Executive Summary

New York’s most-costly-in-the-nation public school system spends 36 percent more per student than neighboring Massachusetts ($29,873 versus $21,906, as of school year 2021-22). Yet the Bay State far outperforms New York in national assessments, most recently posting the highest combined score in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), while New York came in below the national average. What accounts for this surprising result?

The two states face many of the same challenges: among other things, they have large urban districts, extensive pockets of poverty and strong teachers’ unions. Both states have numerous relatively small school districts whose finances are subject to a property tax cap. Yet Massachusetts has been a “stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline.”[i]

This report identifies key differences between the two public education systems, beginning with how policy is made and implemented.

Massachusetts’ education bureaucracy is answerable (through an appointed board) to the Commonwealth’s governor, arguably more so than in any other state. New York’s Board of Regents and its Education Department are the opposite: the governor of New York has no involvement in their selection or removal.

While the Board of Regents in Albany has broad jurisdiction that includes higher education, medical licensing and other regulatory responsibilities, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) focuses specifically on the state’s primary and secondary schools.

Massachusetts undertook sweeping education reforms in 1993 that linked funding increases to comprehensive reforms, ranging from curriculum and accountability changes to a new three-part teacher licensure test whose pass rate was initially just 41 percent.

Massachusetts has put greater emphasis than New York on high-quality curriculum. In fact, the standards and curriculum frameworks developed by Massachusetts in the late 1990s and early 2000s have been praised as the nation’s best. When those standards go unmet, Massachusetts officials appear to intervene more aggressively in underperforming school districts than their New York counterparts do. The Commonwealth follows a specific set of interventions and monitoring protocols.

Teacher education programs in Massachusetts are accredited directly by BESE, while New York’s Regents rely on outside accrediting agencies.

Policymakers in Albany might better meet their obligations, both to students and to taxpayers, by closely studying the reasons why Massachusetts consistently produces better outcomes than New York at a significantly lower cost. This report recommends several key changes:

  1. Allow New York’s governor to select the Board of Regents.
  2. Limit the Regents’ focus to pre-K-12 education.
  3. Develop high-quality, content-rich standards and curriculum frameworks to educate students.
  4. Align teacher preparation and professional development programs with state standards and establish one set of criteria and methodology for granting state accreditation of teacher preparation programs.
  5. Establish firm and fair procedures for state intervention in underperforming schools and districts. This should include state assistance to a school or district, monitoring its progress and criteria for exiting underperforming status.


New York has been a perennial leader in public-school spending among all states throughout the post-World War II era. Since the turn of the century, the per-pupil spending gap between New York and the rest of the nation has grown wider than ever, topping the rankings each year. The most recent federal data, which allow apples-to-apples state comparisons, show New York public elementary and secondary schools in school year 2021-22 spent $29,873 per pupil, up 151 percent since 2000-01.[ii]

Besides being nearly double the latest national average ($15,633), New York’s latest pre-K-12 spending level was 36 percent more than that of the neighboring Commonwealth of Massachusetts ($21,906).

Yet New York student test scores on NAEP have been consistently lower than those of Massachusetts students in every round of NAEP testing since at least 1992. (Figure 1)

Figure 1.

In fact, Massachusetts students in 2022 had the nation’s highest combined score (grade 4 and 8, math and reading) while New York tied for 32nd, below the national average and behind Texas, Kansas and Kentucky. (Figure 2)

Figure 2.

Source: NAEP

As the above chart indicates, Massachusetts posted the highest or second-highest scores in all four categories. New York’s best performance, in Grade 8 reading, tied for ninth place. At the other extreme, it scored #46 for Grade 4 math.

While the two states differ in geographic size and total population (the public-school population in New York City alone is roughly the same as its counterpart in the entire Commonwealth), there are many similarities.

  • Both are formerly industrial states with a large major city, smaller cities and rural areas, as well as extensive pockets of poverty (18.8 percent of New York children fall below the federal poverty line, compared to 12.8 percent in Massachusetts).[iii]
  • Both states provide similarly high spending levels in their largest urban districts.[iv]
  • Both states are leading destinations for foreign immigrants; a larger share of Massachusetts students are English learners than the level in New York schools (10.5 percent vs. 9.7 percent).[v]
  • Both states have hundreds of school districts, run by locally elected (or in the case of some cities, appointed) school boards.
  • Courts in both states have interpreted their constitution as requiring certain levels of state funding to ensure an adequate education for every student.
  • Both also have substantial systems of higher education replete with institutions for teacher training.
  • Teachers are almost universally unionized in both states and teachers’ unions wield considerable influence over education policy in both Boston and Albany.
  • Class sizes in both states are among the nation’s smallest. In fact, New York’s pupil-teacher ratio (11.7) was below that of Massachusetts (12.0) as of fall 2022.[vi]
  • Teachers in the two states were the highest and second-highest paid in the nation: New York teachers in 2021-22 were paid an average of $92,222, compared to $88,903 in Massachusetts.[vii]
  • Both states have property tax caps that limit the growth of local tax levies which fund much of public-school operations. The Massachusetts cap, adopted in 1980, has been in force for more than three times as long as New York’s, which first took effect for school budgets approved in 2012.

