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Ron Thorpe and the future of NBPTS

Last week, CTQ blogger and teacher John Holland wrote an open letter to Ron Thorpe, who was recently named president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). In his letter, John expressed his hope for what the NBPTS could accomplish under its new leadership. “I hope you are a special kind of leader,” John writes, “a ‘boundary spanner’ who is future-oriented and ready to collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders, including NBCTs [National Board Certified Teachers].” In a comment on John’s blog post, Ron Thorpe responded with a letter of his own. Below is the full text of his response.

John,

Since you have sent your thoughts in an open letter to me, I hope you don’t mind if I respond similarly. First of all, THANK YOU for writing what you did. The mere fact that you value such communication and took the time to fashion such a thoughtful set of observations is exactly what I’m hoping to find many times over—maybe 91,000 times over!—among National Board Certified Teachers.

Let me start by addressing the word “vision,” which gives me more than a little pause. I realize that successful leaders do possess vision and, just as importantly, the ability to get others to embrace that vision. From that perspective, I’m in no position right now to speculate whether I have those qualities, at least not within the context of the National Board. Decisions about that will emerge over time.

I can reflect, however, on my last 8+ years leading the education department at the public television station, WNET. I arrived at that job on July 14, 2003—Bastille Day!—after 16 years as a teacher and dean of faculty and another dozen working in foundations, almost always around grantmaking for teachers and education writ large. I brought lots of experiences to the job shaped by some wonderful former bosses and mentors like Ted Sizer, but the truth was I had no vision for what I’d do in public television because I didn’t yet know enough about public television. With the help of a really strong staff and some wonderful external partners, things have come together, and today I’d put WNET’s education department up against any in public television. Not only that, but WNET is very much at the education table locally in New York City and our area, in New York State, at the national level, and even internationally because of our work last March with Secretary Duncan, OECD, and Education International around the historic International Summit on the Teaching Profession, which was the pre-meeting to WNET’s Celebration of Teaching & Learning. I can only hope that I’ll be as fortunate with coalitions of partners as I move to the National Board.

I completely agree with your other points especially around partnerships. In fact, you’ll be especially pleased to know that I’m meeting with Barnett Berry and his colleague Ann Byrd on November 21st in Raleigh, two weeks before I even start my new job.

Let me end with what I think is your most compelling observation: the need for the National Board to fully exercise its commitment to that third goal of advancing “other education reforms for the purpose of improving student learning in American schools.” That is the area that most interests me at the National Board. I am not an “assessment” guy, nor am I very well versed in the technical side of what it requires to establish strong and meaningful standards. What I care about most is using that foundation—which is so well established by the NBPTS over the last 25 years—to forge the profession teaching truly deserves to be. Much of that knowledge—and almost all of the muscle—will come from those teachers who have pursued Board Certification and who continue to set the bar not only around what teachers should know and be able to do, but around how teachers behave as professionals.

The culture of K-12 education is inextricably linked to the culture of the individuals who lead classrooms and who create the environment in which learning takes place. Among U.S. teachers today, fewer than 3% are National Board Certified. They have a powerful voice that needs to be heard, and they are making a profound difference in the profession, but their numbers are still too small. 3 to 100 are pretty long odds, even when the 3 are the best of the best. We need to change that balance, and we need to find ways to support teachers who want to take up the challenge.

I realize that National Board Certified Teachers are not the only great teachers in the country. Board Certification is evidence—well tested over time and trial—that those who attain it are true professionals who make a difference in the lives of young people. In a world that can be fairly subjective and vertiginously arbitrary—where everyone has an opinion—that objectivity means something.

I thank you, John, for your open letter and your dedication to teaching and learning. I also thank you for your disenchantment. As I lead the National Board into its second quarter-century, I need to know what we must do better, where the new opportunities are, and who the people are who care enough to expect NBPTS to stand for more than a credential. In that regard, I realize that I have much in common with the teachers the National Board was created to serve. And I am honored to be share in the work.

Ron Thorpe
Not yet, but soon to be the new President and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards

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