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Creating Sound Policy for Digital Learning

A Working Paper Series from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

Summary: As digital tools prolif-

erate and improve, solid instruction
in the basics will eventually become
Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction
“flat”—available anywhere global-
ly—and the elements of excellent By Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel, Public Impact
teaching that are most difficult for
technology to replace will increa-
singly differentiate student out-
comes. As a result, teacher effec- As digital learning has grown in propose that digital education needs
tiveness may matter even more than prominence, a predictable debate excellent teachers and that the
it does today, as the selectivity and has emerged: Teacher-union offi- teaching profession needs digital
prevalence of the teachers-in-charge cials worry that online learning, education.
who will leverage technology—and educational software, video
be leveraged by it—will be the dis- delivery, and other forms of As digital tools proliferate and im-
tinguisher of learning outcomes technology-enabled instruction will prove, solid instruction in the basics
among schools and nations. But in be used primarily to replace teachers will eventually become “flat”—
order to allow for such a drastic re- in a quest to save money. An available anywhere globally. The
shaping of the education system in article on the National Education elements of excellent teaching
the U.S., myriad policies affecting Association’s website entitled that are most difficult for tech-
teachers—from professional devel-
“Laptops are Not Teachers” quotes nology to replace will increasingly
opment to compensation—will need
Idaho Education Association presi- differentiate student outcomes.
to be revamped. This paper outlines
dent Sherri Wood criticizing an
Idaho education-reform law that will In the digital future, teacher effec-
give high school students laptops tiveness may matter even more than
beginning in 2015. The law “trades it does today, as these complex
teachers for technology,” she says. instructional tasks are left to the
Additional papers that appear in this “You simply cannot replace a adults responsible for each student’s
series include “Quality Control in K-12 teacher with a laptop.”1 learning. Teachers who nurture mo-
Digital Learning: Three (Imperfect) tivated, tenacious problem solvers
Approaches” by Frederick M. Hess and Yet it’s not only union officials fuel- while using new technologies to
“School Finance in the Digital- ing teachers’ fears. Digital advocates reach more children can become the
Learning Era” by Paul T. Hill. Future and the media also stoke the fire. fuel of local, state, and national
papers in the series will tackle “Just as the Internet replaced economies. Schools will not need as
questions surrounding governance telephone operators and the nightly many teachers as we know them.
and economics of digital-learning news anchor as the default source But excellent instructors, many in
ventures. This working paper series is of information,” writes Gregory new roles, will need the right tech-
generously supported by the Charles Ferenstein in the magazine Fast nology and instructional supporting
and Helen Schwab Foundation. Company, “teachers may be next on teams to achieve excellence at scale,
the chopping block.”2 within budget, and potentially for
much higher pay than today.3 The
We have little doubt that the digital selectivity and prevalence of these
future will transform education. But excellent teachers-in-charge who
rather than an either-or decision be- will leverage technology—and be
tween technology and teachers, we leveraged by it—will be the

Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel are Co-Directors of Public Impact, a
national education policy and management consulting firm.
distinguisher of learning outcomes among schools and performances and methods widely through video
nations. and smart software that personalizes learning.
Even among excellent teachers, people will thrive
In order to achieve this potential in the U.S., myriad poli- in various roles.
cies affecting teachers—from professional development Attracting and retaining more of these excel-
to compensation—will need to be revamped. This paper lent teachers. As excellent teachers reach more
outlines how. students, they will be able to earn more out of
regular per-pupil funds. The combination of
The digital revolution needs excellent teachers. Even higher pay and career opportunities made possi-
as the content of digital instruction improves, accounta- ble by digital learning will, in turn, help teaching
ble adults will remain critical to student outcomes. Digital attract and keep the best performers.
fare will eventually replace much of the diagnosis of Boosting effectiveness and job options for
learning levels and provision of matching instruction, average teachers.5 Average teachers will benefit
particularly in core knowledge and skills, that today dis- as digital technology and the extended reach of
tinguish excellent teachers from peers. But successful their excellent peers take complex tasks off their
teaching is much more than delivery of core instruction, to-do lists, enabling them to focus on the parts of
no matter how effective. It also requires: teaching at which they can excel. Through tech-
nology, they can also obtain real-time data and
Motivating students to take on next challenges advice about how to help each of their students
and persist despite barriers; succeed, saving time and improving perfor-
Helping students with time and task manage- mance. Digital learning can enable average
ment and other habits critical to success; teachers to personalize instruction, which many
Building children’s social and emotional skills and average teachers find difficult or impossible to
fortitude; achieve with whole classrooms of students with a
Mentoring and modeling life skills; wide array of needs. Some new roles will pay less
Addressing personal and family situations that than today, but many will also require hours far
may impede learning; shorter than today’s typical fifty-hour teacher
Helping students dig deeper into material and workweek.
develop higher-order thinking skills (analytical,
conceptual, and creative); and To be sure, not all of today’s teachers will benefit from
Taking responsibility for ensuring learning out- these transformations. In all likelihood, these changes
comes, making changes when a student’s learn- will mean that the nation needs fewer teachers as we
ing growth stalls—below or above standards. now know them—fully and solely accountable for whole
classrooms of children. Today’s ineffective teachers can
These distinguishing aspects of teachers who produce be replaced by more effective ones in this new
outstanding learning results with more students are not digital-learning world, either through remote instruction
ones that technology can fully replace. or the extended reach of more effective teachers to more
students. Those ineffective teachers who still wish to re-
Teaching needs the digital revolution. At the same main in education may find new roles available. But the
time, in order to become a true profession in which excel- new roles that are instructional, such as tutoring small
lent teachers are rewarded and may reach more students groups, will be better filled by today’s average teachers,
over time, the teaching profession needs the rather than the least effective ones. Some new roles,
digital-learning revolution. Digital learning has the such as online-learning lab monitors who do not provide
potential to transform teaching in three primary ways, instructional support, may be appropriate for today’s less
detailed in the pages that follow: effective teachers. But in many cases, new sector en-
trants who have digital hardware and software knowhow
Enabling excellent teachers to reach more will fill these roles.
students.4 Great teachers will increasingly be
able to: teach more students in-person as digital The net effect is likely to be a smaller, but much stronger
learning replaces portions of instruction in a and more highly paid, teaching force coupled with new,
personalized fashion and provides time-saving lower-paid roles—many with appealing, shorter hours—
student data; reach students remotely via tech- that support these fully accountable teachers. This
nology; and capture and share their differentiated structure is similar to that which has

