Smacking Down the Opposition: edTPA Advocacy in Illinois

The Education Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA) is the new set of evaluations of teacher candidates that is spreading across the country. Packaged as government-mandated test that assures the quality of teaching, it in fact colonizes the curriculum of teacher education programs and narrows the focus on teaching as pre-determined and top down delivery of lessons.

If you ask advocates about edTPA, they'll tell you it's a teacher performance assessment developed through a partnership between Stanford University's Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity (SCALE) and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). They describe it as being designed "by the profession, for the profession" and "transformative for prospective teachers because [it] requires candidates to actually demonstrate the knowledge and skills required to help all students learn in real classrooms." And policy makers are listening: as of November 2015, 647 educator preparation programs in 35 states are using edTPA, and it's required for teacher licensure in 4 states.

Critics, however, tell a radically different story. In articles published in an increasing number of academic journals, blogs, and trade magazines, they question the validity of the assessment, its ideological stance, and its function as yet another tool of privatized, neoliberal reform. Barbara Madeloni, now president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, was an early resistor. After the New York Times published a 2012 article about her students' refusal to participate in an edTPA pilot, Madeloni lost her job at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Later, she, with Julie Gorlewski of SUNY New Paltz, published a series of critiques under headlines like "Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question" that describe edTPA as reductive and poorly aligned with the goals of social justice education.

The National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) issued a criticism in early 2014, remarking that:

The practice of critical multicultural education cannot, by its nature, be standardized, nor can the development of teachers who will engage critical multi-cultural education in their classrooms. Therefore, NAME supports the principle that authentic assessment of pre-service teachers should be conducted by those who know teacher candidates and their work in the classroom, including cooperating teachers, supervisors and faculty, who are best able to both support and assess the developmental work of becoming a teacher.

As edTPA is becoming required in more states, the criticism is mounting. Deborah Greenblatt and Kate O'Hara's expose-style analysis of lessons learned from edTPA implementation in New York challenges the validity of the assessment, its impact on candidate learning, and its disparate impact on diverse candidates and school contexts. Kevin Meuwissin and Jeffrey Chopin, both at the University of Rochester, examine the tensions edTPA creates for candidates in New York and Washington (the first two states to require the test as a condition of licensure). In their comprehensive analysis of candidate's experiences completing--and, generally, passing--edTPA they argue that the nuances of the assessment and its implementation require candidates and teacher educators to focus "on managing social and instrumental factors that interact with the assessment rather than improving practice through it." Meuwissin and Chopin, who aren't against teacher performance assessment in theory, nevertheless find edTPA a mess:

We point out that some of the tensions that candidates faced and mediated during early implementation of a compulsory edTPA in New York and Washington States were not necessarily productive toward the ends of improving teaching and student learning - one of the central purposes of TPAs articulated in the research literature our findings demonstrate that this policy situation-- one in which the stakes associated with the edTPA assign significance to particular pedagogical practices and outcomes - impacts the social circumstances of learning to teach and candidates' efforts to represent their teaching. Wei and Pecheone (2010) [part of the edTPA design team] suggest that, in such a context, it could be challenging for teacher education programs to advance veritably broad views of teaching that accommodate the agency needed to engage in contextualized problem solving and classroom change, as well as the kinds of authentic social relationships among novice teachers and mentors that support those change efforts.

Many scholars and activists are especially concerned about the role of Pearson Education, who is the exclusive administrator of edTPA and charges $300 per candidate per submission. $75 of this goes back to a "calibrated scorer"--a teacher or teacher educator who, with just 19-23 hours of computer-based training by Pearson was magically transformed from unqualified to evaluate their own teacher candidates to a national expert in evidence-based assessment. The other $225, presumably, goes to Pearson, SCALE and AACTE, who are surely celebrating their resounding success: 18,463 candidates were required to take edTPA in 2014. At $300 each, that's $5,538,900. It is true that Pearson offers some vouchers to offset the cost for candidates. But in 2014, there were a whopping 600 vouchers available for the entire state of New York.

