Last month, 49 Chicago public school teachers learned they had earned their profession’s top distinction.
“I woke up everybody in the house,” says Teresa Huggins, a teacher at Carroll-Rosenwald Elementary who had tried and failed twice before she earned National Board Certification on Nov. 20. “I began jumping-jumping for joy. It’s just beyond words.”
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a non-profit group based in Arlington, Va., offers the prestigious distinction to experienced teachers whose classroom practices measure up to rigorous standards in their specific teaching area.
Two years ago, CPS and local funders zeroed in on National Board Certification as a means to improve the quality of classroom instruction. They teamed up to mount an intense recruiting drive to increase the number of district teachers who meet these standards. A year ago, only 19 CPS teacher were nationally certified.
Although more CPS teachers have earned national certification this year than any other, the pass rate for 154 candidates was 32 percent, well below the national average of 50 percent.
“We’ve got a long way to go, but this is a great start,” says Sonya Choe Miller, acting president of the Chicago Public Education Fund, which has invested $1.3 million-half of all grant money it has awarded in the past two years-in recruiting and supporting National Board candidates. “This is about candidates improving their professional development. If it takes candidates one year, or two years, or three years to achieve, that’s fine.”
A centerpiece of the Fund’s National Board-related grants is a $20,000 award to schools where four or more teachers earn national certification. This year, seven schools have taken on the challenge. Six schools took the challenge last year, but none made it. Clissold Elementary in Morgan Park came closest-three teachers who applied achieved the honor.
None of the 11 teachers who applied from McCosh Elementary in Woodlawn-all first-time candidates-made the cut. In July, then-principal Barbara Eason Watkins, who has since been promoted to chief education officer, said her teachers received insufficient support in how to write their responses. “There was a certain type of writing for the responses that was expected for National Board,” she said. “There needs to be greater support for that earlier on.”
Miller says this year’s candidates have a better chance of succeeding on their first try. “Last year was the first year and we learned a great deal,” says Miller. “This year we are going to be providing better support to those school cohorts. We have more [experienced] mentors, which is key. Last year we had mentors who did not go through the process.”
Indeed, the candidate support program with the most experienced mentors produced better-than-average results. At the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center, 17 of 22 first-time candidates achieved, for a pass rate of 77 percent.
Teacher Jennifer Morrison of Jones Academic Magnet was among them. “From what I gather, my scores were pretty solid,” she says, including a top score on her essay and student work related to parent and community outreach. “I’m most pleased about that [and] just glad it’s over.”
Though Quest’s pass rate remains above the national average, in previous years, with fewer candidates, their rate topped 90 percent. “As far as percentages, we’re thrilled,” Lynn Cherkasky-Davis, who directs the Quest Center’s candidate support program. “Of course, we would have liked to have the other five [achieve on the first try], but they’ll be back. We’ve already analyzed their scores and know what areas we need to work on.”
Teachers who don’t earn National Board Certification on the first try are permitted to “bank” individual entries that met cut-off scores and retake those that did not. That’s what Lane Technical High science teacher Karen Jennings Lewis plans to do with her best scores, then try again. “Last year I had a lot on my plate-I was really trying to do too much,” she says. “I’m not giving up. It’s been too valuable a process for me.”
Huggins can vouch for the value of tenacity. On her second attempt for national certification, she missed by two points. She encourages teachers who missed the cut this year to keep trying.
“It’s not over,” Huggins offers. Failing to earn national certification “doesn’t mean you’re not a great teacher. It’s just that you need to fine-tune some of your skills [oftentimes] in writing, to convey what you’re doing in the classroom.”