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How do you make a good teacher into a great teacher? Some 50,000 teachers have taken the route of board certification, undertaking a rigorous examination process along the lines of what doctors go through.
Many teachers say it's the best thing they've ever done. But it's not at all clear that it helps raise test scores.
North Carolina is one of the states that's promoted board certification as a way to create -- and keep -- good teachers such as Joan Celestino. She teaches language arts at Mineral Springs Middle School in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Trying Out New Ideas in the Classroom
On the day NPR visited her, Celestino was trying something different: She planned to read Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and have her students compare it to historical accounts of the event. It's something she's never done before.
"I made up a little sheet for them, and they have to put down their title of the account, and put down what's different," she says.
After nearly 20 years on the job, Celestino says she keeps looking for new ways to teach her material.
"This lesson may completely bomb today," she said before class started. "And at the end of the day, I'll say, 'What was I thinking?' On the other hand, if I never try anything new, I won't know what works."
Celestino, 55, is silver-haired and confident. Part of that confidence, she says, comes from the fact that she is board certified. She's been recognized twice for her ability to connect with her kids and think critically about teaching. She says that's particularly important at this low-income school, where the population of kids who speak English as a second language is exploding.
Celestino has given herself completely to this lesson on Paul Revere. But the kids aren't quite ready to reciprocate. As she recites the poem, the students stare blankly, the way kids often do when presented with the strange language of poetry. Celestino presses on. One student, Jalil, lights up momentarily over one detail.
"What did Paul Rever use to muffle his oars?" Celestino asks.
"Panty drawers!" the young student responds.
But Does It Boost Scores?
North Carolina has invested heavily in getting more teachers board certified. The state gives teachers a 12 percent pay increase. That's serious money, enough to persuade teachers to do all the work that's required: It takes hundreds of hours to submit a video, analyze student work, and explain your teaching approach.
Many teachers say that board certification has reawakened their commitment to teaching, even kept them from leaving the profession. But some districts remain skeptical, because they're not sure they'll get the only benefit that matters in education today: improved test scores.
That finding is back up by recent research from William Sanders, who works for the computer software company SAS. "There's very little difference in effectiveness based upon the National Board Certification Status," Sanders says.
Sanders is a highly respected statistician and education researcher. In a conference room, he projects a graph on the wall. It shows that certified and non-certified teachers fall evenly on either side of a dark line, which means that they are just as like to succeed or fail in boosting student performance.
Sanders says he has always believed that certification is a great professional-development tool, so he was surprised at these results.
"What this study does, as well as two other studies now, is it really raises the question of whether or not the National Board process identifies those teachers that are highly effective at facilitating student growth," he said.
The National Board disputes these findings, and points to other studies that show significant gains for students of board-certified teachers.
Sanders says the board should use his results to retool, and make sure that certificates go to teachers who can improve results -- that is, boost test scores. That's what the U.S. Department of Education values. Henry Johnson, an assistant secretary of education, says the Department is handing out $42 million this year to help reward teachers.
"We want to incentivize states and local districts to put effective teachers in front of every classroom," he said, "especially those classrooms with the most needy kids."
An Arduous Certification Process
The push to boost test scores has not dimmed the passion of board-certified teachers like Joan Celestino.
At her house in Winston-Salem, Celestino serves cookies and tea as she displays the materials she used to obtain her board certification, and her recent re-certification. As she does, it's clear that she is immensely proud of what she's accomplished, both by getting certified, and in helping younger teachers go through the process.
All applicants have to submit two tapes of themselves teaching. It's a huge amount of work that takes months to put together. That may be one reason why, out of 3 million teachers on the job today, only about 50,000 are board certified.
On the day I visited Mineral Springs Middle School, teachers spent a lot of time dealing with issues that will not boost tests scores. An eighth-grade girl reported she was pregnant. There were a couple of fights in the hallway to break up. Kids who were in danger of flunking eighth grade had to be corralled and cajoled into accepting tutoring help, so they could move on to high school.
"There are so many factors that go into whether a student learns, that when you're teaching students from the socioeconomic backgrounds that I teach, it is not always clear that it's what I did or did not do that caused them to get their scores," Celestino says.