What To Do About The ‘Teacher Shortage’ Depends

In today’s newsletter I tackle:

  • Headlines about the teacher shortage, a topic we delved into on the latest episode of Class Disrupted;
  • What Jeff Selingo and I think about some hot higher ed topics that have gone viral plus more from Future U.;
  • A cry for a different kind of innovation in higher education in the Boston area;
  • My new book, From Reopen to Reinvent, being featured by AEI’s Rick Hess in Education Week and Leap Innovation’s Phyllis Lockett in Forbes;
  • And the Disruptive Voice podcast’s 100th episode.

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Headlines about the teacher shortage have dotted all the mainstream news outlets at various points. At the same time, many education researchers digging into the numbers have suggested that the teacher shortage isn’t what many in the mainstream media claim it to be.

It all gets complicated quickly.

The reality? There’s no question that schools in different geographies are facing shortages of teachers in certain subjects. That’s always been the case. It’s also the case that the nature of these shortages has changed in certain localities. And it’s also the case that data aren’t going to be able to give school leaders on the ground the answer to precisely what’s going on in a timely fashion.

On the latest episode of Class Disrupted, which you can listen to or read the transcript here, Diane Tavenner and I invited education reporter Kevin Mahnken from our distribution partner The 74, to unpack all the story lines and help us understand the debates around the teacher shortage and what the data currently suggest.

After that, Diane and I broke down what her lived reality as a leader of multiple schools on the west coast is—and how different that is from the dominant storylines. We then talked about why “the data” aren’t going to provide a magical answer for what’s going on—nor is data going to help school leaders on the ground figure out what to do about it.

At that point, Diane decried the desire for one-size-fits-all fixes to all that ail schools—a sensible suggestion from my perspective.

She then went one layer deeper on the episode about the challenge of solving just one part of the shortage she’s facing—the need for special education teachers in California and the state of Washington. I found the entirety of her answer quite compelling—and a bit shocking (make sure to read all the way to the end). It also suggested to me yet again why we need to move away from policies that govern how schools do their work and the inputs they are allowed (or not allowed) to use and instead have regulations focus on the outcomes—the progress we want each student to be making. I’ve written about this for years, but I want to shine a light on what Diane shared just below. And please listen to the whole podcast, “Is There a Teacher Shortage? It Depends” here.

Why We Should Move from Inputs to Outcomes

With regards to why it’s hard to find special education teachers, on the podcast Diane detailed a sampling of the long list of constraints that are caused by what is well-meaning regulation. Here’s Diane in her own words:

“First is, it’s against the law to not provide students with an IEP [individualized education plan], the services they’re entitled to, which begin with case management by a credentialed special education teacher. So, just right out the gate, against the law. Two, our states that we operate in set an absolute limit of 32 students per case manager, period. And if you go above 28, there must be a full-time instructional assistant employed alongside your education specialist. So, just think back to what Kevin said, those are a lot of the jobs that are even harder to fill than teacher jobs right now. Let’s stay here just for a moment longer. That means that if in a school you have 33 students with an IEP, the only option you have is to have two special education teachers/case managers, because you’re one over that limit.

“In addition to being against the law, parents and families have extraordinary rights and have significant legal recourse if their child’s not provided with the services specified in the IEP, which can cost schools an extraordinary amount of money if you’re not following that. So, that’s like another pressure coming in. And most collective bargaining agreements also codify similar caseload limits or even lower limits. And this opens the school system to grievances with the union if you’re not doing what is in the agreement. That’s not nearly all of the pressures, Michael, but I’m just going to stop with those, because I think they’re sufficient to understand this very interesting sort of market response, you’ll correct me if that’s not the right term, that I am honestly dying to get your perspective on, because basically what’s happening in this environment is as a school, you have to figure out how to have enough credentialed education specialists. And so you literally will do whatever it takes.

“And it turns out that enterprising staffing companies are taking advantage of this desperation, and they are literally head hunting special education teachers by promising them significantly more pay for less responsibility and more flexibility. And they bring these teachers on as contractors and then bill them out at twice the cost to schools. And schools literally have no choice but to pay that. And the teacher makes more.

“I mean, that part might be great, but it has a lot of leverage in what they will and won’t do. The staffing companies may get a nice profit, and public schools are paying double to just try to stay out of this legal jeopardy. Michael, in a few cases, this literally has meant that a teacher, who we were employing, quit their job in October, went and worked for the staffing company, and then we contracted back for their services at double the cost and less work.”

This is why I’ve historically made such a push for policymakers to focus far more on the student outcomes we desire rather than the inputs. The regulations have essentially artificially helped create this market, rather than focus on the progress that each individual student is making.

