The debate over the merits of national teacher certification illustrates the difficulty in coming up with an effective, fair way to measure teacher performance.
Student achievement would seem to be the best way, but myriad factors affect how any one student performs in the classroom from day to day and year to year.
Conflicting studies on whether national certification makes a difference in student performance add to the confusion about its value.
A 2007 study by Harvard University's Graduate School of Education concluded certified teachers were not more effective that other teachers.
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But other studies have found that students of certified teachers do better on tests that non-certified teachers. A study completed this past year by Harvard's Center for Education Policy Research found National Board-certified teachers outperformed other teachers with the same amount of experience in elementary math and English classes.
So here we not only have dueling studies, but also dueling departments at the same university.
The number of teachers earning the National Board Certification has dropped locally and statewide. The drop, probably not by chance, coincides with the drop in recent years in the annual stipends teachers receive for achieving the certification.
In 2009, 20 Beaufort County teachers earned or renewed the certification. In 2012, only eight did.
Statewide, 799 teachers earned the certification for the first time in 2009. By 2012, the number fell to 291.
Money is probably the biggest factor behind questions about the program's efficacy, particularly from state lawmakers. The state had been paying teachers who earned the certification a $7,500 bonus for the life of the 10-year certification. Beaufort County had been paying $2,000 a year.
The bonuses have been cut to $5,000 and $1,334 a year respectively. Three years ago, the state stopped paying for some or all of the expense of applying for the certification. It costs about $2,500 to complete the process in a year.
Certainly, the prospect of more money helps motivate teachers to take on the extra work and stress to complete the certification.
And it should be noted that teacher pay increases have long been tied to earning advanced degrees and time in the classroom. It doesn't necessarily follow that either ensures a great teacher or high-achieving students.
So what's the answer to evaluating our teachers? All of the above and more. Pay, education, additional training, administrative support, personal motivation and the individual students who sit in a teacher's classroom all affect teacher performance. Just as no one factor is the key to student performance, no one factor is the key to teacher performance. We need a system that takes into account as many factors as possible and measures the incremental difference a teacher makes in a student's academic performance.
As we've said before, teaching is as much art as science. One size never fits all. And if evaluating teachers were easy, surely we'd have figured out how to do it years ago.