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Dec 18, 2017

Meeting God on Saturday

Svetlana and I have a new grandson, whom I am anxious to meet. With children, you never know what to expect. The fun is to catch an occasional glimpse of one of many genetic lines, in a shape of an ear, or in a behavioral trait. The profound pleasure is to watch a human life unfold; a pleasure only grandparents have full access to, while actual parents are too busy taking care of their kids.

Whatever our silly thoughts, the new person comes into the world, his very presence is a statement, a challenge, and a profound question. Children are our real masters, our jury and judges. Even if you do not have children, other people’s children rule the world. Do not get fooled by their apparent weakness. They are the genetic and cultural treasure of the species. Their power comes from the presence here and now, without pre-conceptions, as vigorous and as imposing as life itself. “I am here, what is the gift you are going to leave for me?” Under the X-ray of a child’s gaze, all accomplishments look small. The world looks very big.

Children are our best available cure for despair. If you ever wondered whether life makes sense, get a child, visit a child. You will get an answer, so strong and obvious that you will be wondering how stupid your question really was. Or, more likely, you will forget the entire doubting episode as if it never happened.

Look into a newborn’s eyes, if you want to meet God. I am going to, at the end of this week.

Dec 3, 2017

A dictionary of euphemisms

In my native culture, sincerity and directness are often valued above politeness. Like other East Europeans including Ashkenazi, we tend to take direct talk as a sign of trust. We argue with people we respect, and agree politely with people we do not. Well, it works well for people you know well already, and for people who share your cultural assumptions; not so much for people who are more distant, or whose cultural assumptions differ. I have built a little dictionary of more diplomatic expressions, to counter my more natural instincts. I will never be as sophisticated an average Brit, who made an art out of polite questions that often mean the opposite of what they sound like. I am sure others have their own, so please share. It is fun. Like with regular translations, I will use Source and Target languages.

S: You are doing a bad job at this
T: Is there anything we can do to help you perform you work better?

S: Where the hell are you with the project?
T: Can you give me an update on the progress?

S: This is a terrible idea
T: This is an interesting idea, but I am not sure how it fits with our priorities

S: You should spend more time in your office
T: Hey, could not find you yesterday

S: You cannot give me assignments
T: Wonderful idea; would you take a lead on it?

S: No one cares about this
T: Who do you think would be your support group?

S: What you are saying is nonsense
T: Could you give me some examples of what you mean by this?

S: You are a terrible teacher
T: How would you use student comments to grow as an instructor?

S: Stop badmouthing your colleagues
T: What do you suggest I do?

S: You are either exaggerating or outright lying
T: How would other side describe the situation?

S: No
T: Let me discuss with our leadership. I can see a number of objections, but it does not hurt to try

S: No
T: Great idea, but we should really think where the funding would come from

S: No
T: Good point, but let me (or other people) worry about this

S: No
T: Yes

Nov 27, 2017

The pedagogy of relation and defunding of public higher education

Until relatively recently, defunding of public higher education was caused mainly by economic reasons. States had mandatory and increasing spending on K-12, healthcare, pensions, etc. and reluctant to increase taxation. Now we have a much stronger political component: more conservatives have convinced themselves that universities turn normal kids into flaming liberals. See a recent WP piece for evidence. It is ultimately a self-defeating for the mainstream conservatism illusion. Universities have always been liberal, from their inception, and will remain so. There are a few conservative universities, but unfortunately, none of them can be honestly called great. Those that you will recognize on the list are not that conservative, really. It is not an accident and not a conspiracy; free thought is the essence of the university. You may think liberalism is evil and even a form of totalitarianism, but you cannot deny that without liberal universities, no contemporary society can survive. If you think Trump’s core electorate – men without higher education – is going to sustain American economy, in 21 century, you’re simply in denial. Not one economist will support such a preposterous idea, neither liberal nor conservative. There is no way to turn back to the elitist model of higher education. The mass higher education is here to stay, and starving it of funds will not make universities more conservative.

Only three states have increased their higher ed funding since 2008: Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Arizona has an over 50% cut, which makes it a complete outlier. California is still below 2008 funding, and has allowed an over 60% tuition hike. With all my sympathy for state-level lawmakers, what is it they expect us to do? In theory, there are only two suggestions: one is to learn how to make money, and the other is to become more efficient.

I am somewhat sympathetic to the first suggestion, up to a point. Yes, we could enter some other markets, like online learning, professional development, and consulting, and make up some of the needed revenue there. But It would be irresponsible to think that universities like ours can rely on these additional earnings as a major revenue source. The depths of those markets are not that great.

The industry has given an honest try to the efficiency demand, too. We (the collective we) tried computerized instruction, MOOCs, tried cutting staff and administration, tried to replace many tenure-track faculty with lecturers. None of these things brings major gains in efficiency, and all have hard limits. Regular on-line teaching can be very effective, but it does not save much money in the end (you save on facilities, but lose on faculty support and IT infrastructure). The reason for that is not obvious to the public, and even without our professional community it is still needs explaining. It turns out the core of education is human relation. It is something peculiar to our species: most higher learning is only possible as social learning, and there has to be a teacher-like figure; not to transmit knowledge, but to make someone want to learn. The economic fundamentals of education depend on person-to-person affective labor. We have no relational technology whatsoever, not even in prototypes. Technology is not coming to our rescue any time soon. Although someone is better start working on how to reproduce the relational side of education with technology.

I am not trying to be alarmist; those who foretell a quick demise of American universities does not appreciate the strength of the tradition. Parents of all classes want their kids to attend college, and they are willing to both pay for it and to vote for public funds. No one in the world has quite figured out how to pay for mass higher education without bankrupting the country or eroding the quality; not the free public universities like in Northern Europe, not the tuition-charging private model. In fact, the American model of mixed sources of finance may be better than either of the other two models. In the medium range, state governments would have to find resources, while universities must do their hardest to become more entrepreneurial and efficient. In fact, state funding formulas may be tweaked to reward those universities that show more market shrewdness and innovation.

Nov 20, 2017

On on-line teaching

In face-to-face teaching, we use many communication techniques subconsciously. The most typical example is this: an instructor demonstrates a particular way of thinking, and asks students to apply it. With just a few facial twitches and vocal cord modulations, the instructor give all students immediate feedback on how close the student responses are to what the instructors wants. The process is very efficient, very economical in terms of instruction time, because it uses the natural patterns of relationship buildings we have as social animals. In an on-line environment, all these subconscious clues suddenly become unavailable. A whole set of tools developed through evolution and enculturation are suddenly gone, which is why it is such a shock for many first-time online teachers. And this is why so many very competent teachers become so skeptical about on-line teaching.

An experienced on-line instructor, however, have learned to compensate for the lack of the communication tools, in two major ways; first, such an instructor makes the clues explicit, and second, she or he develops new communication tools not normally available. The process is somewhat similar to the communication strategies deaf or blind people use to compensate for the absence of one of the communicative channels. It is also not that dissimilar from what writers did for millennia by describing feelings, scenery, and other imagery instead of showing them. A proficient on-line instructor not only is able to compensate, but also sometimes achieves more. All those who claim that their particular course cannot work online do not have credibility unless they actually try and fail. Human mind is infinitely flexible and imaginative, so yes, you can teach most of the things online if you apply some creativity to it.

The experience in on-line teaching will definitely help in a regular classroom. For example, I taught philosophy of education f2f for years, and I thought was good at it. However, as I was trying to teach the course online, I suddenly realized that I have no idea what it is I am teaching. Specifically, I could not explain to myself and to students how philosophical way of thinking is different from all others. Now, after figuring it out, I can BOTH explain it AND continue to use the subconscious communication techniques. It is a much better deal for students who are less able to read facial expressions, or interpret voice tonality. IN other words, f2f is not great for everyone; some students actually thrive online.

The F2f mode, with all of its advantages, is very good at creating an illusion that everyone got what you were trying to teach. They look you in the eye intelligently; they nod, and can give confident comments occasionally. However, if you dig deeper, it turns out a significant number of student understood very little. The on-line environment forces everyone demonstrate their mastery of ideas and concepts all the time. It is much harder to hide.

Another advantage of an on-line class is that it fits any schedule, and you do not need to drive and look for parking. Instead, a student can spend a little more time actually reading and practicing whatever you want to teach them. If you consider our poor record in graduating students on-time, on-line options for the hard-to-get classes seem to add an ethical imperative side. I am not proposing anything radical; we’re not going massively on-line. However, it looks like we should at least moderately increase our on-line classes for both undergraduate and graduate students

Nov 13, 2017

How do you make things happen?


In the course of any given week, I run through several various good ideas, each could be clearly beneficial to our College if implemented. Being a witness of a new idea is special; it is the most fun part of my day, no doubt. They may come from one person, or born out of a conversation – regardless of the origin, it is a special moment that makes me feel alive.

However, what happens next is the most interesting part. It is the process of turning an idea into a project. In one’s personal life, it is an easy transition – if you decide to go to San Francisco for the weekend, you know it is doable, and steps to getting there are obvious. It is not so in the context of a complex organization.

