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A Gifted Teacher Has to Jump Through Bureaucratic Hoops to Avoid Firing

Jonathan Keiler, who has a law degree, teaches at Bowie High School in Prince George's County.
Jonathan Keiler, who has a law degree, teaches at Bowie High School in Prince George's County. (Courtesy Of Jonathan Keiler - Courtesy Of Jonathan Keiler)
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By Jay Mathews
Monday, August 24, 2009

I am not a big fan of merit pay for high-performing teachers unless the entire school staff is rewarded. But I have no doubt that our current teacher pay upgrade and certification system, based largely on education school credits, is dumb and should be changed.

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You disagree? Then let me introduce you to Jonathan Keiler, a social studies teacher at Bowie High School in Prince George's County, where school starts Monday.

It is difficult to argue that Keiler, 49, is anything but one of his county's best teachers. He is the only member of the Bowie High faculty with National Board Certification, having passed a competitive series of tests of his classroom skills that has become a gold standard for American educators. He has a bachelor's degree in philosophy and history from Salisbury University and a law degree from Washington and Lee University. He served four years as an Army Judge Advocate General officer, then was a partner in a private law firm in Bethesda until, as he puts it, he "got sick of law and became a social studies teacher at my alma mater."

He teaches a survey course called Practical Law, as well as Advanced Placement World History and AP Art History. More students signed up for his classes this year than he had periods to teach them. He coaches Bowie's Mock Trial team, the most successful in the county. He has published articles on military history and law in several magazines.

He hates the education school courses teachers must take to be certified and qualify for pay increases. He says they "are generally no more useful or interesting than watching paint dry." But he dutifully accumulated three credit hours at Bowie State University, six through the county's continuing professional education program and three for going through the National Board process. That was more than enough, he was told, for his standard certification.

Then earlier this month, the county's teacher staffing and certification office informed him that previous officials counted his credits wrong. If Keiler didn't somehow produce three extra credits by the end of September, he would be decertified and any pay increases he received associated with certification would be retroactively revoked.

Also, he was told, don't try to claim any more for that law degree. For years, the school system gave him zero credential credit for his three years at Washington and Lee, one of the nation's top law schools, even though he teaches a course on law and coaches Mock Trial. Eventually officials said he could claim three credit hours for the constitutional law course he took and get some extra pay, but that was it.

Keiler's drama unfolded in a way familiar to schoolteachers and other employees of large, easily distracted public agencies. He was told he needed to apply for an Advanced Professional Certificate, something required of 10-year teachers whose only discernible purpose, according to Keiler, is "to keep headquarters people employed." He sent in his paperwork. Weeks passed. He was told it wasn't enough. He needed 36 credits. He explained that because of his National Board status, he needed only 12. The staffing and certification office said that was news to them, but they would check. More weeks passed. He was told his National Board credits weren't certified. He sent in the certification from the American Council of Education. He was told they still wouldn't count unless he paid a college or university to certify them. And, whoops, suddenly he didn't have enough credits for even a standard certification.

"They are essentially firing me," Keiler told me, "because they do not understand their own rules and procedures, which of course are idiotic in the first instance, but at least they should know them. . . .This is typical of the thoroughly unprofessional way teachers are treated despite all the blather about professionalism, and also indicative of the cemented, regimented and unenlightened concept of teaching that is so engrained in the education establishment."

It's worse than that. Those advanced education school degrees that Prince George's and every other school system are so high on have proved to be of little worth. Raegen Miller, a former teachers union president and senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, and Marguerite Roza, a University of Washington education professor, just completed the latest in a long line of reports showing little correlation between rewarding teachers for advanced degrees and improved student achievement. The notion that they are connected "is in the drinking water everywhere," Miller told Education Week, "but we know the relationship between the degree and student achievement is nonexistent."

Less than 24 hours after I sent a draft of this column last week to Prince George's County schools spokeswoman Tanzi West Barbour and Maryland State Department of Education spokesman William Reinhard, Keiler was notified that his situation had changed and his credits were in order. Reinhard said state officials decided that the county had misinterpreted the rules. Barbour said Keiler might get more credit for law school, though state officials haven't decided yet how much. She said that despite what Keiler said, the county staff did understand the rules, but the state decided he deserved more leeway.

A good teacher will keep his job. But that won't solve the education school credit problem. Before we decide how to change that flawed approach to raising the effectiveness of our educators, we ought to be sure that everyone understands it is a bad system and stop trying, as they did in Keiler's case, to make it worse.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com


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