Teachers Drive Innovation. This Time, Will They Do So Within or Outside the System?

Aug 23, 2020

Get Ready for a Teacher Shortage Like We’ve Never Seen Before.” The New York Times is right—it’s happening. A school district outside of Phoenix canceled classes on Monday because they didn’t have enough teachers to staff the classrooms. Utah teachers are resigning in droves, and a New Jersey superintendent recently said schools will be “brought to their knees with staffing needs.”

Our public schools have operated in a precarious, neglected state for decades. Like so many of our underinvested institutions, COVID-19 has pulled back the veil on a crumbling system whose cracks have deepened into crevices perhaps too vast to fill. And many of our nation’s teachers, who have been underpaid, underappreciated and overwhelmed by their ever-increasing workloads, have had enough.

So they are calling in sick, resigning and leaving the schools and children they love.

But because this is America, the story won’t end here, in decline and despair. We are a nation of innovators, a country in a constant state of renewal and improvement.

The ingenuity engine has now turned its focus to education. This crisis has struck a nerve and lit an entrepreneurial fire like we’ve never seen before. New education companies and nonprofits are forming everyday—a mix our education system has been comfortable with since the earliest days when schools eagerly adopted the first commercial textbook. Yes, the people are building, Mr. Andreessen.

Will our leaders modernize our school system so that our teachers choose to work there?

All this innovation is finally creating options for teachers, once faced with the binary choice of staying to teach in our schools or leaving for an entirely new career. The world has woken up to just how skilled they are. This pandemic has taught parents that teachers are not commodities but highly skilled professionals who can juggle seven complex tasks at once, while smiling and talking in a soothing voice.

A history of poor working conditions, the pandemic and the subsequent flurry of new startups have laid the groundwork for a thriving gig economy welcoming the beleaguered teacher with open arms. They are offering better pay, flexibility and the opportunity to teach without the red tape that has constrained their creativity for far too long.

The average American teacher is paid around $57,000 per year, about 20 percent less than similarly educated professionals. Most have master’s degrees, and the average tenure is 14 years. Teachers work hard. They are in the classroom before 8 a.m. and keep working on average for 11 hours per day, preparing lessons, grading and communicating with parents. Seventy-five percent are women, many with families, yet their schedules are rigid and unforgiving. They can be written up for leaving campus 15 minutes early.

Given these realities, are we surprised our teachers are considering more attractive offers? When a neighbor offers a local teacher a higher salary, fewer students and flexible hours to lead a local pandemic pod, teachers will think twice. Or when a friend tells them about an online teaching platform where they can teach small groups of students from all over the world while their own baby naps, one can understand why they might consider it.

Micro-schools like SchoolHouse, and live-online teaching platforms like Outschool (one of our portfolio companies) and VIPKid, are offering teachers alternative environments to do what they love. We know from the late Clayton Christensen’s work that disruptive solutions often take root outside of the system and are initially written off as niche by the institutions and incumbents. Many of these new ideas emerged out of the homeschool sector but expanded their customer bases over time as their agility and responsiveness stood in contrast to the rigid school system.

While the innovators quietly grew, the education system continued to neglect the teachers at the heart of their schools. Then COVID-19 hit, accelerating the changes already underway. Families scrambled for new solutions and teachers fled for better working conditions and safety.

We now face the risk of a parallel system—learning outside of our schools and learning inside of our schools. And we all know that when a public good is split, the most vulnerable will suffer.

Teachers are at the center of this divide, and they will be drawn to the environment where they can learn and be treated as professionals. For the first time, there is competition for their talent. While the pandemic may have sparked the initial teacher exodus, the shift to the private sector will continue over time if we don’t have the public will to invest in our teachers.

These new approaches to learning may at first be rejected by our school system as NIH (not-invented-here), a sickness that has plagued our schools for too long. They may be feared or called dangerous by those who worry about change to our public institutions.

But these are desperate times, and we need new ideas because what’s clear is that the old way isn’t working. Student achievement has plateaued, our teachers have been ignored one too many times, and our schools are more segregated than ever.

Driven by income inequality and a persistent systemic racism, our schools are struggling mightily against the societal shifts that inevitably shape them. In Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” he describes “a kind of incipient class apartheid” as “more and more families live either in uniformly affluent neighborhoods or in uniformly poor neighborhoods.”

Because schools reflect their neighborhoods, we have an education system that is a microcosm of our divided society. As long as the profile of our schools are tied to our zip codes, they will lack the richness of diversity, vital to a growing mind. Technology, especially the platforms that connect us in new ways, is a bridge that can open up a world of new experiences and take us beyond our neighborhoods.

We, as a society, are at an important inflection point. Will our leaders modernize our school system so that our teachers choose to work there? It needs to happen at multiple levels: autonomy, better pay and flexibility for teachers; upgrading technology and offering better professional development; reconsidering the structure and flow of the school day, and integration of new models for learning.

I’m afraid that if we don’t embrace change and create better conditions for teachers, there will be a tipping point. There are early signs that schools are open to these new ideas. San Francisco and Indianapolis are creating learning hubs, and large school districts are now offering students the opportunity to participate in online classes.

It was the teachers who drove the first wave of education technology innovation. When the app store, iPads and smartphones created a channel directly to teachers, they brought apps for communication, collaboration and content into their schools. We are now almost a decade from that first wave. While initially written off as niche, these apps have become global platforms, and their size and impact is now undeniable. They are the new incumbents.

Teachers are true innovators who have long endured a system with impossible constraints yet managed to get it all done as the glue of society. This latest wave may sweep them right off the public school beaches.


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