2 | Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction

emerged with changing roles and technology in other New Roles for In-Person Teachers
professions like law and medicine.
Even in the digital age, in-person teachers remain critical.
Something’s got to give: Necessary shifts in public pol- Because of the child-care function school plays in our
icy. Employing digital technology to transform the teach- economy, most children will continue to attend
ing profession in ways that benefit students holds brick-and-mortar schools. Their in-person teachers, and
enormous promise. That promise will likely go un- other school personnel, will be responsible for motivating
realized, however, without significant changes in public them, teaching them time management, addressing
policies and management systems, in the allocation of social and emotional issues that affect their learning, and
funds, in the technology infrastructure, and, perhaps making changes when student learning stalls. In-person
most importantly, in the level of will and demand for bet- teachers also will be best positioned, at least in the near
ter student outcomes. Here we outline a vision for how future, to develop students’ higher-order thinking:
these changes can be realized. applying knowledge and skills to analyze challenging
problems, grasp broader concepts, and devise new ideas
Extending Great Teachers’ Reach and solutions.

We know the quality of instruction a student receives But time is a critical constraint for this type of educator.
makes a huge difference. Having teachers in the top 25 With only so many hours in the day, even the best face
percent of effectiveness versus the bottom 25 percent severe limits on the number of students they can reach.
would enable the average low-income child to make up The promise of digital technology in this context is its
the typical achievement gap in just three to four years.6 ability to free excellent in-person teachers’ time using what
Consecutive excellent teachers also can help middling we call “time-technology swaps.”10 In this model, digital
students leap ahead. Yet, we know that the ways schools instruction takes over a portion of great in-person
generally work today, with one teacher assigned to each teachers’ instructional duties, such as delivering lectures
classroom, only about 25 percent of classes will have one and assessing students’ mastery of standards. This frees
of these top-tier teachers at a given time. The other 75 teachers’ time—allowing fewer (and better) in-person
percent will not. teachers to reach more students with the personalized,
enriched portions of their instruction.11
As we have argued elsewhere, one promising strategy to
change those numbers is to “extend the reach” of excel- These swaps involve fundamental restructuring of the
lent teachers to more students, paying these teachers school day: using digital instruction specifically for the
more, and attracting and keeping more of them—while purpose of freeing enough hours of great teachers’ time
still remaining within budget.7 States, districts, and to work with significant numbers of additional students—
schools are beginning to deploy more comprehensive not just layering available technology atop current
systems to determine teacher effectiveness. As those education-delivery models. Students spend 25 percent or
systems improve, education leaders will know with more more time with digital instruction, most likely focused on
certainty and in more subjects and grades which teachers knowledge and skill acquisition. Adults still supervise
are achieving the strongest results. Schools can move to students during this time, but they do not need to be
identify the best teachers more rapidly, rather than wait- teachers as we know them. Indeed, many will not be.
ing for systems legally defensible for dismissals.8 With
better evaluation, the opportunity to leverage great Numerous schools have begun using digital instruction
teachers to help more students will grow significantly.9 for time-technology swaps, many of them described in
Innosight Institute’s Rise of Blended Learning profiles.
Some ways of extending excellent teachers’ reach do not Here are two examples:
require technology. For example, schools could shift a
few more students into better teachers’ classrooms or Rocketship Education. In this California-based
put teacher-leaders in charge of multiple classrooms. But charter-school network’s elementary schools,
the digital revolution can extend great teachers’ reach students spend 25 percent of their time in a
much further, in three ways: replacing a portion of in- “learning lab,” receiving self-paced digital
structional work with digital tools, interacting with more instruction and live tutoring monitored by para-
students remotely by removing some non-instructional professionals. Because this frees teachers’ time,
tasks, and instructing students “boundlessly” via video three teachers are able to reach a total of 100
and smart software that personalizes learning.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute | 3

students, rather than just seventy-five, in rotat- Time-saving, Productivity-enhancing Tools
ing classes of twenty-five students at a time.
KIPP Empower. In this Los Angeles K–8 charter One way to free teachers’ time is to off-load some in-
school, part of the national KIPP network, structional duties to digital instruction. Another is to find
teachers in each classroom rotate students ways for digital tools to streamline non-instructional
among computer-based adaptive-learning tasks that take teachers’ time but are important for ex-
programs, teacher-led small groups, and cellent student outcomes. According to data from the
individualized instruction with teachers. Overall 2007-08 Schools and Staffing Survey, elementary and
class sizes are twenty-eight or twenty-nine secondary teachers spend twenty-two and twenty-four
students per teacher (compared with about hours per week, respectively, on non-instructional duties
twenty in typical KIPP L.A. schools), but with half (things like administrative paperwork, etc.).13 Could digi-
the class engaged in computer instruction at any tal tools help reduce that load?14 Here is a sampling of
given time, teacher-led groups number between tools designed to streamline instructional and
fourteen and fifteen students for core subjects non-instructional duties:
(reading, math, writing, and science).
Compiling and analyzing student data. For exam-
Beyond time-technology swaps, digital tools can also ple, New York City, working with the technology
free great teachers’ time in other ways. (See the sidebar firm Wireless Generation, implemented the
“Time-saving, Productivity-enhancing Tools.”) Achievement Reporting and Innovation System
(ARIS) to put a wide array of data and analysis at
Remote Instruction teachers’ fingertips.15

