Learning Where They Teach
Pursuing its own vision of classroom quality, a charter school chain is staking out turf on the teacher-training terrain.
The backgrounds of teachers at a batch of sibling charter schools here aren’t easy to pigeonhole. Alfred R. Solis majored in mechanical engineering in college and worked in the private sector for about six years.
Michelle S. Pledger traveled the world, teaching in Chile and Japan, and has a master’s degree in Pacific international affairs.
James O. Holmes spent a decade as a teacher and dean in Texas private schools, and earned a master’s degree in educational administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.
All three lacked one key item on their résumés before taking jobs at the cluster of charter schools run by San Diego-based High Tech High: a California teaching credential.
But that wasn’t a barrier to hiring them. In 2004, High Tech High became the state’s first charter-management organization, or CMO, to gain state approval to operate its own teacher-credentialing program. And it’s not stopping there.
In August, it will cut the ribbon on the High Tech High graduate school of education, which appears to be the first of its kind in the country.
So besides educating students, the organization is expanding its role to train teachers and principals with a hands-on approach that emphasizes learning on site and in context.
And beyond growing its own staff members, High Tech High is hoping to inspire charter organizations and others to follow in its footsteps, and plans to train teachers and principals working at like-minded schools outside the network.
“It’s an unusual arrangement, but not an unusual progression,” said Tom Vander Ark, who until recently was the top education official at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a longtime financial supporter of High Tech High. “This is just a logical extension of trying to make all parts of the model work well for teachers and kids.”
But even some admirers say High Tech High’s training efforts are no slam dunk.
“[They’re] trying to break new ground, show people this can work,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
Mr. Hess ticks off a list of challenges—paying for the programs, navigating political hurdles, and ensuring the efforts don’t strain staff and detract from the core mission. “There’s a chance that it could be difficult to reconcile the training with their main work,” he said, “which is teaching the kids.”
Similar to Medical Residency
High Tech High leaders say establishing formal programs for educators was a natural outgrowth of a school climate that by design fosters adult learning.
“We already have lots of contexts within the teacher’s day where teachers reflect on their practice and do planning together,” said Robert C. Riordan, High Tech High’s director of instructional support.
• High Tech High began as a single charter school in San Diego in 2000, created by a coalition of local business leaders and educators.
• That original school, the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High, has evolved into a charter-management organization that operates a growing portfolio of charter schools spanning grades K-12.
• The CMO, called High Tech High, is based among the “village” of six schools in the Point Loma section of San Diego, on the site of a former naval training facility.
• The schools are small and focus on three core design principles: personalization, a common intellectual mission, and an adult-world connection.
• With two new high schools opening this fall near San Diego, the CMO will run eight schools, enrolling a total of some 2,500 students. A school in Redwood City, Calif., which faced insufficient enrollment, closed down at the end of the 2006-07 academic year.
• The instructional design features a strong emphasis on project-based learning, through which the schools seek to incorporate real-world relevance and academic rigor to prepare students as citizens and for postsecondary education.
The main impetus for creating the credentialing program was a California requirement that all teachers hired by charter schools, like their counterparts in regular public schools, have either a credential or be enrolled in a program to get one.
“We perceived that as a barrier to entry for [many] people with deep content knowledge,” said Larry G. Rosenstock, High Tech High’s chief executive officer. “I have a problem with the notion that having a credential is a predictor of being a good teacher.”
In 2004, California approved the CMO to run a teacher-intern program as an alternative route for teachers to earn their credentials. Such intern programs are typically offered by school districts or county education offices.
The University of San Diego school of leadership and education sciences is a partner in the program, with faculty members advising on program content and teaching selected courses. But High Tech High staff members teach most classes.
Nationwide, alternative-licensing programs have grown common, but charters are still rare among providers. One example is the New Teachers Collaborative, housed at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, in Devens, Mass., which lets teachers become licensed while working full time in one of several New England schools.
Most High Tech High interns are full-time teachers, and receive a full salary and benefits. In the first year, they take classes on Tuesday afternoons and sometimes Saturdays and are each paired with a mentor teacher. In the second, they complete a list of complex tasks developed by the state as part of the California Teaching Performance Assessment.
The schools, with their emphasis on project-based learning and connecting student work to the adult world, attract diverse talent, drawing far more applicants than they have openings.
“We need more teachers, and this is another pathway for people to get excited about the teaching profession,” said Paula A. Codeiro, the dean of the education school at the University of San Diego.
“I wouldn’t have [come here] if I had to go enroll in school just the standard way,” said Jeremy Farson, a former full-time artist who now teaches art at High Tech High International, one of the CMO’s San Diego schools. “This makes it so much easier.”
