Meuwissen Testifies on edTPA: Research and Implementation

Testimony by Kevin W. Meuwissen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Teaching and Curriculum, Warner School of Education, University of Rochester

Rochester, New York

New York State Assembly Standing Committees on Higher Education and Education; Joint Hearing on New Statewide Teacher and School Building Leader Certification Requirements

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Hamilton Hearing Room, Legislative Office Building

Albany, New York

We at the Warner School of Education acknowledge the importance of teacher education and certification to high-quality K-12 teaching. And we agree with Darling-Hammond’s claim in her 2010 Center for American Progress report that performance assessments like edTPA surpass paper-pencil certification exams as measures of contextualized, enacted teaching practice, and as tools for delineating the complexities of teaching. However, we also find that New York’s implementation of edTPA, up to the present, does not realize the potential benefits of a movement toward more authentic assessment and evaluation. While we support the Regents’ decision to provide teaching candidates who fail edTPA this year with an alternative pathway to certification until 2015, more extensive piloting and support is necessary to reduce problems with edTPA implementation and provide schools of education and their teaching candidates with valuable benchmarks to better prepare for the assessment. Even under this proposed timeframe, New York’s edTPA implementation schedule remains uniquely short in comparison to schedules in some other states.

Four questions frame this testimony. First, what does scholarship tell us about the use of performance assessments for teacher certification? Second, how does New York State’s implementation of edTPA align with what we know from that scholarship? Third, what are the consequences of New York’s edTPA implementation for candidates and teacher educators? And fourth, what policy recommendations are warranted in light of the responses to these questions? 

What does scholarship tell us about the use of performance assessments of teaching for certification?

On the first question, evidence pertaining to outcomes of performance-based certification assessments is scant because such assessments are relatively new. Much of that evidence comes from research on a program that served as a model for
: the Performance Assessment for California Teachers (PACT). Darling-Hammond, Newton, and Wei explain that performance assessments like the PACT hold promise as predictors of teaching effectiveness and opportunities for candidates to develop their planning, instruction, assessment, and reflective practices. For example, Bunch and colleagues studied eight elementary teaching candidates’ experiences with the PACT and found that completing the assessment helped cultivate a focus on the challenges of teaching linguistically diverse learners in multicultural contexts. Yet research bears out dilemmas of PACT implementation as well. Okhremtchouk and others determined that most teachers and administrators in their candidates’ internship schools were unfamiliar with the PACT, its aims, and its requirements; and further, constraints in some schools significantly impeded candidates’ capacities and efforts to complete the assessment.

Research by Lit and Lotan, Peck and McDonald, and Peck, Gallucci, and Sloan explores the effects of PACT implementation on teacher education programs. Their studies suggest that performance assessment of candidates can encourage collaborative, longitudinal program review via analyses of benchmark evidence – specifically, complete candidate work samples, not just summative scores – but that such review also requires the negotiation of many complex factors. That negotiation includes: (1) discussing divergent perspectives on the assessment, its purposes, and its consequences; (2) maintaining important local values and priorities, like teacher research and community involvement, while meeting external certification demands; (3) interpreting the assessment’s language; (4) deciding how, if at all, to integrate the assessment across the program or into coursework; (5) developing tools and strategies for focusing candidates on continuous professional growth despite the summative nature and technological complexity of the assessment; and (6) including numerous faculty members and other institutional stakeholders in those activities. 

How does New York State’s implementation of edTPA align with what we know from that scholarship? 

There are clear implications of these studies for enacting edTPA. A performance assessment for certification can benefit teaching candidates and teacher educators under two conditions: (1) there must be time for teacher education programs, internship schools, and candidates to work systematically and collaboratively to plan for implementation and address procedural and technical challenges thereof; and (2) comprehensive benchmarks and transparent evaluation criteria must be available to teacher educators as tools for analysis and decision making within their programs. Unfortunately, New York’s implementation of edTPA has met neither condition. As Cochran-Smith, Piazza, and Power indicate, New York’s teacher educators have sparse access to stratified edTPA benchmarks for their own research and development, even currently. And the subcontracting of evaluation to a corporate entity likely will limit teacher educators’ access to edTPA portfolio materials moving forward.

Also questionable is the State Education Department’s decision to set the edTPA’s cut score at 41 for secondary certification candidates after two years of piloting and field testing. By contrast, the State of Washington set its passing standard at 35 after five years of piloting and field testing. Commissioner King has not explained how New York’s cut score was determined, though he has indicated that he expects a higher rate of failure on certification exams than in the past because of it. This fusion of opaqueness and rapid implementation leaves many teacher educators deeply skeptical that the State Education Department and Board of Regents have an interest in providing opportunities and resources to strengthen their programs via the assessment. That alternative credentialing programs like Teach For America are held to looser standards corroborates this skepticism. It is worth noting that 15 states are in some degree of edTPA development and implementation. Of those states, New York is the only one with a timeline of fewer than five years from introduction to consequential use.

What are the consequences of New York’s edTPA implementation for teaching candidates and teacher educators?