There should be a little gap between you have an idea and the time you decided to go forward with it. Many ideas seems to be charming in their infancy, but lose their appeal later. So, it is important to ask yourself a couple of days later – is this still a good idea? My first instinct is to jump on any idea that seems unique and original, so I have to fight that urge, unless it is easy to do.

The most critical part is to figure out who will do it (and why would they want to?), can they do it, and what other resources are needed. By necessity, deans have to toe a fine line: we really want to support any good initiatives, and yet we have to be careful not to be dragged into a resource pit. Our resources are not just money, but also staff and faculty time. Those are always limited, and if you commit them to A, you by definition remove them from B. I am always suspicious to projects that are very cheap or free, unless it is something an individual faculty member has a passion and skills for. On the benefits side, we have to take a hard look – what is in it for us, the collective us? Do we get exposure, good PR, do we cultivate a potential client, a partner, a friend? Do we create value for the community, and is anyone going to know about it? These are never exact calculations, but they are literally, questions about the two sides of a scale.

Does it work? Well, in my experience, even with the most careful estimated, between a third and a half of all new projects will fail, delay, or not achieve the intended aims. I have never seen a problem with that, and it is heartening to see more and more interest in failure in management literature. Just google for something like Google failures and you will see. Check also the Fail-fast philosophy. We need to learn to fail fast, so we are not wasting time and resources on dead-end initiatives. Yet if you apply too much critical analysis, all your ideas will die before they are even tried.

Nov 6, 2017

Not every idea is a directive

Everyone has had an experience of not being take seriously, when your ideas and suggestions are being just ignored or dismissed. The experience is more common among women in male-dominated professional cultures, but most people can relate to it. It does not feel good, let us just say that. However, there is another interesting kind of experience when you are being taken too seriously. You may just want to bounce an idea off someone, and people interpret it is a defnite proposal, a directive, or, even as a part of a hidden agenda.

Mikhail Bakhtin has an interesting theory about that. According to him, Dostoevsky described in a couple of his novels a phenomenon when a listener fails to perceive the inner dialogicality of a speaker’s voice. Any utterance, according to Bakhtin, is addressed to someone, and any utterance is a part of a dialogue, even if it appears to be standing alone. Our thinking is not monological, it is an endless dialogue with past, present, imaginary, and real others. The assumption that someone may have an internally consistent, coherent mind is almost always wrong. Anyway, here is the quote.

At first Smerdyakov perceived Ivan’s voice as an integral monological voice. He hearkened to his preachments on the permissibility of all things as to the word of a called and self-confident teacher. He did not at first understand that Ivan’s voice was divaricated and that his convincing and confident tone was intended to convince himself, and not at all as the completely convinced transmission of his view to another.
Analogous is the relationship of Shatov, Kirillov and Petr Verkhovensky to Stavrogin. 
Each of them follows Stavrogin as a teacher, accepting his voice as integral and confident. They all think that he spoke with them as a mentor speaks to his pupils; in fact he made them participants in his endless interior dialog, in which he was trying to convince himself, not them. Now Stavrogin hears his own words from each of them, but with a firm, monologized accent. He himself can now repeat these words only with accent of mockery, not conviction. He was unable to convince himself of anything, and it was painful for him to listen to people who have been convinced by him (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1973), 220–221)
What Dostoevsky describes, is an extreme, like anything he describes. People do not turn my ideas to hasty actions, thank god, and neither do I do that to others. Yet sometimes people read too much into what I am saying, as perhaps I read too much into what other people are saying. 

Why does this happen? Is it our inability to convey the difference between where we state a position, and when we just think aloud? Or is it a function of certain lingering distrust with the organization? Is it both? An even more – is this even avoidable, or do we deal with the normal level of noise within any human communication?

Oct 23, 2017

False promises, or When doing the right thing may be the wrong thing to do

As it is often the case, several things that happened recently, have madу me think about the same thing. Giving false promises is not a good thing, as a matter of principle. And of course, principles are pretty shabby tools when they meet reality. So, there is a shortage of teachers in California, a very serious one. Of course, teacher preparation institutions want to help. After all, most of us are public institutions, we serve the public, and want to do our part. However, we can make a difference in a fraction of the problem. The problem is actually in abysmal rates of retention. 20% of new teacher leave within three years, up 50% in urban districts. It is caused by to things – salaries and working condition. Teachers are still significantly underpaid, and feel alienated from their own profession.

Teacher education programs will never be able to fill the leaky barrel bucket. Now the big question is – by trying to be good, by trying to help, do we give the public a false promise? Now, within the narrow circle of informed policy experts, it is well known that retention is the key for solving the shortage. However, I don’t think the public is aware of that. However, I am having trouble imagining the teacher education community rallying under the slogan “No, we can’t.” It does not sound good, even if true.

Here is another, a more dramatic spin on the same dilemma. If we do nothing, the labor economics laws will be allowed to play their course. Acute and worsening shortages will force districts to raise salaries, and to try to make teachers happier. Our honest efforts to produce more new teachers divert the public attention away from the real problem, and perhaps delay a sound response to the actual problem. How’s this for a paradox of the week?

Similarly, I was asked by my Russian friends to comment on a foresight of how technology will change education. Well, if my friends do a good job, the risk is that their input will actually sustain the Russian government’s illusion that technology can solve its problems without real economic, judicial, and political reforms. If my friends refuse to cooperate, someone less qualified will do it anyway. It is a no-win situation.

Now, an even bigger version of the same dilemma. Educators in general have been complicit in distorting the reality on a grand scale. By doing our best, we may have given an impression that education can solve the problems of economic inequality, and lift the American underclass out of poverty. However, it is not true; only income redistribution and smart social safety net can actually make a dent in the inequality. Education may own a small part of the problem, but it seems to take on an exaggerated role. The question is, again, how much do we contribute to prolonging of a dangerous public illusion by doing good?

The right thing to do is to continue to do our best, but state openly, loudly and repeatedly the limits of what we can actually do. We have to be honest with the public we are committed to serve.

Oct 15, 2017

The California Autumnal

A slow autumn takes small bites out of the green rows of parade-cheering trees along the streets; lazily, absentmindedly, as if yet undecided. Sequoias and pines look decidedly determined to ignore the whole thing, wink. The deciduous brethren, nervous, shiver from the lightest wind. They know what is coming, alas, at last.

And so are people: some evergreen and seasoned, and some are more seasonal. The stoic ones keep their cool, while others melt under the angular autumnal light. We breathe in the smells of leaves, we savor the decay, as if this is the end of everything. We breathe out words, reduced to sounds dripping down like small leaves. Shallow mounds of yellow leaves are left forlorn, to shuffle through.

The memories of all past falls ooze out of my headache, those other, faster, more dramatic autumns in other places. The autumns form an amalgam of lights and languages, and leaves, and losses, smells, and little somethings too tiny to remember, but there nevertheless.

Oct 8, 2017

Remaking education to help regional development, a pitch

A Bay Area company that considers moving to Sacramento area is not after reducing costs (there are cheaper places in the US), but because of the labor pool. “Creativity, not cost,” says Barry Broome, the President and CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council. How do we boost creativity in our region’s population? We should transform the region’s education into an innovation powerhouse.

For years, the value of educational innovations has been measured through impact on the standardized test scores. The impact has been relatively low, with average effect size of 0.4, according to J. Hattie. Top-down reforms such as school choice or accountability have produced similarly low results. However, if student creativity, in addition to test scores, has its own economic value, testing is not a good way of measuring impact. We have some evidence that teacher innovation fosters student creativity. A teacher, who keeps experimenting in her or his own classroom, is likely to pass the passion for innovation on to his or her students.

Educational systems that develop a reputation for innovation are able to entice middle class parents to come and stay in the area, and keep children in public schools. Of course, the test scores are also important, but reputation for innovation is definitely a significant independent factor as well. This is not just a theory. Our testing the waters with the ReinventEd, a competition for grassroots innovation in education has been very successful. There is much interest in educational innovations, just look at the list of the jury members.

Sac State’s College of Education is in a very good position to take on a leading role in establishing a regional ecosystem for educational innovation. The aim of it is to permeate our regional educational system with grass-roots innovation, including, but not limited to start-ups. It is to encourage educator innovation and to shape our students’ taste for creativity and innovation. What can we do, if given the needed resources? We can reshape Sacramento Valley’ education into a nationally known beacon of educational innovation. Specifically,
  1. We can stimulate innovation through a significantly scaled-up version of the ReiventEd competition
  2. We can establish a research center to study and promote what is already happening in the region
  3. We can champion specific promising innovative ideas such as maker education movement
  4. We can establish links among various players within the educational sphere: schools, after-school programs, informal education, maker spaces, community colleges and universities.
  5. We can establish partnerships with various players beyond the educational sphere, including businesses, industries, governmental agencies, public and private organizations, local and global communities.
If you would like your or your company’s name to be associated with this major transformation, let’s talk about the opportunity.

Oct 2, 2017

Do we need a catastrophe to feel real?

