Between 2006 and 2018, I worked for a number of different public and private institutions as a Teaching Performance Assessment (TPA) assessor. The assessment is taken by pre-service teacher candidates who must pass the assessment in order to earn their teacher credential, and while I worked as an assessor, I scored over 10,000 submissions. The assessment was broken up into four different “tasks,” and embedded within each task was a requirement that candidates think of ways to address the needs of English Learners (EL) and students with special needs (SN) through lesson adaptations and scaffolds. As an assessor I was able to review submissions from across California, and through this work, I noticed that teacher education programs across the state trained new teacher candidates to support EL and SN through a deficit-oriented lens.
When framed around underserved student populations, deficit thinking is the idea that underserved students are broken and need to be fixed. For example, it is well documented that many teacher education programs examine English Learners as students who have deficits in reading, writing, and speaking in standard English formats. In fact, by labeling non-native English speakers as, “English Learners” – teacher candidates develop depositions towards these students as though Standard English assimilation is the goal, without considering the value in becoming bilingual in both languages. As a result, when teacher candidates work with these students, they tend to view them through a deficit-oriented lens, as individuals who need to be helped because their first language is not English.
Similar to that, students with special needs tend to also be framed as students who only have needs that must be addressed through teaching. Candidates are taught to solely investigate students’ limitations and challenges in accessing content, due to their disabilities, which can inhibit learning, and then adapt or scaffold lessons accordingly. Unfortunately, by viewing students with special needs from this one-dimensional perspective, candidates often overlook the pedagogical practices that build on student assets and that can support their success.
Because of problems associated with this lens, and its impact on EL and SN students specifically, I joined the CalTPA redesign team in 2016, with hopes that I could help shift teacher education culture from a deficit-orientation towards an asset-oriented approach.
While developing the revised CalTPA, the design team agreed that adaptations, scaffolds, and accommodations towards English Learners and students with special needs are important. We also agreed that the field must move away from deficit-laden thinking, and towards instruction that is grounded in student assets. And when examining what is needed to support these students effectively, I, along with others, pushed forward the narrative that new teacher candidates plan for lessons that are anchored in student assets. Everyone agreed.
The redesigned CalTPA approaches asset-oriented instruction by requiring candidates to choose three focus students, including an identified English Learner, an identified student with special needs, and a one that comes from another underserved student population. While completing the CalTPA, Credential Candidates first collect student background data that explicitly investigates student “assets and learning needs” in a number of different areas, including their cultural and linguistic resources, funds of knowledge, socioeconomic status, personal interests, and content knowledge background. Then, credential candidates are expected to plan instruction that is grounded in their students’ assets and needs, and provides a rationale that explains their instructional decisions.
After candidates submit their CalTPA, they are scored from a set of 8 to 9 rubrics. Some of the rubrics have criteria that require candidates to plan for instruction that is grounded in students’ assets and learning needs. With this in mind, if candidates only focus on learning needs, without taking student assets into consideration, their final score will result in either a lower score or a failing grade due to the candidates’ deficit oriented instructional approach.
This shift from a deficit-oriented approach towards one that is grounded in student assets is significant. By requiring candidates to investigate student assets and to plan lessons and adaptations/scaffolds accordingly, CalTPA requires credential programs to shift their curricula. This pushes teacher education faculty, university supervisors, and veteran cooperating teachers to critically reflect upon their dispositions towards underserved students and, specifically, English Learners and students with special needs. At minimum, due to the CalTPA, teacher education programs must prepare candidates to understand the differences between deficit and asset-oriented approaches towards instruction and guide discussions around why deficit mindsets are problematic and hurtful towards students. It also opens doors to more in-depth and meaningful conversations around instructional practices that reinforce multicultural education, social justice, and culturally relevant pedagogy.
The aforementioned shift is exemplified in the courses I teach. In these courses, I unpack deficit thinking by discussing how teachers have historically tried to support English Learners by addressing their weaknesses in reading, writing, and speaking in English, while often making these students feel as though their native languages are not valuable. Every time I do so, my candidates, who at one point may have been English Learners themselves, lean in, nod, and are quick to agree, almost as if to breathe a sigh of relief because of the acknowledgement that their schooling experiences were broken and unjust. They light up and are excited to see that new teachers are trained to first view English Learners and other underserved student populations as whole individuals - with languages that are to be celebrated and strengths that must be reinforced, instead of as broken, one-dimensional students who need to be saved.
As a teacher educator who is vested in developing advocates for underserved K-12 student populations, it is exciting to know that the CalTPA will hold credential programs and candidates accountable to asset-oriented instructional practices. The assessment is already shifting the discourse away from the deficit-oriented practices that have historically harmed English Learners and students with special needs. Although the assessment is not perfect –and does not yet evaluate social justice teaching approaches or culturally relevant pedagogy – it does signal to teacher educators that these areas are necessary and meaningful, which is promising for the field and for our future teachers.