Teachers who have pursued the rigorous path of national board certification describe it as a label of excellence and a way to learn powerful skills that can lift their performance at mid-career.
Minnesota used to produce dozens of newly certified teachers annually, but it's now falling behind other states. Data released this week show that only 11 teachers in Minnesota gained the hallmark of certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in 2012.
That's less than one-fourth of the 48 Minnesota teachers certified in 2001 and well behind such thinly populated states as Nevada (29), Wyoming (61) and Montana (16).
Supporters say the number of teacher candidates has withered because state support has dropped and teachers don't have the time or money to go through the yearlong process. Nationally, some states and districts offer handsome pay incentives, but that's a rarity in Minnesota.
"I don't think we've given them the time and resources," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said about the drop in teachers seeking the stamp of accomplishment.
But one district is bucking the trend. That's Minnetonka, where concentrated support for teachers produced five newly certified teachers last year or almost half of the state total. The district now has 26 on staff.
The high numbers in Minnetonka didn't happen by accident. The district created a three-year program to prepare teachers for the process and guide them through the steps to certification. Teachers practice writing, documenting their teaching, reflecting on it and matching it to board standards. They get a stipend of $1,000 for each year in which they complete that work, plus a smaller stipend for materials. They're allotted six days a year out of the classroom to prepare their work. The district pays the board charge for certification, currently $2,565. Teachers certified for 10 years can take on added leadership duties, such as developing new classes, at their full pay rate.
"Our district is phenomenal in support," said Delette Lemon, one board-certified teacher. "It's pretty unique to the state."
Lemon also said the teachers who go through the process "definitely feel they are better teachers" for having done so. She added that the support shows that the administration and school board value great teachers.
Time and money are tight
But that support is lacking elsewhere. Teachers across Minnesota used to have help paying their certification fee, but that ended during state budget cuts. So did the four state-funded coordinators who traveled the state to set up support networks for teachers pursuing certification. Increasing demands on teachers cut into the time they could devote to certification, which takes a full year. One union leader called the falloff in new Minnesota certifications disappointing but not surprising, given tighter school finances.
"Most teachers don't have the time to go through the rigorous process for board certification because they are spread so thin with huge classes, requirements for individualized instruction and exploding government mandates and district initiatives," said Tom Dooher, Education Minnesota's president.
Minnesota has accumulated 377 board-certified teachers since the program began 25 years ago, but less than 1 percent of its teaching force is certified. The national rate is 3 percent, with some states and districts offering pay incentives, up to $10,000 annually, to certified teachers. All Deep South states far exceed Minnesota for certification, topped by nearly 20,000 North Carolina teachers.
For mid-career teachers, who are those who typically seek certification, "It's a good time for them to refocus, to reenergize," said Tim Alexander, a Minnetonka associate superintendent. He said the emphasis on reflecting on what went well and what could be improved after a lesson is delivered drives improvements. One study in the Los Angeles district found that students of board-certified teachers gained an extra two months in math studies and a month for reading, compared with teachers without board approval.
Nick Faber was one of the first Minnesota teachers to win certification in 1995, the same year that Bernadeia Johnson, now Minneapolis superintendent, was certified.
"I always had other people telling me what a good teacher I was," said Faber, an elementary science teacher in St. Paul, which had three newly certified teachers this year. "But no one had seen me teach in class, and I was not getting quality feedback on my teaching."
He found the reflection on his work stimulating, and union/district cooperation produced a valuable network of mutual support among those seeking certification.
"It was the most authentic learning community I've ever been in," he said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib