Teaching’s Mt. Everest: Is it worth it?

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In the quest to improve the quality of classroom instruction in Chicago public schools, National Board Certification for teachers has emerged as a focal point. Funders, educators and civic groups have committed significant resources to recruiting and supporting programs to get more teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In the last two years:

The brand new Chicago Public Education Fundhas pledged $1.3 million—half of its 2000 and 2001 grant budgets—to help teachers go through the process.

The Chicago Public Schools mounted a vigorous recruitment drive and is now developing a resource center and large-scale support program.

What, teachers say

Teachers who have gone through the process are enthusiastic, saying it transformed their teaching in ways that can’t help but help students.

“I was afraid that I might have gotten stale,” says Celease Williams, a special ed teacher at Ariel Community School who applied last year and is awaiting results. “Now I’ve begun asking myself strategic questions: ‘How can I do this [lesson] better? How can I help other teachers? How can I help parents?'”

Last year, Ariel Principal Lennette Coleman, the only CPS principal with National Board teacher certification, talked four of her teachers, including Williams, into applying and now hosts a resource center for candidates throughout the district.

National Board Certification “raises the level of quality in what teachers do,” she reasons. “It brings a lot of innovation into the classroom. Teachers are thinking about their practices, they’re more creative, they’re more risk taking.”

For instance, teachers who’ve been through the process are more open with colleagues, Coleman observes. “It makes them less threatened and less competitive. At staff meetings, they come in and talk about ideas. They don’t come in and complain. They share strategies.”

That newfound openness extends to parents, too. “They can tell a parent, I did such and such with your child, and this is why,” says Coleman. “They’re not afraid of being judged. They have very strong rationales for what they do in their classrooms. They’re open and honest.”

The process also trains teachers to devise new ways to assess what students have learned and adapt instruction to meet individual student needs, says Penny Potter, a National Board-certified teacher from Palatine District 15, who works through Roosevelt University to mentor CPS candidates.

“National Board [preparation] asks you to look at students who pose particular challenges to you,” Potter says. “How am I really reaching the special needs that each of them has?”

Getting certified

Becoming a National Board-certified teacher is a Mount Everest expedition. For CPS teachers, the arduous climb begins with an application designed to give candidates a taste of the real thing—writing a series of short, reflective essays on their own teaching.

Teachers then spend months comparing how they teach to what are considered best practices for their subject and the age range of their students. They videotape lessons, review student work and write reflective essays to answer questions like: What worked? What didn’t? How can the lesson be improved? Candidates assemble their best material into a portfolio and submit it to a jury of their peers—teachers who work with kids of the same age and the same subject matter who have been trained as scorers, or “assessors,” by National Board.

After submitting their portfolios, teachers prepare for a set of written examinations known as the “assessment center.” These exams, like the portfolio, are graded by teachers who are peers in subject area and student age range. Candidates must complete every part of the process, although it is possible to earn the minimum score—275 points—without doing so.

The process is an enormous commitment for a full-time teacher. The National Board estimates teachers spend up to 400 off-duty hours preparing their portfolios.

Until last fall, there was only one local support program for CPS teachers applying for National Board Certification. Nurturing Teacher Leadership, a project of the Quest Center, has a 93 percent pass rate for candidates. ( See story.)

But in four years, it has produced fewer than 50 National Board-certified teachers—fewer than 1 percent of the CPS teaching staff.

Peter Martinez continued to support the Quest Center’s program—MacArthur donated over $900,000 to them between 1998 and 2000—but he wanted to get more teachers to apply. He found like-minded allies at the Chicago Public Education Fund and at CPS. “You’ve gotta have more than just Quest knowing how to do this and do it well,” says Martinez, who is now developing a school leadership center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

As a new player in local education circles, the Chicago Public Education Fund was looking to invest where it could make the most difference. “We were focusing on school leadership,” says President Janet Knupp. “One component of school leadership was identifying master teachers. If you could have teams of master teachers in schools, you could begin to affect teacher retention, school climate and ultimately student achievement.”

The Public Education Fund decided to use most of its $1.3 million National Board Certification grant to offer successful candidates a one-time bonus of $3,000. It also earmarked $600,000 to divide among 20 schools that sponsored groups of six or more teachers. The $30,000 school grants are aimed at encouraging schools to develop cadres, and the cadre members to work collaboratively to spend the money, Knupp adds.

Last fall six elementary schools took on the challenge: Chalmers, Clissold, McCosh, Nash, Price and Sumner. Grants are still available for 14 more schools.

