Obama’s blueprint: A magical pitch

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

During the National Writing Project Annual Meeting and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Conference held in Orlando Florida (Nov. 18- 21), I received a barrage of corporate pitches from Mickey Mouse and his gang. At the closing of the conference I participated in a panel with the Department of Education’s chief pitchman, Peter Cunningham.

On a panel with several educators we discussed President Obama’s blueprint for changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization.

NCTE selected a diverse group of middle and elementary school teachers to participate on the panel, from as far as San Diego, CA to Rutland, MA; from urban, rural, and suburban sites, as well as private and public schools. Cunningham shared background on the blueprint to reform and the flaws of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

Literacy educators, including a Teacher Ambassador Fellow selected by the Department of Education, were eager to pitch our ideas and share our struggles and strategies for addressing 21st century challenges in education.

Cunningham framed the conversation by conceding that the over reliance on testing is not the solution for true reform. He further revealed that countries like China and South Korea, which rely heavily on high stakes testing, are pursuing educational reforms that foster greater collaboration, creativity, and innovation. Cunningham exposed the irony that our national education reform efforts actually shift us away from our global competitive advantage, which other nations want to emulate. Our pioneering spirit in education and industry is at a crossroad.

While opening our dialogue, a teacher from a non-unionized state expressed concerns regarding what teacher feedback and evaluation would look like under the administration’s blueprint. Would unionized states have more influence on the outcome of teacher evaluations?

Others teachers emphasized the needs to balance the ways tests are used to evaluate teacher effectiveness. Teachers from more affluent areas noted that wealthy districts with more actively involved parents will continue to have higher test scores thus widening the achievement gap. There is no one-size-fits-all method of assessing students and evaluating teacher’s effectiveness.

I pitched the idea of using portfolios as a holistic form of assessment.

If we truly want to create a competitive 21st century workforce, students need to be able to collaborate, create, and problem solve. These skills are not covered in bubble-in standardized tests. If we are not careful our test scores will rise, but our global competitiveness will decline.

Cunningham, asked me to clarify what I meant by portfolios and how portfolios could be assessed.

I explained that through portfolios, students show what they know through processing, collaborating, and completing end products that demonstrates their learning. Other teachers further pitched the idea of portfolio systems. One teacher noted that with writing portfolios we could look at examples of writing and monitor how it changed based on feedback from students and teachers. She noted that when students are engaged in this authentic feedback loop it helps both students and teachers know where learning gaps exist.

Another teacher noted that a shift is required in the way educators and policy makers are looking at assessments. One teacher pointed out that “fine arts people are doing portfolio evaluations already.” Cunningham did not object to our many suggestions of revamping the assessment and evaluation systems for both students and teachers, but he intimated that any approach that does not use standardized tests will be labor intensive.

The concession that NCLB has narrowed the curriculum was echoed in a previous interview with education researcher Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, on a radio program with Cunningham. Rothstein criticized the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RttT) education policies – criticism that Cunningham acknowledged was valid.

The RttT “carrot and the stick” approach of reforming student assessment and teacher evaluation will continue to undermine important subjects like sciences, history, social studies, music, arts, and physical education. District adminstrators and school leaders will continue gaming the system by having teachers teach to the test in an effort to raise math and reading scores. Rothstein explained, that "Race to the Top does the most harm to disadvantaged students."

Obama’s blueprint does have some noteworthy goals which include preparing students to be college or work-ready to compete in a global economy and providing more comprehensive supports for students and families to remove barriers to academic achievement. But does Obama have enough political capital to produce any authentic reform?

I guess it was appropriate that Cunningham, the blueprint’s pitchman, and a diverse group of educators had such generative talks at a Disney hotel resort. Now we may need some of Disney’s magic to finally get educational reform that meets the needs for all the young people we teach.