In the first of two votes on a controversial proposal, the State Board of Education has approved dropping a licensing test required currently of about 900 “job-embedded” candidates, who comprise about a third of the state’s teacher pipeline.

Amid worries about teacher shortages, Tennessee is considering reducing requirements for some nontraditional candidates to earn their teacher licenses, despite concerns that the change could hurt teacher quality.

In the first of two votes on a controversial proposal, the State Board of Education approved Friday dropping EdTPA, a licensing test required currently of about 900 “job-embedded” candidates, who comprise about a third of the state’s teacher pipeline.

That pathway lets people with non-teaching bachelor’s degrees work as classroom teachers while simultaneously pursuing licensure by taking graduate-level coursework through partnerships between their school districts and approved teacher training programs.

The proposal to drop edTPA, which would take effect next September, is among numerous ways Tennessee is trying to increase its teacher pool after seeing a gradual decline in the number of aspiring educators graduating from the state’s 40-plus teacher training programs.

However, both state and national data suggest that current shortages are limited to certain districts, schools, grades, and subjects, not an across-the-board problem. Some higher education leaders question the rush to revamp rules with statewide application.

In May, the Tennessee Department of Education and the University of Tennessee system on Monday launched the Grow Your Own Center, a $20 million investment to tackle teacher shortages and prepare the next generation of Tennessee educators. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht for Chalkbeat)

In their preliminary vote, board members voted unanimously to drop the EdTPA requirement for job-embedded candidates. But they emphasized that they want more feedback from teacher prep programs before their final vote set for February.

“There’s a fear of lowering the quality, lowering the bar. And there’s a fear of not having enough people to fill the classrooms. So we’re trying to manage these two fears that are real,” said Nate Morrow, a board member from Williamson County, prior to the vote.

EdTPA has been used since 2013 by numerous teacher training programs, including some of the largest ones at the University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee Tech University, and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. In 2019, it became a statewide requirement to gain licensure as the state set new goals for training new teachers.

The assessment measures teaching skills and was developed by researchers at the Stanford Center for Assessment Learning and Equity. It requires candidates to submit a portfolio of materials for review, including a series of lesson plans, video of themselves teaching, and written analysis of their instructional practices.

Teacher prep leaders disagree about whether to remove EdTPA as a job-embedded requirement for licensure. Critics call the portfolio stressful and needlessly time-consuming, while supporters say it’s a valuable way to measure teaching readiness.

“A year ago, we had to have the highest edTPA scores in the country. So what changed during that time so that we don’t need edTPA at all?” asked Bill Estes, dean of the college of education at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, during an interview with Chalkbeat.

Without more data and a deeper analysis, Estes said, it would be a “step backward” for Tennessee to have differing standards and requirements for its various pathways to licensure.

“There are (districts) and subject areas that need more teachers, but not across the board. This is a blanket policy that I think will weaken the quality of teachers we have in Tennessee,” he said.

Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, said there’s no consensus within his group about whether to drop edTPA. The bigger concern, he said, is any change that treats teacher candidates differently by saying that one group has to pass it, and the other group doesn’t.

“Our members want to keep a level playing field related to requirements of all ed prep programs,” Pressnell told Chalkbeat.

During Friday’s meeting, Sara Morrison, the board’s executive director, said the proposal is a starting point to discuss ways to eliminate duplications and streamline requirements for the state’s various pathways toward teacher licensure. EdTPA merits consideration, she added.

“For job-embedded candidates, since they are being evaluated (by school leaders), they have an assigned mentor, they’re getting a lot of that same reflective practice and feedback that is part of edTPA, it seemed duplicative to also do the EdTPA while they’re also classroom teachers of record,” Morrison said.

Darrell Cobbins represents District 9 on the Tennessee Board of Education. (Photo: tn.gov/sbe)

Darrell Cobbins, who represents Memphis on the board, said he has lots of questions about how to ensure teacher quality without driving candidates from entering the profession. But for now, he said, many school leaders seem most worried about the latter.

“There’s a recurring theme around teacher shortages, teacher retention, career advancement,” Cobbins said. “There seems to be a pleading from district leaders, from teachers themselves, that we employ some avenues of flexibility and creative thinking around how we support districts in addressing their challenges.”

(Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected])