Top Dollar Teachers

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If successful, she will join the elite corps of educators who have been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. And, thanks to legislation Florida passed last spring, she'll get a yearly bonus from the state worth up to $6,800. "Initially, I was interested just because I thought it'd be a good learning experience, but the money also makes it worth it," says the 28-year-old educator. "It's definitely going to bring in better teachers and keep them in the classroom."

State incentives like Florida's have given the national board a big boost. The private, nonprofit group announced in November that the number of nationally certified teachers has more than doubled in the past year, from 912 to 1,836. And with at least 13 states now offering salary supplements to board-certified teachers, many observers are predicting that trend will continue.

By mid-November, some 475 teachers in Florida alone had begun the certification process--up from just four teachers at the same time last year. "There has been a very encouraging and obvious quickening of the pace," says James Kelly, president of the board.

A task force of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy first proposed in 1986 that teachers, like doctors, should have a voluntary process of national certification. Founded a year later, the national board certified its first 81 teachers in 1994.

To encourage teachers to undergo the intensive, yearlong certification process--which typically requires more than 200 hours of work--states initially picked up all or part of the $2,000 certification fee or accepted the board's endorsement in place of certain licensing requirements. More recently, states have upped the ante and turned to salary supplements. "It will bring back some esteem to the profession," says state Senator Jim Horne, the Republican who led the push for the certification bonuses in Florida. "I think it will encourage those who've thought about teaching but have passed on it because the compensation is so low."

Florida allocated $12 million this year for the new incentives. It now pays 90 percent of the certification fee for any teacher who completes the process, and it awards a bonus now worth about $3,400 to any educator who gets certified. These teachers can get an additional $3,400 if they agree to spend at least 90 hours a year mentoring others going through the certification process. The bonuses last for the 10-year life of the certificate.

"It's a wonderful piece of legislation," gushes Rona Wolfson, a teacher in Broward County and one of the first in the nation to become board certified. "The interest has been amazing." More than 90 teachers are national certification candidates this year in Broward County, which offers its own $2,000-a-year bonus for the recognition.

Interest has also skyrocketed in Mississippi, where the state in 1997 doubled its annual pay supplement for board-certified teachers to $6,000. By mid- November this fall, about 425 teachers had applied for board certification, nearly ten times the number that applied a year ago. "Mississippi has a crisis right now--a statewide teacher shortage," says Peggy Swoger, director of a support program for certification candidates at Mississippi State University in Starkville. "So this is intended to keep veteran teachers in the classroom and in the state."

Supporters attribute the board's growing success to its mix of rigor and independence. Certification is not easy; fewer than half of all candidates get it on the first try. But teachers may be more willing to accept the challenge because it's a process crafted by their fellow educators and not by bureaucrats or lawmakers. "We've been looking for a way to remove all the politics [from teacher evaluations], and this is about as objective as you can get," says Horne, the Florida lawmaker. "It was a way to reward quality teachers with a system that they can buy into."

The appeal of board certification also seems to cut across political lines. When California lawmakers this year approved a one-time, $10,000 bonus for teachers who become nationally certified, the plan enjoyed the support of both Republican Governor Pete Wilson and the California Teachers Association, two frequent adversaries. "National board certification has pretty much established itself as a way to identify teachers who can demonstrate accomplished practice," says Susan Carmon, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association. "So the appeal is very wide-ranging."

At its annual meeting this past summer, the NEA pledged to help 100,000 more teachers seek board certification in the next five years, a goal President Clinton endorsed in his 1997 State of the Union address. Although the NEA has opposed differentiating teacher pay in the past, the union and its affiliates have joined the American Federation of Teachers in lobbying states and districts to adopt salary supplements for board-certified teachers.

The mounting interest has brought new challenges for the national board. Its budget will jump $10 million next year to an estimated $36 million, but the projected growth in the number of certification candidates will not bring in the fees to cover operating expenses for another two or three more years, Kelly says.

The board has just emerged from a fight on Capitol Hill over federal funding of its ongoing effort to draft standards and design certification tests in new subject areas. Such funding appeared to be in jeopardy last spring after the House education committee, led by Representative Bill Goodling, a Republican from Pennsylvania, agreed to wipe out $16 million in federal support for the board's research and development. Eventually, however, the funds were spared. As a result, the board later this year will offer national certification in 17 teaching specialty areas that cover four-fifths of all teachers in the United States. Next fall, it expects to start certifying teachers of special education, vocational education, and English as a second language.

Growth has brought cultural changes to the organization, as well. "When we first started, we virtually knew every candidate by name," says Barbara Kelley, an elementary school teacher from Maine who chairs the board. "They could call us, and we'd know them. But as we move into a year when we anticipate more than 5,000 candidates, that's just something that will be very different for those of us who've been here from the start."

--Jeff Archer

Vol. 10, Issue 4, Page 12

Published in Print: January 1, 1999, as Top Dollar Teachers
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