In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a staff member of the Kentucky School Advocate.
This month’s conversation is with Ruth Ann Sweazy, a national board-certified teacher from Spencer County Schools and a member of the board of directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and Ron Thorpe, president and CEO of the NBPTS. They discuss the value of national certification and what school board members can do to encourage teachers to pursue it.
Q. What does it mean to be a National Board Certified Teacher?
Thorpe: This is actually a really important question because over the years, national board has come to mean the best of the best, and that is not what the national board was intended to be when it was created. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is supposed to be what it is in every other profession: a mark of accomplishment. It says you are an accomplished teacher, not that you are a super teacher. It just says that you have gone through an induction period, a novice period and now you have reached a very high level of accomplishment.
In other professions it’s not unusual for anywhere from 60 to 95 percent of all members of the profession to be board certified. But in teaching, fewer than 3 percent of teachers are board certified. Kentucky is better — between 5-6 percent are certified. But that still means that for most students in Kentucky, they will go through 13 years of schooling and never have a teacher who is board certified.
And just to show you how much we have to move the needle, the No. 1 state in terms of certification is North Carolina, where there are 20 percent, one out of every five. But again, if you take the perspective of the child, that means they might have three over 13 years. And if those teachers are in first grade, sixth grade and 11th grade, why should we expect them to have a big impact on those kids?
We have lots of research that shows if you have an accomplished teacher three or four years in row, you just go off the charts in terms of your achievement, especially if you front load them in the beginning. Imagine if every child in Kentucky had a board-certified teacher in kindergarten through third grade, what do you think reading scores would look like in the fourth grade? They would be much higher.
Let’s say we could only give a child four (nationally) certified teachers, put them in kindergarten through grade three as opposed to high school, where the story is almost already written by the time kids get there. I don’t want to make choices like that; I’d like to see board-certified teachers across the board, but if we only have limited resources, which we do, and we only have a limited number of teachers who can be supported going through the process, if I had to vote on that I would say, “Let’s front load these teachers at the beginning of children’s careers.”
And we’ve been around long enough now to have some interesting case studies. In the beginning there was a board-certified teacher here and a board-certified teacher there ... it’s all about concentrating, getting large numbers.
I just came back from the Jefferson County, Ala., school district, and they have a high school there, Minor High School, and it’s been in serious trouble for years. The superintendent worked with us on what’s called a feeder-pattern initiative. There are six elementary schools that feed into one middle school that feeds into Minor High School. They pulled together the money to put all 260 teachers and principals from all eight of those schools through national certification or Take One! (another type of teacher training offered by the board) and after two years you would not believe the turnaround in that district.
It is so powerful that the department of education in Alabama is talking to us about creating a similar feeder-pattern approach that goes into 22 failing high schools that they’ve identified across the state.
Q. What can having national-certified teachers mean for a school? What are the advantages?
Sweazy: Our students are getting highly qualified teachers. I think that is the most important thing. We know that teachers who have demonstrated board certification have been through a very rigorous process. It is very demanding; there has been much growth. Almost every single board-certified teacher I’ve met, including myself, we all feel like it’s the strongest professional development we’ve ever participated in in our careers. You live that process for so long, working on it, it becomes ingrained in you, it becomes a habit and you think about that all the time.
The national certification work is based on five core propositions: teachers who are committed to students and their learning; teachers knowing the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students; teachers who are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning; teachers thinking systemically about their practice and learning from experience; and teachers who are members of the learning community.
You have to know your students, their families and you have to meet them where their needs are and move them as far as you can.
We’re ensuring that our students have the best teacher possible. Research shows that having a nationally board-certified teacher, students do achieve higher, although this process isn’t for everyone and there are a lot of great teachers out there who don’t have this certification.
Q. What can local school boards do to encourage teachers to pursue certification?
Sweazy: Local school boards can encourage their teachers, their district, superintendent, principals to work together. It is also the responsibility of teachers and those who are aware of national board certification to inform and to educate people in the public – parents, school officials, people in the community, about national board certification.
In Spencer County we recognize our new national board-certified teachers. We’ve done that for more than 10 years and that’s just a given at our January board meeting. We also provide an update to the board about new information about national board certification or trend data. If there’s been a change on the board or the superintendent, then we try to do more of an education process. But if it’s our regular people who’ve heard this information before, we try to provide just updates.
We work with them to encourage this process. Maybe boards can request to hear from board-certified teachers, to ask what is being done to encourage teachers to pursue this certification. And just being aware of the process is really good.
Thorpe: If you had to go into surgery tomorrow and your surgeon said, “I’m not board certified, but I’m just as good,” you wouldn’t feel all that confident. Why should we expect anything less from teachers? One could imagine a school board working with their local union and administration to say, “OK, our goal here is to build the highest-quality teaching force we can build. How are we going to do that, what’s it going to require?” Somewhere in there I imagine getting the highest number of teachers board certified and figuring out how that’s going to happen would be part of it.
Q. Any other ways school boards can help?
Sweazy: One of the programs we have is a mentoring program, and we were able to provide candidates with board-certified mentors to help them through the process. Since our allocations have been frozen, there is still a need for that service and if local districts could pick that up by providing release time or professional development time or some type of compensation or support, that would be critical in being successful. Not only is it a great investment of time and money, but the end result is going to be higher student achievement. It really is a great investment by the district.
Thorpe: You know the connection between school quality and real estate? When you’re trying to sell real estate you’re always talking about school quality. I would like to see the day when school board members, one of the things they list when trying to show how good their school district is, is the percentage of board-certified teachers they have. There can only be one teacher of the year, but board certification is designed for everybody and it ought to be something everyone aspires to and most achieve. And I think a world where school boards are saying, “We set a goal, we’re moving from 10 percent board certified to 25 percent,” and when you make that goal and announce it in the paper, then it becomes a badge of honor: “This is how we can tell you our schools are better.”
Q. How many board-certified teachers are there in Kentucky?
Sweazy: Right now we have 2,449. I’m not sure the total we have awaiting scoring. A couple weeks ago we already had 150 candidates signed up for this cycle.
Kentucky has been one of the top-performing states in the past few years. We’re very proud of that. And that goes back to, why is our state successful? It’s because we have all of our stakeholders working together to support this vision and mission. We value student achievement and we value teacher quality and our stakeholders, which includes the school boards association, KEA, the standards board, legislative leaders, university people and others, have all worked together and they all have the same vision: It’s all about students, they’re focused on student achievement.
— For more information or to contact Thorpe, go to the national board’s website.