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Teaching for the Test

Publication Date: 2008-02-17

Washington Post
Feb. 17, 2008

How hard could it be for a top teacher at an elite high school to win the coveted National Board certification? You'd be surprised. He sure was. You may not be so surprised to see how biased National Board scoring is. Emmet's conclusion shows his real teacherliness: on a more fundamental level, I wonder if I really want to be a member of a club that doesn't get the canoe. For all their rigor, the National Board certification seems to flunk on the essence of teaching.

ANDREW STIRRED THE GLOWING COALS PILED IN THE BASE OF THE DUGOUT CANOE, reflected flames glinting off his glasses. Nearby, Christina worked diligently, packing mud from a bucket onto the interior walls so that the fire wouldn't burn through them as it deepened the trough at the bottom.

"Craig, we need some more mud," she called to one of her classmates, who set down the oyster shell he had been sharpening on a whetstone and walked 20 yards to the banks of the Potomac to fetch another bucketful of river clay.

I surveyed the scene and couldn't help but smile. Far from our classroom and the computers of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, my students and I were engaged in a different kind of learning. On an overnight campout last spring at the historic Mount Vernon estate, we were using age-old technology to turn a three-ton tulip poplar log into a traditional Native American dugout canoe similar to ones that had plied this river centuries ago.

For me, as an English teacher at one of the nation's top high schools and a former Outward Bound instructor, building the canoe with 10th-graders who were more comfortable using a graphing calculator than an ax seemed like a perfect way to combine hands-on learning with our humanities curriculum. The yearlong project, undertaken in collaboration with three other teachers and the help of a local boat-building group, became the centerpiece of our course.

My own year, however, was also marked by another all-consuming project. Over the months that the canoe was taking form, I was pursuing an advanced professional certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The process was demanding, requiring hundreds of hours of work and challenging me to think about my teaching in ways I never had before. If I succeeded in getting certified, I would be among fewer than 2 percent of educators nationwide to have reached the highest level of the profession.

That night at Mount Vernon, as the scent of blueberry cobbler wafted from a Dutch oven banked in coals smoldering in the canoe, the National Board was far from my mind. But for days and weeks after the smoky memory faded, the stakes weighed heavily, as they had since I had started the process nearly a year before. No longer was the goal of my teaching just to challenge and engage my students; I now had to quantify exactly what they had learned through the experience for the strangers who would be tallying my score at the end of the process. I would need to ask myself tough questions: How is this boat a lens to the past? What precisely do I want my students to get out of the project?

I BECAME INTERESTED IN NATIONAL BOARD CERTIFICATION FOR A SIMPLE REASON: THE MONEY. Fairfax County and the state of Virginia would pay me bonuses worth around $60,000 over 10 years if I could show them I was a top teacher. I thought the process might also offer an objective answer to a nagging question: How did I measure up compared with my peers?

During my 14 years in the classroom, I had answered that to some degree. After all, I'd not only landed a job at the vaunted TJ, the governor's magnet school for science and technology in Alexandria, but I also won a grant my first year there for $10,000 that paid to build the canoe. Before joining the faculty at "High-Tech High" in 2005, I'd taught everything from advanced International Baccalaureate to English as a second language. Along the way, I managed to earn a master's degree in teaching, and I taught other teachers as my career progressed. Earning National Board certification would prove decisively that I knew my stuff.

The credential was supposed to be a divining rod for good teachers. Little known to the lay public but a Holy Grail of sorts among growing numbers of educators, National Board certification was born in the mid-1980s as the antidote to the crisis in education proclaimed by the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" from the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Today there are more than 64,000 National Board-certified teachers nationwide. The growth has not been uniform: As of last year, Virginia had 1,434; North Carolina, which offers hefty career raises for certified educators, boasted 12,770 (nearly 14 percent of its teachers).

Getting certified is no slam-dunk. This year, thousands of classroom veterans will undertake the rigorous self-reflective process, but only four out of 10 will make the cut. The six who fail may try again for up to two more years, and eventually two of them will succeed. (Certification is valid for 10 years and can be renewed. The renewal process is less cruel, and nine out of 10 candidates win renewal.)

In a review of the program's requirements offered by Fairfax County Public Schools, I learned that the yearlong process would include samples of my teaching in a portfolio and a test in my subject area. How hard could it be? I asked myself. But the devil was in the details -- more than 200 pages of them, filling a chunky three-ring binder that I came to call "the Bible."

