A critique against the power of disruptive innovation to help our schools educate each child more effectively has been a backhanded one: Yes, re-architecting schools around personalized learning is important, but even more important is having a highly effective teacher for every child.

There’s no question that having a highly effective teacher is important, but as a new research paper that we published at the Clayton Christensen Institute today demonstrates, without disruptive innovation, there is no chance that we’ll be able to help each student access highly effective teachers.

In the paper, titled Solving the Nation’s Teacher Shortage: How online learning can fix the broken teacher labor market, Mallory Dwinal shows how chronic local and position-specific teacher shortages have undercut efforts to recruit high-quality educators—and why disruptive innovation isn’t merely a “nice to have” in education reform.

Online learning advocates have for a long time made this point. The president of iNACOL, Susan Patrick, for example, has long pointed to how in the mid-2000s there were 440 high schools in Georgia with only 88 certified physics teachers—and the schools of education in Georgia were only producing a couple graduates each year certified to teach physics. Eleven percent of schools in the United States don’t offer Algebra; 19 percent don’t offer Algebra II, and 50 percent don’t offer calculus. Why? In many cases it is because they don’t have qualified teachers. Good luck solving the STEM problem in this country against that backdrop.

As Dwinal shows, policymakers’ attempts to address these disaggregated teacher shortages have been relatively unsuccessful, largely because they fail to account for the three systemic issues driving these challenges: the rise of women’s rights, which has lowered the quantity and quality of the teacher labor supply at the same time that it has increased demand; technological improvements in other industries that have increased non-teaching wages relative to teaching wages, thus incentivizing many professionals to forego a career in education; and that teacher labor tends to be highly localized and difficult to distribute to places in need of additional teachers.

Although we know that online learning is disrupting the traditional K–12 model of learning, what’s interesting about this new paper is the evidence that online learning is also disrupting the systems that place teachers within this traditional model. More specifically, online learning provides a new, more flexible and more productive way to match teachers with students, and this alternative approach already exhibits some of the same indicators as other disruptive innovations. As Sajan George has also observed, disrupting classrooms is key to transforming our school system by eliminating the need for all 3.5 million teachers to be superheroes, which is a preposterous starting point for education reform.

This research has significant policy implications, as online learning could hold the key to addressing the nation’s teacher capacity challenges. In her paper, Dwinal makes three policy points from the research.

First, policymakers should embrace Course Access policies to give schools and students the freedom they need to use online learning productively.

Second, officials should move from seat-time requirements to competency-based learning models.

And third, policymakers should support school and district leaders by providing them the resources to evaluate and select the appropriate technology given scarce resources.

One final point: those concerned with teacher quality should stop dismissing disruptive innovation and online learning.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.