3 steps for Mass. education course correction

Put educators on state board, do away with licensure tests, elect school boards

GOV. MAURA HEALEY’S appointment of Education Secretary Patrick A. Tutwiler shouldn’t be a dramatic move. Having a veteran educator in this leadership position shouldn’t be unusual. Unfortunately, his experience as a teacher, principal, and superintendent hasn’t been typical of education policy leaders in Massachusetts.

Tutwiler replaces James Peyser, whose experience in education was as a paid advocate for charter schools. Peyser served as a former executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank, and he launched Pioneer’s Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center. When he was first appointed by former governor William Weld, he served as undersecretary of education and special assistant to the governor for charter schools. Peyser also chaired the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1999 to 2005, replacing John Silber.

While the five most recent Republican governors ran and won election as moderates, a succession of appointees to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had ties to the Pioneer Institute and other conservative think tanks. The influence of the Pioneer Institute and John Silber permeates our current education policy. Healey and  Tutwiler should quickly and aggressively move to change course.

The membership of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees has overwhelmingly supported three critical reforms to repair our current education policy. The most important reform, which requires legislative action, requires the reconstitution of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The board has been a haven for friends of the Pioneer Institute and charter school advocates. It has a high school student as a voting member, but it lacks practicing educators. Massachusetts law currently prohibits practicing educators, or school committee members, from serving on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Though it makes no sense to prohibit board membership by people who know the most about public education, the most egregious aspect of this ban is the board’s role in governing professional licensure.

Massachusetts has a plethora of boards and commissions that govern licensure and professional standards. Many boards require all members to be practitioners of the trade or profession; others require the majority of seats to be held by credentialed members. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is the only board governing professional licensure that prohibits membership by practitioners working under that license.

Consider how absurd it is to prohibit educators from serving on their governing and licensing board. Could you imagine banning attorneys from serving on the Board of Bar Examiners? Or prohibiting physicians from serving on the Board of Registration in Medicine? Or blocking plumbers from serving on the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gas Fitters?

The Massachusetts Legislature should act quickly to dissolve the current Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and replace it with a board that welcomes the experience of licensed educators and school committee members.

One of John Silber’s major initiatives was to institute a testing program as a requirement for initial licensure, a costly collection of written tests. An applicant for a license needs to pay hundreds of dollars for multiple components of their licenses, for a written test that is not a valid indicator of an applicant’s ability to effectively perform in a classroom. The only real benefit of this program accrues to the testing company. It’s time to eliminate these tests.

Massachusetts school districts are seeking to enhance their teaching staff with educators that align to the demographics of their communities. Recruiting candidates of color requires attracting candidates from other states. Unfortunately, the testing program presents an expensive barrier for districts looking to recruit out-of-state educators. A teacher working in a state where the teaching profession is underpaid, disrespected, or troubled by political pressures might find Massachusetts to be a great place to work. Unfortunately, a quick look at Massachusetts requirements presents a discouraging set of hurdles to qualify for an initial teaching license.

An initial teaching license is no guarantee of a job. An initial license merely grants the ability of qualified college graduates to work in the public schools. It indicates that an educator has completed sufficient coursework to be qualified to enter the classroom, and has no legal impediment that would prevent them from working with children. It is up to the district to interview and assess the competence of applicants before they are hired. Hiring procedures routinely require writing tasks and performance assessments, which are far better indicators of potential success in a classroom than a written test.

Not every new teacher is successful, and Massachusetts law mandates a thoughtful mentoring and evaluation process as teachers move from an initial to a professional teaching license. Districts have 90 calendar days to dismiss a new teacher without cause. Districts are responsible for mentoring and developing that teacher’s skills before the license can be upgraded to professional status and teachers obtain certain contractual rights to their position.

The third necessary reform involves safeguarding the right of voters to select the leaders of their public schools. Elected school committees are part of the governance structure that makes Massachusetts schools among the best in the nation. Elected school committee members are accountable to the community.

The state has been granted the power to take over districts they consider to be underperforming, a power that should only be used in extraordinary circumstances. We can argue whether any of the three districts taken over by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should have had their school committees replaced by a receiver, but it is clear that the state lacks the capacity to improve a district in receivership. Last May, the Boston Globe reported that “evidence suggests the state has failed to make meaningful progress in turning around” the three districts under its control.

Recognizing that rare circumstances may require the state to intervene in district governance, it’s reasonable to keep that tool in the state’s toolbox. However, a takeover should not be indefinite. Any state takeover should be limited to three years, with the goal of assisting the district’s return to local governance. School committees should be restored to their governing responsibilities in the three districts currently under state receivership, as they have been under ineffective state control for more than three years.

The election of Healey presents a tremendous opportunity to make three important course corrections for public education. We should work together to create a governing board for education comprised of educators, a licensure program without the unnecessary and costly barrier of a system of written tests, and a commitment to local accountability through elected school leaders.

Paul Schlichtman is a member of the Arlington School Committee and a former president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.