It’s certainly true that you can’t pay a great teacher enough, for nothing matters more to student achievement than the quality of instruction. But how do you find great teachers? A relatively new organization, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), has harnessed millions of dollars in foundation funding toward the goal of identifying truly accomplished “master teachers.” The board also awards a voluntary, ten-year national credential to those who meet its standards.
The board was founded in 1987 as a private, nonprofit organization that sets voluntary national standards “for what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do.” Governed by a 63-member board of educators, the group was created in response to a 1986 Carnegie Forum report that called for “a profession of well-educated teachers prepared to assume new powers and responsibilities to redesign schools for the future.” In the 1990s, as parents and politicians cast around for new ways to raise student performance, the idea of voluntary standards for teachers gained broad support, and the board certified its first slate of candidates in 1995.
But six years and more than 5,000 certifications later, there are still nagging questions about the program’s approach. Only recently has NBPTS sought to answer a very basic question: Do students learn more from the teachers it certifies than from comparable non-certified teachers? The fact is, nobody knows.
Failing Grade for Study?
One thing is certain: board certification is a windfall for teachers. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, state and local rewards for certified teachers total $40,000 over the ten-year life of the certification. Dade County, Florida, offers an immediate $7,500 bonus, plus a 10 percent salary increase. And the board itself has raked in millions of dollars from public and private sources. During 1988 hearings that would eventually garner it $19.3 million in federal funding, board officials told Congress that it would be self-sufficient in three to five years. Yet in fiscal 2001 it will receive another $18 million in federal funds, bringing total federal payments to more than $108 million—all of this on top of the $2,300 testing charge that the board commands from every candidate, a fee often paid by the state or school district.
Support for the NBPTS is broad and bipartisan, as shown by praise from former President Clinton, Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, and former New Jersey Republican Governor Tom Kean. The Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Ford Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other foundations have lavished more than $80 million on the organization. And it has strong support from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, both of which promote certification widely to their members.
Yet despite this broad support, hard data on student achievement remain unavailable. The board recently commissioned the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to conduct an “Accomplished Teaching Validation Study” to assess the effectiveness of its programs. A headline in the board’s newsletter trumpeted, “Teachers With National Board Certification Outperform Others in 11 of 13 Areas, Significantly Enhance Student Achievement, Study Finds.” This study played a major role in persuading the Pew Charitable Trusts that its $9 million investment in the board was showing real results. “[O]f the many grants in professional development, NBPTS stands out by the success shown in its brief history,” said a Pew report that accompanied approval of a third major grant.
But critics have noted weaknesses in the study. According to the report, National Board certified teachers excelled in a number of areas, such as the ability “to improvise and alter instruction in response to contextual features of the classroom situation,” or “generate accurate hypotheses about the causes of student success and failure.” But when it came to how these abilities affected student performance—surely the most important measure of effectiveness—even the board’s own newsletter admitted that the review’s solitary measure of student achievement, a writing exercise, “provided evidence that was less compelling.”
In fact, the report’s executive summary noted, “only students of National Board certified middle childhood/generalist teachers obtained writing scores with statistical significance above that of non-board certified teachers. Differences between the writing scores of the full complement of students, as well as students of English language arts teachers, while in the expected direction, were not statistically significant.” So the students of board certified English teachers did no better on a writing test than students of any other group of teachers, board certified or not.
The summary continues: “Evidence of the effects that National Board certified teachers have on measures of student motivation and self-efficacy were inconclusiveÉ. Consistent and reliable differences in the number and variety of professional activities the teachers in the sample engaged in were not discernibleÉ. [W]ith rare exception, [certified teachers] have not noticed an increase in the use of their expertise since obtaining National Board certification.” The most damning caveat:
Finally, it should be noted that a limitation of the present investigation is the absence of adequate and appropriate measures of entering student ability. Attempts to match students with standardized test scores from state records were largely unsuccessfulÉ. [W]e have no compelling reason to believe that students differed systematically at the beginning of the observational yearÉ.
University of Missouri economist Michael Podgursky sharply criticized the study for failing to use evidence of student learning gains on state tests as a measure of teacher performance, a value-added approach used widely across the nation. Podgursky observes that many of the criteria that the board’s study used to determine effective teaching attributes—for example, demonstrating “a high degree of ‘withitness’”—are of questionable relevance to improving student achievement.
An important question is whether the board’s procedures are even capable of identifying the sort of “master teachers” whom school districts should recognize and reward. Those with traditional views of curricula and standards accuse the board of paying little attention to determining whether teachers really know their subjects—an attribute at the very core of teacher effectiveness.