This morning news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas brought me back to the text I was working with yesterday. Boris Groys writes, “Confronted with a world of total design, we can only accept a catastrophe, a state of emergency, a violent rupture in the designed surface, as sufficient reason to believe that we are allowed a view of the reality that lies beneath.” Indeed, no one is questioning the news, no one suspects that the news is fake or spinned in one direction or another. Even Trump has found something uplifting to say. He quoted scripture and reminded us about unity and hope.

If he right though? Is catastrophe the only way to access the authenticity of the world? 58 people are dead, hundreds are injured. Is this the only way to get in touch with reality, to break through the overdesigned surface? Are unity and hope otherwise unattainable? It is a terrible price to pay, but look – CNN and Fox News look the same for a while. The discourse of suspicion is suspended; not for long, not for long.

Hillary Clinton has twitted about the gun control bill. Really, someone wants to make SILENCERS more readily available to the public? Why would you need a silencer, if you’re not a murderer? Or are you a really terrible marksman that keeps missing a deer, but don’t want it to notice? And of course, Fox news have slammed Hillary for her poor knowledge of the firearms. They put the worst ever picture of her on the site. Yes, someone there took time to find it, on the morning like this.

However, right now these are all still side stories. Give them a few hours, and they will dominate the media discourse. Unity and hope will be forgotten; we will be back for the designer's reality. Yet the glimmer of hope, and the memory of unity can live, if we can chose to remember.

Sep 24, 2017

The art of ignoration

Yes, it is an actual word. I ignore problems all day, every day. I did not learn it overnight. In mid-90s, Ivan Bobrovnikov, my friend and my boss at the time, gave me one of the lessons. Computers were very glitchy back then, and I would come to him for help. He said about one of them: how much does it bother you? Can you live with it? You can wait until the next MS pack comes in (count yourself lucky if you don’t know what that is), or until your computer dies. He was not brushing me off; he knew that time spent on fixing the little annoying problem will take away from my main work, keep me away from moving the business forward. IN the end, it is the skill of prioritization.

If you listened to Car Talk, you may have noticed, the Tappet Brothers sometimes say – go and fix this immediately, or you will die. However, sometimes they would say – just turn your radio up (or put a piece of the black tape over the warning light) and ignore it. The art is in distinguishing between the two, and I am still learning it.

Some problems I ignore because I do not know of any solution, or a solution in prohibitively expensive/ impractical. Other problems I ignore, because they are just too small, and will not make or break our success, or because they can be put off without much damage. Still others I ignore because someone else should worry about them. However, sometimes a problem may look small, but ever-widening circles of frustration and errors emanate from them. They are like splinters in the body of an organization; left untreated, they will fester and cause infection. So you have drill all the way down, to the street level to understand and address it. These choices are not always sound, but hey, it is art, and not science.

Some people develop excessive attention to processes, while forgetting the purpose. In worst case scenarios, it amounts to obstructionism: they will insist incessantly that all I’s are to be dotted and all t’s to be crossed, to the immediate effect that no business is concluded. For example, any kind of a written policy will always have bugs in it. That is just the nature of any regulation: it may never foresee all instances of application, and therefore is almost guaranteed to have unforeseen consequences. The true choice is between endlessly debating a policy and having none in the meanwhile, and adopting something imperfect, and then revising it on a regular basis. Here is an interesting example how the Finland’s government is developing a very consequential policy through a series of experiments, using the design thinking. Express-Test-Cycle.

As an aside, when I lived in Russia, I have seen an inordinate number of badly designed laws and regulations. It is not because Russians are inept; no, the lack of political mechanisms for looping feedback leads to bad regulations being frozen in time. People learn to work around regulations, because they do тещ believe in their ability to change them. Some institutions (like my former university, HSE) developed working feedback loops, and are doing much, much better. The Federal Government, on the other hand, is some of the worst. In part, this is because they have large businesses lobby, but none of the professional groups’ lobby.

Back to the art of ignoration: we all have to learn phrases “I can live with that,” and “good enough for now.” It does not mean giving up on continuous improvement, or lowering our expectations. Not at all; this is all about prioritization, about moving forward instead of spinning wheels, about valuing goals over processes. As my late mentor Lyudmila Novikova used to say: “Only cemeteries are perfectly orderly.”

Sep 18, 2017

Teaching to trust

Every year by November 1 I send a paper to the Philosophy of Education Society conference. It has been my academic home since 1995, and have become a part of my year. Every time at the end of September, it becomes apparent to mу that I have no idea how to do philosophy, and have no new ideas whatsoever. Or rather, I usually have a start of an argument, but cannot find the middle and the end of it. It is a very uncomfortable feeling of complete incompetence, and I have to say, it does not go away with time and experience. Why do people like me keep torturing ourselves? After all, deans can usually slide by without much publishing.

The answer is simple: it is in pursuit of a high. In some of the years, an idea eventually comes out of nowhere, and a paper materializes. That is a very exhilarating experience only other addicts can understand. Now, papers that gave me these highs – most of them were not too impressive to others, and many are rejected (PES is notoriously fickle). I am beyond caring, like all addicts are.

OK, so this weekend I was mulling over a paper on what education should do with the weaponized fake news phenomenon. The point is that the normal tools we have, like critical thinking, may not work anymore, for a variety of reasons. One is that human mind as such has flaws, and the proclivity for paranoia is one of them. Second, people who bought into right-wing (and some left-wing) paranoid theories, do not lack critical thinking. To the contrary, many fancy themselves scholars. They are very critical to any rational evidence. And finally, we are dealing with an unprecedented threat: sophisticated large-scale attacks, sponsored by at least one foreign government, and boosted by social media. OK, so far so good. The rest of the argument does not work out, which it is maddening.

One idea I have is that we must teach children to trust someone, that the ability to trust is a learned skill. The absolute majority of people will never be able understand the climate change data, so we cannot check its veracity. Some of us learned to trust the consensus of the scientific community, while others do not believe anything scientists are saying. In their total mistrust, they still trust some shady guy from a nutty publication, or to a Russian paid troll, but only implicitly. In their minds, they do not trust anyone…

Well, here is where I completely stumble. In trying to show what is teaching to trust, all my philosophical moves fail. So far, I tried Bourdieu, Freud, Voloshinov, Putnam, some critical thinking theorists, and St. John Chrysostom. Nothing works, and there is no guarantee it will, even if I spend the next five weekends looking. That’s the thrill, really. Life is so boring when you know for sure that you can.

Sep 11, 2017

Should we cancel an otherwise successful search, if the finalist pool lacks diversity?

This is not a hypothetical question; at least one of our faculty members answered “yes” to it; others probably think the same. The question is different from what and how much should have been done at the recruitment stage; it is important, but should be addressed separately. Whatever the cause, let us think about the moment when we have a finalist pool and it is what it is. On one hand, the move to start over seems to be extreme. Searches are very time consuming, there is a risk of losing the line completely if you postpone, and the next year things may turn out the same. In some programs, faculty are desperate for help now. On the other hand, we should probably walk the talk, if we indeed believe in our declared values and strategic plans. If we are not willing to take risks and pay the price for our values, what are we?

That is the dilemma I was thinking about most of the last week, and I am not sure I know how to solve it in general. Circumstances differ significantly. In some areas that are in general very hard to find qualified people, the answer may be no. In others, the answer mays be yes. I simply do not know if there is a clear-cut solution. What I know is that the question is legitimate, and it must be asked at the right time, not after the fact. Perhaps some of the search committees did do that, and I am simply not aware of it. Yet this is something we should discuss beyond the intimate world of a single search committee. Now, this is a matter of procedure and policy, and we need to figure out how to make it work.

The hardest part of our jobs is not answering difficult questions; it is noticing the times when they have to be asked. Errors of omission are by far more consequential than the errors of explicit decisions. The easy problems present themselves, the hard ones go unnoticed.

Sep 4, 2017

Longing for bigger ideas

I think we have a good plan for the next few year. It is in the Vision statement we crafted together over a few meetings during last Spring. I think we can relatively easy attain those goals. Is that it though? In my personal Weltanschauung, I need a bigger, almost unobtainable challenge. I think we should take a crack at innovating our way into cracking one of the big educational challenges. For example, no one has yet figured out how to make higher education affordable. We have tremendous dropout rates in state universities. The K-12 system remains mysteriously resistant to all attempts to improve it, especially in our efforts to reduce inequality. We have almost no idea boost future educators’ relational skills. These kinds of problems, larger than just us, the global, consequential ones.

I am not naïve about innovation in education. My colleagues and I found a way to talk about it in Ohio and Colorado. At RIC, we had a nice small group, called TEIL – the Teacher Education Innovation Lab. At HSE, I headed a research lab on educational innovations. While some good things came out of these things, radical innovation in education is devilishly difficult, especially if you know something about history of education. Almost everything has been tried already; most educational reforms and movements ultimately fail to bring results they hoped for. The more I know about education, the more I am in awe of its mysteries. We are missing something important about the thing everyone knows so intimately. In addition, to be completely honest, everyone in the world has ran out of ideas. Accountability, technology, choice – those are just the three recent big failures; there is a dozen older and smaller ones. There is still plenty to do in a way of gradual, systematic improvements; no mystery about those. However, no one in the last 150 years who promised radical improvements could deliver. And we do not know why. I can go on and on about why this might be the case. In Moscow, I think we came up with at least six or seven hypotheses about why education seems to be immune to innovation. None of them have been proven or disproven. One is that significant change in education is impossible, because education is like human nature, runs against biological limits. The other one is that perhaps we had not have any good ideas yet. I like the latter one, because I want to believe it.

