Teaching for the Test

The author in his classroom at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
The author in his classroom at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. (Scott Gregory Robinson)
By Emmet Rosenfeld
Sunday, February 17, 2008

ANDREW STIRRED THE GLOWING COALS PILED IN THE BASE OF THE DUGOUT CANOE, reflected flames glinting off his glasses. Nearby, Christina worked diligently, packing mud from a bucket onto the interior walls so that the fire wouldn't burn through them as it deepened the trough at the bottom.

"Craig, we need some more mud," she called to one of her classmates, who set down the oyster shell he had been sharpening on a whetstone and walked 20 yards to the banks of the Potomac to fetch another bucketful of river clay.

I surveyed the scene and couldn't help but smile. Far from our classroom and the computers of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, my students and I were engaged in a different kind of learning. On an overnight campout last spring at the historic Mount Vernon estate, we were using age-old technology to turn a three-ton tulip poplar log into a traditional Native American dugout canoe similar to ones that had plied this river centuries ago.

For me, as an English teacher at one of the nation's top high schools and a former Outward Bound instructor, building the canoe with 10th-graders who were more comfortable using a graphing calculator than an ax seemed like a perfect way to combine hands-on learning with our humanities curriculum. The yearlong project, undertaken in collaboration with three other teachers and the help of a local boat-building group, became the centerpiece of our course.

My own year, however, was also marked by another all-consuming project. Over the months that the canoe was taking form, I was pursuing an advanced professional certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The process was demanding, requiring hundreds of hours of work and challenging me to think about my teaching in ways I never had before. If I succeeded in getting certified, I would be among fewer than 2 percent of educators nationwide to have reached the highest level of the profession.

That night at Mount Vernon, as the scent of blueberry cobbler wafted from a Dutch oven banked in coals smoldering in the canoe, the National Board was far from my mind. But for days and weeks after the smoky memory faded, the stakes weighed heavily, as they had since I had started the process nearly a year before. No longer was the goal of my teaching just to challenge and engage my students; I now had to quantify exactly what they had learned through the experience for the strangers who would be tallying my score at the end of the process. I would need to ask myself tough questions: How is this boat a lens to the past? What precisely do I want my students to get out of the project?

I BECAME INTERESTED IN NATIONAL BOARD CERTIFICATION FOR A SIMPLE REASON: THE MONEY. Fairfax County and the state of Virginia would pay me bonuses worth around $60,000 over 10 years if I could show them I was a top teacher. I thought the process might also offer an objective answer to a nagging question: How did I measure up compared with my peers?

During my 14 years in the classroom, I had answered that to some degree. After all, I'd not only landed a job at the vaunted TJ, the governor's magnet school for science and technology in Alexandria, but I also won a grant my first year there for $10,000 that paid to build the canoe. Before joining the faculty at "High-Tech High" in 2005, I'd taught everything from advanced International Baccalaureate to English as a second language. Along the way, I managed to earn a master's degree in teaching, and I taught other teachers as my career progressed. Earning National Board certification would prove decisively that I knew my stuff.

The credential was supposed to be a divining rod for good teachers. Little known to the lay public but a Holy Grail of sorts among growing numbers of educators, National Board certification was born in the mid-1980s as the antidote to the crisis in education proclaimed by the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" from the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Today there are more than 64,000 National Board-certified teachers nationwide. The growth has not been uniform: As of last year, Virginia had 1,434; North Carolina, which offers hefty career raises for certified educators, boasted 12,770 (nearly 14 percent of its teachers).

Getting certified is no slam-dunk. This year, thousands of classroom veterans will undertake the rigorous self-reflective process, but only four out of 10 will make the cut. The six who fail may try again for up to two more years, and eventually two of them will succeed. (Certification is valid for 10 years and can be renewed. The renewal process is less cruel, and nine out of 10 candidates win renewal.)

In a review of the program's requirements offered by Fairfax County Public Schools, I learned that the yearlong process would include samples of my teaching in a portfolio and a test in my subject area. How hard could it be? I asked myself. But the devil was in the details -- more than 200 pages of them, filling a chunky three-ring binder that I came to call "the Bible."

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