First Major Study Suggests Worth of National ‘Seal’

By Linda Jacobson — March 17, 2004 6 min read
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Nationally certified teachers are more effective at raising their students’ reading and math scores than are teachers who apply for the credential but do not receive it, the first in a long-awaited series of studies shows.

Critics have questioned the expenditure of state and district money on National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification, but the examination of hundreds of thousands of student test scores offers the first evidence that teachers who undergo the process make a difference in the classroom.

The research, which focuses on North Carolina, finds end-of-the- year test scores improved an average of 7 percent more for students whose teachers had earned the seal of approval from the national board, when compared with students whose teachers had failed to earn it.

Read the report, “Can Teacher Quality Be Effectively Assessed?,” available from the Urban Institute. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader).

Except in the year that nationally certified teachers apply for the designation—possibly because of the time they must spend meeting the requirements—such teachers are also more effective than those who never try to earn the credential.

Led by Dan Goldhaber, a research associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, the study examined more than 610,000 state test scores of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders over three school years, from 1996-97 through 1998-99.

“Our findings appear to confirm that NBPTS is in fact succeeding at identifying those teachers who are more effectively producing learning gains,” says the report, which was released last week and is the first major work to determine whether having board- certified teachers leads to higher student achievement. (“National Board Is Pressed to Prove Certified Teachers Make Difference,” Jan. 30, 2002.)

Earlier the Better

The researchers found even more significant results for younger pupils and for children from low-income families. In reading, the difference in scores for students with board-certified teachers rose to 12 percent for 3rd graders, compared with their peers whose teachers did not earn the credential.

“These results at least suggest that greater benefits are provided to students if [nationally certified teachers] are assigned to teach the earlier elementary grades,” the authors write.

Also in reading, the difference in scores for children who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches rose to 15 percent—confirming, the report says, the belief that teacher quality matters more for disadvantaged students.The researchers, however, do not conclude that the certification process itself creates teachers who are more effective. Whether board-certified teachers have an influence on student achievement, the authors write, depends on their career paths.

“If, for instance, it does not cause them to remain in the teaching profession longer, there would be no direct benefit,” the report says.

In a statement, Joseph A. Aguerrebere, the president of the privately organized board, called the study “clear evidence of how the nation can truly leave no child behind: National board-certified teachers are the way.”

Under Scrutiny

The study comes at a time when the focus on teacher quality has intensified, with the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s goal of getting “highly qualified” teachers into the classroom. Moreover, questions have long been raised about whether the certification process of the Arlington, Va.-based NBPTS really produces teachers who are more qualified.

Two years ago, J.E. Stone, an education professor at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, released a small study showing that none of the 16 nationally accredited teachers he followed over a three-year period showed strong gains in student performance, based on the Chattanooga school district’s criteria for rewarding bonuses to teachers who raise student achievement.(“Critical Study of NBPTS Spurs State Advisory Group to Act,” May 15, 2002.)

The Education Commission of the States, based in Denver, asked four scholars to review Mr. Stone’s research. They concluded that while his investigation covered an important topic, his sample size was inadequate for making any judgments about the link between national-board recognition and student achievement. But they also noted that it would be “hazardous” to base recommendations about the entire NBPTS process on results from one state.

That’s one reason why Krista Kafer, a senior education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, remains skeptical about whether the national board is really producing the best teachers.

“It’s encouraging that research is going on, but it takes more than one study to make a case,” she said. Even when more studies are released, she added, the results are still “likely to be mixed.”

While Mr. Goldhaber’s findings were statistically significant, Mr. Stone noted that the differences in achievement were still small. The process for recognizing exceptional teachers in Chattanooga requires a “more demanding standard,” he said in a statement he released last week.

Simply analyzing test data, Mr. Stone added, is a far less expensive way to identify excellent teachers. “Recognizing and rewarding these unheralded teachers might better serve North Carolina’s aim of increasing student achievement than would added expenditures on NBPTS certification,” he wrote.

No Support From Bush

Launched in 1987, national-board certification is a voluntary process of evaluations, portfolios, student work, and subject-matter tests that can take between one and three years to complete. According to the NBPTS, more than 32,000 teachers have been board-approved. At 6,641, North Carolina leads the way.

The certification has also been widely supported at the state and district levels. This school year, 37 states and the District of Columbia provide financial incentives, such as annual bonuses or payment of all or a portion of the $2,300 application fee, to encourage teachers to seek the national recognition. Hundreds of school districts also provide their own incentives.

Since he took office three years ago, President Bush has not recommended any federal spending in support of the NBPTS. Instead, the administration has promoted the Washington-based American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, which provides both an alternative- certification test for college-educated individuals who have not been through a traditional school of education, and a separate “master” certification for more advanced teachers.

Since 2001, the ABCTE, which is affiliated with the conservative-leaning Education Leaders Council in Washington, has received $40 million in federal grants to launch the program and expand it. (“Education Dept. Ignored Reviewers in Issuing Grant for Teachers’ Test,” this issue.)

With budgets tighter in recent years, however, even state policymakers have been asking questions about what they are getting in return for the money they spend to support the NBPTS.

Cost-effectiveness, Mr. Goldhaber’s study suggests, depends on both the number of successful and unsuccessful applicants a school has, as well as their teaching assignments. The greatest benefits, it maintains, are reaped when board-certified teachers work with poor children in the early grades.

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