As Teacher Tenure Degrades, New Opportunities Emerge For Startups To Remake Education

One of the most notable court cases of the year for startups was officially revealed last week, and there was nary a peep from much of the tech press.

Last week, a California judge struck down the state’s teacher tenure laws, arguing that tenure disproportionately harms the education of students from poor and minority school districts, and is thus unconstitutional. The case was brought by Students Matter, which was financed by a Silicon Valley technology executive, David Welch.

While the decision has been stayed pending appeals to higher courts, it represents the first vulnerability in school workplace rules that have blocked needed reforms of our education system for decades. It also represents a key opening for startups to begin thinking about grade school in a post-tenure world, and the opportunities that will shortly exist to improve education.

Much like taxi medallions and hotel occupancy laws, teacher tenure rules were perhaps once required in the market. Taxi medallions were designed to ensure a minimum level of service and safety for passengers in cabs. By restricting entry into the market, taxis could afford to maintain their vehicles and to secure a more consistent income. Hotel occupancy laws were designed to protect consumers from issues like fire by requiring hotels to have adequate escape-route signage and ensure that occupancy levels are safe. They also help to establish the duties of guests and hotel operators to ensure a fair transaction.

But all of these sorts of consumer protection laws eventually started to work against consumers. Governments began to rake in substantial profit from medallion sales (this year, for instance, a single medallion in New York City fetched nearly seven figures in an auction). Hotel occupancy taxes, which are assessed on guests, represent an easy way to secure revenue from tourists and other visitors who lack political representation. As these policies affected such important industries as hospitality and transportation, lobbying dollars began to flow to politicians, as well.

Rules of Tenure

We see much the same story with teacher tenure rules today. Teacher tenure laws have a number of theoretical uses. They are designed to give teachers curricular freedom, such that a biology teacher can teach evolution even at the protests of parents. They are designed to prevent administrators from unfairly targeting some teachers for punishment, or to fire the oldest teachers simply because they are the most expensive. Ultimately, the goal of these rules is to ensure the quality of education by the group that has dedicated their lives to that task.

It’s hard to see those idealistic goals in the cynicism of today’s system. Teachers can be protected by tenure despite poor performance or, worse, creating a hostile teaching environment. Tenure for grade-school teachers is offered at surprisingly early levels of experience, sometimes as little as two or three years. Compare that to professors, who may receive tenure after 5–9 years in a PhD, 3–5 years in a postdoc, and seven years as an assistant professor. It’s entirely possible today that a teacher two years out of college has a guaranteed job for life.

While many commentators have noted that teacher unions face an uphill battle in the court of public opinion to maintain their rules, few have focused on the role that startups are playing in changing these rules. Course sites like Khan Academy are now used by millions of students per year, and in some cases, parents have totally supplanted in-school teaching through homeschooling using such tools.

Reforming Schools

Much as Uber and Airbnb forced governments to reconsider misused regulations, we need a startup to come forward and be the change-bearer in education. Today’s edtech startups were built in a culture that accepted tenured teachers as the gatekeepers of revenue, leading many startups to either reinforce the power of teachers or to position their products to students and parents outside of school. While tenure hasn’t disappeared, it is clear that there is a serious opportunity for a startup to come in and reshape the actual schools themselves.

I don’t know where this startup will come from, but I want to offer a couple of possibilities for founders to think about as they consider ideas in the education space.

If we want to have an impact on the lives of the majority of students, we have to empower our public schools to adapt their structures to best work with kids.

First, and perhaps most obviously, what kind of teacher marketplace can we provide? Teachers represent one of the largest true professions in the United States, with some 3.7 million full-time teachers across the country, or more than 1 percent of our population. With weakened tenure laws, there is now a need for teachers to display their credentials, demonstrate their teaching techniques, and build a network of contacts across schools for everything from curriculum design to seeking better employment. Like Uber and Airbnb, a marketplace could be the driver needed to guide students to better teachers, creating a virtuous cycle that improves education while eroding antiquated regulations.

Marketplaces don’t have to be the only option, though. Another path is how to judge the performance of teachers. This is an extraordinarily hard topic, and I am sympathetic to teachers who complain about the focus on a handful of exams as proof of performance. How can we create software tools that simultaneously help students achieve more, while providing real-time feedback to teachers on their own performance? Obviously, there are a number of startups working on this problem, but now they may be able to use a more aggressive go-to-market strategy as unions and administrators become more receptive to tools to improve performance.

Another approach is going to come from the structure of grade school education. While charter schools have their place in our education system, it is clear that if we want to have an impact on the lives of the majority of students, we have to empower our public schools to adapt their structures to best work with kids. What would happen if we had an even more decentralized model for education, such that teachers could be part-time, or that students could accelerate or decelerate in subjects as their interest and abilities allowed? It is totally believable that we could do a fundamental refactor of education using the Internet as the new organizing principle.

Finally, startups may look into teacher education itself as a potential avenue for rebuilding education. Today’s teacher education is something of a joke, with low standards and little focus on classroom preparation. Much as Khan Academy changed the way we view student education, we could build the next-generation platform for pedagogy. For once, teachers would have access to real professional development, which may not just improve education, but may also increase retention of high-achieving teachers in the process.

No matter what the avenue may be, startup founders need to remember that real students are affected by the products and services we design. We have an obligation to carefully test and evaluate the efficacy of our various startups, and adapt as quickly as necessary to ensure that our children have an opportunity at a great education.

The good news is that the American education system has refused to do this for decades, and there is a lot of low-hanging fruit. The bad news is that students have deeply suffered along the way. With teacher tenure now in the crosshairs, we finally have a chance to make things better.