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Maine’s deployment of the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD) program has been substantially different from that of other states. It has included the addition of several parameters and operating requirements that have made the school change process that was prompted by CSRD in that state particularly promising and worthy of study (Hamann et al., 2001). Maine’s adaptation of the CSRD framework has led to the adoption of school portfolios at 11 high schools. The state urged schools to adopt this measure in addition to focusing all of its comparatively modest CSRD allocation at the high school level and assuring further overlap in each school’s change process by tying funding to several practices recommended in the state’s otherwise voluntary high school reform framework known as Promising Futures (Maine Commission on Secondary Education 1998). Schools prepare the portfolios annually and use them to document and reflect upon the change process upon which they have formally embarked. External reviewers evaluate the portfolios and schools can use them as sources of “collective generativity” (Lord 1994, p. 193), or sources of ideas that help school personnel decide how to proceed.
It is in this last capacity that we see a tie-in between the practice of school portfolio drafting and the incubation of ‘critical collegiality’. As with others in this panel, we see critical collegiality as a needed condition for the intrastaff communication and coordination that enables schools to cultivate an ongoing capacity to self-critique and self-improve, particularly in the contemporary high-standards-emphasizing environment. Based on our familiarity with all 11 of Maine’s CSRD high schools and from our further inquiry at seven of those schools, we found that school portfolios can be a mechanism for promoting the elements of Lord’s (1994) Model of Critical Colleagueship. Put briefly, critical collegiality refers to school professionals’ use of observation, formative feedback, and adjusted practice as tools of self-critique and improvement. Though external advice should figure significantly in this type of a system, peer-to-peer professional commentary is the defining feature.
Even though several professionals at a school collaborate to produce the portfolio, insertion of a portfolio requirement does not assure an outcome of critical collegiality. Indeed, the ‘top-down’ mandate to produce school portfolios, if not co-opted at the school level into a tool of self-monitoring and analysis and an internally-controlled tool of professional development, can be a source of problematic, contrived teacher collaboration rather than the constructive, voluntary type (Hargreaves 1991). The key variable here is not the origin of the portfolio policy, but rather whether it is or is not ‘owned’ at the school level. Of course, buy-in to the concept of portfolio creation does not necessarily mean buy-in to each of the change steps that the portfolio process is supposed to document. Portfolios may occasion critically collegial conversation without always supporting each of the changes urged by federal CSRD requirements and Maine’s Promising Futures framework.
At the 11 schools, contributing to either critical collegiality or contrived (and minimal) teacher collaboration was the most common (and dramatically simplified) outcome of the introduction of the school portfolio requirement. But there was a third scenario. We did find in one instance that a school had taken ownership of the portfolio process, but the portfolio still had a negligible effect on promoting collegiality. That school had enough other professional development mechanisms in play to promote collegial introspection and consensual decision making, and people at the school viewed the portfolio’s contribution to that end as redundant.