At the Salem Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, a group of kindergarten students gathers in a semicircle around their teacher, Carole Moyer. Holding up a large model cross section of the human ear, Moyer talks with her students about sound. “How can thunder way out there be heard in my ear over here?” she asks. “The eardrum helps you,” shouts one student. “Something vibrates,” offers another. “It’s sound waves,” adds a third. After reviewing how sound moves through the ear, Moyer breaks her class into small groups that will experience sound waves for themselves. Several children gather around a tape player and discover how grains of rice on a small plate placed over the microphone move faster as the volume of the sound increases. Another group tests how tuning forks vibrate differently when hit on different types of surfaces. A third group observes how the sound they produce by strumming a rubber band changes as the band is stretched thinner. Unruffled by the noisy activity around her, Moyer moves from group to group, asking questions and encouraging experimentation.
Recorded on videotape in 1995, Moyer’s science lesson is one part of an assessment process that she completed in order to earn advanced voluntary certification in early childhood education from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). A coalition of educators committed to supporting excellence in teaching, NBPTS has established nationwide teaching standards at all levels of preK-12 education. In 1994, NBPTS contracted with the Center for Children and Families (CC&F) at EDC to design, field-test, and implement an assessment process for early childhood teachers.
“We see two purposes to the certification process,” explains Joanne Brady, director of CC&F: “to recognize and reward exemplary teachers and to improve the nature of teaching and learning in the schools.” Toward that end, she and the staff at CC&F joined forces with a team of early childhood teachers to create an assessment process that is both intellectually rigorous and professionally enriching.
The assessment has two components. The first asks teachers to create a portfolio that captures their classroom practice over a period of five months through videotapes and samples of student work. The teacher accompanies this portfolio with a written critique and reflection on her own performance. The second component is a six-hour exam that takes place at an assessment center. Candidates receive four different instructional tasks to perform; they might evaluate student work, interpret test information, or analyze videos of children at play. Together, the assessment center and portfolio components allow candidates to present the complexity of their work with students in context and over time, rather than in a fragmented or artificial way.
“One of the greatest things about the process is that you learn more about what you do well in the classroom and where you need to sharpen up,” Moyer explains. By emphasizing critical reflection, the assessment requires that teachers make their thinking and their teaching explicit. In her written commentary accompanying the videotaped science lesson, Moyer discusses both what she saw as successful in her lesson and what needed improvement. “It is extremely important for students to have ample time to test their hypotheses … I was directing their discovery a little more than I intended to,” she reflects. She also considers how the lesson could be strengthened next time around. As a result of the certification process, Moyer has made deliberate reflection a part of her daily routine. As she explains, “Teachers don’t always have the time to sit down and be reflective in a deliberate way—it’s a luxury. But now I make the time.”
In the lengthy written exam, candidates work as diagnosticians of student capabilities and as classroom practitioners. After examining several students’ writing samples, candidates are asked to assess where the students are in terms of their intellectual development and to suggest what can be done to foster further learning. For example, “Considering his ability to write connected texts … what are Jim’s strengths and where do you see room for growth?” “What additional information would you collect that would help you better understand Malika’s literacy abilities?” In one version of the assessment, candidates also viewed a videotape of children at play and answered a series of questions about their social, emotional, and language development.
The experience of engaging in careful analysis of student work and classroom practice is powerful for teachers, according to Brady. It is also very demanding: candidates dedicate hundreds of unpaid hours to meeting assessment requirements. “This is not a popularity contest, not political, not glitz. We are really taking a hard look at their practice according to a set of well-defined standards,” Brady asserts. Indeed, the pass rate for early childhood certification has not exceeded 40 percent. “These are high and rigorous standards with plenty of room for teachers to grow towards them. They are not the floor,” she explains.
Creating a Community of Teachers
For Moyer, board certification has provided the opportunity to form connections with a wider community of educators. “When I read the standards, it was a real ‘aha!’ moment,” she explains. “This is what I believe about teaching and about how children learn, and now someone else out there is confirming that.” Brady agrees that fostering a vital professional community among teachers is a fundamental goal of the board certification process. “Because teaching has been such an insular profession, classrooms are like separate foreign countries with no one crossing borders,” she explains. “It is very hard to maintain a vital professional life in isolation.” In an effort to involve exemplary classroom teachers in the nationwide school reform movement, NBPTS invites newly certified teachers to work as spokespeople for board certification and as mentors to new teachers, student teachers, and experienced teachers seeking certification.
Carole Moyer is now a national advocate for the certification process. She helped establish the Coalition of Certified Teachers in Ohio, and she teaches courses on board certification at Ohio and Ashland Universities. She is also a leader in her own district, mentoring new teachers, contributing to her district’s early childhood education magazine, producing educational materials for parents, and serving on the early childhood committee. Despite her position as a reform leader, Moyer still manages to maintain a full-time teaching schedule. “For years people have asked me to go on to other positions in the district, but I refuse to leave the classroom.” She pauses before adding, “I know where I belong.”
Originally published on May 31, 1998