On the one hand, it’s easy to say, “Oh these regulations make sense.” Because on one level they absolutely do.

But consider the following hypothetical. Suppose a school figured out a way for one individual with a special education teacher license to pair with another who didn’t have that special education teacher license—and they then added a piece of technology that greatly amplified their productivity for, say, 33 students. And then these students started soaring, not just academically, but in the development of their habits of success.

The problem is that the policies and regulations forbid this innovation.

To be more specific, where there are shortages of special educators, that represents nonconsumption (where the alternative is nothing at all) in the system—and not just nonconsumption, but nonconsumption where there is a need and demand to craft individual learning plans—which I believe every single student should have, but special education students are required to have. And where there’s nonconsumption, there should be opportunities for disruptive innovation—the kind of innovation that can transform a system more broadly over time. And yet, because of the regulation, that opportunity for innovation is prohibited. Indeed, there are active disincentives for “trying anything new or different,” as Diane told me.

The bottom line? Disruptive innovation has been effectively barred. That’s a shame—for students, schools, and society.

Two New Future U. Episodes

Feeling badly that our episodes were getting a bit long, Jeff Selingo and I offered a shorter episode on Future U. with a series of hot takes on a string of higher ed headlines. From the NYU professor who was fired after 82 of his 350 students in his organic chemistry class signed a petition expressing concerns about his teaching to the shrinking numbers of students taking the ACT and the appointment of Sen. Ben Sasse as president of the University of Florida and more, we’ve got you covered right here on this episode of Future U. titled “Headlines in Review: NYU Prof, ACT Scores, Senate vs. College Prez.”

We also released the second half of our conversation with Matt Brown of Extra Points and ASU’s Victoria Jackson that dug into the issue of “Name Image Likeness”—or NIL—in college athletics, along with the topic of schools paying student athletes directly and what shifting professional pathways to sports can mean for rethinking college athletics more broadly. Check it out here.

What Will It Take for Boston Higher Ed To Be Known for Disruptive Innovation?

The Boston area is known for its institutions of higher education: Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Boston College, Boston University, Tufts, and many, many more. Many of these institutions have college president openings, as the Boston Globe’s Scott Kirsner pointed out in a recent piece. But these presidents “will largely be tasked with preserving greatness, not innovating,” Kirsner wrote.

There are many reasons for this—the innovator’s dilemma, the nature of organizational models, the pursuit of prestige in higher ed, and more. But Kirsner posed the question of what would it take for Boston to be also known as a place where new higher education institutions emerge that dramatically lower the price tag for students and underlying costs while significantly boosting the student outcomes—creating value in other words.

Check out the piece, “College presidents are leaders, but why not innovators?”—along with my comments in it—here.

‘From Reopen to Reinvent’ in the News

In Education Week, the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess interviewed me about my new book, From Reopen to Reinvent. You can read the conversation, which brought out some themes I haven’t had a chance to talk about elsewhere, here at “How Can Education Get Beyond Zero-Sum Schooling?

And in Forbes, Phyllis Lockett, the founder of Leap Innovations in Chicago, interviewed me as well. Check out her article, “Why Now Is The Time To Overhaul K–12 Education.

The Disruptive Voice’s 100th Episode

What most readers of this likely don’t know is that I was not the first in my family to launch a podcast. That honor goes to my wife, Tracy Kim Horn. When she was working at the Harvard Business School’s Forum for Growth and Innovation, Clay Christensen’s research group, she launched a podcast called the Disruptive Voice.

The podcast released its 100th episode last week titled “Anomalies Wanted.” From the description of the episode:

Many listeners will know that Clay had a homemade “Anomalies Wanted” sign in his office at Harvard Business School—it was the backbone of his approach to research and theory building, as he worked to strengthen and refine his frameworks over the years. Many past guests on this podcast, when asked about what made Clay such a powerful thinker and teacher, responded saying that he was humble, that he was open to learning from everyone, and that he was always on the lookout for anomalies. Specifically, Clay viewed anomalies not as threats to the viability or applicability of his work but—quite the opposite—as presenting opportunities to learn and to improve the frameworks. In this episode, you’ll hear from a number of people who were near and dear to Clay, all of whom share their reflections and insights on the theme of “Anomalies Wanted.”

I was honored to join Derek Van Beaver, Tom Bartman, Cliff Maxwell, Jon Palmer, Karen Dillion, Bob Moesta, Max Wessel, Scott Anthony, and Ann Christensen on this special episode that Katie Zandbergen produced. The insights and stories , which you can listen to here, are well worth your time.

As always, thank you for reading, writing, and listening.

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