Imagine an orchestra warming up for a performance. Every musician has a job, a specialty: tuba, timpani, and violin. The conductor taps his wand, and the orchestra starts.

But somewhere, in the brass section, there is a failure. The third trumpet is out of key, and the fourth trumpet starts playing music from the wrong page. The music falls apart.

Imagine an orchestra warming up for a performance. Every musician has a job, a specialty: tuba, timpani, and violin. The conductor taps his wand, and the orchestra starts.

But somewhere, in the brass section, there is a failure. The third trumpet is out of key, and the fourth trumpet starts playing music from the wrong page. The music falls apart.

The conductor asks, “Who messed up the music?” Fingers are pointed. It was the third trumpet. Oh, and the fourth. Fire the trumpets!

On the way out of the concert hall, the fourth trumpet says, “How did that happen?” The third trumpet replies, “I don’t know. I’ve been studying trumpet for a long time—four years, in fact. I have a major in music theory. I’ve even played small concerts with my mentor—but, I’ve never played in concert with others.”

The fourth asks, “Didn’t you take tests to become a trumpeter?”

The third responds, “Yes, but they were paper and pencil. I never had to choose a piece of music, figure out how to play it, and then perform it for an audience. Not even for myself.” The fourth replies, “Me either.”

Now, imagine this orchestra is a school. Picture new teachers on the first day of class—enthusiastic college graduates and accomplished career changers—who have never actually taught before. Or, imagine graduates from traditional teacher education programs whose clinical experiences provided them with limited feedback or placed them in schools where teacher candidates were begrudgingly taken on.

Unfortunately, these scenarios are a reality for many new teachers. In the past, there has never been a reliable, performance-based way to evaluate whether a teacher is prepared to enter the classroom. But now there is: edTPA.

What is edTPA?

In full operation since 2013, edTPA is an educative assessment developed by some of education’s finest: the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE) and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). But unlike other teacher assessments, edTPA requires candidates to teach and evaluate their own practice before entering the profession.

edTPA stands to transform teaching by providing a fair assessment of candidates’ readiness for the job from day one. The assessment focuses on effective teaching behaviors such as intentionality in planning, student-centered instruction, use of assessment to inform practice, and reflection. But instead of simply evaluating what candidates know about teaching, edTPA looks deeper to analyze candidates’ understanding of their own context and what they are able to do.

7 ways edTPA could change the profession

1. It pushes candidates to reflect on their practice. To pass edTPA, candidates must be able to understand students, curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment in order to make decisions. But to a degree never seen in teacher licensing before, candidates must also explain why they made those decisions—in such a way that other professionals can understand their logic and judge it reasonable (not good or bad).

There are no right or wrong answers on edTPA. There is only context, instruction, assessment, and explanation. To me, this is much more closely aligned with the reality of teaching than previous standardized assessments such as the Praxis. Most importantly, it puts analysis of practice in the mind of the teacher candidate before they enter the profession.

2. It raises the rigor of licensure requirements. edTPA could finally put to rest arguments over traditional or alternative educator preparation by raising the bar for anyone who seeks to enter the classroom. In fact, this bar is so high that some candidates may actually fail the assessment the first time. However, failing edTPA does not make candidates ineligible for certification. It simply means they have not yet achieved the level of competence students deserve from any teacher. Like National Board certification, candidates can retake edTPA.

This means that quick-stop, six-week teacher preparation programs and career switching will not constitute enough background experience for most teacher candidates to pass the assessment. It also means that schools of education will not be obliged to allow students who have attended college for four or five years to become certified simply because they have done their seat time and not failed any classes. Simply put, edTPA is raising the profile and rigor of the profession by making it a requirement that candidates can actually teach well.

3. It makes teacher prep about the candidate—not the institution. edTPA shifts the focus of teacher preparation from the institution’s processes to the teacher candidate’s practice. If candidates don’t pass the assessment, it may mean that the institution hasn’t focused enough on helping candidates master the key areas of teaching: planning, instruction and assessment.

Some critics have expressed concern that edTPA will force instructors to “teach to the test” like PK-12 professionals have often had to do. But unlike standardized tests, there are no right or wrong answers on edTPA—only reasonable responses. Stanford University, which developed and owns the assessment, notes that “no one on edTPA’s development team at Stanford (or nationally) supports the idea of reducing a teaching assessment to items that do not fundamentally reflect the complexity of teaching itself… This is why the assessment requires real artifacts from teaching—lesson plans, video and student work samples—in order to show the complexity of the local teaching context and the way the candidate responds to real students when trying to teach them important content in a real setting.”

4. It puts assessment in the hands of the teacher. edTPA strengthens teachers’ roles as decision makers about assessments—as opposed to administrators of assessments. Candidates must gather and interpret both quantitative and qualitative data about their students and demonstrate competency in using assessments to measure student outcomes. Teachers prepared to take assessment into their own hands could actually weaken the current testing regime by changing the narrative on assessment and explaining why it must be more nuanced and individualized than existing standardized tests.

5. It empowers students. By emphasizing the importance of assessment and requiring candidates to provide both quantitative and qualitative evidence of learning, edTPA encourages teachers to use multiple measures of student success. In turn, this pushes candidates to tailor their instruction and assessment to students, giving them a greater voice in their own learning. This is a new and powerful change that will make future teachers better able to employ and design tests—and more aware of and responsive to the needs of their students.

6. It levels the playing field for teachers of color and teachers in diverse classrooms. By taking credentialing power away from traditional assessments, edTPA could strengthen certification opportunities for teachers of color (who have historically struggled on such assessments) and create a more level playing field where performance is the measure of success.

Because it is intentionally designed to be responsive to local contexts and diverse classrooms, edTPA makes learning context specific. Teacher candidates who have experienced the crushing reality of historical and political racism (and whose schools continue to struggle against this reality) would not be judged against teachers who do not work with those same challenges (which include low-income students, limited access to technology, and high numbers of English Language Learners). Instead, teachers are evaluated within their own context, local curriculum, and level of preparation for their specific classroom and students.

7. It honors the complexity of the profession. edTPA, much like the process of National Board certification, is designed to be an evaluation of teaching practice, not just knowledge. As someone who has completed the National Board process, I can attest that participation in an educative assessment is one of the most powerful professional development activities I have ever done. An assessment like this is not just about what candidates know when they start the test—it’s also about what they learn while experiencing the assessment. This mirrors the process that teachers engage in everyday: we plan, instruct, assess, and learn—then come back the next day with new ideas and improvements. We are transformed by the experience of constantly learning, adapting, and refining our practice.

While these are all great potential benefits of edTPA, the assessment continues to be refined with significant input from educators using the assessment. Andrea Whittaker of SCALE notes that the development, refinements, and research on edTPA impact are ongoing. The directions and rubric language within edTPA continue to be clarified in order to help teacher candidates understand and demonstrate their teaching ability. SCALE is especially focused on helping teacher candidates in diverse classrooms demonstrate their competency.

SCALE is working hard to engage and support teachers and teacher education institutions with an assessment that honors the complexity of teaching. But this work relies on the experts—teachers. In this vein, I urge all educators to participate in discussing edTPA. Join the national conversation taking place on Twitter by using the #edTPA hashtag. You can also email those involved with edTPA, letting them know what you’ve learned from the assessment, sharing your ideas about its educative implementation, and how it can better meet your needs.

Finally, remember that rejecting good ideas because of misconceptions or unfair policy is not the path to strengthening the profession—engagement is. There was a time when the NBPTS assessment was rejected by many because it attacked the status quo and identified accomplished, as opposed to effective, teachers.

Do we want a profession that rebuffs every attempt at improved accountability, deeper engagement, and critical participation? Or do we want one that challenges the status quo and shows that teachers are made, not born?

John M. Holland, Ph.D. has dedicated his career to serving the neediest and youngest school children as a National Board Certified Teacher of three and four year-olds in Richmond, Virginia’s toughest neighborhoods. Currently he writes about pre-K issues on the CTQ blog “The Learning Studio” and his personal blog Emergent Learner. His research interests include educational policy, teacher leadership, creativity, and 21st-century learning. He is a coauthor of TEACHING 2030

Photo used with permission via D. Mitchell Photography.

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