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Portfolios Help Teachers Reflect on What Makes Good Teaching

Connecticut's demanding two-year support and assessment program for new teachers, Beginning Educator Support and Training (BEST), is gaining national attention. The program includes mentoring, seminars, a personal portfolio, and an analysis of the teacher's performance. Included: Education World talks with two beginning teachers who completed the portfolio process and two veteran teachers who score new teachers' portfolios. All share why they like the program.

Connecticut teacher Matthew Guarraia had another person to grade last spring besides the students in his fifth-grade class: himself.

As part of the Connecticut Department of Education's two-year teacher program Beginning Educator Support and Training (BEST), Guarraia and hundreds of other second-year teachers handed in portfolios last spring. (NOTE: In 2009, BEST was replaced by the Teacher Education and Mentoring (TEAM) program.) The portfolio of each teacher's work included documentation of between five and eight days of instruction in the same class, examples of student work, videotapes of two lessons, and a self-analysis of the teacher's performance.

Experienced teachers working at the state Department of Education, called teachers-in-residence, graded the portfolios. A teacher must receive a passing score to receive full certification.

"It's a lot of work," said Guarraia, 24, a teacher at Voluntown Elementary School. "[The program] mandates that you use what you learned in college, in workshops, and in seminars."

Guarraia told Education World that he found the process very useful. "You know where you need to be and what you have to work on."

The portfolio project is the culminating activity of the two-year assessment and support program for new teachers. In the first year of BEST, beginning teachers meet periodically with an assigned mentor teacher and attend seminars and workshops throughout the year.


The BEST program is among the most rigorous in the country, according to Michael Pons, a spokesman for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union.

"Connecticut is one of the states we point to frequently as doing the right thing in terms of teacher support," Pons told Education World. "It's important to have a process to make sure people have the knowledge and the skills to be teachers. Most states just focus on the knowledge. Having a [video]tape and material reviewed by your peers is a good way to see if you have the skills. It's good to know sooner rather than later if a person is going to do a good job."

Michael Allen, project manager for the Education Commission of the States, which monitors education policies, agrees. "It is one of the first state-funded programs [to review new teachers], and few [programs] are as extensive as this one," Allen told Education World. "The information we have is that it is very effective." Earlier this year, ECS presented an award to the BEST program, citing it as innovative.

Catherine Fisk, coordinator of the policy and research unit in the education department's Bureau of Program and Teacher Evaluations, said Connecticut is sharing its knowledge. Officials from Connecticut's Department of Education have traveled to other states, including Indiana, Illinois, and New Mexico, to talk to policymakers about the BEST program and how to set up the portfolio system.

The state is seeing the program's effect in improved student test scores, Fisk said. About 40 percent of the state's education workforce now has come through the BEST system, which is about a decade old. "Now we are seeing the results of those sustained efforts."


Last summer, teachers-in-residence at the Connecticut Department of Education evaluated more than 2,000 portfolios, Fisk said. Out of the 2,000 teachers who submitted portfolios last summer, approximately 85 percent received passing grades.

Portfolios are graded on a scale of one to four, with four the highest. A two or higher is needed to pass. Those who score below two have another chance to submit a portfolio in their third year. If that one also is unsatisfactory, they are no longer candidates for certification.

Among the factors considered in the portfolio assessment are teachers' abilities to plan and implement instruction, to evaluate student learning and analyze their own teaching, to know their students, and to adapt instruction for individual students.


Two beginning teachers told Education World that though preparing a portfolio certainly takes a lot of time and effort, the results are worth it.

After the review, Guarraia, the Voluntown fifth-grade teacher, said he thought he already was doing a lot of hands-on activities with his students and individualizing lessons but realized he could do much more. He also better clarifies with students his expectations for projects now.

"When someone points things out, you realize there are other ways to do it," Guarraia said. A math lesson about area and perimeter formulas is an example of how he improved his teaching after BEST. In addition to teaching the students about area and perimeter, he now requires the students to apply their knowledge by constructing their ideal homes so they can see how to apply the formulas.

He also found that the focus of the portfolio review was not so much on what he was doing wrong, but what he could do better. "[Evaluating teachers] are not looking for perfection. They are looking to see what changes are needed and if you are able to change."

For Adam Shaughnessy, 27, who teaches a combined second- and third-grade class at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, Connecticut, preparing a portfolio was a very reflective process.

"I found it a lot more real," Shaughnessy told Education World. "I think it gave me a better picture of who I am as a teacher and my approach to teaching. They were asking me to be the teacher I am and honestly reflect on the approach I'm taking."

The review helped him focus more on individual student achievement, such as defining areas with which students need help and need to learn. Partially in response to the portfolio, Shaughnessy said, he developed a checklist of items for students to use to improve their writing.

"It was more about learning about learning," he said of the portfolio process, "both for the kids and myself."


To help teachers earn certification and remain in education, Connecticut maintains a pool of about 12 teachers-in-residence from different disciplines. Those teachers take two-year leaves from their school districts to work with the state's BEST program.

The teachers-in-residence score portfolios, conduct seminars and workshops for new teachers, and prepare manuals.

Kitfia Ferguson, a teacher-in-residence for language arts, who teaches at Hamden Middle School, told Education World she finds the review process very comprehensive.

"[BEST is] a lot different program from what I went through," Ferguson said. "[It] allows you to get a more accurate picture of what happens in the classroom, and you get to see what happens in other districts."

Ferguson read about 200 portfolios from language arts teachers in fifth through 12th grades last summer. Language arts teachers had to submit a videotape showing a 20-minute classroom discussion of literature and three to five drafts of writing samples from two students. "It helps me to understand the dynamics of the profession," she said.

Michael Greenwood, a fifth-grade teacher in Windsor, Connecticut, is in his second year as a teacher-in-residence. He said that reading the portfolios and working with new teachers not only gives him a good picture of the certification candidates but also helps him assess his own performance, even after 25 years in the classroom.

"It's constantly forcing me to reflect on my own teaching," Greenwood told Education World. "I ask myself, 'Did I do some of these things?' It's a constant self-renewal."

Reviewers also get a fairly complete picture of the new teachers from the portfolios, he said, including how they communicate with students, how they use of inquiry, how they react to students, and how they adapt lessons around student needs.

"We realize [the portfolio] is a lot of work," Greenwood said. "But we get a lot of information, and it gives them a lot of feedback. We hope that at the end, they are able to determine what is good and what needs improvement. It is moving everyone toward the art and craft of teaching."

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Ellen R. Delisio
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