Anyway, let’s try to set up some sort of a group to talk about big things in education. Somewhere it is safe to talk crazy ideas without looking ridiculous. Perhaps every other week, at some bad time like Friday afternoon, and we will take turns pitching questions or unlikely proposals. Any takers? Let me know. You don't have to be in California; we can have an on-line extension. Something in my life is missing without it.

Aug 28, 2017

The First Nations, and why we need them

On Friday, I was driving East on highway 16, to attend Rose Borunda’s Indian Curriculum fundraiser. The evening sun baked the round hills to golden brown. Sparsely placed green trees were promising shade. It looked like a fairy tale country. I was thinking about people who walked through this landscape some 19,000 years ago. Canadians have found exactly the right word for them, the First Nations; it is a much more poetic term than Native Americans. There is something incredibly profound about seeing all this beauty for the first time ever, be the first human being to enter this part of the world, to give names to these hills, these rivers and valleys, without also taking previous names away. It is the discovery that is not yet polluted by conquest.

Then I made a mistake of turning on the radio, and my thoughts quickly turned to the theme that I was preoccupied with for a few weeks now. The surge of xenophobia in the US and in theу world is something new. It is not your old racism at its last gasp. The alt-right is related to the old racism like Agent N (which is a biological weapon) relates to the ancient Anthrax bacteria. It is the same bug, but manufactured in quantities on purpose and distributed through new technological channels. The bacteria is the same, but the effect is very different.

The argument I am working on is that we cannot defeat the new threat with more education, and more critical thinking. This is not the place to lay out the full argument, but the gist it is this: the paranoid mind on which the new racism feeds, is a form of perverse critical thinking and is immune to logical argument. So we need to build an arsenal of spiritual, emotional, cultural memes to fight this war. And where do we find those things? The major source of these ideas is the communities that practiced survival under oppression for centuries, the communities of color in the US, and other marginalized groups throughout the world. Their cultures have developed the cultural immune systems, or, if you like, the stocks of cultural capital that fights domination with solidarity, empathy, and spirituality.

This is not just theory. Just remember how homophobia in the US has been defeated – not by rational arguments, and not by critical thinking. No, it was because the gay community made a strategic decision to enter the mass culture through TV. Similarly, the African-American culture’s impact on the global culture did more to combat racism than many efforts to educate the rational minds. Those things work; we just need to find a way of accessing the stocks of cultural capital and use it in education. We need Multiculturalism 2.0 to combat the racism 2.0. It is an arms race, and we need the troops and materials. And yes, you should donate to Rose’s project; it replaces the 4th grade mission project with Indian-approved curriculum. It is not just about telling the truth, but about telling the emotional truth.

Aug 19, 2017

A non-eulogy for Dima

On Friday, my former colleague and friend Dmitry (Dima) Semenov died in a car crash in Thailand. He was 31, an accomplished scholar and leader, and one of the kindest and smartest people I know.

Eulogies mean to offer lessons from the person’s life, as if it was a story told to us. That is difficult; or rather, I am not good at it. People live their lives without trying to teach us anything. Instead, what I do is to remember one or two particular pictures about the person who passed away. They have no larger meaning and are not parables; those are simply symbols that indicate where other memories are stored. For example, my father’s symbol us when we walk together to get some milkshake in the neighborhood store; I am about five. Here is my grandfather teaching me how to split firewood. There is no way to reduce the entire person to one or two flashbacks, and yet having them helps.

I remember we were sitting down to eat at Yura’s and Tanya’s home in Sokolniki. I think it was their son’s Lenya’s birthday. Dima was his godfather, Svetlana is the godmother. It is sunny and very quiet. Dima smiles like Buddha, and says, “About this time on Sunday, it is exactly the right time to have a bit of vodka.” We all oblige, and that is my little token of Dima.

Why do we all feel the need to remember those who die? I am sure anthropologists have all kinds of theories about it. But we do, that is for sure. Death has a way of reminding us about itself. Mortality is a strange gift we received from the creator, according to Tolkien. It was his way of unbinding us from the physical world. Eves, more beautiful and immortal, did not receive it. Perhaps, but it is still a bloody terrifying gift. This is why we want to send the messages to those who cannot receive, as if to say, “you’re not all gone.”

Aug 14, 2017

The mainstream's borders have to be patrolled

The very existence а political life depends on the distinction between the mainstream and the fringe politics. Debate and disagreement among political groups may be vitriolic and irrational. However, debate with the fringe is impossible; the very act of debate with Nazis and racists is dangerous and counterproductive, because it legitimizes their existence. Wear a swastika, and you become what Russians call “Non-handshakeable,” nerukopozhatnyy. The boundaries have to be more or less clear, and ought to be patrolled, otherwise debate within the mainstream becomes impossible. The history of democracy shows how the inability of major groups to engage politically leads to dictatorship or civil war. The Weimar Republic could be one example, Spain before its civil war is another.

The danger of the fringe groups is not in their size – the White supremacists in the US are a tiny group – it is in their ability to erode the boundaries between the mainstream and the fringe. Let us assume someone on the Right breaches the unspoken taboo, and reaches out to the white supremacist for any reason. That would compromise their ability to engage with the more centrists or the liberal politicians. The non-handshakeability is contagious, and it can eventually erode the very space for the political debate.

Most people intuitively understand the dynamics. For example, the Fox News anchors, after a brief initial hesitation, eventually called the racists what they are. Despite all their rhetoric, they want to stay within the boundaries of the civilized society. After all you can only be effective if you are taken seriously. Almost all Republican politicians easily make the same calculation. The US had not left-wing political violence for a long time, but I am sure, if it gets to that, the liberals will do the same – quickly distance themselves.

However, our President somehow failed to make the very simple rational move. And yes, Pence is right, it does not look like a big deal on its surface. Trump left the door to engaging with the white supremacists only slightly ajar, just in case. What they both fail to understand are the rules of the larger political space. It is a contagion situation – a 1% of legitimization given to the fringe may contaminate 100% of your owl legitimacy. The risk is huge, the returns are really small and uncertain. How many votes does he think he will get from Nazis? The inability to calculate selfish reasons is worrisome because it indicates the general weakness of rational thinking. I am sure this is a concern for the Republican leadership.

Of course, the boundaries between the fringe and the mainstream shift. Relatively recently, racism was a part of the mainstream American politics. This is why the racists still hope to claw their way back to respectability. They saw Trump as their best chance in many decades, and they are taking it. I don’t think it is going to work for the reasons I cite. The stakes for the rest of the political field are too high to allow it. The borders have to be patrolled.

Aug 7, 2017

Technology vs. the Organization

I have spent a great deal lately of time to figure out our graduate admissions. This is a case in organizational studies. The information technology platforms have brought us great efficiency over the last 30 years, and yet they introduced a completely new set of constraints on the organizations that did not exist before.

Here is a short version of the story, without most of the technical details. The CSU system has implemented a new online application platform, CSUApply. The rationale for introducing it is compelling: applicants can select more than one campus to apply, and the system promised to get away with the supplemental applications (these are an extra step, sometimes on paper, and they look embarrassingly low-tech). Because of the ambitious implementation deadline, there was no time to work closely with all campuses. And each campus has some sort of an admission workflow, linked to its internal CMS (which is really, the People Soft, an Oracle platform). There were no protocols for importing the data from CSUApply to these workflows. Well, campuses’ IT people had made a heroic effort (they always do), and created an OK protocol. It still has three major glitches: 1. The CSUApply is very difficult to modify for each program, which renders the last, modifiable portion of it useless. 2. The vendor who sold us the program has never worked with whole systems. They forgot that each campus needs to assign an applicant a unique campus ID to admit them. CSUApply cannot do that, so you almost have to do the supplemental application anyway. Oops. 3. Document uploads still do not transfer to CSM. Theoretically, it is possible, but in practice, we have run out of time, and the IRT folks designed an elegant patch. Thank god, we have very little Spring admissions, and the whole patchwork will work for now.

There was also one major kink in the size of the application. I counted 135 fields a teacher credential applicant must complete in just the common CSUApply portion. Again, this is no one’s incompetence or ill intention. The system has a legitimate interest in collecting all kinds of data. That we value data accuracy over the user experience is another issue well above my pay grade.

Organizations evolve as living organisms. Many things appear as a responses to changing conditions. Organizations are not designed by some intelligent designer. There is no watchmaker. This is something people unfamiliar with organization studies often fail to understand. If you see something seemingly absurd and counter-intuitive, and easy to fix, it is only because you see just a small part of the beast, and because you do not know its history.