What, then, may explain the gap in student performance between the states?

Notable differences exist in key areas of education policy. In no place is that difference more pronounced than in the process by which it’s made.


The Massachusetts Board of Education was established in 1837 thanks to the influence of Horace Mann, considered the father of American public education, who advocated the establishment of Common Schools to educate all children.

Today, the Board consists of 11 members, including the Secretary of Education appointed by the Governor and a student representative chosen by the statewide Student Advisory Council. The other nine members, also appointed by the Governor, must include a parent, a businessperson and a labor representative. Board members are not subject to legislative confirmation.

Members serve five-year staggered terms, at the pleasure of the governor and may serve no more than two terms. The Board selects the Commissioner of Education, who is responsible for executing Board policies through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

On two occasions since 1993, the Governor sought and received the “voluntary” resignations of the Chairman of the Board.

K-12 education policy in New York is set by the Board of Regents, the nation’s oldest state education agency, owing partially to a historical accident: after expelling the British, the state Legislature created the Board as a corporation to oversee what had previously been King’s College (which later became Columbia University).[viii] Its responsibilities gradually expanded to oversee the curriculum of other schools that were established.

Three decades later, the Legislature approved the Common School Law of 1812, which established a Department of Public Instruction that was authorized to visit and inspect schools. During the next century, jurisdictional conflicts between the Regents and the Department were common until they were finally resolved in 1904 by the establishment of an Education Department, the commissioner for which would be appointed by the Regents.[ix]

The Board of Regents currently consists of 17 members, four more than the number of state judicial districts, with at least one member coming from each district.[x] They are chosen by majority vote at joint meetings of the 150-member state Assembly and the 63-member Senate, a process that in recent years has been dominated by the 100-member-plus Assembly Democratic conference. Regents serve five-year terms with no limitations on the number of terms to which they can be reappointed; interested members are rarely not reappointed.

New York’s governor has no formal involvement in Regents’ appointments. He or she cannot remove a Regent or the appointed Commissioner. This arrangement, in which a state legislature selects every voting member of the state’s education board, differs from both regional and national norms.

Governors in 33 states—including all five of New York’s neighbors—select at least half of their school boards’ voting members, typically with legislative approval.[xi] Four states do not have state-level boards. Voters in another 10 directly elect at least half of their board, while Washington’s board is a mix of local school board designees, gubernatorial appointments, student representatives and a private-school representative.

Only South Carolina has a system similar to New York’s, with the Legislature selecting 16 members and the governor naming just one. However, unlike New York, South Carolina’s chief state school officer is directly elected.

The states’ education boards differ in their jurisdiction as well. The Massachusetts Board focuses exclusively on the state’s K-12 public schools. The Commonwealth’s universities, state colleges and community colleges are under the jurisdiction of a separate Board of Higher Education.

The Regents’ scope of authority, on the other hand, is the broadest of any such body in the nation. It oversees all state education functions and policies, including K-12, public and private schools and state institutions of higher education. But its mandate also extends to licensing of professions (including medicine, nursing and accounting); libraries, museums and historical societies; and public television and radio stations.

In a 1988 outlier incident, Regent Dr. Salvatore Sclafani told a legislative committee that his work as a practicing physician did not give him time to visit schools and that his focus was on the Regents’ jurisdiction closest to his specialty.[xii] He was not reappointed.

As a practical matter, Massachusetts voters can hold their governor to account for education policy decisions. There is no such accountability mechanism in New York.

Risk, Reforms and Revenues

Another key difference between the states lies in how they responded to the work of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which issued its important report, A Nation at Risk: The Importance of Education Reform, in 1983.

The report’s message was clear: “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our future as a Nation and a people.”[xiii]

It continued, “we’ve lost sight of the need for high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.”

To halt the decline in educational achievement identified in the report, the Commission held that public officials and educators needed to establish high standards and a means of holding those responsible for educating our youth accountable for the results.

Many states, including New York and Massachusetts, made significant changes in response to the report.

A Nation at Risk focused primarily on the need to improve high school curriculum. New York’s response in 1986 was to increase the number of math and science courses required for graduation and to add foreign-language offerings beginning in junior high school. [xiv]

Massachusetts made some modest changes in the late 1980s but undertook a sweeping series of reforms in the 1990s in response to litigation. These were adopted following the election of Republican Governor William Weld. Weld’s efforts in combination with those of three powerful, education-focused Democratic legislators—Senate President William Bulger, Senate Education Chairman Tom Birmingham and House Education Chairman Mark Roosevelt—forged the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 (MERA).

