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National Board Certification Debated in Washington State

The number of National Board-certified teachers in "challenging" schools has increased in Washington state, but the growth is largely due to efforts of teachers already located those schools to become certified; comparatively fewer board-certified have chosen to transfer to them, asserts a report that has already drawn criticism from the state teachers' unions and from National Board officials.

The report, from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, comes as Gov. Christine Gregoire has proposed suspending the state's National Board program, which offers base-salary increases of $5,000 to teachers who hold the credential and another $5,000 to those who work in state-designated "challenging" schools.

She has company in other state leaders: As I reported not long ago, several other states, including Georgia, Ohio, and Florida have also looked at scaling back support for National Board certification.

Among the report's findings: Only about 1 percent of NBCTs transferred to challenging schools since 2007-08, and that the teachers were no more likely to stay in such schools than other teachers.

Critics, however, noted that a report from the state's professional-standards board, found that between 4 percent and 10 percent of NBCTs each year moved. And, it also found that board certified teachers had higher retention rates in those schools.

It is not entirely clear why the two analyses differ on these points, since they appear to draw on similar data sets.

In any case, supporters of the program say that the CRPE report essentially misses the point. "There is no language in the current law about NBCTs 'switching schools' to get the bonus," said Nancy Schwartz, a regional director for NBPTS, in an e-mail. "The overall goal is simply to increase the number of NBCTs in the state's neediest schools and, most importantly, keep them there."

Is there a difference in quality between those teachers who transfer to these schools versus those who are already in them? That's a good question without many good answers at the moment. Quite a few studies, including a much-cited one from 2008 from a National Research Council panel have concluded that the board-certification process identifies good teachers. But the empirical research is mixed about whether the process itself actually improves one's teaching. (For what's it's worth, most teachers I've spoken to think that they became better teachers because of the process.)

Some of the growth in NBCTs located in challenged schools is simply a result of the expanding designation, the analysis notes, a finding that echoes the state report.

The CRPE analysis seems to have caused some concern in Washington state, and given the budget crunch and Gov. Gregoire's plans, it's not hard to see why.

Arguably, though, all of this debate misses the policy issues laid out in the earlier state report (see p. 7 of the executive summary): Despite increases in "challenging" schools, small, rural schools in the state continue to struggle to attract (or create) board-certified teachers, and the process is an individual one, not connected to other school improvement efforts.

Such findings also reflect the issue that's become NBPTS' biggest policy challenge over the years: What is the best way to deploy these teachers?

The group's early efforts were focused on just getting as many teachers certified as possible, but lately it has put more attention into creating cohorts of board-certified teachers in schools.

And this is all part of the larger discussion about the "equitable distribution of teachers." After all, research indicates that there are already some great teachers in challenging schools. But what's the best way to keep them there, to grow a cohort of colleagues committed to improvement? Are transfers part of the answer? Is it leadership, working conditions, pay incentives, or some combination of all these factors?

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