Last week the Clayton Christensen Institute released a paper, which I wrote, that profiles three innovative teacher education programs: High Tech High Graduate School of Education, Relay Graduate School of Education, and Match Education’s Sposato Graduate School of Education. What makes these programs particularly interesting is that their founders were leaders from the charter school sector who created their own teacher certification and master’s degree programs after concluding that the teachers who graduate from most traditional teacher education programs lack the skills needed to teach successfully. The paper tells the stories of how these programs developed pedagogical approaches, navigated state regulatory requirements, addressed the question of accreditation, and developed sustainable business models to support their operations. Below are a few key takeaways from that research.
High Tech High Graduate School of Education: Policy drives demand
The story of High Tech High Graduate School of Education (GSE) illustrates that state and federal policy drive much of the demand for teacher education. High Tech High GSE’s leaders founded their school based on a compelling need they saw within the K–12 teacher education sector: developing graduate students as both teacher leaders and school leaders through opportunities to apply theory to real-world teaching and learning contexts. Unfortunately, their emphasis, however, on addressing that need has not translated into a huge pool of applicants for their master’s degree program.
Reflecting on this reality, High Tech High GSE’s leaders have observed that the causes of the less-than-expected interest in their program seem to stem more from policy than from the value of their offering. First, many teachers pursue master’s degrees early in their careers in order to meet requirements for teaching credentials. Second, many teachers pursue master’s degrees early in their careers because master’s degrees bump up their salaries on district salary schedules. Unfortunately, High Tech High GSE fails to capture these sources of demand because its program is designed for experienced teachers and does not include a path to a teaching credential.
The upside of this problem is that the teachers who do end up applying to High Tech High GSE are truly passionate about the schools’ mission and approach and are not attending merely to check boxes to gain certification and increased pay. High Tech High GSE’s leaders, however, are currently debating the idea of one day creating an additional master’s program that will cater to recent college graduates who, in addition to their interest in a High Tech High-style teacher education, are in need of a pathway to certification. The broader implication of these observations is that, within the current education landscape, any new program will likely be hard-pressed to align with policy-induced pockets of demand in order to attract students and create a successful business model.
Relay Graduate School of Education: Build to scale
I found Relay Graduate School of Education’s (Relay’s) story interesting not only for its innovations in teacher education, but also for its innovations in addressing scalability. Relay’s leaders started their program with the vision of creating a new pipeline of effective new teachers in order to address the vast needs of low-income communities across the nation. To make this level of impact possible, however, they needed to create a program that could quickly scale to multiple regions across the country.
First, Relay created a centrally developed curriculum that it could easily roll out when it opened schools in new regions. Second, it codified 40 percent of that curriculum into an online platform that allows for mass delivery. Additionally, it designed its model to have a cheap and flexible physical footprint by offering classes in rented or borrowed facilities rather than building new campuses.
In the short time since the school’s founding in 2011, Relay has set up regional operations in New York, Newark, N.J., New Orleans, Chicago, and Houston. Additionally, Relay’s leaders plan to open five new campuses in the next two years.
Match Education: Getting incentives right
Although many aspects of Match Education’s program caught my attention as potentially powerful ideas for reforming the broader field of teacher education, what I found most fascinating was not its pedagogical practices but its revenue model. Education reformers have long called for change in areas such as making education schools more selective, creating tighter integration between theory and practice, and implementing research-based curriculum. Yet, many of these rally cries will likely be fruitless until reformers first address the incentives that drive the ultimate priorities of traditional teacher education institutions. Traditional teacher education programs are not rewarded for improving the effectiveness of the teachers they graduate. Rather, their deep-seated incentive structures focus them on either increasing their prestige by doing more academic research or on serving as cash cows for their parent institutions by enrolling large numbers of teachers and then serving them at a very low cost.
Revenue to support the Match Teacher Residency (MET) program comes primarily from the tuition Match Education charges its residents and from the placement fees it charges the schools that hire its residents. But in stark contrast with traditional education schools’ incentives, the architects of the MET program designed their program to have financial incentives that align with the ultimate goal of producing good teachers. First, residents do not make tuition payments until they are receiving salaries as full-time teachers, and Match Education does not charge tuition to residents who exit the program before completion. This means that Match Education’s financial incentives align with helping residents successfully complete their program and secure employment. Second, the schools that hire the residents can forego payment for any teacher with whom they are not satisfied. This means that Match Education’s business model depends on Match Education’s ability to produces rookie teachers that can effectively produce student achievement results in the schools to which they go on to teach.
The stories of these programs provide a number of compelling ideas that could have a huge impact if applied to broader efforts to improve teacher education. Reformers and innovators alike would do well to learn from these new entrants in the field of teacher education.