No campaign education advisor left behind

If many recent polls are to be believed, Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States. And this week we got an important glimpse into the dynamics of his education team that might preview what we can expect in the four years to come.

"Portfoliogate" started Tuesday morning on the Diane Rehm Show, when Obama staffer Melody Barnes expressed her candidate's openness to using portfolios to assess student achievement under No Child Left Behind. "We have to deploy and employ the proper kinds of assessments," Barnes said, "portfolios for example and other forms of assessments that may be a little bit more expensive but they are allowing us to make sure children are getting the proper analytic kinds of tools." 

Both Greg Toppo of USA Today and I thought we heard Barnes make news, and said so on the air. (We were guests on the show, along with Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation.) Neither of us remembered the Obama camp speaking so effusively about portfolios before. Later, I wrote that this appeared to signal a big shift for Obama, opening the door to portfolios as an alternative to standardized testing.

It turned out that both Toppo and I were wrong about the first point; as Michele McNeil of Education Week demonstrated, Obama mentioned "digital portfolios" way back in his first big education speech (last November in New Hampshire). And the Obama campaign strongly disputed my second point, releasing a statement hours later calling my interpretation "a willful misreading of his comprehensive agenda on education" and pointing to comments he made after his second big education speech (in May in Colorado) that showed a clear commitment to testing. 

But a few hours later, the plotline took yet another twist, this time when Obama advisor Linda Darling-Hammond spoke about portfolios during her Education Week/Teachers College debate with McCain adviser Lisa Graham Keegan. "If you look at other countries, their assessments include relatively few multiple-choice items and in some cases none," said Darling-Hammond. "Their kids are doing science inquiries, research papers, technology products. Those are part of the examination system." Later, she addressed Barnes's statements on the Diane Rehm Show. "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."

So here we have an Obama advisor speaking in glowing terms about assessments in other countries that include "science inquiries, research papers, technology products" but "few multiple-choice items." Doesn't that sound a lot like portfolios? And regardless of what Darling-Hammond insists, experience has shown portfolios to be unreliable measures of achievement, since, by their very nature, they include so much variability and subjectivity on the part of those who evaluate them. (They're also time consuming and costly but save that problem for another day.)

Why does any of this matter, beyond the specific policy concerns about using portfolios in lieu of standardized tests? First, it illustrates, in stark relief, the divisions within Obama's own education team. It's hard to imagine Andrew Rotherham or Jon Schnur speaking with such conviction about "authentic assessments"; these Obama advisors have been known as accountability hawks who support standardized testing, imperfect as it may be. And this is just one area where the "reform" camp within the Obama campaign (and the Democratic Party) disagrees with the "establishment" camp, epitomized by Darling-Hammond. (Support for non-traditional routes into the classroom, such as Teach For America, is another obvious example.) These factions are still jockeying for position, and this week their infighting spilled out into the public domain.

Second, this fracas shows how fluid Obama's education policy still is, especially when it comes to the No Child Left Behind Act. It's hard to pinpoint the Senator's position on assessments, for example, because that position has yet to solidify. We simply don't know where a President Obama would go on NCLB, because he (like McCain in this regard) has been coy about the specific fixes he would propose. 

Perhaps we should be grateful; as of now, at least, Senator Obama hasn't irrevocably embraced any terrible ideas about how to fix NCLB. But he hasn't embraced any great ideas, either. And he probably hasn't even decided yet which way to go politically: throw the reformers under the bus and embrace his union and ed-school friends, or throw his establishment pals under the bus and hug the reformers.

If he chooses the latter--let's hope--he will need to find Republican votes in order to get a reform-minded NCLB reauthorization through Congress. That's because many members of his own party won't be so brave as to buck the unions, and they want the law eviscerated. So he will need to find some version of bipartisan compromise.

What might that entail? Right now, NCLB micromanages the procedures and timelines by which schools are labeled and sanctioned, yet it allows states total discretion over the academic standards and tests used to judge schools (and kids) in the first place. These should be flipped. Turned upside down. Inside out. Uncle Sam should provide incentives for states to sign up for rigorous nationwide (not federal) standards and tests. (Tests, not portfolios!) Make the results of this testing publicly available, sliced every which way by, state, district, school and group. But then allow states and districts (or private entities, such as GreatSchools.net) to devise their own school labels and ratings--and let them decide what to do with schools that need help.

This will not only enable parents, policy-makers, and taxpayers to compare schools in an apples-to-apples manner, across state lines, but will also empower states and communities to take the driver's seat again when it comes to determining which schools need help and how to intervene.

This solution won't please everyone. And perhaps it won't thrill anyone, either--not a bad definition of consensus, ultimately. Some reformers will worry that, absent stern mandates from Washington, some states will fail to hold troubled schools accountable. Some conservatives will complain about "national" testing. And some union leaders, maybe all of them, will still chafe at the transparency of school results and the possibility of tying student performance to teacher effectiveness.

But reasonable people on all sides of the issue will see that this approach is better aligned with Uncle Sam's true skill set. After all, Washington is at least three or four steps removed from the operation of local schools. There's only so much policy-makers can do from Capitol Hill and the federal Education Department, whatever their intentions. It would be far better for the feds to focus on making school standards explicit and results transparent, and then allow the states, communities and expert educators to focus on how to reform schools that aren't making the grade.

To be sure, this would be a radical departure from current policy under NCLB, and is different from what anyone is talking about now. But it could work, both politically and substantively. And there's nothing about this proposal that would conflict with what Obama and his warring sidekicks have laid out during the campaign. So perhaps we should be heartened that he has left himself so much room to maneuver, after all. 

This article was adapted from an Op-Ed that appeared this morning in The Washington Times.

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