R.I. District Investing In National Board Certification

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If states and districts are beginning to embrace the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and its system for certifying outstanding teachers, educators here have locked it in a bear hug.

The 5,650-student Coventry school system on the outskirts of Providence has made an unusually intensive—and expensive—commitment to encouraging and supporting its teachers to undergo the voluntary national assessment of their teaching.

National certification here is worth nearly $80,000 to teachers, who receive stipends of at least $7,000 annually, increasing to $7,500 next school year, for the 10-year life of their certificates. For teachers who earn a maximum of $58,350, the stipend is a substantial increase.

So successful has the undertaking been, Coventry now serves as the hub for all of Rhode Island's activities to support national certification.

In 1997, impressed by the district's work, the state legislature began appropriating money to support candidates' fees for certification. That amount reached $90,000 this year. The Providence-based Rhode Island Foundation kicked in $50,000 this year as well.

In this district, it's possible to see how the vision sketched by the founders of the privately organized national board could come true: Teachers are playing new and expanded roles, talking about their practice with one another, and honing their skills.

Every Coventry teacher who has attempted to become certified has "achieved," as educators here call making the mark. The district, which has 450 teachers and nine schools, now boasts 10 home-grown nationally certified teachers. Two more were lured away from neighboring districts, and by next month, another five will have mailed off the jam-packed boxes containing their videotapes and portfolios for a new round of judging. Another 11 people have expressed interest in taking part next school year.

The district was one of the first in the country to negotiate comprehensive language in its collective bargaining contract in support of national certification. The national board, in fact, now uses the Coventry language as a model, said Mary-Dean Barringer, a vice president of the board.

"What they did that was so smart was that they really took our board policies on what incentives, professional acknowledgment, and rewards would be needed to institutionalize this over time," Ms. Barringer said. "They've given it a lot of real thought."

One reason Coventry's approach works is that national certification is integrated into everyday business.

This fast-growing suburban district is using New Standards, the guidelines for student learning crafted by the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy. Those standards, in turn, match the state's assessment system. At the elementary and middle-grades levels, Coventry students have posted substantial gains.

"This is a nationally benchmarked standard of excellence in teaching," Superintendent John Deasy said. "It has changed the culture of teaching more than anything else. It's a whole-building effort."

Time and Money

Even if teachers here choose not to go through the certification procedure, its influence permeates Coventry's evaluation system, which requires teachers to complete portfolios documenting their work in the classroom. The district this month is unveiling a voluntary pay-for-performance plan that will give teachers a chance to earn stipends for four years by completing a process similar to the national board's.

"The national board made it that much easier to say, 'We want good teachers, and we'll give you good money,' " said Joseph Butler, the chairman of the Coventry school board. "There was no fight about it."

Coventry educators began attending meetings of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in 1990, three years after the nonprofit organization was founded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Now based in Southfield, Mich., the national board has certified 4,804 teachers so far; another 9,629 candidates are going through the process this year. The organization offers certificates in 19 fields and plans to offer as many as 30.

William Berger, the president of the local teachers' union here since 1975, recalls that his members' interest was sparked by word filtering down from American Federation of Teachers headquarters in Washington. The conduit was Mr. Berger's wife, Marsha Berger, the deputy director for the AFT's educational issues department.

But it wasn't until Mr. Deasy, a hard-charging former high school principal here, became the superintendent four years ago that the Coventry union was able to negotiate a contract that puts real weight behind national certification.

Today, the district's contract with the Coventry Teachers' Alliance includes an unusually rich mix of time, money, and assistance for the teachers who undertake the national board's assessment.

The district paid the $2,300 application fee for up to seven teachers a year, until the state appropriated money to pick up the tab. Teachers get five additional leave days to use during the grueling preparation of their portfolios. The district helps them locate the video equipment they need to record scenes from their classrooms; one guidance counselor who is also a videographer is available if needed.

Coventry teachers who earn national certification receive handsome stipends each year. Those who don't earn the certification get six credits that advance them on the salary schedule. And the contract commits the district to giving board-certified teachers new professional opportunities, such as roles in providing professional-development activities to their peers, working on school improvement plans, and writing curriculum.

Mr. Deasy points out that his district isn't wealthy—it ranks dead-center on per-pupil spending among the state's 36 districts. But Coventry is first in the proportion of its resources spent on instruction and teacher salaries, he says with pride.

