What Led to the “Massachusetts Education Miracle”?
Sandra Stotsky –
April 3, 2015
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 all its public schools (including its vocational/technical high schools). Second, it is not at all clear that the Bay State’s former standards, however superior they were to Common Core’s, were the decisive factor responsible for the “Massachusetts education miracle.”
As the person often cited as the driver behind the state’s first-class standards (with the support of then Commissioner David Driscoll and then Chairman James Peyser of the State Board of Education), I have been trying for many years to inform reporters and education researchers that the state’s former standards, as good as they were judged to be by external reviewers, do not by themselves necessarily account for the gains in achievement by all demographic groups and by the state’s 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.
Except for a few changes in licensing requirements, in license renewal, and in one licensing test since the early 2000s, the same system has been in place for over a decade. Maybe, just maybe, this system has contributed to the enduring gains made by Bay State students.
It is an oft-quoted truism that teachers cannot teach what they do not know. In the past half century, most states have 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.
It is reasonable to believe that 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. And it is reasonable to believe that is what happened in the Bay State. But that doesn’t seem to be what the US Department of Education wants, to judge by the policies it has required all Common Core states to implement since 2010.
While the first step in strengthening public education in this country is the development of strong academic standards in all major subjects, something we do not have in any state since 2011, the second should be the tightening up of the academic screws, so to speak, of every state’s teacher licensing system, not, as is now the case, the development of costly national K-12 student tests that may be as poor in quality as the standards on which they are based. Instead of content-poor licensure tests, as most states have, states could adopt. at relatively no cost to themselves (and with no consultant or royalty fees for me), the Massachusetts licensure tests of subject matter knowledge that helped to propel the “Massachusetts education miracle.” They can apply easily to whatever K-12 standards states now have.
Sandra Stotsky recently authored: The Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests (Rowman & Littlefield, March 2015), based on her work as Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1999-2003.