Teaching Profession

Nationally Certified Teachers Thrive in South

By Alan Richard — March 24, 2004 5 min read
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Southern states are leading the nation—by far—in shaping state policy to encourage teachers to become nationally certified.

More than two-thirds of the more than 32,000 teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards came from Southern states as of December. About one-third came from three states: Florida and the Carolinas.

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View the accompanying table, “Nationally Certified Teachers in the South.”

“The Southeast took a hard look at itself and said we’re going to make teacher quality a priority in our states,” said Karen D. Garr, the Southeast manager of the NBPTS, based in Arlington, Va. “I’m real proud that’s what has happened,” she said.

But while the number of teachers who have earned the prestigious certification through a year of testing and self-analysis has risen, interest in the program may be subsiding in some states amid budget woes that put financial incentives in jeopardy.

Observers say the big numbers of board-certified teachers in the South—including 6,600 in North Carolina and nearly 5,000 in Florida—are improving the quality of teaching in the region.

After North Carolina started its financial incentives for the credential in the early 1990s, other Southern states followed suit. Fourteen of the 16 member states of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board offer sizable incentives to teachers who earn national-board certification.

“It’s a simple explanation: It comes down to money,” said Debra Massey, a board-certified teacher of 4th graders at East Marion Elementary School near Silver Springs, Fla.

Under Fire

While the program has expanded in some Southern states, it’s also come under fire.

Detractors charge that research has yet to link national-board certification to improved student achievement—although the first in a series of research studies appears to show such a link. (“First Major Study Suggests Worth of National ‘Seal,’” March 17, 2004.)

Criticism has been compounded by budget problems in many states, prompting some Southern governors to call for an end, or at least a scaling back of financial incentives for teachers who earn national-board certification. (“Board Stamp for Teachers Raising Flags,” Nov. 12, 2003.)

Cutbacks would be a mistake, warns Barnett Berry, the founder and executive director of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C., and a longtime proponent of the certification program. “The national board represents one of the most path- breaking initiatives for the teaching profession,” he maintained.

But incentives aren’t cheap, especially for states with large numbers of board- certified teachers. Florida’s costs for incentives have grown from less than $100,000 in the early 1990s to more than $20 million a year.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, proposed for the coming fiscal year a moratorium on his state’s $7,500 annual bonuses and $2,000 one-time bonuses for teachers who earn the NBPTS label. The GOP-led legislature has restored some of that funding.

Will Folks, a spokesman for Gov. Sanford, said the governor was worried about the rising costs of incentives as the state faces a major budget shortfall in the next fiscal year. He also questioned whether incentives were encouraging the newly certified teachers to work in the neediest schools.

“How effective is the program at improving student achievement,” Mr. Folks said, “and how many are going into [struggling] districts?”

Many of South Carolina’s board-certified teachers, in fact, work in wealthier school districts. One suburban district has 254 board- certified teachers, while schools in 12 of the state’s poorest, rural counties have only 127 such teachers combined.

Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, has recommended that his state end the $2,000 annual bonuses for nationally certified teachers. His advisers have said that the governor doesn’t dislike the program, but must cut the budget.

Leaders in other states have found national-board certification worthy enough to keep the dollars flowing.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, backs his state’s 10 percent salary bonuses. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also a Republican, has backed his state’s bonuses, which are worth up to 20 percent of the state’s average teaching salary.

Ms. Garr, now with the national board, helped shape North Carolina’s state policies that encouraged growth in the certification program. The first teacher-adviser to former Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., she said the state’s effort benefited from the Democrat’s leadership as the first chairman of the national program.

Now that the number of nationally certified teachers has grown by the thousands, the pace is expected to slow in some Southern states. Applications in Florida and the Carolinas already are leveling off, Ms. Garr said.

Evidence of Improvement?

Debate over the incentives has become detrimental to teachers who have worked hard to earn the certification, said Mary K. Tedrow, an English and journalism teacher at Millbrook High School in Winchester, Va.

Virginia lawmakers over the years have cut and restored funding for a limited number of the $2,500 stipends the state awards teachers to help them pay the application fees.

“What it does to [hurt] morale in the teaching profession is way more expensive to them than the actual dollars,” Ms. Tedrow said of the state’s wavering on incentives. “I’ve got three kids in college, and I don’t have that kind of money to throw away.”

While research may still be trickling in, board- certified teachers in several states say the influence of the program is undeniable on their work, their students, and their schools.

“If teachers are collecting evidence and data on their students and then reflecting on that evidence and data, they will improve,” said Kathy B. Schwalbe, a program director at the South Carolina Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement, based at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and a former board-certified high school English teacher.

“That is having an impact on how business is conducted in classrooms in South Carolina,” she said.

Ms. Massey, the Florida teacher, said the program helped her boost her students’ writing-test scores from 20 percent meeting state averages to more than 80 percent. “It’s worth,” she said, “whatever it takes.”

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