WASHINGTON, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- Perhaps you've seen in your local newspaper, as I have in mine, periodic news stories about schoolteachers who have earned national board certification. Since 1995, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has been identifying and credentialing "master teachers" who meet NBPTS standards.
Achieving certification -- a formidable, time-consuming process requiring a teacher to prepare a six-part portfolio and take a six-hour essay exam -- is intended to indicate that the teacher has met rigorous standards and is at the top of his or her profession.
In 44 states teachers who attain NBPTS certification are rewarded with financial bonuses, Julie Blair reported in the Oct. 17 issue of Education Week.
In my home state of Oklahoma, for example, board-certified teachers receive a $5,000 annual stipend for 10 years, and the state Board of Education wants to increase that amount to $7,000.
At first blush, this seems like good policy. After all, both common sense and empirical research tell us that good teaching is crucial for academic success. Surely board certification is just as important for a teacher as it is for, say, a pediatrician, and it only makes sense for public policy to encourage it.
But as Aesop and others have taught us, things are not always what they seem. Last month the think tank with which I am affiliated, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, published a report indicating that there's less to NBPTS board certification than meets the eye. Here's why.
Public opinion surveys consistently tell us that a majority of parents and taxpayers -- education's consumers, if you will -- have a clear view of what they want education to be. They value a "traditional" or "teacher-centered" education where teachers teach a solid, rigorous core curriculum and students are expected to learn it. (In short, think Core Knowledge. E.D. Hirsch's books, "What Your First Grader Needs to Know," and others like it, are representative of this view.) Call them old-fashioned, but for these consumers the bottom line is academic achievement.
All of this seems obvious enough, but in fact there is another view of education, a view held by many of education's producers -- bureaucrats, union leaders, education professors, and so on.
This view could be called "progressive" or "learner-centered," as Professors John Stone, George Cunningham and Donald Crawford explain in the new OCPA report, "Improving Teacher Quality in Oklahoma: A Closer Look."
"Rather than instruct, shape, or guide the student," Stone explains, "progressive/learner-centered teaching is intended to permit discovery and to facilitate the expression of curiosity and creativity. It is a kind of 'edutainment' intended primarily to stimulate and engage. It treats learning as incidental, subordinate, and secondary in importance.
"It opposes traditional or 'teacher-centered' methods, i.e., teaching that requires students to pay attention, make an effort, and behave themselves," says Stone, an educational psychologist at East Tennessee State University. It strongly emphasizes "teacher commitment to equity, diversity, and social justice," and "opposes clear educational standards, letter grades, standardized tests, and accountability."
In sum, parents and taxpayers largely favor traditional education, but many of education's producers are enamored with this progressive, learner-centered philosophy.
And as the OCPA report makes clear, the entire NBPTS certification process is soaked through with this approach.
"Nowhere in the portfolio process does the NBPTS ask for evidence of student learning," say Cunningham and Crawford. "In fact, the nature of these portfolio entries can be interpreted as advocating a de-emphasis on academic achievement."
The emphasis is on "the candidate's ability to discuss his or her pedagogical philosophy. Neither the candidate's level of content knowledge or the performance of the students is being evaluated."
Indeed, the NBPTS explicitly instructs its graders, when evaluating teachers' portfolios, "to ignore errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, and simply to concentrate on evidence of pedagogical skills and proper attitude," writes Michael Poliakoff, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, in the October 2001 issue of Philanthropy magazine.
Cunningham tells me the board-certification process "has absolutely not the slightest thing to do with whether a teacher's students learn anything. Achievement is not even on the radar screen as being of any importance. The key to getting board certified is to demonstrate that you are totally in agreement with the progressive philosophy of education."
And since student achievement is not emphasized, it should come as no surprise if it is not realized.
"Is the national board able to identify superior teachers?" researchers Dale Ballou and Michael Podgursky asked in 1998. "The surprising answer to this question is: We don't know. At no point has it ever been ascertained that the students of teachers who meet board standards actually learn more."
Adds Poliakoff: "Hard data on student achievement remain unavailable."
The bottom line: National board certification is not what it appears to be. Indeed, Cunningham tells me that, though he wouldn't necessarily remove his own child from a classroom with a board-certified teacher, such certification would in fact "be a negative for me. Because what I would recognize is, here's a teacher who is totally, totally committed to progressive education methods and is not that interested in student achievement."
Poliakoff is hopeful that alternative providers of certification will arise, "agencies with procedures that require evidence of student learning gains and teachers' deep knowledge of the subjects they teach."
Until then, policymakers should stop rewarding NBPTS certification.
(Brandon Dutcher is research director at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, an independent think tank that works to advance the principles of free enterprise, limited government, and individual initiative in Oklahoma, and opposes increased state-government taxing, spending and regulation.)