The following examples demonstrate how edTPA’s hasty implementation negatively impacted candidates and teacher educators at the Warner School of Education this year. Before April 2014, edTPA guidelines prohibited teacher educators and candidates’ peers from “suggesting changes to be made in an edTPA draft” and “offering formal feedback” on video clips that might be selected for submission. In our program, candidates generally complete edTPA via innovative instructional units they design for and enact within their clinical field experiences. This places teacher educators and candidates in the tenuous position of formatively analyzing and discussing instructional artifacts, including video, as part of their course experiences, yet also trying to adhere to the edTPA’s support restrictions. Earlier this month, the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE) released substantially revised guidelines that better enable authentic feedback on teaching products that candidates also might select for edTPA. While this is a commendable modification, it is one that should happen during piloting and benchmarking, not in the first year of consequential use.

Another dilemma stems from some K-12 schools’ requirement that candidates use EngageNY modules, which are intended to align with state Common Core tests but are still in development, during their student teaching placements. One elementary candidate remarked:

These modules are very teacher-centered, with a lot of whole-class instruction. And to think that the political details of the War of 1812 are meaningful and developmentally appropriate to second graders is ridiculous. So edTPA is mandated by the state. But if I want to do well on it, and teach in ways that I know are beneficial for my kids, I have to find ways to teach outside of the EngageNY modules, which also come from the state.

In a similar vein, a secondary English language arts candidate indicated:

I’m teaching a creative writing unit, which limits what I can submit for edTPA. The rubrics prioritize Common Core standards, like comprehending and constructing meaning from complex text features, which means that if I try to submit lessons and video about teaching kids to peer edit, for example, they’re not going to fit the rubric criteria very well.

These candidates’ comments succinctly and effectively illustrate edTPA’s entanglement with other state policy levers that also have been rushed to implementation. We must take into consideration that edTPA was executed concurrently with two other new certification exams, alongside K-12 curriculum mandates and high-stakes tests that have altered the landscapes of placement schools dramatically. Keeping in mind that a stated goal of edTPA is to strengthen teaching across the state, it also is important to imagine the unintended consequences of its implementation on young people considering a teaching career. Their numbers have declined in recent years, and we can only expect that situation to worsen if edTPA is perceived to be an unfair assessment for which it is difficult to prepare.

What policy recommendations are warranted in light of the responses to these questions? 

Donald Campbell coined an aphorism that the more far-reaching an evaluation tool is for decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort the processes it is intended to monitor. New York State’s enactment of edTPA thus far has corrupted the purposes and conceivable benefits of performance assessment for state certification. The Regents’ safety net policy, adopted on April 29, is a positive step, but likely will not eliminate the challenges identified in this testimony. It may provide teacher education institutions, candidates, and K-12 schools with an opportunity to allay them, but only if those institutions have access to comprehensive, high-quality benchmarking data. We recommend that the New York State Department of Education provide those data, including completed portfolios and scoring rubrics from the current year, to institutions with certification programs and grant those institutions time to learn from them and productively manage the practical dilemmas of edTPA in their candidates’ interests.

We also recommend that the Department be held accountable for increasing the effectiveness and transparency of its policy rationales and decisions. Again, California’s PACT offers a lesson for consideration. Wei and Pecheone describe in great depth a scoring protocol that involves extensive training and calibration, double-score verification by local and external raters, and a complex auditing system, with interventions for institutions that produce unreliable results. In New York, not only is edTPA scoring conducted by the Pearson Corporation and removed from the local context completely, it is described vaguely with language like “evaluators are monitored throughout the scoring process.” Given edTPA’s implementation challenges thus far, including a frantic search for proficient raters in the midst of consequential use, skepticism among candidates and teacher educators about the integrity of the evaluation process seems justifiable. More transparent and accountable policymaking by the State Education Department could alleviate some of that skepticism. Research by Cohen and Hill suggests that when policy reforms are not accompanied by intellectual, political, and fiscal collaboration among state agencies and the professional stakeholders implementing them, those reforms tend to fail. The State Education Department and Board of Regents should take that research into consideration.

Finally, we suggest that policymakers consider a more permanent solution for candidates who have successfully completed their teacher education programs and other state certification exams, but not edTPA. A transitional certification option already exists for those who enter the field through alternative credentialing programs like Teach For America. It seems fair and reasonable that candidates prepared via accredited programs have the same opportunity to demonstrate successful practice and maintain their certification as those who are not. 

Respectfully submitted, 

Dr. Kevin W. Meuwissen

Assistant Professor, Department of Teaching and Curriculum

Warner School of Education, University of Rochester


Link to written testimony with complete references and list of other signatories


No Trophies in the Knowledge Economy

For far too long education reform has been tinkering in the margins and offering band-aid solutions that keep the patient alive, but little else.  Lawmakers have chased fads and bad policies that haven’t helped children thrive.  One can only do so much to keep the patient comfortable before calling the Priest. Our education system is on life support and it’s time for the last rites.

Educators, school leaders and most parents already know that schools are outdated, though few think of a system that is fundamentally flawed and irreparable.  But it is.  The current education system isn’t just and equitable.  Our pedagogical approaches – placing knowledge into empty heads and assuming learning has occurred – isn’t working.  Furthermore, what children are being taught isn’t helping them to lead a successful life.

Schools do not approach education from an equitable and just position.  Instead we approach education like a little league baseball team whose coach is hell-bent on winning.  We should not exclude students with disabilities from general education settings, but we do.  We should not be quick to banish minorities to special education classes, but we do.  Approaching school with the mindset that everyone can learn and deserves the opportunity to learn is fundamentally different than our system now – a high-risk system that favors fielding the best team.  The very foundation of our education system should not be chasing test scores and “winning.”  That’s a dangerous lesson for students and a disastrous byproduct for our country. 

A part of the ‘winning’ attitude comes with reliance on test scores.  If a teacher is measured based on the success or failure of test scores, teachers are going to ensure that students pass tests.  The problem is that those high-stakes tests don’t help students wrestle with tomorrow’s big questions.  Instead, we should replace these tests with ongoing authentic assessments that measure learning and development.

Education’s mission of yesterday was to teach people the skills required to fill a workforce.  In short, we were training widget makers for our consumer economy.  But an education that trains students to consume a product doesn’t meet the challenges required in contemporary society.  We need to engage a dynamic generation of sophisticated children in knowledge production.  New technologies and their resultant new practices have radically changed the way humans learn, interact and produce knowledge in contemporary times.  We need an education system and workforce that understands how schools can better harness those tools to encourage creative solutions. 

How do we do that?  First and foremost education policy needs to stop chasing trophies and test scores and instead go in a more holistic direction.  Some of the most successful countries in the world – with the test scores to prove it – shy away from what Pasi Sahlberg calls the “GERM” Global Educational Reform Movement.  High-stakes testing kills creativity in the classroom and shifts priorities away from learning how to solve real-world problems.  The curriculum should offer opportunities to build new ways of seeing the world rather than a simple transmission of predefined content and skills that are still rooted in assembly line curriculum ideology. 

A school’s curriculum should not be prescribed.  It must be arrived at collaboratively through curriculum instruction teams that include teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members.  Having a more equitable and just process for curriculum development means more individuals can help shape schools with projects that are relevant and meaningful to their communities. 

Much of this is to push teachers and students to become ‘produsers’ of knowledge, meaning that students and teachers care less about the consumption of knowledge and more about the creation of knowledge.  Doing this not only transforms communities, but it gets young minds focusing on problem solving and problem posing – not regurgitation of facts.  It’s the shift from children and youth as consumers to children and youth, teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders as ‘produsers’ of knowledge.  Learners would ‘produse’ knowledge from an early age and apply that knowledge in new ways to everyday tasks with real-world audiences. For example, one urban element

In the knowledge economy, information is free and moving rapidly.  The analytical is becoming antiquated – because Google had the answer 10 seconds ago.  What computers cannot do well is ask the questions.  And to get any conversation started requires a question.  We have sat on the sidelines for far too long and now we have to ask ourselves this question: will we work with or against the knowledge economy?  Batter up.  ary classroom in Rochester, N.Y. advocated for healthier food options at their school through a student-produced documentary film, called “Lunch is Gross,” for district administrators. The student-teacher collaborative project, which integrated math, science, social studies, and literacy learning into all aspects of the project, resulted in a change in the district’s food vendor.

Will the Lone Ranger (NY Senate) Save School Funding?

I keep waiting for the Lone Ranger to ride in and save the day for local schools. I am not sure he is coming this year. Over the years we have had many gubernatorial agendas that seemed to make sense for a governor’s political future, but little sense for New Yorkers.

This year it is a promise to keep taxes flat, institute statewide pre-kindergarten and fill schools with an abundance of new technology. What’s not to like? The problem is the governor makes almost no progress in restoring the billions of dollars taken away from schools in what is called Gap Elimination Adjustment. The result is once again some local school districts will be forced to raise property taxes while they cut teachers, increase class size and reduce programs. Gap Elimination Adjustment is the withholding of formula based state funding of local schools in order to close the budget gaps caused by the crippling recession of 2008. It is much harder on low-wealth school districts that are more dependent on state aid.

Guess what? There is no budget gap. The recession is technically over, except perhaps for low-wealth school districts and the taxpayers who support them. The governor’s budget will force cash-strapped school districts to further reduce a local program that barely provides a sound basic education to its students. In some cases, districts are on the verge of going out of business, at the same time they are asked to add pre-K and more technology, both of which will create their own legacy costs.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for pre-K and more technology, but only after the basic education requirements are met. This idea of overlaying these programs on districts that are barely above water is akin to dressing a starving child in a bright new outfit. The child might look better, but is still starving. In the end, the so-called tax freeze from the governor will inevitably lead to increased local property taxes as we try to keep schools afloat.

A group of low-wealth, mostly rural school districts, has made an offer to the governor. Eliminate the GAP reductions (as there is no gap), provide all the aid required by law and these districts will guarantee a zero school tax increase. Now that’s a win-win, but it might not be seen as such by a governor who seems to struggle to see any solution that varies from his own agenda as acceptable.

Oh, the Lone Ranger: In my experience that has always been the state Senate. Even when there was a Republican governor doing what seemed to be politically expedient, but educationally damaging, we could count on the upstate Senate delegation to insist on common sense. Where is that masked man? We could really use him right about now.

This essay first appeared in the Canandaigua Daily Messenger on March 25, 2014.

The Attack on Public Education in the US as a Cautionary Tale for New Zealand and Australia

Public education is under attack in the US and other countries around the world. I am just concluding a two-month trip to New Zealand and Australia speaking and meeting with the heads of national teachers’ unions in both countries, and speaking at four universities. This will be the first of several blogs.

