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Answering Questions about National Board Certification

February 26, 2013

For a couple weeks now I’ve been meaning to write something to Lori Walton, but of course, in this venue, it’s really for anyone interested in National Board Certification for teachers. Lori raised some important questions and concerns in an exchange that took place on Twitter, but feeling the constraints of that format, I opted to write a longer response here.

Let me put some important information and disclaimers up front. I’m a National Board Certified Teacher (Adolescent/Young Adult English Language Arts, 2004), and even before I attempted certification, I had a favorable view of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the certification process I intended to undergo. After certifying, I spent two years as a candidate support provider at Stanford’s National Board Resource Center, which is the organization that gave birth to Accomplished California Teachers.

NBCTs Ashley Alcala, Leslee Milch, and David B. Cohen, with Congressman Mike Honda (CA-15), 7/28/11.

NBCTs Ashley Alcala, Leslee Milch, and David B. Cohen, with Congressman Mike Honda (CA-15), 7/28/11.

I’ve attended three NBPTS national conferences and a policy leadership forum, with three of those events including visits to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress on behalf of the organization. I have friends among the present and former directors on the NBPTS Board of Directors, and currently employed by NBPTS. So, yes, I’m biased. I come to the discussion believing in the value in the organization, the process, and the certification. At the same time, I believe that any healthy organization – like a family, classroom, or school – should be open to constructive criticism and a respectful airing of concerns. It is in that spirit that I welcome a dialogue with Lori Walton; I do not in any way speak for NBPTS.

Now, the trigger for the conversation on Twitter was my tweet from an event celebrating the 2013 California Teachers of the Year. Two of this year’s five honorees, Veronica Marquez and I’Asha Warfield, are National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT). I tweeted that fact, and said I’d look foward to the day when two out of every five California teachers are NBCTs. That’s a long way off. Currently, about 3% of American teachers are NBCTs, and in California, it’s an even lower percentage. Many states have a much higher percentage of NBCTs; Washington and North Carolina each has more NBCTs than California.

Lori Walton saw that tweet, and started a lengthy series of tweets containing questions and issues that often come up regarding National Board Certification. I replied to a few of her tweets, but here, I’m reproducing only her portion of the exchange, in two parts. Note: the sequence is shown in reverse order, last tweet on top, first on the bottom.


The cost of certification has always been a significant issue. States and districts that value certification have found ways to defray the costs for the teachers. And importantly, beginning this spring, NBPTS is switching to all-electronic submissions via ePortfolio. From what I’ve heard, this change will dramatically lower the cost of candidacy.

Regarding the lack of feedback, that is a common concern. I would distinguish this from a typical learning activity in which the learner is supposed to be guided and coached by an instructor. In that situation, feedback is non-negotiable. In this situation, going for a professional certification, I think we have something closer to a bar exam or a board exam in another profession; as far as I know, there’s no feedback in those assessments, either. Providing feedback would no doubt add to the cost of what is already an expensive process, though it may improve in the new electronic era for NBPTS. Also worth noting, the certification has ten elements to it: four portfolio pieces, and six assessments completed in a testing center. The score report from NBPTS does include scores for each of the ten elements, allowing candidates to focus on weaker scores if they choose to continue the process.

In my experience as a candidate, and as a support provider, I did not develop the opinion that certification was automatically an indication of outstanding teaching, or that failure to certify should be considered a mark of a poor teacher. There are some false positives, teachers who may not excel in the estimation of their peers, but are successful in the certification process. Likewise, I know there are some fine teachers who go through the process without certifying. It’s a challenging and complex process that pushes us to provide concrete evidence that aligns with a significant number of richly articulated teaching standards. In my own certification, the lowest scoring portfolio entry was a video-based entry that showed a lesson I think is highly effective. When I saw the score and looked back at the entry with a critical eye, I saw gaps in the evidence, standards that I had not fully addressed. I still use that lesson every year (with some fine tuning as needed), and I’m sure it serves students well. I wasn’t able to show everything I needed to show in the video, student work, and tightly limited writing that I submitted.

Regarding certification as professional development, I’m not surprised that Lori finds professional learning communities and collaboration to be more meaningful in her work. In the years that I’ve been following NBPTS, I’ve seen firsthand and heard from many people who know through their own experience that working on certification with a cohort of peers in a support program or in the same school or district can make the process much more beneficial. I know that’s not what Lori meant, but I’m agreeing that our professional learning is strongest when its interactive. It must also be intentional, substantive, and sustained. So, while Lori prefers PLCs to working on NB certification, I’d suggest that combining them would be even more powerful. That approach has become much more of a focus on the National Board, more recently than Lori’s experience as a candidate. It’s an idea whose value is illustrated in the documentary Mitchell 20, which provides an honest look at the challenges, and partial success of 20 teachers from Mitchell Elementary School (AZ), who worked towards certification at the same time.

Lori Walton’s tweets continued, as will this response, in another blog post coming soon.

For a comprehensive review of National Board Certification – written by National Board Certified Teachers – I recommend Measuring What Matters, a Teacher Solutions report from the Center for Teaching Quality.

NBPTS also provides information about research demonstrating the value and efficacy of certification.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2013 8:42 pm

    I would also submit that feedback should be a part of the process PRIOR to submitting the portfolio. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who provided amazing feedback, thoughtful comments, and constructive criticisms of my entries. That is the purpose of the mentors – to provide a critical eye as teachers work on their portfolios.

    ~ Kevin (NBCT, A/YA Social Studies-History, 2012)

  2. February 26, 2013 9:05 pm

    Wow. Thank you for honoring my teacher voice by addressing my comments publicly in such an engaging manner. I truly value being treated professionally.

    I’m naive to the protocols of this site David (not to mention inexperienced in the norms set within the group of @NBPTS) so if I talk too much or take more than my fair share of space, please “school me” 🙂 If nothing else I AM a life long learner.

    While looking forward to your next post, I am interested in dialoging about the role of support provider and issues of equity. I’d like to end with some clarification of the purpose of NB certification.

    I learned of NBPTS during my credentialing program and believed at the time that certification was an important step in my professional development. Additionally, at the first site I was assigned to, I found a plaque on the wall honoring an amazing Kindergarten teacher who had received NBPTS certification. I knew I was in the right place! Amazing things must have been happening there! The proof was on the wall!

    When my District offered to pay the first attempt fees, it was also during a time when the state of California was offering a bonus to NBPTS teachers. A trifecta! I was very eager to participate. (I am certain that at the time, facing tens of thousands of dollars of higher education debt, with a youngster at home, further informed my eagerness.)

    As I proceeded through the process, no formal offer of “support provider” materialized. Not by my district, nor any local collaborative of NBPTS teachers in my area. The teacher at my site was truly wonderful and offered to help video tape and read over my narratives. However, I was teaching 6th grade and she taught Kindergarten. There were several conversations of “that looks right” or “sounds right” but she just wasn’t sure if it WAS “right”. Furthermore, we never discussed the Generalist exams for my age range.

    She worried that she couldn’t be more helpful. I think the real issue between us was that she didn’t know how to be supportive, how to coach me, in such a way that I would be successful. As I reflect, I recall at some point over the several months I was preparing, receiving generic notices in my “box” in the office that NBPTS certified teachers were meeting with prospective candidates in random places within 30 miles of my site. I can honestly say I never believed those notices were meant for me. I was teaching public school, to young adolescents, in a high poverty neighborhood, with no collaborative support system at my school site. I was on my own in every sense of the phrase. No excuses, just real.

    Long story cut shorter (ha!), how many teachers have been or are in a similar situation? If support providers are available for some, but not for others, how is that fair? If geography prevents support how is that fair? If some “achieve” certification with support, and others without, how do you parse out the effect of support on achievement? If support is statistically significant, then I think every candidate should be required to have it, not simply offered, if certification is a desired outcome. Which leads me to the next musing (to borrow a word from @KatieOsgood_).

    Is certification a desired outcome of NBPTS?

    My final thought is with regard to professional development. You shared that certification was “something closer to a bar exam or a board exam in another profession”. In my mind, you have defined then something very different from professional development. You’ve established “status”. Perhaps it is my ignorance and/or naivety that I did not understand the mission of NBPTS in a framework of “status”. Knowing would have made a difference to me.

    Then, you mention of the cost of feedback. David, I was truly taken aback here. We work in education. Not medicine, not law, not engineering, etc… Can we be a profession, yet have our own way to measure standards? Or, is professionalization dependent upon a standardization of how status is defined? Surely financial considerations cannot, should not, define whether or not feedback, a hallmark of our professional obligation to our students, colleagues, parents, and communities (albeit contentious), is provided between the learner and a more capable peer (or peer group).