MERA was a grand bargain between the Commonwealth and local school districts. It involved an infusion of funds in exchange for accountability and a top-to-bottom overhaul of the entire system, that included:

  • establishing high standards in every subject;
  • preparing high-quality, content-rich curriculum frameworks;
  • preparing a testing system (MCAS) for students and phased-in testing requirements for graduation;
  • strengthening teacher licensing requirements by requiring five-year renewals accompanied by professional development courses aligned with standards and subject matter taught;
  • requiring teacher preparation programs align with standards and curriculum frameworks;
  • allowing time for the entire system to be in place before identifying underperforming schools; and
  • providing assistance to underperforming schools/districts and establishing a defined period of time in which to help schools improve before replacing school leadership or justifying a state takeover.

In return for these reforms, MERA established a new funding formula for each district called a Foundation Budget, the amount necessary to provide a quality education for the pupils in a particular district. Among other things, the formula measures the tax base, income and enrollment of a district to determine what a district can afford to pay, with state funding making up the difference from the formula’s minimum (payments known as Chapter 70 aid). The formula was phased in over seven years, with Chapter 70 aid rising from $1.3 billion in fiscal 1993 to $2.5 billion in fiscal 1999, a 92 percent increase, and reaching $5.2 billion by fiscal 2019.

New York also adopted a new funding formula but not until 2007 after advocates’ litigation against the state concluded generally in their favor. The state began significantly increasing school aid as it established a “foundation aid” formula meant to cover the cost of a “sound basic education.” However, this increase in state spending did not come with nearly the same level of reforms—with respect to standards, curriculum or accountability—as MERA had imposed.

Governor Eliot Spitzer sought to tie accountability measures to the new infusion of funds. In the first year, education funding increased by $1.4 billion (9 percent), and after four years, the planned increase was expected to total $7 billion.

In exchange for the increased financial resources, districts were required to develop a comprehensive plan for directing the funding and implementing their plan. The 56 districts designated in need of improvement by the state were required to select from a menu of state-approved strategies and initiatives and develop measures of performance improvement to evaluate success.

The approved strategies included reduction in class size, increased student time on task, teacher and principal quality initiatives, middle school and high school restructuring and pre-K and full-day kindergarten expansion. These were called “Contracts for Excellence” (CFE), a riff on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity litigation that had pressed the state to increase school aid.

After state funding was pared back during the Great Recession, Governor Cuomo in 2012 resumed substantial increases, with the foundation aid formula considered “fully funded” beginning in school year 2023-24—though as noted above, New York’s K-12 spending was already the nation’s highest in every year after 2008.

There are several problems with New York’s approach to holding school leadership accountable for improving student performance. First, although Governor Spitzer had proposed that school leadership and school boards be replaced in districts that failed to show improvement, those consequential provisions were never incorporated in the final legislation.

Furthermore, while Massachusetts, as noted above, took several years to implement all the components of ed reform before identifying schools and districts in need of improvement, New York’s compressed timeframe made it virtually impossible for districts that were already in need of improvement to develop and implement a plan with well-conceived performance measures. Otherwise put, in Massachusetts, all districts were treated equally at the starting point and not singled out as some were in New York.

This approach limited districts to particular strategies that had not been unmitigated successes elsewhere. Districts needed time and data to figure out their weaknesses, which might require multiple approaches that could be different from the state’s menu of options.

As Paul Peterson, Director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, has noted, there’s no magic bullet to improving student performance. But New York’s menu included mostly inputs. What works, according to Peterson, are high standards, testing programs and tracking student performance over time.[xv]

A year after New York enacted Spitzer’s “Contracts for Excellence,” Empire Center researcher Peter Meyer found the effort had “evolved into a typical government grants program, awarding money based on inputs, rather than desired outcomes.”

Standards & Curriculum

What does it mean when educators talk about high standards and content-rich curriculum? Standards define what students should understand and be able to do by the end of each grade. For example, the Massachusetts English Language Arts (ELA) standards for the early grades define students’ level of reading, comprehension, writing, speaking and listening for each grade.

The accompanying content-rich curriculum “should expose students to a diversity of high-quality, authentic literature from multiple genres, cultures, and time periods. The purpose of teaching literature is not only to sharpen skills of comprehension and analysis, but also to instill in students a deep appreciation for art, beauty, and truth, while broadening their understanding of the human condition from differing points of view. This kind of curriculum which focuses on the acquisition of knowledge will also help students develop empathy for others while learning about who they are as individuals, citizens of this nation, and members of a wider civilization and world.”[xvi]

In the upper grades, the curriculum includes a fair amount of non-fiction readings.

After two false starts in the process of developing high-level standards and content-rich curricula, Massachusetts Education Commissioner David Driscoll appointed Sandra Stotsky, a seasoned reading and curriculum specialist, as Deputy Commissioner for Academic Affairs and Planning.

She engaged academic experts, teachers, museum curators and others in developing standards for each of the subject-matter areas. The standards and curriculum frameworks established between 1999 and 2003 were regarded by many outside authorities such as E. D. Hirsch (author of the Core Knowledge curriculum and the influential book Cultural Literacy) and the Fordham Institute as among the best in the nation.

