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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
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The Southern Maine Partnership
University's education faculty collaborates with nearby schools

By Jon Marcus

Brunswick, Maine

  David Ruff, a professor of education at Southern Maine University, directs the universityŐs partnership with Maine school districts.
  David Ruff, a professor of education at Southern Maine University, directs the university's partnership with Maine school districts.
IT IS STILL DARK when the big yellow buses lumber to a stop outside Mt. Ararat Middle School, disgorging sleepy students into the old brick building's bright, high-ceilinged corridors, their dark wooden floors buffed to a high shine and the walls lined with orange metal lockers.

For most of these kids it has been a long commute from their homes in the far-flung rural towns and sparsely populated coastal villages and islands that comprise Maine School Administrative District 75. And if the students feel isolated, consider the teachers: Theirs is the only middle school in a radius of five towns, geographically separated from the nearest counterpart or colleague who might offer reassurance or advice.

These are the conditions that have helped to foster the nation's most enduring confederation between a university education faculty and the schools around it, the 15-year-old Southern Maine Partnership, whose success at helping teachers to collaborate among themselves from one rural district to another has overcome traditional suspicions of higher education faculty nosing around in local classrooms.

"The partnership is there to help us talk things out, or at least to find out that we're not the only ones who are dealing with an issue," Elizabeth Manchester, Mt. Ararat's congenial principal, said. Her brightly lit and cheerful office is like an outpost in the gloom of the bleak New England morning. "They will actually go and get the resources people need. You have a real sense that they work for you."

Take a recent showdown with the school board, in which the whole staff met together using problem-solving skills they'd learned from faculty at the University of Southern Maine, where the partnership is based, and found a way to save a literacy class the board had ordered cut. Or consider a similar situation last year, when research the university supplied helped back the school's campaign to expand the foreign language program; or the partnership's network of guidance counselors from different districts who have gotten together to talk about dealing with student violence; or the college-model system under which each student has a teacher advisor; or the school's new building, now under construction, whose design is based in part on partnership ideas; or Manchester's own niche as one of 12 women principals -- they call themselves the "Dirty Dozen" -- studying how to be superintendents in a for-credit graduate program the university arranged with the obvious goal of changing the fact that most superintendents in Maine are men.

If the partnership begins to sound like a combination of the United Nations and a research and development arm at the beck and call of local schools, that has a lot to do with its location in this idiosyncratic state, where there is resistance to change and a mistrust of people "from away." The university treads lightly, generally waiting to be asked for its help. "They don't jam themselves down anybody's throat," Manchester said approvingly. "They subtly give you information when you need it."

Such diplomacy has helped the partnership, which started in 1985 with six school districts, grow to 33, representing 201 schools, 6,700 teachers, and 82,000 students, or a third of the enrollment of the state -- students who, by the way, score higher today than those of any other state in reading, math and science.

A dog-eared highway atlas in the office of the partnership staff on the university's campus in Gorham, near the city of Portland, testifies to their far-ranging travels. The partnership's V-shaped territory in the southernmost section of the state stretches from tiny islands off the picture-postcard coast to mountains on the border with New Hampshire, and from Portland on the one hand to Hiram on the other, a town of 1,200 whose elementary school has just two classrooms. (The program also includes two private schools and two public colleges, the Maine College of Art and Southern Maine Technical College.)

Originally run by a single faculty member working part-time, the partnership now has 15 faculty assigned to it, plus five full- and part-time professional staff and two assistants. Each district pays annual dues of $1,300. The rest of the $900,000 budget comes from the university and from grants and gifts."The idea was to develop this program in partnership with schools," said David Ruff, himself a former high school teacher who now serves as the partnership's director of school reform. "It was school districts and the university getting together and talking. Both sides saw that they could really get something out of it. It wasn't as much about the schools driving the university, or vice versa. It was a collaboration."

In fact, if anything, the schools seem to be doing most of the driving. In 1989, for instance, superintendents of member districts who were dissatisfied with teacher training at the university asked the dean to end the undergraduate education program in favor of a graduate program limited to students with liberal arts degrees. The dean agreed, effectively changing the entire structure of the school of education.

