Teaching and Intellectual Property

So consider Teacher A and Teacher B.

Teacher A: Most days, the kids come in, teacher tells them to turn to a page in the book or gives a lecture, puts some notes on the board, works some examples, assigns problems to be done both in class and for homework.

Teacher B: Most days, the kids come in. Every thing else depends. Some days it’s an activity leading to notes leading to problems, some days it’s class discussion leading through a topic, some days it’s a whole bunch of problems practicing skills coming out of the activity or class discussions, some days it’s a little bit of all three. Every so often the book makes an appearance. Homework is simple and often distinct from the class sets.

Teacher A has carefully organized boardwork, copied from notes stored in a notebook or a lesson plan. The actual board is erased daily.

Teacher B has somewhat chaotic boardwork that is generated on the fly, and photographed at the end of class or whenever it is erased, which might be days later.

Teacher A generates tests using a software tool provided by the textbook publisher, or reuses tests created years ago, typed on a Selectric with hand-drawn diagrams.

Teacher B reuses tests, but tweaks them based on the classes for that year. Teacher B is an expert in Office or Google Docs or Open Office or whatever gets it done.

Teacher A has no idea how to use Office or Google Docs, or uses them infrequently, and wrinkles a confused brow at the notion of intellectual property.

Teacher B still shudders in horror at the near miss when a techie wiped a hard drive without realizing B didn’t have a network account, thus obliterating everything on the hard drive—which, thank all that’s holy, was nothing, because Teacher B stores an extensive, personally-developed curriculum library on Dropbox.

Of course, these practices are a spectrum that extend beyond Teachers A and B. I imagine somewhere in the world exist Teacher As using copied versions of an original mimeograph, and Dan Meyer and Fawn Nguyen are way out there in crazyville, totally unstructured gosh, math is something kids should DO not be TOLD about land, creating everything on the fly each day.

But here’s the point: Teacher B almost certainly puts in far more hours than Teacher A, spends a lot more time thinking about each day’s activities and how to craft a lesson specific to each classes’ needs. Teacher A teaches the subject, not the class.

Teacher A and B are paid by the same step and row scale. And that’s how it should be.

Most teacher contracts are very specific on hours: teachers shall be in the classroom from 0X:00 a.m. to 0Y:00 p.m. They shall sign up for Z hours of supervision duty. There are W hours committed to staff meetings and in-house professional development. Teachers have to be in class every single day unless blah blah blah.

Look up curriculum in a contract, on the other hand, and it’s very vague. Teachers shall go to professional development for multi-cultural curriculum. Or maybe teachers shall teach agreed-upon curriculum. Or sometimes new teachers shall meet with mentor teachers to consult on curriculum development.

Most contracts have a section on resolving disputes over “curriculum mandates”, when the districts require teachers teach one particular method, use one particular book, or follow one particular schedule.

Teacher evaluations are typically based on observations. Prior to the observations, they are often asked to submit lesson plans as evidence that they are considering the needs of all students: ELL, special ed, struggling, Hispanic/black. The administrator evaluates based on execution of the plan, as well as observed teacher qualities during the lesson: does the teacher constantly check for student understanding, are the students engaged, are the students behaving, and so on.

As everyone knows, reformers and politicians are anxious to change that evaluation process, because by golly, more teachers need firing. Firing more teachers is best accomplished by linking student outcomes to teachers, since teachers have less control over student outcomes than any other aspect of their performance.

So teachers are evaluated by planning, classroom performance and management and, possibly, student test scores.

Are they ever evaluated on the curriculum they develop? Is that part of the recent push? Compare google results for “teacher evaluation” “test scores” and teacher evaluation” “curriculum development” and it’s pretty clear that evaluating teacher’s personally developed curriculum is not on the horizon.

Of course, any teacher could tell you that. Teachers are not evaluated on the content of their classroom curriculum. They are not asked to submit examples of our personally developed curriculum. They aren’t asked to build curriculum as part of their jobs.

