Solving the nation’s teacher shortage:
How online learning can fix the broken teacher labor market


March 4, 2015

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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.

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Mallory Dwinal

Mallory Dwinal is the founder, CEO, and Spanish teacher of Oxford Day Academy, a new public charter high school opening to East Palo Alto, Calif., in fall 2017. Prior to launching Oxford Day, she taught middle and high school Spanish in the Anacostia Ward of Washington, D.C.

  • Congratulations! This paper concisely and accurately identifies not only the challenges faced by the nation (and the world) in overcoming teacher shortages, it also identifies some valid essential first steps that policy makers can take to address the shortage using the online strategies.

    I fully agree that online strategies may hold the key to bridge the gap. Unfortunately, there are a few difficult “dispositions” that must first be embraced by learning communities in order for these strategies to be a success:

    First: an online learning strategy is not just “Plan B”.
    Yes … “necessity is the mother of invention”. And in this case, the teacher deficit necessitates consideration of an online strategy as a “non-traditional” solution. But today’s students require blended learning conditions as a “Plan A”. Skills in self-regulated learning, asynchronous project management, and effective online communication are currently being ignored in most traditional school environments. Yet these are essential skills for student success as lifelong learners and productive workers, and they are naturally developed in quality blended and online learning environments. Today’s students must be able to do more than simply adjust to an ever-changing world; they need to be equipped to shape it. If K-12 programmes are not deliberately equipping today’s students with these skills, then who will? And when?

    Second: the medium is not the message.
    Policy-makers need to understand that this not simply a technological shift – it is a pedagogical shift. Technological advances may have initiated the disruption, but the real power shift resides in teaching and learning: from teacher-directed learning to student-directed learning. Teachers and learners must be proactively trained for their new roles, responsibilities and skills under conditions for success. If teachers, school leaders and parents do not support the development of self-regulated learning skills under F2F, online and/or blended learning conditions, then students will be under-equipped for an online learning solution to the teacher deficit in the short term, and in the long term they will be under-equipped for university and the workplace. While students are already experienced in playing online, they need to be taught how to work online. While teachers are under increasing pressure to produce “results”, they need to be trained (and permitted) to produce “learners”.

    Maybe I’m wrong. There may be great things going on in some educational communities in this regard that I’m unaware of, but neither of the above dispositions appear to be on the radar of education policy makers. This will be a long journey, and policy makers need to map the way forward as soon as possible – because our schools don’t appear to be keeping up with what our students need.

    Apologies for the rant. Obviously I have had too much coffee this morning. I simply to meant say: “Well done.”

  • Holly Hart

    A great summary of an interesting white paper.

    I agree that the Carnegie Unit, the tendency of the system to standardize and the current assessment model will have to change to bring about this type of change.

    I wish that the author had addressed the issue of pay for professionals in this new environment. Pay is and will continue to be a factor in attracting the best and the brightest teachers needed to provide content material/instruction. Pay will also be an issue in attracting facilitators to work with students face-to-face because with both or single parents working the need for younger learners to be in a safe, supportive location will continue. What could/would a new pay structure look like for the professionals in these changing roles?

    • Karen Green

      Holly–There are many alternative salary structures being developed and implemented. A good place to start is the Consortium for Policy Research at U of Wisc-Madison. My own district has explored the feasibility of movement on the salary schedule through demonstration of knowledge and skills, in addition to experience and grad credits. Sherwood School District in Oregon has an interesting point system. I agree with you that this is an issue to be addressed. If we don’t create a way for young professionals to move up more quickly, the teacher pipeline will get even worse.

  • Fortunately,online education programs have already demonstrated their ability to produce highly competent teachers, including individuals who are career changers with families that can’t access traditional programs. While acknowledging my bias upfront as Vice President of online, competency-based, nonprofit Western Governors University, the achievements of WGU in producing large numbers of successful teachers is worth mentioning:

    WGU’s secondary education program was recognized as No. 1 in the country in 2014 by the National Council for Teacher Quality.

    WGU leads the nation in STEM grads, far surpassing any traditional university.

    Done right, online teacher preparation programs can offset some of the market constraints identified in the white paper — geographical constraints, mothers and fathers who need a way to fit their education into the demands of a two-earner household, etc. — and do so without a degradation of quality.

    Innovation is already underway. Clearly, more will follow.

    • Patrick, I am one of your recent M.Ed. grads (and thank you for the excellent education I received at WGU). May I respectfully suggest WGU take this information one step further and ensure online teaching is part of the WGU teaching program? And also offer a Certificate Program in online teaching for those who already have teaching degrees? Being an online teacher requires very different skills than it takes to be an online student, and for all the valid reasons you cited, WGU is the right place to be offering this training.

  • Willy Utsch

    I agree with everything here! Also, with online learning, you can teach more kids with less teachers, which would enable teachers to get paid more fixing the pay incentive issue and the shortage problem. Economics is simple but true. If only lawmakers had instituted the ideas you herein reccommend when I was in K-12 4 years ago.