"The university really has listened to the schools," said John Goodlad, co-director of the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington. In some other places, he said, universities treat teachers in a patronizing "father knows best" way, something Southern Maine's alliance has avoided. "The schools really have a lot to say, and they have changed the way the university trains teachers," Goodlad added.

In another instance, a local school raised objections to a student teacher from the university. "In a traditional teacher education program, what you would say is, we'll just place the person somewhere else," said Lynne Miller, the partnership's director and a professor of educational leadership. "Higher education thinks it has all the answers, and universities have this mindset that they're the teachers and the schools are the technicians. But in this case, the university said, 'You're right.' And that, I think, was a pivotal moment in this program. When push came to shove, the voices were equally heard. It wasn't, 'We know best.'"

As for the university, it sees the arrangement as "a way to put theories into practice," according to Ruff. Faculty "are getting a chance to see this stuff, which is significantly different than talking about it in a class. You don't usually see K–12 kids when you're on the graduate education faculty." Professors even have picked up classroom techniques from teachers, Ruff said, including methods originally designed to gauge effective presentation in lower grades, but since adapted by the faculty for their education courses. "The notion is that if we rub against each other and talk to each other, we'll all get better," Miller said.

  The partnership with Southern Maine University has helped to improve communications within individual schools and between school districts, says Elizabeth Manchester, a middle school principal.
  The partnership with Southern Maine University has helped to improve communications within individual schools and between school districts, says Elizabeth Manchester, a middle school principal.
That is the philosophy behind the partnership's most extensive program, its Critical Friends Groups (CFGs), an idea that is neither complicated nor unique to Maine, but seems particularly well-suited to its geographically disparate schools. Volunteer teams of teachers from within and between districts, CFGs share advice and review classroom techniques, setting goals and standards. Here the university serves mostly in an advocacy capacity, training and encouraging the groups.

Four years ago the partnership had two CFGs. Now there are 40, many of whose members gathered on another, brighter morning just before the start of the school year for a day-long orientation in the student union at the University of Southern Maine campus in Gorham, its floor-to-ceiling windows serving up a typical Maine view of hills and trees, and little else. The crowd was downright cheerful for the early morning hour, and was noticeably young; there was but one necktie among them, which turned out to belong to an assistant principal who was sitting in.

There was knowing laughter about common problems as the 70 teachers split up into smaller groups to talk about their work. Given two minutes to come up with ideas for classroom improvements, most wrote furiously, though some were caught off guard and had to think about it.One told of having changed his classroom by putting students in groups around tables instead of at desks. Another wanted advice about how to make her kids finish their work on time without failing them. Some expressed frustration with administrators, prompting sympathetic nods. "Sometimes I feel like it's me talking and them just being passive listeners," one teacher lamented. "I just want the kids to get beyond that 'it's good enough' level."

Another teacher in the group explained how she incorporated research projects into her French language class to keep the students interested. Still another tried a moratorium on homework for a month, discouraged by the amount of time she spent assigning and pursuing it. "As everyone's talking, I'm thinking, 'Ah, that's a good one, that's a good one,'" said one young teacher who was feverishly taking notes.

"A lot of times, teachers close the door and you don't have a lot of interaction with your colleagues, and you do the same lesson plan over and over and over again. And if it doesn't work, well, it doesn't matter," said Heidi Paulding, who teaches Latin at Scarborough High School and is a member of its CFG. "There is professional isolation. You might not see or interact with another adult all day, except for the people who complain a lot in the teachers' room. But when you have a CFG, instead of saying, 'Oh, that Johnny So-and-So, he didn't do what he's supposed to do, your CFG will give you some ideas to deal with Johnny. It makes the teaching experience much more valuable and enjoyable. They make themselves very available, and they don't make you feel like you're an idiot. They treat you like a valued colleague."

Paulding spices up her Latin classes by having her students translate the steamy Roman poet Catullus, and by comparing the words with the lyrics of contemporary love songs. "My CFG made me stop and say, 'How can I make this real for my students?' It pushes me to go out on a limb and try this crazy idea. And they aren't going to say, 'This is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.' They're supportive."

