Attempt at critical mass falls short but pays dividends

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White Elementary

John Booz

White Elementary

When Darlene Flynn of Owens Elementary found out that her school was going to offer a program for teachers who wanted to earn the profession’s highest credential, National Board certification, she immediately signed up.

“I was excited,” says Flynn, who teaches kindergarten at the school in West Pullman. “I thought that this would help me improve my skills and it was so convenient.”

Teachers at Owens and nearby White Elementary had been targeted to participate in an initiative of the civic group Chicago United that aimed at increasing the number of National Board-certified teachers.

Chicago United raised money to pay for on-site classes, mentor training and candidate application fees. The program would support teachers for three years—one year to prepare for the extensive application process, a second year to undergo the process itself and a third to train successful candidates to become mentors.

“We were trying to build capacity with National Board, and we wanted to eliminate as many barriers as possible,” explains Carolyn Nordstrom, former president of Chicago United.

In all, 23 teachers—17 from Owens and six from White—signed on, representing close to the entire faculty at each school.

But after the first year, Flynn dropped out for personal reasons. “I wanted to do it, but I would have had to put in too much time. It’s a very involved process, and I have a husband and kids who are still at home.”

Seventeen other teachers quit that first year, too. Of the remaining five who completed the application process, only two—one from each school—earned National Board certification.

What happened at White and Owens demonstrates the challenge of shepherding teachers through the National Board pipeline. On average, only 50 percent of first-time applicants eventually obtain certification.

The process requires 200 to 400 hours of work outside the classroom, according to estimates by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which issues the credential. Applicants must complete an extensive series of assessments, including portfolios, student work samples and videotapes, then write analyses that demonstrate content knowledge and their understanding of how to teach those subjects.

“People discovered it was a lot of work,” says Owens art teacher Linda Norby, one of the two who achieved certification. “Many had small children and family concerns. I had no small children to worry about.”

Even so, Owens Principal Samuel Jordan and Yvonne Womack, former principal of White, deemed the program a success. Teachers are now more reflective about instruction, they say, and are more apt to be guided by best practices and open to changing their teaching approach.

Chicago United chalked up a win, too. “You have to look at it as an investment that had other benefits,” says Nordstrom. “If the faculty and the principals thought it was good, then it was good. If teachers say, ‘This changed us,’ that was the goal.”

Welcome plan for both schools

Chicago United began working with Owens and White as part of a larger plan to improve instruction, especially in math and science, in West Pullman. In 1999, the group brought in the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science (TAMS) to provide professional development at 10 area elementary schools.

But two of those schools, Owens and White, had worked with TAMS a few years earlier, so Chicago United offered them a National Board preparation program instead. Coursework would be provided by Illinois State University.

Jordan says Owens had raised its math scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills by working with TAMS, so the faculty was open to the idea of more professional development. “I’ve always encouraged my teachers to reach higher,” he says.

Same for teachers at White, says Womack. White already was in the habit of offering teachers additional supports, such as keeping the building open in the evening, and providing computers and other resources. “Anything out of the ordinary, we supplied it because we knew the kids would benefit,” Womack adds.

By offering the National Board preparation program to the entire faculty at both schools, the partnership was looking to get “a larger pool of successful candidates,” says Jackie Simmons, a former Chicago United project director.

During the first year, however, teachers realized how demanding the process was. They wrote papers based on observations of their students, videotaped classroom lessons, critiqued each other and learned how to reflect on their own teaching practices. For 10 months, they met after school once a week for at least three hours.

“I don’t think that the teachers understood the rigor of the process,” Simmons says. “It’s like preparing for a marathon.”

Kathleen Kornhaber, a special education teacher at White and the other teacher who earned certification, agrees, noting that she spent every Sunday working on her application. When it was over, “my husband was glad to get the mess out of the dining room,” she says.

Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, founder of a candidate support program at the Chicago Teachers Union’s Quest Center, says she advises teachers to reconsider starting the process if they have other time-consuming commitments. Some teachers are weeded out by the program’s application, which can take up to 15 hours to complete.

It’s typical for more than half of teachers in pre-candidacy programs to drop out, says Lynn Gaddis, director of Illinois State University’s National Board Resource Center. “We’ve seen this throughout the state. Once teachers see the time and work involved, they self-select out.”

One improves, another holds steady

While many of those involved in the Chicago United program say it was worthwhile, only one school has since posted an increase in test scores.

The percentage of children at White who meet reading and math standards rose slightly, by 4 percent and 2 percent respectively, while the program was in place between 2000 and 2003.

Meanwhile, results at Owens were mixed. The percentage of children meeting state standards in reading fell from 42 percent in 1999 to 36 percent in 2003. During the same period, math scores were unchanged.

Jordan points to school-based problem solving, a CPS strategy used to decrease the rate of special education referrals, for Owen’s falling scores. (The strategy, begun seven years ago, requires schools to try a variety of academic and behavioral interventions before referring students for special education.)

“We had children that needed special education services, but we were restricted from referring them,” says Jordan. “Children that should not have been taking the tests were taking the tests.”

Research shows, however, that National Board certification can have a measurable impact on achievement. A recent study in North Carolina found that National Board-certified teachers are more effective at raising test scores, especially the scores of low-income children. (See sidebar.)

Still, staff at Owens and White say teachers have changed their classroom strategies for the better.

Teachers at Owens are “using more cooperative grouping with the children,” says Jordan. “They are more open to being observed by their colleagues, and they are talking about what they are doing.”

Owens literacy coordinator Nedra Durham says participating in the program taught her to be more cognizant of students’ strengths and weaknesses, to examine what she does in the classroom and to focus on standards. “Everything in National Board makes you analyze what you do,” Durham says.

Phyllis Chappell, a 1st-grade teacher at Owens, says she learned to better assess what classroom activities work. “I automatically do this now. I’m even working on developing a primary rubric for our curriculum.” Chappell, who completed the process but still needs to retake one part of the process to earn certification, plans to start anew at the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center this coming school year.

Womack says teachers at White began “checking what they were doing against National Board standards, and what they had learned was being implemented in the classroom.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or send an e-mail to williams@catalyst-chicago.org.