There are at least 25 certificates offered by the National Board, each with its own tailored benchmarks. My certificate area was early adolescence/English language arts; the 16 standards I had to meet ranged from "Knowledge of Students" to "Family Outreach," and I was required to show I met them, in part, through four portfolio entries. Each entry was designed to highlight an aspect of teaching. The first was "Analysis of Student Growth in Reading and Writing." It, like the other entries, was accompanied by a Byzantine set of instructions, but the bottom line was that I had to pick two students and show through their work how I had helped them learn during two assignments. Entries two and three asked me to tape lessons: once while conducting a full class discussion and another while the kids were working in small groups. For one, the media specialist filmed me when I was in the library helping students learn how to search science databases. For the other, my teaching partner ran the camera while our sophomores brainstormed ideas for a book project.

"Documented Accomplishments" was the title of the final entry. I had to show what I was doing above and beyond the classroom work, such as collaborating with colleagues and connecting with parents. To the National Board, this requirement was more than extra credit. I had to answer the same bottom-line question about my out-of-school work as I did about the taped lessons: How does this contribute to student achievement? I settled on three big accomplishments that I figured covered all the bases: my freelance writing about education; teaching courses for teachers as an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University; and the canoe project.

ON THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL IN THE FALL OF 2006, I looked out at the crop of newly minted 10th-graders crammed into their wooden desks.

"Do you think they're ready for the quiz, Ms. Bain?" I deadpanned.

"Sure," replied my partner, Jen Bain, a history teacher with whom I shared this class of 50 kids. The students' nervous smiles froze as we walked around the room, distributing quiz papers.

"What's 'Wood, Water & Stone?'" asked one boy, picking up his quiz.

That was when we explained that, in addition to covering the normal humanities curriculum of history and literature from 1500 to the present, we were going to build a dugout canoe. "Wood, Water & Stone" was the title of the project, in which we promised to give our students a boat's-eye view of history, technology and culture.

The room grew silent as the students started in on the questions: List three Native American tribes of Virginia. Who was Walter Plecker? If a tree falls in the forest (circa 1500 and felled by an Indian), how is it taken down?

No one did too well, of course, which was the point. In a school year marked by the regional observance of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, North America's "first" settlement, none of our students knew about the people who had lived here for centuries before the European colonists arrived. To be honest, their teachers didn't know much, either.

Together, we learned as we went. We discovered that there are eight recognized groups of Native Americans in Virginia, but the reason most of us only vaguely recognize tribe names such as Pamunkey or Mattaponi is that Walter Plecker, Virginia's state registrar from 1912 to the mid-1940s, had essentially wiped them from the census by vigorously applying to Native Americans the "one-drop rule" originally designed to deny voting rights to blacks. One drop of Indian blood, and you didn't exist.

To kick off the canoe project, we invited an expert in primitive technology, who strode through the halls clad in Davy Crockett buckskins. After he made fire in the school courtyard four different ways without a match, one student wrote in her canoe notebook, "Maybe Native American technology wasn't so primitive after all." Over the course of the school year, a scientist from a government lab would show how an analysis of a slab from our log revealed the weather patterns in Warrenton since 1891, and the students made a Web site to document the construction process and our classroom work. We also learned that fire and mud can be just as effective as an iron ax blade when working with wood.

The lessons were fun, but, knowing I was going to write about them for the National Board, I continually racked my brain for ways to go deeper. At the same time, I struggled to capture classroom lightning in a bottle, or at least on videotape. There were moments when I knew that trying to meet the board's standards pushed me to new heights as a teacher.

One of those times was when we compared James Michener's Chesapeake with N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain. These books weren't usually a part of our humanities curriculum, but I figured kids building a Native American boat should read novels about Indians. Pulitzer-winner Momaday's 1969 work relates the historical and mythical past of his Plains forebears, the Kiowa.

The portfolio entry I was working on at the time required me to film my students working in small groups. The day I taped, kids were discussing an assignment asking them to compare the worldviews of Michener and Momaday by creating 3-D models based on the structure of each work. (Remember, these kids are future rocket scientists.) One group of girls made a three-tiered fountain to represent the three sections of Momaday's story, trying to show how the natural world ran through the book.

My required 11-page analysis forced me to review carefully not only what I'd done along the way, but why. "My goals were to cross disciplinary boundaries by bringing the canoe into the classroom," I wrote, "and to challenge students to appreciate cultural diversity beyond their own community."

On the day the projects were due, the girls brought in a beautiful fountain with water dribbling over polished rocks, writing that "Momaday has a worldview which is very focused on oral traditions and the Kiowa Indians . . . He needed to have a writing style that was less linear than a traditional Western-styled novel . . . [This] style allows him to flow through the story without having a distinct set plot or to emphasize the aspect of characters . . . In giving out his story, he cautions the reader that the medium of his book should be different -- it should be spoken, as it was spoken to him."

I asked myself how much I was shaping my teaching around the certification process. If the videotape hadn't been rolling, would I have challenged my
students with abstract assignments or walked around the room instead of standing up front? You bet. But would I have studied that video over and over and then written a 4,000-word analysis?