Remote instruction comes in two flavors: “synchronous” Personalizing instruction modes and levels of work.
and “asynchronous.” In synchronous instruction, the For example, School of One provides the math
teacher and the students are interacting at the same time program at three New York City middle schools.
via videoconference, video-chat, shared online School of One’s “learning algorithm” recom-
“whiteboards,” audio-conference, online text chat, or mends to teachers a daily schedule (“playlist”) of
even just simple telephone calls. Cameras placed in class- learning activities tailored for each student, re-
rooms can give remote teachers visual access to whole ducing teachers’ lesson-planning load.16
classes, allowing these educators to monitor their effects
on students. As technology improves, this kind of inter- Finding or creating lesson plans and materials.
action is likely to feel increasingly like natural, in-person BetterLesson, for example, is a free website that
interaction—especially as video conferencing becomes invites teachers to “Find lesson plans, classroom
smoother and as three-dimensional holograms of materials and instructional resources from
teachers or “immersive” online environments, like those high-performing teachers.”17 Taking a different
experienced in games, are used more frequently.12 tack is TeachersPayTeachers, an “open market-
place where teachers buy and sell original
In asynchronous instruction, teachers still interact with teaching materials” launched by a former NYC
students, but not in real time. Instead, they provide writ- teacher. Subscription-based netTrekker enables
ten online feedback on assignments, answer students’ teachers (and students) to search 300,000 “digital
questions via email, or post a response to an online dis- resources” that it says have been “vetted by
cussion board for many students to see. high-performing teachers.”18 Since the quality of
materials posted to such sites is likely to vary
Remote instruction opens up numerous professional op- widely, one key to their success will be enabling
portunities for teachers that are less likely or impossible the best to rise to the top based on user ratings
in an all-in-person environment: or, better yet, efficacy with students.

Live where you want to live. One of the biggest Performing administrative tasks. Numerous
challenges in providing great instruction to all electronic “gradebooks” have emerged to track
students is that many children live in places with student attendance, keep calendars, and share
a limited supply of good, or great, in-person assignments and grades with students and
teachers—with rural areas as the prime example. parents. Examples include engrade and
Remote instruction makes it possible for teachers LearnBoost.19

4 | Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction

to live where they want to live, while educating With boundless instruction, teachers capture their
students where they live. instructional prowess in a way that can then be shared
Choosing a work setting. Remote teaching widely, with a theoretically unlimited number of stu-
enables teachers to work from home, or pods of dents. Two primary modes of boundless instruction are
remote teachers to work in an office together like becoming increasingly common, each of which suggests
one would commonly see in other professions. new roles for great teachers:
Remote instruction also enables teachers to
combine in-person teaching with remote duties. Media-genic super-instructors. The ability to
In Alabama’s online school, for example, most of broadcast video lessons over the Internet makes
the faculty members have traditional teaching it possible for teachers who are excellent content
jobs during the day.20 explainers to become star teachers, reaching a
Individualizing instruction. Remote learning can potentially boundless number of students. The
increase the amount of personal individualized most well-known of these efforts, the Khan
attention a teacher provides students. Distance Academy, had made 2,600 video lessons avail-
paradoxically can make it easier for educators, able online on a wide range of subjects, which
who do not have the additional duties that an had been viewed over 80 million times by people
in-person teacher typically would, to focus on worldwide (as of October 2011).25 Other exam-
one student at a time. Innosight Institute’s profile ples include: video course libraries made avail-
of Riverside Virtual School, for example, reports, able by universities such as Carnegie-Mellon and
“Overall, teachers say that they interact more MIT and initiatives like Learning Match that
with students as online teachers than when they enable individual teachers to test and then
are teaching a face-to-face course. Students also submit their own video lessons. We expect that
report having higher levels of engagement.”21 video may expand to include holograms someday
Specializing. As Rick Hess and others have ar- soon, given the rapid progression of holographic
gued, one promising way to improve the teach- technology. The potential benefits to students
ing profession is to “unbundle” the teaching role, are obvious: As this technology advances, no
enabling teachers to specialize in the aspects of student should ever have to learn about the
teaching they do best—delivering engaging pres- quadratic formula, or the causes of the Civil War,
entations, tutoring in small groups, or leading or the dynamics of supply and demand from any-
analytic discussion sections.22 Focusing the time one other than the very best explainers of those
of great teachers on specific tasks linked directly topics worldwide.
to student-achievement results and relieving Application architects. The digital software explo-
them of other, less impactful duties can free their sion offers another set of opportunities for
time to teach more students. teachers: the ability to create or help design
Leveraging time by managing or assisting other applications that convert their pedagogical
remote teachers. An excellent remote teacher knowledge into smart software that guides
with managerial or coaching competencies could students through a series of “lessons” designed
remain a teacher while also supervising or help- to help them master some academic content
ing one, two, or more other teachers.23 If without direct teacher interaction. In Disrupting
teachers in this role are truly accountable man- Class, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and
agers rather than just unaccountable advisors, it Curtis Johnson write about Virtual Chem Lab, an
will actually extend the reach of the excellent online application that enables students to
teacher’s standards and practices—and create engage in simulated chemistry experiments.
meaningful career paths for educators who want Virtual Chem Lab is used by 150,000 students and
to remain teachers.24 is one of many examples of applications created
by instructors eager to extend themselves to a
Boundless Instruction larger number of students.26 In New York City’s
Quest to Learn School, teachers collaborate with
Remote instruction is limited by a scarce resource: the video game designers from the Institute of Play
time of the teacher. Even if teaching remotely allows an to create game-based learning experiences that
instructor to reach more students, a person can work can be used both within Quest to Learn and also
only so many hours in a day. boundlessly.27

