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Clinton Teacher Board Proposal Marks Milestone

By Ann Bradley — March 12, 1997 5 min read


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 is whether Congress will be willing to foot the bill. In the past seven years, however, the organization has garnered enough support to receive $35 million in federal aid.

In his budget proposal for 1998, Mr. Clinton is asking for $105 million over the next five years in behalf of the nonprofit board, which is based in Southfield, Mich. His goal is to have 100,000 candidates in the process of becoming certified during that period--a number that could yield 35,000 nationally certified teachers, based on the current passing rates for the board’s intensive process of voluntary certification.

James A. Kelly, the president of the teaching-standards board, said last week that he “fully expects” to meet Mr. Clinton’s goal.

“The scale of the president’s proposed support 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,” Mr. Kelly said.

Need for Incentives

Mr. Clinton’s endorsement followed high praise for national teacher certification from the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, a blue-ribbon panel that issued a report last fall on ways to strengthen teaching. The commission called for the nation to have 105,000 certified teachers--one for every school--by 2006. (“Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push,” Sept. 18, 1996.)

Reaching the commission’s more ambitious target, which extends four years beyond the president’s, is likely to depend on whether policymakers create the right mix of incentives and rewards for teachers to undergo the board’s assessment.

To be certified nationally, a teacher has to complete a rigorous series of exercises over several months. Passing the assessments means, among other accomplishments, that a teacher has a strong command of both subject matter and instructional strategies.

The presidential stamp of approval is the result of cooperation among three Southern governors--one sitting and two former.

Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina has served as the chairman of the teaching board since its founding in 1987. He has close ties to Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, himself the former governor of neighboring South Carolina. And Mr. Clinton has been supportive of the board since his days as governor of Arkansas.

Gov. Hunt also was the chairman of the national commission on teaching. The secretary and the president, Mr. Hunt said, “see the potential in this to raise standards and help every child.”

Two Pots of Money

Mr. Hunt had dinner with Mr. Riley about six weeks before the president’s State of the Union Address last month. At that time, the governor said, he suggested that increased federal funding for the board be split along two lines.

One pot of money would enable the board to finish its designs of standards and assessments, while the other would flow to states and localities to help them offset the $2,000-per-teacher cost of the assessments.

That price is steep for teachers. On its own, the board has worked with districts and states to encourage them to subsidize or pay the fees for candidates.

The North Carolina governor said that he was confident state leaders would embrace a federal matching-funds program “to really jump-start it and get thousands and thousands of teachers involved.”

“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,” Mr. Hunt said in an interview.

In his budget request for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Mr. Clinton did what Mr. Hunt suggested. He asked the Congress for $60 million as a direct grant to the teaching-standards board, Mr. Kelly said. The funding would enable the organization to finish setting standards for accomplished teaching, create matching assessment packages, and conduct field tests in 25 teaching specialties--enough to cover 95 percent of American teachers.

The rest of the money, $45 million, would be administered by the Department of Education in an incentive program to encourage states and localities to underwrite the fees charged to candidates for certification.

Mr. Clinton’s budget recommends spending $21 million a year for five years. The first year, the organization would receive $16 million, while $5 million would go to the incentive program.

Every year after that, Mr. Kelly said, the amount allocated to the board would decrease by $2 million, and the funds targeted for incentives would increase by the same amount.

Congress has supported the national board in the past. Authorized under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the board currently receives $5 million a year through a noncompetitive grant from the Education Department’s office of educational research and improvement.

Congressional appropriators will have to decide whether to increase that amount.

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, continues to be a booster of the board, a spokesman said last week. Other backers who sit on appropriations committees have included Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt.

Mr. Hoyer is “definitely supportive of the funding,” said Jerry Irvine, his spokesman. “He has been in the lead to get the money in the past.”

‘Banking’ Scores

The organization has completed six assessment packages and will launch a seventh certificate in the fall--for science teachers who work with children in adolescence and young adulthood. Eleven sets of standards, which describe accomplished teaching and form the basis for the assessments, are finished. A similar number are under development.

Since 1995, 595 teachers have been certified, and another 900 are in the process. All of the candidates who meet the board’s standards, which are intended to be demanding, are certified. Approximately 35 percent of the candidates pass the assessments.

In an effort to speed up the 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 licensing process for lawyers and certified public accountants, the new policy means that teachers who score poorly on a portion of the exercises can retake them, but won’t have to go through the entire procedure again.

The board will adjust the fees charged to candidates accordingly, Mr. Kelly said. “We continue to examine ways to make it more flexible and accessible to candidates,” he said of the certification system.