America’s Teaching Crisis: Sandra Stotsky

Published March 1, 2001

Last November, the Massachusetts Board of Education unanimously approved new regulations for licensing teachers to practice their profession in the state’s K-12 public schools. The new standards are due in no small measure to the work of Sandra Stotsky, the state’s Deputy Education Commissioner for Academic Affairs and Planning. She has been instrumental in developing not only new English language arts curriculum standards and tests for students, but also the new licensure standards for the state’s K-12 educators.

Stotsky received her doctorate in reading from Harvard in 1976, a student of the late Jeanne Chall. Stotsky has published a large number of scholarly articles and is the author of a recent book about basal readers, Losing Our Language, published by The Free Press in 1999.

From 1991 to 1997, Stotsky was the editor of Research in the Teaching of English, the research journal published by the National Council of Teachers of English. From 1987 to 1999, she directed summer institutes on civic education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, including one for civics and government teachers sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, called “We the People . . . The Citizen and the Constitution.”

A mother of five, Stotsky has served on numerous committees for the Brookline Public Schools and has direct experience with the challenges teachers face in the classroom. She started her career as a third grade teacher in Eastondale, Massachusetts, and has taught or given demonstration lessons at every grade level, from kindergarten to graduate school. She recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you develop your interest in education and education reform?

Stotsky: I have always been interested in improving and strengthening education because of my background experience in teaching and in working with teachers. Because of that, I have been well aware of what it is that students at all levels need.

I became interested in ways in which we could strengthen the preparation of teachers when I got more into teacher education as opposed to direct teaching of students. I became heavily ensconced in education when I went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for my graduate work with Jeanne Chall. Her book, Learning to Read: The Great Debate, was an eye-opening book for me because it confirmed everything I had come to sense from having taught elementary school earlier.

In 1996, when I was working on my own book, Losing Our Language, I was asked by John Silber–newly appointed chairman of a newly constituted Board of Education at the time, and the president of Boston University–to help revise and finalize the English language arts standards document for the state of Massachusetts. A first draft of the document had been unanimously rejected by the previous chairman and board.

So I became part of a small, select committee that helped to finalize the new English language arts standards, which were approved by the Board in January 1997. It was a very successful document in the field, and was considered to be one of the best in the country. So the department was very happy with it.

In 1999, David Driscoll was appointed Commissioner of Education and he interviewed me for a new professional staff position that had just been created in the Department of Education called Deputy Commissioner for Academic Affairs. The position required someone with a strong academic background in the department. Since David was very familiar with the work I had done on the standards document, he appointed me to the position in May 1999.

What the board and David wanted was a thorough revision of our teacher licensing regulation. The document that existed dated back to the early 1990s and was badly in need of revision. So the first major responsibility assigned to me was to reform teacher licensing regulations, strengthen the requirements for teacher licensing, and provide for alternate routes to certification. My staff and I had to create a brand new document that would capture what needed to be reformed in teacher training programs and help teachers become better prepared for the subjects that they were to teach.

Clowes: Why did the board choose to reform this particular area?

Stotsky: They picked teacher licensing because it was the major document that controlled what teachers had to know for the teacher tests of subject matter knowledge that had been established as part of the 1993 Education Reform Act. This act was a piece of really forward thinking in many, many ways by the legislature.

One part of the reform dealt with students, with standards documents for the major subjects, and student tests based on those standards. The other part was teacher tests.

Massachusetts made national headlines for quite a while when those teacher tests were developed and given to that first batch of prospective teachers in 1997-98. More than half–59 percent–failed. It didn’t make the schools of education look good.

As a result, the board said that if schools of education wanted to continue having their teacher preparation programs approved, then they would have to achieve an 80 percent pass rate for their graduates on the state test. So now we had a huge flunking rate, we had schools of education with Damocles’ sword hanging over their heads, and we had a vague document defining the tests.

At that point, the board and the commissioner said, “Let’s get a better document in shape that really strengthens the requirements for teachers; then we can have tests that are based on these strengthened requirements; but in the meantime the teachers will have to go through stronger programs.”

I was put in charge of directing our staff to prepare a new set of licensing regulations that would embed some of the reform ideas that the board and the commissioner had about various routes to licensing, particularly in light of an anticipated teacher shortage.

We had to figure out alternate pathways to make it easier for professionals who wanted to change in mid-career to get into teaching. These professionals wouldn’t want to go through a masters program in pedagogy or redo an undergraduate program. We had to figure out routes that would be appropriate for people who needed pedagogical training, but who already had the content.

The first route to teaching is the typical undergraduate route, which probably still supplies most of our elementary teachers in Massachusetts. The second route involves formal graduate programs, and then you have district-based programs that allow mid-career change professionals to come in with less formal coursework. Altogether, we defined four major routes that a person could consider if they want to go into teaching, depending on their circumstance and where they are in life. That was one of the major reforms.

Another major reform was strengthening what prospective elementary and middle school teachers need to know for their initial licensing.

It’s not too hard to strengthen high school teaching, because most high school teachers major in the subject they’re going to teach. But elementary and middle school teachers are not focusing on any particular subject. They’re focusing on an educational level, and they teach across that level in a variety of subjects. That makes them difficult to license because you want to be assured that they’ve had enough coursework to teach the subjects that they do have to teach in elementary and middle school.

