When my "box" (the term used to describe the package sent by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to introduce the process to new candidates) landed on my doorstep in late 1995, I was a third-year teacher tackling a process that was still relatively novel and new. My district–Wake County, North Carolina, currently leading the nation with 1,137 Board certified teachers–had nine teachers with completed portfolios. North Carolina–who now has just over 11,000 of our country’s 55,000 NBCTS–had fewer than 90.
Having earned a certificate in "the good old days"–and having recently renewed my certificate for the first time–I’m often interviewed on the process, asked about its value by educators and policymakers alike. "Why did you choose to pursue Board Certification?" people wonder, "What impact did it have on your instruction?"
Looking back, I think there were many reasons why I attempted to certify. First and foremost, I wanted a way to prove that I was an accomplished teacher. In my gut, I felt good about what I was doing in my classroom, but I had little evidence to back that up. Board certification gave me a chance to see how I stacked up against what is arguably the most rigorous assessment process for teachers in our nation. Certifying was confirmation of who I am as a professional.
I was also driven by the desire to be one of the first to hold certification from the National Board. There was something exciting about being from North Carolina in the mid-1990s. Our state had taken a strong step towards supporting quality teaching, and I saw certification as a way to validate those efforts.
Oh yeah….I also jumped at certification for another reason: North Carolina was offering a 12 percent salary supplement for certified teachers. Struggling to make ends meet, certification was a way to make a comfortable living wage.
As states across the country began to experiment with monetary incentives for Board certified teachers–offering anything from one-time bonuses to long-term salary stipends–the number of teachers seeking certification multiplied exponentially. With rapid growth, education budgets buckled—what seemed like a manageable plan for providing differential pay ballooned into annual spending that became much more than policymakers bargained for.
As a result, states began to back off of their commitment to the process, wondering whether or not their investments in teaching quality were making a difference. Competing studies about the impact of Board certified teachers on student growth were released by organizations across the professional–and political–spectrum.
Grabbed by advocates and opponents of Board certification, these studies were used as "evidence" of the Board’s successes and/or failures to improve teaching quality. Everyone started asking a seemingly simple question that I struggle to answer:
Is providing salary supplements to all Board Certified teachers a responsible fiscal decision?
My challenge lies in the fact that working through Board ceritification has changed who I am as a classroom teacher. The process taught me to reflect on my practice in ways that I never learned to do in my college preparation or teacher professional development sessions. I am a more critical practitioner, seeking to identify and amplify instructional practices that work for my students. That action orientation has had a direct impact on achievement in my classroom.
Board certification has also encouraged me to accept leadership responsibilites beyond my classroom. Mentoring teachers and advocating for students has become a central part of who I am. The credibility that comes with a certificate from the National Board has given me a "place at the table" in conversations about education—and I have used that opportunity to influence teaching and learning at the school, district, state and national level.
But I’ve also spent my entire career working in affluent suburban schools. My students come from homes with every advantage. Their parents are supportive, providing extension and enrichment experiences for their children that families high poverty communities struggle to provide. Being well-fed and warm is a given, the latest technology is common and success in school is an expectation. Few come to me with significant gaps in their knowledge–and those that do are often tutored outside of school.
When you dig into the details in North Carolina, the majority of National Board Certified Teachers are working in low poverty schools–only ten percent of NBCTs work with our poorest children. This highlights the growing gap between students of wealth and students of poverty. As Howard Lee, the chairman of our State Board of Education recently said in an article on Board Certification in North Carolina, "If we’re spending this kind of money, we should have the teachers where we need them the most."
Now, earning certification from the National Board does not guarantee that a teacher will automatically be successful in every setting because the challenges of a high needs school are complex and interwoven. Teachers in our neediest communities–regardless of certification status–require additional planning time, job-embedded professional development and accomplished leadership to maximize their effectiveness. Working towards providing these basics is essential if we are truly serious about leveling the playing field for every child.
But I’m still left to wonder sometimes whether my decision to teach in a low poverty school cheapens North Carolina’s investment in me.