How The edTPA Disrupts Relationships
Reclaiming our visions and integrity
Authored By Mara Sapon-Shevin, Sue Novinger Robb
Mara: Caroline sits in my office weeping. She has failed the edTPA (a high-stakes assessment of teaching readiness) and can’t understand why. Her previous performance (both in class and in her practica) has been stellar; feedback from cooperating teachers and supervisors all speak to her enthusiasm, her creative lessons, and how well she engages a broad range of learners.
I ask her which lesson she submitted for edTPA analysis. Caroline had organized the students into heterogeneous cooperative learning groups, and each group was engaged in seeking information about aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. She thought the lesson was successful, and the students’ performance was what she had hoped for. But in writing up the lesson, she struggled to describe what she did in a way consistent with the edTPA framework, and her evaluations of group and individual work weren’t a good “fit” for the edTPA rubric.
I don’t know what to say. Caroline’s lesson flowed directly from our program’s focus on inclusion and diversity. I don’t want to warn students to structure lessons based on the edTPA rather than their best understanding of students and their learning. But I want Caroline to get her credential. Words stick in my throat.
This vignette highlights one of the many problems and disruptions created by the edTPA—among prospective teachers (PTs), teacher education faculty, and cooperating school personnel. In fact, the edTPA calls into question what we value about ourselves, our teaching, and our relationships.
Originally named the Teacher Performance Assessment, the edTPA was developed by a team of distinguished researchers at Stanford, including Linda Darling-Hammond, with the stated goal of improving teacher quality, teacher education, and the profession’s reputation. They worked with Pearson and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education to roll it out.
To complete the edTPA, PTs compile a portfolio of materials, including short videos of learning segments and analytic commentaries drawing on research and theory to justify their pedagogical choices and interpret their students’ learning. The commentary prompts do have the potential to elicit thoughtful analysis (e.g., PTs are asked to explain how they used assessment data to plan for instruction). But the prompts are highly prescriptive, and PTs must use the specialized vocabulary of the edTPA (e.g., academic language, language function) and grapple with complex, redundant instructions in the manuals. Completed portfolios are submitted to Pearson for scoring—by Pearson-trained reviewers. The reviewers have no knowledge of the context or people involved, other than what PTs write in their commentaries.
Use of edTPA is widespread—and growing. More than 600 teacher preparation programs in 40 states and the District of Columbia are using edTPA. As of this writing, 12 states have adopted and more are considering edTPA for teacher licensure or approval of teacher preparation programs. Hawaii and Washington require PTs to pass the edTPA for education program completion.
In 2010, teacher educator Ann Berlak first warned of the negative impact of an early test version of the edTPA (Performance Assessment for California Teachers) in the pages of Rethinking Schools, which also printed a special section with varying perspectives on the assessment in 2013. Concerted resistance to the edTPA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2012–13 resulted in teacher educator/activist Barbara Madeloni losing her faculty position there. (See References.)
Now, after a number of years of experience with the edTPA nationally, in this article we grapple with the ways that it radically disrupts the very relationships that create rich contexts for transformative education and teacher education.
Disruptions Between Faculty and Prospective Teachers
Sue: I was a kindergarten teacher before the standards movement, before No Child Left Behind. As early childhood educators, we were encouraged to create curriculum that engaged children in critical inquiry, to make space for creativity and play. Children were writers, readers, mathematicians, artists, scientists, and social scientists, and we used holistic, focused classroom-based assessment strategies. When I visit classrooms now, I see few remnants of those practices. Every part of the school day now seems structured to teach children fragmented knowledge and skills needed to meet grade-level standards and pass high-stakes standardized tests. Much of my work as a teacher educator has become focused on helping PTs imagine possibilities that aren’t constrained by high-stakes tests and teacher evaluations based in large part on student test scores. We’ve explored strategies for how to approach teaching as innovative, ethical educators in schools immersed in standardization.
And now, that standardization has made its way to teacher education.
Many classroom teachers report deep distress at having their students’ nuanced strengths and needs evaluated by standardized tests; now, as teacher education faculty, we are similarly anguished. As faculty, we struggle with which of our beliefs to share with our students. It’s challenging to say both “Teach to change the world, keep social justice at the forefront of your teaching” and “Play it safe so you and your students can be judged successful by someone who knows neither you nor them.”
The focus of the student teaching internship in our institutions has changed with the advent of the edTPA certification requirement in New York. Before the edTPA, college supervisors focused student teaching seminars and individual conferences on challenging and supporting PTs in their work with their students. Seminars were structured around challenges PTs faced in the field: dealing with child poverty and hunger; involving parents in their children’s education; responding to racism, sexism, and homophobia in the classroom and outside. The focus of those seminars and conferences has overwhelmingly become preparation for completing and passing the edTPA. The very nature of the PT/college supervisor relationship changes—and not for the better—when the focus of their work together shifts to meeting the expectations of an unknown evaluator. As teacher educators, we teach our PTs the importance of knowing their students, while at the same time they are being evaluated by someone who doesn’t know them or their teaching context.