To put it in legal terms as I understand it, curriculum is not what teachers are hired to do. From Wikipedia:

A work made for hire (sometimes abbreviated as work for hire or WFH) is a work created by an employee as part of his or her job, or a work created on behalf of a client where all parties agree in writing to the WFH designation. It is an exception to the general rule that the person who actually creates a work is the legally recognized author of that work. According to copyright law in the United States and certain other copyright jurisdictions, if a work is “made for hire”, the employer—not the employee—is considered the legal author. In some countries, this is known as corporate authorship. The incorporated entity serving as an employer may be a corporation or other legal entity, an organization, or an individual.[1]

Andrew Rotherham has written about Teacher Pay Teachers, as has the NY Times, and both articles mention the legal aspects of teachers selling curriculum. Since districts are paying teachers to develop curriculum, the thinking goes, shouldn’t they own the curriculum? Apparently, one NY court said the district owned the curriculum because it provided the facilities on which the teacher developed the plans, but there’s little case law on the topic.

So I wrote up my case of Teacher A and Teacher B to articulate what seems to me the obvious argument in favor of giving teachers ownership of their intellectual property. Both teachers are doing the job they are paid to do. Teacher B is additionally developing curriculum. Teacher B is not hired to create curriculum, therefore the worksheets, activities, and the rest are not “work made for hire”.

As any contract makes obvious, teachers are paid for their hours in school. They are not tasked with developing curriculum, they aren’t evaluated on their individually developed curriculum. They are given a set of hours and objectives. How they complete the objectives, within given constraints, is largely up to them. That’s why curriculum mandates so often require mediation, because teachers are used to making their own classroom decisions and object when it’s imposed from the outside. Curriculum is ours.

To quote Rotherham again: What we consider schools are often just loose confederations of independent contractors, each overseeing his or her own classroom.

Notice the name is Teachers Paying Teachers. It’s not the districts or the schools buying the activities. Perhaps some of the teachers are turning around and billing the district, but I suspect most of them think of these purchases as their professional responsibility to find curriculum to engage their students. Some teachers just use the books. Some create their own activities. Some work together with their departments, sharing out curriculum responsibilities cooperatively (if you surveyed teachers, a plurality would choose this as their desired method, although very few schools seem to do this consistently.) Some turn to google. Others buy from other teachers. But it’s the teachers’ purview to make curriculum decisions.

The districts are entirely removed from this process. In all but a few cases, they aren’t giving teachers clearly delineated lesson plans and activity worksheets, daily schedules, tests—all perfectly aligned with their students’ actual abilities, not the pretense that we’re actually teaching Hamlet to kids who can read at a sophomore level, or second year algebra to kids who know the difference between a positive and negative slope. No, they provide books that teachers can choose to use or not, and in some cases benchmark dates for interim tests. On occasion, they will mandate professional development taught by middle school teachers who wanted out of the classroom. The teachers will show up and, usually, snicker politely. But when the door closes, the district is nowhere to be found, and it’s all on the teachers to decide on the daily lesson and teach what they determine is necessary.

So then, if a teacher is particularly good at developing lesson plans, sequences, or activities that other teachers spot and want to use, even pay for, then the district wants in on the money? Yeah, I think not.

I believe that even the issue of where the material is developed is irrelevant, although I can see a better case for that. Unless a teacher develops all material during a prep period, then the material was developed off the clock. If a teacher stays after school to build a great handout or activity for the next day, that time is unpaid. The district and school get the immediate benefit from the lesson–which is again what they pay the teacher for.

Consider, too, that teachers often reuse lessons and activities they developed at other districts. The districts see the benefits from this reuse free of charge. They aren’t required to pay the previous districts for the use of its computers or teacher time spent developing that material. I imagine these districts demanding ownership rights of curriculum have no interest in hunting down the previous districts to reimburse them for the value they are now getting.