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute | 5

Attracting and Retaining the Best Boosting Average Teachers’ Effectiveness

Digital learning has the potential to create new career In addition to giving dramatically more students access
opportunities for excellent teachers. As they reach more to excellent teachers, digital learning also has the poten-
students, they should be able to earn more—out of tial to boost the effectiveness of average teachers—those
the per-pupil funding attached to a larger number of who keep their students on track, but who struggle to
students. The chance of enhanced advancement and pay close achievement gaps or help middling students leap
will, in turn, make the profession a more attractive ahead. We see several ways that digital learning could
long-term career for high performers. As a result, U.S. help these teachers achieve better outcomes. We keep
public education should have an easier time attracting this analysis brief, as this topic has been well-examined
and retaining top talent in teaching, ultimately making by other commentators31:
the profession a more welcoming place for
high-achieving graduates to spend full careers. The U.S. Delivering initial knowledge and skill instruction.
won’t need as many teachers; as in other industries, The more students are learning through the
technology will do increasing portions of the work and “smart software” described above, the more time
enable other, lower-paid staff members to support teachers will have to help students overcome
students and the excellent teachers in charge of their learning barriers and teach higher-order skills.
instruction. Meanwhile, schools can ensure the accuracy and
consistency of basic knowledge and skill instruc-
tion delivered digitally.
Not There Yet Generating real-time student data and lesson-plan
advice. Today’s best teachers excel at diagnosing
To realize the changes in the teaching profession dis- each student’s needs and planning instruction
cussed here, the digital landscape itself will need to im- accordingly. Digital technology holds the
prove in at least three ways. First, as the Digital Learning promise of providing other teachers with similar
Now! signatories and others have said, providing univer- insight, by analyzing results and recommending
sal low-cost access to broadband Internet for all K-12 next steps personalized to the student’s needs.
teachers and students—during and beyond “school Enhancing professional development. Digital tech-
hours”—would greatly accelerate the nation’s ability to nology makes it possible for teachers to learn
start implementing these ideas.28 from videos of great teachers, obtain critical and
timely feedback on their own video-recorded les-
Second, digital users do not yet have platforms that help sons, and connect with other teachers as men-
them find and deploy the best and best-fit among the tors or peer-helpers. Some portion of excellent
explosion of digital resources. The lack of platforms that teachers’ time freed in time-technology swaps
connect digital resources to varying curricula and individ- also can be used to coach or manage peers.
ual child needs is a major barrier to personalizing learn- Enabling specialization. As digital learning does
ing. In all likelihood, the marketplace will increasingly more of the work of teaching, teachers can
provide multiple versions of such an integrative platform, increasingly specialize in their teaching
but for now it remains an item on the “Technology Wish strengths—such as particular subjects or parts of
List” of the schools featured in The Rise of Blended Learn- the teaching process. Some teachers who are
ing.29 average overall may be excellent specialists.
Introducing time-saving, productivity-enhancing
Finally, digital learning must become significantly better tools. Such tools can free teachers’ time for un-
than some aspects of in-person instruction, ultimately derstanding student data, planning their teach-
matching excellent teachers. Measurement of digital ing, or personalizing instruction. (See the
learning effects on student outcomes is nascent, but re- sidebar, “Time-saving, Productivity-enhancing
search indicates only a small edge over average instruc- Tools.”)
tion for now.30 Without significant improvements, the
major educational benefit of digital learning will be allow- Re-sculpting Policy and Management Systems
ing successful time-technology swaps to extend the
reach of excellent live instructors. Instead, the two in The changes described above won’t happen automatical-
tandem—excellent digital tools and excellent live teach- ly. Digital learning will have to improve significantly (see
ers for all children—should be the goal of policy changes. the sidebar “Not There Yet”). In addition, policies and

6 | Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction

management systems must change in order to make The digital age makes certification reform even more
these new arrangements viable.32 Here, we briefly pressing for two reasons:
explore a set of systems that are particularly relevant to
the teacher role: training and professional development; The need to teach across state lines. The use of
certification; class size; evaluation and supervision; digital tools can extend teachers’ reach nationally
compensation and related finance systems; employment and internationally. This heightens the impor-
arrangements; and unionization. tance of eliminating state-based certification
barriers: No policy should block great teachers
Training and Professional Development from reaching a given state’s children, no matter
where the teacher resides or which license she
Teacher training and professional development (PD) will holds. State policies need to be swiftly amended
need to change in two primary ways as digital learning to fix this issue. If they are not, federal policy-
becomes more prevalent.33 First, digital learning will makers should step in: Under the Interstate
change what teachers need to learn. As teaching becomes Commerce Clause, the emerging interstate
more differentiated, so must teacher training and PD. economy for instruction allows for federal
Putting on a top-notch video-recorded teaching perfor- preemption of state laws that affect this national
mance requires a competency and skill set different from, talent exchange.38 Just as federal law prevents
say, remote tutoring—and certainly different from those individual states from restricting commerce
needed to be an effective in-person educator. across state lines in other industries, federal
action could trump state policies that keep great
Teacher-preparation programs and ongoing PD must teachers residing elsewhere from instructing the
address these new needs. But one factor will help lighten state’s children virtually.
the training load: the passage of time will also involve a The need to use non-certified personnel. Under
generational shift, with the ranks of teachers increasingly some state-certification laws, a licensed teacher
filled by entrants who are “digital natives” rather than must supervise students when taking core
“digital immigrants,” having grown up using digital courses, even if learning online. This restriction
tools.34 Indeed, we can already see many signs of increas- undermines the economics of using digital learn-
ing technological proficiency among teachers. In 2000, ing to free great teachers’ time, pay them more,
the average state reported that in 28 percent of schools, and save money. Without such restrictions,
more than half were “beginners” when it came to tech- schools could employ less expensive
nology. By 2005, the percentage was down to 15, and one non-licensed personnel to monitor students,
can only think it has continued to decline.35 splitting cost savings between salaries for the
fewer, better in-person teachers and the school.
Second, digital learning can change how teachers receive Unless paired with shared cost savings, digital
training and PD. In 2005, the average state reported that instruction will not launch the kind of virtuous
34 and 35 percent of its schools delivered PD online or via cycle of sustainable excellence described above,
video, respectively. By 2006, these percentages were up in which digital instruction enables excellent
to 65 and 74. No more recent data are available, but it in-person teachers to reach more students,
seems likely that these percentages have continued to enables schools to pay them more for doing so,
increase. In the digital age, teachers’ roles are likely to and thereby entices more excellent teachers to
shift over time, as technology makes different modes of enter and stay in the profession.
teaching possible, and as individuals advance their
instructional careers. PD, too, needs to be dynamic, Class Size
available “on demand” rather than in big dollops at the
beginning of a teacher’s career and during summers.36 Thirty-six states currently have some limit on class size.39
These limits apply equally to the best and worst teachers.
Certification Digital learning bumps up against class-size restrictions
in two ways. First, limiting the number of students that a
Today’s certification practices do little to screen out remote instructor can serve would detract from one of
ineffective teachers, and they appear to prevent some the key potential advantages of this type of instruction:
high-potential candidates from entering the profession.37 the ability of excellent teachers to reach more students.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute | 7

