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Clinton Backs Board

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President Clinton's recent call for increased federal funding of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards marks a coming of age for the private group, which has been plugging away for a decade to create a system for certifying outstanding teachers.

Unlike some other education initiatives the president has proposed for his second term--such as new national student tests and a corps of reading tutors--his plan to beef up the teaching board is not expected to set off many political fireworks. What remains to be seen, though, is whether Congress will agree to foot the bill for Clinton's plan. In the past seven years, the organization has received $35 million in federal aid. Clinton in his 1998 budget proposal is asking for $105 million over the next five years for the nonprofit board, which is based in Southfield, Michigan. His goal is to put 100,000 candidates in the certification pipeline during that period--a number that could yield some 35,000 nationally certified teachers, based on current pass rates of the board's exams.

James Kelly, president of the teaching board, says he fully expects to meet Clinton's goal. "The scale of the president's proposed support," Kelly says, "indicates to other funders and state and local partners that this program is for real, it is going to national scale, it is here to stay, and the time is now to start to get aboard."

Last fall, the board also received a boost from the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a blue-ribbon panel that issued a report on ways to strengthen teaching. The commission called for the nation to have 105,000 certified teachers--one for every school--by 2006. [See "Teaching Matters," October 1996.] Such a goal is even more ambitious than the president's, and reaching it will depend on whether policymakers create the right mix of incentives and rewards for teachers to undergo the board's assessments, which currently take several months to complete. Some states already pay the testing fees for their teachers and offer bonuses to those who get certified, but many don't.

Key to the presidential stamp of approval for the teaching board was the cooperative relationship of three Southern governors--one sitting and two former: Governor James Hunt Jr. of North Carolina, who has served as the chairman of the national board since its founding in 1987; Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who has strong ties to Hunt dating back to his days as governor of South Carolina; and Clinton himself, who has been supportive of the board since his days as governor of Arkansas.

Riley and the president, Hunt says, "see the potential in this to raise standards and help every child." Hunt and Riley had dinner together about six weeks before the president's State of the Union Address in February. At that time, Hunt suggested that increased federal funding for the board be split along two lines. One pot of money would enable the board to finish work on its standards and assessments for certification, while the other would flow to states and localities to help them offset the $2,000-per-teacher cost of the assessments.

The North Carolina governor told Riley that he was confident state leaders would embrace a federal matching-funds program that would allow thousands of teachers to seek board certification. "It's pretty clear that governors, on a bipartisan basis, see the merit in this as a real valid credential that stands for performance and accomplished teaching," Hunt says.

In his budget request for the fiscal year that begins October 1, Clinton did what Hunt suggested. He asked Congress for $60 million as a direct grant to the teaching-standards board. The funding would enable the organization to finish setting standards in 25 teaching specialties, create assessment packages for each specialty, and field test the results. The remaining $45 million of the package would be incentive money to encourage states and districts to underwrite the fees charged to teachers seeking certification.

So far, the board has completed assessment packages to certify teachers in six specialties. It will launch a seventh certificate in the fall--for science teachers who work with adolescents and young adults. Since 1995, 595 teachers have been certified, and another 900 are in the process. Roughly 35 percent of the candidates pass the assessments.

In an effort to speed up the certification process and cut down the costs, the organization's 63-member governing board decided last month to allow candidates to "bank" scores on parts of the assessments. Similar to the certification process for public accountants, the new policy means that teachers who score poorly on certain portions of the exam can retake them without going through the entire certification process again. The board will adjust the fees charged to candidates accordingly. "We continue to examine ways to make [the system] more flexible and accessible to candidates," Kelly says.

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