Forging a Profession

September 01, 1989 6 min read

For the first time in history, a national body with a teacher majority has defined what every classroom teacher should know and be able to do.

In a few years, teachers who meet this standard may earn higher pay and have greater authority and autonomy on the job. At least that is the hope of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the group that crafted the definition in its effort to forge a national system to certify teachers.

The national board’s goal is ambitious: to raise the status of teaching to that of other professions, such as accounting, architecture, and medicine. Many argue that this effort is critical to the future of American education, that dramatic improvements in the nation’s schools will only occur through the “professionalization of teaching.”

The board has spent two years drawing up the definition of good teaching, and will now spend three more years developing the assessments that teachers will be required to pass to become professionally certified. If it begins to certify teachers in 1993 as planned, the board will have virtually raced from concept to completion.

“Other professions, such as medicine and law, took decades to set their standards,” said James Kelly, president of the board. “Our board will attempt to compress this arduous process into one-half of one decade, because we want to influence the quality of the enormous influx of new teachers needed during the 1990’s.”

Kelly spoke in July at a national forum held near Chicago, where the board released a report outlining the policies that will guide its work. Although general in scope, the document details the mix of skills, knowledge, personal traits, and beliefs that will characterize board-certified teachers.

The 63-member board plans to create assessments and offer credentials in 29 fields, ranging from early childhood education to vocational education. The fields are clustered under five age-group categories. Within two of those categories, teachers will receive general credentials; within the others, teachers may choose a subject area specialty.

All teachers who hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and have successfully completed three years of teaching at one or more elementary or secondary schools will be eligible for national certification.

The creation of the national board was the key recommendation of A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, the widely publicized report by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. The report presented an intricate plan for improving the nation’s schools, which hinged on raising the status and authority of teachers. The forum established the board in May 1987, a year after the report’s release. Since that time, it has been forging a national certification process for teachers.

Traditionally, teachers have been subject to examinations only for state licensing, which is often mistakenly referred to as certification. A license guarantees the public that a teacher has met a minimum standard of competency set by the state. Board certification, on the other hand, would indicate that a given teacher is an accomplished educator who has met a high set of standards. It will be voluntary and is seen as complementing, not replacing, state licensing.

“For once in this country, we are working out standards for measuring excellence rather than minimum competency,” said James Hunt Jr., the former governor of North Carolina and chairman of the board. “The certification process has the potential to transform the current educational system, leverage current investment in teaching, and build a national consensus for increased support of schools.”

But before any of that can happen, the board must finish raising approximately $50 million to support its research and the creation of new teacher assessments. To date, it has raised $1.6 million from a corporate fund-raising drive. In addition, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has pledged $5 million during the board’s first five years. Proposed legislation that would give the board $25 million in federal aid was still pending in the Congress in late summer.

Even more important, the board’s standards and assessments must gain widespread recognition and acceptance among the public and educators, so that teachers will view national certification as something worth pursuing. Participants at the meeting near Chicago frequently raised the question of what incentives teachers will have for becoming board certified.

The board hopes that national certification may lead to better salaries and more responsibility for teachers. But its report notes that such decisions will be up to individual school districts.

“Unless board certification really means something, I’m not sure teachers will find it worth their while to subject themselves to what is likely to be an anxiety-ridden process,” said Joan-Marie Shelley, president of the San Francisco affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

But others cautioned against underestimating the teaching force’s longing for professional recognition. “National certification will build self-esteem,” said New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. The governor, who is a board member, said he thinks national certification will “give teachers the power” to improve the quality of their schools.

Now that the board has identified the fields in which it will offer certification, established prerequisites for who can become board certified, and issued its statement of what teachers should know and be able to do, the first phase of its work is done. But the most critical task lies ahead: the development of assessments that will be used to evaluate teachers.

“The actual development of valid and acceptable assessment products will be the most original, costly, and demanding facets of the national board agenda,” the report states.

For the certification process to succeed, it notes, these assessments must be “professionally credible, publicly acceptable, legally defensible, administratively feasible, and economically affordable.” The board expects them to measure those aspects of teaching that contribute significantly to student learning, and to assess the capacity of teachers to integrate knowledge from several sources and make sound decisions.

To achieve this, the board says it will design an assessment process unlike any teacher examination currently in use. The board expects it to include written essays, multiple-choice tests, portfolios, interviews, samples of student achievement, and classroom observations.

On top of its research and development work, the board intends to support three broad education-reform issues: creating a more effective environment for teaching and learning in schools; increasing the supply of high quality entrants into the profession, with a special emphasis on minorities; and improving teacher education and continued professional development.

On this last front, the board hopes its rigorous standards for certification will eventually lead to better preparation programs for teachers. Its decision not to require candidates for certification to have graduated from a teacher training program rankled members of the teacher-education community. They had hoped that graduation from a school of education would be a prerequisite for the board’s credential.

Still, those at the Chicago forum expressed the belief that colleges and universities would respond to the professional standards set forth by the board. “It would be anti-professional for the schools of education not to be aiming toward those standards,” said Richard Kunkle, executive director of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the organization that certifies teacher preparation programs in the nation’s colleges and universities.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Forging a Profession