On Modeling & Teacher Assessment

I often monitor the daily Twitter #Edchat conversation for nuggets of goodness, but have never jumped in until this week. Yesterday, a conversation was flowing around the concept of teacher portfolios for teacher assessment. I have some experience with this, as my first year at Tohatchi High School featured a mentoring program and a portfolio to judge my highly qualified-ness. While I worked to complete this portfolio in earnest, many of my peers openly joked about it as a hoop to be jumped through, ticked off the boxes, and scored exactly the same as me: Passed.

When a principal is asked to assess 35 or more professional portfolios, I question the depth of assessment that will result. On a more basic level, I question the need for standardized assessment of teachers as much as I question the need for standardized assessment of children. Most likely, teacher portfolios will take time and attention away from planning, delivering (or organizing), and assessing student learning. Granted, this is a skeptical view of the portfolio in operation because the term assessment in the United States is forever wedded, at least on the macro level, to the term high stakes. If teacher assessment is used to determine levels of compensation, terms of employment, or competency for publication (as in New York), teachers will rationally place their energy in satisfying those demands, which would be in creating beautiful portfolios rather than reflecting actual practices – dog-and-pony-show production. As long as education “reform” in the US is centered on the fetishization of data, these processes will fail, portfolios more than most because portfolio data is qualitative, not quantitative, and so not easily aggregated and communicated for (spurious) purposes.

An argument that was presented in the Twitter conversation was that teacher portfolios would serve as models for student portfolios, and that teachers would be role models by producing their portfolios, learning how best to instruct portfolio creation through action. Modeling is clearly an essential practice for teaching skills. If students are building art, writing, physical education,  or media portfolios, for example, their respective teachers should model the creation of quality products and the organization of these products into portfolios. If teachers cannot produce such quality content, they should reach out to those who can. But modeling the authentic creation of a body of work – videos of discus throws showing improvement over time, for another example – is much different than teachers using portfolios of their teaching practices as exemplars for students. I regularly notice unwarranted enthusiasm for treating students like wee teachers, engaging them in information about instructional practices and training them to deliver content, especially among progressive educational circles (whatever that means). I wonder if anyone is asking students about their genuine level of interest in these materials and skills, or if they’d rather have an opportunity to develop a portfolio of apps or websites they designed themselves? A model portfolio of a teacher-as-learner would be of limited value to a student seeking to create a portfolio of herself as a learner, because the material and skills involved are bound to differ wildly.

I love teaching; I am endlessly fascinated by education. I don’t imagine others to share my passion. Some do – fantastic! Others don’t, and when those others are our charges, we should engage them in the creation of work products related to their own passions. Portfolio creation is a great idea, but the reasons behind requiring people to do so and the goals for the process and product should be more universal and flexible, requiring teachers who can model skills other than teaching. Otherwise, those involved may not see far enough past their own noses to truly engage students in authentic, meaningful learning activities.

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