Any argument will do?

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More than 30 faculty members of Teachers College, arguably the country's most influential ed school, recently signed a letter taking issue with the edTPA, a performance assessment that teacher candidates in New York (and many other states) will have to pass for licensure starting in the spring of 2014. The faculty members cite privacy concerns (the test entails videotaping student teachers in their classrooms), the reliability of the assessment, and the role of a for-profit corporation (Pearson) in developing and administering the exam.

We're also skeptical of the edTPA, so if this letter prompts more thinking before it's implemented in New York, that's all to the good. Certainly, the letter's signatories are right that parents and principals will need to be satisfied that images of children captured in videos are being handled safely and securely before they will consent to it being administered in their schools.

But this paragraph about "good" and "successful" teaching in the letter left us scratching our heads:

"Teaching is a highly complex practice, and what constitutes quality remains contested. We know that successful teaching is not the same as good teaching, and we know that terms like success and good are dependent on context and culture. In light of this complexity, the criteria for assessors are surprisingly underdeveloped and point to a technical, rather than holistic and humanistic, understanding of education."

True enough, the complexity of teaching makes assessments of performance difficult (just check out the latest report from the MET study). And certainly Pearson should choose its assessors carefully. But the letter's signatories are too dismissive of the notion that people could be trained to make reliable evaluations of the quality of teaching. Moreover, by insisting on the dependence of "what constitutes quality" on "context and culture," the letter's signatories would seem to be casting doubt on the possibility of creating an instrument to assess the quality of teaching altogether.

The designers of the edTPA face two major challenges: preventing teacher candidates from gaming the assessment (by editing bad episodes out of the videos they send in for scoring) and demonstrating a correlation between how well a teacher scores on the edTPA and how much her students learn. If those issues are resolved, it would be fine for states to use it along with other licensure tests (maybe even as part of a bar exam for entering the profession). But asking the creators of the edTPA -- or any teaching evaluation rubric, for that matter -- to come up with an assessment that changes its definition of success based on "context" is asking too much.

(H/T to Stephen Sawchuk for bringing the letter to light.)

--Arthur McKee