Teacher Certification Increases, But . . .

For 14 years, a national program has been offering “advanced level certification” of primary- and secondary-school teachers to ensure that they meet rigorous standards for what teachers should know and be able to do. In its first year, some 540 individuals applied for certification. By last year, the number had climbed to more than 12,000. In all, nearly 64,000 teachers have qualified.

That’s the good news.

What’s less reassuring: Because there are 3.7 million teachers, the total number with certification corresponds to only about three educators for every five schools in the nation, according to a report issued today by the National Research Council, in Washington, D.C.

And — no surprise here — participation rate in the certification program varies widely not only by region but also by the extent to which local jurisdictions actively encourage their teachers to become certified. What’s proven one useful carrot: covering an individual’s $2,500 test fee and then offering big salary hikes once teachers attain certification.

The whole purpose for launching development of the certification program 21 years ago was a recognition that many educators were really not prepared for the subject matter they had been charged with teaching. Certification would offer a way to validate who was.

Because wealthier school districts might host a disproportionate share of teachers able to pay for certification, it’s not a given that poorer schools necessarily have more poorly trained teachers. To probe this issue, nearly a dozen studies have attempted to correlate a teacher’s certification status with his or her students’ achievement-test scores. And in general, the new report finds, “students taught by board-certified teachers had higher achievement test gains than did those taught by nonboard-certified teachers.” However, it also notes, “differences were small and varied by state.”

Moreover, there are other important measures of teacher performance than just getting your kids to pass standardized tests, the report’s authors point out. Key among them: student motivation, breadth of achievement, attendance, and the share of kids promoted from one grade to the next. Unfortunately, few if any studies have assessed the value of teacher certification on these endpoints. But they certainly should, the report says.

Attendance strikes me as a good case in point. Kids may be smart and figure out how to answer standardized tests. But if they play hooky, there’s a lot they will never become exposed to. Moreover, when they do show up, they risk slowing classroom progress as teachers have to help them catch up so they can stay on task (and not distract kids sitting next to them).

Although the certification program was meant to identify teaching excellence and harness those exemplars to mentor others — ventually improving teaching quality beyond their own classrooms — the new report found no evidence this has occurred. Indeed, it found some teachers hide their credentialed status so as not to appear they’re trying to show up peers. And some school administrators chose not to tap the skills of credentialed teachers for fear of appearing to show favoritism.

How perverse is that?

Indeed, identifying good teachers is nice but ultimately pointless if this information is never used, the new report argues. When you consider that it cost roughly $200 million to develop and implement the certification program, you’d hope credentialing pays benefits beyond offering teachers a sheet of paper to frame on their basement rec-room wall.

The new report finds a disconnect between designers of the certification program and most of the school systems that were meant to benefit from it. It’s not too late to fix this. But it will take more than issuing reports. School administrators have to not only read why credentialing makes sense, but also be given compelling reasons to tap the benefits that these ostensibly super-talented teachers offer.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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