Arne Duncan Gave Me Homework!

Last Wednesday, I found myself invited to a meeting at the White House with Secretary Arne Duncan and some of President Obama’s advisors.  I didn’t know I would walk away with homework!

Eleven colleagues and I were invited to discuss the Obama administration’s proposed STEM Master Teacher Corps. Previously Steve Robinson (a former science teacher and Special Assistant in the White House Domestic Policy Council) and I had shared a conversation about how my work as a teacher leader at North High School was being transformed after receiving a School Improvement Grant (SIG).  As Robinson described the Master Teacher Corps, I noticed parallels to the work I’ve been doing for the last two years.  Needless to say, I was enthusiastic about the proposal.

Jessica Gogerty, sandwiched between Arne Duncan and Presidential advisor Roberto Rodriguez, attended a White House conversation to discuss the STEM Master Teacher Corps. Photo courtesy of White House intern Bobby Dresser.

Jessica Gogerty, sandwiched between Arne Duncan and Presidential advisor Roberto Rodriguez, attended a White House conversation to discuss the STEM Master Teacher Corps. Photo courtesy of White House intern Bobby Dresser.

Empowering teachers and building their leadership capacity is critical to improving science and mathematics education in our schools. Government policy and programs can inspire and incentivize, but the people in the school must do the real work of school reform. For example, without the additional manpower and resources that North received from the SIG grant, reform would have happened much more slowly or not at all. It is easy to let tradition carry us—to allow our unchallenged belief in our capacity to determine what we will achieve—for good or ill.   SIG gave us the impetus for the necessary introspection required to improve our school.   The Master Teacher Corps has that same potential because it invests in the people, not in new or particular programs.

So, when I found myself seated between Secretary Duncan and Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the President for Education, I told the story of my school, and how the most important cultural change I see is a shift to genuine teacher collaboration around instructional practices.  In 2010, when teachers went into their own classrooms and did their own thing, we were the lowest achieving high school in the state of Iowa.  Ours is a very diverse high school with 25% of the students learning English, 29% special education students, and nearly 80% on Free and Reduced Lunch.  One year into the SIG grant, our students had gained 19 points in Reading, 19 points in Science and 11 points in Mathematics on the Iowa Test for Educational Development.  The school had the same demographics and largely the same teaching staff.  But now we had “One Vision, One Mission, One Destiny” as the instructional leadership harnessed the collaborative power of the adults in the school. We changed the master schedule twice in the first year, creating new classes, bell times and embedded times for staff collaboration and support.  We changed the attendance policy, discipline policy and the grading policy.  Teacher Leaders taught the staff how to collect and analyze data on student performance and led discussions about strategies to address deficiencies.  Teachers became empowered to help the students rise to their destiny instead of falling to their fate.

After the meeting, Secretary Duncan asked me to write up our story and send it to him. I had plenty of time to think about it at the airport since storms delayed travel.

This is what I want him to know:  The themes emerging from our national focus on school reform are reverberating at the state and district level.  The idea of teacher leadership and collaboration around instructional practice is changing the way we educate our children.  We’ve got to continue to develop an educational system that allows teachers to collaborate across the hall, across the building, across the district, across the state and across the nation.  We’re in this together and that’s the only way we will become the best educational system in the world.

Secretary Duncan, I’ve turned in my homework. I see it as extra credit though. My real assignment is to make sure all of my students get the education they deserve.

Jessica Gogerty

Jessica Gogerty is a National Board Certified Teacher, a Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and a School Improvement Leader now serving at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa. 


  1. This will be my 24th year as a classroom teacher and I have been involved in national, state and district level professional development since I began the journey. Along the way, I have been actively involved in a variety of instructional improvement plans, which tend to begin with a BANG and end (when funds cease) with a fizzle, rarely allowing implementation time required to see results. I believe that the experience and expertise for making positive changes in our education system exists in classrooms across the USA and wholly support a plan to utilize master teachers as instructional resources. That said, I do not support simply tossing a chunk of money at a problem, and hoping it goes away. We need to design a sustainable program that uses collaboration, professional development and real data to meet the needs of students.

  2. Empowering teachers can help them become more effective as instructional leaders. Schools benefit from effective leadership. Programs such as STEM, SSMILE and School Improvement Plans are great to have, but there is always the case of money running out, and then what. With elections on its way, there is the chance of changing what was working, into new programs that have to be tested to see if it will work to make positive changes in our schools. I’m just saying, keep the old and maintain it by providing more resources, money, and training in order to keep empowering teachers.

