We’ve all seen the reports about the looming teacher shortage. Some projections say without some sort of seachange in the education landscape hundreds of thousands of teacher vacancies will go unfilled. Unfilled teacher vacancies result in long term subs (of which there are also shortages), uncredentialed teachers, and generally just a Warm Body to monitor children. In such cases, schools will no doubt rely on a digitized curriculum so kids don’t fall too far behind. It won’t be anyone’s Plan A or even Plan B, but when you’re looking at multiple teacher vacancies and no one to fill them, educational technology serves as a sort of Plan L. It’s a technical solution to an adaptive problem.
What is the appropriate response from digital curriculum developers? Is the goal to make the best possible canned curriculum for students to minimize the harm they are receiving by not having a qualified teacher in the room? Is it to craft a curriculum that is so engaging and helpful for teachers that it’ll keep them in the profession longer? Is it to offer a modicum of pushback by saying that in order to use their curriculum a teacher must be appropriately credentialed?
I think even the most proud curriculum developers – so enamored with their own product – would acknowledge that the lack of a qualified content area instructor is bad for student learning. Regardless of how shiny the product is, no curriculum is truly “teacher proof.”
So what strategies are curriculum developers taking and what is the best (or least worst) response to a massive teacher shortage?
At the risk of singling out a specific Ed Tech and digital curriculum company, one which I respect and puts out a quality product, let’s consider Amplify, which recently purchased Desmos. I enjoy many of Amplified’s offerings. I’ve blogged about Polypad and use it in my class. The integration of PolyPad into Desmos’ activity builder is no doubt very cool and fun. Every district mathematics coordinator knows the Amplify curriculum and many are enamored with it. They might purchase it for their district. They might even – and this is entirely well intentioned – purchase it for their district because it’s the least worst solution to the Warm Body Problem. There are a lot of really bad digital curricula out there that degrade student enjoyment and learning of math. And you need something for which an adult can just “press play.” And Desmos is, perhaps, the least worst press play curriculum, as it is thoughtfully designed (and designed, to be fair, with teachers and teaching in mind).
(In fact, I’d go so far as to say that among digital math curricula it’s probably the one that’s least friendly to non-math teachers, as it asks a lot of the facilitator; however, it is a digital curriculum that’s well liked by a lot of well meaning district folks who are pushing for implementation at scale.
Also, I know that anyone that’s used Desmos’ curriculum is screaming at me, “it’s not a press play curriculum!” And to that I say, “I know! But it will be in a district that wants to improve student learning but doesn’t have qualified teachers.”)
What if Amplify told, oh I don’t know, Florida, “Our curriculum is not a stop gap. We are uncomfortable with the idea of uncredentialed teachers using our curriculum and will not be deploying our curriculum to your state until you address the teacher shortage by filling vacancies with teaching experts.”?
The obvious answer to that question is that for any ed tech platform that steps away from a potential customer there will be five more that are more than happy to schill their wares. Amplify doesn’t truly have sway in a political and systemic environment to push for any change. Nor do even bigger curriculum companies. Unless we see a movement en masse by a significant consortium of curriculum companies to not do business in certain states/districts according to some standard, there’s no real hope for meaningful pushback. Amplify saying “no thank you” doesn’t hold much power. But Amplify, Heinemann, McGraw Hill (ALEKS), ST Math, and many others that I’m forgetting refusing to be stop gaps might send some signal that This Is Not OK.
Digital curriculum companies have quite an ethical question that I hope they’re wrestling with. To what degree are we comfortable with our product being sorta beneficial to student learning and our product being used to enable districts to paper over the Warm Body Problem?
The most likely and possibly even best response is for digital curriculum publishers to continue to design the best curriculum possible with teacher facilitation in mind. They will continue to evolve their platforms to best support students. While that’s probably the best and most likely response for now, every small tweak to make the curriculum more prominent and a credentialed teacher not-as-necessary nudges us a little further away from appropriately staffed classrooms, if we’re not there already.