Assessment Anxiety: The Medium-Message of edTPA

As the spring term draws to a close, I look back on a year that I will probably remember as The Year of edTPA Anxiety. At this point, much ink has been spilled and many videos have been produced that explain why edTPA is harmful to teacher education, and to the teaching profession more generally. Some of my highlights: Alan Singer of Hofstra University, has been a consistent critic of edTPA’s implementation and Pearson’s involvement in New York State education practices and policies in both P-12 and higher education. Alexandra Miletta describes inconsistent messaging by NYSED and SCALE about peer editing on the assessment; she also provides a very comprehensive critique of its implementation.  Joette Stefl-Mabry organized the school library program coordinators across New York State to write a letter to our state legislators describing the problematic impact edTPA had upon our students.

In March, concerned faculty, teachers and teacher candidates gathered at Barnard College for a critical discussion of edTPA. My testimony is here, along with many other powerful voices including the outspoken Barbara Madeloni and students such as Maeve McNamera who spoke out about edTPA’s impact on her experiences as a student teacher. Powerful testimony was also given at the April 30th hearings before the New York State Senate, bravely organized by Deborah J. Glick.

In my talk at Barnard, I spoke of the way that edTPA has turned me into middle management (and yes, I underscored this point with a LOLcat slide). All year, edTPA has been heavy on my heart. Every day, I recruited much cognitive dissonance to support my students through an assessment I was barely prepared to scaffold for them (having received draft prep materials less than six months before the test, and then the final edition a couple days before classes began) and that I grew to object to on a number of ethical and pedagogical grounds. Here are some of the lessons I have learned from our edTPA process, about what high stakes assessments really teach our teacher candidates about how their work is viewed and valued through the lens of this high stakes test.

EdTPA’s most profound outcome: anxiety. edTPA threaded anxiety and fear through the student teaching experience for both me and my students. Not only did it damage the relationships I had with them (no longer was I a trusted advisor, I was the delivery mechanism of the edTPA process), it polluted the culture of our student teaching seminar and the placements. Instead of developing rapport with students and teachers, my candidates were scrambling to obtain permission to video tape them. Instead of feeling safe to make mistakes and ask questions, my students were reminded of “acceptable kinds of help” on edTPA and were concerned with teaching a perfect lesson. This was unduly stressful for all.

I don’t want to suggest that it is not valuable for teacher candidates to write unit plans, critically assess their teaching and have it assessed by others, and reflect upon that experience. To the contrary, I think this is terribly important. However, when you packaged this experience and deliver it in the form of a high stakes test, it become a very different product (and as an assessment from Pearson, edTPA is certainly a product). Good teaching involves reflective practice, and it takes time to get there. Both time and practice, important ingredients to good teacher preparation programs, are stolen by edTPA and replaced with anxiety and fear.

EdTPA is demoralizing to teacher candidates. What is demoralization? Doris Santoro summarizes it quite well in this piece, where she notes that demoralization occurs when one can no longer access the moral goods of their work. I see demoralization of teacher candidates as perilous: not only does edTPA deny them mentorship, true reflective practice and support that they should be gaining from their student teaching experience; they are also entering the profession at a loss. (perhaps this demoralization is  preparatory for the vilification in the media that teachers, and school librarians in particular, will face in the field?).

Furthermore, as Peter Taubman has noted in his critiques of edTPA, teacher education is a crucial site for the candidate’s development of teacher identity as a subject. How can a teacher candidate do this when she is being objectified by a standardized assessment? How can teacher candidates learn to develop good relationships with colleagues and students when that relationship is being mediated by a decontexutlaized multinational corporation’s assessment that is not being locally assessed?

edTPA: The Medium is the Message. And the message is: worry. Since this semester I am teaching an Instructional Technologies course, I’ve been reading media theory, which frames this part of my thinking. As Marshall McLuhan so famously quoth, the medium is the message (and forgive me because this is a pretty basic reading of that powerful idea). At its core, edTPA is a high stakes test; it is not a curriculum. It is not a modality for reflective practice. What does this medium communicate to our teacher candidates? The message, loud and clear, is: worry, because you are set up for an impossible task. Teacher candidates must be good enough to succeed in the field before they’re done with their graduate study, or with student teaching. The message is that teachers live under constant scrutiny and surveillance. It starts with edTPA in graduate school and continues on as vilification in the media throughout one’s career.

