Widmeyer Q&A: Conversation on the State of the Teaching Profession with Ron Thorpe
The former vice president for education at WNET Channel 13 in New York and an accomplished educator, Ron Thorpe was named president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (“National Board”) in December 2011. The National Board was created 25 years ago in an effort to raise the standards of the teaching profession, recognize great teaching, and spread best practices nationwide. Since that date, nearly 100,000 teachers have voluntarily completed a multi-year, rigorous process to achieve National Board Certification, which includes demonstrating knowledge in their content area and assembling portfolios of videos, lesson plans, student work and outside accomplishments.
I talked with Ron Thorpe about the challenges currently facing the teaching profession in the United States and his vision for how National Board Certified teachers can make a difference.
What makes National Board certification synonymous with accomplished teaching?
When the National Board was created in 1987 in response to A Nation Prepared, with initial support from Carnegie, it was designed to identify what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do. Following a model long-used in medicine and other professions to show that a practitioner had progressed beyond basic licensure and the novice phase, the National Board would set the standards and also create the process to identify reliably what it means to be accomplished. Being Board Certified doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best teacher, it just means you can say to the public and your peers, ‘I am an accomplished teacher, and therefore you can expect a certain level of instruction and level of learning from students in my classes.’
Has the type of teachers who earn certification and where they work changed since the National Board was created 25 years ago?
Yes. Early on teachers came from very specific areas of the country that had been the first to step up to create the incentives to encourage pursuit of Board certification. North Carolina was the first champion, led by then Governor Jim Hunt who was our founding Board chair, with South Carolina and Florida close behind. Chicago was an important district for certification. When U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan started as superintendent of schools in Chicago, he had 11 Board certified teachers. When he left to become Secretary of Education there were 1,200, and today that number is approaching 2,000.
Although Board certification was strongest in suburban schools during the early years, today more than 50 percent of Board certified teachers work in Title I [high-poverty] schools, which tend to be more in urban districts. Since the quality of teachers is the most important school-based variable affecting student achievement, it’s essential to increase the number of accomplished teachers in schools that need them the most, and we have implemented strategies to make that happen. We also have more than 14,000 teachers certified in middle and high school math, science and technology, and all elementary level certifications require demonstrated proficiency in math and science.
The quality of the teaching profession has received a lot of attention recently in the media and in movies like Won’t Back Down and Waiting for Superman. You’ve compared the teaching profession today to where medicine was a century ago. What needs to happen to elevate the professionalism of teachers and the respect we as a nation have for them to the level of doctors?
In all other major professions in the U.S., accomplished practitioners in the field help define the standards for their practice via independent certification boards. One definition of professionalism is that the people in the profession are the only ones qualified to define what being a professional means. That involves how teachers are prepared, how they manage classes, their clinical exposure before licensure, and their trajectory from day one to wherever they are headed in their career.
Whenever we are working in any realm that is service-oriented, there will always be some variety in performance among practitioners, but in a true profession, the difference is within a specified parameter of effective practice. You can find reliable quality wherever you go, whether you’re looking for a doctor, lawyer or accountant. We haven’t done that in teaching—taking this critical step to embrace professionalism and what accomplished teaching means and making sure every school has as many accomplished teachers as possible.
What impact will the rollout of the new Common Core State Standards have on National Board certification, or vice versa?
National Board Certified teachers were the first ones to help us learn what standards-based instruction looks like in classrooms. In fact, the language of Board certification from the beginning equates accomplished teaching with knowing how to teach to standards. Today that means Common Core, and we have revised our standards in math, ELA, and science to align to Common Core. The Common Core State Standards aren’t business as usual. They signal a fundamental change, and there are 100,000 National Board Certified teachers who can lead the way by modeling accomplished teaching practices aligned to them.
What role do you see the National Board and National Board Certified teachers playing in influencing education policy and advancing education reform at the national and state level?
Because of the quality of National Board Certified teachers, their numbers, and the fact that they are in every content area, they are in a really strong position to help shape the future of the profession. We have an extensive archive of video examplars of accomplished teaching across the 25 content areas the National Board certifies. These are matched with reflective papers that show how accomplished practitioners think about teaching. These unique resources have much to contribute to the educator effectiveness movement, and they also can help principals and others who are observing and evaluating teachers, teachers looking to improve their instructional practices, and university-level instructors working in pre-service preparation programs. We need to make a more direct investment in pre-service programs by making this resource widely available to candidates and their colleges and universities that prepare them. It’s a powerful asset to use with the next generation of teachers.
When it comes to the evaluation of teachers, National Board Certified teachers can play a big role. We’re also involved in the training of principals, helping them get better at observations and evaluations of teachers and a better idea of what to look for when you go into a classroom, especially in middle and high school. Principals can’t possibly know everything they need to know about content in every academic area, but by using National Board videos and reflective papers, they can become more informed and effective.
How can the National Board and National Board Certified teachers use online tools and technology to spread best practices?
We’re currently working with the American Federation of Teachers to bring the British-based resource ShareMyLesson.com to teachers in the United States. AFT and its partners believe the way to start the process is to engage National Board Certified teachers in creating resources they can share online, vetting others resources and activating networks of teachers to do that. Professionals have a certain amount of autonomy—they can make informed decisions based on best practices—and the best way to get there is to have accomplished professionals leading that conversation.
You’re going to break the symbolic 100,000 mark for National Board Certified teachers shortly. What’s the significance of this milestone? And what’s the next big milestone you plan to tackle?
100,000 feels like a big milestone, and it is, but it’s not anywhere close to where we need to be. Only 2.5% of the workforce is currently National Board Certified—that can’t be enough to make a difference. A modern profession would have 60-90 percent of its practitioners accomplished. We know of an elementary school in Chicago where 70 percent of teachers are National Board Certified, and their 3rd grade reading scores have skyrocketed. My guess is that there is a tipping point somewhere between 35 to 70 percent. That kind of penetration would change the basic culture of teaching and learning, especially within a single school.
Even though we have only 2.5% of teachers National Board Certified, I know we have many more accomplished teachers in the profession today. We have a lot of work to do at the National Board and within the profession writ large to make it possible for more teachers to demonstrate their level of accomplishment through this peer-reviewed and performance-based process.
Aren’t states and districts cutting back on the stipends they provide candidates for National Board Certification? Won’t that make it more difficult to increase their number?
In the past, both state and district stipends have been the primary incentive for people to pursue Board certification. While this is a useful strategy, it isn’t the best one because it puts a greater stress on state budgets as more and more teachers become Board certified. In other words, states want to have the largest number of accomplished teachers possible, but this financial model works against that.
A better alternative is putting National Board certification into the existing salary schedules and using it as the inflection point when teachers get their biggest boost in salary. Right now most teacher contracts use the Master’s degree as that cause for advancement, but that might not be the best allocation of limited dollars. A recent study by the Center for American Progress shows that districts are spending $14 billion per year on the Master’s degree differential, and yet there’s little evidence that it helps improve student achievement. I believe teachers should have a Master’s degree before they enter the profession, the way it is in Finland, for example. Once they have acquired the appropriate content and pedagogical knowledge and experience to reach the accomplished level, then they should get a salary increase. It means that the money follows those who have demonstrated their effectiveness not just earned an advanced degree.