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by Lee Shulman


Pundits are fond of saying that “necessity is the mother of invention.” With the National Board as its primary exemplar, I prefer to think that dreams are the mothers of invention. Audacity and courage are its siblings.


Early one morning in the late summer of 1985, I received a phone call from Marc Tucker, then staff director of the Carnegie Corporation’s Task Force on Teaching as a Profession. He asked if I could prepare a report describing what a National Board for America’s teachers might look like in the unlikely event that it could be created and sustained. It became clear that such a feat would call for new conceptions of teaching, utterly new technologies of teacher testing and assessment and the creation of a new kind of non-governmental organization that would be neither a union nor a government agency. Suspending our sense of disbelief, I asked Gary Sykes—then a doctoral candidate at Stanford— to join in this act of creative thinking and writing. We set out to imagine a new institution, owned and operated by America’s most accomplished teachers, designing standards and inventing forms of assessment that had never existed before.

When we began to dream that dream and dis- cussed it with colleagues, our visions were initially dismissed as hallucinations, as fantasies without a needed grounding in reality. The very idea of treating teachers as true professionals with clear standards and the capacity to take responsibility for the quality of their own work seemed absurd to many of our critics. While fields like medicine, law and architecture had developed such boards, teaching was a very different kind of work, perhaps not even a real profession.

And if that idea were not sufficiently absurd, the insane notion of disdaining the “tried-and-true” methods of testing and replacing them with alternatives that were closer to practice was deemed foolhardy. Indeed, when the vision of a portfolio-based assessment that could be both pedagogically authentic and psychometrically sound was put forward, even some of our earlier supporters grew pale.

As we worked collaboratively with the first generation of teacher leaders who would ultimately become the majority of the National Board’s board of directors, we also insisted that whatever assessment method was used, it needed to show promise as a positive influence on the continuing professional development of the teachers who elected to become candidates. Measurement precision was not enough. If we were going to ask the nation’s nest teachers to dedicate their limited time to the development of a portfolio of their practice, that process had to be educative for the teachers or it would be a disservice to the profession. And if sup- port systems or coaching services were created to help candidates perform at a higher level for their portfolios, that would be ne because the only way to do better on the assessment would be to become even more accomplished as a teacher. Indeed, we urged that the ideal preparation for the assessment be mentorship support from Board-certified teachers because of the promise this kind of coaching process held for improving the quality of practice.

As the National Board took shape, educators in other countries took interest. The one assumption that many of us found most difficult to disabuse was that this activity had to be a government process, controlled and overseen by officials of departments or ministries of education. Our colleagues in other countries could not imagine that something this ambitious, this pioneering, this expensive, and having such a direct impact on national educational policy, could be led by a professional organization of teachers that was not controlled by national or state governments.

The original research and development e ort I described took place between 1985 and 1990. During that period, the board as we know it was established. A great deal has happened since the work began. When the number of NBCTs crossed the 100,000 mark, it became clear our dream was no longer a fantasy, our ambitions no longer a hallucination.


This seminal text is organized around a mantra that is by now well known in the teaching world. “What should teachers know and be able to do?” Hence, the standards for accomplished teaching encompass both the habits of mind needed by outstanding teachers—their knowledge, strategies, grasp of subject matter and understanding of developing kids—and also their skills, the technical “habits of practice” that accomplished professionals in every field of practice have honed and developed. Knowing and Doing are the hallmarks of deep professional achievement.

Nevertheless, in addition to knowing and doing, to habits of mind and habits of practice, Board-certified teachers are also identified by habits of the heart, as the kinds of human beings whom we trust and to whom we entrust the children of our communities. We trust them to use their knowledge and skills for the benefit of their students, their communities, and their society. In its fullest form, as you read the pages that follow, you will see that our characterization of the accomplished teacher is defined by what teachers should know and be able to do, as well what kind of human being they should strive to be.

During a study of how America’s engineers should be prepared, I asked a group of engineering students who were completing their undergraduate preparation how they would respond to someone’s question, “What is an engineer?” The response they gave provides a useful reminder of how we, Preface as teachers, might view our roles as professionals. Engineering students said, “As engineers we use math and the sciences to mess with the world by designing and making things that people will buy and use…and once you mess with the world, you’re responsible for the mess you’ve made.”

What then is a teacher? As teachers we use the many sources of professional knowledge, skill and experience at our disposal to engage the minds and hearts of children and youth by teaching and inspiring them. And once we mess with minds and hearts, we are prepared to take responsibility for the messes we have made, the dreams we inspired, the minds we have brought to life, the prejudices we have forestalled, and the society to which we have given hope.

And yet, there’s a deeper sense of what it means to take responsibility for the messes that we are destined, nay obligated, to make. We are obliged as teachers to do everything we can to become smarter about our subjects, our students, and our work, more skilled in the pursuit of our practice, and more ethical, self-aware and empathic as human beings that our society trusts to mess with minds and hearts. The National Board exemplifies how we as members of the professional teaching community take that responsibility.

Thirty years passed. And thus, one morning in 2016, I received an email from the new president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards suggesting we meet over breakfast in Palo Alto. Peggy Brookins, a National Board-certified teacher of high school mathematics, was now president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, an organization that has certified more than 112,000 teachers across all 50 states and DC. Peggy asked if I would revisit that newborn infant that began its life three decades ago and prepare a personal preface to this volume. I revisited the dream. Teaching portfolios, for example, were no longer a weird anomaly destined to be buried by traditional forms of assessment. The idea that teachers could be evaluated using professional standards created by teachers, for teachers as adapted to the situations in which they taught was no longer a fantasy. The letters “NBCT” after a teacher’s name is the highest honor a member of the profession can attain.

“What” is the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards? That is the question this brief volume promises to answer. It’s a deceptively simple question with exciting and inspiring answers that, at least for me, extend back in time for 30 years. I am now con dent that its life expectancy is unlimited, as is its potential for bringing about a significant improvement in the countenance of American education.

Lee S. Shulman
Emeritus Professor
Stanford Graduate School of Education
Palo Alto, California

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