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Vermont Mandates Local Standards Boards for Teachers

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School districts throughout Vermont are setting up local standards boards to guide the professional development of the state's nearly 7,000 public-school teachers and make recommendations on their relicensure, a venture thought to be the first of its kind in the nation.

By next September, every public school district in the state must be operating a board whose tasks will be to help shape and to approve individualized professional-development plans for each teacher in the district.

Although several states, including Vermont itself, have created state-level professional-standards boards, experts believe the Vermont model to be unique.

Professional-standards boards are among the initiatives that educators have advocated to professionalize teaching. In concept, such boards enable teachers, like their counterparts in the medical and legal fields, to establish the criteria for licensing and ensure that practitioners meet the standards.

But the composition of some boards has drawn criticism from teachers because they have been in the minority on the professional-standards panels.

Moreover, policymakers and educators have struggled with the issue of autonomy.

"If you look around the country, that has been an issue," said Doug Walker, director of basic education for the Vermont Department of Education. "We found a compromise."

Vermont has granted teachers a majority voice on both the state and district-level boards while retaining legal authority at the state level.

In exchange for being given a large measure of control over their destinies, teachers will be held accountable for improving their skills, rather than merely meeting minimum-competency standards.

"If you're going to be an educator in Vermont, you're going to be constantly studying, honing your knowledge," said Commissioner of Education Richard P. Mills. "If you're going to be a professional, there is an obligation for continued growth."

"It is going to be a very powerful driving force in the state to upgrade the profession of teachers," said Susan Kuntz, director of graduate programs in education at St. Michael's College and chairman of the state Standards Board for Professional Educators.

About a dozen years ago, the state education department gave districts the option of setting up local recertification agencies. Teachers were given the option of going to the local recertification board or to their school administrators to gain approval for their professional-development plans.

The recertification board for the Rutland schools works with about one-fourth of the district's 200 teachers, according to Jill B. Handly, former chairman of the Rutland Recertification Agency. "It was a chance for teachers to govern their own professional development," said Ms. Handly, who is on leave to assist the state in setting up local boards.

She said teachers who opted for the administrative route did so mainly because of the large amount of paperwork the board required. Under the new plan, state officials have emphasized keeping paperwork to a minimum.

While 20 or so districts set up recertification agencies, only five remain today. "It was difficult to maintain some of the enthusiasm for this," said Ken Bergstrom, a licensing-standards specialist for the state board. "It's also a question of how ripe the profession was for doing this. There is much more interest now than there was in the 1970's."

Reaching a Goal

The underpinning for the standards boards is the third of Vermont's education goals: "Vermont will attract, support and develop the most effective teachers and school leaders in the nation."

To that end, the state last year created the Standards Board for Professional Educators. Although officially designated an advisory body, the 23-member, teacher-majority panel has policymaking authority for standards.

The state standards board defined a set of standards for educators, which the state board of education endorsed last month.

Local boards will be expected to draw from five broad categories in adopting principles--learning, professional knowledge, colleagueship, advocacy, and accountability.

The state-level board has imposed general structural and operational requirements on the new district panels, but it also has given them considerable leeway to tailor their boards to local needs. For instance, the local boards must have at least five members, a majority of them teachers who have been selected by teachers. The district, though, might choose to form a larger board, create committees, or use consultants.

How It Works

Beginning teachers or experienced instructors from out of state will continue to be licensed by the state-level board.

Every other teacher in the state, however, will seek relicensing through the local boards every seven years, a time frame that Commissioner Mills said might change.

Teachers will prepare a professional-development plan in collaboration with their local boards, which must approve the overall schemes and goals, the individual activities designed to achieve the goals, and the teachers' performance in carrying out the activities. Teachers will submit portfolios to document their activities and performance.

A plan may be amended to reflect changes in the field, or in the teacher's or the school's needs during the course of seven years. Teachers who have changed districts will be granted reciprocity.

Once satisfied that the teacher has successfully completed the plan, the local board recommends relicensure to the state board. Then, the process begins anew with a fresh collaborative effort between teacher and local board.

Each local board must adopt some type of appeals process. Beyond that, a teacher may appeal decisions to the state standards board and, subsequently, to the board of education.

Education officials say they anticipate that the list of acceptable development activities will expand as teachers take more responsibility for their own professional growth.

A preliminary list includes graduate courses, curriculum projects, mentoring, educational travel, and--under the category of advocacy--lobbying efforts in the state capital on behalf of education and children.

The objective is to address both the need of the specific school and the individual's need for professional growth, while ensuring that the teacher can meet relicensing requirements.

Take the example of a 7th-grade science teacher who is working in a middle school undergoing restructuring. Instead of teaching science, she will be part of a four-person team. She will also advise 15 to 20 students in the 7th, 8th, and 9th grades.

For the school, her plan might include workshops on team teaching and coursework on the characteristics of young adolescents. For her own professional development, she might be inclined to take a class in microbiology and work on a museum project in the environmental sciences.

Effect on Salaries?

The boards will take over some of the duties traditionally in the domain of administrators. But principals and superintendents will maintain responsibility for job performance and other issues that fall within the employer-employee scope.

Despite the attempt to delineate responsibilities, educators acknowledge there are areas that remain less than clear-cut.

"As individual teachers grew and became better at what they do, it [should] show up in their job performance," said Nancy Howe, a local standards board specialist.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is how these professional-development plans will relate to salary increases. "We know that is a big issue that looms out there," said Mr. Walker.

The local boards have received the support of the Vermont-National Education Association.

Not only does the concept lend credence to teaching as a profession, said Ellen David Friedman, a Vermont NEA organizer, "it will help the school districts' own inservice programs and development activities to be more relevant and useful."

The teachers' union also believes the concept will improve the relationship between classroom teachers and higher education.

"I don't believe that we expect it will miraculously transform professional development," said Ms. David Friedman, but "there is evidence it will improve the current system."

The local boards have also received general backing from the Vermont Superintendents Association. Richard H. Cate, executive director of the organization, described superintendents as "quite comfortable" with the board's authority over what once was the province of administrators.

Superintendents have questioned whether sufficient time has been allotted for the implementation as well as whether there will be a cost burden on the school system, he said.

According to Mr. Walker, the major cost of the program will be time. "It's going to take some giving by both parties," he said. "Teachers also have to realize they have to invest some time in it. If this is just seen as a state requirement, it will fail."

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