In 2008, Hirsch wrote that NAEP results from Massachusetts were a “stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline.” He added:

Since 1998, the state has improved significantly in the number of eighth graders reading at the “proficient” or “advanced” levels: Massachusetts now has the highest percentage of students reading at that higher level and it is number 1 in average scores for the eighth grade. That is because Massachusetts decided in 1997 that students (and teachers) should learn certain explicit, substantive things about history, science, and literature, and that students should be tested on that knowledge. The surest road to adequate progress in reading is adequate progress in knowledge.[xvii]

A sample from the Massachusetts English Language Arts standards illustrates the level of specificity and detail found in these frameworks (see Appendix). They are also replete with examples and suggestions of how to teach the standards. The end of each subject-area document contains an extensive bibliography for teachers of suggested readings and course material listed by grade.

DESE also maintains a website called CURATE where teachers post reviews of curricula and other teaching materials that educators across the Commonwealth can access. These aids would be particularly useful to elementary-school teachers who are called on to teach a wide variety of subjects daily. (A similar website in New York, Engage NY, was closed in 2022).

New York followed a different approach to developing standards.

The state already had a long history of using Regents exams as a benchmark for graduation. The first Regents exams were instituted in 1865 for students completing 8th grade.[xviii] By 1879, Regents exams had greatly expanded in number and were offered at the high school level. The exams included, among other subjects, natural philosophy (or what we now call natural science), mental philosophy (psychology), moral philosophy and readings from classical authors including Caesar, Virgil, Homer, Xenophon and Cicero, along with Latin prose composition. In 1911, exams were added in Spanish, Italian and Hebrew.

For much of the 20th century, the Regents diploma was intended for those headed for post-secondary education. Starting in 1979, New York created a separate series of basic competency tests in core subjects as a minimum standard for a “local” diploma. In 1996, however, when New York was intent on raising student achievement, the Regents abolished the competency tests. They replaced them with the requirement that all students take and pass the established Regents exams in at least four core subjects (English, Math, Science and Social Studies), while still reserving the higher “Regents diploma” for those passing a sequence of multiple exams in each subject. But while the standards have since been revised several times, most recently in 2017, they still lack the richness and use of specific examples provided in the Massachusetts standards (See Appendix 2).

The standards in both Massachusetts and New York were subsequently supplemented by Common Core, a set of skills rather than content standards, identified by the US Department of Education in 2010 that would, if mastered, enable students to succeed in college and the workforce. (Forty states including New York and Massachusetts adopted Common Core in exchange for a substantial infusion of funds from the federal government.)

The Common Core standards were particularly designed to raise student achievement in the lowest-performing states. In English Language Arts, for example, students were required to read more non-fiction than literature and focus more on citing textual evidence rather than personal experience. This requires a focus on expanding a student’s knowledge base, not just skills. It should be noted, however, many in Massachusetts contended that Common Core standards were less demanding than those the Commonwealth had previously adopted.

School districts in New York fall short of making the improvements that Massachusetts has achieved because there is no comprehensive model that ties curriculum, teacher preparation and evaluation, and assessments together or guidance from the Regents or the Commissioner to do so. For example, it is not uncommon for districts to undertake a strategic planning process that lacks any connection to the state standards or aims at aligning curriculum with them. While the state requires professional development for each teacher for license renewal, there doesn’t seem to be an evaluation system for monitoring the effectiveness of professional development on student learning.

Recent proposals in Albany would further weaken standards and likely increase the achievement gap between New York and Massachusetts. The Board of Regents has moved to stop requiring high schoolers to take and pass any Regents exams to receive a local diploma, essentially returning to the pre-1979 status quo. Meanwhile, the Regents’ proposed “Portrait of a Graduate” puts little focus on the acquisition of knowledge and amounts to a retreat from rigorous learning standards.

Teacher Preparation and Licensure

New York and Massachusetts have taken different approaches in deciding who enters the classroom.

The 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA) set out to improve the academic quality of those entering the teaching profession with a new examination. New York, on the other hand, eliminated its teacher certification test (edTPA) in 2022 in order to attract more individuals into the profession.[xix]

Prior to MERA, the initial preparation of teachers was the responsibility of schools of education and local school districts. In Massachusetts, under the new dispensation, DESE was made responsible for raising the bar to enter the profession and to improve the quality of those already teaching. The Department was instructed to achieve three goals:

  1. attracting more high-achieving undergraduates and mid-career changers to teaching;
  2. increasing the academic qualifications of teachers entering the profession; and
  3. increasing the academic knowledge of the current teaching force.

Teacher quality was now linked to mandated standards and accountability measures to improve student learning. The many steps to achieve MERA’s teacher quality goals (as well as the formulation of the state’s first-rate standards, curriculum frameworks, and MCAS tests) were, as noted earlier, developed and implemented under the direction of Sandra Stotsky.

