Crisis, Change, and Canceling the Teacher Performance Assessment
Illustrator: Mike Konopacki
As former K–12 teachers who are now teacher educators in California, we share grave concern regarding the expectation for preservice teachers to complete their Teacher Performance Assessment (TPA) in order to earn their preliminary teaching credential during this pandemic crisis.
COVID-19 has disrupted teacher education programs across the country. With schools being shut down, distance learning has highlighted and exacerbated educational inequities that have long existed between the most privileged and the most oppressed communities in our nation. The different types of remote instruction range from rigid daily schedules of virtual meetings to work packets that are nothing more than busy work — all of which replace meaningful human interaction for students in the face of collective trauma.
Preservice teachers bear witness to and are called to disrupt these disparities while being required to complete coursework, engage in the unpaid labor of remote student teaching, and complete several standardized tests (RICA, CSETs, CBEST, TPA, etc.). On top of navigating a profession that perpetually devalues, de-intellectualizes, and under-compensates them, teacher candidates continue to navigate these stressors because of their commitment to serve as change agents in education. Preservice teachers of color in particular experience these barriers as compound stressors that keep them from entering into a profession that is 82 percent white.
Preservice teacher Katia Jauregui shared her frustration with the TPA as yet another barrier that keeps her from teaching in her community:
The Teacher Performance Assessment just measures people’s privilege. As a first-generation college student of color, this is challenging and there are already so many obstacles that make us feel like we’re being weeded out of a profession that we deserve to be in. I hope one day we won’t have to fight to prove that anymore.
We have offered compassion to many teacher candidates since California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the school shutdown in mid-March, but our compassion needs to be channeled into advocacy and change.
TPA: Standardization for Punishment and Profit
The Teacher Performance Assessment (CalTPA or EdTPA) is one of the largest systemic stressors that teacher candidates face in order to earn their preliminary teaching credential. Teacher education programs already require multiple forms of evidence that teacher candidates are qualified to teach, such as course assignments, hours teaching in the field, and observations/evaluations from mentor teachers and clinical coaches. The TPA was created to “standardize” what quality teaching looks like. The assessment requires two submissions (fall/spring), with each submission containing multiple components of curriculum planning, video clips of their teaching, assessments of student learning, and reflections on their teaching. Assessments are then sent off to the corporate giant Pearson, which hires assessors to determine whether candidates pass and are qualified to begin teaching. Pearson assessors undergo 19–23 hours of computer-based training in order to be a “qualified” scorer. Even under normal circumstances, the TPA is problematic. One student teacher, Megan Miller, said her experience with the TPA “was nothing short of traumatizing”:
I was completely shocked when I learned at the very start of a much-needed winter break that I did not pass Cycle 1. Many of my friends and colleagues in the credential program suffered the same fate. I enrolled in a one-unit class that cost nearly $400 to support my resubmission of the TPA. As a graduate student with limited income, the cost of the support course on top of the cost of my initial submission fee ($150) and my resubmission fee ($150) was a blow to my savings account. Months after my initial Cycle 1 submission, I received an email from Pearson saying they had made a mistake and refunded my retake fee. I lost sleep, felt nauseous, pushed loved ones away, isolated myself, and told myself I was unworthy as a teacher over this whole incident. I seriously considered dropping out of my credential program.
As Megan’s experience attests, assessors can and will make errors of candidates’ teaching based on this standardized assessment. While assessors evaluate candidates using rubrics to score the components of each TPA cycle, these scores still get interpreted through their own ideological dispositions, biases, and arbitrary metrics.
As long as corporate interests shape assessments of “good teaching” and efficiency is valued over humanization, we will continue to fail our preservice teachers and the communities they serve. Even under pre-COVID-19 circumstances, the TPA is dehumanizing and an inaccurate form of assessment on a teacher’s readiness to teach. Classroom environments are shaped by national, state, and district policy — often conflicting with each other. Classrooms are also shaped by school administration, teacher preparation and continued development, mandated curriculum, parent perspectives, race, economic class, access to resources, and proximity to structural violence and persistent trauma. An additional and often overlooked factor that impacts student teaching is that teacher candidates are “guests” in the classroom of a mentor teacher, who ultimately decides what and how the class will be taught. Every year, candidates share concerns about mentor teachers not modeling the theory and practices they are learning, and feeling as though they do not have the agency to contribute to instructional planning in meaningful ways. Some candidates share that when they attempt to teach in ways that counter the mentor teachers’ practices, they are shut down and told not to teach what they planned. These factors have always affected candidates’ teaching, but clinical coaches are on the ground with candidates and are privy to context specifics that TPA cyber-assessors are not, thus allowing for a more accurate assessment of candidates’ capabilities. If the goal of teacher evaluation is to support a candidate’s growth then it should not be punitive. Instead, it should be rooted in ongoing, relational and humanizing approaches that come directly from the emerging teacher’s school community investing in their continued growth.
TPA in the Time of COVID-19
With California having one of the most demanding processes for teacher credentialing, teacher candidate stress is common, but the additional stressors due to COVID-19 and the state-issued shelter-in-place mandate have added to the overwhelm. Candidates have shared their concerns about the lack of preparation and training that they and their mentor teachers have had to teach virtually, yet they are now being tested on their competency in the midst of a pandemic. The reality is that not all schools and students have access to reliable internet, technology, and literacy in virtual instruction platforms — and teaching virtually would be difficult even if these were in place.
