Teachers strive for 'certifiable' excellence

Whether for the satisfaction of professional development or a higher salary, more educators are working toward the title 'master,' granted by a national board

Karen Peart doesn't have much of a social life just at the moment. "I go straight home from work, I don't turn on the TV, and I unplug the phone," says the fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at PS 157 in the Bronx. Since November, Ms. Peart has had her gaze fixed on a single goal: attaining certification as a master teacher.

Peart is a licensed teacher who's been in the classroom for four years. She doesn't need the certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) in Southfield, Mich. But it's a challenge she says she couldn't resist. "This is a way I can learn about myself as a teacher," she explains. "I want to really dedicate myself to the profession."

Peart's attitude is exactly what educators involved with the NBPTS hope to cultivate. The independent, nonprofit board was created in 1987 by a group of teachers and policymakers and is funded by both private donations and the federal government. It has two main goals: to create an accomplished group of master teachers who set a high standard, and to serve as a self-regulatory body that clarifies what teachers ought to be able to know and do. It also brings dedicated teachers together to mentor one another through the certification process.

Critics, however, say that while the NBPTS may provide an impressive-sounding credential, its structure is too vague to result in a true indication of whether someone is a good teacher. Like many of the debates over improving education, this one centers on what constitutes "proof" of effectiveness.

Yet the master-teacher program has garnered substantial support. The Clinton administration is calling for as many as 100,000 NBPTS-certified teachers by 2006. (Right now there are about 5,000 nationwide.) Thirty-eight states and a number of local districts already offer financial incentives: Some pay the $2,000 certification fee, and others give bonuses or salary hikes. In Los Angeles, teachers get a 15 percent raise if they become certified. Peart will be eligible for a $4,000 salary hike if she makes it.

Yet not everyone agrees this process will strengthen the nation's schools. "What proof is there that this works?" asks Michael Podgursky, head of the economics department at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "The answer is: none."

Professor Podgursky and others view the certification process as too nebulous. They say some of the goals lack clarity and value a "softer" style of teaching over a sharper focus on imparting core information. As an example of fuzzy language, he cites the NBPTS Web site's statement that classrooms should be an environment where students can, among other things, "take intellectual risks."

Critics also point to studies that show little direct correlation between teacher certification and student achievement as measured by standardized-test scores.

But such arguments fail to take into account the larger contribution that master certification makes, says Betty Castor, a former Florida commissioner of education and university president who now heads the NBPTS. "The accomplishments of Japanese students are generally held up as the highest in the world, and much of what we're doing is modeled on the K-10 system [there], where teachers work with mentors, work in teams, collaborate."

Certification requires candidates to prepare a portfolio that includes videotapes of themselves in the classroom, samples of student work, and reflective essays on the craft of teaching. The portfolio - requiring as much as 500 hours of prep time - is followed by an exam testing the teacher's knowledge of his or her field.

While preparing the portfolios, certification candidates generally work in teams that include teachers who've already gone through the process. For Peart, this shared experience has been one of the highlights. "You get to meet not just any teachers, but those who are dedicated to the profession," she says. "It's a chance to do a lot of reflecting, to become more critical of yourself, to analyze everything."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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