To improve teacher quality, ditch Common Core

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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 in English language arts and mathematics are vastly different from those we had in Massachusetts before the state board of education voted in July 2010 to dump them for Common Core’s standards, for $250 million in Race to the Top money – standards that led to greatly increased student achievement in reading, mathematics, and science in our regular public schools and in our 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.”

The gains were deservedly noteworthy. Average scores in both reading and mathematics, for grade 4 and grade 8, on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015 were the highest or among the highest of all 50 states. On the international test of curriculum-based achievement (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS), Massachusetts entered as a separate country, tied with Singapore for first place in grade 8 science, and was among the top six countries in mathematics in grades 4 and 8 in both 2007 and 2013. 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 own standards for all major subjects were rated by independent academic experts as among the best 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 factors were 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 my latest book, “An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests,” (Rowman and Littlefield: 2015), I make the case 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.

But in order to strengthen our own state’s licensing system, we need first to restore the state’s first-class standards in English language arts, mathematics, and science for students. They were the basis for the Massachusetts “education miracle.” That is the ultimate goal of a ballot question for the November election.

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky

Sandra Stotsky, former Senior Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is Professor of Education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.