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Achieving Results Standards in Action - #3 Creating a Marketplace of Ideas

Image of teacher and studentIn 1994, a school administrative district in rural western Maine began a district improvement effort called ARISE (Assessing, Reflecting, Integrating for System-based Excellence). Key to the initiative was the recognition of the need to change the weekly school schedule to increase the time available for training and development. Adding 15 minutes to the school day on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, and dismissing students an hour early on Wednesday freed an hour each week in which educators could reflect and learn. After several years, and consistent  feedback from teachers that longer blocks of time would be more effective, the district fine-tuned the schedule to provide a two-hour block for training and development every other week [Organizational Alignment].

While curriculum committees and similar initiatives have used the time well, the most powerful benefit has come from the creation of teacher interest groups. Teachers had long asked for opportunities to collaborate with one another on a grander scale than had previously been possible. Thus, early in the ARISE initiative, teacher leaders and administrators agreed that a portion of each Wednesday afternoon session would be devoted to open-ended, teacher-led inquiry based on educators' interests.

The first step was to bring everyone together for a district-wide "marketplace of ideas" to identify areas of interest that met two criteria: areas of personal passion and interest, and areas that connected with established district goals [Participation, Organizational Alignment]. Some participants posted on chart paper their ideas for interest group topics, while others signed up to join groups for six weeks of focused study. Governing each group was "the rule of two feet": individuals could move to a different group if the issue or project under study no longer met their personal needs for inquiry and growth.

In the first year, 18 interest groups formed. Topics included fine arts integration, school readiness, project-based learning, teacher research, and integration of the humanities. Staff members' responses to the new initiative were positive enough to make the interest groups into an annual event. Over the years, teachers and administrators alike have begun to view the interest group concept as one of the most effective forms of training and development available to teachers. Surveys show teachers experience professional fulfillment when allowed to collaborate on topics of mutual interest [Focus on Results].

The district has tried various methods for sharing interest group results and recommendations, from formal poster displays to written summaries. Participants have learned to avoid making the reporting process too bureaucratic in order to ensure that time is not taken away from collaborative inquiry. Recently, group members have used electronic bulletin boards to form, to post minutes, and to share results on the district's web site.

The interest group process supports both personal professional growth and district improvement [Organizational Alignment]. Groups are encouraged to develop recommendations and proposals that relate to district programs and policies, and are asked to forward their recommendations to the administrative team for review. As a result, since 1994, over 125 interest groups have been created, engendering a culture of professional reflection and study, and giving rise to innovations that have strengthened students' achievement and well-being [Continuous Improvement, Focus on Results]. Teachers are also invited to reflect on the process itself, and several refinements have resulted from this ongoing source of evaluation data.