The Forum | General Education

From the Bookshelf: A Prescription for Successful Schools

August 18, 2015

Sandra Stotsky has devoted her entire career to maintaining high standards in American education, particularly in the training of teachers. As Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education, she directed the revision of Massachusetts’ K–12 curriculum standards, as well as the regulations for teacher licensure and licensure testing. Together, these formed the essential elements of the “Massachusetts education miracle.” Since 2007 she has been a senior professor in the University of Arkansas’ Department of Education Reform. Most recently, she has travelled the nation sounding a warning about the harm that coercive implementation of the Common Core standards will do to both K–12 and higher education. Many in the world of education find her message inconvenient, but it will be to the nation’s great harm not to listen to it with careful attention.

In March 2015, Rowman and Littlefield released Dr. Stotsky’s new book, An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests. It is a relatively short book, as welcoming to the non-expert as it is replete with insights for the veteran, but it is also an uncompromising book that leaves the apologists for poorly trained teachers no room to hide.

The combination of high standards for the K–12 and high standards for teacher licensure was clearly effective. Between 2005 and 2013, Massachusetts placed first on five consecutive NAEP tests for grades 4 and 8 in both mathematics and reading. On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Massachusetts was entered as a separate nation, and, unlike the lackluster overall U.S. performance, scored among the top nations in grade 8 mathematics and science. While many professional educators search like the Keystone Cops in an expensive (and often taxpayer-funded) quest for New- and-Better-Best-Practices-to-Help-Our-Children-Succeed, Massachusetts simply did it. It is a story that needs to be told and replicated.

Starting on the first page of the book, Dr. Stotsky explodes the convenient and comforting belief that state regulations are a reliable assurance that teachers are “academically competent to teach the subjects they were legally licensed to teach.” These tests, she shows, are often set at a standard well below reasonable expectations for a college student, much less a college senior or college graduate (pp. 105–107). And the percentage of correct answers required for a passing score is shockingly low in many states—what constitutes a passing score is a decision left to each individual state. And adding to all of that, Dr. Stotsky reminds the reader that the passing score is compensatory, i.e., a candidate for a teaching license can get entire sections of the exam wrong but still pass on the strength of other parts of the exam (see esp. pp. 18–20). Nor does accreditation provide any reasonable quality assurance. Dr. Stotsky cites the report of former president of Teacher’s College Columbia, who recommended closing most of the nation’s 1200 education schools and excoriated the system of accrediting education programs for its failure to ensure teacher quality. ACTA publicly—and successfully—opposed the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) for its ideological focus on the “dispositions” of teacher candidates regarding social justice. Dr. Stotsky points (p. 126) to the failure of this organization and its successor, the Council for Accreditation of Education Preparation (CAEP), to ensure that prospective teachers actually know the subjects they will teach.

How did we get into this mess? Chapter 4 of An Empty Curriculum provides a window into the sorry history of how, in a process underway by the end of the Second World War, teacher licensure tests moved away from a serious assessment of intellectual skills, general knowledge, and command of the subject the candidate aspired to teach. The question of the capacity of a licensure exam to predict the effect a teacher would have on his students’ achievement is legitimate. It quickly gave rise, however, to a system in which faculty from education schools would evaluate proposed questions for the licensure exam on the basis of whether each question corresponded to something covered by their teacher education program (p. 29). The regulatory trap was effectively sprung: state licensure exams would provide little corrective accountability for less demanding education programs, whose input would keep the level of rigor low.

And at the end, it would be school children who would pay the price. An Empty Curriculum documents that dangerous nexus between low standards of many education schools and a lack of rigor in the teacher licensure examinations that purportedly ensure the subject-area competence of school teachers. One of the examples Dr. Stotsky gives of this race to the bottom is reading instruction. Licensure tests that reinforce the discredited retreat from phonics instruction popular in education schools had an inevitable, destructive effect on the reading ability of the students in this nation most at risk (pp. 37 – 38 and especially 108 – 109).

