Teaching Profession

The National Board: Challenged by Success?

By Bess Keller — August 10, 2007 9 min read
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With the number of teachers who have won certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards expected to reach 60,000 by year’s end, the credential has become a fixed part of the education scene. But the group’s success raises at least one new troubling question about the certification’s future value, and fails to allay policy concerns about the millions of dollars that states and districts spend on teachers who win the certification.

The past few years, especially, have seen sharp growth in the number of teachers who have tackled the demanding process. The figures have been spurred by rewards for the credential from more than 30 states and scores of districts. National-board officials say that if the current trend continues, about 2 percent of the nation’s teachers will hold the credential by 2008.

Still, the 20-year-old, privately organized NBPTS might be challenged by success. For instance, as more teachers seek the certification, will its worth slip?

Teachers’ Motivation

Noting that links between master’s degrees and teacher effectiveness may once have existed but for the most part no longer do, some observers have wondered if national certification might fall into a similar pattern. Before master’s degrees meant almost universal automatic pay hikes, fewer teachers sought the credential. But those who did were more likely to be effective, researchers have suggested.

“Anytime you start a new program, it’s likely to be the enthusiastic, entrepreneurial people who are going to go through it,” and they may have natural advantages as good teachers, says Dan D. Goldhaber, a research professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who has studied national-board certification. “Over time, the applicant pool is not likely to be as good.”

By all accounts, salary rewards for certification have upped interest. Legislators in Washington state, for example, raised the base bonus for board certification this year from $3,500 to $5,000 annually and offered an additional $5,000 annually to nationally certified teachers at high-poverty schools. The number of applicants doubled from previous years, Washington officials said.

“I worry about the motivation, of course,” said Sarah Applegate, a nationally certified teacher-librarian at River Ridge High School in Lacey, Wash. “People have said to me, ‘I hear I can make $10,000 extra if I work in a high-needs school—where are the high-needs schools?’ That’s not good enough.”

But on the whole, she said, the new incentives will draw more teachers to undertake the process, and that will be a plus for students.

Mr. Goldhaber doesn’t disagree— as long as the national board sticks to its standards. In the case of master’s degrees, he said, the press of teachers going after a salary increase gave universities the opportunity, even the incentive, to collect tuition without necessarily delivering much of value to the classroom. Few who take courses flunk.

Process Scrutinized

In contrast, only around 40 percent of first-time applicants pass the national board’s assessments, according to the Arlington,Va.-based group. Eventually, about two-thirds of those who resubmit revised work achieve the credential. Those percentages have stayed stable for some time.


Joseph A. Aguerrebere Jr., the chief executive officer of the national board, said quantity has not had an effect on quality. What’s more, he suggests that the growing number of nationally credentialed teachers has helped the national board play a larger role in improving teaching and reforming schools.

“I’d say the worth is actually growing as people learn about it,” Mr. Aguerrebere said.

Nonetheless, teachers with and without the credential, along with researchers, are certain that the best teachers are not necessarily nationally certified.

“I think there are a lot of accomplished teachers out there who are not board-certified,” said Jennifer Morrison, a nationally certified high school teacher in Chapin, S.C. “I always have to worry [that] it’s become a brand name.”

Other teachers go further, questioning the degree to which the process can be manipulated. The extensive assessment requires teachers to compile four portfolios of classroom materials, including two videotapes of their teaching, and take six tests that ask teachers to apply their knowledge to classroom situations at their grade level and in their subject area.

“Teachers may appear one way on video and another way the majority of the time, and that concerns me,” said Suzanne A. Newsom, who teaches English at the Renaissance School of Olympic High School in Charlotte, N.C. She is waiting to hear if resubmissions of two of the 10 elements required by the board will win her the credential. She passed the videotaped portions on the first round.

Elaine Kasmer, a high school art teacher in Baltimore County, Md., who entered the profession after a career as an illustrator, thinks she knows why some of the best teachers pass up the chance for certification. They view it “as a sort of bureaucratic, jump-through-the-hoops thing that is a drain on their teaching,” Ms. Kasmer said.

Practiced observers of accomplished teaching say that in their experience, however, people who win certification are indeed topnotch teachers. “The people I know with [national] certification are wonderful teachers,” said Pam Wise, a veteran teacher who is currently a school coach with the Coalition of Essential Schools Northwest Center in Tacoma, Wash. “And people I know who weren’t [wonderful] didn’t make the cut.”

One question is whether the extensive assessment changes a teacher’s practice for the better over the long haul.

In a 2004 paper, Mr. Goldhaber reported that while North Carolina teachers who later receive national certification start out as more effective than other teachers in raising student test scores, they are less effective the year of the application process. And though they are more effective than other teachers in the first year after certification, the effect wanes thereafter.

Overall, there is more research evidence that the credential signals effectiveness, especially when it comes to educating poor and minority children in the lower grades, than that the process makes better teachers.

Those who have earned the credential, however, overwhelmingly report in a survey underwritten by NBPTS and informally that undergoing the assessment improved their practice.

Douglas N. Harris, an education policy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he is unsure whether the process develops better teachers. His NBPTS supported research on Florida teachers applying for the credential , published this year, suggests it does not.

But other research he has done, he said, showed that the effects of professional development may take several years to appear, years beyond the scope of most recent studies. “There are lots of indicators to show we should be patient, and keep doing these studies,” the researcher contended.

With some exceptions, teachers who know of national certification tend to have a positive impression of its value. But for some it seems beyond their reach in a practical sense. And that speaks to a vexing problem for the national board, which has gathered many more suburban teachers than urban or rural ones.

“It’s probably something that can be valuable,” said Matthew F. McLaughlin, a teacher at the Bronx Preparatory Charter School in New York City, “but I don’t know how it relates to me. The impression I get every time I read about it is that it’s something for a suburban school where half the faculty has been there a long time.”

In contrast, Mr. McLaughlin has had a new principal each of the six years he has taught in two different schools, and estimates the teacher turnover at his current school at about 25 percent annually. “It feels like a luxury for a school like mine, always in startup mode,” he said.

Targeted Incentives

The national board has been working to build its presence in urban and rural schools, and has had some recent success in drawing teachers of color in greater proportion than in the profession generally. At the same time, Mr. Goldhaber found in research published this year that North Carolina teachers getting the credential made it more likely they would move to better-off schools than the ones where they taught at the time they applied. Nationally certified teachers were also more likely to leave the state, according to the research, which was supported by the NBPTS.

The research suggests that teachers, at least in North Carolina, recognize that national certification gives them greater mobility in the job market and they take advantage of it. North Carolina is one of 30 states that allow transplanted teachers to bypass state certification requirements if they have the NBPTS seal.


Some observers of the program in North Carolina, which has more than 11,000 teachers with the advanced certification, the largest number in the nation, have criticized it as state subsidization of better-off school districts. North Carolina, which tops up the salaries of nationally certified teachers by 12 percent, pays out far less of the salary money per capita to poor districts because they have relatively few such teachers.

But Mr. Harris, the Wisconsin researcher, said the NBPTS should not be faulted for a “teacher gap“ problem that crops up no matter which characteristic of better teachers is examined.

John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which includes government and business leaders, agrees. At the same time, he acknowledges concern about getting more nationally certified teachers into low-performing schools, especially in North Carolina’s rural areas. The solution, he said, is not to suppress the number of people achieving national certification but to foster the conditions that will groom and keep teachers of that quality where they are needed most.

“I am looking for how to find new and different ways to provide financial incentives and rewards in poor counties,” Mr. Dornan said.

A few states have opted to pay nationally certified teachers bonuses only when they teach in high-needs schools: California, Georgia, and New York. That approach is not endorsed by the NBPTS, which argues that it undermines its fundamental mission of elevating the teaching profession. But Mr. Aguerrebere does favor topping up the base reward to get more nationally certified teachers into high-needs schools, the approach taken by Washington state.

The national board has also helped pilot projects to increase the number of nationally certified teachers in high-poverty schools by offering help with the $2,500 assessment fee and support during the process. Such programs often work through cohorts of applicants, which strengthens the credential’s power to change teaching practice at a school, national board officials say.

Other Options

It remains an open question whether, considered strictly as professional development, national certification is the best use of the money states pour into it.

Ms. Kasmer at Baltimore County’s Dulaney High School said she would rather see the outlay make it possible for teachers to observe each other regularly and then debrief what they see, something that doesn’t happen at her school.

And yet the national board’s standards for teaching practice are used as the basis for just such activities at some schools, according to Mr. Aguerrebere. It shouldn’t be a matter of either/or, he suggested. Strong standards and assessments make sharing among teachers more meaningful.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 15, 2007 edition of Education Week as The National Board: Challenged by Success?


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