Teaching Profession

Board Stamp for Teachers Raising Flags

By Joetta L. Sack — November 12, 2003 6 min read
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Georgia lawmakers thought they had a great plan to recruit and keep well- qualified teachers in the classroom: offer an annual 10 percent bonus to every teacher who earned national certification.

But as more teachers get that seal of approval from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, some of the legislators are getting sticker shock. The cost of Georgia’s program is expected to more than triple from this fiscal year to the next, and at a time when the state budget is particularly tight.

So now the legislature is debating whether to scale back the bonuses, which would likely trigger an outcry from teachers and their unions. The fiscal strains, meanwhile, are also emboldening critics, who question whether nationally certified teachers are really any better than those who don’t gain the credential.

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See the accompanying map, “Teacher Bonuses.”

Thirty-two states offer some sort of cash bonus to teachers who successfully complete the stringent board-certification process, which is intended to provide national recognition of excellent teaching skills. At least 31 states also pay for at least part of the $2,300 fee for teachers who choose to undergo the process. Some 500 districts also offer incentives of their own.

Nationwide, nearly 24,000 teachers hold the certification—a population that has increased rapidly in the past three years. And that growth is contributing to the fiscal strain on many states, whose budgets have been pinched by recent years of economic sluggishness.

“States are going to be pressed to meet their obligations, but the question is: ‘Is this something that they want to back off on?’” said Charles R. Coble, the vice president for policy studies and programs at the Education Commission of the States, in Denver.

He said that some states might have to scale back the rewards for teachers who earn the credential in the future.

Some states already have.

Last year California eliminated the $10,000 bonuses that were supposed to go to all teachers who completed the certification. The state still offers $20,000 bonuses, given out over four years, to teachers who complete the certification and agree to teach in low-performing schools.

In other states, though, it would be very tough politically to rescind annual salary supplements for current board-certified teachers, many observers agree.

Mr. Coble also warned that scaling back or rescinding benefits for current teachers “would have profoundly negative effects far beyond the politics” of angry teachers’ unions. He said such a step would ruin the spirits of teachers who had undergone the time-consuming certification process, steer away those considering the certification, and discourage other people from entering the field.

“When you make a promise to someone of this nature, and then break it after they put their bodies and souls through the rigors of this process,” he said, “it really breaks morale.”

‘An Expensive Fad’

An independent, nonprofit group based in Arlington, Va., the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards argues that the voluntary certification process it began in 1993 will make teaching more professional.

The board uses portfolios, evaluations, student work, and tests of the subject matter they teach to evaluate candidates for its recognition. The certification is good for 10 years and can be renewed.

The group encourages states and school districts to help pay the examination fee or offer a bonus or salary supplement to board-certified teachers.

State legislators have eagerly approved one-time bonuses and annual salary increases for such teachers. Many policymakers see the bonuses as a way to reward good teachers and influence the quality of its teaching force.

The NBPTS has commissioned 18 independent, longitudinal studies to see whether board-certified teachers perform better and yield better academic results from their students than their colleagues without national credentials do.

David Lussier, an adviser to the president at NBPTS, said that some of the results will be ready as early as next year.

He maintains, though, that the process of becoming board certified helps teachers sharpen their focus and improve their skills.

“As a board-certified teacher myself, this by far was the most challenging teaching experience I had ever gone through,” he said. “It really does make [teachers] think about their work differently, I felt like I was a much better teacher afterward.”

But the strategy of channeling state money into national teacher certification has drawn sharp criticism, mainly from academics who say there’s no real proof that board-certified teachers are any better than others.

J.E. Stone, an education professor at East Tennessee State University, studied for up to three years 16 Tennessee teachers who were among the first in that state to achieve national board certification. He found, based on data from Tennessee’s system of using student achievement in teacher evaluations, that none of the nationally certified teachers’ classes showed exceptional gains in student achievement. In fact, he said, a few of those teachers’ classes fell behind other classes in their districts that were taught by teachers without NBPTS credentials.

“The fact remains that despite all the talk and concern and the money that’s being spent, there’s still no objective evidence that students improve and achieve when taught by board- certified teachers,” Mr. Stone said. “This is an expensive fad.”

In Georgia, teachers who earn national certification receive a 10 percent pay increase annually for the life of the 10-year credential. The state education department estimates that the policy will cost $15.6 million in fiscal 2005, up from $4.7 million in fiscal 2004, the current budget year. The state spent only about $100,000 on the program in 2000.

‘A Worthy Cause’

This month, Georgia expects to surpass its goal of 1,000 board-certified teachers when the latest pool of candidates receives notifications.

“Who wouldn’t want that many highly qualified teachers?” said Jocelyn R. Whitfield, the acting director of government relations for the 42,000-member Georgia Association of Education, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

She said that the legislature’s decision in 2000 to change the financial incentive from a 5 percent to 10 percent salary increase created a strong incentive for teachers to undergo the process, which she described as “grueling.”

“It’s a worthy cause,” Ms. Whitfield said of the NBPTS program. Even teachers who have not succeeded in the process say that going through it helped them learn more about teaching and how they could improve their skills, she added.

But Rep. Ben L. Harbin, a Republican, isn’t so sure.

“When this is costing us less than $1 million, it’s one thing. When it’s costing us more than $10 million in one year, we’ve got to be able to prove this is improving education,” he told the Atlanta Journal- Constitution. And Georgia schools Superintendent Kathy Cox said in a statement that it might take time to decide whether to continue the teachers’ supplements.

“Once the research data is available and the budget picture becomes a bit clearer, we will work together at all levels of government to do what is right for all Georgia teachers,” Ms. Cox said.

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