The impetus for the trip began simply enough. I was invited to present a keynote speech to the primary school teachers’ and principals’ union (New Zealand Educational Institute- NZEI) conference in Wellington, New Zealand. New Zealand educators have a long proud tradition of professional independence in which curriculum and assessments are created at the local level. But with the recent election of the neoliberal National party, the government has turned to supporting charter schools, promoting the idea that teachers should be paid based on their students’ achievement, and other top-down reforms.

The union leaders were clear regarding their goals for the conference: to educate themselves about the high-stakes testing and privatization movement in other countries, remind themselves what good teaching encompasses, and organize to defend public schools and teachers. Other keynote speakers included: Martin Thrupp (University of Waikato, NZ) who recently completed a three-year study on the effect of the new standards on schools primary schools in New Zealand; Bob Lingard (University of Queensland, AU) who has studied globalization and education; David Berliner (University of Arizona) who has a new book 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools; Meg Maguire (Institute of Education, London) who has researched and written about urban schools and education policy; Barbara Comer (Queensland University of Technology, AU) who researches and writes about literacy education, social justice, teachers’ work, and practitioner education; and Margie Hohepa (University of Waikato, NZ), expert in Maori medium education.

For this and my subsequent major talks on the trip, I focused on the rise of high-stakes testing, the push to privatize public schooling through charter schools and handing over standards, curriculum development and assessment over to private corporations such as Pearson, and the shift in education decision making at the local level by school boards, administrators and teachers to unelected and unaccountable individuals and organizations at the state, national, and federal levels. I began by warning that we are in danger of losing public schools in many cities in the US noting, however, that schools will still be largely funded out of public taxes but schools and education policy will be privately controlled by individuals such as Bill Gates, corporations such as Pearson, and organizations such as Teach for America. I described the rise and misuse of standardized testing in the New York, as first students needed to pass five Regents exams to graduate from high school, then No Child Left Behind added testing requirements for grades 3-8, and finally Race to the Top added more tests plus requiring that test scores be used to evaluate individual teachers.

I closed my talk by describing the rising resistance in New York, as teachers, parents, administrators, students, and the public push back against the private takeover of the public schools. Commissioner King has met determined criticism during his “listening tour.” Teachers’ and administrators’ unions have called for a two-year moratorium on the Common Core curriculum and assessments. Perhaps thousands of students and families are planning to boycott the next round of tests. My closing comments urged the teachers and administrators to form an alliance with parents, students, and the public to resist the government’s efforts to implement high-stakes standardized testing and open more charter schools.

In my next blog I will describe some of the Ministry of Education plans in New Zealand and Australia (which was my next stop) and rising resistance from unions and universities.

My talk and those of the other NZEI keynoters are on the NZEI website at

Mine is also posted below and on youtube at:

NY Senate Testimony on Assessment: The Missuse of Testing

Testimony for the New York State Senate Standing Committee on Education
Chair: Senator John L. Flanagan
Public Hearing: The Regents Reform Agenda: “Assessing” Our Progress
Buffalo, New York
October 16, 2013
David Hursh, Ph. D., Professor, Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York.

My message today is simple: You should not believe any test scores reported by the New York State Education Department. You should neither be dismayed when you learn that test scores have declined; nor should you celebrate when they improve.

Almost all of the educational statistics NYSED reports are misleading or erroneous. Therefore, you should question almost all their test results. I wish I could encourage you to ignore anything that comes out of Albany, but because test scores have real consequences, I can’t. Low-test scores are often used to argue that we need more control over teachers and students, more tests, and a narrower curriculum. High-test scores are used as confirmation that these same reforms are working. Either way, the test scores have disastrous consequences for teachers, students, public schools, and our communities.

Exhibit 1. New York schools recently implemented the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and students were tested on the standards last spring. The results were made public over the summer, and we were told that only 31% of the New York State students passed the tests, including only 5% of the students in the Rochester schools. Many people are dismayed by this result. Others, like Commissioner King, described the results as a “good thing,” because it provides us with a “baseline.”

Likewise, in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg appoints the school board and controls the schools, he has, during each of his re-election campaigns, taken credit for test score increases. However, New York City students, like the rest of the state, performed poorly on the recent CCSS tests with only 26% passing the new state reading tests, and only 30% passing in math. Only 15% of black students and 19% of Hispanic students passed the math exam. Bloomberg, demonstrating that he can positively spin test scores whether they rise or fall, called the test results “very good news.”

What is going on here? Are 69% of New York’s students failures? Do test scores really tell us anything? Or is something else happening? I suggest the scores are manipulated so that education commissioners and others promoting standardized testing appear to achieve the results they desire.

Exhibit 2: Over the last two decades students’ scores on tests have been manipulated by the Commissioners to make it look like the Commissioners’ rigorous standards are improving education. For example, beginning in the last 1990s, students are required to pass five standardized exams to graduate from high school, including one science course, typically “living environments.” However, while the Regents and then Commissioner Mills wanted to look tough, they didn’t want to increase the dropout rate, so the cut score, the percentage of points you needed to pass, was set low at 39%, yielding a high passing rate.

But, the Commissioner was criticized for making it easy to pass the living environments test. Subsequently, when it came time to set the cut score for the physics exam, knowing that students would have already taken and passed the living environments exam and therefore did not need to pass the physics exam to graduate, the Commissioner set the cut score high so as to yield a low passing rate. Here’s how he did it: He first commanded the committee of eight people responsible for setting the cut score to set it high. When they didn’t set it high enough to yield a sufficiently low passing rate, he dismissed them and brought in four people and commanded them to set it higher. When they refused, he dismissed them and brought in one person and told them where to set the cut score.

