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Class Struggle

Helping Schools by Helping Teachers

By Jay Mathews
Sunday, May 13, 2001; Page W21

The importance of Laura Reasoner Jones's marathon effort to become a National Board Certified teacher (see article) can best be understood with a little foresight.

Imagine the year is 2007. The American school standards movement is in ruins. More than 25 percent of the high school seniors in Massachusetts, Virginia and New York have been denied diplomas because they failed the new state graduation tests. Enraged parents and teachers are picketing school boards. Anti-testing governors have been elected in eight states. State school boards have abolished or diluted several required tests. President Bush has suspended his program tying federal funds to standardized test results.

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What a mess. The dream of a revived public education system, with even low-income neighborhood schools meeting the new standards, is dead. What do we do now?

That is where Jones and the many teachers who share her aspirations and her vision come in. They are being organized by a few educators tucked away on the fifth floor of one of the many tall buildings clumped around Wilson Boulevard in Rosslyn. They have chosen a correct if unexciting name: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Wait, you say. There's that word "standards" again. Isn't that what caused all the trouble in the first place?

Not exactly. Teachers like Jones and her national board sponsors are coming at the problem from a different angle. The school standards movement is supposed to identify the worst schools and the least achieving students through tests and do everything necessary to bring them up to a new state or national standard. The national board, by contrast, wants to fix schools, not by testing students but by making teachers, even the best teachers, better and more effective at what they do. It wants to take your child's sweet-tempered second-grade teacher and turn her into someone who can successfully demand more money and more respect from you.

But the teacher has to make the first move. Unlike the standardized testing movement, the national board runs a voluntary program, which is both its strength and its weakness. Only the most motivated educators like Jones are prepared to try it. It will be some time before there are enough National Board Certified teachers to make a real difference in the nation's schools.

As Jones's article points out, each applicant must come up with the $2,000 for the 10 months of exhaustive, often after-hours work. Each must prepare student work portfolios, take videos of and analyze his or her classroom methods and pass computerized tests of teaching techniques. Applicants shove their personal lives into the backs of their closets. Yet even after doing all that work, their chances of being certified are only 50-50.

That's good. Risk of failure brings respect. We would not be willing to pay our doctors nearly as much money if we had not witnessed so many of our friends suffer nervous breakdowns trying to learn organic chemistry. Largely because the National Board Certification process is so hard, legislatures in most states have approved subsidies for the assessment fees or extra compensation for the teachers who succeed in winning certification.

The program is still very small, with only 9,531 teachers certified. But it is growing fast -- the number approved last fall nearly doubled the total. The idea is for confidence in teachers to become rooted, as it is with doctors, in seeing the latest methods used by certified practitioners work for your family and watching the overall educational health of the country improve.

That means, even without a school standards movement, there must be some broad measures of educational success. I notice lifespans are longer and thus feel confident that the anti-cholesterol pill I swallow each morning will do the job. Unfortunately, no one has measured yet how effective board-certified teachers are in the classroom. And Michael Podgursky, chair of the economics department at the University of Missouri-

Columbia, noted recently in Education Week that the national board departs from the medical model by failing to include each teacher's principal in the certification process. Young doctors cannot put any impressive certificates on their office walls without the endorsement of their supervising practitioner.

There are ways to patch those holes. The national board is talking to testing expert William Sanders, who has devised a way of measuring teacher effectiveness. Knowledgeable administrators can be consulted. The Milken Family Foundation is experimenting in Phoenix with a whole new career ladder -- from associate teacher to mentor teacher to master teacher -- that mimics the way doctors are trained and promoted.

Future Laura Reasoner Joneses may have to work even harder than she did to earn certification. But if that helps pull schools out of the possible wreckage of the school standards movement, it will be worth it.

Jay Mathews's e-mail address is Mathewsj@washpost.com.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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