Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question

Why we need critical teacher education, not standardization

By Barbara Madeloni, Julie Gorlewski

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Michael Duffy

Teacher education matters. Many future teachers enter preparation programs with deep-seated and unquestioned ideas about teaching and learning. At a moment when the children in our classrooms reflect the growing diversity of our population but our teaching force remains essentially white and middle class, we need our schools of education to ask pre-service teachers to wrestle with identity and race, to explore the historical/cultural contexts of school, and to frame teaching as the political work that it is. After all, teaching always asks us to imagine the kind of society we want to live in.

Teacher education (like K–12) is under attack by those seeking to exploit the public good and privatize education. Teacher educators find ourselves on the defensive, compelled to answer questions about efficacy and accountability that do not reflect our understandings of our work, questions that do not address the most pressing concerns of critical multicultural educators: making schools sites for social justice and advocating for education as liberation.

Into this moment comes edTPA, promoted as an answer to the perceived shortcomings of teacher education. EdTPA is a 40-plus-page document featuring Pearson’s logo. The final product is submitted to a “calibrated scorer,” whose evaluation reduces student work to a number. As such, it is the wrong answer to the question of how teacher education should be improved.

EdTPA supporters wrongly link the weaknesses of teacher education to a lack of national performance standards, when the real struggle for teacher education is to equip prospective teachers to serve their students and the larger society as public intellectuals and to enable them to teach powerfully about things that matter.

This is a difficult story to tell. Promoters of edTPA say that they are trying to protect and professionalize teaching and teacher education. Their response to attacks on our profession is to develop a system to measure and prove our worth through a standardized certification assessment. We understand the impulses to protect. However, we do not understand how, in the effort to support the profession, so many of its voices are left out. EdTPA has been imposed on teacher education—an imposition that pushes aside work that matters deeply to education scholars. It narrows the possibilities of teaching and learning, distracts us from critical multicultural education, is an invitation for corporate encroachment, and restricts academic freedom.

Narrowing Teaching and Learning

What does teaching look like? We recall moments from our own teaching: plays are performed, songs are sung, students silently write and pass their writing around in a circle, someone asks why there are no black students in the honors class, someone else asks why we are going to war against Iraq, someone gets angry and walks out, someone makes a joke and we can’t stop laughing. What in these interactions represents quality teaching? For teachers, that question remains compelling and uncertain. Grounded in their knowledge of content, pedagogy, and relationships with learners, teachers maintain a questioning stance. Much of the work of educating new teachers involves providing the theoretical, practical, and personal support to embrace the ongoing uncertainty of teaching.

EdTPA devalues the uncertainties of teaching; instead it requires a performance of teaching as definitive—a performance that becomes central to the student teaching experience. When the precursor to the edTPA was piloted at her university, Barbara experienced profound changes in the student teaching seminar. Class time became consumed with questions about evidence for rubrics and scoring. The implicit message of edTPA, that teaching can be measured, was contrary to the developmental conversations Barbara and her students were having. Students were frustrated and confused by the contrast. At the end of the semester, one student wrote, “It seems you should either focus on the TPA or ignore it, but I don’t see how we can do the TPA and have those other conversations.”

Distracting from Social Justice Education

There is a growing disconnect between the primarily white, middle-class students who are becoming teachers and the mostly black and brown children who are entering K-12 schools. Teacher educators must demonstrate powerful and imaginative teaching practices, and must help prospective teachers become creators of effective curriculum. But teaching strategies are not enough to resolve the work of the heart required for developing consciousness of racism, classism, and injustice. Strategies alone cannot foster the courage to combat oppression. We must spend time with students questioning the social context of schools, understanding our identities, negotiating painful psychological terrain, and exploring how school can reproduce inequities.

The student teachers with whom we work struggle to acknowledge racism and injustice. As a student recently wrote to Barbara, “[The course] opened my eyes and made me examine myself in ways that forever changed my perceptions of my social identity and challenged my understanding of what education is and means.” Teacher educators are constantly balancing a commitment to critical consciousness and students’ calls for practical solutions. Indeed, part of our work is to explore the ideologies and values hidden in the “practical” aspects of teaching by examining underlying assumptions about learning, motivation, and the purpose of schooling.

EdTPA invades this experience. Students tend to focus on meeting the requirements at the expense of realizing when they are making value-based ideological choices. As long as they follow the rubrics, which operate in the land of “value-free” language, they can score well. The edTPA’s detailed instructions and rubrics communicate that teaching requires following rules and can be reduced to a number. Because edTPA is high-stakes, students lock in on it. Class time is taken over by anxious questions about evidence and scoring. What will be left out? Time to reflect on the emotional experience of teaching? Questions about how our identities impact how we see students and they see us? Considering connections between classroom “management” and the school-to-prison pipeline?

One of the undergraduate students in Julie’s Introduction to Curriculum and Assessment course, which is taken a year prior to student teaching, came to her with a problem. Visibly distressed, he told Julie that the teacher to whom he had been assigned for fieldwork had invited him to student teach with her. Because he had tremendous respect and admiration for this teacher, he was thrilled. But he was reluctant to accept her offer—he was apprehensive about completing the edTPA in this setting. He had forged relationships with the young people in this urban school populated with many challenging students, but anticipating the judgment of an “objective” distant scorer—one who might not understand why the classroom was not filled with compliant, well-behaved learners—made him hesitate to accept the invitation. The edTPA has already intruded on the relationship between this candidate and his future students.

Student teachers describe edTPA as a constraint on meaningful reflection. Celia Oyler, professor of education at Teachers College, wrote to us recently that a meeting with students who had piloted the edTPA “was the most wrenching, heartbreaking hour of my professional career as a teacher educator.” The Teachers College student teachers, who understood they were part of a pilot and that the assessment was not high-stakes for them, still felt that they had “to fabricate and backtrack and lie to make their teaching fit into a coherent narrative.” Although edTPA includes questions connecting learning to the community beyond the classroom, the rubrics get in the way of meaningful reflection. As one student teacher wrote to Barbara: “I tried to add some reflection to these questions, but they’re just such bad questions that. . . it still felt like a performance of sorts. It was like a chance to show how flawless my teaching is, rather than to stop and question it.”

Valuing the impersonal above the relational is contrary to social justice education, and to teaching as humanizing practice. As one student from another university wrote to Barbara, “I find it annoying and offensive that the powers that be think it is even possible to standardize a field so subjective as teaching! I thought I had a co-operating teacher and supervisor for a reason! They observe and interact with me daily and weekly. Does their opinion count for nothing now?”

Standardization erases relationships, which are the fabric of teaching, and substitutes mechanization. Teaching becomes technical, nuts-and-bolts work vulnerable to review and control by corporations like Pearson.

Corporatizing Teacher Education

EdTPA is a welcome mat for Pearson Inc. to enter teacher education, reap huge profits, exploit the privacy of students and teacher candidates, and outsource teacher educators’ labor. The edTPA marketing campaign denies the significance of Pearson’s involvement, claiming that Pearson is only necessary for national distribution and scoring. In denying the import of Pearson’s role in edTPA, its promoters ignore the international social and political context: The public sphere is under assault. Pearson has infiltrated every level of education, treating this public good as a market to be exploited. It profits from testing and curriculum at all levels, monopolizing the content and process of teaching and learning worldwide.

Although trust is essential in student teacher development, trust in Pearson is misguided. Recently, Pearson scoring mistakes mislabeled more than 2,700 students in New York as ineligible for gifted and talented programs. Given the high stakes of edTPA, the ramifications of scoring errors are serious; they could affect certification. Teaching is not reducible to a number and accuracy in measurement is a dangerous pretense. But belief in numerical data is central to corporate education “reforms.” Pearson’s involvement reveals how edTPA, designed to answer questions posed by corporate education reformers instead of the questions of teacher educators, leads us dangerously astray.

In most teacher education programs the decision about credentialing is currently made within a working group that includes the student, cooperating teacher, supervisor, and college faculty. Under edTPA, this decision will be made by an anonymous person hired by Pearson on a piecework basis ($75 per test). This scorer will work with neither a long-term contract nor job protections. Thus, the edTPA dilutes the influence and expertise of educators and reinforces the ranks of casual, temporary, outsourced labor.

