O Pioneers!: May 1994

By Ann Bradley — November 01, 2000 7 min read
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Diane Hughart has written lessons that accompany Emmy Award-winning videos. Rick Wormeli’s face has graced the sides of city buses. And both have given speeches and advice to colleagues more times than they can count. But what matters most is that Hughart and Wormeli are still classroom teachers—just as they were during the 1993-94 school year, when they held each other’s hands through the grueling process of becoming certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Back then, Hughart and Wormeli, colleagues at Herndon Middle School in Northern Virginia, were quiet pioneers. They were among just a handful of teachers nationwide who spent countless hours videotaping their lessons, writing commentaries, taking exams, and fretting over paperwork to help field-test what was then a brand-new assessment process. And, at the time, the rewards were uncertain.

Seven years after helping to blaze a trail for national certification, two teachers are reaping the rewards.

In the years since, both the teachers and the national board have evolved. Hughart and Wormeli, who earned national certification as English teachers working with children in early adolescence, are accomplished professionals whose skills are much in demand. And the board, a privately funded organization launched in 1987, is now considered a prominent school reform player, embraced by politicians and a growing number of teachers. Earlier this fall, in fact, more than 7,000 candidates signed up for this year’s assessment process, which measures teachers against professional standards and certifies those who meet them.

The rewards are no longer uncertain. States now offer an array of monetary bonuses to nationally certified teachers: Last year, Virginia began paying them an additional $2,500 a year each, and in California certified teachers who agree to teach in troubled schools can earn an extra $30,000 a year for four years.

Certification compensates in less tangible ways, too. It recognizes teachers as among the best in the country, an honor that can open the door to new opportunities. When they signed on, for example, Hughart and Wormeli were already two go-getters whose careers looked promising. But certification has given them prestige and visibility that has led, in turn, to their involvement in interesting, even glamorous, projects.

Both, of course, remain in the classroom. Three years ago, Wormeli, now 39, accepted a job teaching English at Rachel Carson Middle School, which is closer to his home where he helps care for his kids-Ryan, 8, and Lynn Marie, 6. As he did prior to being certified, he writes for Middle Ground, the magazine of the National Middle Schools Association. A book based on his writings, Meet Me in the Middle, is due out next spring.

But Wormeli also moonlights in ways directly related to his certification experience. Aside from delivering speeches to education organizations, he works as a consultant on textbooks and curricular matters and prepares testimony for various groups involved with school improvement. “I am considered an expert in the field, instead of somebody who just shows up to work every day,” he says. “My life has turned upside down with presentations around the country and traveling and people wanting me to be a consultant on curriculum and to sit on panels.”

Part of the hubbub stems from Wormeli’s selection in 1996 for an American Teacher Award from the Walt Disney Co. and McDonald’s Corp. The companies ran an advertising campaign that plastered his smiling face on buses in Washington, D.C. Since then, he’s visited the White House four times, where President Clinton knows him as “that teacher guy.” “That’s a wonderful label to have,” Wormeli says, laughing.

Hughart, who, at 47, maintains a considerably lower profile than Wormeli, has been just as busy. Last summer, she completed a program at George Mason University that certifies mainstream teachers who work with special education students. The experience led her to a new job: teaching English at Northwest Center School in Reston, Virginia, a small public school for middle and high school-age kids with mental health problems. “I’ve always been for kids who have a struggle,” explains Hughart, who has two sons, ages 18 and 20. “It’s something I have always wanted to help with.”

Her interest in special ed actually began at Herndon, where she taught two kids with autism and one quadriplegic boy, who, despite having communication problems, participated in many activities. “He was just a real positive student who had a smile all the time,” Hughart recalls. “Sometimes we used an assistive device, but we got to the point where he just talked in class too, and even in the play we did. The kids were just so good with him.”

These experiences, which took place after Hughart was certified, come in handy whenever she helps teachers put together certification portfolios or when she gives speeches—tasks the board has asked her to perform as an alumna of the pilot program. Two years ago, the board suggested that Hughart work with other certified teachers in developing teaching materials to accompany videos of historic figures for the A&E Network. Included in the package was an introductory tape featuring Hughart and her colleagues discussing how the materials should be used.

“I’m always a nervous wreck about anything like that,” she says of appearing on camera. “It’s always a tossup for me and a real stretch, yet I appreciate the opportunity to be able to do things like this.”

The opportunity paid off. The Biography Project for Schools, which A&E distributed to 20,000 middle schools last year, earned both the cable network and the national board an Emmy earlier this year.

Of course, not every certified teacher’s face shows up on a city bus or a television screen. But the rewards of certification—in terms of both cash and cachet—are attracting lots of teachers. Plus, some states are helping teachers pay the $2,300 fee. A total of 4,804 candidates have been certified thus far, and more than 9,100 completed the process last spring. Betty Castor, president of the board, estimates that 15,000 teachers will sign up for this year’s round, which begins in December and ends in April. The ultimate goal: 50,000 candidates going through the process by 2005.

The board, which has a budget of $33.5 million provided by corporations, foundations, and the federal government, has learned many lessons since Hughart and Wormeli took the field test, for which they had just two months to gather portfolios. A “new generation” of streamlined portfolio and assessment exercises debuts next year, when the board will offer certification in 33 fields. Candidates will be given three years to pass and can retake portions of the assessments for a $300 fee.

But passing should not be the candidates’ only goal. Simply going through the assessment process, which forces them to contemplate and explain their teaching, as well as show examples of their work, is a significant achievement. “When you peel away everything else,” says Gary Galluzzo, the board’s executive vice president, “what the national board has done is provoke teacher-driven professional development where they are working in groups and talking about teaching. In and of itself, that’s a pretty powerful thing.”

But not everyone is satisfied with the board’s efforts. Critics demand evidence that the expensive process is worthwhile. “After a dozen years of [research and development] and the investment of $120 million, the board cannot demonstrate that its blue-ribbon winners actually produce higher-achieving students,” Chester Finn Jr., a prominent education critic who served as an assistant secretary of education in the Bush administration, and colleague Danielle Dunne Wilcox wrote in a 1999 article in the National Review. They also complained that the assessment process slights knowledge of subject matter in favor of pedagogical expertise.

The board claims, however, the new assessments will probe subject knowledge more deeply by focusing solely on content. It has also begun to generate research on certification candidates. A recent study of 64 teachers, mixing those who earned certificates with those who didn’t, found that certified teachers scored higher on 11 of 13 dimensions of teaching, including student achievement.

As pundits and policymakers wrestle over assessment issues, Wormeli and Hughart go about their business, each convinced that certification has improved their teaching and enriched their professional lives. Despite his energy and drive, Wormeli isn’t sure he would have stayed in teaching if the board hadn’t come along. And Hughart perpetually reflects on her teaching, a habit that began with the field test she and Wormeli dared to take seven years ago.

“We judge ourselves all the time,” she says, “and we know what needs to be done as a result of knowing what was expected before.”


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