MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
How to make a good teacher into a great teacher. That's a key question for states focused on getting the best teachers to help the neediest students. Many, like North Carolina, are helping teachers become board certified. Many teachers say it's the best thing they've ever did.
But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, it's not clear that it's the best way to improve student achievement.
LARRY ABRAMSON: It's early in the morning at Mineral Springs Middle School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and teacher Joan Celestino is getting ready for her first class. Today, she's going to read Longfellow's Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and then compare it to historical accounts of the event. It's something she's never done before.
Ms. JOAN CELESTINO (Mineral Springs Middle School): So what I did was I made up a little sheet for them. This is the part that I haven't done before. And then they have to put down the title of their accounts and then put anything that's different.
ABRAMSON: After nearly 20 years on the job, Celestino says she keeps looking for new ways to teach her material.
Ms. CELESTINO: This lesson may completely bomb today. 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.
(Soundbite of a middle school class)
ABRAMSON: Before class can start, teachers face the usual struggle to get kids out of the hall and into their seats.
ABRAMSON: At age 55, Joan Celestino 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.
Ms. CELESTINO: One is by land. And two is by sea.
ABRAMSON: Celestino has given herself completely to this lesson. But the kids aren't quite ready to reciprocate.
Ms. CELESTINO: For the country folks to be up and arms. What's it mean to arm? Ready with your rifles, right.
ABRAMSON: 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.
Ms. CELESTINO: What did Paul Revere use to muffle his oars?
JALIL: Panty drawers.
Ms. CELESTINO: What?
JALIL: Panty drawers.
Ms. CELESTINO: A girl's petty coat. Right.
JALIL: Panty drawers.
Ms. CELESTINO: They forgotten to bring some thing with them to wrap it up.
ABRAMSON: After class, Joan Celestino takes stock as she gets ready to teach the same lesson to her next class.
Ms. CELESTINO: I'd make some changes for second period.
ABRAMSON: How did you think that went?
Ms. CELESTINO: Not as well as I would have hoped. I don't think I did well enough with the poem itself. They weren't listening. They were just sitting there.
ABRAMSON: North Carolina has invested big time in getting more teachers board certified. The state gives teachers a 12 percent 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, to analyze students' work, and to explain your teaching approach.
Many teachers say 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 really matters in education today, improved test scores.
Mr. WILLIAM SANDERS (SAS): There's very little difference in effectiveness based upon the National Board Certification status.
ABRAMSON: William Sanders have worked for the computer company SAS. He's a highly respected statistician and education researcher. In a conference room, Sanders projects a graph up on the wall. It shows certified and non-certified teachers, and they fall evenly on either side of a dark line. That means they're just as likely to succeed or fail in boosting student achievement. Sanders says he has always felt that certification is a great professional development tool, so he was surprised at these results.
Mr. SANDERS: What this study does, as well as two other studies now, really raises the question of whether or not the National Board process identifies those teachers that are highly effective at facilitating student academic growth.
ABRAMSON: The National Board disputes these findings, and points to other studies that show significant gains for students of board certified teachers. William Sanders says the board should use his results to retool and make sure that certificates go to teachers who can improve results. Again, that means boost test scores. That's what the Department of Education values. Henry Johnson, assistant secretary of education, says the Department is handing out $42 million this year to help reward teachers for higher test scores.
Mr. HENRY JOHNSON (Assistant Secretary of Education): We want to incentivize states and local districts to put effective teachers in front of every classroom, especially those classrooms with the most needy kids.
ABRAMSON: The push to boost test scores has not dimmed the passion of board-certified teachers like Joan Celestino.
Ms. CELESTINO: Would you like some tea?
ABRAMSON: At her house in Winston-Salem, Celestino serves cookies and tea as she displays the materials she used to get her board certification and her recent re-certification. As she does, it's clear, she is immensely proud of what she's accomplished, both by getting certified and in helping younger teachers through the process.
Ms. CELESTINO: Says you're going to get a written in this particular one - written commentary. And you're going to present student work to show how you meet those standards. And then there are actual questions that say, you know, answer these questions in your written commentaries.
BRIAN: Somebody -
Ms. CELESTINO: You know, Brian, a little bit of information about what happen in the story and what you think it means.
ABRAMSON: She shows me a video of a somewhat younger Joan Celsetino leading a class discussion. 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 three million teachers on the job today, only about 50,000 are board certified.
On the day I visited Mineral Springs Middle, teachers spend 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 then cajoled into accepting tutoring help so they could move on to high school.
Ms. CELESTINO: 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.
ABRAMSON: All right. So you don't want teach in a high need school and then be penalized for it.
Ms. CELESTINO: I would like to see people recognizing what is done.
ABRAMSON: After my visit, Joan Celestino kept working on that lesson about the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. She says with a few changes, the lesson went a lot better.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Larry Abramson has been reporting all this week on the challenge of making sure that poor and minority students have high quality teachers. You could hear more of these stories from North Carolina at our Web site, NPR.org.
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