As edTPA policies impact more and more candidates, the debates are heating up. Recent controversies regarding edTPA in Illinois--where edTPA became required for licensure on September 1, 2015--are especially illustrative of the complex relationship among edTPA policy, scholarship, and advocacy. In a thorough research piece in Teachers College Record Alison Dover, Brian Schultz, Katy Smith and Tim Duggan, a group of scholars at Northeastern Illinois University, expose the growing "cottage industry" of edTPA-related services and argue that state policymakers have forced edTPA on candidates with little regard for issues of equity or impact:

In Illinois, edTPA mandates evolved rapidly over the protest of multiple teacher educators and administrators, especially those preparing diverse candidates in urban communities (e.g., the Council of Chicago Area Deans of Education and Illinois Association of Deans of Public Colleges of Education, 2014). Requests to delay the individual consequentiality of this mandate to allow for wider investigation of its impact were denied by our State Board of Education, based in part, perhaps, on testimony by [Amee] Adkins [see below] (e.g., ISBE, 2015). Similar processes occurred in other states, such as New York, where edTPA requirements outpaced the availability of candidate instructions (NYSUT, 2015). This resulted in multiple legal and practical dilemmas as policymakers tried to figure out how to handle skyrocketing failure rates and concerns about test validity, ultimately resulting in the creation of a last minute"safety net" for candidates who failed edTPA.

The reaction of edTPA advocates was fast and furious. Rather than allow for research and debate on the topic, the edTPA public relations machine is working to silence any critics. Among the most influential edTPA voices in Illinois is Amee Adkins, Senior Associate Dean of the College of Education at Illinois State University, the former president of the Illinois Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (IACTE), a member of the edTPA Implementation Support Steering Committee in Illinois, and a member of the Illinois State Educator Preparation and Licensure Board. She is also a vocal advocate for edTPA locally and nationally, and provides edTPA-related consultation on behalf of SCALE and AACTE. Clearly she has a literal stake in edTPA.
Adkins has taken an increasingly aggressive response to scholarly critique of edTPA. She, along with colleagues equally involved in national edTPA advocacy, published a "rebuttal" that challenges the "one-sided view" of edTPA critics. In an example of the fine line between edTPA scholarship and advocacy, Adkins'"rebuttal"--but neither the original critique nor subsequent response -- has been broadcast by AACTE as evidence that "edTPA is working for Illinois," posted on their EdPrepMatters website, and added to the official SCALE/AACTE edTPA Resource Library.

Ironically, what's missing from AACTE's edTPA resource library is any scholarship that opposes, critiques, or encourages debate: apparently AACTE's vision of "leading the field in advocacy" means advocating for a single perspective on critical issues in teacher education. But, this is Illinois after all: the state has a long history of ignoring problems by pretending they simply don't exist.

As a key policy advisor in the state, one might expect Adkins to maintain a degree of professionalism when engaging in scholarly debate. However, her recent social media posts regarding the upcoming Illinois General Assembly edTPA subject matter hearing (scheduled for November 10, 2015), are almost comical in their outrageousness:

In subsequent posts, made in response to a November media report about edTPA controversies in Illinois, Adkins refers to Illinois scholars who oppose edTPA as "cranks" who lack expertise in the field, arguing that her"vast experience" working with edTPA invalidates the"opinions" of other scholars. Clearly, Adkins no longer cares whether Illinois' assessment policy is "by the profession and for the profession," and is ready to"smack down" her opposition. This is who the Illinois State Board of Education leans on to craft education policy? Has Illinois not learned from the debacles in Chicago caused by the likes of Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan to Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Rahm Emanuel?

The edTPA, like other corporatized education reforms, is part of an intensely lucrative assessment marketplace. As such, one must all question the degree to which local and national implementation campaigns are influenced by private interests. The bullying about edTPA in Illinois is both deeply troubling and unsurprising: after years of teacher blaming, even supposed educational advocates are adopting the rhetoric of assault and placing teacher candidates in the crosshairs of ill-conceived policies.