We were disheartened. Again. Earlier this summer, amid the current movement for racial justice in the U.S., we came across yet another racist history lesson. This particular activity put students in the shoes of colonial merchants negotiating the sale of commodities—timber, sugar, tobacco, iron ore—that were exchanged between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. “Triangular trade” is a standard topic in U.S. history courses, but we were shocked that, right along with timber and sugar, this activity required students to put a price on enslaved adults and children and haggle over them. Teaching this difficult history requires care, sensitivity, and criticality. Simulation-based learning around difficult topics can too easily go wrong. This activity was a lesson in racist capitalism, masquerading as a harmless game.
We came across this particular activity on TeachersPayTeachers.com (TPT), a for-profit educational website where teachers sell or freely offer classroom resources that they create. TPT is overwhelmingly popular—it claims that more than 2 out of 3 U.S. teachers use the site—and it has seen a sharp increase in business since the pandemic began. There are more than 400,000 history and social studies resources on TPT alone, and other online educational marketplaces are out there too, such as Amazon Ignite and TES.
As professors of education, we have spent the past five years studying the phenomenon of online educational marketplaces and the “teacherpreneurs” who create lessons to sell in these spaces. These platforms may empower teachers as curriculum creators and enable them to be financially compensated for their work. However, we have found that harmful content abounds, and our most recent examination of TPT history resources shows that such material has not been closely monitored or promptly removed—and, in fact, that the marketplaces stand to profit from its sale.
In this, TPT and other sites are not much different from traditional textbook companies, which have long included racist, politicized content in history textbooks. As Last Week Tonight With John Oliver recently highlighted and Education Week has reported, racist content in history textbooks and on sites such as TPT is a pervasive problem. With parents and educators taking the current moment to rally for changes in how race and history are taught in schools, it is also time to hold online marketplace sites accountable.
In our forthcoming study (currently under review), we downloaded the top 100 11th grade U.S. history “activities” sorted by the “best seller” tag on TPT in August 2019, then analyzed them. We were alarmed to find 30 percent of these bestsellers posed potential harm to students, particularly to students with marginalized identities. Many of these harmful activities reflected racist assumptions and trivialized, stereotyped, or omitted the histories of marginalized communities, especially Native Americans and Black people. For example, one worksheet asked students to imagine how they might have responded to the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which said that land west of a line along the Appalachian Mountains was reserved for Native Americans. The worksheet offered this multiple choice option: “Nothing. You didn’t really want to settle in the west and worry about being killed in the middle of the night by Indians.” Not only was this question inappropriately lighthearted, but it assumed a default positioning of students as white settlers and framed “Indians” as murderers to be feared.
We also looked at whether these bestsellers presented history from a variety of perspectives: Did lessons focus on white, Christian men who have traditionally held power, or did they include the voices of women, people of color, and those from other backgrounds and identities? We found that 75 percent of the bestselling activities failed to thoroughly integrate varying perspectives. It was frustrating to see bestselling lessons examining Reconstruction and the Trail of Tears primarily in terms of white male stories. These are important topics for U.S. history, but students must explore topics from multiple perspectives, particularly Black and Indigenous experiences that are too often erased from the way these histories are told.
Worse were some lessons that had students take on the perspectives of imperialists and government officials to make simulated decisions affecting marginalized populations, like the triangular trade activity. These activities can be seen as examples of curriculum violence, a concept that describes lessons that damage students intellectually or emotionally, even if teachers implement such curricula unintentionally.
TPT reports that it is taking steps to address these issues. For example, it announced a grant program in the summer of 2020 to support teacherpreneurs in creating new anti-racist materials and began hosting a series of free “Teach for Justice” teacher professional development webinars showcasing Black TPT authors. Representatives also told us that they have plans to require sellers to acknowledge that their material follows TPT’s appropriate content policy prior to posting new lessons to the site. When reached for comment about our findings, TPT responded: “We remain unequivocal in our position on racist or offensive material: it is not tolerated on TPT. We take this very seriously, and as soon as we identify any resources that violate our Inappropriate Content Policy, we promptly remove them. Once we were made aware of the resources mentioned in this article, we immediately investigated them and removed the content that violates our policy.”
Nonetheless, the marketplace’s response continues to be reactive. TPT offers buyers the option to report harmful materials, but prior to reaching out to TPT for comment on this article, we had to submit two reports and tweet about it before the triangular trade activity was removed. In addition, those who report harmful materials do not receive any follow-up with respect to what action, if any, was taken.
As a result of our communication with TPT, along with recent reporting from Education Week, TPT did review and remove some identified harmful materials. But that isn’t enough to solve the issue. While TPT is encouraging new social justice materials on one hand, it continues to profit from materials that may hurt students on the other.
TPT and similar online lesson exchange sites have become sizable educational publishers, and, as profitable companies that seek to serve K–12 students, they have a duty to address the issue of harmful materials. TPT needs to ensure that when teachers exchange materials on the site, often for monetary gain, it doesn’t come at the expense of students.
First, educational marketplaces need to ensure review of materials intended to teach potentially harmful or sensitive topics. One approach would be to automatically flag resources with keywords like slave, genocide, Thanksgiving, and Cinco de Mayo for review. Marketplaces could employ an editorial team of educators versed in culturally responsive teaching and anti-racist curriculum to review the resources prior to making them available for sale. TPT told us that earlier this year, it began piloting targeted searches within content areas that are prone to harmful content (such as role-play exercises related to slavery or civil rights), and the site reports taking down hundreds of resources as a result. TPT told us it is currently scaling up its targeted search efforts, so time will tell how this approach evolves.
Beyond proactive screening, marketplaces need to make their reporting systems transparent. TPT needs to be clear when a resource has been reported, explaining the reason for concern and describing the actions being taken. While we were eventually successful in having the triangular trade lesson removed from the site, as reporters, we did not receive any notifications about the process. People who report harmful material should be kept updated about TPT’s process and ultimate decisions. Furthermore, until just this week, resources that were removed for violating TPT terms were still accessible to purchasers. On Thursday, TPT told us it was updating that policy, saying, “We are updating our procedures around removal of inappropriate content, so resources that violate our Inappropriate Content Policy will always be removed from a user’s previous purchases.” But the inappropriate resources were still available as of late Thursday, and TPT did not give us a timeline as to when that would change. TPT also told us that the site alerts sellers of violations and removals—but it did not address the issue of buyer notification. Just as in a product recall, teachers who have unknowingly made purchases of harmful content need to be informed so that they can discontinue their use and be refunded their money. (Currently, when a lesson is removed, both the seller and TPT retain their profits.)
Harmful elements can be present in any curriculum, whether in online educational marketplaces or within widely adopted textbooks. And of course, teachers who bring lessons into their classroom have a duty to critically assess them. Nonetheless, our research suggests that exchanges of harmful resources on TPT are not isolated incidents, that the company is profiting from their sale, and that these materials remain in the hands of teachers who may not realize the damage they may cause. In this moment, as social activists call for the removal of Confederate monuments, demand reforms around the policing of Black citizens, and challenge companies to dismantle racist brands such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, we see a similar opportunity to confront racist curriculum in a reflective, transparent way. Online educational marketplaces are one place to start.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.
Update, Aug. 7, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify when the authors downloaded the material used to complete their analysis, and to be more specific about the number of times they reported material that violated TPT’s policies.