Ronald Thorpe, National Board President and Education Advocate, Dies at 63

By Liana Loewus — July 01, 2015 3 min read
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Ronald Thorpe, president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, died today after a battle with lung cancer. He was 63 years old.

Thorpe had led the National Board since 2011, ushering in significant changes designed to increase the profile of the organization’s flagship advanced certification program and bolster teachers’ professional status nationally.

Thorpe, a well-known and energetic presence in the K-12 field, worked as an education advocate in various capacities over 40 years. Prior to joining the National Board, he served as vice president for education at the New York public television station WNET. While there, he spearheaded the Celebration of Teaching and Learning conference in New York, which drew thousands of educators annually between 2005 and 2011. Thorpe also held senior leadership roles at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Rhode Island Foundation, and the Wallace Foundation.

Early in his career, Thorpe worked at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, first teaching and then serving as assistant to then-headmaster Theodore R. Sizer, a progressive education leader whom Thorpe credited with shaping his views. Thorpe received his master’s and doctorate degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“I think anyone who’s ever met Ron would understand the passion he has for the profession, the passion he has for teachers and to a vision that would put an accomplished teacher in every classroom in this country,” said Peggy Brookins, the former executive vice president of the National Board who will now serve as the organization’s interim president and CEO.

When Thorpe took over as head of the National Board, the organization’s status had been waning for several years. Thorpe immediately set the groundwork for big changes—decreasing the cost of certification and making the process more accessible for teachers. He championed the development of a universal certification model, similar to that used in the medical world. In an opinion blog post for Education Week, he wrote:

“The profession of teaching will not succeed until it agrees that such a path must exist and must be traveled by everyone. Board certification needs to become the norm, not the exception. It should be what every practitioner aspires to and what the profession expects and supports. Every other profession has followed this model. In medicine, more than 90 percent of physicians are board certified. In education, the number is less than 3 percent.”

Under his direction, the organization also created an online library of videos of National Board-certified teachers demonstrating their instructional approaches.

While at the National Board, Thorpe also reinvented his previous annual gathering as the Teaching and Learning conference in Washington. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at the conference, as well as Microsoft founder and education funder Bill Gates, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, and documentarian Ken Burns, among others. To acknowledge the breadth of teachers’ work, Thorpe wanted the conference to include both big-name national speakers and more finely grained pedagogical presentations.

“He was a true visionary,” said Brookins.

In a statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called Thorpe a “fierce advocate” for having teachers lead the work in the profession. “When he became president of the NBPTS, he pushed us all to the highest standards of teaching and learning,” she said. “He leaves all of us with a greater challenge to pick up where he left off and move forward.”

The U.S. Education Department offered this tribute to Thorpe on Twitter:

Image: Ronald Thorpe, courtesy of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.