Disruptions Between Prospective Teachers and Their Students
At a recent conference, Sue struck up a conversation with Lynn, a special educator who has worked with PTs from her program over a number of years. Her perspective resonates with what we hear from many cooperating teachers.
A master teacher, Lynn is innovative in how she collaborates with content area teachers in her middle school to provide rich learning experiences for PTs. She mentors PTs through their shared focus on students—what they know and can do, what they can’t do yet, how they are situated socially and culturally, and so on. This provides an authentic context for PTs to reflect on and develop their own practice. Now Lynn reports that many PTs, anxious about their performance on the edTPA, have shifted their primary focus from their students to their own performance on the assessment. Rather than immersing themselves in deep discussions about the students in their classes, their concern is how to plan lessons and write commentary that will earn passing marks from the Pearson scorers. Their anxieties often permeate their interactions with Lynn, shaping how they respond to her feedback and support. Lynn spends much of her time working with PTs to reduce their anxiety and refocus them on the children.
With the edTPA looming, PTs are pressured to evaluate their own teaching, not in terms of what they have learned, what seems effective with students, or what they believe, but in terms of what will “look good and fit” with the edTPA assessment. For example, the video-recording requirement of the edTPA disrupts the planning and teaching process; teacher candidates must take into account where they place various students, including those who do not have permission to be recorded. Tremendous amounts of time are spent organizing filming and editing, pulling PTs away from other important teaching tasks and opportunities to interact and build relationships with students. This is what concerns us the most—the edTPA has the very real potential to alter how PTs think about students, planning, teaching, and assessment—not just during their student teaching experience, but once they become practicing teachers.
Disruptions Among Faculty, Cooperating Teachers, and PTs
According to Lynn’s colleague Jack, a number of their colleagues have become reluctant to invite PTs into their classrooms. Annual professional performance reviews that rely heavily on student test scores are one reason for their reluctance, but increasingly teachers are wary of the edTPA requirements and process. They’re concerned about the ways that PTs need to adapt curriculum and classroom practices for the edTPA, including the video-recorded performance. The high-stakes nature of the edTPA creates conflicting goals for college faculty and cooperating teachers, as each advocates for the needs of their own students.
When teachers are already finding their teaching negatively impacted by high-stakes testing and highly scripted curriculum, adding another requirement—one they may not understand or agree with—further complicates what should be a collaborative and mutually supportive relationship.
The relationship between university-based teacher education programs and cooperating schools must be negotiated and nurtured with care. Fieldwork and practicum experiences are essential for PTs, and faculty often have specific requirements for what PTs need to accomplish in the field. P–12 schools are under increasing pressure to meet various goals and, often, to teach in specific ways. These may or may not be compatible. Schools that have returned to homogeneous grouping make it difficult for PTs to practice heterogeneous teaching strategies like cooperative learning and differentiation. Many schools find that their funding and continued existence are under threat, and PTs can be seen as an unnecessary complication. It is even harder to secure school placements when the college faculty are not in agreement with some of what the PTs will be asked to do.
Disruptions Among Teacher Educators
Mara: I am sitting at a three-hour meeting with teacher education colleagues discussing the scoring of the edTPA so we can provide feedback to student teachers. The tension is palpable. Some colleagues feel strongly that they cannot (according to edTPA regulations) give students specific feedback. They suggest that we ask questions such as “Are your objectives aligned with your assessments?” I am uncomfortable with this vague, coded feedback and want to help the students modify their responses to work with the scoring rubric. I’m told that I am jeopardizing students’ certification by my “political” stance, and that we need to “just do it.”
Although it is important for teacher education faculty who share the same group of students to discuss their own teaching and student concerns, the introduction of an outside instrument that evaluates both the students’ performance and, by inference, the faculty’s performance shifts the discussion; issues of individual decision-making regarding curriculum and teaching are scrutinized in a different way. The discussion is not “What do we want our students to learn and how are we doing?” but “How will the edTPA evaluate our students (and thus our program), and what do we need to shift to meet these external expectations?” The possibilities of “going rogue” in situations when this might result in innovative, creative, and successful approaches are sharply curtailed.
Are we preparing students to be excellent teachers, or preparing them to pass the edTPA? Current requirements position these as sometimes competing goals.
These deeper discussions and relationships with our colleagues are at the heart of how we think about our work as teacher educators. Tensions among faculty, all of whom share a commitment to excellent teacher education, arise from differing approaches to these external demands. The conceptions of teaching required by the edTPA become embedded in programs and professional interactions with each other, constraining what is possible and valued, and what is left by the side of the road. Spaces for thinking differently, taking risks, and challenging our thinking are squeezed out by the demands of the edTPA and other high-stakes assessments. We have come to dread our edTPA conversations. Even now we worry that publishing this article will be another disruption in our relationships with colleagues.
Disruptions Within Ourselves
Among the most upsetting disruptions for us are the ones that have occurred personally—the ways in which we are struggling to be the teacher educators we want to be.
