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Certification = Quality?

(Daily Press [Newport News / Hampton, VA], Monday, July 10, 2006.)

By Carol Scott

Every night after teaching at Bethel High School in Hampton, Charles Barhite sifted through hours of videotape of his history classes, looking for a 20-minute stretch of film that showed he could be a nationally certified teacher.

"Sitting there and watching yourself teaching, three or four hours a night, after you come home from teaching - it's draining, mentally and emotionally," said Barhite, who was certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in November 2005.

Some 907 of the 81,000 or so public school teachers in the state are nationally certified. Certification puts teachers in a select, nationally recognized group that gets extra money from the state - $2.6 million this fiscal year - as well as perks from school districts.

But a national debate is growing over whether this certification helps teachers be more effective in the classroom. And two College of William and Mary education professors, who studied fifth-grade teachers in three school districts in North Carolina, have poured fuel on the fire. They found that being nationally certified doesn't necessarily mean students will score higher on tests. The professors also found little difference in how nationally certified teachers taught their students, compared to other teachers.

However, National Board certified teachers are above-average in how they interact with students and how their students score on standardized tests, said Thomas Ward, one of the professors who did the study with University of Virginia and University of North Carolina researchers.

"But they weren't necessarily the highest of all teachers," he said. Many non-certified teachers had students that scored higher, he said.

The study is another example of research questioning how much the National Board is tied to student success. Bill Sanders, a researcher for the private SAS institute, a data-analysis group that tries to measure the influence of teachers and schools on students, studied nationally certified teachers in North Carolina and said earlier this year he'd found that their students didn't score significantly higher than other students.

Ward cautions that his research doesn't challenge the basis of the National Board - a way to reward teachers and label those who meet national requirements.

A National Board spokesman did not return calls last week.

But the question for lawmakers and officials is whether it's worth pumping state money into the program, Ward said. "Is it worth knowing that that teacher is above-average?" he said.

School districts usually help pay the $2,500 application fee, which can go up if a teacher needs to re-apply. And the state pays $5,000 to teachers the first year they're certified, and $2,500 per year for nine years afterward. Some school districts match those amounts or throw in other perks.

"Certainly these studies seem to be suggesting that the National Board - whatever process it's using - is not focusing enough on whether that teacher has an impact on students," said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

Walsh, who hadn't read the William and Mary study, said the National Board needs to be sure they're stressing student achievement when they define what makes a good teacher.

"The last thing they want to have happen," she said, "is to have state legislators get hold of this rather conclusive evidence and start withdrawing money."

But the certification process has merit, she said. "The National Board has done a great job of providing teachers with a high-status award," she said.

Despite questions about how important certification is, many teachers say the application process helped them become better teachers. A 2001 National Board survey found 92 percent of teachers surveyed said they had become better teachers during the process.

Kelly Dee, director of bands at Kecoughtan High School in Hampton, earned his national certification in 2002. "It's the best professional development experience I've ever participated in," he said. Dee is president of the Southeast Virginia National Board Certified Teachers Regional Network, which helps teachers going through the application process.

Watching videotapes of himself made him re-evaluate his teaching style, he said. Now that he is certified, he thinks harder about how to reach students.

Barhite, the Bethel High teacher, said the process helped him, too.

"If you're going out and talking to a lot of different teachers, then it also gives you ideas of what you might want to try in your classroom," Barhite said.

Those benefits might not be measurable by standardized tests, he said. And the benefits might not be apparent until later in his students' lives, he said.

"Every single one of them will come back as juniors and seniors and say, 'You know, if you didn't make me work so hard in your class, I wouldn't have been able to succeed now,' " he said. "It makes you look at your teaching. Not just looking at test scores, but impacting the whole student, not just your subject area."


By the numbers
81,073Number of public school teachers in Virginia
907Number of Virginia teachers who are nationally certified
$5,000Amount of money teachers can get from the state the first year they are certified
$2,500Amount of money teachers can get from the state annually for nine years after they are certified

A lengthy process

  • National certification: It can take teachers hundreds of hours to apply for National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification.

  • What do they need to do? Teachers submit video recordings of themselves teaching, personal essays and student work. They also must take six tests on their subject area.

  • Then what? At least a dozen teachers picked by the national board rate the submissions.

  • And then? Teachers who meet the requirements are certified.

  • So? That means they're eligible for bonuses and other perks from the state and from their school districts.