The flight from accountability also became worse. Although the bar was set quite low on these exams, there were still failures, often an embarrassingly high number of failures. Dr. Stotsky describes what happened next (pp. 29–30; 130–131). When the Higher Education Act of 1998 demanded, under substantial financial penalty, that all education programs report the teacher examination pass rates of licensure candidates to the federal government, the common expedient of the education schools was to redefine “licensure candidate” to include only those who had already passed the test. And by this sleight of hand, even the weakest education programs could revel in the Lake Wobegon effect: all their teacher education students would truly be above average.

By coincidence, while An Empty Curriculum was at press, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) issued a scathing report on grade inflation in teacher education programs, Training Our Future Teachers: Easy A’s and What’s Behind Them. That report documented that at 58 percent of the 500 education programs it examined, “grading standards for teacher candidates are much lower than for students in other majors on the same campus.” The NCTQ report went yet further, examining the correlation between high grades and a lack of rigorous coursework. Education school coursework is too often “criterion deficient,” in other words, open-ended, subjective, and not amenable to the kind of rigorous, critical feedback that would prepare a teacher in training for the very real demands of educating students.

Will Rogers famously remarked, “You can’t teach what you don’t know,” a principle that Dr. Stotsky clearly espouses. The logic is self-evident, but the apologists for education schools have offered some tortured logic to get round that simple truth. Or as Dr. Stotsky observed of the development of teacher tests, “common sense has played a limited role in the construction of these tests and especially in the setting of a pass score” (p. 33). And, indeed, it was the state affiliate of the National Education Association that opposed setting even 60% as the passing score for the new mathematics licensure test for elementary educators (p. 67).

Despite all of the obstacles of an entrenched culture that guards low standards, there are remarkable outliers: education schools like those of Boston University or Hunter College, for example. As an entire state, Massachusetts succeeded in making dramatic improvements, evident in the achievement of its students. The Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) of 1993 set the political context for a substantial, comprehensive overhaul of K–12 teaching and learning. But it could not have succeeded without wise decisions and perseverance. Among the innovations that Dr. Stotsky’s unit of the Massachusetts Department of Education made was the introduction of subject area licensure for specialist teachers in elementary schools, signaling to schools that students in primary grades must have the benefit of teachers who know mathematics, science, foreign language, and history well. Furthermore, Massachusetts developed a test of scientifically based reading instruction that was quickly adopted by several other states and made that test obligatory for early childhood educators as well as elementary school teachers (pp. 43 – 45). While some states have allowed teachers with elementary education credentials to teach in middle schools, Massachusetts also created middle school licenses that required significant study of specific academic disciplines: For example, the science/math license required a minimum of 36 hours of coursework in those subject areas (p. 44).

Implementation of such bold reforms is not for the fainthearted. The first administration of the math test for prospective elementary school teachers had a pass rate of 27%. That pass rate doubled in subsequent years (p. 67). Improving the quality of teaching also involves strengthening the skills of teachers already in the classroom. Among the reforms Dr. Stotsky and her colleagues implemented was a requirement that the master’s degree in teaching have at least half of the required courses in the subject area of the license: This commonsensical provision was fiercely contested and in recent years dropped.

An Empty Curriculum ends with advice (pp. 133–143). Citing a 2010 McKinsey report, Dr. Stotsky calls attention to the advantages high-achieving nations like South Korea, Finland, and Singapore gain by recruiting teachers from the top third of their classes: American does the opposite. She notes that we can at least improve our pool of potential teachers simply by developing and deploying more rigorous licensure exams, but it means that we must have the fortitude to let underqualified candidates fail. An Empty Curriculum calls on legislators to do their job by raising the bar for admission to education programs and by restructuring teacher education requirements to shift the emphasis to preparation in the arts and sciences courses that prepare them intellectually to be teachers. Curriculum supervisors and school administrators, too, should be subject to higher academic requirements. In simple terms, everyone involved in the education of children needs to demonstrate and model the academic excellence that we rightly expect in the schoolroom. Academic standards for students are a vain proposition if educators themselves fail to meet them.


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