  3. I concur with “Kerry” – continue with your education efforts in the STEM fields that support, stimulate, and accomplish a public purpose.

  4. The master teacher corps concept is a nice gesture, and the focus group of National Board certified teachers was a great way to inform the process. I wonder how much change any reform can make, collaboration or otherwise, while we still have an incessant battery of low quality bubble tests driving our instruction?

    Fix the testing model, then there will be greater opportunity for positive reform.

    Since I hate to criticize without offering a solution, consider New York State High Schools in the 1980’s. Like today, every subject had a standardized test at the end of the year. Unlike today, the tests mattered for students. They counted as the final exam for the course. In many high schools, the exam scores, if better than the final semester average, would replace that semester average. There were scholarships to state schools associated with high scores on these exams across the board. And the exams themselves included a significant amount of writing. Teachers scored the exams themselves in a coordinated effort that swapped exams between high schools. The exams were written by panels of master teachers and perhaps most importantly, the exams were released into the public domain each year.

    Let’s get back to that point, and then let’s talk about reform.

  5. Well, like any other program such as No Child Left Behind, in concept the idea may be fine, but in reality it is nothing more than ideas put forward with nothing to follow through with. We always spend money at the top level and there is never any money for the working level or teaching level. Not everyone is on the same page and, of course, collaboration is needed, but unless you get buy in from all of the educators at the teaching level and change the ‘thinking’ culture of the teachers, then only, again, little pockets across the nation, are really successful with the concepts. Educators are missing the boat when they are not using veteran teachers with much experience, but rather continue to hire new teachers, untrained, and continue to change the philosophies in each school district and change the programs in each school district. No strong building blocks are formed for a continued growth and success with student learning. The government does not need to keep throwing money out with new ideas when, in fact, we could simple teach higher level thinking skills across the nation to all students in order that they start thinking for themselves.

  6. Collaboration is huge. It is vital that teaching not become competitive as many politicians are attempting to turn teaching into a business. Good teachers want to work together, share an rejoice in the advancement of our students. That is why we teach.

    • Collaboration is very important to overall school success. I am sure many teachers want to collaborate with one another, but there is always the problem of time. Teachers rarely have time to plan, classroom set up for next activity, or even eat their lunch. I think that it comes down to man power in schools. More money needs to be spent in schools towards resources, staff, in school professional development seminars, rather than in higher levels of administrations and policies. As teachers we need not to compete with one another, and keep the goal of accepting this profession in the first place, which is to be mentors, helpers, and facilitators for our young population.

  7. I applaud the concept of teacher leaders collaborating with their colleagues to share expertise with STEM. What concerns me is that I read that the leaders will be chosen by their administrators. What if I, as a teacher, wanted to nominate someone who guided y practice? Will educators have a part in determining who will lead?

    I am also concerned about the source for funding the very STEM programs that we’ll be trained to implement and improve. I’ve enjoyed my first week of STEM professional development this week, but I’m concerned with how this wonderful STEM program will be funded once the grant money that brought it to my school runs out?

    Let’s use the expertise of Master STEM teachers locally and find ways to continue funding STEM before it becomes just another one of those “great ideas” that never made it past two years of implementation!

  8. Jessica, it’s great to see other school acting in the same way as the one I work in. As the Principal we have embarked on our second year of using our SIT Committees to develop and determine what our school during professional development time. We meet this summer at our School Improvement Retreat, examined data and met with teams of teachers by committees to outline action plans and resources needed to help our staff analyze student assessment to improve teaching and learning within our school. It has been great. At the school level is where true reform will take place but resources must be given to allow us to broaden our process. It’s great to see you present that plan on a national level.

  9. I agree with Sarah…we need more than just the time to collaborate, we need to learn how to do it effectively and efficiently.

  10. Jessica, those of us who have been privileged to teach with you and call you friend, say “you go girl”. Thanks for a job well done.

  11. Collaboration is critical and sorely lacking. That being said, it is not just about building a system that allows for teacher collaboration. We must also be trained on HOW to collaborate effectively.

    • Point taken Sarah! We need to leave our attitude at the front door, and walk into our schools with a “give and take” type of attitude. We can learn so much from one another.

  12. Jessica, thanks for sharing. Let us know where and when we can read the write up.

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