Real teacher ed reform
This piece originally appeared at Inside Higher Ed
Teacher education has been under siege in the last few years, the first line of attack in the growing criticism and more aggressive regulation of higher education.
Most recently, the U.S. Department of Education proposed — in a highly contentious negotiated rule-making exercise — to use test scores of graduates’ students to evaluate schools of education, despite the warnings of leading researchers that such scores are unstable and invalid for this purpose. Furthermore, in an unprecedented move, the department would limit eligibility for federal TEACH grants to prospective teachers from highly rated programs, denying aid to many deserving candidates while penalizing programs that prepare teachers for the most challenging teaching assignments.
This was only the most recent example of how education reformers have made teachers and teacher education a punching bag, painting those in the entire field as having low standards and being unwilling to accept responsibility for the quality of their work.
However, teacher educators from across the country are stepping up to create new, more valid accountability tools. An important part of this effort is the spread of the edTPA, a new performance assessment process that examines — through candidates’ plans, videotapes of instruction, evidence of student work and learning, and commentary — whether prospective teachers are really ready to teach. As highlighted recently in The New York Times, the assessment focuses on whether teachers can organize instruction to promote learning for all students, including new English learners and students with disabilities, and how they analyze learning outcomes to create greater student success.
This new assessment was developed by a team of researchers and teacher educators at Stanford University, of which I have been privileged to be a part, working with teachers and teacher educators across the country. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) helped to coordinate higher education involvement. Ultimately, teacher educators and state agencies in 24 states and the District of Columbia formed a Teacher Performance Assessment Consortium (TPAC) to develop and test the assessment. Today, about 160 colleges of education are field-testing the assessment, with the goal of transforming initial licensure, improving teacher education, and informing accreditation.
This may be the first time that the teacher education community has come together to hold itself accountable for the quality of teachers who are being prepared and to develop tools its members believe are truly valid measures of teaching knowledge and skill. Unlike other professionals, teachers have historically had little control over the tests by which they are evaluated. This rigorous, authentic measure represents a healthy and responsible professionalization of teacher preparation.
The edTPA is built on the portfolio-based model teachers developed two decades ago through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and on additional work by California educators since 2002, coordinated by staff at Stanford. Teacher educators from more than 30 traditional and alternative programs helped develop the Performance Assessment for California Teachers (PACT) as the basis for an initial license. The PACT is scored in a consistent fashion by faculty members, instructors, supervisors, cooperating teachers, and principals in partnership schools. It provides vivid evidence of what beginning teachers can do, as well as useful information for guiding their learning and that of the programs themselves.
The assessment puts aside the tired arguments about which pathways to teaching are better and, instead, evaluates candidates on whether they can meet a common standard of effective practice. Unlike most current teacher tests, scores on PACT have proven to predict the capacity of candidates to foster student achievement as beginning teachers.
California programs have found the assessment so helpful in guiding and improving their practice — and that of their candidates — that they have continued the work on their own dime, even when promised state funds disappeared. One California teacher educator put it this way: "This experience has forced me to revisit the question of what really matters in the assessment of teachers, which in turn means revisiting the question of what really matters in the preparation of teachers."
As a teacher educator in California who uses the PACT, I agree with this evaluation. It has focused our candidates and program on what it means to teach effectively and it has improved our collective work. We now rely on it as a central part of our ongoing program improvement efforts.
A national version of the assessment process was started as interest spread across the country. First, a teacher educator from the University of California at Santa Barbara moved to the University of Washington and took the PACT with him. Faculty at the University of Washington liked the assessment so much they adopted it and talked about it to others in the state, who also got engaged. Ultimately, the state of Washington proposed building a similar model to use for beginning licensure. California educators also got jobs in other states and took the idea with them. Teacher educators from other states asked to be part of the project and urged the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education as well as their own state agencies to look at edTPA because they believe it measures their work more accurately than many other approaches currently on the books.
Meanwhile, AACTE coordinated information sessions and conversations. Ultimately, a group of teacher educators from across the country decided to create a national version, recruited Pearson as an operational partner to manage the large number of participants, and when it came time to field test the assessment, the interest grew to 22 states, 160 institutions of higher education, and more than 7,000 teaching candidates participating in the TPA field test
Demand for edTPA grew so rapidly that support was needed to deliver it to campuses and states that asked for it. Stanford chose Evaluation Systems, a long-time developer of state teacher assessments that is now part of Pearson, to provide support for administering the assessment. As the administrative partner for the National Board’s portfolio assessment as well, Pearson brought the experience, capacity, and infrastructure to deploy the edTPA to scale quickly, so that the field would not have to wait to see the benefits in the classroom.
During the field test, an instructor at a Massachusetts college made national news when she challenged the assessment as corporatization of the teacher education process that replaces the relationship between instructor and students. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instructors and supervisors continue to teach, observe, support, and evaluate candidates, as they always have. The assessment – which allows teachers to be evaluated authentically in their own student teaching or internship classrooms teaching curriculums and lessons they have designed – focuses attention on the kinds of things all beginning teachers need to learn: how to plan around learning goals and student needs, how to engage in purposeful instruction and reflect on the results; how to evaluate student learning and plan for next steps for individual students and the class as a whole.
Like assessments in other professions, such as the bar exam or the medical boards, the edTPA is a peer-developed process that evaluates how well candidates have mastered a body of knowledge and skills, and a tool that teacher educators and institutions of higher learning can use to develop their programs. It does not restrict or replace the judgment of professionals in designing their courses and supervising their candidates, as they always have. It adds information about the candidate's performance to supplement those judgments. The edTPA scorers are themselves experienced teacher educators and accomplished teachers in the same fields as the candidates being evaluated, many of them from the programs participating in the assessment.
In fact, the field test has engendered considerable excitement at most universities, where conversations about how to prepare teachers have deepened. Amee Adkins, a teacher educator at Illinois State University, says, "[edTPA] provides something long overdue in teacher education: a clear, concise, and precise definition of the core of effective beginning teaching. It takes us a step further than other professional licensure exams because it goes beyond knowledge and judgment and examines actual candidate performance."
Vanderbilt University’s Marcy Singer-Gabella notes that faculty at the eight Tennessee universities piloting the assessment say that working with edTPA has led to more productive conversations about teaching practices and how to develop them. She adds: "At Vanderbilt, where we have used [edTPA] data to make changes, our candidates are better prepared and more skilled, according to school principals and teachers."
And the candidates themselves report that the TPA has helped them develop the habits and routines for planning, assessing, and adjusting instruction that allow them to succeed and keep learning as they teach. By comparison, as one put it, the teacher evaluation systems in their districts are “a piece of cake.”
In the context of the current debates about teacher education quality, it has been inspiring to see educators step up and accept the challenge to create something better, rather than merely complaining about narrow measures that do not reflect our highest aspirations. The best hope for significantly improving education at all levels of the system is for educators to take charge of accountability and make it useful for learning and improvement.
Linda Darling-Hammond is the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Teaching and Teacher Education at Stanford University.