By Ann Doss Helms
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools celebrated a surge in teachers who have earned National Board Certification, even as they acknowledged that many of the students who most need those teachers are least likely to have them.
The district added 221 board-certified teachers last month, bringing the total to 1,281. CMS is a national leader in the voluntary credentialing program, which requires teachers to spend hundreds of hours writing essays and proving they can help kids learn.
Superintendent Peter Gorman says CMS students who have certified teachers fare better on all elementary and middle school exams and most high school ones.
But those teachers are more likely to be working in relatively affluent, high-performing schools than working with struggling students in impoverished neighborhoods, an Observer analysis shows.
The gap is most pronounced in middle schools, where certified teachers are scarcest and the contrast between successful and failing schools is starkest.
For instance, Jay M. Robinson Middle, a south suburban school with little poverty and top scores, has 22 certified teachers, covering language arts, math, science, art and special education.
Bishop Spaugh, a center city school where most kids are poor and failed state exams, has one, a sixth-grade social studies teacher.
“We know that we need our best teachers in our highest-need schools,” said Barbara Ann Temple, a board-certified teacher who heads CMS' efforts to improve teaching.
Gorman agrees, and says he's trying to entice them with financial rewards and good working conditions, including the best principals. It's an approach the certified teachers recommended a couple of years ago, when they met to talk about improving weak schools without resorting to forced teacher transfers.
“We're going for pull, rather than push,” Gorman said. “We really need them everywhere.”
Where are they?
Teachers must have three years of experience to apply for the certification. Earning it usually takes two more. They must write about how they teach, tape and analyze classroom activities, and convince judges they have the classroom skills to reach their students.
North Carolina was among the first to plunge in when the certifications began in 1995. The state has almost 15,700 certified teachers, leading the nation. Only four districts nationwide, including Wake County, have more than CMS.
CMS has 1,248 certified teachers assigned to elementary, middle and high schools, one for every 107 students. But that varies dramatically from school to school.
For instance, Hawk Ridge Elementary in the south suburbs has 23 certified teachers and 830 students, a ratio of 36 students per teacher. Only 12 percent of Hawk Ridge students come from low-income homes.
Five elementary schools, with a total of 3,740 students and poverty levels ranging from 56 percent to 94 percent, have no certified teachers.
Another 18 elementary, middle and high schools have at least 300 students per certified teacher. Most of those pull three-quarters or more of their kids from low-income homes.
But the link between poverty, academic performance and board-certified faculty in CMS is far from absolute. Eastover Elementary, a low-poverty, high-scoring school, has only one certified teacher for 589 students. Popular, successful magnets such as Collinswood Elementary and Randolph Middle also rank low.
On the other hand, Rama Road and Montclaire elementaries have among the highest levels of certified faculty, even though more than three-fourths of students are poor.
Still, the odds of having certified teachers are better at low-poverty schools.
The Observer's analysis shows almost 34,000 students attend schools with poverty levels below 25 percent; those schools average one certified teacher for every 82 students.
About 33,500 students go to schools where poverty tops 75 percent; they average one certified teacher per 146 students.
Identifying good teachers is one of the biggest challenges facing Gorman and education leaders nationwide. North Carolina's pay scale rewards teachers for experience and credentials, and CMS kicks in local money to compete with other districts.
In CMS, a teacher earning $43,708 for 10 years' experience would see a 10.5percent bump for earning a master's degree or a 12percent bump for earning board certification. With both, that teacher gets $54,094.
Gorman says he'll soon present Harvard University research on CMS teachers showing that graduate degrees don't correspond with higher student performance. But board certification does, he says, a finding he expects to see reinforced in the updated study.
Still, the credential is not the only gauge of good teaching. Some top teachers are unable or unwilling to tackle the estimated 400 hours of work. Others may be talented but too inexperienced to apply – and high-poverty schools are more likely than others to rely on teachers who have just started their careers.
Many board-certified teachers believe they can help fix failing schools. When they talked in 2007 about making that happen, they agreed that money helps – but working for a great principal as part of a strong team was more important.
Gorman is using that approach with his “strategic staffing” effort, bringing in new principals for 14 schools and giving them money and freedom to bring in proven teachers. Many of those schools, which have high poverty and a history of weak performance, have average or above-average levels of certified faculty now.
At others, certified teachers remain scarce. Steve Hall, brought in to lead Bruns Avenue Elementary, has two for his 500-plus students, who mostly come from impoverished homes. Three more teachers are working on their credential, he says.
Hall agrees that board certification, which demands on-the-job skill, is more valuable than a graduate degree, which can rest on theoretical knowledge. But it's not the first thing he looks for.
“I'm really much more interested in how their skill set and heart relate to the population they'll be working with.”
Here are the schools where students are most and least likely to encounter teachers with National Board Certification, based on a new list of those teachers and school enrollment.
Best ratios: Hawthorne (alternative school, 80 percent poverty), Olympic Renaissance (47 percent poverty) and Butler (23 percent poverty) have fewer than 75 students per certified teacher.
Worst ratios: Berry Academy of Technology (66 percent poverty), Olympic International Business School (63 percent poverty) and West Charlotte (79 percent poverty) have more than 300 students per certified teacher.
Best ratios: Davidson IB (19 percent poverty) and Robinson (17 percent poverty) have fewer than 75 students per certified teacher.
Worst ratios: Cochrane (85 percent poverty), Wilson (91 percent poverty), Spaugh (93 percent poverty), Williams (97 percent poverty), Randolph (45 percent poverty), Kennedy (66 percent poverty) and McClintock (77 percent poverty) have more than 300 students per certified teacher.
Best ratios: Hawk Ridge (12 percent poverty), Rama Road (78 percent poverty), Montclaire (91 percent poverty), Blythe (42 percent poverty), Park Road Montessori (14 percent poverty) and Mountain Island (40 percent poverty) have fewer than 50 students per certified teacher.
Worst ratios: Briarwood (90 percent poverty), Collinswood (56 percent poverty), Nations Ford (91 percent poverty), University Meadows (66 percent poverty) and Westerly Hills (94 percent poverty) have no certified teachers. Nathaniel Alexander (76 percent poverty), Windsor Park (88 percent poverty), Eastover (13 percent poverty), Dilworth (62 percent poverty), Billingsville (92 percent poverty), Oaklawn (72 percent poverty) and Hidden Valley (93 percent poverty) have more than 300 students per certified teacher.
Where they are
Here's where Charlotte-Mecklenburg's 1,281 board-certified teachers work.
Elementary schools: 712
High schools: 320
Middle schools: 212
Central offices: 20
Pre-K centers: 13
Alternative schools: 4
Learn more about board certification: www.nbpts.org