Aaron Gould, a teacher at the small Lake Region Middle School, considers CFGs as something even simpler: "a tool for finding out what's going on in our own school. A lot of people didn't know what was going on, even in a school that size," he said. "The more we talk to each other, the better we get."

South Portland High School, by comparison, is large for Maine, with 1,000 students. Even there, however, "one of the more frustrating elements is the lack of discussion of your work with other teachers," said Stephen Spring, a math teacher at the school, and leader of its CFG. "You get yourself in situations where you're teaching the same subjects or even the same students, but you don't have time to talk about your work."

With CFGs, he said, "I was just energized to see teachers throw their student work out there and use these very sophisticated protocols to look at the work. Teachers are very much kings and queens of their domain. They don't want somebody looking in, because they might challenge them. This challenges that intensely, but it's the right kind of feedback. Only in doing that can you draw up good conclusions."

Spring, who previously taught in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., said people at the university have had a lot to overcome to win the trust of educators like him. Teachers often have ambivalence about their training, he said, which reflects on schools of education. "Most people who end up teaching after going through a university program kind of have this feeling that what they learned was crap," he said. "You have these people who aren't on the front lines with you telling you how to do your job. And you suspect it isn't right." In the partnership, by contrast, he said, "they seem to have a little more experiential learning going on here. 'Tell me what you're doing, and let's devise a plan.'"

This kind of thing is credited with nothing less than changing the culture inside schools, according to its many boosters. Back at Mt. Ararat Middle School, for instance, a guidance counselor stops a physical education teacher to talk about a troubled student who is finally doing well, but is fearful about a looming test in gym class. Not only does the teacher stop to listen; she promises to find a way to solve the problem.

"It's amazing how you can get these people together and make a decision," said Kyle Abernathy, a special education teacher who came to Mt. Ararat this year from a rural district outside the partnership. "The climate, which flows over into the kids, too, is a warmer environment. It's like a team." In her old school, she said, "I felt isolated. Even within my own building, there were teachers I probably never met."

Principal Manchester agrees. "When I first started at the middle school, you could not hold a conversation with the staff about something that was out of anybody's content area," she said. "Now they are doing problem-solving beyond their own needs. They are really looking at the whole school and the big picture."

Ruff tells of bringing his three-year-old daughter, Bridget, to his office at the partnership one day, after which her mother asked what it was like. She responded: "They just do a lot of talking." And that pretty much appears to be the gist of things. When a colleague first proposed the CFGs, "they said, 'OK, we get a bunch of people together, maybe ten to 12 people, and somebody to facilitate that group, and they talk about their work,'" Ruff said. "There was a pause, and I said, 'OK.' But that was it. It's really that simple."

  Heidi Paulding, who teaches Latin at a Maine high school, likes the exchanges of ideas promoted by the Southern Maine Partnership.
  Heidi Paulding, who teaches Latin at a Maine high school, likes the exchanges of ideas promoted by the Southern Maine Partnership.
Even the partnership's office at the university is in a large open room, with work areas separated by waist-high partitions. There is a conference table in the center and a lot of random conversation back and forth. In short, Ruff said, "the partnership brings people together to generate ideas, realizing I don't have the answers, but maybe I have a piece and you have another piece, and we can put them all together."

Of course, the CFGs are not the only initiative of the Southern Maine Partnership. The program publishes a calendar crowded with lectures, seminars, conferences, retreats and other activities for teachers. Its biannual newsletter, In Partnership, highlights successful programs in Maine schools, often in the words of the teachers who devised them.

The partnership offers visiting experts to help prepare for new state-required assessment tests. It arranges monthly meetings of superintendents, periodic gatherings of principals, and regular "dine and discuss" dinners at the teacher-friendly time of 4 p.m., with education experts as speakers. It coordinates review teams that, when asked, provide member schools with evaluations of their teaching strategies. It invites experienced classroom teachers to serve for a semester as instructors in the school of education. It quietly provides up-to-date research to help principals like Manchester stand up to their school boards. It has designed a $3.5 million Web site called the Electronic Learning Marketplace (, where teachers in isolated schools can see each other's most effective classroom methods and materials online. It even stages forums to discuss Maine's educational reform program, gingerly sidestepping the many complaints in favor of suggestions for ironing out problems.