For example, in response to the past conditions, our Office of Graduate Studies have implemented a rule: applications are released to the programs only when applicant’s GPA is calculated, and when official transcript is received. It was done to put a hard barrier to incomplete applications, which create a number of problems. However, our (COE) timelines for orientations, field placements, and faculty availability make it almost impossible to admit students on time. So, our part of the organization adapted one more time, and we now require, in effect, a parallel application, disguised as a supplemental application. And yeah, we want it in paper, because it is easier to work with, and in a way, more secure. It is a case of mimicry, also well known in evolutionary biology.

If you want to know how your dean is spending his summer, this is how. To intervene in the works of a naturally evolved organization, one needs to have an understanding of the ecosystem, and a sufficiently high level of access. Even my level does not offer a high enough vantage point, because we’re dealing with a 23-campus system at one end, and a receptionist in our 401 office at the other end. To figure out a real solution, we had to have several meetings, the last one with 12 or so people. We have an idea on how to half-solve the puzzle in time for Fall 18 admissions. It has to do with where exactly in the workflow the hard barrier is enforced. However, I am still not sure if there are other rules and policies that evolved for unrelated reasons that will prevent it from working. Therefore, we have to have plans B and C. These are serious matters, especially for programs with low enrollments. Just a small negative nudge can put them out of existence. In organizations, it is still the survival of the fittest. While whole universities never die, their smaller parts like departments, programs, colleges – do die, dissolve, get eaten by others, flourish, and mutate. And yes, there are such things as invasive species and epidemics… These are for another time.

Jul 31, 2017

The shortages of the noble profession

Even the excellent 2017 report on teacher shortages in California stops short of asking a fundamental question: Why teacher salaries do not rise? В. Carver-Thomas and L. Darling-Hammond, the authors of the report, make a point that wage competition disadvantages poorer districts, because wealthier districts poach good teachers away from them. They more or less concentrate on the supply side of the equation, while also noting that enrollment in teacher preparation programs are at all times low. But why is the enrollment low? Why so few young people want to enter the profession?

In the end, the only way to ensure labor supply is to increase the wages, and improve working conditions. However, everyone acts as if it is impossible, and that there is some magic way of to increase the supply by offering shorter, and cheaper alternative teacher preparation programs. Note, no other industry thinks about their labor supply in a similar way. If you are short on software engineers, well, you either pay them more or import less expensive ones from abroad. Teacher imports do not work for a variety of reasons, but we do not even discuss the wage increases across the board.

Of course, districts would not compete for the same few qualified teachers, if their salaries would not depend on local property taxes. No one wants to see how bizarre really is the school funding system in the United States, and how, over the years, it contributed to residential segregation, as well as educational inequality. A politician, who would even bring up an idea of taking over the school finance by the State, will be signing his or her political death warrant.

I am not a politician, so I am bringing this up. I think, we need to be honest with the middle class. I know we all want something better for our own kids, this is why we bought these houses we cannot really afford, so our kids could go to better schools, and taught by better-paid teachers. However, in the long run, it is an unsustainable, self-defeating position. The other people’s kids are still here, they will become your neighbors, your employees, your colleagues. They deserve everything your child deserves. And yes, good education costs more money, and you should pay more taxes. We need to socialize education. In fact, teachers who work in more challenging social and economic localities should be paid more, not less.

Of course, we have been through this conversation before. There was a number of court cases against states, with mixed results. Again, in the end, court activism only gets you so far. We actually need to convince voters that equal finance of schools is the right thing to do.

Instead, we allow the talk about teaching as the noblest profession. What does it mean, exactly? Is it an appeal to work for less money, because, well, it is so noble? I think lawyers are a noble profession, and so are doctors and engineers. A software engineer is a darned noble thing to do, a calling, really. Yet we pay all those people as much as the market can bear, so there is no need to get all syrupy and sentimental. The discourse on teacher shortage will never change, if we as the profession will continue to feed it with sugar. We help perpetuate these distorting memes, because it feels good to be noble.

Jul 21, 2017

To pay or not to pay, that is the question

I will declare the next year the year of curriculum. For a variety of reasons, we have accumulated curriculum revision needs. Some programs just need a face-lift: a minor adjustment, sexier course titles, add or remove a course or two. Others need to be converted into the online form. Still others need to be completely reconfigured in terms of scheduling, sequencing, and switching to a cohort model. We also need to develop several new curricular products, like certificates and full programs. We are also considering at least two brand-new degree programs: A Youth Development BA and a Maker Education MA. All of these changes are needed because of the competitive pressures, and with changing patterns in demand. Our competitors are many and growing: other regional universities, online universities (both public and private). California also has a number of non-university providers, like County offices of education, CalStateTeach, that is run out of the Chancellors office, district-run programs, etc. Some of our competitors beat us on flexibility, and convenience; we still have an advantage in name recognition, price, and, most importantly, in faculty quality. Some of our graduate programs for in-service educators, suffered during the crisis, and never quite recovered. Therefore, it is an all-hands-on-deck situation. We just have to update, and delays are no longer feasible.

How do you do this? Curriculum revisions take significant work: first conceptually, as a list of courses, and their sequence, then each course and program requirements, the catalog entry – all had to be discussed, and put on paper. Because of the curriculum approval process on campus, and in many instances, at the Chancellor’s Office level, all of these tasks have to be accomplished in about two months – September and October. Otherwise a program risks to miss the catalog deadline.

On one hand, the curriculum development is traditionally a faculty service to the institution. The contract says something like that. So, the mean part of my mind tempts me to say to faculty: “Hey, if you want to save the program and teach in it, you should work on it as a part of your service. After all, curriculum is a faculty responsibility!” On the other hand, my more rational and compassionate part says something different: at least some of these projects are quite substantial. Faculty at CSU teach 12 units per semester, plus we have service and scholarship expectations. It is just hard to add this extra effort on top of everything else. If you expect quality work, you need to find a way to give people time. And there is no point revising, if you are not producing the absolutely the best, the most creative, a world-class program.

Back to the one hand – we really do not have the resources to pay to everyone, or release too many people from teaching. In the end, assigned time is also money, but also the program quality and reputation. In addition, if you compensate one group, but not the other, there are equity considerations. Plus, don’t forget the power of precedents. Once you set an expectation that all curriculum revisions deserve assigned time or a stipend, that becomes the norm. Precedents do not remember the nuance; they do not remember that there was an exceptionally hard project, or that the person in charge was very busy. The precedent remembers the naked fact.

Ok, now back again to the other hand: the projects are not all equal. Some are more of a minor tweak, others require ten brand new syllabi in subjects we have never taught. Some projects are very likely to be successful, and bring us students, glory, and revenue, while others are a lot riskier, and will really of interest one or two faculty here. If they want to do it, great, but not on the College’s dime. In some of them, chairs and program coordinators, who already have assigned time, can be central or help a lot, while others will be done by faculty only. Some people are more organized, while other do unnecessary work, talk a lot about scheduling the next meeting, argue endlessly about the titles, etc. Finally, some faculty think it is their work, and are interested, while others think the dean should revise all the programs, and their jobs are safe no matter what. The multiple overlapping considerations make a consistent approach very difficult. Therefore, I may have to resort to individual negotiations, which are not the best of solutions, but perhaps is the best in this circumstances. Now, individual deals tend to create suspicion and resentment among faculty, because they are not transparent. Is this too high a price to pay?

To make a larger point, most of the projects and problems that I deal with on my job are like that, messy. There are two or more sides, a good deal of uncertainty. Almost every move has a potential cost. In the end, you often have to take a leap of faith and decide on something without ever being sure it is the best solution. It is not like you can always follow clear principles. Or, rather, you can, but then you have to ignore other principles, and you won’t get anything done.

Having said all this, I am very open for suggestions. I have at least 17 potential curriculum development projects on my list. How do we do it?

Jul 17, 2017

The hiring mind

The simplest and the most profound idea about hiring people is that no one is perfect. While it is trivial, our mind often resist accepting it. The way we evolved makes us biased judges of people. Our hominid ancestors had to select a friend quickly, in a hostile environment, among a limited set of choices. It goes like this: our brain does is this: we select unconsciously whoever we like, and then the rational mind keeps finding more and more appealing features in whoever we have selected already. By extension, our rational minds keep finding faults with people we did not select. Anyone who has ever served on a search committee knows how mind-boggling the conversations can get. We tend to play with fact, emphasize strengths, exaggerate weaknesses – all, more or less, to justify whatever unconscious choices we have made already. If there are “real reasons” for our decisions, we are often unaware of those. And then we try to discuss those things collectively.

In fact, all the HR procedures, deep down, have the same fundamental purposes – to check our subconscious minds against some sort of structured objective process. In addition to those formal (and very important) procedures, all managers have their own bags of tricks, their private mind games, some strategies to force their own brains see more, dig deeper. My bag is no better than the next person’s but here are some of the tricks.

I always ask to tell a story or to give a specific example. Somehow, the stories are a lot more informative than the questions asked in the abstract. When someone says “I like to help students,” she or he has always something specific in mind, an image, a story. But I may have a very different image in mind, so stories help align the understanding of a concept.