Mara: I have been a teacher educator for almost 40 years. My work has centered on the necessity of creating equitable schools, and I have focused on cooperative learning, inclusive school frameworks, anti-racism and anti-homophobia curriculum, and community building. Now, I sit in faculty meetings at the university and am surrounded by a discourse I barely recognize. I want to say “yes, but” or “I’m not really comfortable with this conversation” 100 times in a discussion. I feel myself shutting down, drawing back, pulling in, because the constant urge to confront what’s happening is so exhausting and dispiriting.
Although my students read my book Because We Can Change the World, I feel false when I try to inspire them to social justice advocacy. Not only is their fieldwork shaped by high-stakes testing and corporate control, but my own work as a teacher educator is similarly constrained. I feel uncomfortable and dishonest with myself and with my students. I am a political activist—used to standing on street corners and protesting—and yet I struggle with what kinds of activism I can engage in that will challenge high-stakes testing without endangering the very future teachers whose educations I care so much about.
Sue: Throughout my life as a teacher, I’ve embraced the notion that teaching and learning are joyous, challenging, engaging, and wonder-filled endeavors. I’ve lived by the idea that teaching and learning can’t be standardized any more than people can be standardized, that curriculum is emergent and culturally relevant, and that engaged learners and teachers are passionate about what they’re doing. I’m distressed that the joy, passion, and wonder seem to be disappearing from teaching and learning—in P–12 schools and in higher education. Even though I find ways to push back—lobbying regents and legislators, working through my union, writing articles—I’m increasingly troubled with the part I’m playing in what feels like the slow, steady de-professionalization of teacher education.
To begin a process of change, we must confront this disruption of our sense of self as teacher educators. It’s impossible to separate who we are and what we teach; it’s not possible for PTs to do that either. Nor would we want them to. We hope to model integrity by enacting our principles in our teaching, and we want our PTs to be able to do this as well.
Like us, our PTs will find themselves in less than ideal teaching situations, and they must learn to both choose their battles strategically, and to resist and organize in ways that are effective.
One of the most offensive narratives is that beginning teachers aren’t capable of simultaneously holding conflicting perspectives: that the edTPA and high-stakes testing are highly damaging, and that the current path to certification demands compliance with particular tests and processes. This dual consciousness is not only possible, but should be nurtured and reinforced; we want all new teachers to survive in their current situations and be courageous and intelligent about how they form alliances and garner support for models of education (and certification) grounded in equity and social justice. For example, Barbara Madeloni’s brave resistance to the edTPA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was a powerful example to her students of standing up for what she—and many of them—believe in.
Where Do We Go from Here?
We believe that, as teacher educators, we can:
- Work with PTs to unpack the edTPA, asking who benefits and who loses by surrendering control of teacher certification to a single test, one that is controlled by and profits an international corporation.
- Through our scholarship and by joining with other educators, link the edTPA with other attempts to de-professionalize teaching.
- Seek and build alliances with colleagues, teachers, and students to create constructive resistance—knowing that there is strength in numbers, particularly in coalitions that cross groups often isolated from one another.
- Help our students explore ways of teaching from inclusive, social justice frameworks while also learning and using the language encoded in the edTPA. Support PTs to become the teachers they want to be and pass the edTPA.
- Encourage PTs to build strong relationships with their cooperating teachers and P–12 students.
- Stay honest with ourselves and students about what is at stake in these education wars and resist easy accommodations or conciliatory narratives that make us more comfortable with our complicity.
We must keep relationships at the center of all our work, resolving the disruptions within ourselves in ways that help us to build, restore, and strengthen our relationships with students, colleagues, and cooperating teachers.◼
- Au, Wayne. 2013. “What’s a Nice Test Like You Doing in a Place Like This? EdTPA and Corporate Education ‘Reform.’” Rethinking Schools 27:4.
- Berlak, Ann. 2010. “Coming Soon to Your Favorite Credential Program—National Exit Exams.” Rethinking Schools 24:4.
- Darling-Hammond, Linda, and Maria E. Hyler. 2013. “Role of Performance Assessment in Developing Teaching as a Profession.” Rethinking Schools 27:4.
- Madeloni, Barbara, and Julie Gorlewski. 2013. “Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question: Why We Need Critical Teacher Education, Not Standardization.” Rethinking Schools 27:4.
- Madeloni, Barbara, and Rachel Hoogstraten. 2013. “The Other Side of Fear.” Schools: Studies in Education 10:1.
- Sapon-Shevin, Mara. 2010. Because We Can Change the World: A Practical Guide to Building Cooperative, Inclusive Classroom Communities, 2nd Edition. Corwin.
Mara Sapon-Shevin is professor of inclusive education at Syracuse University. Her work focuses on anti-oppressive education and teacher education reform.
Sue Novinger Robb is associate professor of literacy education and associate dean of the School of Education and Human Development at The College at Brockport, SUNY. Her work focuses on the implications of federal, state, and district policies and mandates on children’s and teachers’ identities. Names have been changed.