Ranks of certified teachers growing

Pasco adds 26 National Board certified teachers, who say the time spent is worth it.

Published February 4, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - Rick Sanders digs a challenge.

"I'm one of those achiever types," says Sanders, an art teacher at Wesley Chapel Elementary School. "As a Boy Scout, I was always after the next merit badge."

As a teacher - even after 22 years - he couldn't pass up the opportunity to pursue national certification, a rigorous process that fewer than 5 percent of U.S. educators have completed successfully.

"Yes, I was interested in the extra pay. Teachers generally are," says Sanders, a 48-year-old Riverview resident who gained the certification this year. "But the respect that you get among your peers for being National Board certified, that's kind of nice, too."

A growing number of Florida teachers have headed down the same path - 1,513 achieved the goal this year.

Pasco County added 26 National Board teachers including Sanders to its ranks, bringing its contingent to 115. The Hillsborough County district had the sixth most newly certified teachers in the country, with 126 this year, and Pinellas County logged in 14th with 60.

All told, the state now has 9,238 teachers certified through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. That's second only to North Carolina.

In some quarters, this is a good thing. Anything to bring the level of professionalism up among teachers, says Tricia Coulter, director of the Education Commission of the States Teaching Quality and Leadership Institute.

But especially in Tallahassee, some are questioning whether the bonuses the government pays nationally certified teachers - as much as $8,300 each, reaching $59-million for this school year - are worth it. Even the proponents note that research is mixed as to whether having National Board certification translates into improved student performance.

And that's a key question in the minds of many lawmakers as they focus on new ways to pay teachers.

"When we develop an overall performance pay strategy ... it is possible that achievement of those levels of extra training may be a component or may add a factor or a weight in determining performance pay or differential pay, as opposed to saying that earns extra pay in and of itself," said Rep. Joe Pickens, chairman of the House Schools and Learning Council.

Senator wants salary based on results

Sen. Stephen Wise, chairman of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee, said he considered National Board certified teachers among the "best and brightest," something Florida needs more of in the teaching ranks. Still, he, too, agreed that the state needs to shift its salary criteria away from inputs such as degrees and certifications and into outcomes.

"You put your money on the horses on the track, not in the stables," Wise said. "I have my doctorate, and I've always said, it doesn't make me smarter. It means I endured longer."

The State Board of Education has the issue in its sights, too, asking lawmakers to set a performance requirement for National Board certified teachers to claim the mentoring bonus.

National Board chief executive Joe Aguerreberre Jr. acknowledges the question looming above the certification: "Is it worth it?"

While nodding to the mixed research, he defends the philosophy behind, and the results of, the national certification movement. He considers it a high-level goal for all teachers to attain, much more valuable than the federal requirement for highly qualified teachers, which he suggests really ought to be called "acceptably qualified" teachers because of its minimal standards.

"You don't hear anyone saying we should do away with board certification of doctors because we still have people dying in hospitals," Aguerreberre said. "I don't think we should think that way about teachers. This is an effort to raise the bar for teachers."

By that, he means that teachers who go through the 400-hour effort, which includes tests and lesson modeling, focus on the research and the best practices of teaching. They become more introspective into how they deal with children and how to effectively convey information.

"A lot of these teachers feel for the first time that the complexities of what it means to be a professional teacher is finally recognized," Aguerreberre said.

That's how Sanders looks at it.

"It's made me more critical of my role as a teacher and how I interact with the students," he said. "Everything I used to do normally I look at more critically now."

He deals with students individually at their seats more frequently, as on a recent day when he circulated advice on how to create the Van Gogh post-impressionist effect with markers and pastels.

"I'm certainly more patient, more understanding," Sanders added.

Certification helped teacher reconnect

Chris Gorman, a Wesley Chapel Elementary physical education instructor, said his becoming Pasco County's first elementary-level P.E. teacher to gain National Board certification refreshed him after 14 years on the job.

"It made you focus on the different strategies you use for teaching," said Gorman, a 37-year-old Wesley Chapel resident. "It kind of puts you on a higher level because you've gone that extra step."

By reconnecting with his studies on how the human body functions, Gorman came up with the simple but kid-friendly idea of getting elastic exercise bands and putting them at different stations with cards that tell about how the muscles work. Students laughed and challenged one another to accomplish the tests on a recent chilly morning.

"It just made you more aware of the elements that make up a good program," Gorman said, adding that all the studying prompted him to pursue a master's degree at the University of South Florida.

Wesley Chapel Elementary principal Cindy Harper likes having nationally certified teachers on her staff. She has five and would happily take more.

"It says to me that they are extremely dedicated," Harper said. "I think that spreads. It also gives us mentors, excellent mentors, for our young teachers and people transferring from out of state, which is constant."

Sanders took three years to complete his certification. The hardest part was proving his students were learning from his lessons. There's no art FCAT, after all.

"But that's the whole problem they're grappling with in Tallahassee," he said. "It's an issue that needs to be resolved."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614.

Fast Facts:


On the Web

Want to keep on top of education news from the Tampa Bay area and the state? Check out our new education blog, the Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.