Sidetracking the Debate on Teacher Quality

Have high expectations given way to the lowest common denominator?

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The nation began debating what it would take to put a highly qualified teacher in every classroom a decade ago. State leaders recognized then that to improve teaching, they had to shore up all parts of the career continuum, focusing on preparation, licensure, induction and mentoring, and professional development, as well as on the recognition of highly accomplished teachers. This push led to the establishment of large-scale induction programs to help retain more new teachers, a reassessment of professional development’s costs and benefits, and crucial investments in incentives and additional pay for accomplished teachers who sought or attained certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.


In the No Child Left Behind era, the policy debate about teacher quality has been unintentionally sidetracked. One of the consequences of the federal mandate that all teachers meet state-set minimal standards for content knowledge is that the quest for excellence has become an exercise in meeting the lowest common denominator of quality.

While 39 states set aside funds for professional development today, states have hit the wall in advancing many other efforts to raise teacher quality. The number of states that require induction programs or mentoring for new teachers has remained relatively unchanged for the past 10 years. Today, only 15 states require mentoring (compared with 16 in 1997), and only five require it for more than one year.

Join in the related discussion, “Sidetracking the Debate on Teacher Quality .”

Today, more attention is paid to credit hours and criminal-background checks than to the skills and knowledge it takes to be a high-quality teacher. True, the federal No Child Left Behind Act improves the odds that poor and minority students will get at least a teacher who has studied the subject he or she will teach. It does not guarantee, though, that the 3 million teachers in classrooms nationwide will continue to grow across multiple dimensions of teaching, including the knowledge of subject matter, expertise in how children learn, pedagogy, and the ability to help even the most challenging students achieve high standards.

The focus on minimal standards will not significantly improve teacher quality or capacity, nor will it create the sea of change needed for good teaching practices to become standard. In an era that requires all students to master high-level skills and the knowledge to compete for jobs in a global economy, we need to set high expectations for teachers. If we want all young people to have higher-order thinking skills, we need all educators to have higher-order teaching skills.

This will require redoubled efforts to bolster professional development. While this is an area where policymakers worry that education dollars are most likely to be wasted, professional development is the best way to maximize the performance of good teachers and mobilize them to take on new roles as mentors and instructional leaders.

We also need to broaden common definitions of what good teaching is and how we measure it. Good teaching is not just evident in student-achievement gains on standardized tests. It also can be measured through the expert analysis of teaching practice and in the richness and complexity of student work. Evaluation of quality teaching must take into account how deeply teachers understand what they teach, how well they transform that knowledge into instruction for students of different ages and abilities, and how well teachers put it all together in the classroom.

The nearly 50,000 teachers who have gone through the rigorous process of achieving national-board certification are living proof that this process works to generate some of our most highly accomplished teachers, gives them a reason to stay in the classroom, and raises student achievement.

Possibly the best evidence of the impact of national-board certification is the progress that has been realized by North Carolina, the state that employs the largest number of nationally certified teachers and also has posted the largest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over the past decade. Almost 10 percent of all teachers in North Carolina are certified by the NBPTS—five times the national average.

Today, more attention is paid to credit hours and criminal- background checks than to the skills and knowledge it takes to be a high-quality teacher.

Meanwhile, virtually every study that has been conducted on nationally certified teachers has found that they are effective, and the vast majority of research indicates that such teachers have a significant impact on student achievement. To date, a preponderance of the more than 150 reports, studies, and papers on national-board certification has found that it has a significant, measurable impact on teacher performance, as well as on student learning, engagement, and achievement.

In a study by the University of Washington researcher Dan Goldhaber, for example, students of board-certified teachers scored from 7 to 15 percentage points higher on year-end tests than the students of other teachers. Nationally certified teachers were particularly effective with minority students, according to the study.

Other researchers’ findings show that, across four grades, four years of data, and three measures of academic performance, the students of nationally certified teachers surpassed those of non-board-certified teachers in almost three-quarters of the comparisons. Additional studies, moreover, indicate that learning gains in classrooms led by nationally certified teachers are particularly strong in mathematics, and are equivalent (on average) to spending about an extra month in school.