Prior to 1994, a prospective Massachusetts elementary school teacher could major in any subject, such as education, and a license was valid for life. The new recommendations included 36 credit-hours of subjects in the arts and sciences that are taught in the early grades including composition, American and British literature, math, science, US, European, and world history, US government, geography and economics, plus the fundamentals of reading and reading pedagogy.

Education and pedagogy courses had to be part of a second, not primary major. Education schools were expected to teach the topics covered by the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks for program approval and arrange for their coverage. Upon completion of the degree, prospective teachers were required to take a general test covering all the subjects outlined above plus an additional test in reading and writing skills. Those preparing for middle-school teaching had to pass a subject-matter test plus the one in reading, writing and communication skills.

For a high school teacher training program to get approval from DESE, it had to demonstrate how students’ curricula would cover the range of courses a licensed high school teacher might be called on to teach (from remedial to advanced placement) and the topics required in the arts and sciences in their major.

Any institution whose teacher training program had less than an 80 percent pass rate on the teacher tests in several successive years would be put on probation by DESE.

Licensure to teach in the Commonwealth became a two-step process which must be renewed every five years. Obtaining a master’s degree may be used for the second stage of the license. For middle school and high school licenses, however, at least half the master’s coursework must be in the subject-matter the teacher specializes in with the remainder in other arts and sciences.

For elementary and special education licenses, pedagogy courses are acceptable, but the master’s degree must relate to the basic subjects taught at that level. License renewal requires professional development credits. Each teacher must have an individualized professional development plan. The courses must have academic content with pre-tests and post-tests. Each course must have a ten-hour minimum of instruction.

DESE found that multi-week summer institutes sponsored by the Department in subject-matter areas taught by professors were among the most successful forms of professional development. According to Dr. Stotsky, “These institutes were heavy on content but incorporated pedagogical discussions as well. They gave participants an opportunity to engage in lively and serious exchanges with colleagues from across the country.” (Unfortunately, these institutes were terminated many years ago without explanation.)

To attract more academically strong individuals into the teaching profession, the Department added several new licenses and two accelerated pathways to becoming a teacher. For example, it replaced the social studies license with a license in history or political science/political philosophy (including geography and economics) to align with the subjects in the curriculum frameworks. It similarly replaced a general license for middle school and substituted two new licenses: one for English and history and the other for math and science.

No teacher could be licensed in K-12 for teaching psychology, anthropology, or sociology as courses in these academic disciplines were not taught in K-12.

The Department also established the Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers (MINT), an accelerated pathway for recruiting new teachers. By completing summer coursework and a summer practicum, these individuals could qualify as teachers of record in the succeeding fall term. This program proved successful in attracting several hundred candidates for math and science positions between 1999 and 2003 who would not have enrolled in traditional teacher training institutions.

DESE also established a career ladder for current teachers with financial incentives to achieve master-teacher status. Those willing to undertake the program had to earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). They were expected to assume mentoring training and responsibilities for new teachers. Once they completed a NBPTS program, they would earn the designation of master teacher and receive a $5,000 annual bonus for each of ten years. (As of 2004, before the program was eliminated due to budgetary considerations, 358 teachers had achieved NBPTS certification and 275 of those were mentoring new teachers.)

There is a large body of research which indicates that teacher verbal ability or superior knowledge of subject-matter or both are strongly correlated with student achievement.[xx] E.D. Hirsch claims, however, that America’s K-12 teachers (especially its elementary and middle school teachers) have not been required to master strong academic content as a prerequisite to enter the teaching profession.

If that’s the case, then an important mechanism for improving teacher quality is upgrading the licensure tests so they address the academic content teachers are required to teach in K-12 public education. (Once colleges eliminated required survey courses in the arts and sciences, beginning in the late 1960s, or gave reduced credit for passing the tests in advanced placement courses, prospective high school teachers were no longer required to study the range of topics covered in K-12.)

In harmony with these findings, the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) initiated in 1998 includes a test of communication and literacy skills as well as tests of subject-matter knowledge.

The results of the first tests were sobering: the failure rate was quite high. The first administration of the test in 1998 had a pass rate of 41 percent on all three parts. By 2001, the pass rate increased to 62 percent.

In the early years of administering MTEL, other states began aggressively recruiting those who had passed the test or adopting its stand-alone reading test for elementary teachers. For instance, Connecticut adopted the MTEL test on the Foundations of Reading to try to raise its declining NAEP scores.[xxi]

School districts in New York fall short of making the improvements that Massachusetts has achieved because there doesn’t seem to have ever been a commitment to undertake a comprehensive review of the entire system to ensure that all the pieces fit together. There doesn’t seem to be the interest or the guidance from the Board of Regents or the Commissioner to do so.

For example, when Governor Spitzer requested legislative authority to remove school leadership for consistently poor student performance, it was denied, thereby blocking one avenue of accountability. It is also not uncommon for districts to undertake a strategic planning process that is not necessarily tied to the state standards or aligning curriculum with them. While the state requires professional development for each teacher for license renewal, there doesn’t seem to be an evaluation system for monitoring the effectiveness of professional development on student learning.

