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Home » Clarion » 2014 » May 2014 » After PSC Protest, State Delays Controversial Teacher Certification Exam

After PSC Protest, State Delays Controversial Teacher Certification Exam


The PSC’s statewide affiliate, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), has reached an agreement with the State Education Department to delay full implementation of the controversial new teacher certification exam (known as “edTPA,” short for education teacher performance assessment) until June 30, 2015. The change came after months of organizing by education faculty at CUNY and SUNY, and it marked a significant change in course for New York State.

Priya Parmar, Peter Taubman and other PSC members testified in Albany.

EdTPA is a multipart assessment of student teachers put forth as a requirement for teacher certification beginning May 1, 2014. The PSC, NYSUT and SUNY’s United University Professions (UUP) have opposed edTPA, arguing that it effectively reduces teacher education to preparing for a high-stakes test. The unions also strongly objected to outsourcing the test’s evaluation to Pearson, a for-profit corporation. EdTPA’s rushed implementation, faculty said, left insufficient time to prepare, potentially excluding many effective new teachers from the profession.

The delay “provides an important safety net for aspiring teachers,” a NYSUT statement said. The agreement provides that student teachers must still take the edTPA starting this spring, but offers the option of taking New York’s current certification test, the Assessment of Teaching Skills-Written (ATS-W), to those who don’t pass the edTPA.

Rushed Exam

The agreement also calls for a task force of teacher education experts, with representation from PSC and UUP, to review and consider changes to edTPA going forward. In response to concerns about edTPA’s steep $300 fee, student teachers who are eligible for Pell grants will not be charged to take it.

“All told, these changes protect the student teachers who would be hurt first by edTPA, and give education faculty a formal structure for pressing their concerns about it,” said PSC First Vice President Steve London. The changes were approved by the NYS Regents on April 29, after days of intense discussions between NYSUT, state legislators and the NY State Education Department (NYSED).

At a joint hearing the following day, the NY Assembly’s Higher Education and Education committees heard testimony from education faculty from across the state. Noting that the PSC represents nearly 1,000 academics working in teacher education, London told legislators that “very little has roiled these professionals as much as edTPA.”

“The ‘education reform’ movement has, in part, been sold using buzzwords to obfuscate practices that are unproven or, worse, suspect,” said London. “‘Standards’ is often the buzzword of choice. Who can be against standards?” But often, he noted, this cry “is used as a shield to obscure serious examination of the programs in question. Such is the case with edTPA.”

“EdTPA weds a high-stakes testing regime to a for-profit testing outfit,…outsourcing professional assessment and certification,” argued London. “Most teacher educators with whom I have spoken say that this is actually a reduction in standards,” and one which results in a narrowing of the teacher education curriculum.

A common theme at the hearing was the lack of research supporting New York’s plans for edTPA. Ruth Powers Silverberg, associate professor of education at the College of Staten Island, described how, at the first meeting she attended about edTPA, she asked about the research it was based on, and was told she could find it on the website. “I went to the website, where I found eight articles. One of them was about edTPA. The other seven were on a variety of topics and all but one article had been authored by the creators of edTPA,” Silverberg said. “None of the articles provided evidence of edTPA’s ability to predict good teaching.”

Rigid Rubrics

The rigid rubrics with which edTPA measures success force education faculty to spend their time “preparing our students for the equivalent of high-stakes tests,” said Peter Taubman, professor of secondary education at Brooklyn College. “A colleague…who teaches our social studies methods courses…told me yesterday that she now spends all her class time focusing on the 15 rubrics and, as she put it, explaining ‘their opaque language,’ rather than on how to approach historical content,” Taubman said. “She told me that she has to suspend analysis of primary sources and developing arguments and supporting claims, because she now has to focus on parsing rubrics that read more like income tax forms.”

“My own teaching has changed as a result of edTPA – and not for the better,” said Priya Parmar, associate professor of secondary education at Brooklyn College. “Thoughtful, spirited discussions and debates…once dominated my classroom sessions. Now a portion of each session is devoted to preparing students to pass a set of rubrics or…to write learning objectives the ‘correct’ way, [focusing on] regurgitation of information in the form of the edTPA. Critical dialogue is lost,” she told the hearing.

“The whole notion of evaluating teacher ‘performance’ via lesson plans and a videotape is highly problematic,” said Silverberg. “As a school administrator…I supervised many teachers who were wonderful planners and yet ineffective instructors, and wonderful educators who did not write ‘good,’ uniformly structured lesson plans.”

A NYSUT resolution adopted in early April summed it up this way: “The regulations force professors to teach a curriculum that is driven by standardized assessments, rubrics and quantifiable outcomes developed by individuals and corporations not directly connected to those programs, resulting in violation of academic freedom and de-professionalization. [The result is to] reduce the practice of teaching to a series of quantifiable behaviors that do not capture [its] complexity and nuance.”

“It’s not teacher education,” said Taubman. “It’s teacher automation.”

Some of the most challenging aspects of teaching are exactly what gets marginalized by edTPA, argued Silverberg. “Teachers need to persevere with students who they have difficulty reaching, which requires having a set of strategies for understanding those whose unique and individual ways of learning are different,” she told the hearing. “This does not appear anywhere on edTPA. Teachers need skills to communicate and partner with parents. These do not appear anywhere on edTPA.”

Arthur Salz, professor emeritus (and now an adjunct) in education at Queens College, voiced strong agreement. “EdTPA is an absolute misnomer,” he told legislators. “It doesn’t measure actual performance in teaching.”

Many faculty strongly objected to the State’s decision to entrust evaluation of edTPA results to Pearson, Inc. This move reflects “the deep penetration of corporations into education,” Taubman told legislators. “By outsourcing assessment…edTPA explicitly severs the relationship between professor and student.” With Pearson in charge, he said, edTPA results are evaluated by “someone not familiar with the students…someone who…may not even hold a doctorate in the field, someone hired by a large corporation to do piecemeal work.” Yet this, he said, is somehow presented as raising standards.

“It has recently been in the news that Pearson protects itself from public scrutiny by contractually prohibiting education professionals from speaking about their concerns and views of test content developed by Pearson for the Common Core tests,” London said in his testimony. This practice has now spread to CUNY: earlier this year, London said, “non-disclosure agreements [NDAs] were a required part of an edTPA training workshop.”

Lack of Transparency

David Gerwin, professor of social studies education at Queens College, described how he had been kicked out of an edTPA workshop at CUNY when he refused to sign the NDA. Those who did sign, he said, “were not even allowed to keep a copy of the NDA.” While he would have been allowed to discuss workshop content with colleagues at Queens College, Gerwin said, signing would mean “I could not pick up the phone and call a colleague at SUNY Binghamton or Vanderbilt…or share an example in an email with board members of our professional association.”

“I want to be specific about why this makes a difference,” Gerwin continued. “The Regents Examinations are all publicly released. That makes it possible for scholars in the field to study them, to conduct research and to contribute to public discussion about how these high-stakes tests define what it means to know history….This kind of scholarly back-and-forth is essential for the public good.”

London said that giving Pearson a central role in edTPA is a profound mistake. “Historically, ‘gag orders’ and lack of transparency are anathema to those concerned with real performance standards. Covering up potential problems and silencing potential critics with such heavy-handed methods is unprofessional and does not place the interests of the students first.”

“Simply put,” London concluded, “Pearson is a bad actor, cannot be trusted, and should have no place in teacher assessment and certification.”

Several faculty members said that there are some positive aspects to edTPA. The NYSUT resolution made this point also, stating, “edTPA contains important components of good teaching…and good practice, such as the use of portfolios and multi-dimensional assessments.” But these pluses are lost, faculty said, in its use as a high-stakes exam.

Jack Zevin, a professor of education at Queens College, gave this example: “I am very much in favor of videos. Having a diagnostic video, where teachers study themselves – that’s terrific. But going up for certification [based on one] 10 or 15-minute video…? That’s only a sample of one, so this is not very scientific. Yet based on this one sample, you’re going to make it or break it.”

Salz contrasted the personal teaching observations by education faculty with edTPA’s one-shot video component. “In our program, faculty observe student teaching repeatedly,” he said. “It comes out to about 550 minutes of teaching – compare that to one 15-minute tape.”

Gerwin and others said that economic differences can affect edTPA’s video results. At wealthy private universities, Gerwin said, “they have hired videographers to take care of the video requirement…. Meanwhile, in the public education world, our students use iPhones to record their videos [and] other student or the college supervisor fill in as camera crew.”

The delay in full implementation of edTPA was won through persistent efforts by education union activists. Education faculty in the PSC began organizing in late 2012, and held a series of meetings that resulted in the PSC taking a position against edTPA. Discussion and joint organizing with UUP colleagues at SUNY, led to a joint proposal for a NYSUT resolution, which was adopted at NYSUT’s Representative Assembly at the beginning of April. Legislation to establish a moratorium on the start of edTPA began moving forward in the Assembly, sponsored by Higher Education Committee Chair Deborah Glick, and Ken LaValle, chair of the State Senate’s higher ed committee, soon sponsored a companion bill. Shortly afterwards, the NYSED became willing to discuss changes in implementation of edTPA.

“Going forward, we need to keep the pressure on,” said London. “While we will work with the task force and argue for the needed changes, we must also continue our own mobilization.”

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