The foundations helped fan existing sparks of interest at central office. “We were aware that some teachers had gone through on their own,” says Cozette Buckney, formerly CPS chief education officer and now the liaison between CPS and the School Board. “We were impressed with what they had to say about the program, how it had helped them, and what it might do in terms of staff development for the system.”

In the winter of 2000, CPS launched a recruitment campaign. “Our charge was to roll out National Board Certification for Chicago public school teachers,” says Audrey Donaldson, who oversees teacher recertification for CPS.

Teachers’ initial response was much larger than administrators expected. One informational meeting had to be moved from an elementary school to Gage Park High’s auditorium to accommodate some 800 teachers, recalls Donaldson. By early fall, the crowd of hopefuls had thinned to about 200 candidates.

More helping hands

The fledgling candidates are receiving help from a variety of sources, from the Quest Center’s established program to local grass roots networks of principals. But in a year or so, a districtwide support network called Professionals Honored with Distinction (PHD) will guide most candidates through the process.

To build the network, last year the School Board signed a three-year consulting contract with Lynn Gaddis, who coordinates Illinois State University’s National Board Resource Center. She will provide technical assistance to get PHD off the ground.

Last year, Gaddis took a leave from her post at Illinois State to work with support groups for approximately 70 candidates.

Overall, those candidates were satisfied with what they got. “It was a lot of help—I felt supported,” says Juanita Thurman, a teacher at John Hope College Preparatory High School who attended an ISU candidate group. However, she wishes she had had a mentor who had gone through the process. “I didn’t feel like it was authentic feedback.”

In fact, National Board-certified mentors are scarce. Last year, Quest had a near-total lock on the local mentor pool, since 14 of the 20 certified teachers were mentoring new Quest candidates. Other support programs had to seek help elsewhere.

Gaddis, who does have National Board Certification, scoured the state to find board-certified teachers to make presentations and serve as mentors, but long-distance relationships with candidates were difficult to sustain.

A group of six principals mentored about 45 South Side teachers, most of whom worked at Price, Ariel and Sullivan elementary schools. The three schools had been part of an Annenberg network, and last year made National Board Certification for its teachers a priority.

Ariel’s Coleman, who was one of the mentors, notes that she and other principals had the experience to understand what candidates were going through. Unlike university professors, “we know what it’s like to teach kids for six hours a day” and then try to work on professional development, she says.

Some support programs spend a year preparing teachers to apply. Youth Guidance Comer Project, which works with 30 schools, has partnered two years ago with University of Illinois at Chicago to offer a master’s program that would also prepare teachers to apply for National Board Certification. A business group, Chicago United, sponsored a pre-candidacy program for 26 teachers in West Pullman area schools. Teachers met weekly to discuss their classrooms, share strategies, and get a feel for the process. This fall, 18 candidates from both programs will begin the real application process.

The extra preparation time can make a big difference for teachers who may need a boost in confidence. One might not expect “schools in tough areas … to have the caliber of teacher who could pass [National Board],” says Martinez. “But a year- or a year and a half-long staff development process, you give people the capacity to go for it.”

The advance preparation is already paying off, says Gaddis, who met weekly with the precandidates and reviewed their student work analysis and videotapes. Teachers were “more conscious of how their decisions were affecting kids’ learning,” she says. “They were looking at kids’ thinking, not just focused on behavior.”

Looking ahead

Two new CPS schools are seeking to hire National Board-certified teachers. One of them—the National Teachers Academy being built at 22nd Street and Federal—will require teachers who don’t have National Board Certification to apply for it within three years.

The other school, the Chicago Academy, is the city’s first “contract school,” and National Board president Betty Castor sits on its board. Principal Donald Feinstein says four of the school’s 19 teachers are awaiting National Board results and a fifth is beginning the process this fall.

Those who helped scale up National Board Certification in Chicago are dreaming big dreams for the future. Eason-Watkins would like to see 1,500 National Board-certified teachers leading professional development in their schools and mentoring new teachers and National Board candidates.

“I would hope as we move forward, that the nationally board-certified teachers will be opening up their classrooms to let others see good practices,” says Eason-Watkins. “I would like to set up a network where they could collaborate with other teachers.”

But teachers still need to be sold on the process. By mid-September, fewer candidates were signed up to apply than a year ago. Some speculate that teachers are waiting to see how last year’s candidates will fare—they get results in late November. But others say teachers are simply wondering whether it’s worth the effort.

“I’m still deciding whether this or a master’s degree would be of more professional benefit,” says Mark Paye, a special education teacher at Roberto Clemente High School. Though Paye is weighing the benefits each strategy will bring to his students, the master’s degree would move him up a lane on the salary schedule—for an additional $2,509 a year. By contrast, CPS teachers who achieve National Board Certification get a combined one-time bonus of $8,500 from three sources. But National Board Certification has a higher payoff in several other states, where teachers get hefty salary increases.

Some teachers also cite lack of support from their principal. “I don’t think my principal has bought in,” says one candidate from a South Side elementary school on probation. “There are a number of teachers at our school who should go through the process. [But] I don’t think [the principal is] big on the recruitment stuff.”

Some principals may be holding back simply because they do not know much about National Board Certification. Others, though, say they fear losing good teachers. “My concern is that somebody is going to come along and take all my good teachers,” says Price Elementary Principal Carl Lawson, who supported seven teachers through the process last year.

The National Teachers Academy’s mission to recruit and train board-certified teachers “sends a dual message” to principals, Lawson adds. “If I train ten teachers, well, that’s great, but I [risk] losing my good teachers.”

Eason-Watkins shares their concerns. “I was one of those [principals],” she says. “I didn’t want the National Board-certified teachers to be offered more money to go to a National Teachers Academy or some other type of school that would take them first. We need our National Board-certified teachers in the schools that are having the most difficulties.”

State education officials are trying to entice teachers with its new three-tiered certification system, which places National Board Certification at the top. National Board certified, or “master” teachers, will be required to renew their licenses only after ten years rather than after five years.

But Eason-Watkins says she is open to suggestions. “We’re willing to be creative about the ways we create incentives for teachers,” she says. “We have excellent teachers in the city of Chicago. We have to identify them and encourage them.”

Chicago United, a group of civic-minded business leaders, was among the first to develop a “precandidacy” program to prepare teachers for the rigorous certification process.

This follows on the heels of a 1998 grant of $220,000 made by Chicago’s largest foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to enlist the Chicago Teachers Union in guiding teachers through National Board Certification. A year earlier, state lawmakers created a new three-tiered teacher certification system that placed National Board Certification at the top.

Local backers of National Board Certification are convinced the process identifies good teachers and nurtures them, and that those who earn the credential have a lot to offer the system. “[If] you get enough nationally-certified reading teachers, they’re going to put together a hell of a strategy for reading,” predicts Peter Martinez, the former program officer at MacArthur who first funded the Quest Center effort. Barbara Eason-Watkins, CPS’ new chief education officer, sees National Board Certification as a tool to cultivate teacher leadership.

Last year, when she was principal of McCosh Elementary, Eason-Watkins supported 11 teachers through the process—more than any other CPS school. “It was a valuable experience,” she observes, “especially the part where they videotaped their classes and looked at what they had done.” National Board also promotes using teachers as instructional leaders, says Eason-Watkins, an idea she would like to see expand.

Increased teacher leadership is also high on the agenda of the new CTU leadership. “I’m interested in exploring greater roles for teacher leadership in the school system,” says union chief Deborah Lynch. “Right now, we’re in a mindset of the principal as the instructional leader of the school.”

But so far, citywide numbers are small. CPS has only 19 teachers with National Board Certification, and fewer than 350 are in the pipeline, a drop in the bucket for a school system with 26,000 teachers.

Eason-Watkins envisions as many as 1,500 National Board-certified teachers over the next five years. “We could get 200-300 teachers per year,” she says. (By mid-September, only 175 teachers had signed up for this year’s class.)

Though relatively few in number, 1,500 National Board-certified teachers could have a major impact by leading professional development at their schools, advocates argue. To boost the chances of that happening, groups of teachers from the same school are being encouraged to apply.

However, while Chicago and other school districts around the country are actively encouraging teachers to get National Board certificates, no one is sure of the payoff. In seven years, the program has certified only 9,532 teachers nationwide. No one has yet studied whether National Board Certification leads to improved student test scores.

“We still haven’t pinned down whether the process identifies superior teachers,” says labor economist Michael Podgursky of University of Missouri-Columbia. “The evidence to date is not much more than happy testimonials.”

“What’s the alternative?” counters Richard Laine, education policy director for the Illinois Business Roundtable. “Most of what’s out there…is inferior to the rigorous process of the National Board.”

The first research is underway. The National Board hired William Sanders, an expert in using test scores to measure teacher effectiveness, to do the study.