By Mallory Dwinal
Edited by Thomas Arnett

March 2015


As the link between teacher quality and student performance becomes increasingly apparent, education leaders have invested significant time and energy into recruiting high-quality educators. Unfortunately, chronic teacher shortages have undercut these efforts, and many school leaders continue to struggle with staffing each year. A closer examination reveals the causes and characteristics of these teacher shortages, as well as the promise online learning holds in resolving the most challenging teacher vacancies.

Teacher shortages: Defining features and driving forces

An aggregate teacher surplus masks four types of acute shortages. First, certain grade levels are harder to staff than others. Second, and closely related to grade-level shortages, particular subject areas within these grade levels go chronically understaffed. Third, some geographic regions of the United States face ongoing teacher shortages, whereas others report a regular surplus. Finally, empirical evidence suggests a decline in teacher quality since 1960 across all grade levels, subject areas, and geographies.

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 outcomes. First, the rise of women’s rights has lowered the quantity and quality of the teacher labor supply at the same time that it has increased demand. Second, technological improvements in other industries have increased non-teaching wages relative to teaching wages, thus incentivizing many professionals—male or female—to forgo a career in education. Third, the family structures and social behaviors typical of those who teach are such that teacher labor tends to be highly localized and difficult to distribute to places in need of additional teachers.

The promise of online learning

A considerable body of research has already documented the ways in which online learning is disrupting the traditional K–12 model of learning. Interestingly, there is additional 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.

Policymakers should welcome this disruption, as online learning could hold the key to addressing the nation’s most entrenched teacher vacancies; three recommendations in particular would help them to foster this trajectory. First, officials should establish “Course Access” laws that give students and schools the freedom they need to use online learning productively. Second, policymakers should move from seat-time requirements to a competency-based method for awarding online class credit. Finally, in addition to making these policy changes, officials should support school and district leaders by providing them resources to evaluate and select the appropriate technology. Taken together, these actions would enable online learning to transform our teacher labor supply into the flexible and productive resource that 21st-century schools so desperately need.


  • Mallory Dwinal
    Mallory Dwinal