“Rules and models destroy genius and art,” said English writer William Hazlitt. When it comes to blended learning, some school leaders say that strict union rules severely limit innovation. Are districts with strict teachers union contracts doomed to preserve the status quo, or can they innovate?

The answer is mixed. On the one hand, rule-bound districts have more options than they might realize. Consider this true scenario of a school with two rigid union restrictions. First, paraprofessionals cannot supervise students while they learn online, because no uncertified teacher can supervise students for more than 15 minutes. Second, the principal cannot base staffing decisions on a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses, which means that he or she cannot rearrange staffing roles to optimize for what each teacher does best.

Faced with those limits, the principal confided to me that a Station Rotation model was his only option. That model would allow his students to rotate between online and offline learning within their classroom, but preserve other aspects of the traditional set-up. Like this principal, most district-school leaders seem to believe that a Station Rotation is the only realistic, rule-abiding option they have.

But even in places with the strictest rules, most schools in fact have several other options, including:

  • Offering Self-Blend courses to allow students to take a la carte online courses as part of their daily schedules. Some schools make this easy and successful for students by equipping them with a device, a high-speed connection, a hospitable study space, and a face-to-face mentor. This article describes how Quakertown Community School District implemented a Self-Blend model with the blessing of the local and regional teachers association.
  • Re-designing the staffing model to create teams of teachers who share responsibility for large groups of students via an Individual Rotation or Flex model. In either of these models, the Internet primarily delivers content and instruction, while face-to-face teachers use real-time data to reinforce and enhance. Opportunity Culture documents several structures here for extending the reach of great teachers by redesigning teacher teams.
  • Promoting Flipped Classrooms in circumstances where students can access online content at home and then attend a brick-and-mortar classroom during the day.

Despite this range of options, some teachers union rules are nevertheless problematic. They can rule out innovations that are genuinely desirable for teachers and students alike. Here are some of the opportunities that teachers contracts often inadvertently eliminate:

  • Lower effective student-teacher ratios. Schools that use paraprofessionals to supervise online-learning labs free up time for credentialed teachers to reach more students through individual and small-group instruction. Rules that constrain the responsible use of paraprofessionals deny teachers of the smaller effective student-teacher ratios that are available through the targeted use of paraprofessionals in online learning spaces.
  • Higher salaries for teachers. Rocketship Education uses paraprofessionals to supervise a Learning Lab for two hours during the day. This frees up $500,000 per year to pay teachers roughly 20 percent more than other teachers in neighboring schools earn.
  • More satisfying career paths. New disaggregated staffing models allow teachers who are content experts to share their instructional gift with more students via the Internet, while other teachers who are talented mentors offer face-to-face support. For many teachers, this opportunity for specialization and to extend their reach sounds rich and exciting, but their contract rules make it difficult.
  • Hope for teachers who can only do so much. Most teachers choose their profession because they care deeply about students and want to help them. But many in troubled schools end up feeling powerless. They have multiple class periods of thirty students each. They simply cannot cater to each student who needs custom attention. Union contracts that prevent principals from re-architecting their staffing structures to facilitate personalized learning handcuff the very teachers they intend to protect.

In the Slate article “Will Teacher’s Unions Kill Virtual Learning?” Katherine Mangu-Ward concludes that online education entrepreneurs must “come up with something truly new and mind blowing, because to survive they’re going to have to short-circuit, bypass, or rewire the entire education bureaucracy.” But competing against the bureaucracy head-on with a mind-blowing alternative sounds really hard. A much easier and more promising path to spurring student-centric innovation is to look for all the ways that innovation can be an opportunity, rather than a threat for teachers. As the establishment comes to appreciate those opportunities and understand the rules that are unnecessarily preventing them, it will be much more likely to let those rules fall aside naturally to make room for a different, more satisfying way of teaching.



  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.