No accident, that. At a time when education has been heavily politicized, the partnership steers clear of controversy. For one thing, it is based at a public university that is subject to the legislative budget process. For another, it is trying to avoid a major pitfall in this kind of work: the expectation of immediate results.

"People want change within two years. The reality is, you don't get radical change in two years," Ruff said. "We have been careful, and we haven't been forced to make promises to people. A big factor is political cover. We live in a very different world than Boston or New York or Philadelphia or Los Angeles, thank God, where there is an unwillingness from foundations and politicians to give it time to grow." For that reason, the partnership takes only a limited amount of state money for programs, "because that's tied up with politics," Lynne Miller said. Instead, it looks for sympathetic philanthropic foundations with patience.

Does it work? That's hard to measure. It is true that thousands of Maine teachers have gone through partnership programs. It also is true that Maine students, compared with counterparts in other states, do extraordinarily well on tests. They are, in fact, first in the nation in science, first in math and first in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered by the U.S. Department of Education. They also have posted ten years of gains on SAT scores, now 503 in math and 507 on the verbal section. That is close to the national average, even though the SAT participation rate is 68 percent, ninth-highest in the country; the score on the optional writing assessment is a well-above-average 605.

On the other hand, Ruff concedes that he "would have a hard time drawing broad generalizations that the Southern Maine Partnership is solely responsible for that improvement. Once people go through professional development opportunities, or take graduate courses here, or become certified as teachers and go out into schools, there are too many other factors at play for us to take credit. What people tend to do is to look at things like the (national assessment tests) and say that, while you can't make the connection that the Southern Maine Partnership has been the sole thing that has made positive things happen, positive things are happening in Maine and the Southern Maine Partnership is one of the pieces that is making positive things happen."

Not everyone is completely happy with the partnership. "Can they give us hands-on information?" asked Larry Williams, a teacher at Poland Regional High School. "Are they going to come in and teach the ninth-grade history class? How many of them have done that? How many of them have walked their talk?"

Williams, who has an undergraduate degree in music education from the university, says its teacher training program still does not incorporate its own advice. "It's all about the market for teachers," he said. "And if this program is going to provide teachers to public schools, they have to listen to them."

Whatever its shortcomings, the partnership is now being cast in bricks and mortar. The new high school in Poland, which opened in September, incorporates many of its ideas. So does the new Mt. Ararat Middle School, scheduled to open next year. Both are among the first new schools in Maine in decades.

"We have done a lot of talking about how you incorporate these principles into the building," said John d'Anieri, a teacher at the Poland school, whose students come from 13 different towns. There is, for instance, a desk in the faculty room for every teacher. Common spaces are oddly shaped with tile and wood trim to encourage students and teachers to talk informally. "It has a mall aesthetic, but I think a mall aesthetic is more appealing in a school than in a mall," d'Anieri said. "They're meant for hanging out."

  University of Southern Maine faculty members meet with public school teachers and administrators at a summer workshop.
  University of Southern Maine faculty members meet with public school teachers and administrators at a summer workshop.
Mt. Ararat's new school will be considerably bigger, since sixth grade is being added to the current seventh and eighth. To maintain its feeling of small size, it is to be divided into "neighborhoods," with classrooms that can open onto each other for team and interdisciplinary teaching. There will be a room on each floor where students ranging from "learning disabled" to "gifted" can get extra help. And there will be a performing arts center. The chorus room will double as a space for staff meetings, with furniture arranged informally. The faculty room will have work areas and round tables for the ubiquitous discussion sessions.

"It's hard to say what started with the partnership and what didn't, because it's so fluid," Manchester said. "But the design came from this openness of communication, and that came from the partnership. People talk about working collegially now; they look at the whole school and the big picture. And the university will actually get the resources you need. It's up to the school to take advantage of it."

Jon Marcus is a senior editor at Boston Magazine and covers U.S. higher education for the Times of London.

Photos by Rick Friedman, BlackStar , for CrossTalk

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