Teachers who earn advanced certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are more effective than teachers without that credential, but there’s little evidence to show the program has transformed the field in the broader ways its founders envisioned, a long-awaited report released last week by a national scientific panel finds.
The Arlington, Va.-based standards board, created in 1987, has received more than $100 million in federal money to develop and run a system of assessments for recognizing accomplished teachers. And, as of 2006, 42 states were offering teachers financial incentives for earning the voluntary national certification. Between 2003 and 2007, the program awarded its certification status to more than 63,800 teachers.
In the new report, however, a 17-member panel of the National Research Council says it’s still unclear whether the process itself leads to better-quality teaching, because too few studies have examined that issue. Beyond the classroom, the panel adds, some research suggests that schools are not yet making full use of the expertise of teachers who qualify for the credential, and that the teachers themselves, once they earn the credential, often move on to schools with more-advantaged student populations.
“The NBPTS has the potential to make a valuable contribution to efforts to improve teacher quality, together with other reforms intended to create a more effective environment for teaching and learning in schools, increase the supply of high-quality entrants into the profession, and improve career opportunities for teachers,” the report concludes. “Our review of the research, however, suggests that there is not yet compelling evidence that the existence of the certification program has had a significant impact on the the field, teachers, students, or the education system,” it says.
Joseph A. Agueberre Jr., the chief executive officer for the nonprofit teaching-standards board, said the report lays to rest questions about whether board certification identifies teachers who produce higher test scores. “We can now move on to the next question,” he added.
Congress called on the NRC, the operational arm of the National Academies, to undertake a study of the national board’s program in 2004. The NRC panel’s principal charge was to establish a framework for evaluating national teacher-certification programs, such as the NBPTS, as well as newer programs like that of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, for their impact on student achievement, their effects on teachers who apply and those who don’t, and their cost-effectiveness. Along the way, the panel reviewed in depth more than 20 studies of the NBPTS program and commissioned researchers to extend some of the existing analyses.
“Most of the studies asked: When students have nationally certified teachers, are test scores higher, and the answer is unambiguously yes,” said panel member Mark Dynarski, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research Inc., in Princeton, N.J., and the director of the federal What Works Clearinghouse.
The committee struggled, though, over how to characterize the size of the program’s impact on students’ test scores. In North Carolina, for instance, the effect sizes ranged from .04 to .08—the latter translating to about 1 point on a test with a mean score of 150, according to the report.
Milton D. Hakel, the committee’s chairman, said some panelists saw the impact as small, while others considered it to be as large as possible, given the small amount that children’s scores improve from year to year. In the end, the panel decided to let the effect size stand on its own rather than try to describe it.
The panel called for more research testing the impact of nationally certified teachers beyond Florida and North Carolina—the states with the largest numbers of such teachers—in more grades and in more subjects. Future studies should also go beyond test-score gains, the report says, to gauge any improvements in student motivation, attendance rates, and other outcomes important to learning.
Certification seems to provide an effective “signal” of high-quality teaching, the panel adds, but the group also cites evidence from a case study of six states showing that administrators don’t appear to use certified teachers as mentors or team leaders, offer them new opportunities, or recognize their achievements. Some teachers in that study even reported keeping their certification status “under wraps” for fear of stirring up resentment among colleagues.
“It’s somewhat of a mystery,” said Mr. Hakel, who is also a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “If you think about going to a physician or a medical specialist, you see professional-board-certification certificates all over the walls. I think we’re at a relatively early stage for that in education.”
Mr. Agueberre agreed. “That is something that is not going to happen overnight,” he said, “It’s going to take work on the part of all the stakeholders in education from school districts to principals” to make that happen, he added.
While one study showed that board-certified teachers were also more likely to stay in teaching, data from North Carolina suggest that once they achieve certification, they change jobs at a higher rate than do unsuccessful applicants for the credential. And when they move, the statistics show, they end up in teaching jobs where student-achievement levels are higher and student-poverty levels are lower.
“However,” the report cautions, “it’s not clear that this tendency is any more prevalent for board-certified teachers than for other teachers with excellent qualifications.”
While the 99,300 teachers across the country who applied for the credential—and the 63,800 who received it—constitute a considerable number, those applicants represent fewer than 3 percent of the nation’s 3.7 million teachers, far short of the estimated 10 percent the board had originally hoped to reach, according to the report. States that offer financial incentives, either by covering the $2,500 testing fee or providing bonuses to successful candidates, draw more participants than states that offer minimal or no incentives.
The study also turned up some disparities in application rates, with teachers from better-off schools more likely to apply than their counterparts in high-poverty schools. And while African-American teachers apply at the same rates as white teachers, they are underrepresented among those who earn the certification.
The panel was unable to find enough studies to draw any conclusions about the cost-effectiveness of the program.
Barnett Berry, the president of the National Center on Teaching Quality, a research and advocacy group based in Hillsborough, N.C., said the findings were “no surprise.” A group of nationally certified teachers pulled together by the center reached similar conclusions after its own review of the research. But Mr. Berry predicted that policymakers take note of the NRC’s findings.
“This is probably one of the more objective bodies you could put together on this issue,” he said of the NRC panel, “and I do think we should take their recommendations seriously.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Credential Of NBPTS Has Impact