Nationwide, I think we have very serious problems in what is expected academically of elementary and middle school teachers. It was clear from the information we could gather here in Massachusetts that the requirements for becoming an elementary or a middle school teacher were not demanding enough.

If we want students to aspire to the new standards for K-12, we need teachers who know a lot more than their students and who are capable of teaching to those new standards.

Clowes: So the knowledge base of elementary and middle school teachers was an obstacle to the application of the new standards. How did you identify this weak academic background as the problem?

Stotsky: It was separate investigations on our part. I had my own small research staff find out what these elementary teachers majored in. Years ago, to be an elementary school teacher, you just needed an education major. The 1993 Education Reform Act required every prospective teacher, no matter what they wanted to teach, to have a major in the arts or sciences. So I wanted to find out what our newer elementary school teachers were majoring in. Were they majoring in one of the subjects they were teaching in the elementary schools? For example, had the middle school science teachers majored in science or taken a lot of science courses?

Looking at elementary education alone, what we found was that the majority of the elementary teachers in the past five years were not majoring in any one of the major subjects they taught. In other words, they weren’t majoring in history or English or science or math. The majority of them were majoring in psychology, sociology, anthropology, or a few other areas.

That told us what problem #1 was: that the number of academic semester hours that they were taking for their major had almost no relationship to what they were actually going to be teaching in the elementary school. This was true of the middle school generalist license as well. Now, this was after the 1993 Education Reform Act said these teachers had to have an arts or sciences major.

What the 1993 reformers hadn’t anticipated was that students would choose, say, a psychology major rather than a major in English, or history, or science. No one anticipated that prospective teachers might not choose a major in a subject they were going to teach.

What we ended up doing was to require 36 semester hours in certain subject areas. We didn’t say they had to be individual courses, but we did lay out the areas the coursework would have to cover in U.S. history, U.S. literature, U.S. government, economics, geography, and science and math courses appropriate for the elementary teacher.

No one has disputed that what we’ve laid out is reasonable to expect an elementary teacher to have taken as coursework over four years of college. Nobody has said that it’s unreasonable to require a prospective elementary teacher to learn those subject areas.

Now, it may be the case that a person decides to major in English. If that’s the case, some of what that person has to do as an English major will have taken care of some of those 36 semester hours. But if a person wants to be a psychology major, we’re not saying they can’t. We’re just saying that to become a teacher, a psychology major still will have to have 36 academic hours covering the coursework we have specified.

Clowes: Do you anticipate that some prospective teachers will look at these requirements and say, “That’s more difficult. Maybe I don’t want to go into teaching.”

Stotsky: Yes. We do expect that there will be some fallout of some weaker candidates. Remember: We have not in any way prevented these people from getting a B.A. degree. We’re simply saying, “If you want to go into teaching, you’re going to have to have this kind of requirement and pass these kinds of tests.” Weaker students will not choose this route. If they don’t think they’re capable of taking these kinds of courses and passing our tests to become a teacher, they should do something else.

Many students used to get into an education major as a safety thing, so they could teach if they couldn’t get a job doing anything else. That’s a sad commentary on education. But it is part of the reasoning behind strengthening the requirements, because one of the things we know we have to do is strengthen the image of the teacher.

One of my most important drives is to enhance the teaching profession, and underlying the certification regulations is the idea that increasing the academic requirements weeds academically weak people out, and that helps raise the image of the profession.

Clowes: Massachusetts has raised standards for its students and now raised the standards for its teachers. What do you see as the next steps?

Stotsky: First of all, we have to help the schools of education put these new regulations into effect. There’s a period of time over which different aspects of the regulation take hold, and so they have to work out ways to implement these regulations over the next several years.

Then we have to work much more on professional development for existing teachers to increase their academic knowledge base. We’ve already started to do that, but it needs to be accelerated.

Third, we need to think of how we attract more able undergraduates into teaching. Mid-career change professionals will help us to some extent in math and science, where we’re facing a disaster in this country. But we’ve got to start reaching bright, able majors in all subject areas and getting more young people to go in to teaching.

That is really where we’ve got to do much more in a variety of ways to address what we see as one of the major problems in improving K-12 education: how to upgrade the quality of the incoming teacher in terms of their academic background.

We also have to do more to retain teachers by having supportive environments for new teachers. About a quarter of all beginning teachers drop out after the first year. Turnover is particularly high in urban schools and children there are not getting the quality teaching they need from seasoned, experienced teachers. Part of what we’re trying to do is figure out how to keep teachers there and get more good ones coming in.

Clowes: Maybe combat pay in the worst situations?

Stotsky: Exactly. Combat pay in urban areas. That’s a good term for it, because we’ve been thinking about how we entice veterans back into urban areas with a higher salary, but we have to figure out how to deal with the unions on that. They’re not happy about differential salaries, but combat pay might be the way.

For more information . . .

on teacher certification in Massachusetts, visit the Department of Education’s Web site,, where the regulations governing the process of academic certification of teachers in Massachusetts are posted.

An official copy of the regulations may be obtained by contacting the Secretary of State’s Publications and Regulations Division at 617/727-2831.