The Union Stake in National Teacher Certification by Robert Holland*

NBPTS: High Investment, Questionable Purpose and Results

Well into its 15th year of existence, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards recently issued calls for research that it hopes will show teachers who gain NBPTS certification have a larger impact on student achievement than do non-NBPTS-certified teachers.

That step comes after a federal investment of more than $100 million in a board that got its start from Carnegie and Rockefeller foundation largesse. And it comes after 33 states and almost 300 school districts have shelled out $2,300 to pay for each applicants' fee, and as much as $5,000 in lavish yearly bonuses on those who win certification.

It is past time to see tangible results (such as test score gains) from this enormous investment in education via the establishment-pampered NBPTS, as to exactly how it has improved education. However, the teacher unions--the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)--already are convinced of the NBPTS' worth in advancing their "professionalization" and other agendas.

The idea behind the NBPTS is that, as a tool of peer review, it places teachers on a professional plane with doctors and lawyers. As Education Policy Institute president Myron Lieberman demonstrates in the most recent issue of Government Union Review, "the analogy to other professions is seriously flawed." For one thing, doctors, dentists, and lawyers are, by and large, independent contractors--a status bringing risks the teacher unions and their members do not want. They want only the rewards of independence. Even if the analogy were sound, the NBPTS' assessments are a far cry from the objective knowledge required by examinations in the medical and legal professions.

NBPTS Assessments Provide Opportunities for Manipulating Certification Process

Because they are so subjective, the NBPTS assessments offer rich opportunities to manipulate the process and to prep candidates to parrot conventional education-school platitudes. The NEA and AFT, whose members constitute almost two-thirds of this private organization's governing board, know that. Although the teacher unions adamantly oppose merit pay based on gains in student achievement and supervisors' classroom evaluations, they love the NBPTS' potential for inflating pay and advancing their agendas--so much so that the NEA and AFT publish a detailed annual guide for candidates for national certification.

In applying for certification, teachers submit their portfolios for assessment. Into these portfolios go two videotapes of the teacher in action in the classroom along with his or her written commentary, two samples of student work plus more commentary, and two forms of documentation of the teachers' work with families, the community, and professional colleagues. In addition, candidates complete exercises such as preparing lesson plans or commenting on other teachers' work during an all-day session at the assessment center.

NEA / AFT Candidate Guide Dumbed Down

The NEA/AFT candidates' guide pays great attention to a teacher's skills of cinematography--perhaps not surprisingly given that teachers typically spend much time on the job preparing the best possible videotaped evidence of their instructional prowess. The "Cameraperson Guide" does not suggest the unions have a very high opinion of the candidates' common sense. For instance, the guide advises:

"Before taping, make sure all cables are securely connected and the tape is in the camera."

Put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.

Avoid taping when there is "extraneous noise," such as a band practice.

Increase light in the room by turning on all the lights and opening the blinds. However, "do not aim the camera at a source of bright light."

One would think a teacher presumed bright enough to enjoy the prestige of national certification would be assumed bright enough to put a tape in a camera before such a high-stakes filming. But more telling than the almost comical banality is the NEA/AFT tilt toward the constructivist or so-called child-centered approach to learning espoused by most schools of education and the education progressivists generally.

The board's Standards heavily favor the child-centered ideology over traditional teacher-directed instruction. For instance, the NBPTS benchmarks ask for signs that a teacher has tapped a student's "natural interests and curiosity" and has allowed the child to "have some control of the activity." In addition, teachers are supposed to show that their classes let children construct mathematical or scientific principles for themselves, a clear bow to constructivism. In an in-depth Fordham Foundation look at NBPTS' operations in 1999, Danielle Dunne Wilcox found that national certification emphasizes a grasp of pedagogy far more than it does knowledge of content. Amazingly, applicants incur no penalties if their commentaries are riddled with poor syntax, misspellings, and grammatical mistakes.

