Guest Column

Why We Invest in Board-Certified Teachers

by Michael N. Riley

I first learned about national board certification for teachers not from a journal, a website or a workshop but from a teacher — and soon thereafter from many teachers — and that has made all the difference.

Shelly Ward became the first National Board Certified Teacher in Bellevue, Wash., in 2000, and the experience forged her into an assertive and convincing advocate. She made certain our professional community understood the philosophy and values as well as the requirements of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She dragged me and others to statewide events where certified teachers testified — with all its religious connotations, this is the appropriate word — and explained how our school district could both inspire and support teachers in the quest for certification.

Today, with a teaching corps of approximately 1,100, some 128 Bellevue teachers have earned certification. Fifty more just completed the process and will get their results in November. Another 100 have signed on to be members of next year’s class. Each one of our schools has at least one certified teacher, many have more than five. We lead the state in the number of certified teachers with nearly three times as many as the district with the next highest total.

No doubt about it: Bellevue values national board certification.

Tangible Rewards
With fewer than 2 percent of the teachers in the nation having earned certification, anyone who achieves the distinction has a right to feel “accomplished,” as the National Board likes to say. Further, states and districts are providing certified teachers with annual bonuses — Washington recently increased its allocation to $5,000 — and other professional perks that are enticing, especially in a profession that rarely offers tangible rewards.

Despite the advantages that come with certification, teachers throughout the nation are not rushing to sign up, probably because the process is both expensive and arduous. Candidates pay $2,565 for the privilege of doing the work equivalent to earning a master’s degree and must complete the requirements within one year while typically holding down a full-time teaching job. No surprise that the national pass rate for first-timers is roughly 40 percent.

With substantial support from the Bellevue Schools Foundation, our teachers pay no fees; are provided with coaches from among their colleagues who have successfully completed the process and use firsthand experience to guide the candidates; receive videotaping services from the district’s videographers; and take advantage of release time and supplemental salaried workdays to complete their assignments.

Transformed Pros
Whether you view this from the institution’s perspective or from that of an individual teacher, you have to ask, “Why bother?” For us, there are two main reasons.

First and foremost, the answer lies in the impact the process has on teachers. When newly certified teachers speak about the process, I am reminded of people who experience a religious conversion. They talk about “transformation,” about seeing the profession, their classroom and their role in a different light. Armed with what they feel is a much deeper understanding about teaching and learning, they tout a newfound excitement for their work and the inspiration to learn and do more.

Their most commonly expressed themes include these.
• A focus on making learning objectives much clearer and more specific.
• A commitment to the learning of all kids and an accompanying and complementary willingness to measure effectiveness of instruction and the instructor by the success of each and every student.
• A deeper understanding and more frequent use of formative assessment.
• A practice of modifying instruction anytime, even in the heart of a lesson, driven by the understanding and performance of the students.

And perhaps most importantly, certified teachers make a habit of consistently and deeply reflecting on their work using these four themes.

Said more simply, I believe teachers who go through this process demonstrate impressive levels of expertise in analyzing the cause-and-effect relationships in teaching and learning. They are comfortable identifying weaknesses in their plan and delivery, and they are quick to modify both their thinking and their approaches as needed.

Higher Capacity
A second reason to support national board certification is that this support and the beliefs that underlie it send a message about human capacity, about high expectations, about the ability of all people to achieve great levels of accomplishment if given the right support.

In our school district, we believe all students should receive a top-of-the-line college preparatory curriculum, and we have made a corresponding commitment to helping all of our kids become Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate students. We have not hit our target yet, but after years of effort, we’re close: 85 percent of our graduates take one or more AP or IB courses; 50 percent take four or more. If all kids can become AP/IB students, shouldn’t we assume that all teachers have the capacity to earn national certification?

Mike Riley is superintendent of the Bellevue School District 405, P.O. Box 90010, Bellevue, WA 98009. E-mail: