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The number of teachers earning a top teaching credential has tapered in recent years in Beaufort County and statewide, and some education officials say cuts in bonuses and financial assistance to pay for the program are partly to blame.
In Beaufort County, the dwindling number of teachers earning National Board Certification isn't as pronounced as it is statewide, but both began to dip in 2010 -- the same year the state reduced its annual bonus for certified teachers.
In 2009, 20 Beaufort County teachers earned or renewed the certification. In 2012, only eight did.
About 142 teachers are nationally certified in Beaufort County, representing about 9 percent of the school district's teaching staff.
Statewide, 799 teachers earned the certification for the first time in 2009. By 2012, that number had fallen to 291. That means about 18 percent of the state's 47,276 eligible teachers are certified. South Carolina has the third-highest number of National Board Certified teachers in the country, with 8,436. The state trails Florida and North Carolina.
Officials of the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement and the Palmetto State Teacher's Association said the numbers have dipped for two reasons: The annual stipend the state pays National Board certified teachers dropped by $2,500, and the state ended a program three years ago that paid for some or all of the costs of applying for the certification. It costs about $2,500 to complete the process in one year.
The Beaufort County School District also gives board-certified teachers an annual bonus, but that amount was reduced as part of 2011 budget cuts. Teachers now earn $1,334 more a year if they are certified, down from $2,000.
Certification typically takes one to three years. Teachers must write essays about their classroom practices, videotape themselves teaching, pass exams to prove their understanding of the subjects they teach, and provide examples of their lesson plans and students' work. Beaufort County's nationally certified teachers say the process is rigorous and demanding.
They also say certification was one of the best things they could do for their careers.
"Even though it was a ton of work, and it was stressful at times and took so much planning, I felt like I grew so much from it," Beaufort High School media specialist Leah Roche said. Roche was first certified in the early 2000s and was re-certified in 2012.
National Board Certification lasts 10 years. Teachers can begin seeking renewal -- the same process they went through the first time, with the same costs and incentives -- eight years after they earn the certification.
Roche and Okatie Elementary School drama and art teacher Elizabeth Goodwin -- as well as a number of newly certified teachers -- said they sought the certification because they consider themselves overachievers or type-A personalities.
"It was a challenge, and I was attracted to that," Roche said.
Jenna Hallman, the program director for the National Board at CERRA, and Beaufort County interim superintendent Jackie Rosswurm said that could also help explain the drop -- many of the teachers most motivated to seek the credential already have done so.
"It's not a snowballing program," Hallman said. "Eventually, we're going to see a leveling out."
South Carolina teachers who have earned the certification have received annual bonuses from the state for the 10-year life of the certificate. In 2010, the state legislature voted to cut the amount from $7,500 per teacher per year to $5,000.
Those who were certified when the bonus was $7,500 continue to earn that amount. But any teachers certified since 2010 earn the lesser amount.
Locally, bonuses were cut by a third in 2011 for all certified teachers, regardless of when they received the credential.
"I was no longer having to work two jobs because of the pay differentiation," said Goodwin, who first earned her certification in 2003. "That was a blessing. ... It made me a better teacher because I had more time to give it."
Goodwin said the annual bonuses influenced her decision to re-certify in 2011.
"If I were to drop National Board, it would severely cut my pay," she said. "As a teacher, we're struggling to keep up with the economy, and we haven't had regular raises in so long."
Hallman is concerned about cuts to state programs to reimburse all or part of a teacher's costs of pursuing the certification. The process costs about $2,500, depending on how many times teachers have to retake some of the exams.
"The (annual) supplement is an incentive for teachers to look at a difficult program," Hallman said. "... But then they hit that wall of that much money being due, and they turn away from it. They cannot afford it."
Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teacher's Association, agreed that the cuts to the reimbursement programs reduced the number of applicants for certification.
"I think that's why we're seeing the numbers go down," she said.
Federal subsidies and scholarships have been available to help with some, but not all costs. That money is dwindling, too, Hallman said.
Roche said the cost of renewing her certificate was steep, and she sees it as a deterrent to teachers considering the certification.
"It's tough," she said. "That could go to a graduate course or two. It could go to a summer vacation for your family. There's lots of other things you could do with the money, and there's no guarantee (you'll pass.)"
PROGRAM FURTHER THREATENED
Maness said teachers have told her they worry the program won't be supported in the future.
In 2012 and again this year, state Superintendent Mick Zais recommended the program be closed to new applicants, said Jay W. Ragley, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Education.
Last year, that change made it through the House of Representatives, Ragley said, but it failed in the Senate.
"That's another reason some people say they're not going through with it, because they're afraid it won't be funded," Maness said.
Ragley cited a Harvard University's Graduate School of Education study completed in 2007, which concluded certified teachers were not more effective than other teachers, as justification for stopping teachers from applying for the certification.
That study, which was commissioned by the National Board, randomly assigned students in Los Angeles to teachers who had applied for the certification -- taking into account their scores on the certification exams -- and teachers who had not.
Hallman, however, cited several studies that found students of nationally certified teachers do better on standardized tests than students of non-certified teachers.
One recent study, completed this year by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, found National Board Certified teachers outperformed other teachers with the same amount of experience in elementary math and English classes.
Whatever the case, the dip in the number of teachers seeking certification shouldn't cause alarm, Rosswurm said. Teachers are participating in a variety of professional-development activities through the district that prompt similar self-reflection, she said.
"We support (National Board Certification)," she said. "But we don't go out and promote it. I think (parts of it) are evolving into what we normally do."
Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/IPBG_Rachel.