No way.

WHILE THE SELF-REFLECTION REQUIRED BY THE NATIONAL BOARD gave my lessons a boost, the blog I was writing about the certification process for Teacher Magazine became a safe place to think about them away from the National Board's constraints. The blog --which I called Certifiable?-- helped me determine how the canoe fit into my classroom plans and explore new technologies such as wikis that might help my students learn. Most of all, my blog became a virtual water cooler for colleagues from around the country who were struggling, just like me, to eat this elephant.

When I wrote about feeling behind schedule, a reader named Beth from Virginia Beach commented, "We had our first [support class] meeting yesterday, and I'm pleased to hear that you all are at about the same point that we are." She added, "[Someone] at our meeting also gave Marybeth's suggestion that we post the standards around our computers, so I'm definitely going to do that!" Marybeth, already certified, was a regular visitor to the blog who gave helpful tips throughout the year.

Comments came not only from wannabes and alreadys, but also from teachers who hadn't passed certification. Consider Charlene O'Brien, a teacher of gifted third-graders at Annandale Terrace Elementary School. I first heard of Charlene from one of her colleagues, who was taking a graduate course I taught last summer to help educators write for publication. Later, Charlene became a regular visitor to my blog. When her Northern Virginia school decided to set up a gifted and talented program four years ago, the principal tapped Charlene, a 17-year veteran recognized by the Northern Virginia Council for Gifted Education as one of Fairfax County's best. During the 2005-2006 school year, Charlene attempted National Board certification. Her score missed the cutoff by 24 points. Undaunted, she tried again during the 2006-2007 school year and was hopeful that she passed.

"I'm very glad I did it," she told me, without a trace of bitterness. "I intuitively know I'm a strong teacher, but this makes me prove it."

BY MAY, OUR CANOE WAS READY TO LAUNCH. Looking at the finished product, I found it hard to believe that this was the same stubborn log we'd started with so many months before. During field trips throughout the year, we'd removed the bark with adzes, rough-shaped the log using crosscut saws and hollowed it out with fire and oyster shells. Now, 100 kids wearing T-shirts designed by a classmate for the occasion stood beside an impressive 17-foot canoe the color of honey.

Seeing it slide down a soaped ramp into the Potomac was one of the proudest moments of my teaching career. With a rescue boat bobbing offshore and local TV news cameras on the bank capturing the action, we loaded pairs of kids into the tippy but watertight craft and shoved them away from the bank to paddle a ceremonial 100-yard loop.

A week later, it was time for the final step in the National Board process, as well. My portfolio, every paper clip in place, had been mailed off. Now I had to take a four-hour computerized essay test that would show the depth of my knowledge about teaching high school English. As I headed out my front door, a flash of color caught my eye. A bird's nest in a hanging planter on our porch had three chicks in it; my wife and I had been watching it with our two sons since before the eggs hatched. Just as I was leaving, two of the chicks flew out into the great big world right before our eyes.

"You can do it!" called my wife, as I pulled away from the curb.

A month later, when school was out for the summer, I watched a few of my students talk knowledgeably to tourists at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall, where the canoe sat next to a re-creation of John Smith's shallop. It hit me how much these high-tech kids had learned from building a low-tech boat.

Later that afternoon, a man with a jet-black braid and copper features came by to check out the canoe. "What are you gonna do with that?" he asked, pointing with his chin at the 400-pound boat.

"Maybe make a planter," I joked.

"Can I have it?" he asked. "There's this school, see . . ."

I was talking to Ben Adams, a tribal leader of the Upper Mattaponi of Virginia. He wanted the canoe for the Sharon Indian School in King William County, once a segregated one-room school for Indians until it closed in 1965, and today a historic landmark where Native American kids learn about their past.

Finding a home for the canoe was the perfect ending to this chapter in my teaching career. Translating the magic into some sort of cut-and-dried measure of "student achievement" had always seemed awkward, but at least the portfolio offered a format that let me try.

I like the notion that the National Board evaluation is based on more than standardized test scores, which have come to mean so much in public education. At the same time, I find it ironic that the bottom line for me and the other candidates is itself a test score: 275 is the make-or-break mark. According to the National Board's scoring guide, each portfolio entry and computer center essay is scored on a four-point scale and then converted with a weighted formula. The entries ultimately count for 60 percent of the credit, and the computer center essays make up 40 percent of the overall score.

I could argue that boiling down a year's worth of work to one number is arbitrary, but I agree with the National Board's idea that there has to be a way to identify what the best teachers do that the rest don't. From there, it's a short leap to what should be a no-brainer, but is actually one of education's thorniest issues: rewarding the best. A vocal advocate of merit pay is Nancy Flanagan, a
retired music teacher from Michigan with more than 30 years in the classroom who was recognized as that state's top teacher in 1993.