Teacher intellectual property is an odd concept to discuss in a world that shows little respect for teacher brains or creativity. But I believe that a close reading of any contracts and the ample evidence of Teacher As and Teacher Bs, all getting the same money despite profoundly different work product, would show that teachers are paid purely for the time spent teaching, not the materials that they use to teach with. Therefore, any materials they create to teach are not work made for hire. And if a district has inserted contractual text saying otherwise, then it should be challenged on this.

Apparently the NEA agrees with me, so I doubt any such text is going to be showing up much in the future:

Furthermore, education employees should own the copyright to materials that they create in the course of their employment. There should be an appropriate “teacher’s exception” to the “works made for hire” doctrine, pursuant to which works created by education employees in the course of their employment are owned by the employee. This exception should reflect the unique practices and traditions of academia.

All issues relating to copyright ownership of materials created by education employees should be resolved through collective bargaining or other process of bilateral decision-making between the employer and the affiliate.

The ownership rights of education employees who create copyrightable materials should not prevent education employees from making appropriate use of such materials in providing educational services to their students.

I am, clearly, a Teacher B, so this is something I feel pretty strongly about. Not that I’d ever sell my lessons—I’m way too much of the tech open source tradition for that. You want it, ask me. It’s yours for everything but selling under your name. To the extent I want control over my intellectual property, I want it to a) prevent any district from benefiting from it monetarily and b) maybe put it in a book some day, if a publisher is ambitious.

But the larger point, I think, is what this means both for Common Core and the curriculum purists like Core Knowledge. Education reformers often don’t understand the point Rotherham makes: teachers are independent operators, particularly at the high school level. Enforcement of a particular curriculum is very nearly impossible. I’ve been focusing on the way curriculum breakdown happens at the teacher level, but Larry Cuban has an excellent essay, The Mult-Layered Curriculum, that lays out the other ways in which the curriculum goals break down.

So behind the issue of teachers’ intellectual property lies a much bigger issue: why do teachers have intellectual property? Why are they developing their own material? To many people—including a whole bunch of teachers—this is a problem. To others, including many Teacher As and all Teacher Bs, this is a feature. If you took away my ability to develop my own material, you would remove a lot of the joy I take in teaching. I’d still teach, I think, but many others of my ilk would not.

Think about this and before long it starts to become clear that education reformers constantly argue for two goals that are potentially in conflict: powerful standards that articulate a cohesive required curriculum and bright, creative, resourceful teachers. Because if the standards don’t have buy-in—and make no mistake, neither Common Core standards nor any curriculum like Core Knowledge have anything approaching buy-in—then bright, creative, resourceful teachers will develop their own curriculum and ignore anything they disagree with.

I am not arguing that all Teacher As are soulless drones and all Teacher Bs are mythical enchanting woodland sprites who make magic in their classrooms. Teacher As have intellectual property as well; it’s just harder to see. What I am saying is that the very notion of teacher intellectual property reveals the problems with any attempts to create broader standards or a common curriculum.

But on the basic point, I think things should be pretty clear: teachers are not paid to develop curriculum. Since curriculum isn’t work for hire, the worksheets, activities, and lesson sequences, and any other resource development is theirs to do with as they wish.

About educationrealist

19 responses to “Teaching and Intellectual Property

  • zanon


    I was wondering what you make of the UK method (at least how it used to be once upon a time) of O-Levels and A-Levels. These were subject specific exams written by a centralized standards authority who would write and grade the test. It would take two years to prepare for the test, and teachers had access to past tests and were told what the test would cover, but could not see the test themselves. I think the centralized authority provided lesson plans and a curriculum, but teachers could do what they wanted in the classroom.

    Once pupils completed the test, they were graded centrally, everyone was put on a big curve, and you got the results in the mail.

    • The Wobbly Guy

      The solution system is simple – a group of teachers in a school decide what the order of topics would be, how it would be taught, and the formative assessments required in the school to achieve the best possible result.

