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.

6 thoughts on “The Warm Body Problem: Digital Curricula and the Looming Teacher Shortage

  1. “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.’”

    Hi Geoff – definitely worried along with you re the appeal of the teaching profession right now. But I’m very skeptical about what for-profit corporations can / should do about it. Some bullet-y thoughts about it:

    • Corporations have way too much power in our world right now. Their political action committees have too much influence over the electoral process. They structure too many of our waking hours. My company controls the kind of health care I can and can’t receive. Etc etc. I don’t want corporations to have more power in my life.
    • A healthy democracy should be directed by its people, not by the for-profit corporations selling the stuff.
    • The people are getting the teachers they have decided, locally, they are willing to pay for. We already have the tools to fix a teacher shortage. You make the job more appealing through better pay, better working conditions, more autonomy, etc. The plan for a cabal of corporations to withhold their product etc etc is kind of a Rube Goldberg-type contraption by comparison IMO.

    A couple of rhetorical questions I’m wondering about also.

    • In countries that are not facing a teaching shortage, is that because of actions from for-profit corporations? Or something else?
    • In the United States, are significant policy changes generally driven by for-profit corporate action or something else?

  2. A few thoughts – with the full caveat that I completely agree (and support) that what’s best for students is to have well-qualified educators in a classroom working with students. I also agree with many of the points Dan makes above (especially about corporate power).

    First, this is the week where a number of articles and studies have come out questioning if we really do have a teacher shortage…especially given we’re also starting to see a student shortage. (See the Atlantics: https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2022/08/national-teacher-shortage-turnover-student-enrollment/671214/). I work with many school districts in many states – and the picture I’m seeing is complicated. If anything, they seem pretty familiar to what I saw in the late 90s and early aughts (some places it’s hard to find teachers, some places not so much). In short, I’m not exactly sure if we have an increasing “warm body problem” (with the key word being “increasing”).

    But the core concern you mention is spot on – in that should a company (or a curriculum) be a substitute for teaching (or to what degree should they complement teaching?)?

    I’m not sure there’s a one-fit answer here. I’d rather my own children learn from good curriculum (and such companies that deliver such curriculum) rather than poor teaching. Of course, I also would rather they have excellent teachers! That should be the central focus of any school district and community. But it won’t always be given the dynamics of local control, state initiatives, and culture.

    Regarding the ethical considerations that edtech companies should have in the field of education (especially “public” education) – uff, man, that’s a complicated beast. I say that as someone who loves public education, taught and admin’d in it for many years, but now helps run a for-profit edtech company. Companies need to make ethical decisions all the time. They also need to pay the bills. The two concepts are necessarily at odds with each other, but they do require a lot of thought and intentionality.

  3. I’ve been chewing on these responses for a week now and I broadly agree with the sentiment that private companies (whether for profit or not for profit) ought not dictate policy. However I wonder how far that extends. I imagine there’s some sort of line that a district or state could cross in terms of policy that would require action on behalf of some education related companies.

    While I don’t love trafficking in hypotheticals, if a state were open and honest and said, “we’re using your curriculum specifically because we don’t want to pay teachers,” which education companies would say “ok fine”? And which would refuse to offer their product?

    Or – and this might be less hypothetical than one would think – if a state chooses to wholly privatize their school system, would that evoke any kind of response from digital curriculum publishers?

    It’s unfortunate that corporate muscle seems like the last/only arrow in our quiver. And even that arrow isn’t particularly sharp.

  4. Hi Geoff,

    I am going to piggyback on Dan’s thoughts. My learning over the last few years leads me to similar questions and leaning. What I am hearing Dan say is that corporate muscle is *not* “the last/only arrow in our quiver”. It never was. Our democracy is also in our quiver for our use. It needs stating that it is easier in some zip codes than others for parents’ concerns and needs to be heard; _And_, of course, it is in those very districts/states where communities are most marginalized where the need for organizing (to use democracy) is greatest.