William Boxx, chair of the Philip M. McKenna Foundation, labels “pathetic” the brief reading list sent to high school English teachers preparing for certification. The list is limited to 13 books (novels and nonfiction), six plays, and a handful of poems, essays, and films. Maya Angelou, Tom Wolfe, Alice Walker, Camus, and Aldous Huxley make the list, but Dickens, Conrad, Twain, Hemingway, Hawthorne, and Melville do not. Shakespeare merits two entries on the play list, the same as Arthur Miller. Five poets are represented: Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Janice Mirikitani, and Dylan Thomas. There’s no sign of Yeats, Browning, Eliot, Keats, Shelley, or Chaucer. The list comes with a disclaimer that it is “by no means definitive or exhaustive,” but the board provides it as “a starting point and basis for your responses,” and notes that the items have been “suggested by experienced adolescence and young adulthood English language arts teachers.”
The list sent to prepare candidates for middle school social studies and history certification is briefer still. These candidates, the board suggests, should review the First Amendment—not the whole Constitution, not even the entire Bill of Rights. They need to read Kurt Vonnegut’s essay, “The Cost of Freedom,” but nothing from Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln.
Most shocking is the board’s tolerance of deficiencies in standard English in the work teachers submit for review. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification is based on an evaluation of a portfolio that applicants complete with the help of their colleagues, and the results of four tests. For the portfolio, which carries the greatest weight toward certification, teachers submit examples of their assignments and their students’ work, along with their comments on that work and an essay reflecting upon their broader goals and teaching practices. Candidates also submit videotapes of themselves interacting with their classes and documentation of their activities with students’ families and local communities.
Yet for this high-stakes assessment, the board explicitly instructs its graders to ignore errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and simply to concentrate on evidence of pedagogical skills and proper attitude. Although NBPTS vice president Mary Dean Barringer has called this practice “inexcusable,” it apparently continues. This led Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, to pose a very basic question: “Is it too much to expect teachers to know how to spell and punctuate?” J. C. Huizinga, who founded the National Heritage Academies, says NBPTS’s lax standards would be impossible in his schools, where teachers are required to serve as leaders and models.
Focusing on Quality
Yet even critics of the National Board recognize its innate appeal to donors. Ed Donley, a member of both the Pennsylvania State Board of Education and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation, objects to the board’s low standards but understands its success as a manifestation of the growing view that teacher quality is so important that anyone offering an approach to improving it is likely to find support. William Boxx has a similar view—that funders are eager to find ways to improve the education system, so eager, in fact, that they favor ready and accessible plans for improvement and tend to be disinclined to work with those engaged in more aggressive, systematic reforms.
Lew Solmon, former dean of UCLA’s graduate school of education (and a member of the National Council on Teacher Quality policy board), notes that NBPTS offers more concrete reforms than other education initiatives. By focusing on demonstrated upgrading of teachers’ skills, the board enjoys a natural advantage over more general campaigns to increase school funding. In the rush to do anything to improve instruction, he suggests, funders may not focus sufficiently on criticisms of the board.
Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching, whose research on professional certification was fundamental to development of the NBPTS, argues that it would have been impossible for NBPTS to attempt a true value-added study of its own effectiveness before now, because there were not enough board certified teachers to study.
He also claims that the board is actually ahead of other professions in validating its testing procedures and observes that other professional standards boards—like those for law or medicine—are not asked to present evidence of such effectiveness by statistically connecting certification success to patient or client outcome.
All of this might be true enough—but, of course, other professional boards do not receive ongoing federal subsidies. In this era of accountability in education, the spotlight is certain to be on NBPTS to prove its worth with rigorous and valid procedures. Stated very simply, will this nearly $200 million investment repay the country with teachers who produce better students? And with the number of certified teachers growing—15 percent of American teachers will be board certified by the end of this decade if trends continue—the time has certainly come for a serious longitudinal study of the program’s effectiveness.
What is more, some fundamental questions need to be answered: Does any certification scheme serve the public by increasing student achievement? Do the cumbersome procedures of teacher certification mean that children get better educations? Or do they simply provide a means for increasing the salaries of certified teachers versus their non-certified colleagues? Is this the best place for funders to put their education reform dollars?
There is a broad national consensus that we need to reward outstanding teachers, but there may be a need to find some other means of certification—perhaps a process that is more hard-nosed and attentive to basic competencies. In an era that has seen the emergence of charter schools, vouchers, and alternative certification of teachers, we may well see other providers of master teacher certification, agencies with procedures that require evidence of student learning gains and teachers’ deep knowledge of the subjects they teach. That new manifestation of competition and market forces in education may be very good news for teachers and for our schools.
Michael Poliakoff is president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which advocates for alternative certification programs and other education reforms.