When a specific skill is required, I always find a way of testing applicants for it. For example, when I needed a bilingual editor, I had to design an editing task. People who came up on top would have never had a chance in an open competition. Their competitors had much more charisma. But the skill is either there, or not there, and some of them can be tested for. If not, it is still very important to assess whether an applicant has the fundamental skills needed to be successful.

I also try to imagine the person in front of me doing her or his specific work in a day-to-day environment. Does this person look organic at the task? Sometimes it becomes clear, this person is really great, but would really get bored with the kind of a job we are trying to fill. In other words, I have to separate the “strong in general” from the “good for this job.”

I always check for the sense of humor, if it is a people position. Folks with a weak, very idiosyncratic, or overly sarcastic sense of humor rarely make good team members. They still could be great at solitary work though.

Then I always re-examine my own reactions. It is not just “I (dis)like this person,” but “why do I feel I (dis)like this person?” We all are hostages of our past. People can trigger a memory about an episode they bear no responsibility for; people bring back memories, good or back, but it is not their fault or virtue.

Unfortunately, the tendency gets stronger as we age; it is the tendency to recognize “I have seen this before.” That is a very troublesome side effect of life experience. I always try to weed out those thoughts to the extent possible. The troubling part is that experience both allows for very useful shortcuts, and increases understanding, but also imposes a kind of blindness to the new. A note to self: if I ever lose the capacity to recognize the newness, it is time to get out of leadership.

Jul 10, 2017

The Giant Sequoias and the Universities

Thanks to a vacation trip last week, I have learned that giant sequoias that inhabit the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, have evolved to live through forest fires. They have a thick layer of bark, and their branches are high off the ground. Some of the trees are thousands of years old. Their size, age, and adaptability are awe-inspiring. Yet those giants used to be all over the Northern Hemisphere and now they survived only in a few places in California. They could withstand forest fires, but not the Ice age. I am not sure why that is the case, but pines, maples, and oaks did just fine. Not as majestic, and relatively short-lived, they dominate both northern continents.

Universities have been around for a long time, and they survived wars, depressions, revolutions, change of regimes – everything. Moreover, they have been growing, including more and more people in more and more countries; see Martin Trow’s theory of university massification. The only glitch is that no one can figure out how to pay for the last stage, the universal higher education. It is just too expensive. Countries that chose the exclusively public financing have to limit the growth, or they break their budgets. Those countries that use mixed financial models, and rely mainly on tuition, risk creating a financial bubble of unsustainable student debt. The source of funds does not really matter; it is just very expensive to allow the majority of the population to have a full college experience. One unfortunate consequence of this cost dilemma is that students from lower classes tend to receive poorer quality experience. For example, Russia have one of the most universal higher education systems in the world, but half of its students study in a low-quality correspondence/online programs. Instead of equal opportunity, universities can reproduce inequality. The same thing happened to elementary and secondary education in the past – initially intended as equalizers, they became vehicles of inequality.

I am wondering if massification is the universities’ Ice Age. As far as I know, no one has a credible solution. For a while, high hopes were pinned on information technologies. Some hotheads like Clayton Christiansen predicted a total victory of online education. Such predictions were without merit. What most people value in their educational experiences is the human relation. It is the the economics of rationality that creates the enormous cost. There is and will be a huge demand for higher education, and it may or may not be connected to labor market. People just want college for their kids, period. And they will find a way of financing it. The open question is whether the existing universities will be able to figure out a way of meeting the demand, or it is going to be pines and maples, and oaks of some sort – also pretty, but not as majestic.

Jun 19, 2017

Education markets and Betsy DeVos

As many ex-Soviet people are, I am suspicious of big governments, social engineering, and believe in free markets. Russians of my generation just saw their fair share of the socialist economy, and authoritarianism that inevitably follows a utopia. However, as an educator, I see clearly that education markets are different that other kinds. Of course, people in health care economics can put together a convincing case that health economy market is also different. And the utilities markets are different, and airlines is different, not to mention pharmaceuticals, and of course, the agriculture. And did I mention the labor market, so-so different? What are they different from? There is no one classic market model; what we have instead is a set of very unique industry-specific markets, each operating within its own set of constrains, sometimes poorly understood.

Here lies the problem of market ideologists like Betsy DeVos. Their belief in the universal power of markets is at the ECON 101 level. They do not understand the economic segments deeply, and operate at the abstract level of the “classical” economic theory. Less regulations, more competition – is all they know. Hence, for example, the recent decision to roll back regulations aimed at curbing the college loan bubble fueled by for-profit colleges. I am not an economist either, but know enough to be dismayed. So, you want to roll back a policy, fine, but how do you intend to address the problem the policy was set up to address? John Akerlof, for example, has shown back in 1970 how markets can quickly degrade with the information asymmetry between buyers and sellers. Higher education is exactly the kind of the credence good that creates the problem. Deregulation plus loose borrowing rules is exactly what brought the higher education to the brink of another bubble, threatening the economy. The same story is school vouchers: they should have worked in theory Milton Friedman developed. But they do not work, because Friedman underestimated the specifics of the school markets. He thought schools would compete not on price, but on innovativeness, and ultimately, quality. It turns out, innovations and quality gains are very hard to achieve without student selection. And the message of quality is subject to the already mentioned Akerlof’s “Lemon Law.”

Like any ideology, market ideology is deaf to nuances, and ignores the messy state of our knowledge about how markets work and do not work. Ideologues all need to go back to school, and learn enough specifics before they can make federal policy.

Jun 9, 2017

The end of the educational reform?

Here is my report from AACTE’s Day on the Hill event. Democrats are in a defensive mood; their priority is to preserve whatever education funding they can in response to the administration’s aggressive cuts proposal. The legislative branch in general seems to have lost appetite for educational reform. The only new initiative comes out of Jack Reed’s office. It is a bill to reform the Title II of the Higher Education Act. Some improvements to the TQP program, report streamlining, incentives for states to close down poor teacher preparation programs. This is hardly revolutionary, or even ambitious. The era of big by-partisan reform efforts seemed to culminate in the Race to the Top and NCLB waiver programs. The administration voucher initiative is unlikely to receive support among democrats and many Republicans. The idea is not new, have been thoroughly researched and found ineffective, and just politically hard to implement because of the states’ control over much of educational funding.

The pause can be explained by a combination of two things: The President does not have education as his priority, unlike the four Presidents before him. And even if he had ideas, the administration seems to be paralyzed anyway. However, I think there is a second, much more profound reason: no one has ideas anymore.

In the last half-century, there were only three big ideas for education: choice, technology, and accountability. All three turned out to be duds (For more detail, see this book, when it comes out). The school choice concept had all the markings of a brilliant economic reform. However, have no evidence it works. The positive effect is at best, minimal. The accountability may have some limited positive effects on student learning, but again, not nearly of the scale the reformers were hoping for. In addition, it has significant side effects, including the suppression of grass-roots innovation, which are hard to measure. The information technology does not yet seem to affect the academic achievement. The global education community has tried the three reforms in various combinations, with about the same negligible result. What is next? - Literally, no one knows.

Correction; the ideas people have seem to be a bit plain, a bit boring, a bit common sense. For example, in educator preparation, we have known teacher induction to be the weak link (the economics of it does not work). Well, try to push a massive education bill through the House and the Senate, focusing on induction. Good luck. We also have learned from well performing countries that teachers do better if they have independence, more control over their work, meaningful professional development, opportunities for team work. OK, how do you legislate that? Pass a law to respect teachers? Mandate getting rid of useless PD, and replacing it with good PD? Somehow, none of these seem politically feasible. The other large chunk of the real agenda is addressing children’s lives beyond school – poverty, chronic stress, health, nutrition, family support, residential desegregation. Yet no one had at the federal level had an appetite for such things for a long time. In fact, all the educational reforms were implemented in hope that the government won’t be doing the hard things.

I am not pessimistic. The challenges we have are actually exciting. How do you improve education without the Federal government? How do we formulate ideas for change that don’t just make sense to educators, but also engage wider political forces? How do we make education an agenda item?

These are times to think big, to think fresh, to shape the future.

Jun 5, 2017

How can education drive city development?

For years, the thinking in mayors’ offices (and chambers of commerce) was straightforward: Increate test scores in K-12 schools, and your population will stop leaving for suburbs, and the city economy will grow. Such logic seemed unassailable. Among other things, it created a vicious cycle of hiring strong, charismatic superintendents. To be hired, they had to make unrealistic promises of quick fixes, and dramatic increases in test scores. Within a couple of years, boards become disillusioned, unions put up a fight, and everyone is looking for another charismatic hero, who will have the magic.

There is no magic. Test scores are very stubborn thing; they take years and years of slow, invisible work to budge. They are determined largely by the demographics of student population. All miracle cases have to do with gentrification; all collapses have to do with middle class flight to the suburbs. Reforms, accountability, school choice – all а these have only marginal, almost invisible impact, at least in the short run. I wish it could be different, but it is not. Some people out there, like Eric Hanushek, are still looking for another silver bullet; in his case, it is the idea of firing poor performing teachers. Others like Betsy DeVos, are still hoping against all evidence that vouchers will deliver radical improvement. Both are very much mistaken.

