By all accounts, John Madsen is a successful educator.
The Bartlett High School language arts teacher, tenured and with nine years of service under his belt, received a master's degree in 2000.
Those qualifications put him at the higher end of the pay scale for Elgin Area School District U-46 teachers.
Still, when a chance to augment his salary came along, he jumped at it.
Last fall, Madsen began working toward his National Board Certification, the highest credential a teacher can obtain. It's a credential the state deems worth enough to shell out $3,000 a year as an incentive.
"The first part of my motivation was trying to achieve a little bit better salary," he said. "The second part was, it's a feather in my cap."
It's no coincidence that the most experienced teachers tend to be the ones to go for this lucrative brass ring.
National Board Certification is not easy to obtain, and it isn't cheap.
The certification process, which involves one to three years of work on a teaching portfolio and a passing score on an exit exam, requires teachers to demonstrate how their activities, both inside and outside the classroom, improve student achievement.
The cost is $2,565, with the state providing a $2,000 fee subsidy for most teachers.
While only 2 percent of the nation's teachers have earned the certification status, the number in Illinois is steadily growing.
Including Madsen, 703 Illinois teachers earned certification status during the fall, a 37 percent increase of newly certified teachers from 2007.
Illinois, which has steadily climbed the ranks of states with the most certified teachers, now stands at fifth in the nation, according to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.
Janice Wilcox, a kindergarten teacher at Hillcrest Elementary in Elgin, earned her certification during the fall.
Like Madsen, Wilcox was nearing the top of the ladder in terms of professional development opportunities and pay increases.
"I was looking at what I could do next," she said, when a teaching mentor mentioned the certification to her.
"I learned more about it, and thought, 'Yeah, this is something I really want to do.'"
Wilcox said the process of certification, which lasts 10 years, "forces you to examine your own teaching. With kindergarten, sometimes you feel like you're in your own entity. Am I doing a good job, am I being effective? It was like putting yourself out there, showing people what you do, and is it up to speed."
Last year, the National Research Council found that students taught by national board-certified teachers make higher gains on achievement tests than students taught by those who have not applied for and those who did not achieve certification. The report called it "unclear" whether the certification process led to higher quality teaching.
Another study, conducted by the University of Washington in 2004, found students of national board-certified teachers scored 7 to 15 percentage points higher on year-end tests than students of noncertified teachers. Certification was particularly effective with minority students.
While U-46 does not offer additional pay incentives besides the annual $3,000 stipend from the state, many districts do.
According to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, teachers in Palatine Elementary District 15 and Lincolnshire-Prairieview Elementary District 103 get $2,000 per year for 10 years after they earn the certification. Teachers in Northwest Suburban High School District 214 get a one-time $3,000 bonus, along with three extra days of professional development leave.
Chicago schools that have four or more teachers achieve certification get a bonus of $20,000 according to the teaching standards board. At Ball Charter School in Springfield, teachers receive a $5,000 yearly stipend.
Fox Valley school systems, like U-46 and Community Unit District 300, which have added large numbers of certified teachers, have seen corresponding growth on state report card scores. But officials are hesitant to herald the certification as the only key to a district's success.
"We look at it as another tool teachers can use," state board of education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. "And we know the process forces them to be reflective, forces them to look at areas where they may be weaker."
Wilcox calls it "the chicken and the egg question.
"My feeling is that teachers who are very near the top of their game are going to go for this. That's who they are. Going through the process makes you analyze what you're doing. But part of me thinks the top teachers are doing this already."