Prepare for Test, Not to Teach

Accordingly, the NEA/AFT guidebook admonishes candidates:

You probably have your own standards of what you consider to be good teaching, or you may agree with another set of teaching standards. Although these teaching standards may be helpful to you in developing your teaching practice, they should not {boldface theirs} be your focus during the National Board Certification process. Your sole focus should be the National Board standards, because it is those--and only {boldface theirs} those standards--on which your work will be evaluated.

That is remarkably cynical advice. It suggests that even a master teacher who assists students in making huge achievement gains should forget everything she knows is true, unless it happens to dovetail with NBPTS-favored practice of teachers being facilitators instead of teachers being teachers. This disdain for academic results helps explain the findings of University of Missouri economist Michael Podgursky that the NBPTS has not shown its product yields tangible academic results. That's not terribly surprising given that the process-oriented approach to certification is resoundingly anti-intellectual.

Apologists may view the NEA/AFT advice as simply pragmatic--do what is necessary to win certification and fatter checks, and then go back to what you know works. However, NBPTS-certified teachers are supposed to become mentors to other teachers, and their certification lasts for 10 years (and will be renewable). Hence, the plan is for these select teachers to be a force in shaping teaching and learning through the system.

Goal of Unions is to Control Educators, Schools, Classrooms & Ideology

As the always-alert Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency notes, a current bid by the California Teachers Association to win passage of a law expanding collective bargaining to include all aspects of a school system's operation--not just the traditional pay and benefits--shows the desire of today's unionists to control the classroom. Here's just a sampling of the many concerns that would be bargained were AB2160 to become law, according to Antonucci:

The use and assignment of mentors.

The development and implementation of any program to enhance pupils' academic performance.

Textbook selection.

Content of courses, curriculum, standards.


"Even conservative interest groups have been slow to realize the implications of this bill," wrote Antonucci in the March 4, 2002, online edition of the EIA ( Antonucci continued,

The widened scope of bargaining would also apply to charter schools with union representation. You couldn't get rid of Whole Language or fuzzy math without bargaining with the union. You couldn't institute a new parental involvement program without bargaining with the union. ... (Y)ou couldn't install new lighting on campus without bargaining with the union.

While religious conservatives are up in arms about the NEA Task Force on Sexual Orientation and resolutions that have little practical value, the California Teachers Association is pushing for a system that would allow any local teachers' union affiliate in the state to bargain, develop, and implement the very gay/lesbian curricula they fear . . . or any other misguided nonsense, and do it all behind closed doors.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is a more subtle part of a union power play in education. And it has supporters motivated by a sincere desire for improved teaching. Yet, its assessment processes are so subject to manipulation that vested interests like the teacher unions have a clear opening to use national certification to advance their ends--not only economic but ideological ones. The door appears to be open to outright cheating to certify the maximum number of teachers.

NBPTS Unable to Ensure Authentic Certifications

Dale Ballou, another distinguished economist (University of Massachusetts/Amherst) who has studied the NBPTS extensively, has pointed out in an unpublished paper that board certification suffers from weakness of evidence and the board's inability to ensure authenticity. Certification, he notes,

is based on how candidates present themselves to the board, not how well they teach. The board does not assess how much a teacher's students have learned. It does not visit classrooms or consult with candidates' supervisors. The board instead attempts to judge from afar, relying on portfolios and assessment center exercises. Portfolio entries can be manipulated to show the teacher favorably, while the board has no outside information that would permit it to check their accuracy. As for the assessment center exercises, the board frequently tips its hand, revealing a great deal about the questions and answers it expects in the advance materials mailed to the candidates. Even where it does not, the board does not take the most basic precautions to preserve the integrity of the assessment, but instead administers the same exercises to different candidates on different test dates.

Closing Caution for State Legislators

NEA representatives have said they would like to see 97 percent or more of candidates win certification. So far the passing rate is considerably lower than that, but it has been rising briskly. And as ill-informed state legislatures continue passing incentives to pump up NBPTS certification, quality is likely to be driven out altogether by the stampede to collect unmerited bonuses. Teachers who earnestly want their pupils to learn will find their union stewards urging them to practice and advocate teaching methods that their own experience tells them are ineffective.

* Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia.