Content Knowledge: Massachusetts

2017 General Teacher Prep Programs Policy


The state should ensure that its teacher preparation programs provide elementary teachers with a broad liberal arts education, providing the necessary foundation for teaching to college- and career-readiness standards. This goal was consistent between 2015 and 2017.

Meets a small part

Analysis of Massachusetts's policies

Content Test Requirements: Massachusetts offers an elementary license to teach grades 1-6. In Massachusetts, elementary teachers are required to pass the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) General Curriculum test. Although this test appears more rigorous than what is required in most states, it does not report teacher performance in each subject area.

The framework for the MTEL content tests articulates important subject-matter requirements. English requirements include children's and young adult literature, adult literature, and classical and contemporary works. History and social science requirements include Massachusetts and U.S. history from colonial times to the present, world history with stress on Western civilization, economics and geography. Science requirements include life and physical sciences. Although not addressed on the subject-matter test, Massachusetts also requires approved programs to include the following topics: science laboratory work, child development, visual and performing arts, physical education, and personal and family health.

Academic Requirements: Massachusetts requires all teacher candidates to complete "a major in one or more academic subjects in the arts or sciences or for a major appropriate to the instructional field of the license sought."  Therefore, candidates can meet the state's academic requirements with a major in an academic subject or in elementary education.


Recommendations for Massachusetts

Require all elementary teacher candidates to pass a subject-matter test designed to ensure sufficient content knowledge of all subjects.
Although Massachusetts is on the right track by administering a two-part licensing test, thus making it harder for teachers to pass the overall test if they fail some subject areas, we encourage the state to further strengthen its policy and require separate passing scores for each core subject on its elementary test. Doing so will help to ensure that every student is taught by a teacher with adequate subject-matter knowledge.

Require elementary teacher candidates to complete a content specialization in an academic subject area.

Ensuring that prospective teachers in Massachusetts take higher-level academic coursework enhances teacher candidates' content knowledge and provides an important safeguard in the event that candidates are unable to successfully complete clinical practice requirements. With an academic concentration, candidates who are not ready for the classroom and do not pass student teaching will still have the benefit of earning a degree in an academic content area other than education and may therefore pursue employment outside of the classroom.

State response to our analysis

Massachusetts reiterated that it requires candidates for the elementary educator license (and special education licenses) to pass the two-part General Curriculum test: Multi-Subject (Language Arts, History and Social Science, Science and Technology/Engineering) and a Mathematics subtest. The Multi-Subject sub-test consists of 55 multiple-choice items in Language Arts, History and Social Science and Science and Technology and 1 open-response item. The state indicated that there aren't a sufficient number of multi-choice items in each of these content areas to make a pass/fail decision on individual subject content knowledge. In order to provide an adequate number of items in each subject to make a pass/fail decision, Massachusetts would, therefore, have to design a separate sub-test for each of these fields (as the state has done for math) in order to assess individual subject area knowledge. Massachusetts stated that this would place an unnecessary burden on elementary candidates who would then need to pass five subject matter tests (Math, Science, Language Arts, History, Foundations of Reading) and the Communication & Literacy Skills (reading and writing) test for licensure for a total of six tests for an Elementary license.

How we graded

2A: Elementary Content Knowledge 

  • Content Tests: The state should require all elementary teacher candidates to pass individually scored subject-matter tests designed to ensure sufficient content knowledge of all core academic subjects. Subject-matter tests should include English, math, science, and social studies.
  • Academic Major: The state should require all elementary teacher candidates to complete a content concentration of at least 15 or more credit hours in an academic subject area. In addition to enhancing content knowledge, this requirement ensures that prospective teachers have taken higher-level academic coursework.
Content Tests
Three-quarters of the total goal score is earned based on the following:

  • Three-quarters credit: The state will earn three-quarters of a point if it requires four or more separately scored content exams to ensure appropriate content knowledge in all core academic subject areas.
  • One-half credit: The state will earn one-half of a point if it requires only three separately scored content exams to ensure appropriate content knowledge in core academic subjects.
  • One-quarter credit: The state will earn only one-quarter of a point if it requires only two separately scored content exams to ensure appropriate content knowledge in core academic subjects. 
Academic Major
One-quarter of the total goal score is earned based on the following: 

  • One-quarter credit: The state will earn one-quarter of a point if it requires elementary teachers to complete a higher-level content concentration (i.e., at least 15 semester hour credits) in an academic subject area. 

Research rationale

Elementary teachers need liberal arts coursework that is relevant to the preschool through grade 6 classroom. College- and career-readiness standards, adopted by nearly all states, represent an effort to significantly raise expectations for the knowledge and skills American students will need for post-high school success and global competitiveness. However, many states' policies fail to ensure that elementary teacher candidates will have the subject-area knowledge to teach to these standards.[1] Even when states specify liberal arts requirements for teacher candidates, the regulatory language can be quite broad, alluding only minimally to conceptual approaches such as "quantitative reasoning" or "historical understanding." Another common but inadequate approach that states take is to specify broad curricular areas like "humanities" or "physical sciences." A humanities course could be a general overview of world literature—an excellent course for a prospective elementary teacher—but it could also be "Introduction to Film Theory." Likewise, a physical science course could be an overview of relevant topics in physics, chemistry, and astronomy, or it could focus exclusively on astronomy and fail to give a teacher candidate an understanding of the basic concepts of physics. Too few states' requirements distinguish between the value gained from a survey course in American history, such as "From Colonial Times to the Civil War," and an American history course such as "Woody Guthrie and Folk Narrative in the Great Depression."

