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National Teacher Certification: A Quality Guarantee?

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Can certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards provide a guarantee of teacher quality? Perhaps. But we suspect not if the requirements for a board certificate remain as they are. Our judgment is based on three concerns about the N.B.P.T.S. requirements: their public credibility, their technical feasibility, and their conceptual clarity.

Public Credibility

In most professions, eligibility for advanced certification is determined by three coordinated "screens:'' graduation from a nationally accredited professional program, successful performance on a written examination (in teaching, most frequently the National Teacher Examination), and state licensure. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards requires none of these for advanced certification. It simply asks that teachers have a bachelor's degree and three years of teaching experience. Those prerequisites are inadequate. Credibility would be enhanced by requiring:

  • Graduation from a nationally accredited professional program. Students seeking admission to nationally accredited professional programs must usually complete two years of studies in liberal arts to achieve eligibility. In each liberal-arts course they are evaluated alongside other first- and second-year students in the institution.

Nationally accredited programs screen candidates before they are admitted to teacher education. Admission requires at least a passing grade-point average and usually involves a review of coursework.

In nationally accredited programs, students are again screened before they are given student-teaching assignments. To enter student teaching, candidates typically must pass a physical examination and sometimes a psychological one. Also, their pre-student-teaching field experiences are reviewed.

During student teaching, an intensive 10 weeks or more, students are supervised and evaluated. Finally, student teaching and coursework are reviewed by faculty before a recommendation is made for graduation and initial licensure. Graduates of nationally accredited teacher-education programs assemble a placement file in which professors and cooperating teachers who know the candidate's academic and professional qualifications comment on their professional competence and potential.

  • State licensure. Increasingly, learning to teach is being recognized as a long-term, cumulative process. An induction period is now almost universally considered part of that process. Most beginners spend two or three years in probationary status, during which they improve their skills and acquire new ones. Many beginners have mentors to assist and support them during induction. In a majority of states, teachers with an initial license are required to take advanced study, often a master's degree, to be eligible for a regular license. Three years of experience is not enough for the study and growth that neophytes need to mature to a point of readiness for advanced certification.

Principals and other administrators also assess the performance of beginners. Their appraisal affects decisions for or against tenure and often regular licensure.

Even though some of these steps during the college years and the probationary period may be conducted with less than adequate rigor, in most cases at least some of them are carried out with care by diligent, competent professionals.

Adding a level of quality control beyond those cited is reasonable and desirable. However, that level of certification should build on those already in place, not disregard them. Disregarding the efforts of teacher educators and teachers in establishing better standards may diminish the public credibility of these mechanisms and dilute the achievements in standards that have often been hard to come by.

Technical Feasibility

The N.B.P.T.S. has set very high technical standards of accomplishment for itself in developing a series of tests or assessment tasks. The items on the tests, the board promises, will have both "construct'' and "predictive'' validity and some sort of verisimilitude. Construct validity usually means the degree to which an item measures the theoretical construct or trait that it was designed to measure. Predictive validity is a claim that scores on a test predict future behavior. The promise of verisimilitude suggests that teachers will be assessed doing real teaching tasks such as planning, evaluating, and interacting.

We might concede that the items will have predictive validity and verisimilitude, but we find it hard to understand how the N.B.P.T.S. can have issued contracts to write test items with construct validity before it has developed a public, board-approved construct of what teaching comprises. Before items can be selected for an assessment with construct validity, the construct--in this case, high-quality teaching--must be defined. If the national board has such a construct, it is reflected in a laundry list of "virtues'' that seem to be theoretically bankrupt.

There are other technical issues as well. The American Educational Research Association's "Education in the Professions'' division has published a series of reports describing the challenges encountered by other professions in their attempts to assess practical skills and knowledge. The findings from law and medicine were remarkably similar. The tests in those professions have been expensive to construct and almost impossible to keep secure. Judging from law's and medicine's experience, people in a position to know have estimated that the N.B.P.T.S. will have to charge candidates "several hundreds of dollars'' to take its test. Items need to be rewritten for each sitting, at great cost. Furthermore, the scores generated on the practical tests in law correlate fairly highly (in the .80's) with scores on traditional multiple-choice tests. The validation studies in medicine are forthcoming. In sum, the tests in law and medicine are not cost-effective. Although it is possible that the people with whom the N.B.P.T.S. has contracted to write the assessment tasks will be more ingenious than those who wrote the examinations in law and medicine, that seems like a poor bet.

Conceptual Clarity

The N.B.P.T.S.'s goal at this time is to develop standards for "advanced practice.'' Its tests are not meant to assess candidates as beginners, but to credit teachers for what they have learned through experience and further study. Logic suggests that the board consider the beginning teacher's level of competence to be lower than that of teachers who achieve advanced national certification. These two levels of competence inevitably grow from one to the other and should be related conceptually as well as in licensing and certification. Unfortunately, the two levels of competence (beginning and advanced) that are implied by the board's plans have not been elucidated. Are they two levels of what a teacher should know and be able to do, or is the standard for advanced certification broader and more comprehensive? Does advanced certification assure the public that the certificate holder can do the same things as a beginning teacher, only better, or does it imply more? The goal of national certification, we thought, was to establish a higher level of certification for which experienced teachers could qualify. Our hope was that such designation would acknowledge the achievement of abilities beyond those now set for regular teachers. The minimal prerequisites adopted by the board to sit for the examination will hinder its reaching its goal.

We support the notion of recognizing higher levels of quality in teaching. To do that, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards should:

  • Build its procedures to control quality on the procedures already in place.
  • Be explicit about what high-quality teaching comprises.
  • Be explicit about what advanced practice in teaching comprises beginning-level competence.
  • Extend the experience requirement from three years to five to provide the time it takes to learn to teach and be eligible for advanced certification.

Even with all of these procedures in place, working better than they have ever worked before and even better than they have worked in other professions, it will be difficult to guarantee teacher quality. The final irony may be that teachers who demonstrate a high level of competence in an assessment procedure may not perform at a high level in daily practice for a host of reasons, including working conditions, lack of time, inadequate materials and equipment, poor morale, personal problems, burn-out, and other factors. Perhaps, then, it is important to qualify the claims we make for any procedures that we put in place. "Guarantee'' may be unneeded hyperbole.

Roy Edelfelt is clinical professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. James Raths is professor and chairman of the department of educational studies at the University of Delaware.

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