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Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Some Unanswered Questions Concerning National Board Certification of Teachers

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Some Unanswered Questions Concerning National Board Certification of Teachers

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How well will the board discriminate when thousands of applicants seek certification through a bureaucraticized system? No one knows.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is a private organization that attempts to recognize teacher excellence by bestowing a "national board certificate" on worthy applicants. Teachers seeking this recognition submit portfolios for evaluation to the board (located just outside Detroit). The portfolios include videotapes of their teaching, lesson plans, and samples of student work. These materials are reviewed by "experts"--apparently, moon- lighting teachers trained by the board. Teachers are also required to take a test at a regional site.

Thanks to vigorous promotion by the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, national board certification has gained considerable support in Washington and in many states. The commission has called for 105,000 board-certified teachers over the next decade. The Clinton administration has given this proposal its full support, and Congress has been generous as well. The fiscal 1998 budget gives the NBPTS $18 million, bringing the total direct federal support to $49 million since 1991. States have been urged to cover the $2,000 application fees, provide financial incentives for board certification, and furnish other support. In addition, major foundations have contributed over $10 million to the board.

While the resources and influence of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are expanding rapidly, many policy questions remain unanswered.

  • Is the national board able to identify superior teachers? The surprising answer to this question is: We don't know. Although the board has spent considerable time and money developing standards for accomplished teaching, many of these standards are vague platitudes ("Accomplished teachers create a caring, inclusive, and challenging environment in which students actively learn"). The board has also developed exercises and performance assessments, along with ways of scoring them, to determine how well applicants have met its standards for an accomplished teacher. Given the vagueness of the standards and the subjective element that enters any performance assessment, one would expect that the board would have done extensive research to show a correlation between its assessments and more objective measures of teacher performance (for example, student test scores). In fact, the board has never provided any evidence of this kind to validate its certification procedures. Neither has the commission. Our own search of the literature has uncovered no such evidence.

The board defends its procedures by pointing to dozens of "validity" studies it has conducted for its standards and assessments. However, these studies are based entirely on the opinions of panels of educators as to what an accomplished teacher should know and do, not on objective measures of student performance. At no point has it ever been ascertained that the students of teachers who meet board standards actually learn more.

The lack of hard evidence on this point was recently acknowledged when the U.S. Department of Education awarded $23 million to the University of Maryland and 25 "partner" organizations to form the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching. One of the first projects of this consortium will be to determine "whether teachers who have been certified as outstanding by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards produce better-educated students" ("Ed. Dept. Funds Large-Scale Research Effort on Teaching," Oct. 29, 1997.)

But the objectivity of this investigation is badly compromised. Incredibly, the national board itself belongs to the NPEAT consortium, as does the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future and other organizations allied with it. Moreover, the research proposal leaves no doubt that the findings will be favorable to the board, since the proposal elsewhere stipulates that NPEAT is to investigate the training, mentoring, or other professional-development activities of board-certified teachers, in order to disseminate to the broader education community information on these correlates of "success." In short, not only has there been no research establishing the superiority of board-certified teachers by objective measures, there is no reason to expect credible evidence on this point from "research" currently funded by the federal government.

It is also important to distinguish questions about the validity of the assessment instrument from questions about the quality of the teachers applying for board certification.

It is also important to distinguish questions about the validity of the assessment instrument from questions about the quality of the teachers applying for board certification. It is not enough to show that board-certified teachers are better than average teachers, for this might merely be due to a superior applicant pool. In fact, this is only too likely to be the case. The 914 teachers who currently hold national board certification are probably above average, due in part to teacher self-selection, and in part to the fact that school districts are nominating their best teachers for the process. Hence the mere fact that board-certified teachers are better than average would not establish that the board is able to identify better teachers. The latter is the critical question, of course, particularly if the applicant pool changes character later, when tens of thousands have been certified.

Why would we expect a difference between early and later applicants? The answer is simple: money. In North Carolina, the state salary schedule for national-board-certified teachers is 12 percent higher. Consider the case of a teacher with a master's degree and 10 years of experience earning $29,960--the state-mandated minimum salary (no local supplement). The discounted present value of this bonus for the 10-year life of a national board certificate is roughly $33,000. With renewal every 10 years for the remainder of her 30 years of teaching, the present value rises to slightly more than $84,000. These totals do not include pension or other benefits tied to salary.