In addition to the common-sense notion that teachers ought to know the subjects they teach, research supports the benefits to be gained by teachers being broadly educated. Teachers who are more literate—who possess richer vocabularies—are more likely to be effective.[2] Some states still require that elementary teacher candidates major in elementary education, with no expectation that they be broadly educated. Others have regulatory language that effectively requires the completion of education coursework instead of liberal arts coursework by mandating only teaching methods courses in subject areas without also requiring content-based coursework in the areas themselves.[3]

Standards-based programs can work when verified by testing. Many states no longer prescribe specific courses or credit hours as a condition for teacher candidates to qualify for a license. Instead, they require teacher candidates to complete an approved program that meets state-specific standards or standards set forth by accrediting bodies and leave it at that.[4] The advantage of this "standards-based" approach is that it grants greater flexibility to teacher preparation programs regarding program design.

However, a significant disadvantage is that the standards-based approach is far more difficult to monitor or enforce. While some programs respond well to the flexibility, others do not. Standards are important but essentially meaningless absent rigorous tests to ensure that teacher candidates have met them.[5] Not all states that have chosen the standards-based approach have implemented such tests. In their absence, verifying that teacher preparation programs are teaching to the standards requires an exhaustive review process of matching every standard with something taught in a course. This approach is neither practical nor efficient. Tests of broad subject matter or tests that require only a passing composite do not offer a solution, given that it is possible to pass without necessarily demonstrating knowledge in each subject area. For instance, on many tests of teacher content knowledge, a passing score may be possible while answering every chemistry question incorrectly.[6]

Mere alignment with student learning standards is not sufficient. Another growing trend in state policy is to require teacher preparation programs to align their instruction with the state's student learning standards, and this is likely to increase with the introduction of new college- and career-readiness standards. In many states, this alignment exercise is the only factor considered in deciding the content to be delivered to elementary teacher candidates. Alignment of teacher preparation with student learning standards is an important step but by no means the only one.[7] For example, a program should prepare teachers in more than just the content that the state expects of its fourth graders. Also critical is moving past alignment and deciding the broader set of knowledge a teacher needs to be able to effectively teach fourth grade. The teacher's perspective must be both broader and deeper than what he or she will actually teach.

An academic concentration enhances content knowledge and ensures that prospective elementary teachers take higher-level academic coursework. Few states require prospective elementary teachers to major or minor in an academic subject area. Consequently, in most states these teachers can meet subject-matter requirements without taking any advanced-level coursework. At minimum, states should require a concentration in an academic area. In addition to deepening subject-matter knowledge in a particular area, building this concentration into elementary education programs ensures that prospective teachers complete academic coursework on par with peers earning bachelor's degrees in other areas.

A concentration also provides a fallback for education majors whose programs deem them unready for the classroom. In most education programs, virtually all coursework is completed before candidates begin student teaching. The stakes are high once student teaching begins: if a candidate cannot pass, he or she cannot meet requirements for a major or graduate. This may create a perverse incentive for programs to set low standards for student teaching and/or pass candidates whose clinical experience is unsatisfactory. If they were required to have at least an academic concentration, candidates who failed student teaching could still complete a degree with minimal additional coursework.[8]

[1] National Council on Teacher Quality. (2017, May). Landscapes in teacher prep: Undergraduate secondary. National Council on Teacher Quality's Teacher Prep Review. Retrieved from
[2] Numerous research studies have established the strong relationship between teachers' vocabulary (a proxy for being broadly educated) and student achievement. For example: Wayne, A. J., & Youngs, P. (2003). Teacher characteristics and student achievement gains: A review. Review of Educational Research, 73(1), 89-122.; See also: Whitehurst, G. J. (2002, March). Scientifically based research on teacher quality: Research on teacher preparation and professional development. In White House Conference on Preparing Tomorrow's Teacher.; Ehrenberg, R. G., & Brewer, D. J. (1995). Did teachers' verbal ability and race matter in the 1960s?: Coleman revisited. Economics of Education Review, 14(1), 1-21.; Research also connects individual content knowledge with increased reading comprehension, making the capacity of the teacher to infuse all instruction with content of particular importance for student achievement. See: Willingham, D. T. (2006). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning and thinking. American Educator, 30(1), 30. Retrieved from
[3] In fact, Sandra Stotsky has documented trends in which teacher candidates make inappropriate or irrelevant coursework choices that nonetheless satisfy state requirements. See: Stotsky, S., Haverty, L., Raymond, M., & Wenders, J. T. (2004). Can a state department of education increase teacher quality? Lessons learned in Massachusetts. Brookings papers on education policy, (7), 131-199.
[4] On the need for colleges and universities to improve their general education coursework requirements, see: Latzer, B. (2004). The hollow core: Failure of the general education curriculum. A fifty college study. American Council of Trustees and Alumni.; For a subject-specific example of institutions' failure to deliver solid liberal arts preparation, see: Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (2006). The coming crisis in citizenship: Higher education's failure to teach America's history and institutions. Retrieved from
[5] For information on teacher licensing tests, see: Gitomer, D. H., & Latham, A. S. (1999). The academic quality of prospective teachers: The impact of admissions and licensure testing. Educational Testing Service.; For research on correlations between teacher test scores and student achievement, see Ladd, H. F., Clotfelter, C. T., & Vigdor, J. L. (2007). How and why do teacher credentials matter for student achievement (NBER Working Paper, 142786).
[6] National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Recommendations for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Retrieved from
[7] On the need for colleges and universities to improve their general education coursework requirements, see: Latzer, B. (2004). The hollow core: Failure of the general education curriculum. A fifty college study. American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Retrieved from; For a subject-specific example of institutions' failure to deliver solid liberal arts preparation, see: Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (2006). The coming crisis in citizenship: Higher education's failure to teach America's history and institutions. Retrieved from
[8] National Council on Teacher Quality. (2016). Understanding our elementary content standard. Retrieved from