BOSTON — IF better learning is the final exam for education reform, better teaching is the inescapable prerequisite.
Or to quote Gov. James Hunt Jr. (D) of North Carolina, ``If we're serious about these goals, the most important thing we can do is have really good teaching.''
Governor Hunt is co-chair of the Education Leadership Team of the National Governors Association (NGA), which met in Boston last week. The goals he refers to are listed in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, a reform plan that originated with the governors and was enacted by Congress this year. They include a 90-percent high school graduation rate, world leadership in science and math, and universal literacy.
The vehicle Hunt and his fellow governors hope to ride toward better teaching is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
The board grew out of an initiative by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, with participation by educators, government officials, and business leaders. It was founded as a nonprofit, independent organization in 1987.
After seven years of formulating standards, sorting out assessment procedures, and, not least, fundraising, the first group of teachers will be certified this fall and next spring.
The certification process will eventually cover all grades, kindergarten through high school, and all academic specialities (including generalist). This year's 500 participants constitute a final ``field test'' of the board's system of assessment and evaluation. All are middle-school teachers with at least three years of experience.
They have had to analyze classroom problems and successes, keep a detailed record of students' writing assignments, write papers of their own, and build a portfolio. They also videotaped classes. During the summer, they've attended regional assessment centers for workshops and critiques.
The people doing the assessing and making the final decision on certification are primarily other teachers selected by the board. Down the line, all assessors will be teachers who hold a board certificate. The goal is an organization run by people in the profession - much like state bar associations for lawyers, or boards that certify physicians.
Megan Lawson, a middle-school teacher from Blowing Rock, N.C., who is part of this year's ``field test,'' emphasizes the ``rigor'' of the assessment process. Whether she ends up with a certificate or not, she says, the biggest payoff is ``professional growth.''
``I reflected each day on how I taught and what my students learned,'' says Ms. Lawson. Speaking to the governors, she recalled a colleague's maxim: ``If you don't feed the teachers, they'll eat the students.'' Board certification is, in her view, a way of ``feeding the teachers.''
The ``feeding'' in North Carolina includes the state's commitment to pay the $975 application fee for any teacher seeking board certification and a 4 percent salary hike for anyone receiving certification.
Cost will be a problem with the board certification process, says Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association (NEA), the country's largest teachers' union. A lot of teachers will not be able to afford the fee without help from their states.
The question of raises will also come up, says Mr. Geiger, just as it did when some teachers began getting master's degrees 20 years ago. And what about the inequity of some teachers having to wait still more years before the board is ready to assess their grade and subject-matter specialty? Or the possibility that board-certified teachers will gravitate to suburban districts that can pay more, widening the gap between rich and poor districts?
Even with ``a zillion questions'' still unanswered, says Geiger, board certification could strengthen education. Moreover, he says, it's something teachers have been asking for. Both the NEA and American Federation of Teachers have been involved with the board since its inception.
Another '94 applicant for certification, Sharon Draper, told the governors that the assessment process was ``one of the most exhausting and exhilarating experiences of my life.'' There were high points and low ones. The classroom videos caught ``everything from kids picking their noses to actually good learning moments,'' she says.
Ms. Draper, who teaches middle-school English in Cincinnati, urges that all teachers become involved in the program. She acknowledges, however, that not all teachers will want to participate.
``There are always levels of quality in a school - that's not going to change. Those who aren't willing won't do it.'' But certification will give the best teachers needed recognition, she adds.
It's important to underscore that certification will not equal competency, says Geiger. Lots of competent teachers, he says, may choose not to seek certification.