Thus, if costs of applying are low and there is a modest probability of success, many less-than-outstanding teachers are going to seek out national board certification. It is all but inevitable that the unions will insist on influencing, and eventually settling through collective bargaining, eligibility for subsidies to defray the $2,000 application fee. As a result, the process by which teachers are nominated for board certification is apt to become routinized and standardized. How well will the board discriminate when thousands of applicants seek certification through a bureaucratized system? No one knows.

  • Is national board certification a cost-efficient way to identify superior teachers? Even if it can be shown that the national board identifies better teachers, this falls short of demonstrating that board certification is the best way to spend education dollars. As noted above, by the end of fiscal 1998, the board will have received approximately $49 million in federal funds and certified roughly 1,000 teachers--that is, $49,000 per teacher. This takes no account of the opportunity cost of the many hours a teacher spends preparing portfolios, writing essays, and so forth (for which some states and districts provide paid time off), or the many millions of dollars in foundation contributions.

There are likely more cost-effective ways to identify superior teachers. The national board bypasses the most obvious source of information on teacher performance: local administrators and parents. A simple alternative might be to solicit letters or to poll supervisors, colleagues, and parents--individuals who are in a position to observe performance directly.

There are likely more cost-effective ways to identify superior teachers.

Indeed, this very point is tacitly conceded by the board itself. In order to assemble panels of "accomplished" teachers to conduct its validity tests, the board approaches a random sample of district administrators to nominate such teachers. This raises an interesting question. If a randomly chosen school administrator can be relied upon to nominate an accomplished teacher for the national board panels, then what need is there for a national board to develop and implement a much more expensive process for identifying accomplished teachers? If the procedure the board follows for assembling its panels is reasonable, there are apparently no grounds for establishing the board in the first place.

  • Is national board certification a good substitute for merit pay? There is also some uncertainty about the practical results of the board's activities. The NBPTS does not claim to make good teachers, only to identify those who are already superior. Policymakers need to ask in what way the public benefits.

It has been suggested that board certification furnishes a substitute for merit pay--a basis for awarding additional compensation that is superior to alternative mechanisms (supervisor observations, peer review, and so on). The National Commission on Teaching & America's Future asserts as much, but presents no evidence on the matter. Teachers' unions vigorously oppose merit pay and support national board certification, but this alone does not settle the matter, since it may reflect the unions' perception that it will be easier for large numbers of teachers to qualify for awards through board certification than through traditional merit pay.

This issue aside, the question remains whether national board certification is a cost-efficient substitute for merit pay. Merit pay is far less expensive to administer and relies on performance assessments from supervisors who are in daily contact with the teacher (as well as the parent-consumers). In addition, it is an annual process, whereas national board certification occurs once every decade (the procedure for recertification has not yet been established). The fact that a teacher was superior five years ago may not tell us a great deal about performance now or five years in the future.

  • Can the board control cheating? National board certification relies heavily on portfolios of student work, essays by applicants, and videotapes of classroom performance, all supplied by the teacher. The board makes no attempt to determine the authenticity of these materials. With substantial sums of money at stake, there will inevitably be cheating. Some of it will be subtle: fudging an account of the feedback provided students, altering a description of lesson objectives after the fact so that the observed outcome accords with the stated intention. In other cases, cheating may be egregious. Student work may be fabricated or altered and teacher essays plagiarized. In fact, the World Wide Web site maintained by the board encourages applicants to contact certified teachers for "support, information, and advice" and provides e-mail addresses, a circumstance that will encourage collaborative effort, some of which is apt to cross the ethical line. The board has not explained how it can maintain the integrity of the process when the opportunities to cheat are so pervasive and the returns to cheating are substantial.

In spite of the fact that very basic questions concerning the value of national board certification remain unanswered, Congress and state governments are being asked to invest over $100 million in the next several years to meet a goal of 105,000 certified teachers. Until convincing data are presented to address these questions, further substantial investments of public funds are unwarranted.


Dale Ballou is an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Michael Podgursky is a professor of economics at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Pages 39-40

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