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.
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 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.