I grabbed lunch with Nancy last summer when she was in Washington for a conference sponsored by the National Board. Flush from rubbing shoulders with several hundred like-minded educators, Nancy was bullish on the board (certified herself in '98, she works with the group in an advisory capacity today).

Teaching is still an undervalued profession, Nancy pointed out, and despite the klieg-light glare of No Child Left Behind, only now are teachers elbowing their way to the education policy table, in part because the profile of the profession has been raised by board-minted leaders. I asked Nancy about good teachers such as Charlene O'Brien who miss the mark.

"We don't teach people how to become" National Board-certified teachers, she replied. "They make themselves." Scoring is not a checklist that identifies elements that are missing, she went on. The board seeks "clear, consistent and convincing" evidence of accomplished practice and student learning. At the end of the day, she concludes, "it's the best we have. Without it, we're back to [standardized] test scores."

AS THIS FALL ROLLED AROUND, MY OWN SCORE WAS THE ONLY ONE I CARED ABOUT. After months of excruciating labor, would I make the cut? The numbers were to be released the Friday before Thanksgiving.

I logged on to the National Board Web site at 5 that morning, to be greeted with a pop-up that asked me to check back later, the online equivalent of a busy signal. Finally, during fifth period at school, I made it through. I was sitting at my desk in the corner of the large double room I shared with Jen Bain. She was presenting a history lesson that held the kids' attention. I'm glad no one was watching me the moment I clicked open the scores. I'm pretty sure I looked as if I'd just been punched in the stomach.


I had missed the passing score by 10 points.

The classroom reeled around me. I skimmed through the report, hoping to spot some kind of mistake. There were the scores on the timed essays I'd written at the computer center in June . . . the essay on literary analysis got 4.0, the highest score . . . here were the portfolio marks . . . 3.125 for the Momaday lesson . . . and then I saw it.

Documented Accomplishments -- 1.0.

The entry about the blog that had energized my teaching, and the canoe project that had in many ways defined it, earned a single point on the four-point scale. According to the scoring guide, that meant there was "little or no evidence of student achievement."

I staggered through the rest of the day. Later, sharing the results on my blog brought an outpouring of grief and affirmation from teachers I know and ones I'd never met.

"Dear Emmet," wrote loyal reader Beth, "This is going to sound crazy, but I started crying when my colleague told me that you did not certify!"

"Lick your wounds for a little while and then get going!" encouraged Marybeth, who suggested I resubmit the low-scoring entry. It wasn't my teaching, she assured me, but how I presented it.

Nancy Flanagan, the Michigan teacher, sent consoling e-mails after reading on the blog that I didn't pass. "I've never met anyone who scored above a 2.75 on every entry and assessment," she wrote. "The thing is, NBC is damned hard. It's rigorous. And it's complicated."

I also got a comment from Charlene, the teacher who had missed the mark the first time. She sent condolences, but also a ray of hope. She passed this time around.

Nancy, who was on a team that developed the board standards for music teachers, defended the process when I voiced frustration over the fact that the scoring system didn't provide feedback to help teachers improve on their next try.

Nancy wrote: "When someone doesn't pass a bar exam, they don't get feedback, they get numbers. It is assumed that the applicant will figure out what needs to be improved, as an aspiring professional." I pointed out that, as good teachers, we would never give our kids a yearlong project without lots of chances for coaching and improvement. That's what real learning is all about.

To that, Nancy replied: "It is an assessment of what teachers know, and their ability to demonstrate evidence of student learning. It pushes teachers to improve through rigorous self-reflection -- a key quality of good teaching practice that is not automatic or intuitive. If NBPTS were to give specific feedback . . . teachers would try to 'fix' what NBPTS specified needed fixing, rather than uncovering what was missing on their own."

The question for me now is whether to descend from the National Board mountain without bagging the summit or to gear up for another try this year. All it will take is redoing one entry. Like Charlene, I could earn the certification on the second try.

The only problem is, I'm not sure how much more reflection I can take. Looking back, I'd be lying if I said the red tape and countless hours spent fussing with a video camera didn't make for a hellish year. The prospect of even more lost weekends with the three-inch-thick instruction manual is daunting. And, on a more fundamental level, I wonder if I really want to be a member of a club that doesn't get the canoe. I know in my gut that the journey my students and I took with that boat was worth it.

So, here I am after 15 years in the English classroom and feeling a little like Macbeth: I've waded too far in blood to turn back now. I think I'll go for it again, and I think I'll pass. Either way, I'm glad I tried. I guess that makes me certifiable, after all.

Emmet Rosenfeld teaches English at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and is a teacher/consultant with the Northern Virginia Writing Project. He can be reached at MEmmet.Rosenfeld@fcps.edu.

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