Pioneering Board Faces Challenges In Setting Standards for Teachers

By Ann Bradley — June 03, 1992 26 min read

‘Struggle’ To Meet Criteria

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is setting standards for excellence in teaching and plans to spend $50 million developing a voluntary national-certification system.

But some draft standards documents, board officials acknowledge, have fallen short of fulfilling the board’s pledge to capture fully the complex nature of expert teaching.

Some of the standards committees also have taken longer than anticipated to issue their reports. The delays mean that the related teacher assessments are being created without a finished set of standards from which to draw.

At the same time, the national board is coming under pressure to open its standards-setting process more fully to teachers’ professional organizations.

And questions over control of that process have cropped up between some of the teacher-majority standards committees and N.B.P.T.S. staff members.

Board officials say the problems are a natural outgrowth of the daunting task of creating the unprecedented certification process and will be resolved.

“This is complex,’' James A. Kelly, the president of the board, emphasized, “and not everything will work according to plan.’'

The board’s work, meanwhile, has implications for separate projects to create national standards and assessments for student learning.

“If the work is to continue on both fronts,’' said Adam Urbanski, a member of the national board and the president of the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, “then there is a dire need for coordinating, or inevitably the risk is that the two will end up incompatible.’'

‘We Will Be Ready’

The teacher-assessment system is being created under a very tight deadline.

Initially, the standards board announced that it would begin assessing the first candidates for certification in 1993.

“What we have always said was, we will be ready to offer the first assessments in 1993-94,’' Mr. Kelly said, “and we will be ready.’'

The first assessments will be administered to a limited number of teachers in a field test.

In the fall, Mr. Kelly said, members of the 63-member national board will set the “ground rules’’ for whether to actually certify the teachers who participate in the field tests.

“We will follow ‘Kelly’s law,’ '' he said. “We will move as fast as we can, but only as fast as it can be done right.’'

Language-Arts Draft Faulted

Currently, 12 committees are working to set standards for accomplished teaching. In determining what expert teachers should know and be able to do, the committees consider both the subject they teach and the age of the children with whom they work.

The committee members, who are not members of the national board, are nominated by its staff. The majority of the dozen or so members on each panel are classroom teachers.

The first four committees, named in 1990, are setting standards for “generalists’’ and English-language-arts teachers working with “early adolescents;'' mathematics teachers who work with adolescents and young adults; and art teachers who work with children in early adolescence through young adulthood.

The board also has contracted with two university-based “assessment-development laboratories’’ to produce materials to evaluate the English-language-arts and generalist teachers.

None of the first four committees has issued a final report yet.

Draft reports from the committees have been reviewed by a “working group’’ of national-board members who oversee the standards-development process. Some also have been shared with members of subject-matter organizations.

The first standards committees are “behind’’ in their work, according to James R. Smith, the board’s senior vice president in charge of standards and assessments.

Part of the reason is that a number of concerns have surfaced about both the content and format of the standards reports, particularly the English-language-arts document.

That report is an “inadequate definition of teaching expertise,’' Miles Myers, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, complained in a May 20 letter to Mr. Kelly.

Anthony Petrosky, a University of Pittsburgh professor who heads the assessment-development work being done there for the first English-language-arts certificate, also has expressed dissatisfaction with the standards.

In a paper discussing his work with the standards committee, Mr. Petrosky characterized the standards as “a mishmash of general principles’’ conveyed in “very generic language.’'

‘Atomistic,’ Not ‘Holistic’

The problem, both Mr. Myers and Mr. Petrosky assert, lies with the format that the committees used to develop the standards.

At the direction of the national board, all of the standards committees have framed their work in terms of the board’s five core propositions about what accomplished teachers know and can do.

Such teachers, the principles state, are committed to students and their learning; know the subjects they teach and how to teach them to students; are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning; think systematically about their practice and learn from experience; and are members of learning communities.

The decision to use the five principles as a guide for setting standards was made because they have gained wide acceptance among educators, said David R. Mandel, the board’s vice president for policy development.

“As we began the process,’' he said, “it seemed to us a sensible way to organize their work.’'

The principles also were used “for reasons of comparability,’' he added.

“We wanted to design a system where all teachers feel they are being treated fairly,’' Mr. Mandel said, “and no one has the sense that ‘My field’s standards are tougher than someone else’s.’ ''

Using such a framework, however, has produced a more “atomistic’’ picture of teaching than the “holistic’’ view the board had hoped to capture, he acknowledged.

Both the working group and board staff members also want the reports to be more explicit about the goals and expectations that teachers have for their students, Mr. Mandel said, and to portray more clearly the difference between highly accomplished practice and less expert teaching.

By including these aspects, board officials said, the reports could serve as “teaching documents’’ that would communicate expectations throughout the profession.

Board officials say they are now considering recommending to the full board at its June 21-23 meeting that it reconsider the format for deriving the standards.

“It’s a composition and writing issue,’' Mr. Mandel said, “as much as anything else.’'

The reports still would have to reflect the values contained in the board’s original propositions.

In addition, all of the standards-committee meetings will now be held in either Washington or Detroit, where the board is headquartered, to save money and take advantage of the office equipment and staff support in those cities.

The meetings also will be lengthened to allow more time for deliberation.

Learning From Experience

Grappling with how best to go about setting the standards, stressed Mr. Smith, the vice president overseeing standards and assessments, is “all very natural’’ in attempting a task that has never been done before.

He predicted that by this fall the standards committees for English-language-arts and generalist teachers of children in early adolescence will have completed “75 to 80 percent’’ of their work.

In addition, the standards working group is scheduled to consider the reports on art and mathematics standards at the national board’s meeting this month.

“We are a little nervous about the first ones,’' Mr. Smith said. “If we can get a couple that everyone likes, the rest will come along much more quickly. The learning curve then gets very steep.’'

Already, Mr. Mandel pointed out, lessons learned from the experiences of the first committees are being applied to later groups.

For example, the three panels setting standards for science teachers who work with children in middle childhood, early adolescence, and adolescence and young adulthood will collaborate on some aspects of their work.

Regardless of the subject, Mr. Kelly, the board’s president, noted, many of the standards committees have arrived at similar positions on two of the national board’s five core propositions: that teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience, and that they be members of learning communities.

By combining their work on these issues, the science committees can work more efficiently.

“We believe it will not only produce better standards,’' Mr. Kelly said, “but in a faster and more cost-effective way.’'

Need for Actual Cases

Both Mr. Myers of the National Council of Teachers of English and Mr. Petrosky of the University of Pittsburgh have been pushing for the committees to derive their standards from actual cases, or stories, about good teaching.

The standards reports, as a result, also would include vignettes illustrating exemplary practice.

The time that the English-language-arts committee did spend in such discussions, Mr. Petrosky wrote in his paper, “provided us with the richest insight into the actual nature of the teaching valued by the committee.’'

Because the standards did not provide a full enough view of teaching for the assessment developers to draw on, Mr. Petrosky and his colleagues developed what they call “dimensions’’ of English-language-arts teaching to use instead.

These were derived from listening to the deliberations of the committee members, interviewing them, and teasing out the broad themes that emerged, Mr. Petrosky said.

There was no other way to go about the work of the Pittsburgh assessment-development lab, he added.

“We are on the street with the assessment, we have field-tested the portfolio and the content knowledge already, and we don’t have a set of standards,’' Mr. Petrosky pointed out.

Parallel Tracks

Because of the national board’s tight time line, officials say, it was necessary to contract for the development of the assessments at the same time that standards were being set.

Mr. Smith said it was “not an optimal arrangement’’ to have the work proceed along parallel lines. But he noted that the work of each group is supposed to inform the work of the other.

The standards documents also serve dual purposes, observed Raymond Pecheone, the chief of the bureau of research and teacher assessment for the Connecticut education department, who is developing the English-language-arts assessment with the University of Pittsburgh researchers.

“It’s a political document that helps to communicate to the field what’s important for teachers to know and be able to do,’' he said. “At the same time, they are critical documents for exercises and scoring around the assessment process.’'

“Sometimes, the two agendas meet like rams and butt heads and conflict with each other,’' he said.