Even in studies where student-achievement gains have not been as positive, the data reveal that board-certified teachers account for significant differences in achievement for students by race and gender, and in certain grades and subjects. These studies also show strong teacher performance in practice-related areas such as graduate coursework, student assignments, and the quality of classroom planning. They further indicate that nationally certified mentors have a positive effect on other teachers and on the achievement of their students.

School leaders and policymakers must recognize that certification by the national board fosters and measures highly accomplished teaching, and is the most defensible and widely accepted form of performance-based pay in education. If we are to retain and reward highly competent teachers and pay for their performance, we need to know that they have demonstrated a higher level of teaching, and know they will produce results. National-board certification does just that.

Researchers will continue to study the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. We welcome more research, but we also think it is time to get on with the difficult work of changing the conditions and the culture of teaching, improving professional development, and making better use of highly accomplished teachers in the difficult work of school transformation.

Florida lawmakers, for example, recently appropriated $87 million to provide a 10 percent salary bonus for nationally certified teachers who mentor other teachers, on top of a 10 percent bonus for all nationally certified teachers, in addition to covering most of the cost of such certification.

All states should set a goal of ensuring that, at minimum, 10 percent of all teachers become certified by the national board, and should provide incentives to boost the numbers of such teachers working at low-performing schools. North Carolina and South Carolina have already reached this milestone. Where board- certified teachers are concentrated in low-performing schools, and where school leaders tap the talents of such teachers, schools have seen real, positive results.

The focus on minimal standards will not significantly improve teacher quality or capacity, nor will it create the sea of change needed for good teaching practices to become standard.

In rural North Carolina, D.F. Walker Elementary School, for example, moved from being a low-performing to a high-performing school by increasing the number of nationally certified teachers in teaching and leadership positions, and by strategically using these teachers and the national board’s standards to guide school change. In the 1999-2000 school year, just over half the school’s students performed at grade level. By the 2003-04 school year, 82.8 percent met grade-level standards, and the school was recognized as a North Carolina School of Distinction, a label accorded schools that meet individualized benchmarks for “expected growth” for 80 percent to 89 percent of students. The school also met 20 out of 21 of its adequate-yearly-progress targets under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Researchers Julia Koppich and Dan Humphrey note that the key to success at D.F. Walker Elementary was the ability of school leaders “to infuse the national-board standards and the practices that paralleled the certification process into the school’s professional-development and improvement strategy.”

To increase the number of nationally certified teachers, the board is working to lower the cost of certification and address the underrepresentation of minorities. It is seeking as well to increase the number of board-certified teachers serving in low-performing schools. Several major urban districts are using board-certified teachers to help recruit and support candidates, serve as mentors, and help design professional-development programs. We must begin to offer outstanding minority teacher-education candidates scholarships if they pledge to teach in low-income communities, and to support these teachers through the national-certification process. More states and districts should provide incentives for board-certified teachers to teach in low-performing schools.

The national board plans to work more closely with states to improve the quality of professional development available to teachers. Under the leadership of Gov. Edward G. Rendell, Pennsylvania has taken a giant step toward making national certification a permanent part of that state’s professional-development strategy. The board also is making discrete parts of the certification process available to a broader audience through the Take One! program, which allows teachers to videotape their classrooms over time, examine their performance against national standards, and have it scored and judged by expert teachers.

Ultimately, the success of national-board certification will depend on the willingness of states and districts to re-engage in the debate about high-quality teaching and support all highly accomplished teachers in taking a more central role in school improvement. For all its success, national certification is a program that needs to be brought to scale. We believe that it continues to be one of America’s best hopes for improving teaching and learning.

With renewed commitment and support, national-board certification will enable teachers, the strongest assets we have to promote student learning and school improvement, to become the agents, rather than the targets, of reform.

Vol. 26, Issue 12, Pages 34, 44

Published in Print: November 15, 2006, as Sidetracking the Debate On Teacher Quality
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