I was thinking all this while listening to West Sac mayor Christopher Cabaldon’s powerful speech last week. I was invited thanks to Steve Lewis to their State of the City event. I think he is on the right track with the Homerun initiative. If you read it carefully, it focuses not on schools, but on everything else that goes into student performance.

One more thing he and other mayors should consider is the innovation dividend. Tests we use in public education are very powerful, but incredibly narrow measures of student success. The further we move towards the knowledge-based economy, the less adequate they become to measure the work force readiness. While many research groups work on measuring the 21st Century skills measures; none is yet good enough and cheap enough to impact instruction. While we wait, the next best thing I to stimulate the low-level, grassroots innovation among educators. Such innovations are no more likely to increase the standardized test scores than the top-down reforms. However, the very engagement in experimenting, in trying something new is likely to be passed on to students. We can expect students of an innovative teacher to be a little more open to change, more creative and innovative, more able to communicate, to collaborate with each other. While I cannot yet prove this claim empirically, this is the best direction for the K-12 education I can see right now. The grassroots innovation is actually fairly inexpensive, if you compare it with staggering costs of accountability reforms. They go well with teacher professional development and induction, which remain the weak link in the school improvement efforts. Mayors and superintendents everywhere should think about it. There is no need to give up on schools; you just need to try a different approach.

Parents make school choices, and ultimately, residence choices not only on test scores, but on overall reputation of a school and a district. Are they interesting? Innovative? Good for children? Have something unique to offer? Such reputation is built with grassroots, wide-spread innovation. T also tends to make teachers happier, more in control of their work, and more likely to stay. 

May 30, 2017

Paranoid Mind + Social Media=Trumpism

Many people on the liberal side of American politics imagine Trump wrongly. They imply that this is simply the last ditch surge of the primitive consciousness; a rear guard fights of the traditional enemy – racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia. However they underestimate the newness of the phenomenon, which I for simplicity will call trumpism (there is a number of very similar things across Europe, including the latter years Putinism).

The paranoid mind existed for a long time. For a broad historical overview, see the influential Richard Hofstadter’s essay (1964). However, the radical democratization of information offered the old virus a new and extraordinary efficient vehicle, the social media. Conspiracy theories have always existed in obscure books and magazines. As Ivan Smirnov, a doc student from Moscow had noticed, the cost of producing a lie is much lower than the cost of rebuking it. To verify his claim, just search for seth rich death in your Facebook. You will see what kinds of sharing power to conspiratorial claims have. Search Google for clinton pedophile ring and you will get 1.5 millions of hits – on a completely fictional story. The economics of the paranoid mind are vastly different now.

In addition, the Russian intelligence have exploited this new economics of paranoia to weaponize the social media. After 2014, their choice was either to erect a Russian equivalent of the great Chinese firewall, or try something different. They succeeded in severely curtailing the anti-government discourse in the domestic social media through a combination of fake news and paid trolls. Everyone who lived in Russia in 2014-16 could see it happening. The Russians created multiple memes mocking liberalism, feminism, democratic institutions, multiculturalism, and picturing the general demise of the Western civilization. Many of those memes they appropriated from the Western right-wing political discourse. They won by flooding the social media with huge volumes of informational crap, with millions of supporters gobbling it up and spreading it further.

Almost at the same time, the Russian intelligence exported the new infowar techniques to the West. RT, the TV propaganda channel, received many millions of dollars in additional financing. If I recall correctly, in about 2014 their budget increased seven-fold. It became an anchor generating and spreading fake news, arguments, and memes. It is unclear whether the Macedonian shop had Russian connections, or it is independent. The Russian enterprise for undermining democratic institutions have found eager supporters among American and European Alt-Right types. It is debatable how much influence did the Russian intelligence really had on American elections; I cannot imagine it was much. However, the Russian intelligence community can certainly claim much credit for invention of the new vehicle for the old paranoid virus. I have to admit, begrudgingly, it was a brilliant move; it is much more sophisticated – and dangerous - than the Chinese wall technique.

Russians aside, the mainstream conservative establishment in the US has woken up to the opportunities of new weaponry. They are learning quickly, Seth Rich story being a recent example. The liberal side remains blissfully unaware, to the large extent. Liberals still try to fight the old mass media wars, with limited success. In general, they underestimate the newness of the challenge, believing, falsely, that this is still the old enemy.

The response cannot be symmetrical. Liberals cannot produce their own kind of conspiratorial garbage. First, because it does not work on liberals who tend to be more critical thinkers. And second, because it smells bad. A huge responsibility lies with the social media and search platforms themselves. Google started to do something, while Facebook and Twitter are just beginning to realize how they have been hijacked and used. They need to wake up and develop an immune system, so the virus does not just spread freely.

To be honest, we do not really have an answer to the new challenge yet. At least, I have not seen one. This is where our intellectual resources should go – we must figure out a response, otherwise trumpism wins. I only know that the old and proven things like more education, more rational discourse, more honest mass media, more critical thinking – they do not work. In social media, we tend to isolate ourselves into our neat liberal islands, and have no idea how to affect those other islands where the paranoid mind virus is raging.

May 22, 2017

California is the world’s future

That’s what I was thinking while shaking hundreds of Sac State’s graduates’ hands on Saturday. This is not my idea, and is somewhat of a cliché, but we discover the truth of each cliché individually. Let me say this again – if you want to know how the world is going to look like in the foreseeable future, come visit the Golden State. It is multicultural, multiracial, tolerant, energetic, and colorful. It is not a utopia; far from it. There is still inequality and poverty, conflict and homelessness. However, it is also comfortably liberal, environment-conscious society, with the broad acceptance of social safety net. It is a place, where people don’t blink when a man at a party introduces his husband, and a woman introduced her wife. Nobody tenses up when she hears my accent. “Where you are from” is a curious, but a small detail about you; it won’t define you, unless you want it to define you. That may be perhaps a fifth question in a first conversation, if it comes up at al.

We do not really have a good word for the non-White population. “Minority” does not really do it anymore; not just because of the numbers. It is no longer the game where White people include, or tolerate, or embrace, or celebrate the others; where they are the agents of doing something to or with the others. Nope, the White folks found themselves to be just one of the tribes, along with several others - just as strong and capable - and are not quite sure what to do with that. Just an FYI, after Hawaii, DC, and New Mexico, California has the lowest share of White population – 39% versus 62.6% nationally.

California is going through a massive social experiment. President Nelsen asked all those who are first generation in College to stand up, and it looked like half of graduates got up. The experiment is in moving large and diverse underclass into the middle class by the means of education, mostly. It may seem like too high, but still, community colleges in California are the least expensive in the country. 4-year colleges’ in-state tuition is in the middle of the list, but California is the third wealthiest state by median household income. The State had built a vast and effective educational social lift. As I was listening to the names of our graduates, I tried to place each name by its ethnic origin. It represents the entire planet. The list of names itself is a powerful futuristic document, almost like the Star Trek’s list of characters. For many families, teaching is the first step in the multi-generational ladder to success, and it feels good to be a part of the epic move.

Yes, I know, I did not mention the Silicon Valley – I think the scope of the social changes is much larger and much more important than the scope of technological changes. These two are connected, because in the future economy, the uneducated lower class has very slim chances of success. However, on Saturday, I was impressed not by cellphones, but by the kids that hold them.

May 15, 2017

Faculty, Not for rent

Every semester, the equivalent of at least three full-time tenured faculty members are released to work on various grants and projects. Only a small number of these is officially “ours.” We receive no indirect revenues, and very little recognition for such projects. Many others work on overload or in summers: on other colleges and organizations’ grants, as individual consultants, etc. In theory, this is a positive thing for us. Our name gets recognition, we cultivate relationships, help the community in many ways. Yet the situation is far from ideal. It looks like we’re renting our faculty out for cheap, and do not capitalize on their work. Faculty is by far the most valuable resource we have, and we need to find a way of leveraging it. In very simple terms, we need to build a brand in the world of consulting services, and build a revenue stream that can be used to further invest in faculty.

Here is what should happen. When someone asks you to help (consult, train, evaluate, speak), you would say – talk to my business manager. We will negotiate a higher rate for you, take care of financials (so you don’t worry about your taxes), link your project with others, and let you use existing resources and materials, use the project to promote the College’s brand, to build a wider client base, and sell other services to it. We will also figure out a way to convert your one-time gig into a product that can be offered to a wider market.

Of course, we will always have projects not for fame or money, but because we want to help. This is totally fine. However I have discovered that sometimes another organization actually does receive significant funds, does get the recognition, does enhance its image, and we’re just helping them (and the public) altruistically. We can be altruistic to underprivileged children, but not to a consulting firm, or to a publishing house, or to another state agency. What I have learned over the years is that if someone can get you to work for cheap, they will thank you, but won’t respect you.