Committees working in fields in which there have been previous attempts to define standards--for either students or teachers--have had a leg up on panels that have to start from scratch, standards-panel members note.

“We’ve had an immense advantage over other committees,’' said Gail Burrill, a high-school mathematics teacher who chairs the mathematics committee. Her group, she said, was able to draw heavily on the work of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which has been in the vanguard of national
standards-setting efforts.

‘Treading Into Difficult Terrain’

On the other hand, the committee setting standards for generalists working with children in early adolescence has struggled to define exactly how much such teachers should be expected to know.

While they do so, the assessment-development laboratory at the University of Georgia has had to forge ahead to create assessments.

William Capie, the principal investigator on the project, said that under such circumstances, “You do the best you can.’'

“By and large, the standards haven’t been changing all that much,’' he said. “The big picture has remained relatively constant.’'

Some of the committee members think of themselves as generalists, along the model of elementary teachers, said Deborah Meier, a national-board member who serves as a liaison to the generalist committee.

Others see themselves as “specialists who integrate other curriculum areas,’' said Ms. Meier, who is the principal of the nationally recognized Central Park East Secondary School in New York City.

Some education-reform efforts, she pointed out, have urged that secondary-school teachers become more like generalists.

In setting standards, Ms. Meier said, the generalist committee is trying not to “straitjacket a very fluid picture of education in this country.’'

“We are sort of under pressure,’' she said, “to get something out in usable form, that we are not too embarrassed by, at the same time that we are treading very nervously into difficult terrain.’'

Mr. Smith, the board’s standards and assessment chief, said “major headway’’ was made with the emergence of an analogy of a generalist teacher to a pediatrician, who knows the whole baby and can refer its parents to a specialist if necessary.

“That still begs the question as to how much is enough in every subject,’' he said, “but it does get past the notion the committee had that a generalist is a specialist in one area, who knows a little bit about everything else.’'

Confusing Relationship

The process of developing standards and assessments in tandem would have been more productive, Mr. Petrosky of the University of Pittsburgh maintained, if members of the standards committees had been fully involved in actually creating the assessments.

Otherwise, he said, too much discretion in interpreting and applying the standards rests with the laboratory.

Indeed, the relationship between the assessment developers and the standards committees has been confusing at times.

The assessment experts have attended the standards-setting meetings, but some committee members said they were unsure what role these members of the labs were actually supposed to play.

In January, the national-board members who serve as liaisons to all of the standards committees met with staff members to clarify that and other issues, said Peggy Swoger, the chair of the board working group that oversees the standards process.

The question was whether the assessment-development labs had a “leadership’’ role or a “listening’’ role, she recalled. The answer was that the developers were at the standards-setting meetings to carry on a “conversation’’ with the committees.

In crafting its initial policies, Mr. Mandel, the national board’s vice president for policy development, said, the board decided that the standards committees should maintain an arm’s length from participating in the development of the assessments because committee members serve as the first “reviewers and critiquers’’ of the labs’ products.

But the members of the committees also are the people who best understand the standards being measured, he said.

As a result, Mr. Mandel said, “our original notion of creating a sharp division between the standards committees and the assessment developers is softening.’'

“There isn’t any one magic way to do all this,’' he said.

Role of Board Staff

Standards-committee members have also periodically experienced uncertainty in their dealings with N.B.P.T.S. staff members.

The English-language-arts committee--the first one named by the national board--got off to a rocky start when its chair resigned before ever attending a meeting.

The chair, Mary Mercer Krogness, who teaches in Shaker Heights, Ohio, said it quickly became apparent to her that she would not have the freedom to determine the standards committee’s agenda.

“The goals of the national board are beyond reproach,’' Ms. Krogness said. “I took exception to the management.’'

“In the very place that claims it is the bastion of teacher empowerment and respect for teachers,’' she added, “I thought it wasn’t happening.’'

Mr. Mandel said a committee’s agenda is prepared by the staff members in consultation with the committee chair.

From the outset, skeptics have wondered how involved classroom teachers would truly be in the board’s ambitious agenda.

In putting together the committees, Mr. Mandel said, staff members have taken great care to nominate academics and others who are known for working well with classroom teachers.

