Reform teacher licensing now

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The Bay State’s Secretary of Education and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education are planning to review the Bay State’s teacher licensing regulations and tests. About time!

Lots of changes need to be made, based on what we know from good research. The 2008 final report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (NMAP) found credible research on only one characteristic of an effective teacher: knowledge of the subject they teach. The more academically competent teachers are, the stronger the school curriculum and the more students learn.

Here’s how Bay State legislators can implement that research finding:

1. Raise the bar for admission into a teacher preparation program. In high-achieving countries, only students in the top 10-20 percent of their high school or college cohort are admitted to an elementary or secondary training program. In contrast, most elementary teachers in the U.S. come from the bottom third of their college cohort, according to a 2007 McKinsey report.

2. Require a Master of Arts or Science degree in a subject taught in K-12 before admission to any program for school administrators. This requirement would immediately have positive consequences for the school curriculum.

3. Require a Master of Arts or Science degree in a subject taught in K-12 before admission to a doctoral program in curriculum and instruction.

4. Require applicants to doctoral programs in educational leadership or public policy to locate and analyze research evidence supporting a current major policy. Over 15,000 of the 16,000 studies located for possible review by the NMAP had to be discarded because they didn’t meet minimum standards in design and claims. Most education research cannot be used for teasing out “best practices.”

5. Train prospective secondary teachers under the aegis of the discipline they major in. Attach relevant pedagogical faculty to the discipline, not to an education school.

6. Train prospective pre-school, kindergarten, and primary grade teachers in two- or three-year pedagogical institutes. These teachers don’t need to complete a four-year college in order to teach pre-school or kindergarten.

7. Require discipline-based faculty as well as pedagogical faculty to supervise student teachers.  

We need these changes mainly because an academically stronger corps of educators is more likely to make sound educational choices than weaker educators and to teach an academically stronger curriculum. Despite the billions of dollars showered on our schools in the past 50 years, only 7 percent of our grade 8 students reach the Advanced level in mathematics (on TIMSS tests), suggesting why little advanced coursework in mathematics and science can be taught in our high schools. In contrast, from 27 percent to 49 percent of grade 8 students in the five highest-achieving countries (all in East Asia) reach the Advanced level.

An examination of public education in just a few other countries indicates that the first problems to tackle here are the low requirements for admission to our education schools or other educator preparation programs and a K-12 curriculum shaped almost entirely by the academically under-qualified teachers and administrators graduated from our education schools and by the ideas of those who prepare them to teach or provide “professional development.”

Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, sought to spark national discussion on ways to reform a dysfunctional institution with a series of reports in the mid-2000s on preparing school leaders, teachers, and education researchers. His ideas went nowhere. That is why state legislatures need to take the initiative on reforms of our education schools.  State departments and boards of education lack the spine to ensure an increasing quality of education for all children.

Our educational leadership seems incapable of taking the obvious step that other countries have taken as a matter of common sense—restricting admission to a teacher preparation program to the top 10-15 percent of the cohort graduating from a regular high school (for admission to an undergraduate education program) or to the top 10-15 percent of those graduating from college (for admission to a post-baccalaureate education program). Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. True reform of teacher recruitment, preparation, and licensure demands some recognition of the results of high-quality research.

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.