Michael B. Poliakoff, Ph.D.—Walking the Walk of Excellence: American Board Certification for Teachers
White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teachers

The National Council on Teacher Quality is honored to be part of the White House Conference on Preparing Quality Teachers. Teacher excellence is the foundation for high-achieving schools and high-achieving students. It is gratifying when research and common sense tell us the same thing, and the importance of teachers is one of those instances. America is blessed with many wonderful teachers who work hard every day to help our children learn. We need more of them. The best thing we can do to increase the academic achievement of all of our students is to make sure that every one of the more than 3 million teachers in this nation is fully-qualified and fully-effective in the classroom.

The National Council—NCTQ—believes that the key policy levers for achieving teacher quality are demanding subject-area mastery, offering multiple pathways for qualified individuals to become teachers, and holding teachers accountable for results. We need to find and recruit the most promising candidates for our public school classrooms, get them on the job quickly and efficiently, and create effective incentives to encourage our best teachers to continue to serve in the nation's schools. Above all, we must seek rigorous documentation of increased student learning—the only objective measure of a teacher's success.

There has never been a more favorable time to improve the quality of the nation's teaching force. The landmark "No Child Left Behind Act of 2001" requires that all of America's teachers be highly qualified by school year 2005/06, signaling a paradigm shift in our thinking about how we get the teachers we need. The new law demands the result—qualified teachers—not the lengthy, traditional process of certification. Teachers don't have to have education degrees to be highly qualified, but they must know the subjects they teach. Thus, the Department of Education's draft Strategic Plan encourages states "to transform their teacher certification systems to strengthen subject mastery standards, while simultaneously removing bureaucratic barriers."

America needs qualified teachers in the classroom, and fast. We need to reinvent our teacher credentialing systems so we can get them there, especially teachers who want to serve in urban schools or teach hard-to-fill subject areas. Consider the case of State Representative Guy Ontai of Hawaii. With a Master's degree in physics from MIT and teaching experience from West Point, he once considered teaching in the Hawaii public school system. But the financial costs of meeting the state-mandated course requirements for certification were too high for this mid-career professional with a family. No public school could hire him without certification, so he chose a career teaching in private school. Now, elected to the legislature, he is at work developing an alternative certification system for his state. The scenario of qualified candidates unable to enter public schools has played out over and over again in many other states, causing incalculable harm to our children. At the beginning of every year many superintendents, especially in urban districts, must scramble to place emergency hires into the classroom—sometimes even substitutes who have not completed college degrees. How much better it would be to have a robust supply of highly qualified teachers available for the classroom. It is time to remove regulatory barriers that block their way.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, in partnership with the Education Leaders Council, created the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence to provide an important new tool to identify and credential highly qualified teachers. One part of the program is devoted to efficient and streamlined recruiting, screening, and certification of talented new teachers, with a level of quality assurance that will give states and schools confidence in the new teachers that come to them. The second part of the program focuses on identifying and honoring the master teachers who can serve as mentors and models for other teachers.

The Passport Program for Beginning Teachers

The American Board's program for new teachers is called the Passport Program. It will provide beginning teachers with a portable, nationally recognized credential that attests to their mastery of the subjects they intend to teach and their understanding of the basic skills needed to be an effective teacher. It is our intention to create a network of new teachers, differing widely in the paths that brought them to the classroom, but united by their impeccably high achievement in the subjects they wish to teach. The core of the Passport Program is rigorous subject-area testing. By comparison, the teacher licensure tests now in use in the different states are minimal competence examinations at best that do not probe subject-area mastery. As the Education Trust pointed out in its 1999 report, "Not Good Enough," the questions these exams pose to prospective teachers are high school level or below, and the qualifying scores that states set for passing the exams allow candidates to miss a remarkably large number of these questions. Such tests do not ensure that future teachers will be up to the academic challenges of the classroom, especially as states implement new and higher academic standards for K-12 students.

ABCTE is taking a different path. The tests we are now designing will be college-level tests, and they will report not just a pass/fail result, but scaled scores. The schools that consider ABCTE-certified candidates will know whether the future teacher passed with an acceptable score or passed with an excellent score. Test results will also report the candidate's performance in specific sub-areas of the discipline she or he will teach. Does the school need a math teacher who is fully proficient in trigonometry and calculus? ABCTE believes that teacher test scores should provide detailed evidence of the candidate's performance in the areas the new teacher will be called upon to teach. The Passport credential will be especially useful to schools and districts interested in opening public school classrooms to career changers (like those in Troops to Teachers) and talented new college graduates (like those in Teach for America).

