Teachers value National Board certification, but Indiana lawmakers don't

For Carol Hofer, earning her National Board certification was an honor, and it also felt a bit like getting her spine wrenched back into place.

A specialist in teaching English as a new language, she said going through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards process to earn the certification, a challenging and rare credential awarded to applicants who must prove their teaching ranks among the best, gave her a chance to work out the kinks in her classroom.

“It was like someone going to a chiropractor when you think your back is out of whack,” said Hofer, who teaches at Washington Township’s Fox Hill Elementary School. “For me it was a whole realignment process because it really made me stop and be reflective, and I think that is something really important for those in the teaching profession to do.”

Hofer and others think the hard work is worth it and that more Indiana teachers should try for National Board certification. But the state is far behind the rest of the country for the number of teachers who earned the credential, and proponents of the program are frustrated by continuing doubts from politicians hesitant to put dollars into the program.

It just happened again: a push for the legislature to get behind the idea failed in 2015.

“It wasn’t part of the governor’s agenda, and that’s really sad,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “I think it could make a huge difference for the kids in our state who are struggling and the schools who are struggling.”

Hofer is one of just 168 teachers in Indiana who have earned National Board certification, ranking the state 43rd in the country. That’s a very small number for a program neighboring states have strongly embraced. There are 6,025 National Board certified teachers in Illinois, 3,338 in Ohio and 3,182 in Kentucky.

One of Indiana’s National Board certified teachers is a pretty big name: state Superintendent Glenda Ritz.

Ritz earned the credential as a Washington Township teacher in 2005, later served on the organization’s national board and has championed state support for more teachers to pursue National Board certification as the state’s top educator.

But Indiana, so far, has stopped short of the big step other states have taken to get more teachers interested: offering extra pay to those who earn the credential.

At the same time, Indiana policymakers and lawmakers are demanding educators step up the quality of their work, yet the state isn’t spending any money to persuade teachers to pursue National Board certification.

“They’re probably looking at it as, ‘this involves money,’” Hofer said. “Not ‘this is an investment.’”

In Marion County, Washington and Lawrence townships have the most board certified teachers, but the numbers are tiny — 11 and six teachers, respectively. Decatur Township followed with four, Wayne Township with three, Perry Township and Indianapolis Public Schools each with two and Pike Township with one.

According to the National Board’s directory of certified teachers, four Indianapolis school districts — Speedway, Beech Grove, Franklin Township and Warren Township — had no teachers who earned certification.

The low numbers led the Indiana State Teachers Association — the state’s largest teachers union — to back bills this year that would’ve paid teachers a $3,000 bonus for each year of the 10-year life of the certification and a promise that certified teachers would serve as leaders and mentors in their schools.

But the bills were never heard in the legislature.

In part that’s because House Education Committee Chairman Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, is a skeptic.

“There’s not a lot of conclusive data that (National Board certification) has a significant impact on moving student proficiency,” Behning said. “And so for that reason I chose not to hear it.”

Behning said he’d reconsider if advocates can prove to him with data that National Board certification makes a difference in teacher quality.

But Marion County educators argue the effort to earn National Board certification made them better teachers by helping them learn to better understand their students and carefully assess their own teaching and classroom work.

Legislators not interested

Behning and other Republican leaders said it was research that caused them to balk this year at House Bill 1332 and House Bill 1583, which would have put in place mentoring programs and salary bonuses for teachers who get National Board certified and encouraged districts to help foot the bill.

“This is something that really could change our students’ achievement,” Meredith said. “And (lawmakers) aren’t listening — or it sure feels that way.”

Two recent studies, one funded by National Board and carried out by a Virginia-based firm and the other out of the University of Washington, found students showed small test score gains, especially in math, when they were taught by National Board certified teachers.

Yet the studies also showed that teachers who earned the certification were of a higher quality than those who did not, even if the test scores of students weren’t hugely different.

Other findings were less clear — does National Board certification actually make teachers better at teaching, or do better teachers seek out the program? Researchers couldn’t definitively say the program improved instruction.

Still, teachers who have been through the program say they notice a difference.

Jessica Murphy, who was a teacher at the now-closed Harcourt Elementary School in Washington Township, said earning the credential required lots of writing and reflection about her own teaching, much of which had to be based on specific examples of student work. Now she can back up her teaching decisions with evidence, she said.

“I think it really forced me to become a more reflective teacher and to be very mindful of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it,” Murphy said.

Board certification sees more attention across the state
Ritz said she’s not going to wait for the Indiana General Assembly to move forward. She wants to push for more National Board certified teachers now.

Some districts across the state, most notably Brownsburg and Tippecanoe schools, are offering anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 per year extra to teachers who earn National Board certification on their own. But just 55 districts offer any compensation at all.

The department is planning to use federal funding for additional teacher training to help teachers become National Board certified.

“Next year if we still have it in our budget, I’m hoping to really leverage the National Board certified teachers to really take on the mentoring role of more National Board certified teachers, but also the mentoring role of young teachers,” Ritz said.

A challenging process

Hofer, the Washington Township teacher who likened her National Board experience to the chiropractor, was feeling a little restless in her work in 2009 when she first learned about the process.

She began “Take One,” a program that lets teachers complete part of the National Board certification without having to commit to earning the entire credential all at one time. She liked it and decided to continue on and seek full certification. Ritz, teaching in Washington Township at the time, mentored her through the process, offering writing tips, feedback and support when the work became stressful.

Indiana allows National Board certified teachers to qualify for a 10-year teaching license, along with teachers who get a master’s degree in their subject area.

“After you go through National Board certification you are totally renewed about what it is that you do as a teacher,” Ritz said. “National Board isn’t about saying you are the perfect teacher. It’s far from that … it’s all about how do you better student performance, how do you better student outcomes, and it’s about doing that for every child.”

For the first step, Hofer videotaped herself teaching a lesson. She watched herself and then wrote on a series of prompts designed to make her critique the way she teaches and ask why.

“First you notice superficial things,” Hofer said. “But then you start homing in on the things and, specifically, you start uncovering layer upon layer, and it makes you stop and think: ‘What am I doing? What are my students doing?’”

There’s lots of tough self-assessment over months or even years. The entire process can take 200 to 400 hours to complete. Some teachers compared it to getting a master’s degree, but it includes much more focus on practical teaching.

Without state or district financial support, even renewing the certification is a tough sell. Murphy and two teachers at Lawrence North High School — Dianne Schoff and Kyle Hocker — said that was a big part of why they wouldn’t be considering renewing their certifications.

“No one has contacted me,” said Hocker, a career and technical education teacher. “It’s not on my radar. I don’t know what it entails or how much it costs.”

Schoff, a math teacher, said when she began the work, board certification seemed more worthwhile than a master’s degree. Now, she’s not so sure. The effort that went into it the first time was almost overwhelming.

“I had two kids, and every night I would shut myself in my room and just work for hours,” Schoff said. “Every weekend was National Board.”

And  when there’s little return on your investment, Schoff said, it just doesn’t make sense to put in more work. There are a lot of teachers who don’t understand that National Board certification means a teacher has earned the highest marks for their skills, let alone administrators or lawmakers.

Until that changes, Schoff might just let her certification expire in 2015.

“I don’t know if I’d do it the same if I had to do it over,” she said. “I’m not one to live with regrets, but I do believe, long-term post-retirement, a master’s would do me more good. But I do believe now, in the classroom, National Board was more beneficial.”