As a result, only 39% of the students who took the physics exams passed, a lower percentage than the passing rate for the Advanced Placement physics exam that same year. However, the Commissioner seemed to have forgotten that the students who took physics were likely to apply for university, and while failing the exam would not keep them from graduating, a low score did not look good on their university applications. The students and parents protested and their pressure forced the Commissioner to change the cut score. Students’ tests were rescored and their results improved significantly.

Exhibit 3: Tests at the elementary level are similarly manipulated. In New York, the test scores for grades three though eight have continually improved, with Commissioners, Mayor Bloomberg, and some administrators taking credit for it. However, much of the improvement results from changing the cut score. Diane Ravitch, in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (2010), points out how much easier it is for elementary students to score in the top three of four levels on the standardized tests. She notes:

…on the sixth-grade reading test in 2006, students needed to earn 36.2% of the points to attain level 2; by 2009, students in that grade need only 17.9%. In seventh grade math, students needed to earn 36.2% of the points on the test to advance to level 2 in 2006, but by 2009, they needed to earn only 22%. The standards to advance from level 1 to level 2 dropped so low that many students could get enough correct answers to pass to level 2 by randomly guessing. (p. 79)

Exhibit 4: While the results on New York states tests are manipulated and misleading, there is one test that provides a valid indication of how students are doing: the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), a national exam in which representative samples of students are tested every two years in math and literacy. NAEP tests are constructed so that test scores can be reliably compared from year to year. Unfortunately, for New York, while the scores on the state exams have improved from year to year, the NAEP scores have held steady or declined. In 2003, 22% of New York City students were proficient on the eighth-grade reading test, which declined to 19% in 2005, and by 2009 the test results were the lowest in a decade. Statewide, by 2011, “New York was one of two states in the nation to post statistically significant declines on the National Assessment tests”

In response to the ongoing clamor over test score inflation, Merryl Tisch, the current chancellor of the Board of Regents, finally admitted that the state test scores were “ridiculously inflated,” and “should not be believed,” and test scores were rescaled so that, for example, the 68.8 percent English proficiency rates was immediately rescaled to 42.4 percent.

However, even though the chancellor realizes the test scores should not be believed, state officials continue to do so. The test scores play a central role in determining whether teachers are found to be “effective” or “developing” or “ineffective” as part of teachers’ Annual Professional Performance Review. Because test scores are closely related to family income, approximately 37% (of 2500) teachers in the Rochester City School Districts were rated as developing or ineffective while the ten surrounding suburban districts had NO teachers rated as developing or ineffective, and the most any one district has is eleven.

New York’s Governor Cuomo over reacted to the Common Core test results by proclaiming that low scoring districts might suffer the “death penalty,” where NYSED would take over the district.

So how should we respond? Before the push for standardized tests, the NAEP scores were increasing and the achievement gap between white students and students of color was decreasing. Now, after two decades of high-stakes standardized testing, NAEP increases have leveled off and the achievement gap is widening. Unfortunately, teachers rather than an out-of-control testing regime continue to be blamed for our current state of education.

Setting policy based on the test results endangers teachers, students, and our public schools. Instead, we need to develop schools where teachers, parents, and students work together to develop curriculum and assessments that promote critical, in depth, interdisciplinary learning. Fortunately, examples exist in the United States and other countries of schools where teaching and learning flourishes. In New York, students at the Performance Consortium Schools demonstrate their proficiency in various subjects through projects that are presented to groups of teachers, community members, and students. In Finland, where the only standardized tests are similar to our NAEP and the SAT, teachers collaboratively develop curriculum based on the country’s curriculum standards. My recent teaching has been in schools in New York and in sub-Saharan Africa where I have taught students about local history or environmental health risks, such as air and water pollution— a major cause of disease and death in developing countries. Rather than endless test prep, schools can be places in which students and teachers engage in the joy of learning and contribute to the welfare of their families and communities.

1. News and Notes from Commissioner King (2013, August 19). NYSED website.
2. Hernández, J. C. & Gebeloff, R. (2013, August 8). Test Scores Sink as New York Adopts Tougher Benchmarks. New York Times, A. 1.
3. Winerip, M. (2003, March 12). Passing grade defies laws of physics, The New York Times: A22 & B7. Retrieved from
4. Winerip. M. 2011, December 19. 10 years of assessing students with scientific exactitude. The New York Times: A-24.
5. Ibid.
6. Personal communication with the Rochester Teachers Association.
7 Prohaska, T. (2013, August 29). Cuomo sees ‘death penalty’ to deal with failing schools The Buffalo News,
8 Ravitch, D. (2013, September 3). Common core tests in NY widen achievement gap. National Education Policy Center.

Teachers are Political Actors. What Does This Mean for Teacher Education?

