complications in commercializing curriculum

This NYT article piqued my curiosity:

Selling Lesson Plans Online Raises Cash and Questions

Basically, some teachers have made quite a bit of money by selling their lesson plans online to other teachers. Some teachers’ employers are wondering whether they should be receiving a cut of the profits, and one educational expert warns that the practice “reduces the power of the learning community and is ultimately destructive to the profession.”

I have mixed feelings about this. In general, I definitely support a person’s right to sell the products of her labor to a willing buyer at a mutually agreeable price. However, there are some wrinkles here.

First, how many of these lesson plans were produced during teacher work days, when the teachers were on the clock? Surely at least some of them. Maybe there’s no good way of figuring it out. But, if the teachers produced the lesson plans they’re selling on their employers’ dime, then they have a moral, and maybe legal, obligation to share the proceeds.

Second, some of the teachers’ quotes seem to suggest that, considerations in the previous paragraph notwithstanding, they deserve the money because they are underpaid.

“Teaching can be a thankless job,” said Ms. Bohrer, 30, who has used the $650 she earned in the past year to add books to a reading nook in her first-grade classroom at Daniel Street Elementary School on Long Island and to help with mortgage payments. “I put my hard-earned time and effort into creating these things, and I just would like credit.”

Margaret Whisnant, a retired teacher in North Carolina, earns an average of $750 a month from lessons based on her three decades of teaching middle school classics like “The Outsiders,” enough to pay for new kitchen counters and appliances.

“I have wanted to redo my kitchen for 20 years, and I just could not get the funds together,” she said. “Well, now I’m going to have to learn to cook.”

Oh, cry me a river. There is lots of evidence that teachers are paid quite well, and the benefits as well as virtual immunity from being fired can’t be beat. If it does turn out that teachers must legally share the profits with their employers or stop selling the lesson plans altogether, violators will have no moral justification for disobeying the rules, at least not on the basis that they were bullied into accepting poverty-level wages or something.

Finally, while I don’t think that selling lesson plans will inevitably lead to the collapse of education as we know it (although that might be welcome), it simply isn’t clear what effects it will have on instruction. On the one hand, it could be that genuinely good teachers do the best at selling their lesson plans and, as a result, some students receive higher quality instruction than they would have received if their teachers had developed their own curriculum. On the other hand, there isn’t any reason to believe that the consumers of lesson plans are competent judges of decent curriculum. In fact, their very status as buyers might indicate that they are not competent. The lesson plans that they purchase might be as bad as what they would have come up with on their own, possibly even worse. And, unfortunately, I have no idea how any of this would be tested.

Moral of the story: There is no good prima facie reason to indict entrepreneurial teachers solely on the basis that they are selling lesson plans to other teachers on a purely voluntary basis. However, these teachers likely have moral and maybe legal obligations to share the profits with their employers. And it will be important for interested parties to keep an eye out for anecdotal data as to whether commercial curricula benefit anyone other than the teachers… like, perhaps, the students, whose interests so often go curiously by the wayside in educational debates.

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