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Brookings Papers on Education Policy 2004 (2004) 131-180

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Can a State Department of Education Increase Teacher Quality?
Lessons Learned in Massachusetts

Sandra Stotsky with Lisa Haverty


Teacher quality, however defined, is usually seen as the responsibility of schools of education. Rarely is it viewed as the responsibility of academic departments in the arts and sciences—that part of the college or university where prospective teachers study the academic content they will draw on as teachers. Only recently has teacher quality come to be seen as a major responsibility of a state department of education—and to be linked to student learning, traditionally the responsibility of the local school district. This essay sets forth the many ways in which a state department of education can enhance teacher quality and the supply of academically able teachers. I draw on my own experience in directing revisions of the major documents produced by the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999 to 2003 and on several other major initiatives undertaken by the department to implement the education reform measures enacted and funded by the Massachusetts legislature in the 1990s. The chief documents that were the focus for my own work consisted of the preK-12 curriculum frameworks in all basic subjects, the regulations for licensing teachers and teacher-training programs, and the teacher tests required for licensure. 1 [End Page 131]


Teacher quality is a vague concept susceptible to many definitions. Few can agree on what an effective or quality teacher is unless the teacher's work is related to student academic achievement (objective measures of which are invariably controversial). Teacher quality designates some degree of disciplinary knowledge combined with some degree of professional skill at helping students learn to think with ideas from the teacher's discipline. But disagreement exists on the relative importance of each of these two components and on the extent to which each contributes to teacher quality. What is the optimal degree of disciplinary knowledge for a teacher at the primary or secondary level of education? And how would one assess the quality of the teacher's pedagogical skill in the absence of objective measures of student achievement? Although the answers to these questions are unclear, national statistics on the undergraduate majors of the elementary and secondary teaching force have long indicated that large numbers of teachers in public schools, especially in key middle school subjects, are minimally qualified if not academically unqualified for the subjects they teach. It is in this context that a comprehensive set of educational reform measures was passed and funded by the Massachusetts state legislature in the 1990s, to be implemented by the Massachusetts Department of Education. The legislature sought three goals relating specifically to teacher quality and the supply of teachers: to attract more high-achieving undergraduate majors, college graduates, and academically able midcareer changers to teaching as a career; to increase the academic qualifications of teachers entering the profession; and to increase the academic knowledge of the current teaching force.

What is the role of a state department of education in defining, maintaining, or increasing teacher quality? A traditional function in Massachusetts and in most other states, often dating back to the nineteenth century, is the licensing (certifying) of public school teachers (in some states, all K-12 teachers). In a few states, licensing is done by a different agency governed by a separate publicly appointed or elected body. It is a function that usually entails regular inspection and approval of teacher-training programs based on whatever requirements are set by state law. Until recent years, student achievement was not a typical responsibility of a state department of education. Student achievement became more prominent in the minds of department of education staff when it was linked to their role in distributing and monitoring federal funds to school districts, particularly [End Page 132] Title I funds and the funds provided by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, both post-1960s phenomena that entailed the regular use of norm-referenced tests to determine the...


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pp. 131-180
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Archived 2007
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