I am fortunate to work with a collaborative and talented staff at the public high school where I teach. Over the past few years, all teachers at Sammamish High School in Bellevue had the chance to work on a curriculum design team and re-imagine the courses we teach to make them “problem-based.”
In this approach, units of study are organized around authentic problems that students must solve, typically while playing a role such as a candidate for public office. Some teachers have also taken on leadership roles while remaining part-time in the classroom, and have helped plan high-quality professional development that most of my colleagues agree is an improvement over what school districts traditionally offer.
But most of these opportunities are not the norm today in public education, and they may not be able to continue to the same degree at our school because most of this work was made possible by a federal Investing in Innovation (i-3) grant. Next year is the last year of our grant, and many of us wonder what comes next.
What if there was a sustainable way to offer highly-effective and experienced teachers new challenges and opportunities as they advance in their careers and retain their expertise in the classroom? Washington state and local school districts should make it possible for more experienced teachers to work part-time in the classroom while funding new opportunities for them to work as mentors, master teachers or curriculum developers. These educators could also be given opportunities to teach or partner with education schools.
This approach would positively impact all students and help close the achievement gap. Teacher leaders who have an intimate understanding of the issues facing their school may be better-suited to provide professional development, mentoring and curriculum that address those needs.
At Sammamish, our work has led to significant improvements in student achievement. Between 2011 and 2013, Sammamish saw a 15-percent increase in reading scores on the high school proficiency exam and an 18-percent increase in end-of-course exams for algebra. As more students took Advanced Placement exams, pass rates increased across all A.P. social studies and sciences classes. Ten percent more students successfully completed advanced math courses. Sammamish has achieved all this while the rate of students receiving free-and-reduced lunch (a common measure for poverty) has increased slightly to its current rate at 47 percent of students.
There is growing consensus that investing in high-quality education is imperative to addressing inequality and making the U.S. more globally competitive. These changes would require hiring more teachers — and the funding to do so, which could come from re-allocating professional development money.
Creating a hybrid workforce of experienced master teachers or curriculum developers would allow for more intensive, continuous support and training for novice teachers, who cannot possibly get enough of either from busy administrators. It would help retain effective teachers looking for a new challenge as their careers progress, and it may help raise the esteem of working teachers.
Most importantly, it would provide some opportunity for advancement in education, beyond becoming an administrator, and help schools capitalize on the strengths that already exist within their buildings.
Katie Piper teaches Advanced Placement Government at Sammamish High School in Bellevue.