The new school year is underway, but districts across the country are still struggling to fill hundreds of teaching positions. These teacher shortages are proving especially acute in certain subject areas like special education, science, and mathematics. And particular regions, like rural districts, where it’s difficult to find qualified teachers, are also especially strained. Districts in Oklahoma, for example, one of the hardest-hit states, are still trying to fill more than 500 teaching vacancies—despite eliminating more than 1,500 teaching jobs in the past year, according to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.
These chronic shortages, in turn, tend to limit the coursework that students can access. For example, two in five high schools don’t offer physics, according to a recent Education Week Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The numbers are worse in some states than others, with nearly 70 percent of high schools in Alaska and Oklahoma not offering the subject.
There is no shortage of proposed solutions to tackling teacher shortages. Unfortunately, many proposals that could reinvigorate teacher labor markets tend to be politically and economically unfeasible. For example, states already operating in a budget deficit can hardly expect to come up with the millions of dollars that would be required each year to make physics teachers’ pay commensurate with the pay typical of private industry positions.
Leaders need a new approach to teacher shortages that sidesteps the need for unrealistic political or economic capital. As we’ve written before, one affordable and flexible solution stands out: online and blended learning hold the potential to unlock new solutions to the nation’s teacher capacity challenges. Specifically, by allowing educators to reach students from anywhere in the country and experts to supplement traditional teaching, online learning offers a new degree of flexibility and productivity among current teachers, while also making the field more attractive to teachers who have left and to non-teachers who otherwise might shy away from the profession. Online offerings could hold the key to disrupting the nation’s antiquated teacher recruitment and retention strategies.
For this to happen, policymakers and leaders will need to recognize online learning’s potential and to legislate and plan accordingly. Here are three ways policymakers could position online teaching and learning as a potent antidote to teacher shortages across the country:
- Develop Course Access programs. Policymakers should embrace Course Access policies—funding schemes that allow students to enroll in a combination of traditional and online settings—in order to unlock access to teachers otherwise out of students’ reach. By allowing students to take some coursework online, Course Access policies leverage online learning to promote flexibility by giving districts access to highly qualified teachers across a wide array of courses, regardless of their geographic location. Additionally, these programs could allow high-quality teachers to increase their reach (and compensation) without leaving the classroom.
- Remove barriers to licensure reciprocity. In order for Course Access and other online learning programs to give districts access to highly qualified teachers from across the country, however, policymakers will need to remove the barriers that often make teaching across state lines difficult for online teachers. Most states have some form of licensure reciprocity policies in place that allows a teacher who is licensed in one state to gain an additional licensure in a new state. Gaining licensure in a new state, however, can be a lengthy and difficult process—which is bearable if you are only making a one-time transfer to a new state, but not if you are an online teacher wanting to teach in multiple states. Although online learning makes it possible for the best online teachers to live in any state of their choosing and simultaneously serve students across the entire country, the requirements for gaining additional state licensures often limit them to teaching only in the state where they physically reside—or, at most, in a small handful of states for which they have completed the licensure transfer process.
- Allow more experts into classrooms. Policymakers and leaders should also look to support pathways for industry experts to supplement existing teachers in hard-to-staff subjects. Using technologies, like email and video chat, we’ve found that entrepreneurs are increasingly offering technologies that port experts working in industries, like STEM and computer science, into classrooms. These technologies, in turn, allow teachers in those subjects to provide more up-to-date and relevant experiences for their students. As one computer science teacher, Sandy Gady, put it, “I can’t possibly learn CAD, apps, all that stuff.” But by leveraging a resource, like Skype, which ports experts from Microsoft into her classroom, Gady says, “I don’t have to be an expert any more.” Her role as a teacher still includes delivering content and creating assignments, but now it also includes helping students connect to experts and teaching them how to seek out their own answers from adults beyond the classroom. By effectively bringing online experts into classrooms, schools can mitigate the effects of teacher shortages by continuing to expose students to relevant coursework and cutting edge insights, especially in quickly evolving industries like computer science and STEM subjects.
Taken together, efforts like these could enable online teaching and learning to transform our limited teacher labor supply into the flexible and productive resource that 21st-century schools so desperately need.
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