From the Field

Math Teachers Rely Heavily on the Internet for Instructional Materials

Writing lesson plans has traditionally been a big part of a teacher’s job. But this doesn’t mean they should be starting from a blank slate. Ideally, teachers are supposed to base their lessons on the textbooks, worksheets and digital materials that school leaders have spent a lot of time reviewing and selecting.

But a recent national survey of more than 1,000 math teachers reveals that many are rejecting the materials they should be using and cobbling together their own.

“A surprising number of math teachers, particularly at the high school level, simply said we don’t use the district or school-provided materials, or they claimed they didn’t have any,” said William Zahner, an associate professor of mathematics at San Diego State University, who presented the survey at the April 2024 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Philadelphia. Students, he said, are often being taught through a “bricolage” of materials that teachers assemble themselves from colleagues and the internet. “What I see happening is a lot of math teachers are rewriting a curriculum that has already been written,” said Zahner.

The survey results varied by grade level. More than 75 percent of elementary school math teachers said they used their school’s recommended materials, but fewer than 50 percent of high school math teachers said they did.

The do-it-yourself approach has two downsides, Zahner said, both of which affect students. One problem is that it’s time consuming. Time spent finding materials is time not spent giving students feedback, tailoring existing lessons for students or giving students one-to-one tutoring help. The hunt for materials is also exhausting and can lead to teacher burnout, Zahner said.

The other problem is that teacher-made materials may sacrifice the thoughtful sequencing of topics planned by curriculum designers.  When teachers create or take materials from various sources, it is hard to maintain a “coherent development” of ideas, Zahner explained. Curriculum designers may weave a review of previous concepts to reinforce them even as new ideas are introduced. Teacher-curated materials may be disjointed. Separate research has found that some of the most popular materials that teachers grab from internet sites, such as Teachers Pay Teachers, are not high quality.

The national survey was conducted in 2021 by researchers at San Diego State University, including Zahner, who also directs the university’s Center for Research in Mathematics and Science Education, and the English Learners Success Forum, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the quality of instructional materials for English learners. The researchers sought out the views of teachers who worked in school districts where more than 10 percent of the students were classified as English learners, which is the national average. More than 1,000 math teachers, from kindergarten through 12th grade, responded. On average, 30 percent of their students were English learners, but some teachers had zero English learners and others had all English learners in their classrooms.

Teachers were asked about the drawbacks of their assigned curriculum for English learners. Many said that their existing materials weren’t connected to their students’ languages and cultures. Others said that the explanations of how to tailor a lesson to an English learner were too general to be useful.  Zahner says that teachers have a point and that they need more support in how to help English learners develop the language of mathematical reasoning and argumentation.

It was not clear from this survey whether the desire to accommodate English learners was the primary reason that teachers were putting together their own materials or whether they would have done so anyway.

“There are a thousand reasons why this is happening,” said Zahner. One high school teacher in Louisiana who participated in the survey said his students needed a more advanced curriculum. Supervisors inside a school may not like the materials that officials in a central office have chosen. “Sometimes schools have the materials but they’re all hidden in a closet,” Zahner said.

In the midst of a national debate on how best to teach math, this survey is an important reminder of yet another reason why many students aren’t getting the instruction that they need.

Jill Barshay is a senior reporter at The Hechinger Report, where she writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. This column was initially published by The Hechinger Report.