Competition Arrives for Teacher Certification

Published February 1, 2004

Schools of education and allied accreditation and teacher licensing agencies now face a competitor who is challenging their longtime role as exclusive gatekeepers to public school teaching.

With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) deadline looming for public schools to be employing “highly qualified” teachers, the new American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) figures to be an increasingly important player in the education arena in 2004 and beyond.

By the end of 2003, two states–Idaho and Pennsylvania–had officially accepted the ABCTE’s Passport to Teaching as a new way for aspiring and current teachers to earn full certification based on subject-matter expertise and classroom know-how. Other states soon may be following their lead, because ABCTE offers an innovative way to get qualified teachers into classrooms without requiring them to earn a degree from a college of education.

The American Board recently was awarded a $35 million federal grant to expand certification options for teachers, particularly in high-need areas such as science and special education. Secretary of Education Rod Paige recognized the ABCTE’s viability in his 2003 annual report on meeting the NCLB’s call for all classrooms to be staffed by “highly qualified” teachers by the 2005-06 school year.

To be considered highly qualified under NCLB, a teacher must have a bachelor’s degree, full certification/licensure as defined by each state, and demonstrated competence in each core academic subject he or she teaches. Paige has repeatedly said that alternative routes to certification will be welcome.

Certification Without Indoctrination

J.E. Stone, an East Tennessee State University professor of education who is a critic of conventional teacher certification, believes the federal backing gives ABCTE the clout to develop and validate more alternative certification exams and to carry its message into more states.

“As more states come on line, certification without indoctrination will become a very popular option for prospective teachers. Look for a substantial increase in ABCTE-certified teachers in the next year or two,” said Stone, founder of the online Education Consumers Clearinghouse.

In late December, Buffy DeBreaux-Watts, the ABCTE’s director of marketing and outreach, said at least 10 additional states were looking into steps that would be needed, such as amending codes and regulation, to add ABCTE to a menu of options for teachers and aspiring teachers.

Critics of the long-dominant system of teacher licensing contend it attempts to steep all would-be K-12 teachers in the philosophy of learner-centered or “progressive” education, with teachers acting as facilitators (“guides on the side”) instead of as direct transmitters of knowledge and skills (“sages on the stage”). After analyzing a century’s worth of data, Jeanne Chall, a respected researcher at Harvard Graduate School of Education who died in 1999, concluded that, for most students, teacher-directed instruction was most effective in raising their achievement.

Passport to Teaching

ABCTE’s new Passport to Teaching certification can be earned by career-switchers, recent college graduates, or active teachers seeking full certification. In addition to passing the American Board’s tests of their subject-matter knowledge and their grasp of teaching methods (pedagogy), candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree and pass a criminal background check.

Stone noted that although there is a pedagogical component to the testing, it is not geared to the learner-centered doctrines favored by the National Council on Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) or the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), two powerful elements of the education establishment. Nor are candidates required to have a degree from a college of education or even to have taken courses from such colleges.

DeBreaux-Watts said part of the ABCTE process entails candidates using experienced educators who help them develop a diagnostic self-assessment to build on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.

The ABCTE examinations use computer simulations to have candidates gauge situations that arise in classrooms and muster the skills to meet them. As part of demonstrating their knowledge, candidates must write a cogent essay, in part to demonstrate their ability to communicate effectively with other educators and with parents.

Master Teachers

The American Board plans to launch a second tier of testing in 2004 that will offer veteran teachers the opportunity to win certification as Master Teachers. Still under development, this high-level certification will require teachers not only to pass rigorous tests but also to submit so-called “value-added” data proving they have helped students raise their achievement significantly.

That prospect has caught the attention of the NBPTS, which was founded in the 1980s with the backing of the national teacher unions to offer veteran teachers the opportunity to gain national certification and to be rewarded for it.

Aware of the emerging competition, the NBPTS posts on its Web site side-by-side contrasts between its requirements and those under development by ABCTE, which sprang into existence in 2001 through the efforts of reform groups like the Education Leaders Council and the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The National Board implicitly criticizes the American Board for not yet having explained how its teacher value-added data will be “collected, presented, and assessed.” Yet, NBPTS’s own standards do not consider at all a teacher’s impact on student test scores, a policy the National Board defends. The NBPTS contends its policy of having teachers submit samples of student work and explanations of how they evaluated it–along with videotapes of themselves teaching–provides “a more authentic measure of learning than simply relying on test scores that may not provide enough information on a specific teacher’s actions and that may be difficult to attribute to a single teacher.”

Rapidly Rising Costs

However, states that decided in recent years to hand out hefty annual bonuses to teachers who won NBPTS certification are hearing from legislators questioning the rapidly rising price tag for a program that offers no evidence it is improving student achievement. For instance, Georgia awards an automatic 10 percent annual pay raise for the 10-year life of a NBPTS certificate. The cost to the state will rise from a mere $100,000 in fiscal year 2000 to $15.6 million in fiscal year 2005.

Former Georgia Governor Roy Barnes, who recently became NBPTS chairman, defends the expense as a worthwhile incentive for teachers; however, some members of the Peach State’s House Appropriations Committee are questioning whether NBPTS is the wisest use of money in tight education budgets.

Among other states facing major fiscal hits are North Carolina and Florida, which rank 1-2 in the number of NBPTS-certified teachers–North Carolina with 6,641 and Florida with 4,941. Georgia has just pushed above the 1,000 mark.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Further information on the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE) is available online at

Further information on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is available online at