A ripple across America's classrooms

Full disclosure first: I am a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certified teacher, and I will be working with Teach for America as a Learning Team leader this coming school year. Not surprisingly, I'm an enthusiastic supporter of both groups and believe that they are having a positive influence on public education in America.

Not everyone agrees, of course, so I'm glad that recent research backs me up. This spring a study by The Urban Institute crunched the numbers from North Carolina and showed that high school students with Teach for America teachers performed better on math and science end-of-course tests than did students in other classrooms. Earlier studies of elementary and middle school students showed smaller but statistically significant gains for students being taught by TFA corps members.

The researchers speculate that the selectivity of TFA may play a part. Although many of the Teach for America applicants are graduates from top universities, only about 20 percent are accepted into the program.

Another factor may be the mentoring. The summer before they enter their first classroom, corps members undergo intensive training and then are followed closely with observations and meetings with their program directors and fellow teachers for the duration of their two-year commitment. By contrast, most novice teachers coming from a traditional teacher-education program are at the mercy of whatever mentoring programs their school districts offer, which can range in quality from excellent to absent.

‘Pursuit of results'

My own brief experience with Teach for America leads me to think that another reason the corps members are so effective is because of the emphasis on self-reflection. I was introduced to this aspect of TFA when two members emailed me last year. While both felt supported by their school staff and their TFA program directors, they wanted to toss around their concerns with someone in a different classroom. I was impressed then at their dedication to what TFA calls the “relentless pursuit of results.”

Being dedicated to results in the classroom means reflecting not only on what isn't working and trying to find out why, but thinking about successes, too, and teasing them apart so they can be replicated with other students. It's hard to do alone, which is one of the reasons I applied to work this year with TFA to meet monthly with their high school English corps members. I'm counting on the give-and-take with such bright, motivated young people to help me think more consistently about what I'm doing in my own classroom.

Self-reflection is a core value for National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as well. When I went through the certification process in 2001, I was both cheered and daunted by the standards for certified teachers. The certification process was daunting, too, requiring hours of videotapes of my teaching, samples of student work, and pages of documents from lesson plans to communications with the families of students. It meant sitting half a day at a computer taking a timed test of content and teaching strategies. It meant shifting my emotional energy from blaming circumstances – poverty, lack of resources, missing parental support – to considering the things within my control and focusing on being more effective as a teacher and convincing students to invest in their education.

When another teacher attempting certification told me that he already knew everything he needed to know about teaching, I remember being alarmed at his lack of self-reflection. Surely everyone can improve, I said, but he was dismissive. When he didn't become certified on his second try, he became bitter about the National Board process – and remained unreflective to the end.

A spreading influence

The most recent research about National Board teachers also looks closely at what is happening in North Carolina, partly because after Florida, North Carolina leads the nation in the number of NBCTs. The study by the National Research Council of the National Academies concluded this month that NBCTs are more effective in the classroom than other teachers: students of NBCTs make greater yearly gains than other students. Furthermore, NBCTs are more likely to stay in the classroom than non-certified teachers, and the majority stated that the process of certification had made them better teachers.

Neither Teach for America nor National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is changing public education whole scale – the TFA corps this year will number 3,700, and of the almost 4 million public school teachers, only 63,800 are National Board certified. But the lessons they offer about effective teaching - and especially the call to all teachers to think long and hard and consistently about what we are doing in the classroom – can ripple into classrooms across the country.