For the first time in the history of American education, a national board has been established to issue certificates to teachers who demonstrate quality and competence. The new board, to be announced today in San Diego, is the result of eight months of meetings between educators and union representatives of the nation's 2.3 million teachers. It is also the cornerstone of a sweeping plan unveiled a year ago by the Carnegie Corporation to restructure teacher education, workplace conditions, and career paths.
Currently, teachers are licensed by state boards that have uneven and often low standards. Nor, at present, is there an adequate measure or test of teacher ability - one capable of fairly identifying top teachers.
The new board, a majority of whose 55 members are teachers, will provide a uniform national standard of entry to the profession - similar to a lawyer's bar exam. It will also help oversee sophisticated new teacher assessments that will go far beyond simple pencil-and-paper tests. The assessments will include examining teachers' classroom skills and their understanding of new research and practice methods in their respective subject areas.
These national tests would be taken on a voluntary basis. But it is expected that the results will be used by many school principals to award employment benefits and allocate responsibilites.
Work on the new tests - expected to take 5 to 10 years - is under way at Stanford University.
Experts say it is too early to say how many states or local school districts will buy into the new certification. Some are certain to: California and Connecticut will announce today, for example, a joint plan to upgrade their licensing requirements - based on Carnegie ideas.
Tricky political waters have been navigated in obtaining the endorsement of the two teacher unions, but even rougher waters lie ahead. The board must decide what subjects to certify; how different levels of teaching ought to be handled; and whether to issue temporary certifications until the tests are finished.
If the test is too demanding, experts say, it will alienate minorities; if it is too easy, the certification will be irrelevant.
Advocates of national certification say it will help restore public trust in teachers, and give them the kind of self-government found in other professions - such as accounting or law - at a time when the best and brightest college students shun teaching. It will allow more teacher mobility. Most important, they say, it will give teachers more freedom to contribute to the learning process in schools.
``Teaching is one of the most isolated jobs in the world,'' says Claire Pelton, a member of the new board and for 30 years an English teacher in California. ``Good teachers know they have leadership abilities. They constantly lead [students] in a creative way. But when you offer ideas, no one listens to you. That's why so many teachers leave.''
``Up to now, it's been difficult to know who the professionals in a school are,'' says former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt, chairman of the 33-member Carnegie planning group. ``Certification is a means of ensuring that an individual has high standards, and of letting the public know that.''
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, as it is called, is a product of the Carnegie Forum for Education and the Economy, and its reform blueprint, ``A Nation Prepared,'' released last May.
The plan has been called the second wave of school reform, as it stresses deep structural changes in the role and development of teachers, rather than such ``mechanistic'' reforms as longer school days and more emphasis on basic subjects.
Top educators in the country have supported the effort, and Carnegie officials also enlisted the backing of business leaders and elected officials.
Legislation based on the Carnegie reforms has been introduced in 16 states. But some educators, who have been through four major ``failed'' reforms in 30 years, are skeptical. Some state unions have ignored calls for more teacher accountability and use the reforms as a smoke screen for more pay.
Mr. Hunt says, ``We'll start small - certify about 5,000 teachers. Can you imagine the competition out there to get those teachers?''