Research clearly shows that teachers are the most important school-level factor influencing student achievement. So why does our education system often treat them as commodities?

Commodities are products that do not have meaningful points of differentiation in the markets in which they are purchased. In other words, in the eyes of customers, products from provider A are not meaningfully different from products made by provider B. This does not necessarily mean that provider A and provider B’s products are identical. It just means that their differences do not matter to customers. When differences do not matter, customers have no loyalty to certain products or brands and prices are the only meaningful distinctions between products. Competition based on price drives prices down, which forces producers to accept minimal earnings for their work.

When we look at the teaching profession today, there are clear signs that teachers are valued as commodities. They are often hired without much regard for their proven skills or track record as long as they meet state credentialing requirements. Once hired, they are often shuffled between schools and roles like interchangeable widgets, as if all teachers are the same as long as they have the same license. And teacher pay is notoriously low relative to other college graduates.

The reason why our school system treats teachers as commodities traces back to the mid- to late-1800s when our public education system came into existence. At that time, expectations for schools and teachers were much lower than they are today. There were no college and career-ready standards or test-based accountability systems. Instead, the bar was set at just making sure students gained the basics in reading, writing, and arithmetic so that they could go into agricultural or industrial jobs. High school graduation rates were far from being a pressing concern because most people successfully entered the workforce with only an 8th grade level of education.

Under these conditions, the elected leaders of most community school systems did not place a high value on teacher expertise. Teaching was seen as a job that anyone could do as long as they themselves had a basic education. It was a job primarily for single young women until they married, or for young male college graduates waiting for better employment opportunities—not a professional career. The prevailing philosophy was that teachers only needed to be able to maintain classroom order and discipline while doling out rote instruction on basic content. Society saw little need for teachers to have deep content knowledge or strong pedagogical expertise.

The fact that society did not value teacher expertise does not mean that expertise was unimportant. Many teachers took their vocation seriously and worked hard to develop their skills at motivating students, explaining complicated concepts, and managing group instruction. Many attended normal schools—the precursors of today’s schools of education—in order to seek professional expertise in their field. In short, when it came to helping students learn, those who practiced teaching knew that expertise mattered then as it does today.

Many of the policies and regulations we have today are a result of teachers’ efforts to fight against the undervaluation and commoditization of their expertise. For example, the shift from local teacher certification to statewide certification happened in part because professional educators pushed for policy that would force local school systems to value their specialized training. Under local credentialing, local authorities would often hand out teaching credentials to anyone who could pass a simple written or oral exam on the content of core subjects, without regard for demonstrated teaching ability or formal training. Furthermore, local certification exams were highly subjective and sometimes influenced by political motives more than by regard for teaching expertise. So professional educators pushed states to adopt statewide certification policies that limited the teaching profession to only those with specialized training.

Similarly, teachers formed unions as a natural response to being treated like commodities. When labor is truly a commodity, unions exist to protect that labor from being exploited by employers. In other words, in fields where workers are largely interchangeable because they cannot differentiate themselves to employers based on unique expertise, unions work to ensure that employers’ hiring and firing practices follow clear and equitable processes and that wages are above subsistence levels. Although teachers’ expertise is not a commodity, their expertise has not always been valued in an education system focused on enrollment numbers, orderly classrooms, and covering the curriculum. Tired of being treated as a commodity, teachers found a need to unionize to protect themselves from being overworked, under-supported, hired and fired capriciously, and shortchanged on pay. Unable to convince district and city officials that their individual expertise was critical to the success of the school system, they used strikes to prove that the schools cannot function without them. Then, having won the right to bargain collectively, they pushed for salary schedules that would differentiate their pay based on objective (although imprecise) proxies for expertise: degree status, hours of coursework, and years of experience.

Fortunately, the tides in education policy are finally pushing the system to realize the importance of its teachers. Test-based accountability is forcing districts to look past their myopic focus on enrollments, course offerings, and graduation rates and to take students’ academic performance more seriously. And because modern research has shown that teachers are the most important school-level factor influencing student achievement, many of today’s most prominent reform efforts focus on ensuring there is an effective, expert teacher in every classroom.

If schools and districts intend to fulfill the mandate to boost student achievement, they will need to adopt new strategies that place paramount emphasis on recruiting and retaining the best teachers. This shift in district strategy should then put individual teachers in a position to negotiate their salaries and working conditions based on the value their individual expertise brings to their schools.

But unfortunately, even in this era of increased accountability, many districts still operate as if teachers are commodities. Instead of recruiting strategically from the best teacher preparation programs in the country, they take the teachers that the nearest regional state school has to offer. Instead of putting together competitive and attractive salary and benefit packages and then working in the early spring to attract the best teachers to their schools, they wait until just before the start of the school year to frantically fill their open teaching slots. Instead of giving principals control over staffing so that they can build great faculty teams across multiple years, they move teachers around capriciously from one year to the next—and sometimes during the middle of the school year—and prioritize allocation targets over effectiveness. Instead of working with individual teachers to find roles where their particular areas of expertise are most relevant, districts often shift teachers at the last minute to grade levels or subject areas that are technically within their certification but realistically outside the domains where those teachers are most experienced, passionate, and able to excel.

Another unfortunate reality is that many of the policies teachers pushed for in the past to protect themselves from being treated as commodities now stand in the way of allowing them to be valued as professional experts. For example, salary schedules and tenure rules put in place through collective bargaining often prevent districts from being able to hire and pay teachers according to the demonstrated value of their individual expertise. Similarly, salary schedules, professional development policies, and certification rules often miss the mark of building real expertise by encouraging teachers to waste time and money on some forms of professional development and types of master’s degrees that have marginal if any effect on their abilities to improve student outcomes.

Given the evidence regarding how important good teachers are for helping all students excel, it is inappropriate for state, district, and union policies to continue treating teachers like low-cost, interchangeable widgets. It is in the best interests of our districts, our teachers, and our students to stop regarding teachers as commodities and start valuing them as professionals with individual expertise.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.