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Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Head of the Class

Head of the Class

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Twelve years ago, when Maine physical education teacher Barbara Kelley first heard about a new organization that planned to offer national certification for outstanding educators, she was skeptical at best. Kelley knew that the group, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, was well-intentioned. Its founders believed that teaching should follow the lead of other professions like medicine and architecture by recognizing its experts with some form of advanced credential. Establishing a standard of classroom excellence in this way, they hoped, would ultimately promote good teaching and improved learning.

But Kelley, a teacher at the K-3 Vine Street School in Bangor and a local union activist, doubted the new group would follow through on its promise to involve teachers in setting the criteria for certification. "I thought it was just going to be one more reform imposed on us from the outside," she recalls. Kelley also worried that her beloved specialty, physical education, would not be deemed worthy of national certification.

Today, more than a decade later, that fledgling group has become a formidable presence in American education. Supporters span the political spectrum, from President Clinton to former California Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican. Teachers now control the certification process, holding two- thirds of the seats on the 63-member board. And two years ago, the board elected a teacher as its chair. The teacher? Barbara Kelley. The one-time skeptic is now the board's number one booster.

Kelley's change of heart involved a subtle shift in her thinking. She had always supported setting high standards for teachers; without them, she says, "it's impossible to know how your practice measures up." But she had never linked standards to the professionalization of teaching.

In established professions such as medicine, members set and enforce agreed-upon standards, ensuring that those who join their ranks have acquired the appropriate knowledge and cleared the required hurdles. They do that through three unglamorous but crucial mechanisms: national accreditation of training programs, state licensing of novices, and advanced certification of experts. Viewed in light of this troika of quality-control measures, teaching has never been a true profession. State education officials typically decide who gets to teach, and how they decide generally has little to do with classroom practice-and lots to do with politics.

Over the past 10 years, however, things have changed. Taking their cue from the established professions, reform-minded educators and policymakers have sought to build a strong interlocking system of accreditation, licensure, and certification. The once-moribund National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education has toughened its standards for evaluating teacher prep programs, and 17 states now require their public colleges of education to get NCATE's blessing. Meanwhile, a consortium of roughly 40 states is working to strengthen teacher licensing standards. And 16 states-up from three a decade ago-now set licensing standards outside the fickle world of politics through independent boards often made up largely of educators.

Still, most observers agree that the biggest success story of the decade is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Before the board was created in 1987, many teachers and policymakers flatly opposed it. Some feared that singling out top-notch teachers would create rancor within the ranks. Others questioned the hefty costs of producing standards and assessments through which the board would judge candidates, particularly given that there was little evidence that national certification would lead to improved teaching and learning.

Today, much of the opposition has melted away. The board now offers national certification in 21 areas of teaching and is planning for nine more. Nearly 2,000 teachers have earned its stamp of approval, roughly double the number from 1997. Thirteen states and dozens of districts reward board- certified teachers with pay hikes or bonuses, and more are likely to follow suit.

But the clearest sign that the board has come of age may be Kelley's election as chair in 1997. North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, the board's founding chair, acknowledged as much when he stepped down, saying, "It's time to have a teacher as chairman." Arthur Wise, NCATE president and a member of the board, explains: "Bringing the board into existence required political leadership. But having those political leaders remain in charge contradicts the idea of professionalization. If you believe that teachers should control standards the way other professions control their standards, then you ultimately need leadership in the hands of teachers."

Kelley, a 25-year teaching veteran, was the obvious choice, according to her colleagues on the board. They describe her as smart, gracious, and decisive-someone who does her homework. "She is an incredibly keen listener who has a distinct ability to seek reason when it isn't easily located," notes board member Gary Galluzzo, dean of the graduate school of education at George Mason University outside Washington, D.C. "When Governor Hunt stepped down, it was hard to imagine anyone other than Barbara as the next chair."

Ironically, Kelley's selection as a board member in 1992 was a bit of a fluke. A longtime leader of her local and state National Education Association affiliates, she had stood at the NEA's national convention a year earlier and urged the union to nominate a P.E. teacher for the board. To her surprise, the speech prompted NEA leaders to suggest Kelley herself. The board also accepted her, bringing one of its early dissenters into the fold.

Kelley arrived for her first meeting itching to shake things up, ready to champion P.E. and other subjects that some might see as peripheral. She was also concerned that the board's use of videotaping in its assessments would prevent teachers in low-tech, rural schools from getting certified. But she discovered that the members were way ahead of her. "These conversations had already taken place," she says. "I thought I was going to find these ivory tower intellectuals, but I found instead an entire board that had a vision about recognizing accomplished teaching no matter where it is. I wasn't a voice in the wilderness; I was one of the chorus."

These days, Kelley keeps a mind-boggling schedule, somehow balancing her teaching and family life with her board obligations. By her own account, she is a person of many passions: her family (she's married to Bangor 1st grade teacher Edward Kelley, and together they have two sons, ages 18 and 21); tennis (she competes on a top-flight amateur team); teaching P.E. (she was the 1991 Maine P.E. teacher of the year); and her union (in addition to her work for her local and state affiliate, she has been an NEA director).

Since becoming chair, Kelley has spent countless days on the road, talking to teachers about national certification and its two cousin components of the professionalization agenda. The board, she believes, has become a kind of guiding light for those other efforts. She points out that NCATE and a number of state licensing bodies are aligning their standards with the board's, using them to leverage improvements in teacher education and the quality of rookies entering the classroom. "We actually have a North Star here, where before we had nothing," she says.

As for Kelley's long-awaited P.E. standards, the board approved them in June. And how did she feel? "The same way," she says, "as when my son walked across the stage at his high school graduation this spring."

Vol. 11, Issue 1, Pages 48-49

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