I had the opportunity this Thursday, October 17, to sit with 200 or so professors of education, college and university deans of education, state officials from NYSED and corporate salespeople at the NYS Association of Teacher Educators / New York Association of Colleges for Teacher Education at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga, NY. The focus of the conference was the implementation of the edTPA, a new high stakes certification test rolled out this semester by NYSED. The test involves teacher candidates videotaping a series of three original, interconnected lessons while they student teach, and then create a complex document of up to 35 pages to justify their pedagogical decisions. The test, owned by Pearson, costs applicants $300.00, and must be completed during their student teaching field experience.
Our keynote speaker was NYS Education Commissioner John King, and he was there to update us on the current state of his reform agenda. Many of you who read this blog may be unfamiliar with the world of teacher education and how it fits in with the larger picture of education reform, but make no mistake about it, those of us engaged in preparing young teachers for the field are under the same dreadful, oppressive, wrong-headed regime that public schools are under. It is essential that we talk to each other from our various vantage points, whether it be as parents, teachers, administrators, taxpayers or teacher educators so that we can understand how much we really have in common and that our collective outrage is more powerful than when we stand apart.
The commissioner began his presentation by lauding the progress that has been made toward realizing his agenda and trotting out the same statistics that we have all seen over and over again that essentially blame teachers and public schools for ‘school failure’ and justify the need for reform. What these statistics continually misrepresent is the fact that the test scores of children from affluent communities are comparable to the best of the best around the world, that research has demonstrated time and again that test scores are correlated with parents’ income, education and zip code, and that poverty, not schools, is a problem that no amount of testing is ever going to fix. The people at this meeting were from big CUNY and SUNY universities and small religious and private liberal arts colleges. They catered to vastly different populations of students from every corner of the state, all seeking their teaching certifications. Despite the differences among our institutions, there were several themes that came up again and again in roundtable discussions, paper presentations and hallway conversations. Many people attending the meeting expressed outrage, hopelessness and frustration with a system that has been foisted upon them without their consent or input.
First and foremost, many teacher educators repeatedly expressed anguish over a very personal conflict of conscience that they shared. On one hand, these experts in learning and development, many with years of research and writing as well as classroom experience under their belts, know that the format and requirements of the edTPA stand in opposition to their fundamental beliefs and philosophical commitments as educators. On the other hand, they understand that if their students, whom they care deeply about, fail these tests, their four-year investment of time and money may have been wasted. One professor spoke poignantly about her students in NYC, nearly all immigrants from across the globe, who both work and study full time. How could she let them down when they had sacrificed so much to become teachers? The consequence is that departments of education have had to upend their programs to create the enormous space necessary for test prep. Across the state, teacher educators are, in effect, being coerced into teaching to the test. Sadly, I heard over and over that student teachers aren’t talking to their professors about teaching this semester; they are talking about the edTPA.
Second, the same predictions of wide spread failure that were projected far in advance of the 3rd through 8th grade exams last year are being repeated for the edTPA. Many professors of education believe this is the case because there are so many parallels between the mode of implementation of the edTPA and that of the Common Core and the associated assessments in public schools. For example, in both cases the cut scores, and the formula for arriving at them have been kept secret. The incredible speed with which the edTPA has been rolled out has made it virtually impossible for schools of education to adequately prepare their students. In his address, King blamed school districts for not being ready for the 3-8 tests, he denied that the time for preparation was inadequate, that they had had full warning and could have done the necessary work to prepare. Similarly, schools of education were advised to pilot the edTPA, but NYSED officials don’t seem to understand the reality on the ground for schools of education. Did they really think that we would have stressed student teachers lining up to volunteer to add a 35 page paper to the most challenging experience of their educational careers; the capstone experience that is student teaching? In my institution, like most others, we didn’t have any takers last year. For its part, NYSED never field tested edTPA in order to evaluate it so that it could be adjusted and the kinks worked out. Pearson did do field testing but as Hofsta University professor Alan Singer explains in a recent Huffington Post piece, they made it virtually impossible for schools of education to learn from them or use them in any practical way to help students prepare for the real thing. Like K-12 schools, schools of education will make convenient targets of blame by the state when our students’ fail these high stakes tests.
Further, there have been an endless series of changes in policy that leave confusion in their wake. Over and over I’ve heard the phrase, “It’s like they’re building a plane in mid-air”. For example, there are going to be two high school English regents exams offered this year, taken a week or two apart. One is based on old standards and the other on the Common Core. Schools can pick which score they want to count. And guess what results will be? Students will perform as they have in past on the old standards, but they will fail en masse on the new.
If the predictions of wide spread failure come to fruition the state officials can claim that, like the 3-8 scores, the results demonstrate just how much the reforms are needed. Pushing large numbers of teacher candidates out of the pipeline will allow state officials to claim that they are indeed committed to getting rid of all the ‘bad’ teachers that are ruining our schools and our children’s chances for ‘college and career readiness’. As one colleague put it, “a high number of failures from will show that teacher education programs are not able to produce quality teachers, therefore we should not be using public money to subsidize the tuition at these programs (Pell grants etc.) And the logical consequence of that thinking is that it opens the way for a more robust pipeline of Teach for America teachers – students who can “pass” the tests – or never have to because they are only in the classroom for two years and have a waiver to teach for those two years. If the teaching force becomes a largely TFA teaching force, they have effectively killed the teachers’ union and teacher tenure.”
Another theme that repeatedly surfaced was that the requirements of the tests that obliged teachers to use modules are at cross-purposes with the requirements of the edTPA. One hand raiser in the question and answer portion of Commissioner King’s presentation asked, “If my students are teaching in schools where they’re being forced to use modules by their administrators, how are they supposed to teach three original lessons for the edTPA?” Again, Commissioner King blamed the schools, insisting that the modules were ‘only professional development resources’, that curriculum acquisition is a local decision and put the onus on us as partners with K-12 schools to be ‘ambassadors’ for the state to explain this misconception. But I have to ask, why provide districts with ‘professional development’ materials in the form of scripts if they aren’t meant to be used that way? Why tell schools that they had better use curriculum aligned to the Core, like the modules that the state has provided, or else risk failure and then claim that local districts are free to do whatever they want with curriculum? And since the contents of the tests themselves have been a highly guarded secret, how can districts create curriculum to prepare students for them? It simply begs the question.
After several softball questions that allowed the Commissioner to give easy answers, this author raised her hand and asked, “Given that we are talking about PUBLIC education here, are you planning to develop an alternative format for CITIZENS to express their frustration and concerns to replace the PTA meetings that you cancelled around the state?” After a rambling answer that blamed the parents at the Poughkeepsie meeting for preventing dialogue with their rude behavior, the question period was abruptly ended and the commissioner walked off the stage.
One of the most revealing comments Commissioner King made, which demonstrated just how out of touch he is, was to describe his shock at receiving letters from parents of young elementary students ‘complaining’ about their children’s math homework. He explained his incredulity with the following illustration, “When I’m in a restaurant, and the waiter opens the bottle of wine for me to taste, I never say no, send it back, even if it’s horrible. The same with my meal, if I don’t like it I’ll eat it anyway.” So there he was, equating our children’s education with a bad meal in a restaurant and advising us to adopt his approach. We should quietly accept what we are given, even if it’s rotten. Was he in some way admitting that the modules, the Common Core and the tests themselves, including edTPA, were ‘horrible’? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that this isn’t a restaurant and we aren’t going to be quiet about it. We are citizens and this is public education. It’s our right and our obligation to band together with other like-minded citizens to speak up and we will.