A recent study of the results of teacher certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), written by Dan Goldhaber and Emily Anthony of the Urban Institute, has generated a lot of cheering among politicians and leaders in the education establishment. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, for example, said in a press release, “This study reaffirms my belief in National Board Certification for our teachers, scientifically proving the success we have already seen in our schools.” Roy Barnes, Chairman of NBPTS, stated that “the study provides state and national policy-makers with proof that National Board Certification is a smart investment.”

Let’s hold off on the cheering. A careful reading of the Goldhaber/Anthony study shows that it gives only slight praise for the program as a means of identifying those who are the more effective teachers. It does not conclude that the NBPTS program has the effect of causing teachers to improve, and it also questions whether it is a cost-effective means of raising student performance.

Goldhaber and Anthony analyzed student test results in North Carolina for third, fourth, and fifth graders from 1996-1999, looking at their progress in reading and math. What they found was a small but statistically significant correlation between student learning gains and having been taught by a National Board certified teacher (NBCT). On average, students taught by an NBCT improved somewhat more than did students taught by teachers who had not attempted to obtain certification, or who had tried and failed.

But does that indicate that the NBPTS program is responsible for those teachers being better? Goldhaber and Anthony think not. Their paper states, “Going through the NBPTS certification process does not appear to make a teacher more effective.” In other words, the costly and time-consuming certification process helps to identify teachers who are already better than average, but it does not improve those who aren’t.

That is a conclusion that should cause shudders at NBPTS, which makes much ado about its supposedly rigorous teaching standards and leads people to believe that it has laid out the true path to becoming a master teacher. But its standards consist of about equal parts of ideas that are elementary common sense and ideas that call for “progressive” teaching methods. Someone might be a superb teacher without ever having read the NBPTS standards. Conversely, someone might have completely absorbed those standards and yet failed to impart much knowledge to his or her students.

Furthermore, the NBPTS process of certifying some teachers and not others is very shaky. It is not, as Gov. Easley’s press release says, “an extensive series of performance-based assessments.” What it entails is the creation of a video that shows the teacher at work (carefully staged by the teacher), the submission of several “portfolios” with some examples of student work and “reflective commentary” by the teacher, along with the writing of several essays. All of that is subjectively graded by other teachers. How much students actually learn from the teacher is irrelevant.

One Atlanta-area high school teacher who obtained certification wrote in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution last year, “Though picky and frustrating, the national certification process is not as difficult as people claim it is. More important, I doubt it is going to improve student achievement.” Rather than looking for solid evidence of teaching excellence, he said that it’s “really a process where teachers tell the Board what it wants to hear.”

Knowing one’s subject very well is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for excellence in teaching. Yet, there is no subject matter exam that teachers must pass in order to qualify for certification. The essay questions that candidates must write often have some subject matter knowledge included, but that is a far cry from teachers having to demonstrate a depth of knowledge of their particular fields.

The Goldhaber/Anthony study finds that, on average, students taught by nationally certified teachers progress somewhat faster. But it is also true that there are many cases where certified teachers produced only average, or even below average, results. A 2002 study by Prof. John Stone of East Tennessee State University concluded that not all of those rewarded with the NBCT stamp are really excellent teachers. Some mediocre teachers receive certification, while some good ones don’t.

Additionally, it is telling that hardly any private schools have chosen to reward their teachers who obtain National Board certification. Private schools need highly competent teachers in order to compete with “free” government schools, but there is no evidence that they see the NBPTS program as an effective way of getting better teachers.

Given the high cost of paying for the NBPTS certification process ($2,300 per teacher), Goldhaber correctly points out that “Whether there might be other ways to identify highly effective teachers is another particularly important policy question.” If the goal is to identify the best teachers, it should be done for the lowest cost possible. And National Board certification is both costly and unreliable.

Michigan is among the states that have done little to encourage teachers to seek National Board certification. Despite the hoopla over the recent study, Michigan policy-makers should continue to refrain from subsidizing it.

George C. Leef is the Director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C., and was an aide to Michigan State Senator David Honigman in the 1990s.