Second, even in brick-and-mortar schools, class-size re- specific roles within the teaching process. Teachers who
strictions can limit the advantages of digital learning. are highly effective at leading a whole in-person class-
Schools are configuring students in myriad ways, having room, for example, may be less effective at remote
them, at different times, work independently, in small education and vice versa. Likewise, teachers who are ex-
groups, in learning labs, and in traditional classroom- perts at teaching about the Civil War may stumble when
based settings. Without this flexibility, it would be asked to explain the Progressive Era. Ideally, data and
difficult for these schools to blend digital and in-person evaluation systems will become multi-dimensional,
learning. State policymakers should eliminate simplistic yielding insight not just about how effective teachers are,
across-the-board limits or, at the very least, build in the but in what aspects of teaching they are effective.40
possibility of flexibility for schools that have an alter- Increasingly, evaluation systems will need to examine not
native model. just outcomes and easily observable practices, but the
underlying competencies that determine individuals’ fit-
Evaluation and Supervision ness for different roles.41 Developing these systems will
take time, but will ultimately be more useful than less
The rise of digital learning presents both bad news and nuanced approaches.
good news for teacher-evaluation reform. The bad news
is that today’s new evaluation systems are largely being The good news for teacher evaluation is that the digital
built for a traditional one-teacher-one-classroom model, age should make possible unprecedented levels of trans-
at exactly the time that this conventional mode seems parency in teaching (and data collection) that should, in
poised to decline. The role changes described above turn, facilitate evaluation and developmental feedback
create two challenges for teacher evaluation. for teachers. In today’s “closed-door” classrooms, little of
what goes on is truly capture-able in a way that would
First, digital tools will make it increasingly possible to enable a teacher’s peers, supervisors, or coaches to see
“unbundle” the teacher’s role, so that multiple people how they are teaching. Observations can help, but they
(rather than a single teacher) contribute to a student’s are inevitably sporadic and somewhat artificial. The more
learning. Of course this is not completely new, but it is teaching that happens virtually, the more observable it
likely to accelerate in the digital age, as little Susie becomes—both live, and in retrospect.
receives algebra instruction via video, has her homework
assigned and graded by a remote teacher, and receives Compensation and Related Finance Systems
extra help from a classroom paraprofessional. In this
multi-person context, how can each participant’s Though new compensation structures will be needed, we
“value-add” be identified? do not here prescribe an alternative compensation sys-
tem for the digital age. Organizations will want to en-
This complexity means that, whatever arrangements gage different approaches that fit their circumstances.
emerge, policies should require that one adult be ulti- What works for a statewide public virtual school might
mately accountable for each student’s learning in each not be best for a for-profit online-education provider, a
measured subject. That adult could be in-person or cyber charter network, or a district that is blending digital
remote. That adult may employ digital tools, enlist other and in-person learning.
adults, and otherwise mobilize resources on behalf of the
child. But for the state’s or district’s teacher-evaluation Instead, we offer three observations:
system, the student “counts” for that teacher’s eval-
uation. Accordingly, this accountable adult must have The need for flexibility. State policies or
significant choice over resources—human and other- collective-bargaining agreements that mandate
wise—used in the child’s education as well as adequate lockstep salary schedules and tie funding to spe-
data about performance of those resources, a topic to cific positions must be set aside to enable teacher
which we return in our conclusion. pay to reflect the sort of role differentiation
described above. Of particular importance are
Second, as teacher roles become more differentiated, a three kinds of flexibility: (a) the ability to pay ex-
simplistic rating of each teacher as “highly effective,” cellent teachers more for educating a larger
“effective,” and so forth becomes less meaningful. A number of students successfully; (b) the flexibility
teacher, her peers and supervisors, and her students’ to employ people not on the teacher salary
parents will need to know not just how effective she is schedule to perform roles such as monitoring
overall (already a tricky task), but how effective she is in digital-learning labs, tutoring, or performing

