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Portfolio Confusion and the Education Advisers' Debate

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Barack Obama spokeswoman Melody Barnes' statements today on NPR about her candidate's support of student portfolios as a method of assessment have caused quite the dust-up. It even came up at tonight's debate between the education advisers to the campaigns—Lisa Graham Keegan for John McCain and Linda Darling-Hammond for Obama.

Though there were pleas today for the Obama campaign to clarify the Democratic presidential nominee's stance on the use of portfolios to gauge student achievement, I'm not sure that's been accomplished.

In an e-mail to me before the debate, Obama campaign domestic-policy director Neera Tanden said: "Senator Obama has said he supports testing but wants to make sure our tests are better and smarter. He does not support replacing the current structure of NCLB with portfolios and to suggest otherwise is a willful misreading of his comprehensive agenda on education."

Not sure what exactly she means by not supporting "replacing the current structure of NCLB with portfolios." (I don't think anyone thought he would replace the entire structure of the law.) What this does indicate is that NCLB and testing are very complex issues, and neither Obama nor McCain have been very specific on how exactly they would change the law as president.

During tonight's 90-minute debate at Teachers College, Columbia University, Keegan brought up the portfolio issue, noting: "The problem with backing off of assessments and turning them into portfolios that are more subjective is that we can't compare kids. That's where we were before we had accountability."

Keegan, who is McCain's chief education adviser, emphasized that "state standards and the assessments have got to stay in place."

Darling-Hammond, one of several education advisers to Obama, said quite a lot about assessment: "If you look at other countries, their assessments include relatively few multiple-choice items and in some cases none. Their kids are doing science inquiries, research papers, technology products. Those are part of the examination system." (Are those examples part of a broadly defined "portfolio"?)

Darling-Hammond addressed what Barnes said—and didn't say—on NPR directly:

She said in addition to standardized tests we need to look at other assessments. She did mention portfolios. They are used in the charter school she is on the board. ... And we have to get knowledgeable about what does go on in other countries. ... They routinely include elements like research products, they are scored, they are scored in consistent and reliable and valid ways.

In general, tonight's debate, co-sponsored by Education Week and its Web site, edweek.org, was vigorous, and pointed at times, and covered many of the same topics that have been chronicled here or discussed on the stump. (The archived Webcast should be available for viewing here as of noon Wednesday.)

The two advisers talked about teacher quality, the need for more research, whether money matters, and even whether either of them would like to be their nominee's secretary of education. (They each ducked that question).

6 Comments

I thought Darling-Hammond had more comprehensive answers regarding teacher preparation and retention, especially with regard to her career ladders idea and professional development, and had a simple and better answer regarding technology. She talked more about pedagogy and alternatives to standards-based assessment (clearly she does not support NCLB) and putting money to work in the right places. And she had an international focus that plays well with globalization and flattening of the world. Her ideas overall seem to play well with KnowledgeWorks Foundation's Map of Future Forces Affecting Education's concepts of learning ecologies. Her answers to the healthcare issue really resonated with the Map driver of Sick Herd, especially Increasing Chronic Illness. Her statement that Obama will make education a "top priority" instead of the usual 3rd, 4th, or 5th priority bothered me because I doubt both parts of that statement - is education ever that high on the list?

Keegan was stronger on offering choices and I thought her focus on issues other than funding was good. Her use of vouchers and discussion of a variety of charter options seem to support a learning economy, but her boundary between federal involvement and state control was a bit confusing to me - but that's not an area in which I have much experience. Her support of NCLB was not unexpected, but her statement that failing schools are caused by poor teachers was disappointing, and her proposal to expand Teach For America as a source of new teachers using money from Title II was disturbing. Her closing statement about centering everything around instruction and the child was very strong.

I thought Darling-Hammond had more comprehensive answers regarding teacher preparation and retention, especially with regard to her career ladders idea and professional development, and had a simple and better answer regarding technology. She talked more about pedagogy and alternatives to standards-based assessment (clearly she does not support NCLB) and putting money to work in the right places. And she had an international focus that plays well with globalization and flattening of the world. Her ideas overall seem to play well with our Map of Future Forces Affecting Education’s concepts of learning ecologies. Her answers to the healthcare issue really resonated with the Map driver of Sick Herd, especially Increasing Chronic Illness. Her statement that Obama will make education a “top priority” instead of the usual 3rd, 4th, or 5th priority bothered me because I doubt both parts of that statement - is education ever that high on the list?

