When we opened the first High Tech High in September of 2000, we had no idea that we would ultimately be creating a Graduate School of Education. We were setting out to create a public charter high school that would prepare young people for college and beyond, but in a different way: through project-based learning, smaller classes, close student-teacher relationships, and a diverse student body with no tracking and with high expectations for all. We have since grown to include five high schools, two middle schools, and an elementary school.
The idea for a graduate school of education came several years later, and it came because we had a problem. The No Child Left Behind Act required that teachers in public schools be ‘highly qualified.’ While that seems a laudable concept, the definition of ‘highly qualified’ was limited to having a teaching credential or being in a credential program. But we had brilliant teacher applicants, many with advanced degrees and extensive experience in their disciplines, who lacked teaching credentials. Many were still paying off their student loans, and though they had a burning desire to teach, they were reluctant to go back to graduate school and assume additional debt.
We came to see the ‘highly qualified’ definition as a barrier to attracting aspiring teachers to work in our schools. Ironically, this barrier was erected during a time of massive teacher shortages, particularly in math and science. We realized that if we had a credentialing program, then a new teacher with an advanced degree in their subject area would, by definition, be in a credentialing program the first day with us, and would therefore be deemed ‘highly qualified.’ In short, we could hire more qualified teachers if we could train and credential them ourselves. In any case, because our schools were growing, and because our project-based pedagogy was quite different than traditional approaches, we needed to develop our own structure for training new teachers.
In August 2004 we were licensed by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to offer credentials to teachers in our schools. We had to offer a regimen of eighteen courses, and the teachers had to pass a rigorous exam in their content area, but we were able to hire who we felt were the most ‘highly qualified’ teachers, regardless of credential status.
As we started credentialing new teachers, however, we encountered an additional problem: we were, and are, authorized to offer credentials only to internal candidates—our own employees who are the teachers of record in our classrooms. Yet, many aspiring and practicing teachers from beyond our schools were interested in our credentialing program, due to its emphasis on project-based learning and its strong integration of coursework and practice. Furthermore, we have found many prospective teachers who show great potential to teach in our schools, but who are not quite ready to be the teacher of record. It seemed a shame to let these people slip away. The solution to this problem was to create the High Tech High Graduate School of Education (GSE), which, upon accreditation, will enable us to credential aspiring teachers as well as teachers from other schools.
An additional benefit of creating a GSE is that it allows us to build on the extensive professional development already taking place in our schools. We currently offer Master’s degree programs in Teacher Leadership and School Leadership to our own employees and other local educators who wish to deepen their practice and broaden their leadership capacity. Already we sense the effects: the GSE offers incentives for mid-career and other candidates to apply, to work with us, and to stay in teaching. It also affords us opportunities to develop leadership internally, both to strengthen our existing schools and to “seed” new ones. In future years, we intend to broaden our impact by offering a distance degree program based on a residency model to educators who live outside the San Diego region.
Since the beginning of High Tech High, we have worked to support a culture of reflection, collaboration and constant improvement in our teaching practice.?Ample time for meetings, study groups, workshops, and teacher collaboration is built into our schedule, and experienced teachers mentor newer teachers. Yet having an institution of higher education embedded within our schools has increased this commitment exponentially. We presently have about 80% of our teaching staff involved in some type of formalized adult learning —either through our credentialing program, acting as a mentor, being mentored, teaching in our graduate school, or taking classes in our graduate school. We are becoming a ‘wall-to-wall’ learning organization for students and adults.
We have envisioned High Tech High as a context for three integrations rarely seen in conventional schools: the integration of students across lines of class, race, and academic experience; the integration of academic and technical studies; and, through internships, the integration of school with the adult world of work. With the Graduate School of Education we are now positioned to carry out a fourth critical integration: of K-12 teaching with teacher education. Here, we can begin to imagine a broader significance for what began as a project to solve our local training and credentialing issues.
The HTH GSE offers us an opportunity to explore interesting and vital questions about schooling, pedagogy, and teacher development. If a typical graduate school of education offers 80% coursework and 20% practicum, we have turned that ratio upside down.?Our graduate school is 80% practicum-based and 20% coursework. The GSE is fully immersed in the life and work of our K-12 schools. GSE courses focus on the issues of teaching and learning that educators encounter in their classrooms everyday. Conversely, our K-12 schools benefit from the reflection, dialogue, and inquiry that occur in the graduate school courses. We are now getting inquiries from educators and policy makers across the nation who are interested in creating clinical training sites fully embedded in K-12 entities. We look forward to exploring the possibilities with colleagues similarly engaged and intrigued.