Lemonade Out of Lemons: Making the edTPA Work at Northwestern

Lemonade Out of Lemons: Making the edTPA Work at Northwestern

By Timothy Dohrer

In the world of teacher preparation, nothing has caused more concern or consternation lately than the edTPA, a teacher performance assessment system created at Stanford University and now the final required component for teacher licensure in Illinois and over 30 other states. The edTPA asks teacher candidates to submit a short unit of lesson plans, assessments, video, student work, and requires reflections on candidates' schools, students, and decisions. This portfolio is then scored by an independent reader to determine if the candidate has met the state determined cut off score for licensure.

A recent issue of Education Leadership (May 2016) highlighted the deep divide in teacher preparation programs over the widespread implementation of edTPA and the impact it is having on candidates, higher education, and K-12 students. For example, one article by Amee Adkins at Illinois State University supports the edTPA while another by Deborah Greenblatt at City University of New York derides it. Interestingly, both articles point to the increased stress and pressure edTPA has placed on teacher candidates while acknowledging that assessments like this one are more authentic than paper and pencil tests for teaching knowledge. This is why edTPA was created in the first place. Finally, there is no question that the widespread adoption of the edTPA across the country has forced teacher preparation programs to respond by changing, in some cases, decades long practices.

None of this has occurred without problems, many delineated by Greenblatt. The quality of the candidate assessment can be affected by multiple factors such as the school context, support by teachers and administrators, support provided by the teacher preparation program, the amount of time the candidate can spend on the portfolio, school schedules that can disrupt lessons, unclear language of the assessment itself, and technological problems. Additionally, the edTPA only focuses on planning, instruction, and assessment of a few lessons and ignores professional responsibilities, collegiallity, and working with families. There are some disconnects between the concepts of the edTPA and teacher evaluation systems or context specific philosophies or approaches. Finally, Stanford University hired Pearson to implement the edTPA across the country and the recent corporate testing backlash has cast a negative light on edTPA.

At Northwestern, we began planning for the implementation of the edTPA a full two years before it became consequential in Illinois. We were fortunate to start with a strong foundation in using a portfolio as a capstone assessment at the end of student teaching. In fact, the University had moved to a digital portfolio in the 1990s using a home-grown system where students uploaded documents, videos, and reflections that were then scored by outside evaluators. The content did not exactly mirror the edTPA and only a few of the courses and instructors needed to really worry about it, but the DNA for doing this kind of work was already embedded in our small, traditional teacher preparation program.

In 2013, with Illinois adopting edTPA as a requirement starting in Fall 2015, Northwestern's Teacher Preparation Unit, which includes the School of Education and Social Policy, School of Music, and School of Communication, created a plan to implement the edTPA and give our candidates every chance of being successful on it. We were lucky to have a two-year jump start before full implementation and we were determined to keep this new requirement from over-powering our beliefs and approaches to preparing teachers. However, we also saw this as an opportunity to improve our program.

We began by diving into the details and understanding everything we could about the edTPA. We read, attended workshops and webinars, and asked tough questions. At one of the national implementation conferences in California, we heard from programs that had implemented the California assessment system. Several of them reported that it was crucial to involve every instructor in the process and find ways of integrating language and concepts into all courses. Another key idea was to use the edTPA as a local assessment of the program by once again involving all instructors and staff in locally scoring the portfolios and not just relying on the scores sent back from Pearson. We also decided to require the edTPA of our current students, even though they would not be required to submit the portfolio for licensure.

Another important decision was to assign someone administrative responsibility to oversee the edTPA process. I tapped one of our best student teaching supervisors and a Nationally Board Certified teacher to be our Assessment Coordinator. I was also lucky that Rebekah Stathakis was an alumni of our program! Rebekah became an edTPA scorer, went to conferences, and began designing our local assessment process. This investment in her was a critical reason why our transition to the edTPA was so successful. She went on to innovate in several areas but the greatest was in candidate support. Rebekah implemented a fall one-day workshop that explained the edTPA from beginning to end, continued that support via a Canvas website of resources and continuous communications, and individualized support throughout student teaching. When local and Pearson scores came back, she met with each candidate to help them understand their scores and feedback so they could incorporate it into their teaching.

One of the most worrisome parts of the edTPA process is the video. Candidates are required to submit an unedited 10 to 15 minute video of their lessons. At first, we (like many other programs) focused on the technological aspects of the camera, tripods, and uploads. We made sure the candidates had cameras and practice using them. But we also embraced the important research done by Northwestern Professor Miriam Sherin on teacher noticing of student learning and the use of video as a tool in the classroom. This meant developing our instructors around the use of video in teacher preparation and best practices based on Dr. Sherin's research. The other key decision was to invest in a video annotation software program called "Edthena". Initially, this was our tool for managing video and, more importantly, reflecting and commenting on a candidate's teaching. All the technical issues of uploading, trimming, and storing video clips disappeared thanks to this software. It was also incredibly easy to annotate a video clip and share that with others in the class. When Edthena became an approved edTPA provider, it also became an organizer of the entire edTPA portfolio, including one button uploading to Pearson.

The cost of the edTPA to the candidate and to our program is no small matter. Candidates must pay $300 to Pearson to score their portfolio, a technology charge to our program for software, and sometimes equipment costs for a camera or tripod. We have also invested program dollars into supporting and administering the edTPA, but we have tried to keep those costs as minimal as possible. During our time ramping up to full implementation, I had a conversation with one of our private donors about the costs associated with the edTPA and he very kindly donated money that we could use for scholarships to needy students that offset much of their personal costs. This kind of creative thinking and altruistic support of new teachers is what we need in teacher education.

The use of the edTPA as a local assessment has many advantages. Certainly, it gives us feedback on how we are doing as a program at the critical moment when candidates are graduating. It also allows us to compare and contrast our local score with the official score. Our candidates benefit by receiving much more feedback on their practice. While Pearson will only return a quantitative score, we are able to provide candidates with written comments about each section of the portfolio as well as oral comments on their work from our Assessment Coordinator. From a program perspective, training each of our instructors on the rubrics and assuring reliability has meant that all instructors and staff understand the edTPA and can incorporate it into their courses. It has also led to incredibly rich conversations about theory and practice, as well as opportunities for us to bond and build relationships with each other.

In the Spring of 2016, we received the first official scores from Pearson. Our planning and preparation paid off as 100% of our candidates passed the edTPA, most well above the cut-off score set by Illinois and above the national score of 42 suggested by Stanford. It is also significant to note that our candidates report that while the edTPA process was a challenge, it was not impossible. In fact, many of them have said it was a rewarding experience and capped off their student teaching very well. We are also proud that they felt there was nothing more we could have done to prepare or support them through the process, especially the work that Rebekah Stathakis performed over the year.

As these new teachers graduate and find jobs in schools, we know they are ready for Day One, not just because they passed the edTPA, but because we have concrete evidence of their readiness from daily interactions and observations, as well as a rich portfolio of their teaching IN ACTION. Yes, absolutely, this process has altered our teaching and our program but it has not derailed us from our mission of producing teacher scholars who focus on learning and growth of kids.

Contact Us

Master of Science in Education School of Education & Social Policy

618 Garrett Place
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/467-1458

Email: msedprogram@northwestern.edu