Teacher Licensing Reform and the “Massachusetts Education Miracle”

Most governors, state commissioners of education, state boards of education, and Chambers of Commerce seem to have an unshakable confidence in Common Core’s standards as the silver bullet that will make all K-12 students college and career ready. This confidence is remarkable for two reasons.  First, Common Core’s standards are vastly different from those in the one state—Massachusetts—whose pre-Common Core standards led to greatly increased student achievement in reading, mathematics, and science in its common public schools and in its vocational/technical high schools.  Second, it is not at all clear that the Bay State’s standards, however superior they were to Common Core’s, were the decisive factor responsible for the “Massachusetts education miracle.”

stotsky-anemptycurriculum-coverThe gains were deservedly noteworthy, putting the Bay State in first place on five consecutive National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in both grade 4 and grade 8, in both reading and mathematics, and from 2005 to 2013.  Moreover, international tests confirmed these gains. Bay State students were in a first-place tie in grade 8 science and among the top countries in grade 8 mathematics on Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 2007 and 2011 (the state had entered as a separate country). In addition, most Bay State regional vocational/technical high schools (all with grades 9-12) now have high pass rates in mathematics and English on the state’s high school tests, an attrition rate that is close to zero, and long waiting lists.

It is true that the Bay State’s standards in all major subjects had also been rated by independent academic experts as among the best sets of state standards long before Common Core came into being.  But these standards do not by themselves necessarily account for the gains in achievement by all demographic groups and by our regional vocational/technical high schools (which enroll a disproportionate number of special education students and below-grade level readers).  Other important policies were put into place at the very same time.  Some helped to strengthen the academic knowledge and skills of the state’s teaching corps, wherever they taught.  Others affected other aspects of K-12 education.

However, without the changes Massachusetts made to its entire system of teacher licensing (e.g., subject area licensing tests for all prospective teachers, criteria for achieving full licensure after beginning teaching, and criteria for license renewal for veteran teachers), it is unlikely there would have been enduring gains in achievement for students in all demographic groups and in all its regional vocational/technical high schools—gains confirmed by tests independent of control or manipulation by Massachusetts or federal policy makers.

No other state did what Massachusetts did, i.e., redo almost every aspect of its licensing system. The state’s K-12 standards used for teaching, testing, and professional development were being revised and strengthened at the same time as its licensing system was being revised. As a result, it has been difficult for observers to determine which factor or group of factors was most responsible for these gains: a revised and strengthened licensing system; revised or new licensure tests; the use of first-rate standards in most classrooms, in annual state student tests, and in the professional development programs all teachers took for license renewal; and/or the major changes in K-12 governance and finance introduced by the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.

In a new book, An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests, (Rowman and Littlefield: 2015), I make the case, with empirical support wherever possible, that the revision of the licensing system for each stage in a teaching career and the construction of new or more demanding teacher licensure tests contributed significantly to the long-lasting effects of the state’s first-class standards.

Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. In the past half century, this country has tolerated a weak licensing system for prospective teachers. This weak system has been accompanied by an increasingly emptier curriculum for most of our students, depriving them of the knowledge and skills they need for this country’s experiment in self-government and for their careers in a highly industrialized country. An academically stronger licensing system for teachers would raise the academic quality of our teaching force, strengthen the school curriculum, and, in turn, increase student achievement.

– Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky is professor of education Emerita, University of Arkansas, and was Senior Associate Commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1999-2003.

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