    Thank you again for your graciousness in giving wings to my voice. I look forward to hearing from you, and our colleagues, soon.


    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 27, 2013 8:59 am

      Hi Lori – thanks for the detailed reply. You continue to raise great issues and important questions. On the question of equity, I agree every candidate deserves support, but from a practical standpoint, I don’t know that any organization can pull that off at a national level – beyond providing links to information, or online networking, which might work for some folks but not all. There’s also something to be said for building the expectation that states and local educational agencies (LEAs) have some responsibility for their teachers.

      Regarding the comparison to a bar exam or boards, you’re right – those processes are not professional development. With NBPTS, I think it’s less clear cut. Many NBCTs and other advocates tout the professional development value of the certification process – but the portfolio submission and evaluation are not, as I understand it, intended as development. So, I think there’s a consensus that there is some PD value in the process even if the design and ultimate result are not, strictly speaking, PD.

      You also raise the issue of status. That’s something that makes a lot of teachers uneasy. I’ve been teaching almost 20 years, and I get it. We need to work together. We also suffer from working in isolation – we don’t often get to see each other teaching. We form opinions about each other, we try not to judge, but we do; we are judged by others, sometimes unfairly. It’s a unique workplace. We aren’t comfortable with “status” when it means some are judged as “better” than others. I prefer to think of status here as a “situation” or “condition” – an indication that the person has been successful going through a certain process. Since it’s open to almost everyone, I hope it doesn’t take on an elitist quality, and to the extent anyone builds it up that way I don’t think it helps us. At the same time, I think some folks put up a reflexive insistence that we should all be seen as equal and treated identically – and that holds us back. If the process of identifying and rewarding “accomplished” teaching is transparent, ethical, and available to all, then I think it deserves our support.

      More to come…

  3. February 27, 2013 2:45 pm

    Hi Lori,

    I’m sorry your mentor was not more helpful. I was in a similar situation in that my mentor earned her board certification in art (she teacher in a public middle school visual arts) and I am a high school social studies teacher at a private, Catholic high school. While my mentor could not help with the subject-specific areas (e.g. how Africa was impacted by the Berlin Conference) she was able to guide my writing and reflection. I would not expect a kindergarten teacher to know the specifics of a 6th grade curriculum, it would be reasonable for the mentor to understand how a teacher can reflect on her/his teaching practices, which is a major focus of becoming board certified.

    With regards to the “status” point, I don’t see status & professional development of NBPTS as necessarily being mutually exclusive and I don’t see that as being wrong. Board certified teachers have demonstrated a mastery of what an accepted professional board deems as important pedagogical processes and content knowledge. Why is it wrong to acknowledge that? That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in continuing my development and i know there are many master teachers who are not board certified (my department chair, for instance). I think it’s important for the National Board that teachers find out who they are as a teacher first before allowing candidates to engage in the certification process, hence the requirement that candidates must have 3 yrs. experience before attempting certification.

    ~ Kevin

    p.s. I hope you both don’t mind my comments. I don’t want to “intrude” and find discussions like this fascinating and important.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      February 27, 2013 3:04 pm

      Kevin – glad you’re in the conversation! That’s what the blog is for – otherwise this would have been a really long email to Lori! Regarding the alignment of supporter/mentor and candidate teaching, you make a good point: the most important guidance is helping candidates understand the process, the use of evidence, analysis and reflection. However, the preferred approach at the Stanford Ntl Board Resource Center, where I was both a candidate and a support provider, is to align as much as possible. I think it helps as far as knowing certain questions to ask, helping candidates anticipate what an evaluator might want to know about instruction, context, learning environment, technology usage, etc.

      • Kevin Hogendorp permalink
        February 27, 2013 3:33 pm

        I fully agree its advantageous to have a mentor in the same field, but I’m guessing it’s not always feasible. Here in Chicago burbs we have “cohorts” where groups of candidates will meet with a mentor. I was lucky in that mine was a cohort of 2 so I received lots of 1-to-1 guidance. Another local group had 9 or 10 candidates in the cohort with one mentor. I will say having others go through it with you can be very helpful.

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