      The questions for the formative assessments are often created from the ground up, often asked in twisted, nasty ways, in order to push students to truly understand the topic. Due to the difficulty of the exams, especially at the ‘A’ levels, there aren’t many available sources to craft the questions.

      At Singapore’s ‘A’ levels, there is usually a preliminary exam conducted by each school prior to the actual ‘A’ levels. The preliminary exam papers are exchanged throughout the entire system and open-sourced, providing cross-fertilization of ideas for formative assessments. It doesn’t help that the students actively hunt down past year papers for practice, so the questions must often constantly be uniquely crafted and novel.

  • Ghost of Christmas Past

    OT but I suggest one reason eduformers and angry parents are so eager to fire teachers is, somewhat paradoxically, because teachers unions have made it nearly impossible to do so. There really are some teachers who need firin’ but those teachers are immune, so many parents are angry enough to fire any teachers they can get their mitts on. Indeed, proposals to fire teachers who are unlucky enough to be assigned less-brilliant students one year are driven by union success in putting all other criteria off-limits.

    • educationrealist

      I am unaware of any huge movement among parents to fire teachers. And it’s not impossible to fire teachers. I doubt most principals have more than 3-5 teachers they want to fire–about 5%.

  • Ghost of Christmas Past

    I think it’s a hate-Congress/ love-my-Congressman thing. When the teachers in my District went on an illegal (unexpired contract!) wildcat strike in the middle of the school year several years back they should all have been fired but none was. (The Superintendent was a union stooge, a majority on the Board were union nominees, and the State Governor was a Democrat. None gave a fig for the law nor for the kids and their parents.)

    My District sends home letters begging (and threatening, in a hostage-taker “it’ll be your fault if we neglect your kids” sort of style) for donations to buy new State-mandated science and math textbooks– because the School Board gave the State-supplied textbook money to the teachers as extra wages! Lots of parents will tell you how happy they are their little popsie is in Ms. Smith’s classroom, but many of them would be pleased to fire Ms. Jones, Mr. Doe, et-al.

    Also, in the business world few managers keep around 5% of the workforce that they “want to fire” (well, maybe in unionized auto plants or workplaces like that).

    • educationrealist

      Also, in the business world few managers keep around 5% of the workforce that they “want to fire” (well, maybe in unionized auto plants or workplaces like that).

      Uh, yes, they do. For all sorts of reasons. The person might be popular, it might be bad for morale, it might be the guy is crappy at his job but really good at all the little things that make a workplace go.

      And when they do fire them, they almost always have to go through a bunch of crap to make HR happy, if it’s a big company. Because otherwise they get sued.

      I was in corporate America for 15 years. There are all sorts of useless folks hanging around the business world, and all sorts of reasons for keeping them on.

  • Ghost of Christmas Past

    I apologize for the misunderstanding, but to me if a manager doesn’t want to fire someone (because he’s good for morale if not very productive, or whatever) then that guy doesn’t count as someone the manager “wants to fire.”

    I agree that corporate America employs all sorts of “useless” folks (that’s true where I work now, and in a twist on Sturgeon’s Law is true most places, I think). But the “HR crap” when some manager does want to fire someone is much less than union-contract crap and lightyears behind union-contract-tenured-government-employee crap.

    (I haven’t been a public school teacher but my experience includes a variety of largely-unionized, part-unionized, and non-union workplaces, in for-profit and even charitable organizations. I have taught (technical subjects) in the classroom to both HS students and adults for pay–and to good reviews (I’m not claiming I could waltz in and replace a schoolteacher; I am claiming I can tell the difference between teaching and retiring in place).)

    Anyway, you brought up eduformers’ eagerness to fire teachers. I think the only reason such ideas get any traction is that they appeal to angry parents. It’s hard not to be an angry parent if you have kids you can’t readily afford to send to private school and you’re smart enough to recognize how poorly– even crookedly– run the public schools are and how lazy or foolish many of the teachers are.* Of course many of the issues are beyond teachers’ control, but many are not, and there’s a feedback loop operating where unions create conditions in which union hacks thrive, driving out other folks while increasing union influence. The actual goal (education for children) of those who pay for the schools gets set aside.

