Why We Need Accountability for Portfolio Evaluators
Suppose John Smith Construction Inc. is building a bridge near your home. They file a safety report with the local government, showing they have passed all requirements with flying colors and that the bridge is structurally sound. Then you find out that the safety inspector who wrote the report was an independent contractor hired by John Smith Construction Inc.—John Smith’s brother-in-law. You further find out that the local government will accept the report at its word, and doesn’t ask for copies of the original measurements or any other documentation. How safe will you feel driving over that bridge?
Unfortunately, most states that require homeschooled students to have portfolio reviews rely on this exact system—the parents choose and pay for their own evaluators, who may be relatives or friends, and the school district that receives the evaluations takes them on faith without ever looking at the portfolios themselves. The result is a system that invites corruption. At stake is not bridge safety, but children’s educations.
We have been covering Pennsylvania’s HB 1013 since last February. (See HB 1013 and Accountability and HB 1013 Is Bad for Homeschooling.) In a nutshell, the state’s current homeschool statute requires parents to first create a portfolio of their child’s work and have it evaluated by a certified teacher or other qualified individual, and then turn both that portfolio and the written evaluation in to the local school district for review by the superintendent. HB 1013 would remove the superintendent’s review, requiring parents to turn in only the written evaluation. We have had several homeschooling parents email us surprised that we oppose HB 1013 when it only removes what they argue is a redundant extra step. Because accountability for portfolio evaluators is included in our policy recommendations, we feel it is worth taking the time to explain why this extra step is not only not redundant but actually critically important.
Portfolio evaluations by teachers or other individuals play a role in homeschooled students’ assessments in 10 states. Evaluators are usually certified teachers, though some states may also allow other professionals or individuals who have taught in private schools but may not be certified to serve as evaluators. In each of these 10 states, the parents choose the evaluators, and they also pay them. There is no required training for being an evaluator, and in all states except for Pennsylvania there is nothing to ensure that evaluators are doing their job. In other words, there is nothing to prevent an evaluator from pocketing the parents’ money and signing off on their children’s portfolios without even glancing at them. And as we will show, this absolutely does happen.
Conflict of Interest
In some cases, portfolio evaluations are conducted by relatives or close friends, who will likely feel pressure to sign off on the students’ portfolios regardless of their quality. As Kierstyn King remembers:
My home state, Florida, required an annual portfolio review by a certified teacher. We had one portfolio review done by a teacher who was a neutral third party, and she started asking me questions about my education that year. My mom became upset and we never went back. Instead, one of my relatives who is in the adult education field and has been a certified teacher for as long as I can remember “reviewed” our portfolios for us. I say review lightly, because no thorough review was expected or given—if that had been the case, my math and my siblings’ writing and reading comprehension skills would have been noticed. Instead, we presented our portfolios, and they were signed off on without a glance.
No state specifies that portfolio evaluators should not be relatives or close family friends. As a result, in too many cases, those trusted to look over homeschooled students’ portfolios to determine whether they have made sufficient progress have major conflicts of interest. This may not be ethical but it is completely legal.
The Financial Incentive
The fact that the evaluators are paid by the parents can also create a problem. As Teresa M. remembers:
At the time my parents were homeschooling us in the state of Ohio a certified teacher was needed to sign off that the children were being educated. They were supposed to look over the last year’s work to verify. The woman who did ours was also a member of our church and homeschool support group and never even looked at the stuff mom brought her, which wasn’t much. I even remember mom commenting that ‘P only cared about her check clearing.’
Homeschool alumni have reported hearing their parents and others sharing the names of the evaluators who go the easiest and ask the fewest questions. This creates a financial incentive to have a reputation for being an easy evaluator, someone who doesn’t look too closely.
Homeschooling communities’ tendency to close ranks around their own also contributes to these problems. In the wake of the passing of HB 1013, a homeschool alumni from Pennsylvania wrote this:
I do not know what would have become of my education if HB 1013 had passed while I was still a homeschooled child. I suspect that our already fragile standards would have plummeted. While I can imagine my evaluator raising the alarm (privately, of course, to my parents) if I were literally unable to perform basic addition, it’s more difficult to imagine her refusing to approve us to continue homeschooling. After all, she was one of us, and saw homeschooling as a moral imperative, not just an education option. More than likely, she would have admonished us to do better and signed the forms. Even if she hadn’t, what would have prevented us from simply finding another person to sign?