We absolutely need a better messages for our teacher candidates: ones that communicate the fact that we value teaching and teachers, that it IS hard work, but it’s work worthy of our respect. Messages that encourage bright young people to enter and STAY IN the profession (yes, I’m looking at you, TFA). Messages that recognize that teachers are human, and that they need to learn how to do this work, and yes, make mistakes sometimes, before we assess what they know.

A vital first step in sending this new message to teacher candidates requires that educators reclaim this conversation by insisting that we are experts in our own work. I’ve been inspired this year by the voices of some of my colleagues quoted above, to name only a few, and hope these messages may push back against anxiety, fear and demoralization that edTPA has left in its wake. If there is one positive outcome of the year of edTPA anxiety, it is the strengthening of this community of educators dedicated to doing this work.

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A Question of Consent

The core of the edTPA assessment is a video submission of student teaching practice. As my students began working on gathering parent permission forms last week, I’ve been thinking about the extent to which permission isn’t informed consent. Yet edTPA feels a lot like research, which requires informed consent.

Honestly, I was a little worried about the permissions/consent process from the start. If you’ve ever done research in the NYC Public schools (or any schools), you know how hard it is to get IRB approval and then to get those consent forms back.

Over the summer, while discussing the matter of permissions with of our cooperating teachers, one mentioned that her school had all families sign the DOE Media Permissions Form and wondered if this would cover the edTPA filming. I was concerned about the DOE’s form, which specifies that it covers non-profit use only; in all the materials I have seen (and signed), it is very clear that Pearson (a for-profit company) is asking for all rights to the media collected through edTPA. While they claim that they will never publicly display the videos collected, they may use them to further develop assessments.

When I researched the practices at bigger schools of education, I found different approaches. Some schools allowed their cooperating public schools to use the DOE’s form, but they developed their own institutional form for charter and private schools. Other schools mandated that all schools use their in local permission form, and some schools switched from the former position to the latter after being counseled by their attorneys on the matter.

In the midst of my research, Commissioner John King sent a letter to New York State educational stakeholders to “introduce” edTPA (in October…?). In the letter he encourages P-12 school leaders to learn “how some schools and districts have modified videotaping permissions, when needed, to accommodate this new certification requirement.” This seemed odd to me, especially considering, as TC Facutly point out in this letter problematizing edTPA, the DOE does not permit doctoral students to record in public schools. Yet, suddenly we need to loosen up about taping in schools?

The way the permissions process is structured, the student teacher and cooperating teacher distribute and collect the forms that don’t explain to parents that their child is part of a high stakes test, nor that the video may be used by Pearson for further test development, which is research. It is also up to the discretion of the student teacher whether she will allow Pearson to use her materials for research purposes (see p. 4 of this document), a fact that I don’t see being communicated to parents anywhere. Maybe I’m picking nits, but when curricula are becoming increasingly test-driven and corporate test makers are making big bucks, I think we could all stand to stay vigilant, or at the very least, informed.

Every time I go into a school and have a conversation with students and teachers toward research and publication, I need to gain approval of the Institutional Review Board at my school. I must account for how I will gain informed consent from anyone participating in my research project. Informed consent is the process through which researchers explain any risks and benefits to their research population and inform them of exactly what will happen with the data. It is a central part of doing ethical educational research.

Informed consent doesn’t seem to be part of the edTPA process, at least in New York State. Is the fact that students are being used as research subjects in the edTPA assessment being obscured from parents? This feels like “shotgun permissions”: parents are being asked to sign first, and maybe find out what that permission is for later. If schools use the DOE’s media form as blanket permission for all media recording, including edTPA, parents may have no idea that their child’s classroom is the site where a high stakes test for teacher candidates is taking place.

Of course, the more detailed the permission/consent process is, the more inconvenient it is for our student teachers and their cooperating schools. I don’t want to create more work for them. In the end, schools whose principals signed off can use the DOE Media Form; other schools are using our Pratt SILS form. My goal is to follow the rules and respect the rights of students above and beyond the standards for doing such being communicated by the state or edTPA. Still, I am extremely uneasy about my role in this.

In order to achieve some balance, my co-instructor and I taught a class on informed consent to our student teachers. We watched videos on the Belmont Report, the Tuskegee experiments and on the informed consent process. We discussed their responsibility to their students as minors and participants in a research study that it not being fully explained to them or their families. Still, I’m not satisfied with my own efforts. Maybe next year we’ll read some Jaron Lanier and think about the ways these P-12 students are being used as labor for capital in these video assessments.

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Telling my Own (edTPA) Story: Challenges

We’re 6 weeks into the semester, and I haven’t blogged about edTPA. A few things have been holding me back. One is obviously that I was asked to sign a non-disclosure form, and I’m having irrational paranoia about disclosing the wrong things.

Another speedbump is the cognitive dissonance that I feel with respect to edTPA. On one hand, I want to support my students in all ways toward their goal of becoming school librarians, and edTPA is now a mandated part of that path. On the other hand, there are so many elements of the exam that raise an eyebrow, from test’s corporate parent Pearson, to the slippery consent process to the prescribed and limited role of local assessment.

The other challenge I am running up against is that so much of my experience is wrapped up in the experiences of my students. I do not want to speak for them, but I will inevitably speak about them. What are the ramifications of publicly ruminating on shared experiences?

I had my first glimpse of the entanglements that underlie that question as a graduate student. I started my doctoral program at Columbia in Fall 2001. The second Tuesday of the semester was 9/11/01, which changed my life as a New Yorker and a grad student in innumerable ways.

About a year later, a member of my cohort brought an essay to my attention that was written by one of our professors. In the essay, he described the sentiments of members of our cohort; each of our responses to 9/11 were summarized in a sentence or two, and we all recognized each other through his rendering.

Upon reading this, I felt weirdly betrayed and robbed of my subjectivity and my ability to respond on my own. Of course no one would know who we were, but we knew. As public as this piece of writing was, I felt unrecognized as a person, even as I recognized myself; an unsettling feeling.

Fast-forward 13 years, through Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, a lot of growing up, and a wholly changed consciousness of what it means to share an experience, live in public and build community. Now I’m the professor. I often use this story to beg the question of whether and how teachers can write about their teaching experiences in ways that preserves their subjectivity and that of their students.

Now when I think about that essay, I don’t feel robbed. But I do remember what that felt like to feel that way, which is why I want to be clear about what my goals are in doing this personal but public writing.

I hope to work through my own thoughts on participating in the administration of edTPA. All knowing is partial, and this blog will just be one part of what can be “known” about edTPA. I hope many voices will join this discussion, in comments or their own blogs, tweets, and actions that look critically at the changing landscape of teacher preparation.

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An edTPA Journey: One Program’s Story

*I have signed a confidentiality waiver with Pearson that prohibits me from exposing specific elements of edTPA. I plan to maintain a level of candor and criticality on this blog that doesn’t compromise that agreement.

This semester, my students and I will participate in Pratt’s first foray into a new teacher exam called edTPA (Teacher Performance Assessment; see the testmaker’s FAQ’s here). The assessment involves teacher candidates creating a unit plan and then video taping themselves teaching a portion of that unit in their student teaching environment. Students will then write a reflective piece about their teaching, based on over a dozen rubrics provided in edTPA prep materials. Finally, the will upload the entire package through a platform provided by Pearson (also the test’s author, and the company responsible for the scoring of the test, which is not unproblematic).

edTPA is part of a new suite of tests that will be required of all New York State teacher candidates. The three existing teacher exams (LAST, ATS-W and CST) will be replaced by three new assessments (EAS, ALST, and a new CST) in addition to the edTPA (for more information see the NYSTCE site).  These exams have not yet been released. Some materials are available to prep for them on the New York State Teacher Certification Examinations (NYSTCE) site as of August 6th. These documents are called Frameworks, and they read like standards. See for example this document on ALST.

New York is one of a handful of states in the implementation phase with edTPA. Many other states are still in the exploratory phase. The assessment’s pilot was scored over the summer of 2013 (and as this article notes, cut scores have not yet been determined).

Many have critiqued edTPA because it is a new high stakes test dressed in the sheep’s clothing of a local assessment (for example, see this piece by Barbara Madeloni, dismissed from her post at UMass Amherst for opposition to edTPA, or this one by Wayne Au of Rethinking Schools). Because the test is “performed” during student teaching and requires reflective writing about the student teacher’s practice, it has benevolent aspects. However, this test is being scored outside the local context by the same corporation that produces the exams (and study materials!) that my students’ students use. At a moment when student test scores are being used to evaluate teacher education programs, these scores will also soon become data points that determine the fate of teacher ed programs, and possibly my own job.

As the student teaching supervisor for school library students, I also have some subject-specific concerns about how my students will logistically complete edTPA in the school library setting. Due to the constraints on librarians within the New York City Department of Education (for example presently, the city is seeking a waiver to avoid the requirement for school librarians, a requirement with which NYC is currently out of compliance), I foresee some challenges for my students who are completing edTPA this term.

On my blog, I hope to address these concerns, while at the same documenting the hard work that my students are doing as student teachers. I want to explore exactly what we learn about our teaching practices: my students, as student teachers and test-takers; and myself, as someone who fully supports them. Join me!

