whitham says. “But at the same time, I’m the teacher. I’m the one who is ultimately determining how good of an education they’re getting.”

The combined pressures of high standards and diverse classrooms are hardly unique to Whitham or East New York.

“Classrooms tend to be larger, they tend to be demographically more diverse, and they have learners of various abilities all grouped together,” says Mimi Recker, professor of educational technology at Utah State University “There’s a big need for differentiated instruction.”

Last year, Whitham worked through lunch and late at night, planning up to six different lessons a day to meet her various students’ needs. When this extracurricular workload got unsustainable, she did what millions of her colleagues across the country did — she turned to Teachers Pay Teachers.

“I have seventeen things that I purchased last year,” she says, showing me her “recent purchases” on her laptop: reading guides, worksheets, and games.  Whitham bought all this with her own money from other teachers across the country.  Whitham’s school reimburses her for less than $100 of her yearly out-of-pocket purchases, which, she says, run well over $500. The average US teacher spends $410 annually. 

“I remember this one,” she says, showing me a game for second-graders, where students pull facts out of a bag and guess the “main idea” that unites them. “I use this with a few students actually.”

In her uptown Manhattan apartment, teacher Chris Cadalzo sells math lessons from her laptop.

“My best seller is the third grade fraction unit. I’ve sold 452 of them,” she says. Total revenue, after the website’s 15 percent cut: $5,658.02

On top of a teacher’s salary, that sounds like a serious windfall — until you divide by the 200 hours it took to turn her teaching notes into that polished,  downloadable package, and the hundreds more hours spent on her blog, Facebook, Pinterest making sure her fraction unit would stand out in a field of more than a million products.

“It’s so much work and so much time and really a huge investment,” Cadalzo says.

But it’s an investment that, for some, is paying off. Cadalzo’s store averages $3,000 a month, and she’s not even in the website’s top 500 sellers.

“Last year our community transacted about $45 million dollars worth of classroom materials,” says Freed says.

 If it were a publishing company it would be in the middle tier of its market according to Kathy Mickey, a K-12 analyst for Simba Information.

“A $45 million company is a decent-sized company,” Mickey says.

“This year it’ll be nearly double that, and we see the growth rate only accelerating,” Freed says.

“Well that would be, I mean, yes, then they’re becoming a major player,” Mickey says.

“The fact that they’re selling so much is kind of mind-boggling,” says Sam Abramovich, a professor of education informatics at SUNY Buffalo. “In the sense that the funds for this are not coming from school districts, they’re not coming from textbook publishers: This is teachers spending money out of their own pocket.

“It tells you A: That teachers have this huge need for resources that are not being met through other means, and B: That they value resources created by each other.”

Schools and school districts still look to the big publishing companies when they need a new textbook. But teachers, when they need to turn that text into a lesson that will engage the 25 kids in their individual classrooms — they increasingly look to other classrooms.

And they’re willing to pay for what they find.

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