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Commentary: edTPA Is a Starting Point for Career-Long Thoughtful Teaching Practice

Danielson Group Founder Charlotte Danielson was a featured speaker at last month’s National edTPA Implementation Conference in Savannah, Georgia. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

edTPA, in a few short years, has made an important contribution to what it means to be a professional educator, by focusing not only on the work of teaching, but on the thinking that underlies all professionalism.

The three tasks of edTPA reflect the essential work of teaching: planning, teaching lessons to students, and incorporating assessment strategies into that endeavor. edTPA requires prospective teachers to engage in those essential activities of teaching, and to submit evidence in portfolio tasks. But as important (some would argue more important), edTPA requires prospective teachers to not only engage in these essential tasks of teaching, but also reflect on what they do, and explain their reasoning.

In this aspect of its design, edTPA models what it means to be a reflective practitioner.

edTPA establishes the starting point for what many in the academic and policy communities hope will be a career-long trajectory of thoughtful practice, reinforced by other similar challenges at various points. These could include a Tier 2 license assessment, such as Ohio’s Resident Educator Support and Assessment, district-level evaluations that require ongoing reflection and analysis, and completion of the portfolio entries for National Board Certification. These approaches share the requirement that teachers both demonstrate the myriad elements of good teaching and be able to explain how and why they do the things they do.

As any teacher—and many teacher candidates—can attest, teaching is demanding and complex work. First, it’s challenging physical work: teachers are on their feet (and if they teach young children, up and down off the floor) all day long, and they often must move throughout buildings and on different levels. It’s small wonder that beginning teachers are physically exhausted at the end of each day.

Moreover, teaching imposes significant emotional demands on teachers. Many students confront serious challenges every day, and teachers must be able to help them navigate what are—at times—conflicting demands of school and family. For example, some students must complete their school work while holding part-time jobs to contribute to the family’s income, or perhaps helping to care for younger siblings. Supporting students in all these tasks can impose serious emotional demands on teachers.

Teaching also is very demanding intellectual work. Studies show that teachers make hundreds of decisions each day. In common with other professional work, teaching involves (in one definition of professionalism) “complex decision-making under conditions of uncertainty.” These decisions entail making plans about how to introduce a topic, how to group students for maximum learning, how to design tasks or assignments to engage them in the topic, and how to know whether they’ve acquired the desired understanding.

All this suggests that teachers need, of course, an extensive repertoire of instructional strategies—and, more important, the judgment to know when to do what. And this is just in the instructional domain! Similar considerations apply when deciding how to handle routine management issues, redirect misbehavior, communicate with parents, and collaborate with colleagues, among other common tasks.

Part of deciding what to do in all these situations is ruling out alternative approaches—deciding what not to do—and having a rationale for one’s decisions. This is high-level intellectual work. As one teacher, who had changed careers from engineering to teaching, told me, “It’s not rocket science—it’s harder.” He had done both, and he was confident in his assessment.

Preparing teachers to navigate these challenges imposes significant demands on those who support teachers—their university supervisors, their mentors and coaches, and their school-based supervisors. That is, to prepare teachers for the cognitive work they must perform, the conversations about teaching must directly address cognition!

Another aspect of edTPA, like similar assessments teachers might undertake later in their careers, is that it is designed to be educative. That is, in the course of completing the portfolio entries for edTPA, teachers are asked to describe what they do and the reasons for what they do. The questions teachers are asked to answer, and the thinking they must do in order to answer them, actually teach the skills of reflection. Thus edTPA and others are not merely assessments, although they are that; they’re also instruments of learning for teachers.

As the education community seeks further structural improvements in the quality of teaching, many people now recognize that far more than subject matter knowledge and collections of strategies are needed: teachers must acquire the skills and techniques of reflective practice. Educative assessments—such as edTPA—make a material contribution to that transformation of teaching to a true profession.

Charlotte Danielson

Founder, The Danielson Group