Everyone wants competent, effective teachers for America’s schoolchildren. The question is how to go about getting them. One of the biggest dodges of the issue, used primarily by the education establishment, is to tout “teacher certification” as a kind of failsafe insurance against incompetence.

On the national level, the program that professes to confer unassailable legitimacy upon the capabilities of teachers is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). Formed in 1987, NBPTS has standards for teachers that, it claims, “have forged a national consensus on what accomplished teachers know and should be able to do.”

To obtain NBPTS certification, teachers with at least three years of experience can submit a required set of portfolios of student work, videos of classroom performance, and answer a set of essay questions on teaching designed to assess pedagogical abilities. Submissions are scored by teachers in the same field and grade level.

The NBPTS program is voluntary, and states have not responded uniformly to the chance to have their teachers certified. Some, such as North Carolina, pay the steep application cost of $2,300 for as many teachers as want to try for “national certification,” and guarantee a large salary bonus for those who receive it. Other states, such as Texas, have done nothing to encourage participation in the NBPTS program.

Michigan provides funds to cover only half of the NBPTS application fee, for only 43 teachers per year. The state gives no salary bonus to teachers who receive NBPTS certification, although a few local governments do. Consequently, the number of NBPTS-certified teachers in Michigan is low, only 115. North Carolina, with a smaller population, has over 3,600.

Is Michigan missing a chance to upgrade its teaching corps by failing to provide more incentives for NBPTS? Or is it wisely holding back from putting money into a program of doubtful value?

There has never been a reliable study that verifies NBPTS’ claim of effectiveness. One 2000 study – overseen by the NBPTS itself – was conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It purports to prove that NBPTS-certified teachers are more effective than non-certified teachers.

But University of Missouri economics professor Michael Podgursky subsequently pointed out major flaws in the report. For one thing, it didn’t use student test scores as a measure of teacher effectiveness, dismissing the idea with this rhetorical blast: “It is not too much of an exaggeration to state that such measures have been cited as a cause of all the nation’s considerable problems in educating our youth.” Furthermore, Podgursky observed, the study was an exercise in circular reasoning. “In effect,” he wrote, “the report really tells us only that teachers who were certified by the National Board were more likely to display the types of behaviors that the National Board favors.”

A recent study by East Tennessee State University education professor John Stone found no discernable improvement in student learning when Tennessee students were taught by NBPTS-certified teachers. A crucial difference between Stone’s approach and that of the NBPTS-sponsored study is that Stone relied on student test scores. Tennessee has a system of “value-added” educational reports that measures annual learning gains by students in grades 3 through 8. After evaluating these data, Stone concluded that NBPTS-certified teachers “cannot be considered exceptionally effective in terms of their ability to bring about student achievement.” Some NBPTS-certified teachers even showed learning gains well below average.

Such findings are in keeping with a growing mountain of evidence that teacher certification, whether on the state or national level, doesn’t translate into teacher excellence. And if one looks closely at the NBPTS standards and certification process, it isn’t hard to see why.

Former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education and education policy guru Chester Finn put his finger on the problem when he wrote, “the Board actually rewards teachers for being good at the opposite of what most parents think teachers should excel at. Its idea of a great teacher is one who embraces ‘constructivist’ pedagogy, ‘discovery’ learning, and cultural relativism – not one who imparts to students fundamental knowledge, or even has it himself.”

In choosing not to promote NBPTS, Michigan has made the right call.

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(George C. Leef is director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh, N.C., and an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)

Summary

One of the education establishment’s biggest dodges of the issue of how to find the best teachers is to tout “teacher certification” as a kind of failsafe insurance against incompetence. The establishment’s program for promoting nationwide certification is the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. Michigan is wise not to be a big supporter of this program, since recent studies reveal its inability to make a difference where it counts: in the classroom.

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