To get there, we, of course, need to build such a capacity, to develop the incentive for faculty to go through the College, rather than go it alone. However, we will also need a change in faculty attitude. Because, let’s be honest, you are invited to consult in part because you work at Sac State, not just because you are so brilliant. And I have a hunch that most of you have little business acumen, and don't really know what your services are worth, or how they can be sold differently. We may have to forgo some really cheap gigs in favor of more advanced, more complex, and more expensive services. However, to get to that kind of reputation, we need to band together, be strategic, and play hardball.

Every grant we’re involved in must be more than just a pass-through. From every one of them, we need to retain something tangible and valuable: a curriculum project, a consulting product, a publication, a new measurable expertise, an opportunity to promote our College, something.

May 8, 2017

The House of Cards Syndrome

Over the years, I have found a couple of simple tests to find people who I can ask for advice and who make good leaders. The most important is this: can you support an idea what comes from someone you dislike? The other side of the same test is similar: can you oppose some ideas that come from your friends, or from your boss?

Here is how it goes: I speak with a perfectly reasonable, and intelligent person; we are having what appears to be a rational conversation. Then I suddenly realize that all the reasoning, all the suggestions and objections are this person’s attempts to support her friends and punish her enemies. I just want to say, would you please relax a little, this is not the House of Cards; we are simply trying to figure out the best solution for a small problem. No intrigue, and no political strategy is needed, OK? Bad people may have good ideas, and good people may be wrong, and the way you divide people into good and bad is flawed. Can we just concentrate on the task at hand? I never say any of this, because the person is afflicted by the House of Cards syndrome and is not going to see it. She or he is just fine otherwise, and could be a delightful colleague in every respect. I would just never ask her or him for advice, or ask to be polite only. Nor will I ever support this person to be in a leadership position. The HC syndrome disqualifies from leadership, unfortunately. I am not passing any moral judgement here; but we all have limitations, and I have a plenty of my own. However, if you are color-blind, you cannot be a pilot. If you’re too tall or too heavy, you cannot be a jockey. If you lack in empathy, you should not be a teacher. This is the same kind of a limitation – perhaps not fair to you, but fair to others. So, we still like you, it is just you cannot be in the lead.

All our judgements are always colored by relationships with others. We tend to support people we like and oppose the people we dislike. However, most of us routinely get over the bias, and discuss ideas and actions on their own merit. It takes an effort, but we do it all the time. If you have the HC syndrome, you are simply unable to do that. Every step is a move in a great chess play for you, the struggle for power and influence. And you may not be yourself power-thirsty, no, you just see other people in that light. The weird symptom of the HC syndrome is that you suspect everyone has it. You see the world through this particular lens. People are divided into friends and enemies, and nothing good can come out of the enemies, while a friend can do no wrong.

If you a leader with the HC, your management is poor – you almost never make good decisions, because you consider the political implications only. You will sacrifice promising projects because their success may make the “wrong” people stronger. You will support weak initiatives, because they allow you and your supporters look better, even for a short time. If you got the HC syndrome, you will spend all your time spinning intrigue, so some of the basic functions will inevitably suffer from neglect. You just won’t have the time for work, because all your time is spent compiling materials evidencing that so and so is an incompetent person. You will also slow down any development and growth, because you cannot tell a good idea from a bad one.

You may thrive in a truly political environment, but we are not a political body. We are a university. Hundreds of thousands of kids and their parents want a good teacher, a counselor, a psychologist, and we make sure of it. We cannot lose that perspective.

I cannot say for sure where the syndrome comes from, why some people are affected while others are not. Nor can I give any examples where people got rid of it – perhaps I simply do not know of any.

Apr 30, 2017

The procedural micro-barriers

I have always hated bureaucratic inefficiencies. Everyone who spent one’s formative years in the Soviet union, does. The First Socialist State was remarkably inefficient. For example, to get a new passport, you would have to take a bus to an office A only to pick up a form and find out that it works on odd days, before noon. Than you would take the form for the clerical intake, quite often to be told that you do not have all the paperwork needed. For example, you should go get a clearance from your neighborhood’s office that you paid the rent on time. On your second, successful try, you be given instructions on how to pay for the service, at a state-owned bank, a few stops by bus, and where to get a photo, another few stops, in a different direction. Then you would gather the receipt for payment and your photos, which of course, would be ready only in three days, and then come back to the passport office. Stand in another line for an hour, and voila, you get your passport with a very sad and tired looking photo of you. Since then, Russians actually had made a remarkable progress in their state bureaucracy; unfortunately, their universities are still pretty bad, even the best ones.

Now, most American universities have undergone a remarkable transformation of student and faculty services that I witnessed. I remember filling out a bubble sheet to enroll at the University of Notre Dame in 1991. We had to stand in line for about an hour, I think. We also had to register for classes through a campus phone, which was only hard because we were international students and had no idea what the machine was talking about. By early 2000-s Banner and People Soft integrated the essential services into one online access system – bursar bill, registration, schedule, etc. Yet at the fringes of university operations, we still have these small pockets of stubbornly archaic procedures. For example, we have these paper forms that need 2-3 signatures, and have to be carried from place to place, and logged in every place, so you do not lose a track of them: Transfer courses equivalencies, Major/Minor Course Substitutions and Waivers, Change of Major, Change of Minor, Add/Drop Petition. Similarly, on the faculty side, I have found this intimidating list of forms.

The problem with these archaic pockets is two-fold. First, they represent what Eric Johnson called “micro-barriers,” which disproportionally affects first-generation, diverse students and faculty. Second, they require extraordinary amount of work, primarily for our staff, but also for faculty members. I have already written about the first problem. The second one is less visible, because staff just do what needs to be done. I am keenly aware though, that unless we decrease routine work for staff, we won’t increase our advising resources. We cannot hire any more people, so we need to do less of clerical, routine work.

The University’s IRT works hard on implementing a whole set of new technological platforms that will make our lives a little easier. It is a new admission platform, a new advising platform, a travel claims processing product, a new learning analytics platform, a new LMS, etc. I am a bit worried that they may stretch a bit too thin. But ultimately, the work routines on campus are too complex, and the needs of each college are too unique to count on large integrated platform solutions. It is not the technologies that we’re lacking. Almost all such problems are organizational. For example, when we developed the new request for travel procedure, we had to take a faculty committee out of the process, because it takes too long to process, and because we may have enough resources to be less stingy. No software can do this; it is a policy decision, an effort to streamline the organizational workflows. The teacher credentials compliance is a problem everywhere, because it involves many non-course requirements. The Registrar’s office is not equipped to deal with them, so it takes a lot of work to monitor compliance. You can tweak the registrar’s data bases to do the trick, or you can develop a bolt-on for your main integrated database, or design a stand-alone system. None of these solutions are perfect.

It is especially wasteful to have faculty members do clerical work. Faculty is the most important, the most expensive resource we have. In fact, salaries are north of 99% of our budget. Every time a faculty is carrying a paper from one place to another, or playing with spreadsheet to keep track of students, my heart aches. I am thinking what they are not doing instead – not preparing for classes, not writing scholarly papers, not talking to each other about program improvement, not resting and recharging.

Many program requirements that faculty establish take little or no notice on how labor-intensive would be to implement them. For example, checking every student’s GPA every semester takes a lot of work, and I am not convinced it is that critical. Why not put the burden of self-policing on them? OK, we may have one or two upset students, but save many hours of staff work, so they can help other, more responsible students. Those are not simple decisions; it is always a balancing act. But we really need to pay attention to our labor expenditures. I cannot do it alone; I need help. We’re lucky to have our own IT specialist, but he is not going to examine every requirement and every procedure. This work should be broadly distributed.

Apr 23, 2017

The relational labor

Recently, I had a coffee with one of the retired faculty; he filled me in on the history of our College. One thing he said was both simple and profound. He said that people should realize they need to work on relationships. Relations are work. He did not mean to say that like in family therapy we need to talk about our feelings. No, he simply meant to say that we need to provide space and occasion for social interactions. We need parties, get-togethers, celebrations, discussions, rituals, traditions – all the normal things human societies invented to lubricate the social machinery. We do not have to be all friends, and some level of politicking is inevitable. However, we should create a place that is collegial, friendly, and focused on common goals.

Years ago, a group of philosophers of education that included me was working on the theory of relational pedagogy. I regret we never quite finish the work, although our edited volume got many citations. Well, a few hundred – for philosophers it is a big number. Our premise was that in education, relations are primary, and actions and curriculum are secondary. And the layer of relations among educators does affect the quality of relations that we are able to develop with our students. For example, successful schools always have a strong sense of collegiality and solidarity among teachers. Collectively, they project an image of the good kind of relations. Individual teachers are able to tap that potential, and build better relational patterns with their students.

It is not only about schools, of course. It is the same thing with colleges. It is not really a matter of choice: if we want to be a strong teaching institution, we ought to build a strong, coherent community among ourselves. And it takes work. After a hard semester, and a ton of graded papers, who wants to drag one’s ass to yet another pointless party? Who wants to support another colleague at a community event? Who has time for lunch with someone you won’t necessarily hang out with? Who has the strength to smooth over some past misunderstandings? Well, because actions are small, they are no unimportant. These are the acts of relational labor that is so critical to our well-being and success.