Peyser misses the mark on teacher licensing

Higher standards for ed programs are the answer

THE STATE’S SECRETARY OF EDUCATION, James Peyser, recently set forth in CommonWealth his ideas on how he thinks the state’s teacher licensure system should be changed. He thinks we should move away from a licensing system relying on course credits and graduate degrees, which he describes as barriers for prospective teachers, to one based more on measures of effectiveness in the classroom. The Bay State’s teacher and administrator licensure system does need an overhaul; our teacher and administrator preparation programs have not given us the professional educators we need for developing, teaching, and managing a strong K-12 curriculum for all students despite our students’ achievement on national and international tests.

While we need to move away from a licensing system based heavily on education course credits and education degrees, we would gain little if we adopted (as Margaret Thatcher did in England) on-the-job training models that will be as ineffective as the programs they replace—mainly because the pedagogical strategies that new teachers receive from their coaches and mentors would reflect the same bankrupt teaching and learning philosophy taught in most education schools. Worse yet, these new teachers would be judged effective by newly developed tests of reading, mathematics, and science that claim to promote but actually inhibit genuine critical thinking and academic growth in K-12. That harsh conclusion is based on the analysis that Mark McQuillan, Richard Phelps, and I offer in “How PARCC’s False Rigor Stunts the Academic Growth of All Students,” a report completed in October 2015. Teacher effectiveness as the goal of a teacher licensing system is as problematic as teacher evaluations tied to student scores on any test, not just a poorly conceptualized test. In fact, research on teacher effectiveness points in a very different direction for a licensing system.

A little history on the topic is useful, with broad, national strokes. For several decades, Democrats and Republicans alike have pushed for standards in K-12 as the best way to “fix” our schools and move the needle on student achievement. And they have both pushed for student assessments based on those standards even though there is almost no evidence to support the national focus on student standards and assessments.

Obama administration policy makers have continued down the same wrong yellow-brick road that earlier ones in the Bush, Clinton, and Reagan administrations trod; they have simply added school choice chiefly in the form of charter schools to the wizard’s bag of tricks. At the end of the road, accountability from teachers, not parents or students, was their preference.

However, if our education researchers had examined public education in just a few countries, they might have realized that the first pot holes to fill in here were the low, if non-existent, requirements for admission to our education schools, and a K-12 curriculum shaped almost entirely by the academically underqualified teachers and administrators who had come from them. The need for changes in admission requirements for education school programs has received little attention. The US Department of Education and a narrow circle of advisers and philanthropists have spent their initial energies on getting states to adopt standards that they claim will prepare all students for admission to a “non-selective college” and then to argue with teacher unions about what percentage of students’ test scores their academically underqualified teachers and administrators should be held accountable for.

It’s time we saw student achievement as influenced more by the many state policies that affect teacher and administrator recruitment, training, licensure, and re-licensure than by any set of student standards and assessments. The 2000 revision of the almost incomprehensible tangle of regulations and tests governing teacher and administrator licensure in Massachusetts was, in my judgment, far more consequential than the superior K-12 standards the state also developed (full disclosure: I was in charge of both). But I could not alter admission requirements for undergraduate, masters, or doctoral programs in education. Why do they matter? As the National Mathematics Advisory Panel noted in a 2008 report based on a review of relevant research, the more academically competent the teacher is, the more students learn. Effective teachers may have other characteristics, but no credible body of education research has told us what they are.

Our secretary of education does not seem to see the implications of this central finding. Nor does he seem to grasp the purpose of a licensing system for teachers and administrators. Like all professional licensing systems, it is designed to ensure the beginner’s academic knowledge and professional competence (not to guarantee that all students will learn; or for medicine, that all patients’ health will be restored; or for law, that all clients will be set free).

In my last book, An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests, I describe how the Department of Education sought to strengthen academically our educators and administrators in 2000 so that they could address the state’s new and strong academic standards. To continue that direction today based on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel’s findings on teacher education, state legislators should vote (or college and university faculty in engineering and arts and sciences should ask their board of trustees) to:

(1) restrict admission to a teacher preparation program to the top 10-15 percent of the cohort graduating from a regular high school or college, as do South Korea and Finland. While we would not produce more high school science, mathematics, and foreign language teachers, we would reduce the excessive numbers now in elementary programs.

(2) require a master of arts or science degree in a subject taught in K-12 before admission to a program for school administrators, as do many high-achieving countries.

(3) require applicants to doctoral programs in educational leadership or public policy to locate and analyze research evidence supporting a current major policy.

(4) 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.

(5) train prospective secondary teachers under the aegis of the academic discipline they major in, with pedagogical faculty attached to the discipline, not an education school. This is done in many countries.

(6) require discipline-based faculty as well as pedagogical faculty to supervise student teachers. This is how many countries ensure that a school of education is not in charge of the school curriculum.

(7) train prospective preschool, kindergarten, and primary grade teachers in two- or three-year pedagogical institutes, as do many European countries. Countries hold these training schools accountable for producing primary grade teachers who are effective in beginning literacy and numeracy skills.

Why can’t we take the obvious step that other countries have taken as a matter of common sense—and require academically competent high school and college graduates as teachers or administrators? We can always throw a lot of state and local money at Peyser’s new ideas on the subject, knowing they will be ineffective, but shouldn’t he tell us first why he thinks they will work?

Meet the Author

Sandra Stotsky is a former senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and was in charge of developing or revising all the state’s K-12 pre-Common Core standards and the 2000 revision of regulations and tests governing teacher and administrator licensure.