8 | Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction

parts of remote instruction, rather than requiring Employment
the use of licensed teachers for such duties; and
(c) the ability to make school funding flexible The more divorced teaching becomes from a specific
more generally, enabling schools to allocate school site, the easier it becomes to imagine different
funds to different kinds of staff and technology kinds of employment arrangements for teachers. Some
to meet students’ needs. Item (a) is in part a mat- of these are implied in previous sections, but other possi-
ter of simple fairness to excellent teachers, but bilities include:
also a key to starting the potential virtuous cycle
of expanded great teacher reach, leading to Working for a virtual school or online education
greater pay and career opportunities, leading to provider. Already, an increasing number of
higher levels of retention and attraction of new teachers work for one of the state-run or charter
high-caliber entrants. Items (b) and (c) are vital to virtual schools or private providers of online
unlocking the funds needed to make (a) possible. education, full-time or in addition to their “day
Meshing with the evolving finance system. Work- jobs” as in-person teachers. As these providers
ing papers in this series—“School Finance in the grow, they will create other opportunities for
Digital Learning Era” and the forthcoming (tenta- teachers to contribute, such as by recording
tively titled) “A Performance-Based Funding top-notch videos of content that can become
Model in Action”—address how school-finance part of providers’ libraries.
systems need to change in the digital age. If, as Working as a provider of specialized instruction.
some proponents have suggested, finance for Online providers like Connections Academy and
digital learning moves toward a system in which K12 offer the full range of content. But other
providers are paid (either in full or in part) only if providers are emerging to offer more special-
their students succeed, then providers will need ized services, such as Presence Telecare, which
to design teacher-compensation systems to align uses videoconferencing to offer online speech
incentives. Outcome-based funding can encour- therapy. Presence employs licensed speech
age effective use of both digital learning and the therapists nationally who work from home on a
adults accountable for its success. flexible schedule. Similar services are likely to
Creating a market for teacher talent. The rise of emerge across other specialties, including core
remote and boundless instruction opens up the academic-content areas. These services could
possibility of a national, or international, market hire teachers as employees or consultants, or
for teaching talent. Especially if finance systems could be organized, owned, and run by teachers
shift to rewarding providers for results, excellent themselves, just as in law, medicine, and other
teachers—in-person and online—will become professions.43
increasingly valuable financially, and they should Working as a designer. Teachers will have
be able to leverage that value into higher increasing opportunities to contribute to
compensation for themselves. Whether they are “boundless” instructional resources such as
providing remote instruction to specific groups of smart software, either by developing it
students, converting their teaching talent into themselves or by working as an employee or
boundlessly available resources like video record- contractor for developers.
ings or smart software, or using digital instruc-
tion to extend their reach in-person, top teachers Unions
should have expanded earning opportunity. How
all this will sort out in the marketplace is, of Terry Moe and John Chubb (author of the tentatively
course, uncertain. The most well-known provider titled “Redefining Local Control in the Digital Era” in this
of video instruction, the Khan Academy, cur- series) predict that unions will inevitably lose out as digi-
rently provides all its content free of charge and tal learning takes hold, because of lost geographic con-
covers costs with philanthropy. In Korea, where centration and reduced number of teachers, both of
teaching excellence is revered, super-instructors which are key to union power.44 While this is a plausible
can earn six or seven figures.42 Enabling great outcome, we see another possibility.
U.S. teachers to earn what they are worth to
society may be necessary to scale up a sus- Whatever the effect of digital learning on the overall
tainable national marketplace for great teachers. number of jobs in the education sector, there can be little
doubt that technology will transform the field into a

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute | 9

much wider array of differentiated roles in comparison to kinds of jobs for people in technical fields, but also for
today’s one-teacher-one-classroom model. Union lead- people who can play specialized non-teaching roles
ers who grasp this reality and step in to support online to help students as they work with the technology.
employees in this changing sector may keep their organi- Where today’s teaching profession resembles the bygone
zations viable. Those who do not adapt may face trouble age of the solo general-practitioner doctor carrying out
as the employment structure shifts. Union relationships all of the practice’s tasks himself, tomorrow’s is likely to
could enable predictable wages for a growing number of look increasingly like the modern medical field: with a
roles and portable benefits that employees may carry wide array of different professionals and para-
with them into new jobs. Education unions that provide professionals playing a range of roles that together add
benefits directly may attract free-agent employees who up to a coherent system of service delivery centered
want security in a work environment where roles and jobs around patients. Similar changes occurred in the legal
are changing and where not all labor is attached to profession, enabling better lawyers to earn more by
specific schools in full-time, permanent positions. Motion serving more clients with teams of junior associates,
picture and other entertainment-industry unions may paralegals, and administrative assistants. All of this is so
provide starting-point models for the future of education: familiar today that it is easy to forget how recently these
Stars are paid for their disproportionate economic and significant changes occurred.
entertainment value, but other professionals are paid
predictable wages and have access to benefits. In these Of course, this is easy to envision on paper. Without a
sectors, union rules set minimum pay for supporting roles strong “demand” from education providers to use digital
without limiting pay for top-tier performers. learning effectively, uptake will be slower than it could
be. Likewise, the significant changes in policy and man-
A Revitalized Teaching Profession, If We Have the Will agement systems that are needed to usher in these new
opportunities will not happen, or will happen much too
These potential changes bode well for the teaching slowly to keep up with the potential of technology.46
profession, which has the chance to become, like other
professions, an “Opportunity Culture” in which teachers One way to create this demand would be to empower
have a wide array of ways to advance in the profession excellent teachers who have already proven they are
while remaining teachers, and to be rewarded for their driven to succeed. What if schools, districts, or even
contributions.45 This bodes especially well for consistent- states gave willing individual excellent teachers the
ly excellent teachers, who stand to gain the most in power and funding to integrate digital technology (and
terms of expanded opportunities and rewards, and other human resources) into learning, in exchange for
whose ranks should increase because of the enhanced taking on a larger load of students? What if these great
attractiveness of the job to high performers. But it also teachers gained control of a good portion of the funding
bodes well for average teachers who, by taking advan- generated by her expanded number of students? This
tage of the time-saving potential of digital tools and power to purchase, use, and change digital and human
other potential benefits, will have much greater oppor- resources, and to assess the options based on data and
tunity to contribute to excellence than they can in prior results would allow the person accountable for
traditional classrooms. students’ results to determine curricular content and
better ensure student achievement. What if not just one
This is not to say the changes bode well for all teachers. or a few excellent teachers gained that power, but
As the nation comes to need fewer instructors per pupil, thousands or tens of thousands?
school providers will be able to push out the very least
effective teachers (if policy allows). These changes would Whether through that approach or some other, the
be positive for students and the public, as schools should nation’s schools and policymakers will need the courage
be able to achieve better results, within current budgets, to dramatically change—and not just nibble away at the
by employing fewer, better teachers. edges of—a profession that has remained static as other
professions have advanced. Without that courage, our
While digital learning will mean a lower headcount of teachers and students—and our nation—will miss an
traditional teachers, not all of these jobs will disappear: enormous opportunity made possible by the advent of
Some will be replaced by new roles, such as monitoring digital technology while other nations undoubtedly seize
students during digital instruction time, providing it.
small-group tutoring, and performing non-instructional
duties. Remote and boundless instruction will open all

