Judy Woodruff: Flash cards, puzzles, projects, worksheets, many thousands of teachers go online to find lesson plans and classroom resources. For the educators who sell these ideas, the increasing popularity of these marketplaces can lead to a lucrative second income that helps other teachers. But some worry about the unintended consequences. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza, with our partner Education Week, traveled to rural Alabama.
Kavitha Cardoza: Jennifer White is showing me around her hometown, Oneonta.
Jennifer White: In 2010, my husband lost his job, and I needed to earn some extra cash.
Kavitha Cardoza: So, in addition to her job as a kindergarten teacher, White started to tutor kids after school. But with three children of her own, two still in diapers, money was still tight.
Jennifer White: It was probably one of the most difficult times in my life.
Kavitha Cardoza: That led to a third job on weekends.
Jennifer White: This is the gas station where I worked. There's nothing quite as surreal as selling alcohol to former students.
Kavitha Cardoza: Around this time, she heard about teachers who were making extra money writing and selling lesson plans online. There are a number of Web sites where teachers can share or sell their work. White started browsing through them.
Jennifer White: It kind of planted a little seed, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, well, maybe I could do this.
Kavitha Cardoza: The largest of these online sites is Teachers Pay Teachers, or TPT. Adam Freed is the CEO of the company.
Adam Freed: Teachers Pay Teachers is a marketplace where teachers come together to buy, sell and share original educational materials. Today, two-thirds of teachers in the U.S. are active members of our platform. This is an activity on life cycles.
Computer Voice: You have been assigned to put insects in the proper section of the local zoo.
Adam Freed: It's so much more engaging to get to the video this way, by doing something yourself.
Kavitha Cardoza: The average TPT lesson plan sells for $5, and the company takes a cut of 20 percent or 45 percent.
Adam Freed: We're proud to announce that, this past year, TPT paid out more than $100 million to teacher authors across the country.
Kavitha Cardoza: Some have even become millionaires, including a kindergarten teacher from Florida, an elementary school teacher from California, and an English teacher from Louisiana. These online marketplaces are becoming more and more popular. But there are also concerns. Some legal experts say, if a teacher creates educational materials, those materials legally belong to the school district. Some educators worry about quality. And there are those who question what this means for the teaching profession, which traditionally has shared these materials for free. Bob Farrace is with the National Association of Secondary School Principals. He worries this trend could discourage teachers from working together.
Bob Farrace: I think it's not unreasonable to say that once you put a price tag on that collaboration, you begin to close people out of that market. We want these ideas to flow very freely among everyone, not just teachers who might be willing or inclined to pay for that collaboration.
Kavitha Cardoza: Jennifer White worked on weekends to develop her first product, called Let's Make a Pilgrim. The lesson sells for $4.50.
Jennifer White: It includes patterns and pictures of the finished product.
Kavitha Cardoza: The first quarter, she was excited when she made $300 from sales. Then a popular blogger shared her lesson.
Jennifer White: And that next quarter, I think I sold $14,000 in that three-month span. And it was life-changing.
Kavitha Cardoza: White now has about 100 different products online. Let's Make an Elf. Let's Make a Snowman. I sense a theme here.
Jennifer White: There was. That was the year of the Let's Make.
Kavitha Cardoza: One of the most helpful parts of TPT, White says, is that teachers rate each other's lesson plans. So I see you have got 44,600 votes.
Jennifer White: Yes.
Kavitha Cardoza: And you have got the highest score, which is four stars.
Jennifer White: Four stars, yes, and the votes are basically like ratings.
Kavitha Cardoza: But Katy Swalwell, a professor at Iowa State University, says teachers choosing a lesson plan based on what's popular can be a problem, because teachers may focus on what's cute and catchy, rather than on content that's high-quality. For example, she and two colleagues studied a popular lesson plan, the Wedding of Q and U. It teaches kindergartners a simple concept, how the letter U follows the letter Q. Thousands of classrooms have mock weddings, complete with elaborate invites, decorations and vows.
Katy Swalwell: A lot of teachers are taking hours and hours to teach this fairly simple literacy concept. They're also teaching it as a rule that always works, so that — for any good Scrabble player, we know that Q and U don't always go together.
Kavitha Cardoza: Swalwell says they found the vows between the kindergarten couple even more troubling.
Katy Swalwell: The girls' vows were often pretty sexist, that they have to support the boys going out with other letters, that that's what they need to do, that their job in the relationship is. They also talk about how the boy's letter is what gave them a voice. Otherwise, they couldn't make a sound in the world.
Kavitha Cardoza: She says teachers need to be far more critical about lesson plans they create and buy.
Katy Swalwell: It maybe is fun for some of the kids, but it isn't ever just about fun. There's always social lessons that are being taught underneath.
Kavitha Cardoza: Jennifer White tries to make her lessons applicable for teachers across the country, and she sees only an upside. For starters, she no longer worries about money.
Jennifer White: I could quit working at the gas station and tutoring, and I could spend more time with my family.
Kavitha Cardoza: The Whites have been able to save for retirement and go on vacations. She's also made teacher friends around the world. Best of all, White says, she's been able to give back to her students. Wow. It's so colorful.
Jennifer White: Thank you. Actually, a lot of this was paid for through my sales.
Kavitha Cardoza: The tables and books, all the learning materials, toys and posters.
Jennifer White: In my classroom, we're family. When they need something, if they need Crayons or they need glue or they need a backpack or they need something, anything, I can get it for them. I'm giving back to the people who have gotten me where I am today.
Kavitha Cardoza: For the PBS NewsHour and Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Oneonta, Alabama.