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Questioning Originality: Plagiarism and Collaboration on edTPA

As a faculty member in my institution’s graduate English education program, I get my share of emails updating me about everything from field placement procedures to certification requirements. The topic that creates the most anxiety in those emails, as well is in the conversations I have with my colleagues and my student advisees, is edTPA.

EdTPA, a Pearson-managed exam developed by the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity (SCALE), was first adopted by New York State in 2012. Passing edTPA is now a requirement for New York State teacher certification. The rollout of edTPA has been rocky, as described by Alan Singer, Julie Gorlewski, and Deborah Greenblatt and Kate E. O’Hara. The root of the problems related to edTPA is that some stakeholders – namely politicians, state boards of education, and the corporations who prepare and evaluate certification exams – have had a larger voice in the decisions about how new teachers should be prepared and certified than those stakeholders who are currently in the classroom or who are directly preparing future teachers.

Part of the problem with edTPA is the mixed messages it sends about the amount and kinds of collaboration candidates are allowed to engage in as they prepare their portfolios, an issue explained by Alexandra Miletta. Although the edTPA Guidelines for Acceptable Candidate Support encourage “professional conversations” between teacher candidates and their faculty as the teacher candidates prepare their portfolios, the line edTPA draws between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” collaboration remains fuzzy.

The question of how teacher candidates should prepare their edTPA portfolios became even more complicated this summer, after New York State Deputy Commissioner John L. D’Agati published a memo entitled “edTPA Use of Materials and Originality.”

In short, D’Agati’s memo explains that in New York State, candidates’ edTPA portfolios will be run through originality detection software (i.e. Turnitin.com) to ensure that candidates are, indeed, the “sole author of the commentaries and other written responses to prompts and other requests for information,” a statement written into the edTPA Rules of Assessment Participation.

D’Agati warns that candidates whose portfolios exhibit “a substantial degree of matching” with other edTPA portfolios may have their edTPA scores voided and may be denied certification. These damning and drastic consequences are based on the assumption that a degree of “matching” should call into question a candidate’s “moral character.”

Though this memo seems to do just one thing – accuse teacher candidates of plagiarizing their edTPAs – its underlying arguments and warrants have deep and disturbing implications for the teaching profession. In short, D’Agati’s memo privileges originality over student learning. EdTPA’s emphasis on solitary authorship scares beginning teachers away from the collaboration that they need to succeed in the classroom. Finally, D’Agati’s choice to frame edTPA around moral terms echoes the prevailing public narrative about teacher evaluation and student test scores: that teachers are to blame for failing schools and that evaluation, either during certification or later, is about weeding out “bad” teachers instead of finding areas of need and ways to give students, teachers, and communities the resources that they so desperately need.

Good teaching isn’t necessarily “original” in the same way we would define “originality” in a discussion about writing and plagiarism. It is plagiarism when a writer knowingly represents another writer’s words as his own. It is not plagiarism when a teacher’s lesson plan “matches” a colleague’s lesson plan. The difference here arises from the purpose of the activity. A central purpose of writing (at least the kinds of writing that are subject to originality detection software) is to declare and represent ideas and arguments as your own, most often as the single author. A central purpose of teaching is to help students learn. Teachers are not solitary authors. Their work is different.

Teaching, in comparison to single-authored writing, operates with a different and deeply rooted set of understandings about the circulation and use of ideas and materials. In a thriving community of teachers, teachers share assignment and lesson ideas with each other constantly, both informally in the hallway and the teacher’s lounge and in more formal curricular development workshops. Teachers don’t guard the copier to prevent their colleagues from stealing their handouts. Teachers don’t work under the threat of being “scooped” in same way writers or researchers may.

Successful teachers collaborate. They collaborate with their colleagues to find better ways to help students learn. They seek out opportunities to work with their students, the parents of their students, and their administrators. Teacher educators know this, and edTPA policies that ask university faculty to restrict the help they give their student ignore this researched-based knowledge.

In fact, research has shown a lack of collaboration is a significant reason why up to 50% of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Those who leave teaching cite that isolation and an absence of mentors as reasons why they left. The edTPA rules and D’Agati’s memo, by drawing a line between collaboration and corrupt moral character, dissuade pre-service teachers from seeking out mentors with whom they can talk about their teaching challenges. If pre-service teachers are told to figure it out on their own during their student teaching– which is when they write their edTPA portfolio – then how can we expect them to seek out colleagues and mentors that they need in their first years of teaching?

The truth of the matter is that we aren’t doing enough for our beginning teachers. Beginning teachers, lowest on the totem pole, are more often than not given the least desirable teaching assignments, the lowest-performing students, and multiple teaching preps. These conditions do not breed success.

If one of the goals of education is to help students learn, then this question – “What practices and resources do beginning teachers need so that they can help students learn?” – must lie at the heart of our university teacher preparation programs and our state certification exams. Right now, that question is not driving edTPA evaluation policy. Originality detection software doesn’t answer that question.

D’Agati and edTPA are looking for the wrong thing if they are looking for originality. If New York State wants a test that mimics how successful teachers teach (which is part of the argument about requiring the edTPA, which costs candidates $300 and requires on average 60 pages of writing), then the edTPA needs to allow for and expect collaboration among teacher candidates, university teacher educators, and cooperating teachers in the schools.

By Dr. Laura Davies, State University of New York-Cortland

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

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