Mr. Solis, a 9th grade math and physics teacher at the CMO’S flagship school, the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High, worked for a major business-consulting firm and a venture-capital firm after studying engineering in college. “I went from business plans to lesson plans,” he said.
High Tech High leaders say the intern program, as well as the new graduate school, places a greater emphasis on clinical practice than on studying theory, though the programs contain rigorous coursework. The credentialing program, for instance, includes classes in the philosophy of education, in assessment, and in teaching English-language learners.
“We’re putting the applied aspect of the learning before the theoretical,” said Jennifer L. Husbands, the director of teacher credentialing and support. “We liken a lot of what we’re doing to a medical residency, where they’re learning by being out in the hospital context.”
‘Pretty Far Afield’?
Six teacher-interns finished the program in June—the first ones—and have earned a preliminary license. Another 16 are still completing their work, and 12 new entrants are scheduled to begin this fall.
On a recent Monday, three teachers made presentations to a panel of High Tech High staff members and others to show what they’ve learned, the last step in the credentialing process.
“The overarching, most valuable thing I got from the internship program was the importance of reflecting on my own practice,” Rachel Ching, who teaches 10th grade math and chemistry at High Tech High International, told the panel.
Ms. Pledger, who teaches 11th grade humanities at High Tech High International, said in an interview that she has found immediate applications for the coursework.
“We could learn about assessment strategies on a Tuesday afternoon, and then on my next exam, I can implement what I learn,” she said.
“They tailor it for what I need to know,” said Mr. Farson. “It’s not all just theory. You practice these things every day.”
Still, several participants said the demands of teaching full time while earning the credential can feel overwhelming.
Also, some said that although they valued the coursework, the detailed tasks required as part of the state’s teacher-performance assessment haven’t always been a good fit with what’s happening in their classrooms.
“When you’re running something like this, you really have two masters,” Mr. Rosenstock said. “One is a state agency.”
David Wright, the director of the Center for Teacher Quality at California State University-Sacramento, said that while he was not familiar with the High Tech High program, he has reservations about a charter organization getting into teacher licensing.
“Preparing teachers is pretty far afield from any K-12 school,” he said. “We would wonder how well prepared those teachers would be to move out of that fairly restrictive environment and work effectively up and down the state.”
But Ms. Husbands said the program, even while it emphasizes approaches that may be uncommon in traditional schools, prepares teachers to succeed in any California classroom.
‘A Multiplier Effect’
Looking ahead, the High Tech High CMO recently applied to the state for authority to start its own program to help teachers with preliminary credentials earn full teaching licenses.
Under California law, teachers may make that transition through such a state-approved “induction” program.
Beyond that, 11 High Tech High teachers will enroll this fall in the CMO’s new graduate school, which will award master’s degrees in both teacher leadership and school leadership. The programs will eventually enroll a mix of High Tech High staff members and educators at like-minded schools.
“We hope to train people to take innovative roles in a variety of schools beyond High Tech High,” Mr. Riordan said.
High Tech High leaders say one key reason they wanted to launch the graduate school was to expand their credentialing program to take on student-teachers.
The current program can only enroll students the CMO hires as full-time or part-time teachers.
Once the graduate school is accredited, it can seek the state’s OK to enroll individuals who may not be “ready for prime time,” Ms. Husbands said.
As with the licensing program, many faculty members in the graduate school will be administrators at High Tech High, including Mr. Rosenstock, who was a lecturer for five years at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.
He teaches the course in philosophy of education for the credentialing program, and is slated to teach two courses in the graduate school.
The program also will have some distinguished visiting faculty members, including Mr. Vander Ark, who is now the executive director of the X Prize Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif., and Theodore R. Sizer, the founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based Coalition of Essential Schools and a former dean of the Harvard education school.
Ms. Codeiro of the University of San Diego said she sees great promise in the graduate school. “The model of project-based learning, workplace learning, the [student] internships they have—it’s unique,” she said. “If you go to any university, you might not get the kind of training you need. … You certainly won’t get it as intensely and customized.”
But she sees a lot of challenges, too, including sustaining the graduate school over the long run. “It’s the perennial question,” she said. “What happens when Larry is no longer there?”
Mr. Riordan said he imagines some people may not like the strong clinical emphasis of the graduate school.
“There will probably be some who are skeptical about the balance between explicit academic work and clinical work,” he said. “We actually try not to think in those terms. We try to integrate practical work with academic work.”
Ultimately, High Tech High officials say the credentialing and graduate programs will hold advantages beyond the individuals directly involved. Mr. Rosenstock said the idea is for the culture of reflection “to permeate the place.”
“There’s a multiplier effect of more and more people thinking … constantly about teaching and learning,” he said, “and what we’re doing, and what we can be doing to improve.”
Vol. 26, Issue 43, Pages 29-31Published in Print: July 18, 2007, as Learning Where They Teach