Nevertheless, New York has followed the route of Massachusetts and other states and made some changes in teacher preparation requirements. The test to become a teacher has been altered on several occasions in recent decades, in part due to litigation.

The Regents adopted the Educating All Students test designed to assess the ability of prospective teachers to teach a diverse student population, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities. This does not seem as demanding as the Massachusetts literacy and communications test. As in Massachusetts, prospective teachers must also pass Content Specialty Tests on the content and skills in the area of certification.

In 2004, New York’s permanent license was changed to a professional license that must be renewed every five years. Renewal requires 100 hours of professional development (Continuing Teacher and Leader Education) during that five-year cycle which must be in the content area of the certificate, targeted to improving student performance or aligned to district goals for student performance. Those who had a permanent certificate at the time of the change—many of whom remain in the classroom today—were exempted from any future professional development

Teacher Preparation Program Accreditation

Unlike Massachusetts, where ed school programs are accredited by teams that include DESE staff members, New York’s programs are evaluated and certified by accrediting agencies, such as the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), which do not necessarily have the same standards for accreditation. That means the quality of programs can vary considerably.

Since 2005, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has been evaluating elementary teacher preparation programs nationwide. Based on NCTQ’s review of standards, many of the programs in both Massachusetts and New York have serious deficiencies, especially regarding:

  • admission standards (admitting students in the lower half of a high school class);
  • teaching of reading, math and content/knowledge essential for K-12;
  • practice teaching accompanied by multiple mentor evaluations; and
  • classroom management.

Some of these teacher-program evaluations were completed as recently as 2022.

NCTQ has also studied elementary prep programs for their course offerings and requirements regarding science and social studies, the two major subject areas in addition to English Language Arts and math that must be taught by all elementary-school teachers.

According to NCTQ, although 84 percent of their sample institutions offer most of the science and social studies courses needed in the early grades, only three percent require candidates to take the right courses that are relevant for their teaching. NCTQ observed that while relevant courses are available at the institutions, they are presented to candidates as options, rather than requirements.

In other words, there is opportunity for elementary teacher prep programs to better match the required courses for elementary teacher candidates with the knowledge and skills to align with what students are expected to know. Fewer than 20 percent of institutions require economics or world history and up to 50 percent do not require US history. NCTQ also found that there is not a single science topic that all elementary teachers are required to study.

While most states have adopted engineering and design standards for students, most teacher prep programs do not offer such a course. The greater the level of content knowledge acquired by the teacher, the more likely his or her students will be able to comprehend a text and the greater foundation they build for later grades.

Based on NCTQ’s findings, both Massachusetts and New York need to better leverage their authority over teacher prep program approval to require teacher candidates to take the courses they will need for teaching in the elementary grades. NCTQ recommends that course requirements be accompanied by content licensure tests in each of the four major areas taught in elementary school to qualify for an initial license.

NCTQ recently released a report focused on state policies to implement the “science of reading.” Decades of research describe how students most effectively can be taught to read, including five core components of systematic instruction: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. The report elaborates in detail the steps states can take to support aspiring teachers at the pre-service stage and teachers who are already in classrooms to teach scientifically based reading.

The Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state agency he leads released a literacy strategic plan called “Mass Literacy” to promote scientifically based reading instruction in all districts during 2024. In her January 2024 State of the State address, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced plans to ensure the “science of reading” will be the mode of reading instruction in all New York State school districts by September 2025, seeking $10 million to train 20,000 teachers in “evidence-based, best practices to teach reading.”

Accountability & Intervention

In Massachusetts, MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) is the public face of the Commonwealth’s accountability system. The tests in ELA, math and science are given annually to all students in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10 and are based on the state’s standards.

Students must pass grade 10 ELA and math tests to graduate. Those who fail are given opportunities for tutoring and multiple chances for retaking the tests in their junior or senior year.

MCAS scores are just the beginning of holding schools and districts accountable for student performance. Each year, DESE reviews several factors for each school and district to determine not only achievement in ELA, math and science but also the following measures: student growth in ELA and math, high school completion, ELA proficiency level, chronic absenteeism, and high school advanced coursework completion.

Under Massachusetts’ “Accountability and Assistance” regulations, up to four percent of the lowest-performing schools statewide based on MCAS and other criteria noted above that have failed to show any improvement over several years, may be designated “underperforming” or “chronically underperforming,” and therefore, made eligible for assistance from DESE.

The school must first conduct a self-evaluation of leadership and governance, curriculum and instruction, assessments, human resources and professional development, student support, and financial and asset management.

The Department provides a variety of forms of assistance for schools to assess themselves and to improve student performance. Many, such as surveys, templates, protocols and examples from other districts are free, while some such as professional development opportunities, assistance from Department staff, Department contractors, or third-party partners are subject to the availability of funding. Any changes to collective bargaining agreements needed to improve school performance must be negotiated using an expedited process.

Since 2010, 65 schools have been designated “underperforming,” and with state assistance, developed a three-year “turnaround” plan. More than two-thirds have exited underperforming status, generally within the three-year period.