In teacher education programs, one of the basic tenets we promote is the idea of differentiation: modifying assignments to align with students’ specific learning contexts and needs. Yet the TPA has not been differentiated to align with our teacher candidates’ context of a global crisis. The TPA requires a video of live whole group instruction via Zoom, despite the fact that many classes report low attendance to Zoom instruction during the pandemic. Live Zoom instruction is also not developmentally appropriate for young children.
Aside from these logistical barriers, school communities are also experiencing unprecedented trauma and stressors that continue to be overlooked in the field. Some of our candidates face insecurities of housing, food, income, health care, child care, and medical care. Many candidates work one or more jobs while completing their credential, and are out of work and struggling financially due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place stipulations. Preservice teacher Giselle Fernandez shares she had to move back in with her parents due to the pandemic:
Being six months pregnant at the time of the switch to virtual learning during a pandemic and shelter in place, the TPA requirements have added so much additional stress to my pregnancy. My student teaching placement is not even utilizing Zoom for equity reasons, making it very difficult to meet the TPA requirements. Even with a waiver, the thought of worrying about the TPA during my first year as a mother and as a teacher is so overwhelming.
Those who are able to still work from home have the stress of learning how to work through challenging living dynamics — which can include firsthand and secondary impacts of disease and death, as well as increased threat of domestic violence at home — all while trying to navigate virtual instruction. Such traumas are compounded by the threat of secondary trauma, where preservice teachers are also learning how to respond to their students’ experiences of overwhelm.
Interestingly, in recent years, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) has paid more attention to the impact of trauma on learning. In June 2016, the CTC updated the standards to include “knowing how to access resources to support students, including those who have experienced trauma.” Explaining this further, the CTC states:
Beginning teachers recognize that in addition to individual cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and academic backgrounds, students come to school with a wide range of life experiences that impact readiness to learn, including adverse or traumatic childhood experiences, mental health issues, and socio-emotional and physical needs.
If the CTC recognizes that trauma affects learning, they should extend this understanding to our preservice teachers who struggle with compounded personal and collective traumas as well. First-generation graduate and preservice teacher of color Abraham Sandoval shared how his struggle with mental health has been impacted by the stress related to the TPA during this global pandemic:
Since the crisis of the COVID-19, my mental health has been compromised and the TPA has played a big role in that. This is not healthy and it’s not suitable for any teacher candidate to be expected to go through such a strenuous process and compromise themselves and their mental health in order to complete the TPA.
It is unethical to expect teacher candidates to complete the TPA when distance learning is severely impacted by the conditions we outline above. The onus should not be placed on individual teachers, especially emerging novice teachers, to nurture classroom safety when the entire world feels unsafe. These unprecedented times call for our government and institutional leaders to not only eliminate strenuous and expensive assessment requirements, but also to invest in more structural support for emerging teachers.
UPDATE: Since this article was written, the governor of California issued Executive Order N-66-20, allowing teacher candidates to apply for a preliminary credential without the TPA and RICA. Candidates must pass these assessments when they begin teaching to clear their credential, along with an induction program.
Teacher Assessment: Reimagination and Humanization
The requirement to complete the TPA during a global crisis within an already economically and socially stratified education system and country is unjust and will exacerbate more inequities: the opportunity gaps in student achievement, the teacher diversity gap, teacher shortages in “hard-to-staff schools,” among many other disparities that continue to impact marginalized communities. Standardized expectations such as the TPA only measure the gap between the privileged and the marginalized as it concerns access to resources that allow for distance learning and teaching to occur. Given this charged history and this current moment, the best move is to cancel the TPA.
While we acknowledge the efforts of the California Commission for Teacher Credentialing to offer a one-year waiver, this would require new teachers to complete the TPA during their first year teaching while trying to navigate the post-traumatic impacts of the pandemic, the demands of a new career, and the Beginning Teacher Induction program required of new teachers. Therefore, we urge educational leaders to reassess the need for the TPA as a standardized metric of teacher performance in general, but especially during a global crisis.
We are not the only ones who feel this way. Together, we wrote a petition as teacher educators asking Gov. Newsom to cancel this requirement in California. In less than a week, that petition garnered almost 5,000 signatures. Another petition calling for cancellation of TPA led by current teacher candidates has collected nearly 10,000 signatures in a matter of weeks. While we advocate specifically for California teacher candidates as professors who serve those students and particular communities, we know that the issue requires a national upheaval of standardized testing.
As difficult as these times are, we find solace that the calls to dismantle standardized testing are being made with more conviction and heard with more understanding. Like other critical educators, we see this pandemic as an opportunity to reframe the discourse on distance learning and consider: What does this moment require us to move away from and move toward?
We must distance ourselves from standardized testing, problematize the capitalistic ideologies that undergird schooling, and remove practices and policies that enforce punishment on our most marginalized communities. This is a fertile time to supplant these forces with community-responsive teaching and healing-informed ideologies that promote connection, interdependence, and care. Canceling the TPA is a step in that direction.