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Maine's Portfolio-Based Recertification Process Overcomes Initial Skepticism

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AUGUSTA, ME.--Dorothy D'Alessandro has come to talk about her state's new process for recertifying school administrators. Under her arm she carries a heavy, black, three-ring binder, more than four inches thick, documenting her professional experience and development as the director of special education in the Waterville public schools, located north of here off Interstate 95.

The portfolio, organized around 13 knowledge areas, is an impressive document. But it is particularly noteworthy in Ms. D'Alessandro's case because she initially resisted even participating in the new process, which requires school administrators to undertake the unfamiliar task of compiling professional portfolios.

"I delayed in getting started, and I had to ask for an extension because I waited so long,'' she recalls. "I just did not want to do it. The old way was comfortable; I was familiar with that.''

The "old way'' in Maine is still the current way in most states: To renew their certification, administrators merely had to show they had completed six continuing-education credits in five years.

Once she overcame her resistance, however, Ms. D'Alessandro found the new recertification process to be a "very positive experience.''

Her change of heart typifies the response of many Maine educators. When the state implemented a radically revamped recertification process in 1988, many administrators here complained that it would be another cumbersome, time-consuming burden for people who already found it difficult to keep up with their workloads.

But the process has turned many of the early doubters into some of the strongest supporters; they have even assumed extra roles as mentors or leaders of the regional-administrator consortia that have taken over much of the work of implementing the recertification system from the state department of education.

"We talk a lot about the need to restructure and reform education practices,'' says Nelson Megna, superintendent of the Winthrop School Department, near Augusta. "This is one of the changes that can truly be characterized as a reform.''

The changes in Maine, which resulted from the state legislature's Education Reform Act of 1984, involve much more than requiring administrators to organize portfolios. In a broad sense, the process attempts the ambitious goal of linking recertification with continuing, meaningful professional growth.

'A Quantum Leap of Quality'

Administrators begin the recertification process by assessing their competency levels in 13 knowledge areas outlined by the state board of education, ranging from community relations and school finance to curriculum development and educational philosophy.

Portfolios--which might contain transcripts, performance evaluations, commendations, and publications, as well as details about special projects, committee work, and educational travel, to name just a sample of the contents--are part of the process that helps administrators recognize their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Based on that assessment, administrators develop "action plans'' for professional growth at least 18 months before their current certificate expires, and then document their efforts to reach the goals outlined in their plans. Recertification is tied to completion of the action plan.

Under the new process, administrators can deal directly with the state department of education, which reviews the action plan and the related professional-development efforts.

Most administrators, however, opt to complete the process through one of the 13 regional support systems that have been given the responsibility for recommending recertification decisions to the state. Integral to the regional approach is the use of mentors or support teams, other administrators who offer the candidate advice and support throughout the process. The candidates themselves can choose whether they want to work with one mentor or a three-person team.

"From the former system to the current system is really a quantum leap of quality and rigor,'' says Gerald Clockedile, the superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 3 in Unity.

Take the role of graduate course work, for instance. Administrators can still enroll in courses as part of their action plan, but they must show how the subject relates to their own professional development and their own school or district.

"There was always the opportunity to do that in the past, but there was no requirement,'' says Mr. Megna, the Winthrop superintendent.

"When your decisions are subject to the scrutiny of a monitor or another person,'' he adds, "they tend to be a little different than when they're made in the lateness of the night looking through the catalogue to see what's available on Tuesdays because Tuesday is the only good day to take the class. This process requires you to be more reflective.''

Brenda Chaisson, the principal of Chelsea Elementary School, says she had never consciously thought about a lot of the issues she now keeps track of in her portfolio. "You were doing the job on a day-to-day basis,'' she notes. "This really makes you stop and evaluate what it is you're doing on the job.''

Breaking Down Isolation

In addition to helping the administrators chart their professional-development course, the system of mentors and support teams also helps break down the isolation many educators feel in their jobs, administrators here say. The system gives them the opportunity to meet their colleagues and hear what people are doing in other schools and districts.

As part of that effort, the regional consortia have undertaken an array of professional-development activities related to the reform law's 13 knowledge areas. The Kennebec consortium, for example, which includes Augusta, has sponsored a series of workshops, led by administrators with expertise in such areas as technology, school law, cooperative learning, and equity.

"At each one I've attended,'' Ms. Chaisson says, "I've been able to bring something back and use it. They have been on-target, focused, and practical.''

Furthermore, she says, the workshop leaders live and work in the area, so there is more opportunity for meaningful follow-up.

The Maine Leadership Consortium, a coalition that includes all of the state's largest education organizations, has coordinated the work of the regional groups and has offered its own training activities, including well-attended leadership forums and a summer leadership academy.

In a state like Maine, with its many remote towns far from the capital, coordinating the activities of a diverse assembly of regional support systems has proved challenging.

A recent meeting of the regional coordinators was conducted using interactive television, with seven people sitting around a conference table at the University of Maine at Augusta and four others participating from different sites via video.

Nelson Walls, the Maine Leadership Consortium's executive director, acknowledges that the video set-up is far from perfect and tends to make for a rather stilted meeting. But it is the best available option for linking the distant locations.

The regional system, while bringing administrators together, has another, more significant, drawback.

"The quality of the system varies markedly from one region to the next,'' Mr. Walls says. "This is a professional-development-driven system, and if the folks involved in the system are not naturally inclined to understand the relationship between the nature of their work and the need to continually learn, then the system isn't as strong.''

The regions where the system is working well, he adds, tend to be those where one or two people are providing strong leadership.

A related concern involves administrators who move from one region to another in the middle of their recertification process. So far, however, the regional coordinators say that has not posed significant problems. Mr. Clockedile, the superintendent of district 3, says he had to change some elements of his action plan to better fit his new work situation when he changed jobs and regions, but he found similar expectations for recertification in the two regions.

The Threat of Budget Cuts

Aside from such relatively minor logistical issues as transfers between regions, Mr. Walls sees a bigger threat to the recertification reforms from Maine's continuing fiscal problems. The amount of state money going to the system has been reduced, and cuts in funds for items such as travel and workshops have had indirect effects on administrators' opportunities for professional development.

Groups such as the Maine Leadership Consortium have stepped up their activities, and their spending, to try to make up for state budget cuts, but Mr. Walls does not see that as a long-term solution.

"For all the good that this system brings,'' he says, "the state can't be complacent about it and fail to give it the financial support down the road it's going to require.''

After her early doubts, Dorothy D'Alessandro, the Waterville special-education director, wants the new system to survive. And she provides an example of its benefits.

Through her knowledge-area assessment, Ms. D'Alessandro realized she needed to work on her staff-development skills.

"I was not comfortable with getting up in front of a group of people and organizing an in-service,'' she says. "So I was forced to come to grips with that in the process.''

By making staff development a focus of her action plan, Ms. D'Alessandro says, her skills in that area improved to the point where she now gets requests to present workshops in other districts.

"In the traditional method [of recertification], the benefits were just for me,'' she says. "In this process, there were benefits that went beyond me and into my district.''

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