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Those of us who prepare teachers for the classroom find ourselves at the center of a national conversation about teacher preparation and “effectiveness,” as well as how to measure and improve student achievement. In each of these cases, students’ standardized test scores are the central metric. And now, federal and state policymakers have begun to use student test scores to evaluate teacher education programs.

Marcy Singer-Gabella

Without question, teacher education programs should be genuinely concerned with their graduates’ impact on student learning and achievement. However, using student test scores to measure program effectiveness is both inappropriate and unhelpful. There are significant challenges—substantive and logistical—to accurately linking student scores to preparing institutions and interpreting what they mean. And even if these were solved, it is extremely difficult to control for the variation in the K-12 schools where graduates end up teaching.

Most crucially, students’ standardized test scores offer little information with which to improve teacher preparation. In my role as a teacher-educator, such information is critical to the task of preparing teachers who will succeed and stay in the profession. That’s why the edTPA, recently field-tested with thousands of soon-to-be teachers, could be such a game changer. It is a multiple-measure assessment process, developed by Stanford University researchers, that seeks to answer the all-important question, “Is a new teacher ready for the job?”

The consortium of universities and state policy organizations behind the edTPA has stepped up to the challenge of developing a valid and reliable measure of novice teacher performance that provides not only a window on teacher-candidates’ future effectiveness, but also an externally recognized benchmark and rich data on candidate progress.

The model, which traces its lineage to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards portfolio assessment, builds on earlier work by teachers and teacher-educators in California to create a robust tool for certifying effective teaching practice. The resulting sense of ownership and alignment with core values has been key to the model’s broad appeal among teacher-educators and their school-based partners.

In fact, teacher-educators in 24 states and the District of Columbia have come to see the edTPA as both a credible measure of important knowledge and skills, and as a tool to support program renewal. Faculty from the eight Tennessee universities that participated in the field test report that working with this assessment has led to more focused and fruitful conversations about aims for candidates and how to achieve them. Specifically, it has provided shared language and images of sound teaching practices, and what it looks like to learn them. While edTPA does not measure everything we want new teachers to know, it spotlights a core of practice that is essential to good teaching.

At my own institution, where we have used edTPA data to revise coursework, we are finding visible differences in our graduates’ readiness to teach. We believe that the assessment has had a positive impact largely because of its emphasis from start to finish on K-12 learners.

First, the assessment structure requires candidates to align standards, goals, activities and assessments with diverse learners’ development, interests and needs.

Second, the assessment presses candidates to discern evidence of, and describe patterns in, students’ evolving understandings throughout an instructional sequence—so candidates have to make sure that they glean information about each student in each lesson.

Third, the assessment prompts candidates to use the insights they are gathering about students to determine the very next move, not just for the whole group but also for individuals.

Our early work with the edTPA prototype surfaced problems in candidates’ efforts to analyze student work systematically and give students usable feedback. In response, we have increased attention to these areas in coursework and field assignments. Recent results suggest that our candidates are improving.

We are not the only ones who find that our candidates actually do a better job of teaching for having been through the edTPA process. According to feedback from principals and teachers, our candidates are better prepared and more skilled. Our graduates themselves report that the assessment process has helped them develop the habits of mind and routines for planning, assessing and adjusting instruction that allow them to succeed and keep learning as they teach. By comparison, the teacher evaluation systems in their districts are “a piece of cake,” as one graduate has said.

Indeed, this model is not simple; some parts have felt grueling. So what has compelled us to stick with it?

First, what makes the assessment tough is what makes it potent: it examines and supports candidates’ abilities to do what teaching takes—with real learners, in real time. Second, in providing a common language and working vision of good practice, the edTPA links us to a network of smart and committed educators from across the country, working on the shared challenge of enabling teachers to serve all learners well.

Marcy Singer-Gabella is a professor of the practice of education and associate chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.

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Letters to the Editor

12 Letters

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  1. This assessment sounds like it’s looking for new teachers to be able to do things that it usually takes a couple of years to get the hang of. In all honesty, depending on the subject area, some veterans might struggle with the tasks mentioned here in the face of education reform. Two big ifs: if the teacher training programs are aligned with what the assessment is looking for, and if the assessment tool is not being used to “weed out” under-performing first-time timers without offering them support, then it sounds promising. A tool like this should engage teachers and administrators in conversations about improving their performance and offering support. School systems already have enough ways to get rid of teachers. And I am not a member of nor do I favor unions.

  2. As a new way of teaching our new wave of instructors, it sounds like a win win scenario. Future teachers learn how to read their students better and students get the best teachers highly skilled at bringing the best out of them.

  3. This is a ‘game changer’? Really? If this is such a great thing, why have teacher education programs not been doing this already? It’s not exactly rocket science…teaching how to “align standards, goals, activities and assessments with diverse learners’ development, interests and needs.” Isn’t that what teacher education programs are supposed to do? What have you guys been doing if not that? You need a new certification exam, required by the state, to force you to do a better job teaching your students, some of whom are paying up to $200,000 for a degree? The things that the edTPA requires teacher candidates to think about and write about are the very things that should have been standard practice for colleges and universities turning out new teachers. Teacher education programs bear a large part of the responsibility for the sorry state of education in the USA.

  4. I hope this improves teaching skills. It sounds promising. It also sounds as though it should be used on teachers already in the classroom, not as a criticism, but as an assessment to help them improve their skills.
    As a former school board member I must say that there are very few effective ways to get rid of bad teachers. Any dismissal is accompanied by lawsuits, etc. The estimated cost to dismiss one teacher is between $250,000 and $500,000 in court and legal fees. This is one of the reasons school boards are so reluctant to move against bad teachers. They can’t afford it.

  5. Let us look at Finland. Little or no testing, project based learning and most importantly equity. Master’s level teachers who are weeded out during teacher candidacy. All schools are public and all schools offer the same education to all students. Finland has come in first, second or third in education in the world over the past ten years.

  6. The most important thing about teaching you are forgetting…
    A teacher must have a good personality and sense of humor.
    Far too many teachers are not able to relate to kids, no matter the age group. As a former teacher, far too many teachers are in the wrong profession. Often the extremely bright potential teachers, have zero personality. Thus these brainy teachers are doomed for failure. This is at the top of the list of importance for a potential teacher. However, those sitting in a position of judgment, do not understand a test or program cannot accomplish a personality evaluation. A teacher is like a stage actor…you are performing 90% of the time. A poor performance by the teacher results in unmotivated students and poor test scores.

  7. Observations: (1) – It would be helpful to have anecdotal examples of specific changes in the curriculum for teacher training and how they result in changes in classroom methods and student outcomes. (2) – The expectation that every teacher in every school can closely follow the learning process with every student presents a real challenge in many schools and school districts, where the student-to-teacher ratio gives teachers too many students per class to adequately know them all. Teachers SHOULD be able to thoroughly track students in their individual learning success, day by day, but with 30 or more children per class, in 5 or more classes per day, it’s extremely difficult to do so. If there are behavioral problems to deal with, as well, there’s even less time to devote to teaching and evaluating students. K-12 education is a process involving many variables, not just teacher preparedness. The culture, community, parents, school district leadership, school administrators — even such things as climate and school building design — all influence student success. Teachers, of course, carry the greatest burden for ensuring student learning, but they need support and optimal conditions in as many of these variables as possible. More than teacher education needs to change.

  8. Robin Castle commented on the success of Finnish achools. See the Smithsonian Magazine article at for a good look at how schooling works in Finland. It’s hard to draw parallels with US education practices because the countries are so different, but the practical, common-sense, “whatever it takes” approach favored in Finland is something we could strive for and train teachers for — if school systems would support it. However, there’s a lot more to be considered. One example: “There is one teacher (or assistant) in Siilitie [a disadvantaged neighborhood] for every seven students.” And, those teachers and assistants are with the same students for all or most of the school day, with the support of special education teachers where needed. The educators know their students’ personalities and learning styles intimately, and may know their families quite well, too, given the miniscule case load. (Parents’ involvement is not addressed in the article.) I wish all US students could be given such individualized attention. I’d say it’s pretty hard for a student to fail in Finland. Robin Castle is right — we could learn a lot by studying the Finnish way of educating students. The article gives insight to something else we should take a hard look at, as a model for improving schools — there has been a revolution in the whole approach to teaching in Finland, since the 1960’s. the country as a whole “got back to basics” — not the 3 R’s, but the way children can best be served by well-prepared educators who are given wide latitude to work out their own solutions to teaching the students in their care.

  9. As if enough new teachers are not already leaving the profession in the first three years, we have now incorporated “new” pre-assessment measures such as edTPA, GACE, and tiered certifications just to get new teachers certified. Georgia’s teaching programs have already taken a hit on enrollment numbers this year statewide. We wonder why young people do not want to teach? Why would you. And if they do pass the gatekeepers, they then go into a profession that abuses them for the most part, overtaxes them, sees them as factory workers, and blames them for everything that goes wrong.

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