In a recent International Baccalaureate literature and performance class at Harding Senior High School, Ben Lathrop helped his students process a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks: “Bronzeville Woman in a Red Hat.”
They began by reading it out loud. Then they took time to read it again, in silence, before reconvening to break down the racial tensions and unfamiliar vocabulary. With a common understanding of the poem established — a white family uncomfortable with their first black maid, who kisses their son — they broke up into small groups to prepare mini-performances.
It’s the sort of lesson that keeps Lathrop energized in his work as a teacher of nearly 16 years — something that landed him on the candidate list for Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2019. But he found himself at a crossroads a few years back, in the midst of a more difficult year when morale had fallen a bit, partly because of a rise in student behavioral issues, he says.
He considered leaving the teaching profession altogether. But he ended up taking things in the opposite direction: pursuing National Board Certification over the course of the next three years. “I ultimately decided that if I was going to stay in the profession, I needed to find some way to re-energize or rehabilitate my teaching,” he said.
The reflective experience gave him a huge confidence boost, he says, and inspired him to step into more leadership roles. That includes mentoring 16 other teachers at his school that are currently pursuing National Board Certification.
On the heels of a newly revamped tiered teacher licensure system, Minnesota’s education commissioner, Mary Cathryn Ricker — who achieved the distinction, herself, in 2004 — sees National Board Certification as a key way to elevate the teaching profession.
“We have a lot of work left to do to diversify teaching and to keep improving and strengthening that pipeline into teaching,” she said. “Part of that next natural progression is to talk about the role [National] Board Certification could play, and should play, in teaching.”
Setting a higher professional standard
The push to establish national teacher quality standards dates back to the Reagan administration, following a landmark report titled “A Nation at Risk.” The National Board, established in 1987, set out to professionalize the teacher workforce in a way that hadn’t existed before.
“National Board Certification is the profession’s kind of standard for accomplished practice,” says Sarah Pinsky, policy director for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). “We believe that it is voluntary. It should always be voluntary. But our idea and our hope for the country is it becomes a professional expectation — much like it is in the medical profession.”
Over 80 percent of licensed doctors opt to pursue board certification in their specialty area.
According to the NBPTS, Minnesota ranks 33rd in the nation with 484 Minnesota teachers who have achieved National Board Certification. (That count includes those who have let their certification expire.) That represents a small fraction of Minnesota’s teacher workforce, which exceeds 57,000.
By way of comparison, 1,362 Wisconsin teachers hold the same credential. And that count exceeds 3,000 in a few other states.
A number of studies have shown that students taught by a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) learn more. Those gains are valued at an additional one to two months of instruction, and even more for high-need students.
Ricker says pursuing certification helped her refine her teaching practice in an invaluable way. “It committed me to that reflective practice that I had, as a teacher, done before, but I hadn’t understood just how powerful it was to intentionally reflect on my work,” she said. “It is an intense, sort of daily practice, to look and say: ‘What went well today? What do I need to change, reinforce, reteach?”
The certification process currently entails four components that teachers can tackle over the span of three consecutive years. In Lathrop’s experience, that included knocking out the content knowledge assessment in year one and compiling three portfolio submissions the following two years.
Those submissions forced him to analyze his teaching style on a much deeper level than he ever had before. He watched video footage of himself instructing, learned to better tailor lessons to meet students where they are, and refined his use of student assessments and data.
“I’d say it gave me a systematic way to do all the things that I knew I should be doing as a teacher, but hadn’t necessarily found the time to do,” he said.
Building in supports, incentives
In an effort to promote National Board Certification, many states and school districts have looked at ways to remove barriers and add financial incentives. A number of school districts in Minnesota — including the St. Paul Public Schools district, where Lathrop works — have built an annual stipend into their teacher pay scales for those who hold National Board Certification. In St. Paul, board certified teachers receive a $3,500 annual stipend.
By Ricker’s count, just over 60 districts in Minnesota currently recognize some type of support for National Board Certification. “That could range from running a cohort to support it to technical assistance — like helping someone videotape their classroom. And that can also be a recognition on the salary schedule for some districts,” she said.
During her tenure as president of the teacher’s union in St. Paul, Ricker negotiated pathways to Board Certification into the teacher contract. Now she’s in a position to promote and support National Board Certification at the state level.
“Just in the landscape I’ve been able to survey in these first nine months or so, educating people about what Board Certification is and what the opportunities to pursue Board Certification are that exist seem to be step one,” she said.
Currently, state law only includes one real consideration for those pursuing National Board Certification: Teachers can use the hours they log pursuing National Board Certification to meet the 125 clock hours of professional development requirement for licensure renewal.
In other states, efforts to acquire more Nationally Board Certified Teachers – and to strategically place them in high-needs schools — are more robust. For instance, all teachers who achieve National Board Certification in Wisconsin receive an annual $2,500 stipend. Those who work in high-needs schools get an additional $2,500 stipend. Plus the state provides some reimbursement opportunities to help teachers cover associated fees.
“I think that’s a really clear indication of how the incentives can help drive teachers to pursue and advance their practice in this way,” says Pinsky.
Nationwide, about 57 percent of teachers who are actively pursuing Board Certification work at Title 1 schools, says Richard Klein, director of communications for NBPTS. In Minnesota, where 93 candidates are waiting to see if they’ve met all criteria for Board Certification, another 150 or so are currently engaged in the process; just 27 percent are working at Title 1 schools.
In a more aggressive model, Mississippi gives all Nationally Board Certified teachers an annual stipend of $6,000, plus an additional $4,000 if they work in one of 13 high-needs counties. And when state lawmakers passed a third-grade reading gate law — mandating that students who didn’t pass the reading test be held back — education leaders doubled down on efforts to strengthen their K-3 teacher workforce, Pinsky says.
“There was a real effort, mostly through foundations, to make sure the K-3 workforce was high quality and could help with that K-3 literacy,” she said. “We were involved in a pretty significant grant project down there to get K-3 teachers Board Certified to help with that.”
In Washington, all Board Certified teachers earn a $5,000 annual stipend, plus an additional $5,000 stipend if they work in a high-needs school. The state also provides an interest-free loan that teachers can access to help cover associated certification fees.
“It’s the financial incentives, but it goes beyond that to kind of a culture in the state from the top, really, that values National Board Certified teachers and integrates them into a lot of the state initiatives,” Pinsky said.