In 1998, Coventry created a professional-development and leadership center and named a district teacher of the year to run it. The teacher, Kathleen Swann, conducts workshops and information sessions both to recruit candidates and to help those in the national-certification pipeline understand what is required of them. "The process is really what it's all about," she said, rather than the end results.

Because of the high visibility and top-down support for national certification, teachers here are open about asking their colleagues to read the nearly 300 pages of reflective writing required in the portfolios, Ms. Swann noted. They often post sign-up sheets asking for readers in their faculty lounges.

"Groups of teachers will stay after school and watch someone's videotape," she said. "It's a great professional conversation-starter."

The district's center, with Ms. Swann doubling as a state facilitator, now serves as the nucleus of Rhode Island's efforts to support candidates for board certification. The Rhode Island Foundation this year is paying $25,000 to cover part of her salary, but no longer chips in for candidates' fees.

Ms. Swann threw a "Pack the Box" party this spring, complete with free photocopying and pizzas, for teachers who were finishing up their portfolios and getting ready to put them in the mail.

Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island offer credit to teachers who take courses designed and taught by Ms. Swann for people going through the assessment procedure.

Positive Attitude

The very public process of participating in the national board's assessment culminates here in a celebration of success. Superintendent Deasy and Mr. Butler, the chairman of the school board, take bouquets of flowers to teachers who have learned the good news of their certification. The school board honors them in a special ceremony. Rhode Island also fetes its top teachers at the state Capitol.

The pervasive positive attitude here seems to have countered much of the negativity and professional jealousy that some nationally certified teachers have encountered. While educators say such attitudes crop up occasionally, they don't get much of a hearing.

Coventry's enthusiasm for national teacher certification contrasts with what researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered in a study of five unnamed districts. Although their findings aren't generalizable beyond the districts examined, the researchers found that national certification's effect was "largely limited to the classrooms of the board-certified teachers."

"In four of the districts studied," they write, "board certification had not yet penetrated schools' internal accountability systems or deeply affected the broader professional school community."

Carolyn Kelley, an associate professor of educational administration who conducted the study with a colleague, said one reason could be that few district administrators or principals knew much about national certification. As more teachers volunteer to take part in it, she said, the dynamic could change in favor of increased teacher leadership and changes in the organization of schools.

'You Can Do This'

The indifferent attitude expressed by educators in another Rhode Island school district convinced Judy Paolucci that she'd be better off teaching in Coventry. Ms. Paolucci was certified in teaching science to children in early adolescence and young adulthood last November; by January, she had accepted a position as the science-curriculum coordinator at Coventry Middle School

"I didn't get the support and encouragement, and when it came time for results to come back, nobody asked me did you get it or not," she recalled. "It just didn't appear to be of any interest."

In Coventry—where Mr. Deasy personally interviews every finalist for a teaching job—teachers clearly are valued, she said. "The district recognizes where the valuable resources are in a school, and it's not computers and buildings. The real rich resources are the people employed there."

Teachers here who are nationally certified report that they've taken advantage of numerous ways to contribute to their profession while remaining in the classroom—one of the primary goals behind the creation of the national board.

Kathleen Miner, a 6th grade teacher at Oak Haven Elementary School with 25 years' experience, conducts research on her own classroom practices and is a consultant to the Rhode Island Writing Project.

"This has expanded my view from Room 15 to see the profession differently," she said. "I have tested my practice against national standards."

At Coventry High School, two nationally certified teachers are now serving as department chairs, positions that in many high schools are allocated according to seniority. One mathematics teacher, Vic Osterman, had to retake a portion of the test given at an assessment center twice before he achieved national certification.

"In the beginning, I was embarrassed," he said. "But a lot of the people in the school said, 'You can do this.' We talked about it as a process, and I knew that I had the qualities they were looking for."

The tangible confidence that Coventry's nationally certified teachers radiate seems to draw out their colleagues.

James Erinakes, the chairman of the math department at Coventry High and a teacher for seven years, reads other teachers' written work and views their videotapes to give constructive advice.

When he went through the assessment in 1997, the district didn't even have the stipends teachers now receive for certification. Of the money, he said: "This is all right!"

Though the financial rewards didn't prompt Judy Baxter, the head of the high school's English department, to seek certification, they certainly helped. "I can't deny that it crossed my mind," she said. "I felt like I was finally being paid for what I actually do."

Vol. 19, Issue 36, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: May 17, 2000, as R.I. District Investing In National Board Certification
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