Education Opinion

Should States Subsidize National Certification?

By Michael Podgursky — April 11, 2001 11 min read
We have no evidence that this costly and time-consuming process is actually any better at identifying superior teachers than assessments from supervisors, principals, or parents.

In his State of the State Address this year, Gov. Bob Holden of Missouri proposed paying public school teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards a $5,000 annual bonus for the 10-year life of their teaching certificates. In advancing this proposal, he would have Missouri join a growing number of states and districts that provide substantial bonuses to national board-certified teachers.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has signed a contract with its American Federation of Teachers local providing for 15 percent higher earnings for certified teachers for the 10-year duration of a board certificate. Florida offers a 10 percent bonus for 10 years, plus the opportunity for an additional 10 percent if the board-certified teacher agrees to serve as a mentor teacher. Ohio provides a $2,500, 10-year bonus, and the Cincinnati teachers’ union has negotiated an additional $1,000 on top of that, plus an additional $4,500 if a board- certified teacher serves as a lead teacher. North Carolina, the pioneer state in this area, provides a 12 percent bonus above the state minimum salary schedule, with many districts adding their own bonuses to that.

To understand the growing attraction of national board certification, we need to understand the problem it is designed to address: teacher salary schedules. The pay of public school teachers is determined almost entirely by rigid district salary schedules. The rows in these schedules are years of experience in the district, and the columns are graduate credit hours and degrees. All teachers in a district move down the schedule for each additional year of experience and across the columns for additional graduate coursework (for example, a B.A, plus 15 hours credit; a B.A. plus 30; an M.A.). There are no differentials by field or teaching quality. Hard-working, effective teachers with the same graduate hours and experience earn the same pay as ineffective and disinterested teachers.

There is growing recognition of the need to pay effective teachers more to keep them in the classroom. In the business sector, in many government agencies, and in most of higher education, the answer to this incentive problem is to base at least some part of individual pay on merit or performance. But there is strong opposition to merit pay in K-12 education from the national teachers’ unions. Pay bonuses for national board certification are seen as a compromise that, in theory, differentiates pay to permit “accomplished” teachers to earn more, but potentially allows all teachers to be accomplished and avoids subjective assessments by supervisors that are typically part of merit- or performance-pay systems.

But another important factor underlies the drive for national board certification. The National Education Association and other groups have long felt that the way to raise the income and professional standing of teachers is to let the profession regulate itself in the same way that doctors regulate medicine. National certification is seen as an important step on the road to professional self-regulation. Doctors are initially licensed by the state in which they intend to practice, but most go on to obtain voluntary national certification at a higher standard by one of 24 private medical-specialty boards (in pediatrics, internal medicine, and so on). National board certification for teachers is explicitly designed to mimic the medical model.

National certification is seen as an important step on the road to professional self-regulation.

The notion of a teacher-controlled national certification board was originally promoted by the late Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, and was embraced by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which helped fund the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in 1987. By the early 1990s, the board began to receive federal funds for its work, and in recent years, Congress has been providing roughly $20 million annually to this private, not-for-profit teacher organization.

In 19 teaching fields, the board has established rather general standards that it believes define “accomplished” teaching. To determine whether a teacher has met the standards, candidates are asked to submit portfolios they have prepared reflecting their teaching practice. As part of these portfolios, they submit copies of the work of two students, along with two self-prepared, 15-minute videotapes of classroom interactions with students. In addition, candidates take daylong, open-ended assessments during which they write about pedagogical strategies. The portfolios and assessments are shipped out of state, where they are graded during the summer by moonlighting teachers, most of whom are not board-certified, who receive from two to four days of training in scoring and are paid $125 a day for their efforts.

In none of the written work teachers must submit are errors of grammar or syntax penalized—even for teachers seeking English language arts certification.

Candidates are charged $2,300 to undertake the assessment. Typically, the fee is paid by districts or states. Candidates who fail the assessment can “bank” those parts of it they have passed and have two years to retake the sections they have failed (for a fee of $300 per section). Currently, roughly 9,500 teachers nationally have obtained national certification. The numbers vary widely by state, depending, not surprisingly, on the incentives provided.

What gets assessed? Content knowledge seems to play a minor role in determining who passes and who fails in the “generalist” categories that account for the majority of the 9,531 certificates issued, since much of the specific content knowledge that plays a role in the exercises is revealed to the candidates prior to the exams in the form of hints, prompts, and “artifacts.” Even in those teaching fields where content knowledge should play a major role, such as mathematics, it is difficult to discern how much a math teacher must know to pass, since the board releases neither its assessment exercises nor its scoring rubrics. State educational standards play no role in certification. NBPTS standards are national and not tailored to what states expect their students to learn.

However, we do know one thing that does not get assessed. In none of the written work teachers must submit are errors of grammar or syntax penalized—not even for teachers seeking English language arts certification. This is not surprising, since there is no way for the board to be sure that the hundreds of part-time scorers it has hired have the requisite English skills to grade others’ prose.

