Valuable report exploring online learning and teacher shortages overlooks state barriers to teaching online

The Clayton Christensen Institute has recently released Solving the Nation’s Teacher Shortage: How online learning can fix the broken teacher labor market. The study makes the case for how U.S. schools have experienced persistent teacher shortages by geography, grade level, and subject area for nearly 40 years, and how online learning can help address these shortages. The report is valuable and accurate in many ways, but it doesn’t go into depth on a topic we explored in the Keeping Pace policy brief Teaching Online Across State Lines, which found that the difficulties of teaching in multiple states is a serious barrier. From the Christensen report:

“…in the same way that online learning unbundles the education experience to make it more flexible for students, it also unbundles the teacher labor market to make it more flexible for teachers and districts. On the supply side, teachers no longer have to serve a single district or live within driving distance of any school where they are employed. On the demand side, districts are no longer compelled to hire only those local teachers for whom their schools have a full-time (or even sufficient part-time) need. Rather, online-learning platforms can allow a district to contract with any teacher in the country to provide services to as few or as many students as they see fit. In this way, online learning gives districts the opportunity to overcome the coordination problems of traditional teacher labor systems.” (Emphasis added)

The statement is generally true in that online learning holds promise for overcoming geographic barriers to teaching, and it is true that teachers no longer have to live in close proximity to the students that they are serving. But most states require all teachers, including online teachers, to be licensed in the state in which the students reside. This requirement is hindering the ability of teachers and online course providers to operate efficiently across multiple states.

From the Keeping Pace report:

“Among the ways in which states attempt to ensure quality in K-12 education is by requiring that most teachers in public schools be licensed via state-level requirements that vary by state. This patchwork of requirements has not been a problem for most teachers over the last century, because so few teachers taught in multiple states concurrently. Mechanisms to allow experienced teachers to gain a license in a new state (sometimes temporarily until obtaining a permanent license) were created by many states for teachers who moved to a new location. In addition, many states created alternative licensing mechanisms for professionals with subject-area expertise who wished to switch careers and teach in public schools.

Neither of these mechanisms is sufficient, however, for a new kind of 21st century professional—teachers who are teaching online and therefore reaching students in multiple states concurrently. These teachers often must go through a laborious and time-consuming process to become licensed in each of the states in which their students reside. Streamlining the teaching licensing process to allow teachers to more easily work across multiple states would increase high-quality online educational opportunities for students, and extend the reach of high-quality teachers.”

The Christensen report recommendations (e.g., develop course access programs, remove seat-time requirements) are worthwhile. Our research suggests, however, that removing the barriers that make teaching across state lines so difficult for many teachers would do more to alleviate teacher shortage issues.