The Massachusetts Board may designate a school or a district “chronically underperforming” if, after multiple reviews and monitoring, DESE finds serious deficiencies relating to standards or lack of improvement in core academic subjects, either in the aggregate or among subgroups of students that if not addressed will have a substantial negative impact on student performance.

Three districts (Lawrence, since 2011; Holyoke, since 2015; and Southbridge, since 2016) and four individual schools are currently in the “chronically underperforming” category which requires the commissioner to appoint a “receiver” who replaces the authority of the locally elected school committee. The school board and the superintendent cease to function; the receiver is in charge.

The receiver can make considerable changes to the collective bargaining agreement, and the obligation to bargain over those changes with the union is greatly diminished. The receiver can make substantial changes to staffing, scheduling and leadership. None of these districts or schools has exited receivership because they have not met the targets for improvement.

In New York, graduation requirements are separate from state tests, unlike Massachusetts, where passing MCAS is an essential graduation requirement. In the earlier grades in New York, tests are used to measure student academic growth, achievement in core subjects and grade-level proficiency.

For school and district accountability, New York also measures the increase in average daily attendance and reductions in chronic absenteeism, student access to social and emotional learning (SEL)-based support and the degree to which the school’s climate is safe and conducive to learning. For high schools, graduation rates and preparing students for college, career and civic engagement are also measured. Massachusetts does not employ such amorphous and difficult-to-measure “criteria” as “school climate” or “social and emotional learning” to determine school and district accountability.

New York defines various levels of schools and districts in need of improvement based on the criteria noted above under “accountability.”

The worst-performing schools (no more than five percent) may be placed in receivership. As of 2019, there were 31 schools in 10 school districts outside of New York City in receivership. Because of the pandemic, no new schools were identified after 2019. (The accountability system has been reinstated for the 2023-24 academic year.)[xxii]

Whatever the underperforming designation, the school or district must develop a plan based on input from all the stakeholders—teachers, administrators, students, community members and others—to determine their shared values, their vision for the school, a detailed account of how they would achieve their goals and a timeline for completion of each task.

The plan must be approved by NYSED but it need not be tied directly to student achievement; it could instead be devoted to improving the school climate, better communication with parents, or ensuring that multiplication is taught the same way in all classes. This process is unlike Massachusetts where a “turnaround plan” must be tied specifically to methods of raising student achievement.


New York requires a comprehensive redesign of governance and education policy and a commitment by elected officials, business and community leaders and parents to persevere in improving public education.

1. The Board of Regents should be appointed by the governor, as is the case in most states. Public education is one of the largest budget items and among the most important functions of state government. It, like other executive agencies, should fall under the jurisdiction of the governor.

While appreciating the 240-year tradition of the Board of Regents, it is time for the State Assembly and Senate to consider how education policy can be made and delivered most effectively for New York’s students. The current arrangement is not working for the benefit of students, parents, or the larger community.

The Board of Regents should be responsible for pre-K-12 education only; its other areas of responsibility, including higher education, healthcare licensure and public television and radio stations, should be relocated to existing or new agencies.

A newly constituted Board of Regents, accountable to the governor, will have reset priorities and can break away from the current board’s downward spiral of lowered expectations.

2. NYSED’s first task is to ensure that education standards are content-rich, rather than based on skills or processes. Education in content increases background knowledge, reading comprehension and vocabulary—everything a student needs to be college and career ready.

NYSED should provide more guidance to districts in choosing high-quality, content-rich curriculum for school districts and provide incentives for doing so.

There is no shame in copying what has worked in other states. Massachusetts is part of a national collaborative under the auspices of the National Association of School Boards of Education (NASBE) dedicated to identifying High Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM). Each member-state has superior teachers evaluating curriculum materials that can be recommended to their school districts. NYSED should become part of the NASBE collaborative or some other consortium identifying HQIM which can be adopted by New York schools.

3. NYSED should provide more targeted assistance to underperforming schools, using data to pinpoint their weaknesses. Regulations now require each school to go through what amounts to a “strategic planning” process involving many community and education stakeholders, including students, who engage in “visioning and goal setting.”

Strategic planning as such will not advance the goal of improving student outcomes. Students, parents and community members may have entirely different goals than teachers or school leadership. But if a school is not performing well, the goal should be to improve student achievement. Teachers and administrators with the assistance of NYSED should analyze the data and figure out what needs to be done to raise achievement, not engage in strategic planning.

4. Teacher preparation programs need a major overhaul in light of the trove of data collected and analyzed by NCTQ. The programs seem to be especially weak for elementary school teachers. Since NYSED must approve the programs, it can encourage the inclusion of specific courses in the curriculum. There is now undisputed evidence that the way reading has been taught in most ed schools has been wrong for decades. NYSED should particularly use the NCTQ guidelines for helping districts implement a “science of reading” curriculum in every district.

