University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

A Modest Proposal

In The View from the OEP on February 17, 2016 at 1:04 pm


So far in 2016, Little Rock has been abuzz with discussion of “certification” – teacher certification, that is.  Allow me to briefly recap. In January, the ADE floated proposed rule changes that would gradually phase out the stipends to National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT) who have already received the stipends for 10 years. National Board Certification requires teachers to undertake a comprehensive and rigorous process to earn the title and thus the stipends awarded by the state. According to the best research on the topic, NBC teachers are more effective than their peers, but the process of National Board certification is likely not the cause of their increased effectiveness. What is more likely is that already-excellent teachers choose to pursue this rigorous path.

In any event, if the proposed rules were to be adopted, the state would scale back the stipends paid to teachers who renew their certification after the first ten years of receiving the stipend. The ADE indicates that such a modification may be needed because of the increased costs associated with the rapidly increasing number of Arkansas teachers earning National Board Certification. (In 2007, the state had fewer than 600 NBC teachers; today, there are just under 2,900 such teachers.)

Also in late January, Governor Hutchinson announced a $6 million public-private partnerships to add Teach for America (TFA) teachers to Little Rock and districts in South and East Arkansas. The Teach for America program recruits talented and service-oriented people with at least a bachelors’ degree to teach in low-income communities. The existing random assignment research on the TFA program (see, for example, here and here) suggests that TFA teachers are as effective (or more effective) than their traditional peers in the same schools. However, critics do voice concerns about the lack of specific degree in classroom teaching and the fact that TFA teachers might leave their schools after only a couple of years.

While these two occurrences are not exactly connected, the Arkansas Education Association (AEA) provided the following statement in response to the Governor’s TFA announcement (full statement linked here):

The Arkansas Education Association does not oppose the public investment into education announced by Governor Hutchinson earlier this week, but we do have concerns.  We welcome the effort to provide additional resources to our public schools, but we believe that it is best to invest in teachers who are already dedicated to the success of Arkansas’s students.

An example of the State’s commitment to investing in teachers is the funding provided to the nearly 3,000 National Board Certified Teachers in Arkansas (NBCT). NBCT teachers are not jump-starting a career in another sector, they are committed to being the best teachers they can be so that they can help students be academically successful. There is a direct correlation between National Board Certified Teachers in Arkansas and student success that cannot be ignored.

The implication here, of course, is that the AEA would be much more supportive of state-level investments in NBCT than in TFA. In particular, the AEA chose to juxtapose the newly-announced investment in TFA with the possible disinvestment in NBCT. Despite the fact that these two programs are funded from entirely different sources and the TFA expansion is not being funded by cutting NBCT stipends, it is worth considering the similarities and differences between these two programs.

While the AEA and others highlight the fact that one program supports successful traditional teachers (NBCT) while the other supports new and alternatively-certified teachers (TFA), I do not see this as the key difference. The most fundamental difference, in my view, is the fact that one program is specifically aimed at addressing shortages in low-income schools (TFA), while the other program has no such requirements (NBCT). Thus, it seems reasonable to ask about the schools where NBC teachers are located.

We at the OEP took a first crack at this analysis looking at district and school-level data on the number of NBC teachers across the state. Based on 2014-15 data, we found the following:

  • Of the nearly 40,000 teachers in Arkansas, just under 2,700 were NBCT-certified as of 2014-15 (6.8% of teachers).
  • The most common NBCT certifications are in Literacy (25%), Generalist in early or middle childhood (19%), ELA (10%), Math (9%), and Career & Technical Education (7%).
  • NBC teachers are far more likely to work in the most-advantaged districts (those serving the fewest high-poverty students) than in the most disadvantaged districts. For example, only 2% of NBC teachers work in the poorest decile (10%) of districts in the state; on the other hand, 22% of the state’s NBC teachers serve students in the most advantaged decile (10%) of Arkansas districts.
  • This disparity is also clear by region – while more than 8% of the teachers in the Northwest and Central regions of the state are NBCT-certified, just over 3% of the teachers in the Southwest region and just under 2.5% of the teachers in the Southeast (Delta) region are certified by the NBCT.

What does this all mean? Simply put, this means that the NBCT program is not (yet) geared toward helping students in our most disadvantaged schools. Indeed, state dollars geared to teacher excellence are flowing disproportionately to more advantaged schools and districts in Arkansas. This is an important distinction between NBCT and TFA. These are simply the facts.

What are the implications? If others are convinced (as I am) that NBC teachers are likely very effective and that teacher quality programs supported by the state should focus on supporting schools in our most disadvantaged areas, then, in the interest of educational equity, we might take this opportunity to turn the focus of the Arkansas NBCT program toward students in our disadvantaged schools. Thus, my modest proposal is the following:

If state policymakers are concerned, as they appear to be, with the possible budget shortfalls in the NBCT stipend program in the future, they might make the following changes.

  • Continue to encourage teachers to seek NBCT certification with stipends for a lesser number of years (perhaps 3 to 5 years).
  • Then, if teachers would like to continue to receive the stipend beyond the initial period, they would have to seek employment in economically disadvantaged schools. Indeed, the state stipend should be doubled to $10,000 per year for NBCT teachers who work in disadvantaged schools.

Does this penalize NBC teachers making the reasonable choice to remain in their school which is not economically disadvantaged? To some extent it does, but choices must be made when resources are scarce. Moreover, there is no reason that local school leaders in more advantaged areas couldn’t choose to maintain the NBCT stipend without the state as recognition of the teachers’ excellence and as a way to keep these teachers in their schools. Lastly, base teacher salaries are most often higher in these more advantaged districts.

The current intersection of the TFA and NBCT discussions could lead to a productive compromise in which we merge the best of both programs. In recent years, Arkansas has typically ranked among the top 10 states with the most new National Board Certified Teachers. The state offers comprehensive support to selected teachers interested in pursuing this certification, including fee support, a state candidate support program, and paid release days for the application process. We will soon have 3,000 NBC Arkansas teachers; this is more than twenty times the number of TFA teachers in the state. In the same way that NBCT can glean important lessons from TFA’s focus on disadvantaged schools, TFA can learn from NBC teacher’s extended commitment to teaching. The offer of a $10,000 stipend for staying the classroom and earning their National Board Certification could be just enough of an incentive to convince previously-undecided TFA teachers to stay in classrooms in Arkansas longer.

Imagine how much good could be done for students in low-income communities if state policymakers could use the NBCT-lever to encourage these excellent teachers to seek out placements in low-income schools. Indeed, many NBC teachers have already done this (several low-income schools in Little Rock are fortunate to have many NBC teachers, and these teachers should be rewarded). It would be great if this were the rule rather than the exception!

The more we can do to use this program to support our state goals of equal access to teach quality for disadvantaged students, the better off we will be.

  1. There are plenty of other factors affecting southeast Arkansas. It is not a desirable area, unless you farm, to live…Teachers are smart. Most new teachers head to NWA.

  2. Cindy …. thanks for your comment. We agree that many factors drive the decision regarding where to live and work. We are simply suggesting that the state might choose to use its finite resources to encourage some very high quality teachers to move where they are needed most. Thanks again for your interest and your comment.

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