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JTE Author Interview: Analyzing edTPA implementation

This interview features insights on the article, “Sense Making and Professional Identity in the Implementation of edTPA,” by Julie Cohen, Ethan Hutt, Rebekah L. Berlin, Hannah M. Mathews, Jillian P. McGraw, and Jessica Gottlieb. The article was published in the January/February 2020 issue of the Journal of Teacher Education.

Article Abstract

edTPA is designed to strengthen teacher professionalization and provide a framework for program redesign. However, using a national assessment to shift the content of local programs is challenging because of their inherent organizational complexity. In this article, we focus on this complexity, using a systems lens to analyze edTPA implementation at a large, public university. Employing a mixed-methods case study design, we survey 250 teacher educators and candidates to understand how they interpret the demands of edTPA and how their varied perspectives impact each other. We interview a stratified, purposive subset of participants to explore mechanisms underlying quantitative findings. We find substantial internal variation in edTPA implementation that translates into differential support for candidates. This variation could not be explained by duration of implementation of edTPA. Varied perspectives may stem from distinct perceptions of teacher educators’ professional roles and the role they see edTPA playing in teacher professionalization.

What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic? Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

Cohen: We had known and been interested in TPAs for a long time. I was in one of the first cohorts of pre-service teachers to complete edTPA more than 15 years ago. But this particular study was motivated by the sheer speed and scope of edTPA’s adoption during the period of our study. Linda Darling Hammond talked about edTPA as both a high-stakes licensure exam, as well as a framework to guide curricular shifts in teacher education courses. Doing both at the same time seemed, to us, to be very challenging. We wanted to analyze how teacher educators and teacher candidates perceived these dual purposes.

Hutt: We were especially interested in the broader political discourse around teacher licensure requirements. Our current climate is such that programs feel political pressure to adopt edTPA to show they were ratcheting up their standards. On the one hand, it is heartening to see the field moving quickly to embrace new ideas and develop licensure exams that are better aligned with the complex work of teaching. On the other hand, with edTPA, there are a number of lingering questions about implementation processes. The scale of these efforts—hundreds of programs, thousands of teacher educators and supervisors, tens of thousands of prospective teachers—present a massive and understudied challenge.  In this context, we felt it was imperative to try and contribute to our understanding of those implementation challenges; to describe in detail one college of education’s experience adapting to edTPA.

Cohen:  In particular, we wanted to understand to what extent different programs—from elementary education to secondary mathematics—implemented edTPA in distinct ways and how those differences were perceived by pre-service teacher candidates and teacher educators. We often talk about universities “doing edTPA,” but we both had firsthand experience with meaningful within-university variation in implementation.

What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

Cohen: As everyone reading this will know, studying teacher education is incredibly complex. As a researcher you have to decide how much of that complexity you want to bracket and how much of it you want to embrace. For us, there were two elements of that complexity, in particular, that we felt it was important to capture in our study. First, we thought an important part of an implementation story was understanding the dynamics between teacher educators and teacher candidates in working through a new set of professional standards. We had seen studies look at one or the other, but to really understand what’s going on with edTPA implementation, we felt that we had to look at both simultaneously.

Ehtan: This is especially true because the core of teacher education turns on the communication and receipt of ideas about what it means to be a professional educator. Second, though much research on teacher education recognizes the diversity of perspectives involved—including disciplinary and professional differences—in this work, many of the existing studies presented a flattened picture, discussing “the implementation of edTPA” as if it was a singular experience as opposed to a variegated one. These choices—to incorporate multiple roles (i.e. methods instructors, supervisors, teacher candidates), multiple roles (i.e. grad students, tenure track and clinical professors), and multiple licensure programs—greatly complicated the design of our study and the amount of data we needed to collect. Suffice it to say, we feel strongly that we should stop talking about “teacher educators” as if they were a monolithic group and that a great deal more research needs to examine the intersection between these many professional identities (and the epistemological, ethical, and pedagogical commitments that adhere to them) and the work of preparing prospective teachers for high stakes licensure examinations.

Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?

Hutt: Thankfully, the editors and reviewers of our article let us present the story that came out of our research, while pushing us to sharpen our arguments. That said, we were limited in our pursuit of some of those arguments because of commitments that we made not to identify individual licensure programs in presenting our findings. We made those commitments because it allowed people to speak freely about their experiences with edTPA without risk of being identified, but it also limited the extent to which we could explore the intersection between professional identity, disciplinary perspectives, and edTPA. There were so many wonderfully thoughtful quotes that came out in our interviews with teacher educators and teacher candidates that we just couldn’t use out of concern that it would identify a participant.

What current areas of research are you pursuing?

Cohen: Preparing high-quality teachers necessitates a rich, practice-based teacher education curriculum, with scaffolded opportunities to develop teaching skills and corresponding measures of track development. To that end, I am very excited about a newer line of research focused on the effects of integrating simulated classroom environments into teacher education methods courses. I am collaborating with a methodologist at UVA, Dr. Vivian Wong, on a series of randomized control trials designed to understand how simulated classroom experiences enhance candidates’ sense of readiness and improve the quality of particular teaching practices.

In addition to providing potentially rich practice opportunities for teacher candidates, the simulator also provides exciting opportunities to test the efficacy of interventions on teaching because we can standardize the practice scenarios in ways that are impossible in clinical placements. Given the limited duration of pre-service teacher education, we need a more robust empirical base about how to capitalize on practice to best support teacher candidates’ development. Over time, we hope this line of research will provide foundational evidence about how to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of practice opportunities for candidates.

What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

Hutt: We would say it is less of a new challenge than an enduring one: Standardization has been one of the master narratives of American education for more than a century and it will remain so for well into the foreseeable future. At least as we see it, standardization is neither inherently good nor bad. The trick is in being able to tell the difference, or at least spot when useful standardization—ensuring all prospective teachers have access to high quality clinical experiences, say—crosses over into stifling standardization or standardization for its own sake.

Since professionalism at its core is about establishing, maintaining, and enforcing standards among members, this will always be an on-going challenge, especially since this is a right granted to the profession by the public at large. The debates over edTPA are a really good example of this. But there are others coming down the pipe and the proliferation of new technologies—classroom simulators, for example—will provide opportunities for many more debates along these lines. Hopefully the field will lean into these opportunities and the chances they provide for robust discussions about what it means to be engaged in teacher education and what it means to be a professional educator—for us and our prospective teachers.

What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?

Cohen: The complexity of the issues surrounding teacher preparation necessitates multiple perspectives and a wide array of research tools. We need more research in teacher education that capitalizes on interdisciplinary collaborations and methodological diversity. I am a teacher educator who studies teaching and teachers. Ethan is an educational historian who studies the history of standards and school metrics (grading, attendance, teacher quality, etc). Our collaborative work on edTPA was enhanced by our interdisciplinary perspectives and different methodological approaches. In the same way, my research on simulations in teacher education benefits from the insights of my amazing colleague, Vivian Wong. I had never run a randomized control trial before working with her, and I have learned so much over the course of our collaboration. We will be better poised to answer the lingering and challenging questions in our field if we work with scholars outside our immediate fields who help us see things in a new light and address issues in new and innovative ways.


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