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A Creative Change in Philosophy of Teaching

Certification: Few in the profession have tried to pass the national board's rigorous testing program. Only one in Ventura County has made the grade.

January 12, 1998|REGINA HONG and TINA NGUYEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SIMI VALLEY — The students appear to be studying an art, rather than math. In Susan Mussack's classroom at Simi Valley High School, ninth- and tenth-graders snip at sea-green construction paper and paste their cut-out triangles onto notebooks.

Mussack is trying to give these students--not yet ready for college prep algebra or geometry--visual lessons about the relationship between rectangles and different kinds of triangles. When some complain that their triangles aren't fitting properly, she gives them more guidance than answers--reflecting a change in philosophy that Mussack developed after preparing for a rigorous national teaching exam in math.

Mussack is the nation's only certified teacher in high school mathematics, so anointed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

"It's really sharpened a lot of my perceptions," Mussack said. "It made me really look at what I do and not just in an intuitive way. I'm much more aware of what I'm doing in the classroom and how I'm affecting my students."

Taking the board's testing program, she says, is the way to break from mediocrity in education.

It was for reasons of this kind that a Carnegie Corp. report a decade ago inspired creation of the national board. It was seen as a way not only to improve classroom instruction, but also to give teachers an opportunity to gain the same status and credibility--the same professionalism--as doctors or lawyers.

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Since then, no less a figure than President Clinton has championed the program, saying he hopes to see 100,000 teachers board-certified by 2006.

So why is Mussack still so unusual?

To date, only 912 teachers in 41 states have passed the board's tests. Only 69 of those are in California, and Mussack is the first and only such certified teacher in Ventura County, according to the board. She is also California's only teacher so certified in 1997.

As debate continues over the caliber of California's teaching corps, Mussack has joined the ranks of educators who contend that one way to determine where teachers need improvement is to evaluate more of them on a national scale.

"We hold up a standard and say, 'This is what good teaching looks like,' " she said. "Right now there are very splintered visions of what good teaching is like."

The national board, a Michigan-based nonprofit organization, offers certification in 30 specialties--from elementary English to art--for teachers who demonstrate their knowledge and skills by completing about a dozen teaching assignments and getting evaluated by a 63-member panel.

In Mussack's case, the grueling process involved more than 200 hours analyzing her math lessons, putting together a portfolio that included a video of her teaching style and writing short essays to show how her lessons fit with the national teaching standards. The process prompted her to reexamine her classroom practices and search for ways to present complex material in a simple manner.

But changing what happens in her own classroom proved easier than changing what happens beyond it.

Trying to convince other educators of the value of the national board has sometimes proved difficult.

Some ask "Why are you doing all that work?" Mussack said. "A lot think I'm crazy."

What's more, other teachers have little practical incentive to undergo the scrutiny and take the exam. Although Mussack avoided the $2,000 fee because she took part in a pilot program for the certification, others must pay for the privilege of having to create innovative curricula and implement them in the classroom.

Teachers seeking certification then must show the national board their results through essays, videotapes and samples of students' work. And the final task is a six- to eight-hour exam, typically oral and written.

Only 30% of the teachers pass.

As intimidating as that can be, there is another reason for the low participation rate--few states offer support to those who get certification. A handful, including Mississippi, Ohio and Connecticut, have enacted laws giving raises to board-certified teachers. In California, a proposal to cover part of the exam fee has stalled in the Legislature amid disagreement over what it should authorize.

Although the state had the second-largest number of board-certified teachers in the nation last year, with 69, it has begun falling behind. This year, it gained just one--Mussack--and lost another to Alaska. Meanwhile, Ohio added 101, bringing its total to 147, the second-highest in the nation.

The leader, with 207, is North Carolina, whose governor, James B. Hunt, helped found the national board. His state pays the exam fee, gives teachers three days off to prepare for the tests and awards a 12% raise to those who earn certification.

"Our teachers' accomplishments have certainly helped our reputation," said Karen Garr, teacher advisor to Hunt.

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