The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, facing up to increased pressure to prove it can make a difference in schools, last week outlined plans for 22 new studies examining how its certification process affects the quality of teaching and learning.
The multimillion-dollar research program is a first for the Arlington, Va.- based group, which was set up in 1987 to establish a voluntary process of advanced certification for teachers, much like the medical profession has for doctors. Since then, the board has certified 16,444 teachers across the country. More than half the states and hundreds of school districts offer financial incentives to encourage even more teachers to seek the board’s seal of approval.
Only a handful of studies, however, have taken a hard look at what happens in the schools and classrooms of the teachers who complete the yearlong certification process. (“National Board Is Pressed to Prove Certified Teachers Make Difference,” Jan. 30, 2002.)
Even fewer have examined what some policymakers are beginning to see as the key question justifying any education innovation: Does it bring about improvements in student achievement?
“We want to answer that,” said Betty Castor, the board’s president. “We think we know the answer, but we want some independent verification.”
To find its answers, the group has set aside $6.6 million of its federal funds to pay for the studies and is working to persuade private donors to pitch in more. Ranging in cost from $52,000 to nearly $1 million, the investigations examine a wide range of effects—and potential effects—of the board’s certification system.
Four studies, for example, draw on student data from Florida, North Carolina, and Los Angeles, to see whether students learn more in the classrooms of board-certified teachers. Two more are looking at whether the program has a “spillover” effect in schools that enroll large numbers of poor children who score low on standardized tests.
“Much of the research is concentrated on individual teachers, and we want to see if a reasonable concentration of these teachers can make a difference schoolwide,” said Daniel C. Humphrey, a senior policy analyst at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., and the lead researcher on that study.
Another pair of studies also take a look at the program’s shortcomings. A major criticism of the organization, for example, has been that it certifies too few minority teachers— only 7 percent, or 1,153, of the teachers certified by the board are nonwhite. Minority teachers, meanwhile, make up 15.6 percent of the public school ranks and 10.5 percent of the private school ones. Those studies are looking for the causes of that imbalance and testing out ways to help more minority teachers earn certification.
To create some distance between itself and the researchers, the board hired the Santa Monica, Calif.- based RAND Corp. to vet the winning research designs from an original group of 109 proposals.
Some researchers, however, wondered whether the process was sufficiently “arm’s length” to keep any bias from creeping into the research.
“It’s good that the board is doing research on board certification,” said Michael Podgursky, a professor who chairs the economics department at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “We need more research, but we also need more arm’s-length research.”
Ann E. Harman, the board’s director of research, said such criticisms were not unexpected. “We know that there are people out there who, regardless of the quality of the research design or the significance of the questions, will still say the board funded this,” she said. “But we think that’s our professional responsibility, and we don’t apologize for it. We think it’s significant that this is an organization that puts its money where its mouth is.”
A full list of the research projects under way is available at the board’s Web site at www.nbpts.org.