edTPA: Silencing the Conversation
Alison G. Dover
This is the author’s pre-print version of an article subsequently published in the April 2016 issue of Chicago Union Teacher.
What does it mean to be a good teacher? As you consider the question, ask yourself how your response changes as you adopt the lens of a teacher, a teacher educator, a principal or a parent. Would—or should—your answer be the same in every context, every school, every classroom? Do you think everyone you know would—or should—respond in exactly the same way? These are the kinds of critical conversations we need to have about the field of education.
There’s much to be gained from talking about what it means to be a good teacher. We debate this question in faculty meetings, across dinner tables, and with ourselves in the middle of the night. New teachers wonder if they have what it takes, how to learn from their successes and mistakes, and how to best respond to the ever-changing demands of their students and profession. Parents consider the unique needs of their children, and how teachers could best engage or support their five, or fifteen, year old in the classroom. Teacher educators talk about our candidates’ performance, looking for ways to better prepare them to teach effectively from the moment they enter the classroom. These are conversations that our field needs to have, and we all benefit from our discussion. New teacher education policy in Illinois, however, is silencing our conversation.
Effective September 1, 2015, all candidates seeking initial licensure in Illinois are required to pass a high-stakes, standardized “teacher performance assessment,” called edTPA. While the requirements of edTPA vary slightly according to candidates’ level and discipline, the overarching structure focuses on three tasks that are part of any teacher’s daily responsibilities: planning, instruction, and assessment. These activities—planning, implementing, and reflecting on instruction—are things that any teacher educator would ask candidates to do. Under edTPA, however, candidates are required to spend weeks focused narrowly on just three to five interconnected lessons. They plan their lessons, record themselves teaching the lessons, gather samples of student work from the lessons, and write approximately twenty-five pages of narrative in response to a series of standardized prompts. Candidates then upload their materials to Pearson Education for anonymous online scoring. Scorers—presumably current or retired teachers or teacher educators who have been “calibrated” to ensure their numerical scores are standardized according to test developers’ requirements—provide numerical ratings, but no feedback, approximately one month later. In states where edTPA is required for licensure, candidates who fail to meet the state-determined cut score are not eligible for a teaching license, regardless of all other evaluations of their readiness. It does not matter whether their university supervisor or cooperating teacher think they’re ready, or if their principal wants to offer them a job. If candidates do not pass edTPA, they cannot be licensed to teach.
There are many critiques of this model, including those focused on philosophical, pedagogical, and practical concerns. edTPA is based on the premise that good teaching is something that can and should be standardized, and then quantitatively evaluated by someone who has no knowledge of local students, communities, teachers, or schools, nor their priorities, needs or concerns. This is inherently problematic. Rather than preparing teacher candidates to articulate and work towards their vision of themselves as fantastic teachers, edTPA requires them to adopt and work towards someone else’s vision. It discounts the expertise and the autonomy of Illinois teacher educators and cooperating teachers by privileging snapshot assessments by external scorers over longitudinal, multifaceted evaluations conducted by local educators. Thus, it undermines the integrity and authenticity of the evaluation process. Candidates self-curate their portfolio materials, selecting those that best meet the test requirements; given the high-stakes of edTPA, it is no surprise that many focus their attention on the classes or subjects they find easiest to teach. The stakes and structure of the assessment also steers candidates towards a specific set of prescriptive instructional priorities. Elementary educators, for example, are required to submit materials related to literacy or mathematics; there is no evaluation of their approach to elementary science or social studies. Likewise, there is no dedicated edTPA for candidates in bilingual classrooms; they are evaluated according to the same criteria as candidates teaching in monolingual settings.
In addition to the pedagogical concerns inherent in this sort of reductive approach, edTPA also creates practical barriers that impede teacher preparation. It is an unusually technically and linguistically complex assessment: it requires candidates to upload more than a dozen files, compress videos, and respond to standardized prompts. These following examples are representative of the types of questions candidates must answer:
- Given the central focus, describe how the standards and learning objectives within your learning segment address students’ abilities to use the textual references to construct meaning from, interpret, or respond to complex text, [and] create a written product, interpreting or responding to complex features of a text. (Secondary English Language Arts)
- Explain and provide concrete examples for the extent to which your students were able to use or struggled to use selected language function, vocabulary or key phrases, and discourse or syntax to develop content understandings. (Elementary Education)
Learning the language and structure of edTPA is a task unto itself. There are fifty page instruction manuals for each licensure area, discipline-specific glossaries of edTPA terminology, guidance on “making good choices” when selecting or filming lessons for edTPA, and annual errata notices (which detail errors in the handbooks and materials). It is no wonder that student teachers feel pressure to focus as much on the requirements of edTPA as on the more important work of teaching, learning, and assessment. Nor is it a surprise that edTPA has sparked a cottage industry of opportunistic tutoring and test-prep services; these companies advertise services including edTPA help, editing and portfolio preparation. Rather than improving teacher preparation and evaluation in Illinois, edTPA introduces a new set of concerns that distract from and undermine it.
This critique begs the question: why? Why did this happen? Who benefits from edTPA? edTPA advocates claim edTPA was a necessary response to a crisis in teaching and learning. They define this crisis by citing the results of standardized tests, which they say prove that students aren’t performing, teachers aren’t performing, schools aren’t performing, and teacher educators aren’t performing. One could argue, however, that the real crisis in education is a manufactured one—created by inequitable conditions, insufficient funding, and an overreliance on scripted curriculum and standardized tests—and that edTPA, like many so-called reforms, is a part of a broader effort to privatize public education. When policymakers, in partnership with private entities, create a crisis, they also create an opportunity for a market-based solution to that crisis. And, edTPA is big business: edTPA was first piloted nationally in 2013, and has since been adopted by 656 educator preparation programs across 36 states. It is currently required or being considered as a requirement for licensure in 12 states, including Illinois. This is a dramatic and rapid shift in teacher education policy nationwide, with dramatic potential for profit. In 2014, the most recent year for which data was publicly released, 18,436 candidates nationwide took edTPA. At $300 each, that’s $5.5M, all for a test that didn’t exist three years ago. There is a reason that private companies create and support standardized assessments, and lobby for policies that require them. And that reason is not a deep commitment to Illinois students. As educators, we need to interrogate changing education policies, and ensure that the primary beneficiaries of Illinois education policies are students, schools, and communities in Illinois. What makes a good teacher? The answer is for us to decide.
Readers interested in learning more about efforts to reform edTPA policy in Illinois are encouraged to visit the website of the Illinois Coalition for edTPA Rules Change at http://icrchange.weebly.com/
At the time of publication, Dr. Alison G. Dover was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Inquiry & Curriculum Studies at the Daniel L. Goodwin College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University. She has since joined the faculty of California State University, Fullerton. Dr. Dover can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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