Education

National Board Is Pressed To Prove Certified Teachers Make Difference

By Jeff Archer — January 30, 2002 6 min read
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It’s no small change. Since 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has reaped more than $109 million in federal money to design the assessments it uses to identify highly skilled teachers. Meanwhile, 33 states and some 280 school districts have invested in financial incentives to encourage teachers to seek the group’s seal of approval.

Now, the question is being asked: What difference does the board make?

“We see value in the rigor [of national certification],” said Richard Laine, the director of education policy and initiatives for the Illinois Business Roundtable. “But my members keep coming back saying, ‘Show me that direct line back to student achievement.’ ”

Indeed, a growing consensus among researchers and policymakers alike is that the time has come for the national board to prove its worth. A time of tightened budgets and heightened accountability is bringing new pressure to bear on education initiatives to show that they can produce results. And for the first time, a handful of states now boast enough board-certified teachers to allow for large-scale studies of their impact.

Recognizing that, the NBPTS itself is calling on scholars to put its process under the microscope. At a conference here this month, the private, nonprofit organization brought more than 200 experts together to brainstorm on what investigations are needed, and what it would take to carry them out. National board officials say they’re working with independent donors who together are pledging “multiple millions of dollars” to underwrite new studies.

“We’re not just looking for feel-good research,” said Ann E. Harman, the organization’s director of research and information. “We’re ready for whatever the results are. If they’re critical of the work of the national board, if they’re positive of the national board, it all helps us to know what we’re doing and what we can be doing better.”

The ‘Holy Grail’

Supporters of the Arlington, Va.-based NBPTS often point out that research has guided the group’s efforts ever since it first set out to establish a voluntary process of advanced certification for teachers, much as medicine has for doctors. The group based its standards on studies of teaching practice, and has put its assessments through validity tests meant to determine whether they actually measure the skills they claim to.

Candidates for certification complete portfolios of their work over the course of a school year, submit videotapes of their instruction, and take a one-day exam covering subject-matter knowledge and teaching methods. What isn’t well-known, though, is whether teachers who go through that process are any better than other teachers at raising student achievement—a weak link that’s often noted by the board’s critics.

In fall 2000, the organization released what it called the “first-ever comprehensive study” examining that connection. But the results were based largely on observers’ evaluations of teachers’ work in their classrooms, and not on the kind of standardized tests that drive most states’ accountability systems. (“National Certification Found Valid for Teachers,” Oct. 25, 2000.)

“That would be the Holy Grail of this debate: trying to find out what are the student- performance impacts,” said Tom Kane, a professor of policy studies and economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Many of the other impacts are interesting, but they’re sort of moot if there’s no student- performance impact.”

To begin to answer that, the NBPTS commissioned William L. Sanders, a researcher with the Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute, to study the value of board certification. Mr. Sanders gained national attention through his work in Tennessee, where he devised a way of gauging the effect that individual teachers have on their students’ achievement.

Mr. Sanders is carrying out his analysis in North Carolina, which meets two key criteria for conducting such value-added research: The state has a large enough pool of board-certified teachers and annually tests students in a consecutive block of grades, from 3 through 8. The effort faces many challenges—including the fact that the state hasn’t kept records linking students to the teachers who taught them—but many believe the findings could go a long way toward resolving a key debate over board certification.

“I think that’s all that’s really needed,” said Krista Kafer, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. She counts herself as a skeptic about the NBPTS process.

“All of these other secondary indicators of excellence are important, but without some kind of value-added indicator, they’re kind of meaningless.”

Other questions will remain. For instance, Mr. Sanders’ current analysis might show that national certification can identify more effective teachers, but it would take another research project to show whether the certification process itself actually makes teachers more effective than they otherwise would have been.

Questions of Bias

For their part, board officials say they can handle the truth. The organization has been broadcasting a message throughout the education research community that it wants to see multiple lines of inquiry examined in the coming months and years.

Based on this month’s conference here in Chicago, some of the most likely topics include: whether board-certified teachers can turn around low-performing schools; who tends to seek board certification, and whether they stay in the same jobs if they achieve it; and how the certification process measures up against other kinds of professional development, such as earning a master’s degree.

Some of the biggest concerns about the national board relate to potential adverse impacts. Minority candidates, for example, have lower passing rates than white teachers on the group’s assessments, in part contributing to the fact that fewer than 1,000 of the 16,000 U.S. teachers now certified are either black or Hispanic. That raises the issue of possible bias that has dogged other teacher and student assessments.

Critics also contend that the board’s evaluations are biased against teachers who are successful in raising student achievement through traditional teaching methods, such as lecturing. They say that the board process favors what are seen as more innovative techniques, such as student-group work and hands-on learning.

Many scholars say the research on board certification promises to shed light not just on the NBPTS, but also on many larger issues about teacher quality. After eight years of evaluating teachers’ performance, the organization has amassed some 40,000 boxes of written portfolios, videotapes, and test answers—a stockpile it pledges to open up to researchers.

“There are people who believe that people who know content deeply can teach—that you don’t need the pedagogy,” said Barbara Lieb, a researcher with the office of educational research and improvement at the U.S. Department of Education. “That’s becoming a stronger view for many people and more publicized. And I think we have an opportunity with the national board process to delve into that.”

Keeping ‘Distance’

To encourage more studies, the board has issued a broad request for proposals, which it posted on its Web site last week. Although board officials haven’t specified exactly how much money is available, they say they’re seeking a wide range of proposals, from $1,000 mini-grants to graduate students to $500,000 or more for teams of established scholars. The hope is to begin awarding the first grants this spring.

Much of the funding will come from outside donors, and the board plans soon to name someone to chair an oversight committee that will both recruit and monitor the panel that reviews the proposals.

“From that point on, we’re looking to distance ourselves from the process,” said Ms. Harman, the group’s research director. “Our goal is to really give the public the assurance that this isn’t the national board picking and choosing among its friends the most positive research. We really want a lot of very high-level research going on about the board.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as National Board Is Pressed To Prove Certified Teachers Make Difference

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