Disrupting Teacher Education: High Costs for Brick-and-Mortar Degrees Create Opportunities for Online Programs

By Liu, Meredith | Education Next, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Disrupting Teacher Education: High Costs for Brick-and-Mortar Degrees Create Opportunities for Online Programs


Liu, Meredith, Education Next


Teachers are increasingly recognized as the most important in-school factor in student achievement, yet the quality of the country's K-12 teaching force is not up to snuff. Much of the blame has been placed on education schools, which have come under fire for failing to produce enough high-performing teachers. Both initial certification programs, which happen mostly at the undergraduate level, and master's in teaching degrees, which provide additional training to existing teachers, have only a limited impact on teacher effectiveness. There are a handful of celebrated programs, but these produce only a small percentage of total teachers.

At the same time, tuition continues to rise. Education schools have long been propped up by a variety of government subsidies, from federal support for tuition to state grants. Recent budget pressures have chipped away at these funds, revealing the true cost of these schools to students. From a societal perspective, such programs appear to be a questionable investment given the limited evidence that they, at least in the aggregate, are actually creating effective teachers.

Thus teacher preparation faces both cost and quality problems. Online teacher-preparation programs present an opportunity to change these dynamics. Innovative players are entering the space, including two that are profiled in this article: the Teachers College at Western Governors University and the MAT@USC at University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education.

A Disruptive Innovation

Two types of innovation can move industries forward. Sustaining innovations improve existing products and services, which can then be sold at higher prices to better customers. Universities, including schools of education, have followed a decidedly sustaining pathway. As they compete to be "the best," they enhance their offerings by recruiting more highly recognized faculty, adding more courses, and expanding cocurricular options (even if these improvements do not bolster student learning). The schools have not focused on reducing the costs of their programs, which are passed through the system and ultimately increases the cost of teachers to district customers. Given that K-12 education is facing its own financial crisis and that teacher salaries have not risen along with tuition, rising costs for education degrees may make teaching a less attractive opportunity for talented individuals.

This situation has created an opportunity for a disruptive innovation, a product or service that, instead of competing head-on with existing players, serves new customers with a cheaper, simpler, or more convenient solution than current options. Eventually, the disrupter improves to the point that it can serve the upper tiers of the market with less expensive and good-enough performance, thereby transforming the industry into one that has lower costs and higher quality, and is more widely accessible.

Education schools, with their high costs and stranglehold on the teacher-preparation market, are ripe for disruption, and online learning is poised to offer the mix of cost and quality required. Although online learning is not universally better than brick-and-mortar education, it is predictably improving, not only as the Internet becomes faster and more accessible to a wider group of people, but also as software and hardware complements improve. Furthermore, because online learning does not require the student and the teacher to be in the same place at the same time, it allows higher education to happen in a much wider range of places, times, and circumstances, which increases its convenience and affordability.

With more than 30 percent of postsecondary students taking at least one online course, online learning is already permeating higher education, including teacher-preparation programs. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) surveyed its member schools, and 73. …

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