Keegan was stronger on offering choices and I thought her focus on issues other than funding was good. Her use of vouchers and discussion of a variety of charter options seem to support a learning economy, but her boundary between federal involvement and state control was a bit confusing to me - but that’s not an area in which I have much experience. Her support of NCLB was not unexpected, but her statement that failing schools are caused by poor teachers was disappointing, and her proposal to expand Teach For America as a source of new teachers using money from Title II was disturbing. Her closing statement about centering everything around instruction and the child was very strong.

But overall, I thought both had good answers to many questions. I was
really glad that this debate happened!

Back in August, Teacher Magazine blogger Anthony Cody featured his interview with former Nebraska ed commissioner Doug Christensen about his six-year effort to develop a statewide portfolio-based assessment system -- and the Nebraska legislature's decision earlier this year to throw in the towel and move to standardized testing. It's instructive to read Christensen's view of what Nebraska accomplished and consider whether they were really on to something, politics notwithstanding.

http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2008/08/doug_christensen_more_variatio.html

Pretty standard responses from both sides. Despite Ms. Keegan's connections with the AZ Department of Education, her relationship with teachers and public education in the state has been adversarial at best.

It is no coincidence that AZ has ranked at the very bottom of spending per pupil on an annual basis. Often, you get what you pay for in education. I say this as a parent of 4 school age children in this state who has to supply their classrooms with basic necessities such as soap and glue.

Darling-Hammond believes in a public education system characterized by transparency in all schools that receive public funds. Vouchers amount to a deregulation of some schools as no one follows the students and insures that they are being educated well--remember Milwaukee where schools serving students with vouchers closed and left families to fend for themselves. She also sees the limitation of standardized testing because they do not measure critical receptive and expressive communication skills, nor do they measure critical thinking. This fixation on tests that are formatted in a particular way (because of ease of scoring) perverts teaching since many teachers teach to the format and content of such tests. She also understands that tests should be used for diagnostic purposes and not to punish students, teachers, and schools. Since we do not have "standard children" entering schools, we must consider the limitations of standardized testing. Much value is added to a child's development by an enriched home environment that contributes to school performance. Moreover, in enriched environments, parents have access to supports beyond the school when the child struggles. Consequently, we must develop stronger programs for children who are not fortunate to come from such homes. An example would be the after school Learning Academy developed by Dr. William Lloyd in Uniondale, Long Island. I submit that struggling children need more time, better teachers, and support for psychosocial development as well. A final note on testing: samples of students written work, projects, and even oral reading tell us much more about growth over time and prepare students eventually to deal with economic crises, world hunger, and matters of war and peace. Most of our leaders were educated in elite schools but seem to suffer from a lack of wisdom and vigilance when it comes to solving real problems. This might have something to do with our education system past and present. Everything that I have read and heard from Darling-Hammond suggests an education system where students have to read, write, think, and solve problems and have their products judged and evaluated in the form of portfolios. On the other hand, I did not see complete opposition to standardized test, but concern with how they are currently used.

Darling-Hammond believes in a public education system characterized by transparency in all schools that receive public funds. Vouchers amount to a deregulation of some schools as no one follows the students and insures that they are being educated well--remember Milwaukee where schools serving students with vouchers closed and left families to fend for themselves. She also sees the limitation of standardized testing because they do not measure critical receptive and expressive communication skills, nor do they measure critical thinking. This fixation on tests that are formatted in a particular way (because of ease of scoring) perverts teaching since many teachers teach to the format and content of such tests. She also understands that tests should be used for diagnostic purposes and not to punish students, teachers, and schools. Since we do not have "standard children" entering schools, we must consider the limitations of standardized testing. Much value is added to a child's development by an enriched home environment that contributes to school performance. Moreover, in enriched environments, parents have access to supports beyond the school when the child struggles. Consequently, we must develop stronger programs for children who are not fortunate to come from such homes. An example would be the after school Learning Academy developed by Dr. William Lloyd in Uniondale, Long Island. I submit that struggling children need more time, better teachers, and support for psychosocial development as well. A final note on testing: samples of students written work, projects, and even oral reading tell us much more about growth over time and prepare students eventually to deal with economic crises, world hunger, and matters of war and peace. Most of our leaders were educated in elite schools but seem to suffer from a lack of wisdom and vigilance when it comes to solving real problems. This might have something to do with our education system past and present. Everything that I have read and heard from Darling-Hammond suggests an education system where students have to read, write, think, and solve problems and have their products judged and evaluated in the form of portfolios. On the other hand, I did not see complete opposition to standardized test, but concern with how they are currently used.

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