Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 12.00.14 PMDr. Sandra Stotsky published a book in March of this year titled, “An Empty Curriculum: The Need to Reform Teacher Licensing Regulations and Tests” which both explains how we got to a place where our teachers can barely pass a certification exam, and provides a pathway out of the mess. Michael Poliakoff wrote a great review of her book on The American Council of trustees and Alumni’s website. Excerpts are provided below.

Dr. Stostky 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.

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…

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…

 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)…

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.

Missouri appears to be headed in the right direction. We now have 55 different content area exams that teachers can take. This Powerpoint from the last SBE meeting shows the different exams available and how our teacher candidates did on them. For comparison, here is the list of exams for MA.  We also have a pre-test that prospective candidates must pass (within 3 tries) in order to be accepted into a TPP. We even have exams for building administrators which Dr. Stotksy recommends noting that everyone involved in the education of children needs to demonstrate and model the academic excellence. State Board members should heed Dr. Stotsky’s advice and have the “fortitude to let underqualified candidates fail.”  There is encouraging news in her book about failure rates. When MA first instituted the new certification exams,  prospective elementary school teachers had a pass rate of 27% on the math portion. That pass rate later doubled. If you set high standards people will rise to them. We espouse that philosophy for K-12 students with Common Core standards. How can we hold anything different for our teaching candidates?


The book is available as an ebook download on this site.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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