Teaching Profession

Va. School Sees Board-Certified Teachers As Key to Turnaround

By Jeff Archer — May 30, 2001 5 min read
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Lisa Holm is living a double life at Riverside Elementary School here in suburban Northern Virginia. In the mornings, she teaches reading and writing to a class of 16 1st graders. In the afternoons, she helps to sharpen the skills of other teachers in the building by leading group training sessions and offering one-on-one help.

It’s the best of both worlds, she says: “I have the opportunity to teach my own students, but I also get to work with teachers throughout the school to spread that influence.”

Her workday also offers a glimpse at how some schools are empowering teachers who, like Ms. Holm, are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The split schedule is part of an effort here to put a struggling school on the path to success by tapping the expertise of teachers who have been recognized by the private, nonprofit board. Along with Ms. Holm, three other board-certified teachers at the school wear the twin hats of classroom teacher and professional coach.

The strategy at Riverside—which sits near George Washington’s estate that gives this community its name—points up a revolution of sorts that’s taking place in the teaching profession. As the number of board-certified teachers in the country approximately doubles each year, those growing legions are assuming roles that give them increasing influence over the ways that teachers are trained and evaluated.

“What I think the national board work has done is to demonstrate that teachers can function as leaders in their profession in very innovative and responsible ways,” said James A. Kelly, who retired as the board’s founding president two years ago. “It’s an important, quiet, but powerful asset that the board has provided.”

Ulterior Motive

The board itself exemplifies the increased ownership by teachers over their profession. The program was launched in 1987 after the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy suggested that educators ought to have their own voluntary system of national certification, much the way that the medical field recognizes doctors in certain specialties.

Classroom teachers played leading roles in drafting the board’s certification standards and in designing its assessment—a 10-month-long procedure in which candidates document their work in lengthy portfolios, submit videotapes of themselves engaged in instruction, and sit down for a series of paper-and-pencil tests. Teachers also make up a majority of the panel that governs the program.

But the motive, say organizers, wasn’t just to put another feather in the caps of a few good teachers.

“The idea,” Mr. Kelly said, “was that the process should increase leadership opportunities for teachers who are excellent, and that the system would help to enrich the roles that these teachers can play in schools.”

That appears to be just what’s happening, based on a survey the board commissioned last year. In polling more than 2,000 teachers who earned certification in 1999 or before, the research showed that virtually all—99.6 percent, to be exact—were involved in at least one type of leadership activity. Nationwide, some 9,500 teachers are now board-certified.

By far, the most frequently cited roles were those involving training other educators on the job. More than 80 percent said they took part in either evaluating or assisting teachers who were new to the field, whose skills needed improvement, or who were seeking board certification themselves.

A growing number of state and district policies are accelerating the trend. Along with the pay supplements offered in many places to teachers who pass the board’s assessment, some systems have added additional bonuses for board-certified teachers who take on certain leadership roles.

Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York state all have financial incentives aimed at encouraging such teachers to work as mentors to other educators. Some local policies, meanwhile, put board-certified teachers on a fast track toward leadership tasks in their districts. In Cincinnati, for example, they’re automatically eligible to apply for “lead teacher” status, opening the door to assuming new responsibilities, including training and evaluating other educators.

Despite this growing prominence, the board has its skeptics. Critics argue that its assessment relies too heavily on teaching processes, while neglecting to measure whether a candidate manages to improve students’ performance, as shown by test-score gains.

“The board does not give us what we need to identify outstanding teachers,” said Michael Poliakoff, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a conservative public-policy group based in Falls Church, Va. “It identifies certain aspects of strong teaching and gives a wonderful opportunity for those teachers to be recognized. But it is tragically weak in giving us a complete picture.”

But others believe that teachers with the skills and traits emphasized by the board are precisely those most likely to raise achievement. Here in Virginia’s 161,000-student Fairfax County school system, officials have drafted an improvement plan for Riverside Elementary that gives top billing to the certification process of the nearby Arlington, Va.-based program.

Not only has the school gained four teachers like Ms. Holm, but it also encouraged others there to seek national certification by offering them extensive training on the board’s standards and procedures. Seven Riverside teachers are now finishing up the program’s assessment, and if they all pass, one-quarter of the school’s teachers could be board-certified next year.

Riverside also has formed partnerships with the National Education Association and George Washington University, both based in Washington, which are lending technical aid to the effort. The elementary school has agreed to host teachers-in-training from George Washington, and the university’s education school is carrying out a research project to determine the effect of the strategy.

Ultimately, the aim is to improve student learning. Based on student tests scores, Riverside is the second-lowest-performing elementary school in the Fairfax County district. About 67 percent of its 515 students are members of minority groups, and more than one-third are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches.

Anyone driving past Riverside might be surprised that lagging achievement is a problem. Its campus abuts a development of new houses with two-car garages, some of which have listed at nearly $300,000. But most of the families in the immediate area send their children to private school, while many of those whose children attend Riverside work in the hotel and retail businesses along a nearby commercial corridor, said Saundra Culmer, the principal.

By gearing the teaching in her school more toward the expectations of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Ms. Culmer hopes to raise the level of instruction enough to level the playing field for her students.

“What I want,” she said, “is to make this a model school that people are dying to get into.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2001 edition of Education Week as Va. School Sees Board-Certified Teachers As Key to Turnaround

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