On August 7, 2013, the New York State Department of Education released the first set of test results tied to the Common Core Learning Standards. The scores were low, and the rhetoric that followed in social media, blogs, and other news sources was swift and stern. Former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the editorial board at the New York Times proclaimed the test results just desserts for educators who have, for so long, held themselves unaccountable for the failures of schooling. Meanwhile, many of those educators decried the assessments’ confounding language and developmentally questionable content and rebuffed the prospect of leveraging school improvement through high-stakes testing. Carol Burris, the principal of South Side High School in New York City, wrote:

What is… disconcerting is that these reforms are being pursued with little or no evidentiary grounding. There is, for instance, zero sound research that demonstrates that if you raise a student’s score into the new proficiency range, the chances of the student successfully completing college increases… The bottom line is that there are tremendous financial interests driving the agenda about our schools – from test makers, to publishers, to data management corporations – all making tremendous profits from the chaotic change. When the scores drop, they prosper. When the tests change, they prosper. When schools scramble to buy materials to raise scores, they prosper…

Voorheesville Superintendent Teresa Snyder added:

I would bet my house on the fact that over the next few years, scores will “improve” – not necessarily student learning, but scores. They must, because the State accepted millions and millions of dollars to increase student scores and increase graduation rates. If scores do not improve from this baseline, then those “powers that be” will have a lot of explaining to do to justify having accepted those millions.

Embroiled in this political echo chamber of school accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing are teachers and learners. Yet when I ask beginning teachers the question, “What kinds of political actors do you think teachers ought to be, and why?” many look perplexed and shift uncomfortably in their seats. Some respond, “I want to be an advocate for improving kids’ experiences in school, but I’m not sure how, beyond doing the best job I can in my classroom.” Others note, “I entered teaching to help kids find value in the subject matter, not to be an activist.” The latter perspective is not uncommon. Many teachers are loath to think that engaging in political behavior is an upshot of their chosen profession. (In fact, some administrators feel similarly, as education scholar Larry Cuban suggests here.) But of course, teachers act politically all the time, collaterally and overtly, on large and small scales.

Broadly speaking, teaching is a controversial profession. Bandied about in the public sphere are the mythical contentions that teacher quality is the fundamental factor of academic success, and because schools in the United States are producing fewer and fewer so-called college- and career-ready graduates, then teachers must be failing as well. To some, their unions protect planning and professional development time and defend against resource deprivation, massive class sizes, and unfair evaluation practices. To others, they excuse mediocrity by shielding bad teachers from termination and limiting policy makers’ and administrators’ efforts to innovate. On a large scale, the politics of teaching is demonstrated in Indiana and Michigan, where recent legislation bans unions from collecting mandatory fees for negotiating teachers’ contracts; in North Carolina, where Governor Pat McCrory and the General Assembly aspire to reduce teacher education and certification standards; in Tennessee, where the State Board of Education voted to begin revoking teachers’ licenses based on standardized test score data; and in New York, where the federally funded Race To The Top program flooded the state’s education system with no fewer than a half-dozen reform initiatives, all at once – specifically, new learning standards, high-stakes tests, teacher licensure and evaluation programs, data management systems, turn-around plans for underperforming schools, and charter school expansion. By simply joining the profession, teachers and their work are implicated in this kind of politics.

Teachers also engage in intentional political activity in their communities and schools. Sometimes that activity is public, partisan, and progressive, perhaps taking the form of blogs or advocacy initiatives that challenge the accretion of high-stakes testing. Yet research by Diana Hess suggests that many educators try to keep politics out of their teaching to avoid accusations of bias or even litigation, and to provide students with space to explore different political positions and make up their own minds about them. Those efforts often prove paradoxical. One reason is that education is a public good; and thus, it makes sense that educators would support efforts to strengthen that good – by lobbying to fund programs that bolster students’ chances of academic success, for example, or publicizing the negative consequences of using high-stakes test scores to evaluate teachers. Of course, those efforts typically involve taking partisan stances on public policies and doing so openly, in full view of school community members. Another reason is that teachers are in prime position to introduce, model, scaffold, and discuss political action with their students. Extensive research suggests that political efficacy – that is, the extent to which people understand and believe they can affect the political process – is contingent upon learning to access groups with common interests, analyze and discuss controversial issues, and participate in policy decision-making with observable impacts. Such learning must be embedded within actual political discourse and advocacy, not simply conveyed in the abstract. By refusing to talk about politics in the classroom or hiding their own positions and practices, teachers forego opportunities to help students understand the nature and consequences of political activity, regardless of the stance that centers it.

A more subtle kind of professional politics consists of what researcher Stephen Thornton calls gatekeeping. Every day, teachers make decisions about what educational ends have value and ought to be pursued, what resources to allocate toward those ends, and why – in other words, what should be allowed into the classroom, and what should not. For example, a secondary social studies teacher might contend with the following influences concurrently: (1) a survey-style U.S. history curriculum that careens through the subject matter without exploring persistent historical dilemmas in depth; (2) a high-stakes state test that condenses U.S. history into 50 multiple-choice questions and two essays; (3) research suggesting that teaching adolescents how to ask open-ended historical questions, reason with multiple sources of evidence, and write convincing arguments – a time-consuming process – generates more powerful learning outcomes than transmitting fixed historical narratives; (4) heated conversations among colleagues about how much instructional time is worth allocating to test-preparatory strategies; (5) district-wide pacing tests designed to ensure that she follows the curriculum in a timely fashion; and (6) pointed questions from parents about how she handles sensitive issues like race, religion, and terrorism. How the teacher tends to these competing interests in what researcher Linda Valli calls the “whitewater” environment of schooling involves political activity, like rationalizing her curricular and instructional decisions with administrators and parents to build trust in those decisions and networking with others to access new resources to support them.

