Thursday, August 27, 2009

Teach for America vs. National Board Certification

If pressed to name my ultimate professional passion and goal—the thing I was put on earth to do—it might be something like “elevate the ideas and voices of excellent teachers.” Like many people in America, I think we can do a vastly better job of educating all our kids, across the socio-economic spectrum. We’re not going to get far with that goal until we upgrade our teaching force, however—skilled and dedicated boots on the ground.

I have written about the experience of snooping through some internal TFA listserv messages about Linda Darling-Hammond and her prospective role in the Obama administration, before Arne Duncan was selected. That conversation was far more intelligent and even-handed than most education writers’ TFA-Defense pieces, like this little gem, wherein Richard Whitmire claims that TFA corps members single-handedly thwarted the Darling-Hammond Secretarial bid, from their current "high-powered" positions.

It is possible to respect and admire both the Teach for America premise and TFA teachers and alums, without believing that TFA teachers somehow have special, magical insights into how to “fix” American schools, whatever that means. Whitmire asserts that there are now 14,400 TFA alums out there making a difference, changing the world, wielding the power and so on—all on the basis of their brief, but well-documented, sojourns as barely trained educational missionaries in their own land.

Here’s another way to consider this. There are currently about 74,000 National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) in the United States. Their practice has been rigorously vetted and evaluated, with most of them having to go through two or more annual rounds of submitting valid (in the standard psychometric definition) evidence of standards-based teaching and high-level student learning. They have at least four years of experience by the time they’re selected—but most of them have a great deal more. NBCTs voluntarily spend 200-400 hours meticulously developing a portfolio of their work over time, to be adjudicated by assessors who don’t know them, and to whom they cannot make excuses. And then they sit for six on-demand content exams. They work in all kinds of schools, in every state in the union, facing a broad range of circumstances, problems and student needs.

National Board Certification may not be perfect, but it’s as reliable a benchmark as exists, right now, for identifying strong and efficacious teaching. Whether they certify or not, National Board candidates overwhelmingly say the process reveals new insights into effective practice.

And—this is the foundation for my argument—nobody would pursue National Board Certification unless they were absolutely committed to a long-term career in teaching and education reform.
So—why aren’t we asking National Board Certified Teachers what they think about key policy issues? Shouldn’t we be asking for input from a pool of solid practitioners, who have demonstrated a personal willingness to be publicly accountable? What kind of pundit honors the views of two-year field medics over those of veteran physicians with long records of success and innovative practice? It’s a good question.

It might have something to do with the fact that teaching is a huge occupational cluster that has not developed a compelling national vision of its own professionalism. This is in distinct contrast to teachers’ professional behaviors and responsibilities in other, high-achieving nations. The National Board standards were supposed to help with that, but the general public—and a fair number of high-profile researchers, in fact—don’t understand the conceptual framework, intellectual tools or process of national certification for teachers.

Full disclosure: I worked with nine other NBCTs in developing a comprehensive policy brief ("Measuring What Matters: The Effects of National Board Certification on Advancing 21st Century Teaching and Learning"), analyzing current research on National Board Certification—and we were dismayed by the lack of impact NBCTs have had on policy creation, and how quick analysts were to attach national teacher certification to teacher union issues, once again lumping all three million teachers into the category of skilled technical workers rather than creative professionals. Whitmire positions TFA teachers as “not beholden to the system”—as if all other teachers were, in fact, part of an amorphous, not-well-hidden agreement to accept the status quo. This is an unsubstantiated but convenient argument, but making it is counterproductive to the (reachable) goal of getting an effective teacher in every classroom, especially in high needs schools.

Then there is the unattractive fact that, according to Dan Lortie in the new edition of his classic Schoolteacher,
"Teaching has attracted many persons who have undergone the uncertainties and deprivations of lower- and working-class life. It has provided a significant step up the social class ladder for many Americans."
It would be unbecoming for academics, policy-creators and opinion leaders to say, hey—why would we listen to low-rent scholars who went to fourth-tier state universities and don’t aspire to anything more prestigious than teaching? So they don’t. Instead, they suggest that it makes sense to endorse the winners of a best-and-brightest competition to obtain a two-year starter job in education. Many TFA recruits become competent, even highly capable, teachers. I want to hear what they have to say about educational change. But theirs is a very limited perspective.

Listening to long-term exemplary teachers would represent a fundamental shift in the way we think about transforming American schools. Power to the teachers, right on.

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