But while being very rigorous in demanding evidence of academic subject area skills, we resist the presumption that completing a particular set of education courses or being familiar with a particular set of education theories is the key to classroom success. We will test for basic competence in handling classroom dynamics and knowledge of school procedures, and then allow new teachers to get the training that professionals agree matters most—on-the-job training. All new teachers, however they enter the profession, benefit from mentoring and induction. ABCTE will get promising candidates to that

The Master Teacher Program

In identifying master teachers, ABCTE's program will rest upon the two pillars of teacher excellence: outstanding knowledge of the subject he or she teaches and proven ability to impart skills and knowledge to students. The system we are designing requires clear evidence of both.

We will test candidates for their subject-area expertise, because a reliable signpost for a teacher's success is his or her own academic achievement. It is the first pillar of teacher excellence. Research shows us that teachers who have distinguished themselves by traditional measures of academic ability, such as college admissions tests, graduation from demanding academic programs, and high performance on tests of verbal ability, have a strong positive impact on student achievement. Analysis of student learning gains in mathematics confirms what our common sense tells us: students learn more from teachers who know their subject. As ABCTE designs the test for mathematics teachers, we are holding to the reasonable inference that the teacher who will be the model of excellence, the master teacher, must know mathematics ... cold. Thousands of students each year in this nation take the demanding AP examinations. They need teachers who can help them reach their goals. The credential we offer for master teachers should serve to encourage scholar-teachers who will be models for their students and models for their colleagues.

Are there other attributes of great teachers? Of course. Among other strengths, great teachers help all students, of differing needs and ability, achieve. For ABCTE, the second pillar of teaching excellence is results—the teacher's success in helping students learn.

ABCTE will not attempt to judge teachers' style or the methods they use to help students learn or how they define their art as teachers. Controversies about effective pedagogy have raged for decades and are likely to continue. I am reminded of the vision of the eminent educator Jacques Barzun, who likened the debate over teaching methods to the fantasy of Lewis Carroll: "Like the jurymen in Alice in Wonderland, the parents, the children in high schools, the men and women in colleges, are bewildered by claims and counterclaims ... Inside the academic precincts, plans, curriculums, and methods whirl by with newsreel speed." Barzun did not exaggerate. But this will not be ABCTE's course. We will be guided, as we are in the Passport Program, by humility about what we can't judge. Peer review can only tell us what the prevailing wisdom of educational theory decrees. Today's dogmas may be revealed as tomorrow's errors. ABCTE will therefore assess teacher skill by the only truly reliable measure: the extent to which he or she adds value and increases learning.

Both the National Council and the Education Leaders Council are deeply committed to accountability in education, and we have already commissioned a feasibility study of a proposed system to evaluate the relationship between ABCTE certification and student achievement, that is, whether teachers who receive ABCTE credentials are the ones who most significantly boost student learning. It is our duty to the American citizens who have funded this first phase of our project to assess energetically our contribution to the progress of our schoolchildren. The American Board will also make itself a laboratory for research on the relationship between teachers' content-area skills and their students' learning gains. Starting with its very first cohort of test takers—which is scheduled for 2003—ABCTE will begin to gather data to benchmark how well its tests predict teachers' effectiveness. One of ABCTE's contributions to the education knowledge base will be a major study of resources and techniques for using student learning gains to evaluate teachers. Where we have annual student test data, we will analyze it; where we don't, we will seek other objective, external assessments to establish the teacher's impact on student achievement.

By the fall of 2003, the American Board expects to certify both beginning and master teachers in three key subject areas: elementary education, mathematics, and English. But our goal goes beyond providing a new and more rigorous set of assessments, as important as that is. ABCTE hopes to contribute to a new culture of teacher excellence. Our focus on student achievement as the sign of successful teaching will encourage teachers to make that a key measure of their professional accomplishment. We envision a continuum that begins with subject-area expertise and a strong performance on the Passport Exam, and culminates in master teacher certification based on continued academic excellence and a history of bringing about the result that matters—student success. Within America's immediate reach is a bright day for school children, when classroom doors are opened to a new stream of teachers who have proven they know their stuff, when the barriers of senseless regulation are down, and qualified teachers are there for every child. The National Council on Teacher Quality and the Education Leaders Council are grateful for the opportunity to serve our nation's schools through our new program.

Barbara Kelley "" Presentations Index "" Arthur Moore

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Last Modified: 08/23/2003