“There are natural tensions between people coming from different traditions and disciplines,’' he said. “That is also the reason that each committee has a teacher majority.’'

On some committees, it has taken teachers time to find their voices, participants say, while on others they have been outspoken contributors.

Classroom teachers on the mathematics committee, noted Mary Jo Aiken, a high-school mathematics teacher, “sat back and let a couple of the college-of-education people talk because they love to talk. That’s the nature of the beast.’'

Such behavior does not mean that the teachers were not involved in setting the standards, she stressed.

Linda Rief, the chair of the English-language-arts committee, said the issue on her committee has not been whether academicians have dominated the discussion, but how the committee has interacted with board-staff members.

“I sometimes feel they have a certain direction they want us to go in,’' she said of the staff members, “and sometimes we don’t head in that direction.’'

“We’ve become more authoritative about saying what we really believe,’' she said of the teachers on her committee, “what we think is feasible and practical, and what we really think a highly accomplished teacher does do, based on the constraints they are under in the classroom.’'

‘It Didn’t Look Familiar’

There also have been complaints that summaries of the committees’ work have not accurately reflected teachers’ views.

“There were times when we looked at what was written and it didn’t even look familiar to us,’' Ms. Rief said, “and the language didn’t look familiar.’'

“This does feel more political to me than anything I’ve ever worked on before,’' she said.

To address such concerns, the national board has hired a new writer to work with Ms. Rief’s committee and others, according to Mr. Smith.

In between meetings of the standards committees--which convene about four times a year--staff members gather “new input’’ from committee members who are asked to work on specific issues, and then try to create documents that best reflect the information, Mr. Mandel said.

“We ought to be able to make progress between meetings,’' he said. “Time at meetings is both precious and expensive. The editing process is best done away from the table, not at it.’'

“Nothing is going to come out of those committees unless the committee itself likes it,’' Mr. Kelly stressed, “and no committee is going to be pressured to produce a document it doesn’t like.’'

Broader Constituencies

It has proved challenging for the standards-setters to produce reports to guide assessment development and at the same time communicate to teachers and to the businesses, foundations, and politicians funding the work of the national board.

The board “working group’’ that oversees the standards-setting process has made a number of suggestions for improving the reports.

The art committee, according to Mark Hansen, its chair, eliminated language in its report that could have been misinterpreted as teachers trying to protect their budget-sensitive jobs.

In trying to convey that art teachers should be advocates for their subject, he said, the standards committee was careful to tie its rationale closely to the benefits of art education for students.

And the mathematics document referred explicitly to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards--a reference the panel was advised to delete.

“The board didn’t want to get into the curriculum-endorsement business,’' Mr. Kelly, the board president, explained.

The board also has a working group overseeing the development of assessments and a group looking at how the board can influence education policy in a broader sense.

The board is concerned with creating more effective environments for teaching and learning in schools, recruiting minority teachers, and improving teacher education.

The policy group has commissioned a paper looking at teachers and the workplace, but has not yet adopted the paper, Mr. Kelly said.

“The board has not yet decided,’' he said, “how specifically it should issue advice to the community on the organizational structure of the school, as distinguished from all the implications for the teachers’ role and teaching functions contained in ‘What teachers should know and be able to do.’''

Mr. Urbanski, the Rochester union president who serves on the policy working group, said that in such deliberations the board has to “take into account its credibility with all of its constituencies.’'

Staffing by Teachers

The deadline under which the standards committees are working has raised questions about whether they have adequate staff support.

From his past experience working with similar committees of the National Research Council, said Walter Rosen, a consultant to the board who helped identify candidates for the science-standards panels, the teaching board’s committees are “woefully understaffed.’'

But board officials say they are confident they have an adequate number of employees to carry out the work.

As of this month, there will be 16 standards committees working; “teachers in residence’’ and special writers will assist three or four committees at a time, Mr. Smith said.

The board pays the salaries of the teachers-in-residence to their districts and brings them to its Washington office to help set up and guide the work of the standards committees.

Having such support functions provided by teachers should help ensure that the committees’ views are accurately reflected, Mr. Kelly said.

