National Teacher Certification Labeled a ‘Hoax’

Published April 1, 2004

Despite the exalted rank implied by the term “National Board Certified,” the content knowledge required of K-12 teachers who want to earn such a title through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is only that of an advanced high school class, according to a recent commentary published in the Teacher College Record under the title, “National Board Certification of Teachers: A Billion Dollar Hoax.”

“[D]espite claims to the contrary, the standards for National Board Certification of Teachers are closer to entry level standards for teachers and … teachers who attain such certification do not deserve the humongous pay raises and other incentives that have been lavished on them,” reported M.O. Thirunarayanan, an associate professor in the College of Education, and an associate dean in the University Graduate School, at Florida International University in Miami, Florida.

This is not the first time the wisdom of paying bonuses to nationally certified teachers has been questioned when there is no evidence they perform better than the average teacher in terms of student achievement. Michael Podgursky of the University of Missouri raised the issue in Education Next in 2001, and J.E. Stone of East Tennessee State University conducted research in 2002 that showed national board certified teachers in Tennessee performed no better than the average teacher in terms of student achievement gains. (See “Nationally Certified Teachers Come Up Short on Achievement,” School Reform News, August 2002.)

When he saw how much additional pay teachers received for becoming nationally certified–a 10 percent pay hike in Florida and bonuses up to $7,500 a year in other states or school districts–Thirunarayanan became curious about the standards NBPTS applies for certification.

According to NBPTS, the certification effort has cost $315.5 million at the national level. When state and local spending is included, Thirunarayanan estimates a total cost of a half-billion dollars to date and a billion dollars within a few years.

When he started his examination of NBPTS standards, Thirunarayanan said he had hoped to find a truly high-level qualification with rigorous and challenging content requirements.

“But I found otherwise,” he told School Reform News. Examining the standards in two NBPTS science certifications, he discovered the science content requirements to be very similar to the science content students are expected to know by the time they graduate from high school.

“The National Board Certification for Teachers is by no means a high-level certification,” concluded Thirunarayanan. “It is at best equal to entry-level certification for teachers.”

It is the weak content standards that particularly concern Thirunarayanan. “You can’t use pedagogy to teach what you don’t know,” he warns. But he was unimpressed by other aspects of NBPTS certification, too.

According to NBPTS, its National Board Certification process is based on “standards that describe the highest level of teaching in different disciplines.” The process seeks to identify “teachers who effectively enhance student learning” and demonstrate a “high level” of knowledge and skills “as reflected” in the following five core propositions:

  • Teachers are committed to students and their learning.
  • Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
  • Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning.
  • Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.
  • Teachers are members of learning communities.

Thirunarayanan argues these propositions are of little value in helping define a teacher of superior quality. For example, both beginning and experienced teachers should be “committed to students”; simply knowing “the subjects they teach” is not a sufficient reason to give teachers National Board Certification; and students as well as teachers are “members of learning communities.”

“Even children learn from their experiences and they do not have any kind of certification, and certainly not National Board Certification,” he points out.

In Thirunarayanan’s view, applicants for National Board Certification should have the following minimum qualifications:

  • an earned doctorate in their areas of expertise;
  • five years of classroom teaching experience;
  • evidence of significantly higher student achievement;
  • evidence of developing innovative ways of teaching, learning, and assessment;
  • publication of scholarly papers and/or books; and,
  • good performance on rigorous content exams.

It is reasonable to expect that students taught by a Nationally Certified teacher should perform better than students of their teacher peers, argues Thirunarayanan, making the same point as Podgursky and Stone.

The “Hoax” paper ignited a storm of angry emails to the Teacher College Record Web site. Teachers denounced the commentary as an “unsubstantiated attack,” calling it “offensive,” “poorly reasoned,” “sarcastic,” “poorly written,” “a blatant insult,” “uninformed,” and “lacking in scholarly merit.”

However, a few respondents concurred with Thirunarayanan’s assessment, saying the financial facts were “essentially true,” the content knowledge assessment of NBPTS is sometimes “very weak,” and the NBPTS process “does not identify teachers with outstanding classroom capabilities.”

Another paper published by the Teacher College Record provides valuable insight into what teachers go through when seeking NBPTS certification. The February 2000 paper, “Communities of Practice and Discourse Communities: Negotiating Boundaries in NBPTS Certification,” describes, at length and in highly inflated language, how four applicants figured out what was needed to complete the NBPTS application package. The researchers’ comments on teaching and knowledge are particularly enlightening, given Thirunarayanan’s findings of NBPTS’s weak content requirements:

“[Classroom teachers] do not apply objective, individual knowledge; rather they function effectively in the community, becoming enculturated into that particular community’s subjective point of view. Knowledge can be considered conceptual tools whose ‘meaning is not invariant but a product of negotiation within the community.'”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

M.O. Thirunarayanan’s paper, “National Board Certification of Teachers: A Billion Dollar Hoax,” which appeared in the February 12, 2004 issue of Teacher College Record, is available online at

Links to J.E. Stone’s NBPTS study and other material, pro and con, are available online at

The February 2000 Teacher College Record paper by Robert Burroughs, Tammy A. Schwartz, and Martha Hendricks-Lee, “Communities of Practice and Discourse Communities: Negotiating Boundaries in NBPTS Certification,” is available online at