Creating a sea change to improve teacher impact


Mar 4, 2015

One of the most conclusive findings in education research is that teachers matter. They are the most important thing outside of family background that affects student outcomes. Given this reality, many education leaders have rightly made it their priority to recruit high-quality teachers to work with their students, and many of the leading education reform efforts focus on teachers. For example, two of the current top priorities of the U.S. Department of Education are to get states to implement rigorous teacher evaluation systems and to improve the quality of the nation’s teacher preparation programs. From the non-government angle, the Gates Foundation spent $45 million just a few years ago on a research initiative called Measure of Effective Teaching (MET) to try to figure out how to identify and foster good teaching.

All these efforts are well intentioned, and some of them have had a noticeable impact on improving teaching and the teacher force. But unfortunately, these efforts will likely struggle to realize their hoped-for level of impact because they focus on solving problems at the school- and teacher-level without taking into account broader macro-level forces. By analogy, they are trying to improve trans-oceanic travel by building stronger and faster ships but without figuring out how to better account for currents and weather patterns.

Tomorrow the Clayton Christensen Institute is releasing a white paper titled, “Solving the Nation’s Teacher Shortage: How online learning can fix the broken teacher labor market.” In that paper, Mallory Dwinal analyzes how the macro-level influences of women’s rights, technological improvements in other sectors, and teachers’ family structures have led to shortages of teachers by grade level, subject area, region, and quality. Dwinal then explains how online learning is addressing these issues by making the teacher labor force more flexible such that more skilled and certified individuals are available to address the nations teaching needs.

The paper concludes with valuable policy recommendations for providing more students with the teachers they need through leveraging online learning. First, states should implement “Course Access” programs to give students access to teachers that might not be available locally. Second, states should allow schools to award academic credit based on mastery of credit, rather than on hours of instruction, so that teachers can have the flexibility to work with students when and where they are most needed. Last of all, states should develop rigorous metrics for evaluating the benefits of K–12 technologies. School leaders need such metrics to help them ensure that the technologies they purchase are actually helping teachers to be more productive and flexible, rather than merely providing instructional bells and whistles.

Taken as a whole, the paper provides a powerful reframing to the challenge of providing every student with a quality teacher. It then gives thoughtful insights on how online learning can help districts and schools address students’ needs better in areas where teachers are scarce.

Thomas Arnett

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.