Allocating Funds

In addition to concerns about the volume of work expected of the board’s staff members, Walter Calinger, a psychometrician, lawyer, and former mayor of Omaha, Neb., who worked in the N.B.P.T.S. Washington office for six months, said he became concerned during his tenure that the organization was not allocating its resources properly.

Mr. Calinger said he thought it was spending too much money on public relations and lobbying the Congress for federal funding, and not enough on its core mission of developing standards and assessments.

“Tell me where you spend your money,’' he said, “and I will tell you where your goals are as a national organization.’'

Board officials said they would not discuss Mr. Calinger’s resignation.

In its 1991 annual report, the board--a private, nonprofit organization--reported spending $668,594 on certification standards; $2.27 million on assessment development; $152,410 on education policy and reform; $2.12 million on constituency communications; $646,261 on governance; $958,398 on operations; and $654,867 on development and government relations. Spending totaled $7.48 million.

In the current calendar year, according to Mr. Kelly, the board plans to spend between $11 million and $12 million, 80 percent of which will go to its programs, including about $7.5 million for standards and assessments.

Mr. Kelly said the board is “scaling up its activity’’ this year, because it has more contractors working and more committees setting standards.

He noted that the board’s communications program was paid for by a restricted grant that could only be used for that purpose.

Involving the ‘Stakeholders’

Since its inception, the board has pledged to fully involve a variety of “stakeholders’’ in the development of the teacher-certification system.

But it is coming under pressure to more closely involve members of the teaching profession, through various organizations, in the actual creation of its standards and assessments.

Drawing in a broad range of teachers is the only way to ensure that the board’s work is a “professionalization project’’ and not just another test, Mr. Myers, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, argued.

Board officials say complaints that the N.B.P.T.S. is operating like a testing operation are simply unfounded.

“Our mentality is based on the belief that there’s no sense doing this unless it is a serious professional-development activity,’' said Joan Baratz Snowden, the board’s vice president for assessment development.

One of Mr. Myers’s concerns about the standards-setting process, Ms. Swoger, the chair of the board working group that oversees the standards process, said, stems from the fact that his organization itself is just beginning to try to determine what its members should know and be able to do.

“I think Miles is wrong on this issue,’' she said.

Mr. Myers acknowledged that his field has been late in developing standards.

Issues of Access

Mr. Myers has been pressing for more access for the English teachers’ council since the first N.B.P.T.S. standards committee was named.

“We are not going to continue to support the national board,’' he said, “if we can’t find ways in which this benefits teachers and the whole process interacts with the teaching community.’'

Mr. Kelly stressed that the national board has “40 to 50 different core constituency groups.’' He noted that teaching-specialty and discipline groups are asked to recommend people for appointment to the standards committees.

Mr. Myers had asked for permission to send an “observer’’ to the standards-committee meetings; the request was denied.

“We don’t see standards-setting as narrowly controlled by special interest groups,’' Mr. Kelly said.

After the working group signs off on the standards reports, he added, they will be widely circulated for comment during a formal review period.

But Mr. Kelly and other senior officials also say they will now share draft standards reports much earlier in the process.

“I am not at all happy with our track record of dealing with professional curriculum associations,’' Mr. Smith, the vice president for standards and assessment, said. “We will have to do something differently, and I think something dramatically different, in dealing with them.’'

To improve communications with professional groups, Mr. Kelly said, Claire L. Pelton, the board’s vice chair, will begin working half time for the N.B.P.T.S. to interact with such organizations.

The English teachers’ group also asked to have a “relationship’’ with the University of Pittsburgh assessment lab--a request that Mr. Myers’s May 20 letter to Mr. Kelly states also was denied by board staff members.

‘Who Calls the Shots’

Instead, the N.C.T.E. went directly to the university and established, at its own expense, an advisory board of teachers who have been meeting regularly with the assessment developers.

The English teachers’ group also is helping to establish sites for judging the pilot tests of the Pittsburgh lab’s assessments.

The N.C.T.E. unsuccessfully sought to be allowed to share the results of the first judging with its members.

“It’s one thing to circulate the standards,’' Ms. Snowden said, “but we can hardly circulate the assessment exercises.’'

