What’s a Nice Test Like You Doing in a Place Like This?

EdTPA and corporate education reform

By Wayne Au

Illustrator: Ricardo Levins Morales

Ricardo Levins Morales

Teacher education is under attack. The same forces that are seeking to dismantle teachers’ unions and de-professionalize teaching have their sights set on university-based teacher education programs. After all, logic decrees that if teachers are to blame for educational inequality as corporate education reformers suggest then teacher education programs are also to blame for producing all those “terrible” teachers.

Enter the Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA). The edTPA is a series of tasks that new teachers have to complete planning, teaching, and assessment to measure whether or not they are ready for the classroom. Each task consists of evidence of student teacher work in that area, as well as a series of questions guiding student teachers to reflect on their practice.

A team of distinguished researchers at Stanford, including Linda Darling-Hammond, originally developed the edTPA, and their consortium still maintains control over most of the core direction of the assessment. The expertise and research base supporting the edTPA is apparent. It is a performance assessment, and it is leagues better than any paper-and-pencil test could be.

Against the backdrop of corporate education reform, edTPA advocates like my friend and University of Washington colleague Cap Peck are straightforward about their position: They are on a mission to save the teaching profession and, strategically speaking, believe that the edTPA is our only viable vehicle for salvation. Such a position is understandable, considering the forces lined up against teachers and teacher education.

However, the corporate testing giant Pearson Education Inc. is now in charge of the administration and logistics of the edTPA. Not only is this creating a host of problems with the edTPA, it also raises an overall question: Can the positive aspects of the edTPA survive in the context of corporate education reform initiatives?

Conservative Reformers’ Attack on Teacher Education

Conservatives have been developing an infrastructure to attack teacher education at least since 2000, when the Thomas B. Fordham Institute created the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). As former Fordham Institute board member Diane Ravitch recalls: “Conservatives, and I was one, did not like teacher training institutions. . . . [The Fordham Institute] established NCTQ as a new entity to promote alternative certification and to break the power of the hated ed schools.”

With $5 million from then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige and the Bush administration, the NCTQ founded the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), which would grant anyone a “passport to teaching” as a valid teaching credential in any state that agreed, as long as the individual had a bachelor’s degree and passed a background check and a computer test. Voucher proponents and advocates for privatizing public education filled the ABCTE’s advisory board, and Kate Walsh, now president of NCTQ, served on its board of directors.

Although the ABCTE still exists as an online teacher certification program (get your teaching credential for just under $2,000!), it lives on the fringes of the national education policy conversation. On the other hand, corporate education reformers have placed NCTQ in a position of national prominence. Diane Ravitch explains: “Today, NCTQ is the partner of U.S. News & World Report and will rank the nation’s schools of education. It received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to review teacher quality in Los Angeles. It is now often cited as the nation’s leading authority on teacher quality issues. Its report has a star-studded technical advisory committee of corporate reform leaders like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee.”

NCTQ supports the use of high-stakes test scores in teacher evaluation (known as value-added measurement, or VAM), including using test scores of students to rate the teacher education programs from which their teachers graduated. Taking a page directly out of the rabidly pro-corporate American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) playbook on education reform, NCTQ has already issued report cards for teacher education by state and is on the verge of “grading” most individual teacher education programs in the country.

Kate Walsh and the NCTQ are part of the cabal of corporate reformers dismantling public education today, and they have teacher education squarely in their sights.

So the edTPA has to be seen strategically as a push back against the forces of corporate education reform. It aims to reframe teaching as a profession along the lines of being a medical doctor or a lawyer (think national bar exam for teachers).

In the current context, it is important that leftist progressive critics of the edTPA in teacher education (of which I am one) consider the implications of their edTPA resistance: If we sink the edTPA, what will we be left with? In the midst of corporate education reform, will we in teacher education get stuck with whatever Kate Walsh, the NCTQ, and the privatizers have in store for us? That is a dilemma, and I don’t have the solution. I do know, however, that the edTPA has had a significant impact on my teacher education program.

The EdTPA and Me

Here in Washington state, we just finished our second year of piloting the edTPA and, to be fair, it hasn’t been all bad. For instance, the edTPA provoked some healthy cross-program dialogue about curriculum alignment that had been sorely lacking. Despite fostering these healthy conversations, however, my experience with the edTPA has generally been negative.

For instance, the edTPA has been a logistical nightmare. Pearson has been a full year late in calibrating passing scores, so we’ve been required to give our students a test without any clue as to what counts as “passing.” Students have had technical difficulties with uploading their videos. Some of the rubric categories, including “academic language,” have been inconsistent from subject area to subject area. Pearson has also continually flip-flopped on the issue of who “owns” the students’ work (a fact that points to the problems of using a private corporation to administer the test).

There are other problems as well: The edTPA will cost our credential students an additional $300-$350, a price set by Pearson. Cooperating teachers are resisting taking student teachers specifically because the edTPA feels too intrusive and is driving the student teaching experience. Larger universities and teacher credential programs in our region have more resources to devote to preparing their teacher candidates for the edTPA, setting up clear disparities in edTPA scores between program haves and have-nots. In addition, because of its length, serious questions remain about how much the edTPA is a test of writing and how much it is a test of teaching (the written reflections can come close to 30 pages).