10 | Teachers in the Age of Digital Instruction

1 7
Tim Walker, “Laptops Are Not Teachers,” NEA Today, April 1, Hassel and Hassel, 3X for All.
2011, http://neatoday.org/2011/04/01/laptops-are-not-
teachers/. Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel, Seizing Opportunity
at the Top: How the U.S. Can Reach Every Student with an
Gregory Ferenstein, “Teacher-Replacing Tech: Friend or Excellent Teacher (policy brief) (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Public Im-
Foe?” Fast Company, February 1, 2011, pact, 2011),
http://www.fastcompany.com/1722914/can-computers- http://opportunityculture.org/seizing_opportunity_policybrief
replace-teachers. -public_impact.pdf; and “Seizing Opportunity at the Top:
How the U.S. Can Reach Every Student with an Excellent
Emily Ayscue Hassel and Bryan C. Hassel, 3X for All: Extending Teacher” (working paper) (Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact,
the Reach of Education’s Best (Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact, 2011),
2009), http://opportunityculture.org/seizing_opportunity_fullreport-
http://www.publicimpact.com/images/stories/3x_for_all- public_impact.pdf.
public_impact.pdf. Digital learning may itself contribute to improved teacher
evaluations by producing a stream of real-time information
Hassel and Hassel, 3X for All; Clayton M. Christensen, Michael about individual student learning, an improvement over
B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson, Disrupting Class: How today’s end-of-year test-based systems.
Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008); Terry M. Moe and John E. For more discussion of extending the reach of great teachers
Chubb, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the by using “time-technology swaps,” see Public Impact’s
Future of American Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Reaching More Students with Great Teaching: Summary
2009). Reach Extension Models, available at
www.opportunityculture.org. See also Christensen, Horn,
Michael Horn, “Why Digital Learning Will Liberate Teachers,” and Johnson’s discussion of “disruptively deploying
Innosight Institute, August 9, 2011, computers” in Disrupting Class; and Paul T. Hill, Learning as
http://www.innosightinstitute.org/education-blog/why- We Go: Why School Choice Is Worth the Wait (Stanford, CA:
digital-learning-will-liberate-teachers/; Alex Hernandez, Hoover Institution Press, 2010), pp. 68-71.
“Blended Learning’s Impact on Teacher Development,”
Innosight Institute, July 11, 2011, In theory, students could spend time on digital learning at
http://www.innosightinstitute.org/education-blog/blended- home, known as “homework flipping.” Though some schools
learnings-impact-on-teacher-development/; Tom Vander Ark, are experimenting with this, it faces limits as we have written
“10 Reasons Teachers Love Blended Learning,” Huffington elsewhere (e.g., “Khan Academy: Not Overhyped, Just
Post, July 11, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom- Missing a Key Ingredient – Excellent Live Teachers,”
vander-ark/10-reasons-teachers-love-_b_894222.html. On Education Next blog, posted June 13, 2011). The 2004
rethinking teacher roles more generally to enable average National Assessment of Educational Progress survey of
teachers to contribute to excellence, see various writings of students found that 39 percent of high schoolers do no
Frederick M. Hess and his colleagues, including “How to Get homework, and another 28 percent do an hour or less each
the Teachers We Want,” Education Next 9, no. 3 (2009), night (NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress, p. 51). Most
http://educationnext.org/how-to-get-the-teachers-we-want/; students do not have much homework time to flip. In
Jane Coggshall, Molly Lasagna, and Sabrina Laine, Toward the addition, home access to broadband Internet remains
Structural Transformation of Schools: Innovations in Staffing spotty, especially for low-income students.
(Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates, 2009),
http://www.learningpt.org/expertise/educatorquality/resourc Holographic technology has improved significantly in the
es/publications/InnovationsInStaffing.pdf; and Barnett Berry past decade, so that viewers in a room can see the images
and the Teacher Solutions 2030 Team, Teaching 2030: What from any angle. Volumetric displays are used to present the
We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools (New image. Whole classrooms might become volumetric
York: Teachers College Press, 2011). displays, or computers might be able to present small, per-
sonalized holographic images to students. See, for example,
For the data and calculations behind this conclusion, see http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v468/n7320/full/natur
Bryan C. Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel, Opportunity at the e09521.html.
Top: How America’s Best Teachers Could Close the Gaps, Raise
the Bar, and Keep Our Nation Great (Chapel Hill, NC: Public National Center for Education Statistics, 2007-08 Schools and
Impact, 2010), notes 12 and 15, Staffing Survey, Table 6, retrieved at
http://opportunityculture.org/images/stories/opportunity_rep http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009324/tables/sass0708_2009
ort_web.pdf. 324_t12n_06.asp#f2.
14 27
Even without digital tools, schools could reduce the Staker, Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, p. 125. Note that soft-
non-instructional time of great teachers by reassigning it to ware designers need not have been teachers previously, but
other staff, freeing up excellent teachers to reach more the best will—like excellent teachers—have a strong grasp of
