Illinois Lawmakers Tackle Teacher Shortage By Taking Aim At Licensing Test

school stock photo
A teacher stands at the front of a classroom at Shoesmith Elementary School in Chicago. Marc Monaghan for WBEZ
school stock photo
A teacher stands at the front of a classroom at Shoesmith Elementary School in Chicago. Marc Monaghan for WBEZ

Illinois Lawmakers Tackle Teacher Shortage By Taking Aim At Licensing Test

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Illinois has a teacher shortage, and state lawmakers are pushing a bill this week they say could help.

In Illinois now, student teachers have to videotape themselves in the classroom as part of a mandatory test to become certified. But some educators say the edTPA test is too onerous, not an effective indicator of a quality teacher and discourages some would-be teachers.

“It’s very high stakes,” said Julie Peters, associate director of the Teaching of History program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If they don’t pass it, they don’t get their license.”

Prompted by these concerns, state lawmakers are trying to pass a bill before the legislative session ends on Friday to eliminate the video requirement. But the Illinois State Board of Education opposes the bill. Jason Helfer, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning at ISBE, said losing the edTPA would mean losing quality metrics.

“Our public schools are not portrayed by the media in the most positive light,” Helfer said. “What we have here is a mechanism that young people are able to say, ‘Yeah, this is what we do, and we do it really well. I’m really well prepared to support the children in this classroom.’”

“We want high standards”

Peters argues that the edTPA came about because of the politics around education.

In 2012, Illinois lawmakers revamped the teacher licensing process to make it more rigorous. The edTPA, which was first required in 2015, was prompted in part by distrust of higher education institutions and concern they wouldn’t produce high-quality teachers, Peters said.

“No one wants to be seen as just letting anyone in classroom. We want to have high standards, high expectations,” Peters said.

But Peters and others say the test has many flaws.

“Student teachers have to perform this performance-based portfolio, which is essentially a 40-page paper with videotaping and commentary,” Peters said.

In addition to submitting a video, students must write up their lesson plans and analysis of classroom learning. Outside evaluators from Pearson grade the exam remotely.

Peters said the evaluators lack full context by not being in the actual classroom. She’s also critical of the candidates videotaping themselves, saying it has nothing to do with teaching skills.

“It detracts from their experience because this is what they’re focusing on,” she said. “Student teaching is difficult and stressful enough, and this occurs right in the middle of their student teaching experience.”

Fabiola Nunez graduated from UIC in December. She enjoyed student teaching at a Northwest Side high school. She passed the edTPA, but said the videotaping caused a lot of unnecessary stress.

“I had the first three weeks of my semester to get to know the students, get to know the school,” Nunez said. “After those three weeks, I had to plan for that exam.”

She said she spent $200 on a camcorder that didn’t work out because the audio quality was poor. She ended up using her smartphone, like many of her classmates.

“Some of them had to prop it up on a water bottle, or some of them didn’t have a camera so again they used their phone,” she said.

Peters said videotaping opens the door for a disingenuous representation — student teachers could coach their classroom to give specific responses. While the exam is explicit about student privacy, some have uploaded the videos to sites like YouTube.

Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, sponsored the bill that would eliminate videotaping as a requirement for teacher licensure. He thinks the edTPA contributes to the state’s teacher shortage. He said the exam’s $300 price tag and its high-stakes nature may deter candidates from going into teaching.

“In terms of who gets a license and who doesn’t, I think it should be people who have spent time with these teacher candidates, who have seen them up close and personal in the classroom,” he said. “Not in just a cleverly edited video.”

Raising the professionalism of teaching

The state Legislature already has taken steps to change licensing for teachers. A bill to halt a basic skills test for teaching candidates already has passed both houses and awaits Gov. JB Pritzker’s signature. The Illinois State Board of Education had already decided to replace that test by requiring minimum ACT and SAT scores.

However, ISBE and other educators are opposed to ending the videotaping. Helfer doesn’t buy some of the arguments against the test.

He said student privacy is taken seriously, and it hasn’t been a problem with the edTPA. As for videotaping, he finds it hard to believe college students would have any difficulties.

Sandra Beyda-Lorie is department chair of special education at Northeastern Illinois University. She thinks the edTPA raises the professionalism of the education field.

“Does it weed out students that might be great teachers?” she asked. “That concern, I don’t think, is warranted because pass rates in the state are 90% or above.”

When it comes to the teacher shortage, Beyda-Lorie said the debate over licensing tests is just a distraction. She said the shortage has more to do with low-paying salaries and under-resourced schools.

“We’re asking a lot of our educators, and we don’t value them near enough as a society, and I’d love to see that change,” she said.

The videotaping bill passed the Illinois House in April. The Senate could take it up for a vote this week.

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.