During the annual review itself, my evaluator went through my portfolio and read selectively. She glanced at the grades my mother had given me on the tests we chose to include, and maybe read through one of them in detail. It would have been blindingly easy to fake our way through an evaluation. All we would need were a couple of inflated tests. Without the superintendent review, an already easily-corruptible process would have had no teeth at all. We could count on our evaluator to put in some effort because her license was on the line if the school board contradicted her review. If nobody had checked her work, how could we trust her to check mine?
It is a common practice for a homeschool parent who has a teaching certificate or otherwise qualifies to be an evaluator to conduct portfolio evaluations for other homeschooling families in her community. Many homeschooling parents feel the need to prevent outside intervention in homeschooling families even when there are concerns and to make sure homeschoolers look good regardless of the cost to the children in question. As a result, homeschool parent evaluators are likely to sign off on every portfolio, including those with severe deficiencies.
Yes, But Is It Common?
By now the problem should be obvious. Without accountability, there is nothing to stop an evaluator from signing off on a homeschooled student’s portfolio without looking at it, or to prevent an evaluator from signing off on a portfolio they know is substandard. How often does this happen? The Testimony of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators gives us some idea:
Under current law, the school district receives the evaluator’s report and student portfolio. We work to provide the parents with appropriate feedback that is designed to assist them in their role as their child’s teacher. . . .
We view this work as a core responsibility, not just because it is the law, but because we think it helps those parents who choose home schooling and protects those children whose parents may not have the best motives in mind. It is not unheard of for a few parents to use the home education law as a way to have their child avoid discipline, truancy charges or other consequences. We urge you to leave the accountability and oversight provisions of the home education law as is. We believe the relatively minor burden placed on parents and school districts to assure that appropriate education is being provided is worth the price. We do not know how many home schooled students will be harmed should their direct oversight be removed.
We do know from the last public report on home education issued by the Department of Education that, of the 22,136 students who were home educated in 2006-07, 14 had affidavits returned by the superintendent, 108 were identified by the evaluator as having inappropriate educational programs, and 228 were identified by the superintendent as having inappropriate educational programs. In 2006-07, 12 formal hearings were held regarding inappropriate programs.
While the responsibility of reviewing the evaluators’ reports and students’ portfolios each year is extra work for school districts, it is work that goes to the core of what we have sworn an oath to do. It is work that is appropriately assigned to us. By removing the requirement that student portfolios and evaluations undergo an annual review by the superintendent, home education students would no longer be subject to independent, unpaid review of each student’s academic progress. . . . We strongly oppose removing the responsibility of the superintendent to review the annual evaluation and portfolio and instead place this responsibility solely with the paid evaluator.
While evaluators identified 108 inappropriate educational programs for the 2006-2007 school year, superintendents located 228 additional inappropriate educational programs that evaluators had signed off on. These evaluators may have been friends or relatives, or they may have been more interested in getting paid than in properly carrying out their responsibilities, or they may have had more concern for the reputation of the homeschooling community than for the education of the community’s children. That the portfolio review system needs accountability is verified both by the testimony of homeschool alumni and the records kept by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
We need a system of accountability for portfolio evaluators. Whether it be a conflict of interest or the financial incentive or a desire to close ranks and keep other homeschoolers free from outside intervention at all costs, evaluators have many reasons to be less than honest in their evaluations—and it is the children who suffer. Evaluators should not be able to sign off on insufficient progress without having to worry about getting caught. Many homeschooled children rely on portfolio evaluations to ensure that they receive an education, and when evaluators fall down on the job it is these children’s education that suffers. When evaluators are not held accountable, parents are not held accountable, and when parents are not held accountable there will be homeschooled children who receive substandard educations.
At this point, there is likely no stopping HB 1013, as it is unlikely that the current governor will veto the bill. What we can do is raise awareness about the importance of accountability for portfolio evaluators. We would not allow a construction company building a bridge to hire and compensate their own safety inspector. Why would we think this system any less given to corruption when applied to homeschooling? Accountability is important whatever is at stake, whether bridge safety or children’s education.
Please join us in promoting accountability for portfolio evaluators.