    *One of my children was cursed this year with an 8th-grade “language arts” teacher who read aloud day after day to her classes as if they were first graders. No, my child’s class was not one for slow learners or ESL kids. The district is affluent, 3/4 of HS seniors take the SAT and their avg. composite SAT score is over 1680.** That teacher punished students who read ahead independently. She got her classes weeks behind the other 8th grade classes (shared curriculum) then rushed them sloppily through a bunch of worksheets to “catch up.” Since my child complained to me, I asked the teacher about her practice in front of other parents at Parents Night. The teacher gave a nonsensical answer. The principal is useless; she is a union member and her only interests are regulating girl-students’ tank-top straps (but not teachers’ hideous tattoos) and pushing Obamunism (I had to imply to her that a lawsuit might be in contemplation to get another of my children given an academic “alternate assignment” in lieu of a Maoist mandate to “volunteer” at a “nonprofit community service organization”).

    **I’ll provide references if you wish, though I would ask your pledge of confidentiality.

    • educationrealist

      I apologize for the misunderstanding, but to me if a manager doesn’t want to fire someone (because he’s good for morale if not very productive, or whatever) then that guy doesn’t count as someone the manager “wants to fire.”

      And you should probably figure that a principal doesn’t want to fire nearly as many people as you think he or she does, because many of them are likewise useful. It’s not a misunderstanding. Very few principals have a long list of people to fire. And yes, they might have to go through more crap, but it’s not all that horrible. They just choose not to–just as many managers do.

      . I think the only reason such ideas get any traction is that they appeal to angry parents.

      This is almost entirely untrue. Reformers are relatively unpopular. They get traction because they are popular with politicians. Parents are almost non-existent in the reformers pantheon.

      In fact, you can see this in the current parent trigger story. The parents fired a principal, with the effort given impetus by Ben Austin’s group. The reformers are largely squiffy about this, castigating Ravitch for criticism but agreeing that it seems odd. Certainly, parents nationwide aren’t rising up and cheering.

      It’s a huge mistake for reformers to think parents are on their side, and most of the better ones have figured this out in the past couple years.

  • Ghost of Christmas Past

    Of course one reason the teachers and administrators in my affluent district are so infuriatingly self-indulgent is that the kids are smart enough, and their parents are smart and concerned enough, that the teachers can slack off, knowing the kids will still get high test scores because they have high average IQ’s and their long-suffering parents will tutor them at home, send them to jukus at considerable expense, and generally do schoolteachers’ jobs for them. Anyone who complains about school mismanagement is fobbed off with the line that the kids’ high test scores prove the schools are “excellent.”

    When teachers stop taking credit for high test scores then maybe eduformers and parents will stop trying to penalize them for low test scores.

    • educationrealist

      If you have a teacher who EVERYONE AGREES IS INCOMPETENT–that is, not just you–then the problem is with the principal, not the teacher. Yes, you want the teacher fired quickly. Teachers are a group paid by seniority–something that can’t possibly change, for good reason. If you give principals more freedom to fire, they will fire older teachers, and the same few parents who are up in arms about the occasional crap teacher their kid suffered through will be livid at the firing of older teachers. You won’t get what you want.

  • Roger Sweeny

    “teachers have less control over student outcomes than any other aspect of their performance.

    So teachers are evaluated by planning, classroom performance and management and, possibly, student test scores.”

    This is one of the more frustrating things about the ed biz. The explicit objective of schools is student academic outcomes but teachers have only a limited effect on them. So perhaps teachers shouldn’t be paid much. Unless the other functions of schools, day care and social work, are more important than we like to think.

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  • Darren

    I really enjoyed this post!

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