Input from parents and school supervisors plays virtually no role in the assessment. The board does not solicit information from either parents or teachers’ supervisors. Teachers select and submit all materials.

In this regard, the NBPTS, then, only partially mimics medical-board certification. In medicine, patients’ opinions do not play a role in determining whether a physician is certified, but the judgment of supervising practitioners plays a central role. Medical candidates for board certification undergo rigorous training for several years under the tutelage of accomplished practitioners whose assessments play an important role in securing certification. By contrast, in national board certification for teaching, the judgments of principals or local supervisors play virtually no role.

In spite of the fact that the board has been in operation since 1987, and has received nearly $100 million in federal support, no rigorous study has ever been undertaken to determine whether the students of board-certified teachers actually learn more than students of an average teacher in the workforce (or teachers who have failed the board assessment), where student achievement is measured by a state assessment or a standardized objective exam. Nor do we have evidence that this costly and time-consuming process is actually any better at identifying superior teachers than assessments from supervisors, principals, or parents.

Most elite indepedent private schools ignore board certification.

Because local supervisors are bypassed, there are extensive opportunities for cheating in this process. None of the portfolio materials submitted are authenticated by the board. Teachers are expected to write extended commentaries on the work of their students, but there is no mechanism to ensure that these are actually written by the candidates. In fact, schools of education and teachers’ unions are now beginning to provide coaches and facilitators (also trained by the board) to help teachers prepare these portfolios. Even the assessments, which are spread over several weeks, with considerable advance information provided to candidates and legal “cheat sheets,” offer opportunities for abuse. With large pay bonuses on the table and lax security, cheating seems inevitable.

Interest in national board certification is overwhelmingly a public school phenomenon. Nationally, almost 12 percent of teachers work in private schools, yet of the 9,535 nationally certified teachers, only 73, or less than 1 percent, are in nonpublic schools (the board counts charter schools as “nonpublic”).

The contrast with medicine is striking. As a rule, elite hospitals do not employ uncertified physicians, yet most elite independent private schools ignore board certification. According to the board’s World Wide Web site, not a single teacher among the hundreds on the faculties of the independent private schools in the St. Louis metropolitan area, for example, holds national board certification. Neither were there any board-certified teachers from the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, whose alumni include the children of Al Gore and Bill Clinton, along with the children of other members of the political elite.

One reason for the lack of interest by private schools is that the primary function of national board certification—identifying accomplished teachers—is clearly seen as a job for principals. Principals observe the practice of teachers every day, their interactions with peers and with parents, the performance of teachers’ students on exams, and teachers’ willingness to stay after school to help students. A good principal will know everything that a national board scorer will know, but also much more that such a scorer can never hope to learn.

Moreover, at best, the national board portfolio and assessment tell us that a teacher knows how to be a good teacher. Whether she summons the effort to actually put theory into practice day after day in the classroom (and for the 10-year life of the certificate) is another matter. This is something that a principal can observe directly.

Legislators and state policymakers need to recognize that once a state accepts the standards and assessment process associated with national board certification, and provides generous incentives for teachers to secure national certification, pressures will mount on other parts of the teacher-training and -licensing system to fall into line. This is well understood by the board’s proponents. After all, if the board process identifies accomplished, experienced teachers, shouldn’t initial teacher licensing be aligned to board standards as well? By the same logic, shouldn’t approval of teacher-training programs be aligned to the standards? Evidence from other states shows that when these types of incentives are offered, thousands of teachers will respond. This creates strong incentives for teacher- training programs to tailor their master’s programs to fit the board- certification process. In fact, many education schools are now retooling their master’s degree programs to yield national board portfolios and videotapes.

Make national board assessments pass the ‘market test.’

State proposals to pay bonuses to a few hundred teachers, while seemingly modest, will create strong incentives to change what happens in public school classrooms. However, the architects of these changes will be teachers’ professional organizations, such as the NEA and various specialty guilds that have advocated controversial pedagogical practices (whole-language reading, constructivist math), and not parents, local school boards, or the state boards of education. There is little evidence to suggest that the standards and assessments favored by these professional organizations will produce the student-achievement gains sought by state policymakers.

A better approach to improving school performance is to make national board certification, or any other teacher credential, pass the “market test.” Hold district administrators accountable for student-achievement gains and let them decide how to compensate teachers to achieve those gains. If national board assessments are really worth $2,300, then districts will buy them. If teachers who pass the assessment are more productive, districts will pay them more. Local administrators are clearly in a much better position than state legislators or governors to assess the benefits and costs of investments in national board certification vs. other productive investments in their schools.

One of the most important jobs of local school administrators is to monitor teacher performance. When state policymakers encourage districts to contract out this central managerial function to part-time scorers watching 15-minute videotapes at the NBPTS, and accept the proposition that the assessment of teaching quality is the responsibility of “the profession” rather than of local administrators, they are undermining accountability in public schools.

Michael Podgursky is a professor of economics and the department chair at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Should States Subsidize National Certification?