My point thus far is that, inevitably, teachers are political actors, even those who try not to be. When educators decide to keep their heads down, quietly acquiesce to the demands of their school institutions, and “simply teach kids the subject matter,” they are choosing to be a certain kind of political actor – one, I suspect, that policy makers greatly appreciate as they hastily launch untested and unwarranted “innovations” into the educational milieu. I am not so naïve, however, to suggest that political action is easy, instantly gratifying, and risk-free, particularly in schools facing intense scrutiny and sanction for persistently low test scores and graduation rates. Consequently, it behooves teacher educators to consider what kinds of political actors their candidates could be, and how they might assist beginning teachers toward those ends. Some suggestions for doing this include:

(1) Helping beginning teachers connect educational purposes to political activity.

Researchers Keith Barton and Linda Levstik suggest that without a coherent rationale for teaching the subject matter, educators often default to getting through material efficiently, with as little resistance from students as possible. Likewise, I would argue that clear and powerful educational purposes are essential catalysts for curricular and instructional gatekeeping and bolder political action. Returning to the aforementioned social studies teacher, imagine that her central pedagogical aims involve: (1) investigating the history of racial, ethnic, and gender segregation and exclusion in the United States; (2) helping adolescents learn to utilize the kinds of analytical tools that historians use to craft persuasive arguments and debunk baseless ones; and (3) grounding her classroom assessment in writing tasks that demonstrate changes in students’ reasoning and writing quality over time. These aims undoubtedly will play into how she interprets and adapts a history curriculum centered on American exceptionalism, how she communicates to her students why her writing tasks look so different from the multiple-choice questions on state tests, and how she responds to the proliferation of standardized testing across public education.

Teacher educators can support candidates’ gatekeeping practices by asking them to persistently connect their instructional decisions to the purposes that ground them. Further, they can show candidates how education activists similarly draw from particular aims when deciding what political issues and strategies to pursue. Consider the Seattle teachers’ working group recommendations on assessment, which I posted above. In the wake of Garfield High School teachers’ refusal to administer district-wide standardized tests in the fall of 2012, Seattle Superintendent Jose Banda formed a task force charged with reviewing the tests, clarifying their purposes, benefits, and costs, and proposing alternatives. However, many educators believed that Superintendent Banda’s decision to invite only five teachers to serve on a task force of 30 people limited their potential impact on the assessment conversation. Consequently, several teachers across the district formed the working group, crafting and publicizing recommendations that are framed by specific purposes of assessment, research on the impacts of high-stakes testing, and their classroom experiences.

(2) Helping beginning teachers understand the importance of political networking.

Teachers constantly network by exchanging instructional resources and techniques. By political networking, I mean two things: (1) building local alliances that help beginning teachers unpack the political subtexts of their schools; and (2) joining larger groups of people who share educational goals, face common barriers to achieving those goals, and contribute resources to address those barriers. On the first point, one novice teacher who participated in a study that I conducted sought to infuse his Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government and Politics (USG) course with simulations and seminar-style discussions about current policy problems, but noticed that none of his APUSG-teaching colleagues did the same. Leaning on a trusted mentor to help him ascertain the covert expectations of APUSG teachers, he found that while their team planning meetings appeared democratic, the junior-most three felt beholden to use their senior colleague’s materials and lesson plans as a de facto curriculum, given his veteran status and well-publicized record of success with AP exams. The novice teacher drew upon that knowledge to strategize his participation in team meetings and his methods of introducing new activities in the APUSG classroom. Critically observing one’s school-institutional circumstances and asking good questions of the right people – practices that teacher educators can help candidates strengthen – are important elements of political networking.

Further, teacher educators can connect beginning teachers to professional development opportunities and advocacy groups through which they might forge relationships with like-minded others. For example, from 2010 through 2013, I worked with a cohort of Rochester teachers in a professional development program designed to support their historical content knowledge and teaching skills. As the participants got to know each other and collaboratively explored the effects of new instructional strategies in their classrooms, their network evolved into a community of practitioners striving to make room for historical investigation in the midst of a sea change associated with new state standards, teacher evaluation demands, and student data management requirements. These teachers were fortunate to regularly interact with colleagues in their district who experienced similar policy pressures. Those who are more isolated might find encouragement in professional organizations – there are national and state councils related to teaching the subject areas, students with disabilities, and English language learners – or in groups targeting specific educational policies and problems. Though I used the term “like-minded others” to describe membership in such groups, they may be quite heterogeneous, ideologically. For example, several advocacy organizations have formed across New York State around the idea of refusing to take (or “opting out” of) the now-mandatory Common Core assessments; and the size and online presence of those groups continue to grow. Yet while some members rally around the demoralizing and curriculum-narrowing effects of high-stakes tests and their perpetuation of resource inequities across school districts, others see the assessments and the Common Core standards on which they’re based as flagrant government intrusion into the affairs of communities that ought to be able to teach their children whatever they please. This calls up an earlier point: when it comes to the political activities in which teachers participate, purposes matter.

(3) Helping beginning teachers consider the conceivable consequences of different kinds of political action.

As a colleague in Texas reminded me recently, strategic gatekeeping in one context might be viewed as gross insubordination in another. Thus, teachers must choose among different approaches to political action, depending on the possible implications of those approaches in their particular settings. In one circumstance, teachers and administrators might reach consensus around a particular goal – say, a certain percentage of students performing at the mastery level on a New York State Regents exam – with teachers successfully lobbying for the freedom to choose different means of achieving that goal. In a harsher climate, teachers might exercise what researcher Catherine Cornbleth calls strategic compliance – that is, publicly playing along with restrictive school norms while quietly cultivating alternative courses of action with allies.