    I ultimately left teaching because of systemic issues that I was unable to address while still in the classroom. My attempts were rapidly leading to burn out. And when I left the classroom, I looked for a job in software engineering and landed one with Desmos. I needed a job that gave me all the things Dan listed as tools to attract and retain people in an organization. I also needed to join Desmos because the work of organizing with families to make sure our school leaders serve our communities doesn’t pay the bills.

    After the few years I spent in the classroom, I left convinced that communities, marginalized or not, will get what they tolerate from their district. Looking elsewhere for a savior will only further perpetuate this and other problems in public education.

    I do not disagree with you that curriculum developers have a responsibility to the communities in the district buying our products. I also know, as you pointed out, that our lone voice at the sales table is weak. When it comes to local policies, the best use of any voice or power for-profit companies have should only be used to lend solidarity to a community organizing around an issue in their district.

    I know how unsatisfactory this feels. It feels like it would be so much easier for 5 huge companies to say “No” to a state, than even organizing a few thousand people in a tiny school district. And yet, that feels like the work that need to happen. If we (as concerned citizens, teachers, and employees) gonna use any leverage we have, let’s use it in creating a healthy democracy, where families know their rights and have the means to make sure their leaders serve them or replace them with those who will.

    1. Really thoughtful comment. And while it is indeed “unsatisfactory” I understand and I’m not sure there’s a “satisfactory” solution to the systemic problem of teachers being underpaid and undervalued to the point o leaving the profession. I would ask though, as I did in my previous comment – how far might this extend? Is there a line that a school/district could cross that would make Amplify say, “ya know what, we can’t work with you?” I’m hesitant to hypothesize what those lines might be, but you can probably think of a few.

      Maybe there are no lines, and I understand that. As I suggest in the original post, maybe the best that curriculum designers can do is prepare the best possible resources that utilize caring teachers and get it into as many districts as possible. That might indeed be the least-worst non-solution.

      Again, thanks for the thoughtful responses to this difficult issue! – geoff

  5. Hello. Great post! The effort to privatize the public school systems is nicely explained in Dianne Ravitch’s book Reign of Error and Andrea Gabor’s book After the Teacher Wars. I’ll just briefly paraphrase some ideas – From George W’s No Child Left Behind, to Obama’s Race to the Top, to the contributions of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the Walton foundation and other philanthropists, there has been a coordinated effort to privatize the public school system and reimagine it in the image of corporate America. Corporate reformers and neoliberal politicians pored billions upon billions of dollars into the creation of a market for entrepreneurs and private businesses to operate in the public education sphere.

    This means “efficiency” – replacing skilled teachers with edtech products in the “press play” model you mention above. This means “school choice” – which keeps schools segregated and allows for-profit charters (and in some states vouchers) to skim off the top performing students which kills the budgets/enrollments of the local public schools. This means that tax payers dollars go not to teachers in their community, but instead to private companies. And yes, politicians on both sides of the aisle have been a part of it (Obama’s race to the top offered like 5 billion dollars total to states to promote all the common core stuff which was then spent by districts often just to pay private companies to consult on test scores, test curriculum, etc. It also incentivized charters. )

    So it would seem like traditional curriculum publishers probably have little incentive to care about if they are only “sorta beneficial to student learning” as the entire economic system has been constructed for the exact purpose of “press play” products made by private companies.

    I’m about to finish my second year as a high school math teacher at a public school, so I’m not an expert in these things. Before I taught I did a PhD in math and I worked as an A.I. research scientist in industry. I am “overqualified” to teach by most standards. I’m about to be laid off and replaced with virtual services provided by a private company. Ouch. Everyone has a plan til they get punched in the face and the district just landed one on me.

    I’ve been thinking recently about how to use A.I not as a way to replace teachers/make school budgets more “cost effective”, but instead as a way to remove barriers for math teachers looking to adjust their practice towards a more equitable, student centered classroom….That is, a product with teachers in mind first. My hope is that some open source technology backed by best practices from the math ed research community can make a difference to the problem of scarcity of quality math teachers..idk. All to say, I really felt this article and the “warm body problem” is a huge problem.

    Also, I love your book Necessary Conditions. I leaned into it so hard this last year and a half of teaching. I learned so much – Thank you!

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