Mr. Myers said he has been particularly frustrated in his dealings with the national board because it is unclear to him whether the English teachers’ concerns have gotten past staff members to the full board.

Board members and staff officials cite the N.B.P.T.S. annual forums as an opportunity for such dialogue. But Mr. Myers said he has no assurance that the comments made at open microphones are later discussed by the board.

“The policy discussions that go on’’ at forum meetings, he said, “as far as I’m concerned, are meaningless.’'

Mr. Urbanski said board members are aware of Mr. Myers’s concerns and of the other issues that have arisen from the board’s developmental work.

“The tensions that have to do with arguments about content and about the approach to the development of standards--the pedagogical tensions--are reassuring to me,’' he said. “If none existed, I would fear that it’s rigged.’'

Among board members, he added, “there is sensitivity to this issue of who really is in charge and who calls the shots’'--the board or its staff.

“They rely on the staff to do the work between meetings,’' he said, “but I think policy is indeed shaped by the board and not by the staff.’'

Classroom Visits or Tapes?

The National Council of Teachers of English has a number of other concerns about the board’s work, including the issue of whether the assessments will include actual visits to teachers’ classrooms and who will select and train the judges for the assessments.

Mr. Myers said he believes it is critical, for both substantive and symbolic reasons, for the teachers undergoing the assessment process to be seen in their own classrooms.

When English teachers’ work is judged, he said, it should be by members of their own discipline who have been trained by the N.C.T.E.

The national board is preparing to let a contract for a “multi-field’’ assessment-development laboratory that Mr. Myers said only a very large organization could win--a situation he fears will exclude groups such as his.

Ms. Snowden said there is nothing in the request for proposals for the new lab that would prohibit the winning contractor from subcontracting with the N.C.T.E. or some other group for judging.
As for the issue of classroom visits, Mr. Pecheone of the Connecticut Education Department said his research has found that teachers believe videotapes accurately capture their work. Despite concerns about equal access to video equipment, he added, the teachers he is working with have reported no problems in making their tapes.

‘Struggle’ To Meet Criteria

The issue of exactly how the assessments are judged and by whom, as well as whether site visits are included, will influence the cost of undergoing the assessment process.

Ms. Snowden, the board’s vice president for assessment development, said there are no estimates yet on what it might cost to become board-certified.

She emphasized that the assessments must meet a range of criteria established by the national board in its initial policy-setting deliberations: They must be professionally credible, publicly acceptable, legally defensible, administratively feasible, and economically affordable.

Meeting all of the criteria is “a real struggle,’' Mr. Pecheone observed.

He and Mr. Petrosky believe that as many teachers as possible should be trained to score the assessments. Such a system also would strengthen the professional-development aspect of the board’s work, they note.

“There is a point where in performance assessment it is labor-intensive,’' Mr. Pecheone said. “If it’s going to be done credibly, it’s going to have to stand on the shoulders of the experts in the field.’'

Ties to Student Standards

Whatever the arguments, both technical and philosophical, over the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, observers say, it is crucial that the process not lose sight of the first constituency teachers must serve: their students.

What teachers should know and be able to do, they say, should be intimately related to the expectations for students.

“There is a need for more conversations’’ with those now engaged in a multitude of parallel efforts to draw up national standards and assessments for students, Mr. Urbanski of Rochester said.

Senior staff members of the national board say they have close contact with the educators working on student standards and assessments. While the various groups already engage in frequent conversations on an informal basis, Ms. Snowden said, the national board is seeking a grant that would enable the efforts to establish formal ties.

Mr. Kelly, the N.B.P.T.S. president, emphasized, though, that he does not believe the emerging effort on behalf of students should delay the teaching-standards board’s work.

The momentum for establishing certification for outstanding teachers is too great to risk losing, he said.

“We feel the teaching profession is capable of developing this system in a decade and assuming a leadership position in the reform debate by defining high standards for itself,’' Mr. Kelly said.

“We think it’s doable,’' he added. “We are making an authentic commitment to try our damnedest to do it right.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 1992 edition of Education Week as Pioneering Board Faces Challenges In Setting Standards for Teachers