By considering the conceivable consequences of political action, I mean the consequences for teachers, of course, but also for students and the school community. Several years ago, in a Virginia middle school, I had the occasion to witness a pep rally that was designed to get kids excited about performing well on the upcoming state Standards of Learning (SOL) Assessments. Following an hour-long event that included SOL chants, teacher dares (e.g., “If all of Mr. Bosworth’s students pass, he’ll shave his head!”), a music video, and a motivational speech by the school principal, I asked two students, “What do you think people believe is most important in terms of what you accomplish here at school?” They replied, almost in unison, “Passing the SOLs!” Mine was a leading question, of course, given the circumstances. But my point is that how educators communicate their priorities and tend their gates bears consequences for how students think about who they are, what they ought to learn, how that learning happens, and why. This is particularly important for beginning teachers to consider as the language of the Common Core seeps into curricula and instruction.

When Principal Carol Burris writes that “we who are inside schools have been sounding the alarm” about the deleterious effects of trying to drive change through high-stakes testing, “although perhaps not as loudly as we should,” and Superintendent Teresa Snyder notes that the Common Core Standards “have been incompletely rolled out in New York,” with collateral damage in the form of “children who worked so hard this year, who endured so many distressing hours of testing, who failed to reach proficiency,” they send strong messages about the political roles of the teachers they lead. As the academic year begins and recent graduates of our teacher education programs start their careers in schools, I would urge them to take several steps on the pathway to productive political activity. First, begin the process of finding mentors who can help them understand and work within their institutions’ political currents and undercurrents. Second, listen intently and extensively, and ask powerful, pragmatic questions about the effects of policy on their teaching – i.e., “Given the Common Core test results, will the state and districts allocate new professional development resources to strengthen instruction, and if so, where will those resources come from, who will get them, and under what conditions?” and “What happens when administrators who are required to evaluate my teaching have no expertise in my subject area or speak a different language than what’s primarily used in my classroom?” Third, participate in education policy and practice conversations on national, state, and local levels and pay attention to the common threads among them. Fourth, find ways to publicize and discuss their teaching experiences – perhaps at open houses, school board meetings, PTA meetings, and other community outlets – so the public better understands the implications of policy on learning and teaching. And finally, be purposeful, strategic classroom gatekeepers, so that students are protected from the political stressors that teachers and administrators contend with and can focus on learning to read, write, talk to each other, and appreciate the intellectual power of their subject matter, in the classroom and beyond it.

For additional conversation about teachers’ roles as political actors, please consider the following scholarship:

Cornbleth, C. (2008) Climates of opinion and curriculum practices. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(2), 143–168.

Ginsburg, M. B. & Kamat, S. G. (2009). The political orientations of teachers. In L. J. Saha & A.G. Dworkin (Eds.), International handbook of research on teachers and teaching (vol. 21) (pp. 231-241). New York: Springer.

Hess, D. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. New York: Routledge.

Myers, J. P. (2007). Citizenship education practices of politically active teachers in Porto Alegre, Brazil and Toronto, Canada. Comparative Education Review, 51(1), 1-24.

Stillman, J. (2011). Teacher learning in an era of high-stakes accountability: Productive tension and critical professional practice. Teachers College Record, 113(1), 133-180.

Brother to Brother: My Reaffirmation of Pride in Black Boys Post-George Zimmerman Trial

Like many Americans on Saturday July 13, 2013, my nerves got the best of me while awaiting the George Zimmerman verdict. When the verdict was announced, my heart dropped in aguish for Trayvon Martin’s family. I can only struggle to imagine the pain they are feeling. To have your child murdered and for there to be no consequences must be the most horrifying feeling a parent can go through.

For many Black boys and men, they share the same sentiments as I do, “I could have been Trayvon Martin”. I am writing this because I feel the emotions of many Black boys who are grappling with how to survive without being the victim of the threat called “racism”. To my brothers, it is important to reflect on the legacy of our ancestors. Movements to fight against injustice have been apart of history for centuries: From the revolts during the transatlantic slave trade, to the American civil rights movement, to the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa. Social movements and the quest for social change have always been a part of society. My brothers, you are a part of a contemporary movement in the fight for your own humanity. You have allies and aren’t alone. Stand with pride in this journey we call life. Never feel a sense of isolation because there is another Black boy who may be going through your same pain. Never feel discouraged or let someone make you feel as if your life does not have value. You are loved, and every Black boy is valued as a child of God. Remember that you have a purpose in life.

As a Black man of African descent born and raised in the United States, throughout my early development I was socialized on the experiences of Blacks in America. Resiliency was a phenomenological experience that I learned early on. There aren’t answers or solutions to every situation you may encounter while being a Black boy. You may desire to change or influence a racist person’s attitudes, which in turn maybe problematic. Keep in mind that no one is inherently born to be racist; racism is a taught behavior. Unfortunately, racism is part of the burden of being Black in America. Lastly, my brothers continue to persist and achieve despite white supremacy, sexism, poverty, and the continued assassination of Black manhood in America.

RIP Till, Diallo, Bell, Grant, King, Martin…..and all the Black boys and men who have been the victims of hate.