Pearson’s involvement also raises privacy concerns that must not be taken lightly. Promoters of edTPA tell us that it was created by a team from Stanford, which maintains ownership of it. But the bottom line is that Pearson profits from, and keeps possession of, student work—including the videos of K–12 classrooms. During its pilot in Massachusetts, parents and administrators of four school districts refused to send videos of children to Pearson. After edTPA was adopted in New York, regulations were changed to require that schools allow credential candidates to record their practice and send the recordings to a third party. It is not clear how parents will be informed and given the opportunity to decide whether they want their child’s likeness sent to Pearson.

Restricting Academic Freedom

One of the most ominous parts of the edTPA story is the way voices of dissent have been silenced by intimidation and job loss. Since she received a letter of nonrenewal after supporting student teachers who refused to participate in last year’s field test of the TPA at the University of Massachusetts (see “Stanford/Pearson Test for New Teachers Draws Fire,” winter 2012–13), Barbara regularly receives emails such as this one from Monica Urbanik at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse:

I am finding myself in hot water regarding my resistance to our School of Education’s adoption of the edTPA. I refused to sign a Pearson/Stanford nondisclosure agreement last week and was asked to leave an edTPA training session. . . . I am considering this latest obstruction as a sign, pushing me into early retirement.

She later wrote: “I decided to leave my position and retire from the state system. I will not return to this insanity in the fall.”

Faculty approach Barbara through email and at conferences saying that they wish they could voice their concerns about edTPA but are fearful of the consequences. In April 2012, when comments in an online forum on the Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium shifted from implementation of the test to questioning it as an instrument, the posts were immediately removed. We have led workshops in which teacher educators who had used the earliest iteration of the edTPA, the Performance Assessment for California Teachers, said they found themselves estranged from students as class conversations focused more and more on how to write to the rubrics. These educators choked back tears describing the shame they carry for their silence in the face of mandates that are stealing the soul of their work and preventing them from modeling the kind of critical pedagogy that they hope will inspire teacher candidates.

While critics are being silenced, promoters engage in the hard sell. EdTPA experts from the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, and Pearson Inc. toured the country last fall to meet with teacher educators. They arrived with PowerPoints of purchase plans and implementation schedules that moved from “introductory” to “exploratory,” “scaling up,” and “implementation.” Each level was offered as a package with separate “benefits,” “key features,” “terms of agreement,” and “membership recommendations.” They came, not to ask what we know about new teacher readiness, but to promote a product.

In promoting edTPA, developers suggest that edTPA was created by teacher educators. Like all good marketing, this claim includes a kernel of truth; however, it implies that teacher educators clamored for, and now universally endorse, edTPA. This claim disregards how edTPA restricts academic voice and freedom, includes mandatory nondisclosure agreements, and perpetuates a culture of coercion.


These are treacherous times for public education. Schools and colleges are under unprecedented attack by those who seek to undermine public education. While we try to defend ourselves, we must also work to create education that is challenging, creative, joyful, deeply engaging, and liberatory.

How we resist is as critical as that we resist, for within our resistance we create new spaces for imagination. We do not need more technocratic efficiency, simulated objectivity, or corporate incursions. The troubles of teacher education are human troubles, requiring human answers: conversations, time, space for conflict, space for appreciation and love, space for humor and uncertainty. Teacher educators, like all teachers, must be free to disagree and develop questions that are not standardized. Teacher education can create possibilities for radical imagination in which we rehumanize the classroom and develop the theory and heart to practice education as freedom. Let’s make our voices heard. Let’s reclaim the conversation.  

Barbara Madeloni is a teacher educator and former high school English teacher. After supporting her students in refusing the field test of the TPA, she received a letter of nonrenewal from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a member of the education activist group Can’t Be Neutral and blogs at @thechalkface.

Julie Gorlewski is assistant professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz and incoming co-editor of English Journal. Her published work includes Power, Resistance, and Literacy: Writing for Social Justice and Left Behind in the Race to the Top: Realities of School Reform, co-edited with Brad Porfilio (in press).

Illustrator Michael Duffy’s work can be found at duff-co.com.