Teacher certification prestigious but too costly, Rhee says

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 11, 2010

Judy Leak-Bowers has 18 fidgety third-graders arrayed in a circle on the carpet of her classroom at Watkins Elementary in Southeast Washington, but each seems to have her undivided attention.

No one escapes her stream of questions about temperature on the Celsius scale or a recent class visit to Ben's Chili Bowl. The queries are all open-ended, requiring a thoughtful answer, not just a "Yes" or "No."

"Why is it a big deal about the president ordering a half-smoke?" she asks when someone mentions President Obama's visit to the landmark U Street eatery.

Ryan's hand shot up. "He rules the U.S., so if he orders it, it's going to be popular," he says.

Leak-Bowers was a good teacher before she became one of 11 D.C. educators to win certification last month from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Widely regarded as the most prestigious teaching credential in pre-K-12 education, it is given only after as many as three years of study, portfolio submissions and exams. Teachers videotape their classroom lessons and analyze them with peers, reflect on their practices and take a series of rigorous exams that test their knowledge of their field.

The ebullient former New York actress, once featured on the 1980s PBS kids' show "3-2-1 Contact," said the national board's process has helped her internalize the fundamentals of good teaching. It has given her what her board-certified colleague at Watkins, fourth-grade teacher Kristina Tharpe, called "a third eye" to perceive what kids need.

"It made me more of a facilitator than a dictator," Leak-Bowers said. "You give students the room they need to make an investment in their education."

About 82,000 educators nationwide, or 3 percent of the teaching force, have been certified by the Arlington County-based board, which was created in 1987 by the Carnegie Corp. of New York to raise the level of professionalism in the field. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised last year's class of 8,900 as "an extraordinary group" that has "demonstrated a commitment to taking their teaching practice and the teaching profession to a different level."

Leak-Bowers is also one of just 61 District teachers with the certification, or about 1 percent of the teaching corps, most of them in public schools. Under former superintendent Clifford Janey, the D.C. school system supplied technical and financial support to board candidates, including video cameras to record classroom lessons and financial support to defray the $2,500 application fee. Those who won certification received a $4,000 stipend.

But Janey's successor, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, said that although she considers board certification a valuable form of professional development, it was difficult to justify the annual expenditure of about $600,000 because so few teachers were making it through the process.

"It didn't seem like the best investment," Rhee said. "It seemed to us that there was a more foundational level of professional development we needed to do with our staff," she said, before teachers reached for the national board certification. (The $4,000 stipend, a provision of the current contract with the Washington Teachers' Union, remains in place).

Although some research suggests that board-certified teachers can improve student test scores, Rhee said the most substantial scholarship she has seen shows that there is little significant impact.

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