5. NYSED should also require that teacher candidates take courses and tests in the subjects they must teach in pre-K-8 in science and social studies. NYSED should appoint the best high school science and social studies teachers in the state to assist ed school professors develop curricula for the lower grades based on what knowledge students need to be able to do well in high school chemistry, biology, or physics courses or American history, economics and geography. Teachers selected for these tasks of evaluating curriculum materials or preparing courses for the teacher prep programs could be part of an elite corps who rotate among teaching and these other functions of writing curriculum and evaluating curriculum materials. They could be compensated at higher levels for this work.

Appendix: Massachusetts Example ELA Grade 1

Source: Massachusetts DESE

  1. Craft and Structure
    1. Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses. (See grade 1 Language Standards 4–6 on applying knowledge of vocabulary to reading.)
    2. Identify characteristics of common types of stories, including folktales and fairy tales. For example, in a study of folktales as a genre, students listen to and read along with the teacher the traditional poem, “The Fox’s Foray,” noting the repetition, rhythm, and rhyme. After performing a choral reading of another version of the poem, “The Fox Went Out One Chilly Night,” they read more traditional tales featuring foxes and write opinion pieces about the character of the fox in the tales they have read. (RL.1.5, RL.1.9, W.1.1, L.1.6)
    3. Identify who is telling the story at various points in a text.
  2. Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
    1. Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.
    2. Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories. For example, students read or listen to audiobooks of several picture books by one author/illustrator, such as Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, William Stieg, Eric Carle, Ezra Jack Keats, Jerry Pinkney, or Mo Willems, and make a list of the similarities they notice in the books. (RL.1.9, W.1.10)

Appendix 2: Example from New York ELA Standards, Grade 1

Source: NYSED

1.Craft and Structure

  1. Identify specific words that express feelings and senses. (RI&RL)
  2. Identify a variety of genres and explain major differences between literary texts and informational texts. (RI&RL)
  3. Describe how illustrations and details support the point of view or purpose of the text. (RI&RL)

2.Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

  1. Use illustrations and details in literary and informational texts to discuss story elements and/or topics. (RI&RL)
  2. Identify specific information an author or illustrator gives that supports ideas in a text. (RI&RL)
  3. Make connections between self and text (texts and other people/world). (RI&RL)


[i] Hirsch, E.D. “The Knowledge Connection,” Washington Post, 16 Feb 08. washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/15/AR2008021503008.html

[ii] McMahon, EJ, “NY school spending led all US by record margin in 2021-22,” empirecenter.org/publications/ny-per-pupil-school-spending-led-all-us-by-record-margin-in-2021-22

[iii] “Percent of Total Population in Poverty,” USDA. data.ers.usda.gov/reports.aspx?ID=17826

[iv] As of 2020-21, spending averaged $31,397 for each of the 54,000 pupils in Boston system, and $29,931 per-pupil in New York City, which has 915,000 pupils. See also: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2024//2024303.pdf

[v] “English learners (ELs) enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools, by state or jurisdiction,” NCES. nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d23/tables/dt23_204.20.asp

[vi] “Public elementary and secondary teachers, enrollment, and pupil/teacher ratios, by state or jurisdiction,” NCES. nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d23/tables/dt23_208.40.asp

[vii] “Estimated average annual salary of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools, by state,” NCES. nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d21/tables/dt21_211.60.asp

[viii] “History Of The Board & University Of The State Of New York,” NYSED. nysed.gov/about/history-usny.html

[ix] Stiles, Robert, “A Brief History of the New York Board of Regents,” educationupdate.com

[x] N.Y. Education Law §202

[xi] “A Look at State Education Governance,” National Assn of State Boards of Education, nasbe.org/state-education-governance

[xii] Bellafiore, Robert, “Regent ‘Too Busy’ To Visit Schools,” The Journal (Ogdensburg), 17 Feb 88.

[xiii] A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983.

[xiv] Fiske, Edward, “NYC Joins Sustained US push to Improve Schools,” New York Times, October 28, 1986.

[xv] Meyer, Peter, “Salvaging NY’s School Contracts,” empirecenter.org, April 2008.

[xvi] English Language Arts and Literacy: Grades Pre- Kindergarten to 12, doe.mass.edu

[xvii] (Quoted in Washington Post, February 16, 2008, “The Knowledge Connection.”)

[xviii] “History of New York State Assessments,” NYSED. nysed.gov/state-assessment/history-new-york-state-assessments

[xix] “Elimination of the edTPA Requirement for Certification,” NYSED. highered.nysed.gov/tcert/news/newsitem04.12.22_edTPA.html

[xx] Stotsky, Sandra and Lisa Haverty, “Can a State Department of Education Increase Teacher Quality? Lessons Learned in Massachusetts,” Diane Ravitch, ed., Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 2004, p. 197.

[xxi] State of Connecticut, State Department of Education, Circular letter: C-3, portal.ct.gov.

[xxii] “Fact Sheet 19-8: School Receivership, NYSUT Research and Educational Services,” NYSUT, 19 Mar 19, NYSUT.org.

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