Portfolio Project Lets First Graders Gauge Their Progress for Themselves

Encouraging young students to discuss their best work with teachers and families

It may be the last remnant of the federal Reading First program in New Jersey, a small token passed on to school districts, but one that state officials say could have an important impact on childhood literacy.

The state Department of Education this month started distributing more than 100,000 portfolios for schools to give all their first-graders. They’re meant to be used to compile the best of the students’ reading and writing over the next two years.

The portfolios are neither mandated nor required, but officials say they hope the project — called Best Works — will prompt young students, their teachers and their families to think and talk more about their progress in learning to read and write in the critical early years of elementary school.

A Third-Grade Celebration

“And then when they reach third grade, we hope there will be a celebration of reading and writing, where children can go over what they have done,” said Willa Spicer, the deputy commissioner of education.

“As an education piece, it has all the parts,” she said. “It has them reflecting on their growth, it has them taking a few minutes a few times a year to talk to their teachers about it, and it has the families sharing in it, too.”

Learning portfolios are nothing new, but are not necessarily universally used in all classes or by students across more than one year.

So Spicer, who is leaving the department this month after four years of leading its academic and assessment programs, said she came up with the idea of a statewide campaign to be funded by unspent money from the federal Reading First program.

Reading First was created out of the No Child Left Behind Act, in which low-income schools were to use scientifically based instruction to teach reading. Somewhat controversial nationally due to accusations of conflicts of interest, it was generally well-received on state and local levels for its increased funding and heightened focus on reading instruction.

Unspent Money

The program ended in New Jersey last year, and the state was left with an unspecified amount of money to either send back or spend on literacy-related projects, Spicer said.

So far, the state has spent about $25,000 of the funds on the yellow portfolios, and it plans to draw on foundations and other sponsors to provide funds for future expansion into preschools.

“It can be a really nice record of what can happen between preschool and third grade,” Spicer said.

Although not compelled of districts, the program won praise from one influential member of the state Board of Education.

“It’s a very good thing, if done right,” said board member Dorothy Strickland, a professor of education at Rutgers University and a national expert on literacy instruction.

“Children can get a sense of their progress, teachers can not only track their students but also see points of concern, and for parents, it can be really wonderful to see the work over time.”

Strickland said she hopes the portfolios will be attached to professional development for teachers, who can use the information to help adjust instruction, where necessary.

“When everyone sits down and looks at it together, it can be really enlightening,” she said.

Still, not all districts have embraced it, Spicer said, acknowledging the department has a tough sell on its hands for any new initiatives these days, when districts are facing deep budget cuts and state limits on administrator pay.

“There were a couple of superintendents who said they didn’t want to do it,” Spicer said. ”Maybe they are mad about their salaries.”