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My favorite cocktail party story: A Bacchic Tribute to Professor Moretti

I was saddened to learn that Professor Frank Moretti passed away over the weekend. I don’t know if it was something in the air, but when I heard the news, I was already thinking about my time as his student and working at CCNMTL a little over 10 years ago (perhaps because I’m trying to rework my teaching statement and looking for inspiration). At the time, I was transitioning into doctoral work and trying to make a new path after years of work with high school students in an afterschool program in Harlem. Conversations with Frank and discussions in his classes helped me contextualize my practical work in a theoretical frame, and shaped my course through the rest of graduate school.

So here is my favorite educational technology-infused cocktail party story about Frank (that appropriately invokes the god of wine):

During a discussion of the Bacchae in his Theories of Communication course, students were looking particularly glazed over. Maybe out of frustration with us, or to fill the dead air, Frank offered his rationale for having us read this text. He said he liked to think of himself and Robbie McClintock as Tiresias and Cadmus–in Frank’s words, “two old guys” –who had covered themselves in animal skins and were heading over to participate in the rites. Their embrace of the Bacchic rites reminded him of his own interest in new technologies, his willingness to jump in with both feet and get to know the new. He painted a great image of the two elder statesmen looking at each other clad in the latest trends and giving a shoulder shrug that indicated, “can you believe we’re doing this?!”. This interest in the new, the willingness to see the world evolve from the place where you first found it made a big impression on me. It takes courage to go with an open heart and mind toward the future, and particularly from the seat of power that tenured and emeritus faculty occupy. I have always admired Frank (and Robbie, too) for this openness, which also manifests in their generous support of young scholars with their interest and time.

I have returned to the mental image of these two great educators clad in animal skins many times and it always makes me chuckle. And now, as I approach 40, I feel my understanding of his comment deepening. As a teacher and teacher-educator, I strive to embody this attitude in my own classroom and all areas of life. Thanks, Frank, for being such a great teacher.

  “Remember this! No amount of Bacchic revelry can corrupt an honest woman.” Euripides, Bacchae

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What’s Wrong with this Picture?

aiminghigherTake a look at the language in this subway advertisement informing the community about the new high stakes tests rolled out in NYC public schools this spring. This spring, who’s aiming higher? Who’s raising standards? Just who does the NYC DOE think “we” are?

Seems like it’s not the same “we” whose children are taking these new assessments. According to this sign, “WE’RE not satisfied teaching YOUR children basic skills.” Not “our” children; “your” children.

The increase in testing for students has a parallel in increased testing for teacher candidates. But that’s another post.

If you want to read more about how these assessments impacted children in New York State (OUR children), look here, here, here, and here; for more on summer testing, look here and here.

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The New York City Council Testimony, or My Leslie Knope Moment

Yesterday, I had the privilege of giving an invited testimony before the New York City Council on the shortage of school librarians in New York City public schools. This was my first experience participating in any organized form of government other than voting. I was extremely nervous (I probably haven’t been that nervous since the night before my dissertation defense). I was asked to speak to a few specific issues, including the path to certification for school librarians, the career outlook for my students, the challenges they face and best practices for school libraries.

I was also asked to offer recommendations for how to address the shortage, which made me feel both completely underqualified and absurdly powerful.

The main event of the morning was the testimony of the representatives of the DOE Office of Library Services. The question and answer period lasted for over an hour and was highly contentious. By the time my panel–the last group of speakers– was called to speak, there were about five council members left in the room and maybe four citizens remaining. I was asked to give my testimony in 3 minutes. Rather than trying to speed-read, I summarized my testimony, which met a mixed response. As you will see in the video, the Council chair was ready to be finished for the day and was disappointed that I wasn’t eager to join him in blaming the DOE for the shortage.

(I think I maybe used too many hand gestures; a rookie mistake. Lately, all the public speaking I do ends up video taped on the Internet and I look and sound like a cartoon character… )

I was naively surprised at the Council’s efforts to blame and shame DOE Library Services for the shortage, and I do not agree that this is a NYC DOE-specific problem. To attribute such a complex problem to one single factor seems like a misstep. In my testimony, I assert that among other factors, a large part of the problem is our nostalgic view of school libraries. Until administrators, principals and politicians grasp the new role of school librarians and school libraries, they will continue to be undervalued as antiques, precious like card catalogs.

Check out the entire hearing or fast-forward to around 3 hours 40 minutes to see me try to summarize four pages of testimony in 180 seconds.

The New York City Council – Video.

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