students. For a discussion of non-instructional time swaps, what motivates children, as well as deep content knowledge.
see Public Impact’s Reaching More Students with Great
Teaching. Digital Learning Now!, 10 Elements of High Quality Digital
Learning (Tallahassee, FL: Foundation for Excellence in
For more on ARIS, see Arthur VanderVeen, “Smarter Data Education, 2010), p. 13,
Systems: The New York City Experience,” The Quick & the http://www.excelined.org/Docs/Digital%20Learning%20No
Ed, March 15, 2010, w%20Report%20FINAL.pdf.
the-new-york-city-experience.html. Staker, Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, p. 172.
16 30
Visit School of One’s homepage at http://schoolofone.org. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning,
Evaluation, and Policy Development, Evaluation of Evidence-
Visit BetterLesson’s homepage at http://betterlesson.org and Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and
KIPP:Share’s homepage at https://share.kipp.org. Review of Online Learning Studies (Washington, D.C., 2010).
18 31
Visit netTrekker’s homepage at http://www.nettrekker.com. See note 5 for references.
19 32
Visit engrade’s homepage at http://www.engrade.com and See Digital Learning Now!, 10 Elements of High Quality
LearnBoost’s homepage at https://www.learnboost.com. Digital Learning.
20 33
Heather Staker, The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning: Profiles of For further discussion, see Alex Hernandez, “Blended
Emerging Models (Mountain View, CA: Innosight Institute, Learning’s Impact on Teacher Development.”
2011), p. 13.
Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” On the
Staker, Rise of K-12 Blended Learning, p. 128. Horizon 9, no. 5 (2001),
See note 5 for citations. See also Hess’s working paper in this %20digital%20natives,%20digital%20immigrants%20-
series, “Quality Control in K-12 Digital Learning,” p. 2. %20part1.pdf.
23 35
Somewhat paradoxically, remote instruction may make it Authors’ tabulations from table generated by Education
easier for supervisors and peers to monitor and assist Week, Education Counts online table builder, Custom table
teachers with their instruction by making teaching more run June, 2011.
transparent. There is not much of a “classroom door” to
“close” in the online world. In many ways, this imperative is no different from what
researchers have long said PD should be like in the
This role could exist for in-person teachers too. Some pre-digital age. Lucy Steiner, Public Impact, Designing
schools have “lead teachers,” “mentors,” and “coaches,” but Effective Professional Development Experiences: What Do We
these positions rarely involve the accountable management Know? (Naperville, IL: Learning Point Associates, 2004),
we intend. Instituting this model within remote instruction http://www.tqsource.org/issueforums/plantoAction/resource
may be easier, because organizational routines are less s/4_PDResearchPolicyAction/DesigningEffectivePD.pdf.
established (for now) in online education. Newly hired
remote educators would sign up understanding they’d be Dan D. Goldhaber and Dominic J. Brewer, “Does Teacher
working in teacher-led pods. For more discussion of Certification Matter? High School Teacher Certification
extending the reach of great in-person teachers in this way, Status and Student Achievement,” Education and Policy
see Public Impact’s Reaching More Students with Great Analysis 22, no. 2 (2000): 129‐145; Thomas J. Kane, Jonah E.
Teaching. Rockoff, and Douglas O. Staiger, “What Does Certification
Tell Us About Teacher Effectiveness? Evidence from New
Visit Khan Academy’s homepage at York City,” Economics of Education Review 27, no. 6 (2008):
http://www.khanacademy.org. Data on number of videos 615‐631,
and views as of October 14, 2011. http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/features/kane/nycfellows
march2006.pdf; Dan Goldhaber, “The Mystery of Good
Christensen, Horn, and Johnson, Disrupting Class. Teaching,” Education Next 2, no. 1 (2002): 50‐55,
United States Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3).
Kyle Zinth, Maximum P-12 Class-Size Policies State Note
(Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States, 2009), p.
1, http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/82/91/8291.pdf.
One step in this direction is the Southern Regional Education
Board’s Standards for Quality Online Teaching (Atlanta, GA,
Teaching.pdf. iNACOL, the international online learning
trade association, has endorsed this work as a standard for
the industry.
For more on competencies as part of teacher evaluation, see
Public Impact’s How Should States Define Teacher
Effectiveness? (Chapel Hill, NC, 2009),
How_Should_States_Define_Teacher_Effectiveness.pdf. For
more on competencies in general as predictors of work
performance, see Lyle M. Spencer and Signe Spencer,
Competence at Work, Models for Superior Performance (New
York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003). For more on Singapore’s
use of competencies in its teacher evaluation system, see
Lucy Steiner, Using Competency-based Evaluation to Drive
Teacher Excellence: Lessons from Singapore (Chapel Hill, NC:
Public Impact, 2010),
“Where a Teacher Can Make Millions,” Bloomberg
Businessweek, December 11, 2006,
Teachers in Professional Practice: An Inventory of New
Opportunities for Teachers, 2nd Edition (St. Paul, MN:
Education | Evolving, 2006),
Moe and Chubb, Liberating Learning, p. 158.
Hassel and Hassel, Opportunity at the Top, p. 22.
Public Impact’s working paper “Seizing Opportunity at the
Top” outlines major federal and state policy options for
inducing demand, but these are beyond the scope of this