The edTPA is shaping our program in some not-so-healthy ways. Instead of focusing on good teaching, our conversations are quickly turning to how to prepare our students for the edTPA. Our student teaching seminars increasingly emphasize the test’s logistics, choosing the right kind of video segment for the test, choosing the right kind of unit for the test, making sure everyone is using the same language as the test.

Without a doubt, the edTPA is standardizing our teacher education program, and I’m not sure it has been for the better. In our teacher education program, an explicit politics of social justice is woven throughout most of our credential coursework. However, when we began looking at our students’ edTPAs last spring, one thing was striking: The political commitments of our teacher credential program were almost nowhere to be found within our students’ work. Students who demonstrated explicit commitments to teaching for social justice in coursework and during student teaching, who saw curriculum and instruction as an important place to ask students to critically consider inequality and power, simply left their politics out of their edTPAs.

Several of my current students felt a professional split from the edTPA, too. Three have told me directly that they did not feel that the edTPA accurately reflected their teaching, and so they “taught to the test” by developing materials specifically and only for the edTPA. In an email to me, recent graduate Bethany Rickard said:

The edTPA forced me to address historical content in a specific, scripted way. It was difficult to teach authentically while adhering to the edTPA guidelines. Instead of planning my lessons as I would normally do, I had to repeatedly consult a 54-page handbook to make sure that I was following the script. . . . The prompts provided by Pearson did not allow me to fully express my teaching philosophy. In the three days I taught my edTPA learning segment, I lost a little of the joy that I find in teaching.

The edTPA effectively sanitized much of our students’ work by limiting what they thought would be “acceptable” within the confines of the standardized test. In the process, many of my students felt they couldn’t demonstrate what they were capable of and who they were as teachers.

Still a High-Stakes, Standardized Test

Standardization is a double-edged sword. It may (or may not) signal to the world outside of teacher education that we do have high standards, that teaching is a profession and not just a simple, technical task that any warm body off the street can easily do.

On the flip side, as a high-stakes, standardized test, regardless of the design, the edTPA falls prey to the same problems with other high-stakes, standardized tests: the negative impact on teaching and curriculum, and the reliance on distant assessors to make sense of a sample of student work and then pass final judgment. Given the severe lack of teachers of color and teachers from working-class backgrounds, I wonder if the edTPA will systematically reproduce race and class inequalities, like every other high-stakes, standardized test.

Consequently, the edTPA raises a fundamental question: What happens when a thoughtfully designed performance assessment becomes a high-stakes, standardized test? Based on my own experience thus far, the implementation of the edTPA feels very much like what we already know about such tests. Someone outside of and far away from my classes and students is taking control of my curriculum and teaching, and the end result is the distortion of teaching and learning at both the university and K-12 levels.

The follow-up question is: What happens when the logistics, administration, and hiring and training of scorers for a thoughtfully designed, high-stakes performance assessment are handed over to an immensely powerful, for-profit, private corporation like Pearson? I don’t have an answer to this question other than to say that my colleagues and I often feel that we’ve been given the corporate runaround whenever we try to get concrete answers to questions. The fact that I’m asking it points to at least one way that the edTPA has already succumbed to the context of corporate education reform. Even if the researchers at Stanford maintain control over key portions, the use of Pearson falls right in line with the privatization of public education through the increased contracting of services to private industry.

The Future of the edTPA?

At this point, given the current state of politics of public education reform, I see two possibilities for the edTPA, neither of which makes me happy:

Complete irrelevance. University of Washington professor and teacher education researcher Ken Zeichner recently told me that he had a conversation about the edTPA with a prominent conservative education “reformer” whose perspective was clear: Reformers are focused on test scores and could care less about performance assessments like the edTPA. Given the focus on VAM and high-stakes test scores in education policy, the edTPA may not get the traction it needs and will simply wither away. If this happens, then I’m fearful that teacher education will be pushed even harder to bend to the will of NCTQ and the other corporate education reformers.

Some level of co-optation. Perhaps the edTPA does become the new national bar exam for teachers. Between Pearson’s involvement and the evidence of my own teacher education program, as well as other programs around the country, I’m fearful that the high-stakes, standardized nature of the edTPA is already ruining teacher education, perhaps killing the patient while trying to save it. Further, if the edTPA does get established as the high-stakes test for teacher licensure, then we can pretty much guarantee that some corporate reform-based researcher will correlate edTPA scores to K-12 student high-stakes test scores and develop a VAM for teacher education. And at that point, any potential good that existed within the edTPA will be lost because it will be doing the work of NCTQ and the corporate education reformers.

Both of these possibilities point to a larger question: Is the edTPA an effective strategy for saving the teaching profession? Personally, because corporate reformers have an ironclad grip on the entire political structure and mainstream media, I don’t think this strategy will work. The powers that be are too strong for teachers to make the gains required for us to reclaim the teaching profession on these grounds.

Reclaiming the teaching profession will take much more than a high-stakes assessment. Teaching already is a profession, one that requires incredible amounts of expertise combined with equal amounts of courage, drive, and passion. Corporate education reformers don’t care. To them, teachers and their unions are the enemy, and we’re not going to win this fight on the reformers’ turf. Instead we’re going to have to follow the lead of teachers in Chicago, Seattle, and elsewhere, organizing at every turn, changing our relationships one community and one city at a time, as part of a larger movement for social and educational justice.