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Dec 15, 2006

On the Money

Can you believe this? This is my blog #24.

The basic principle of a market economic system is that there is some feedback loop: those who produce things that other people need, get rewarded; those who produce nothing or something no one needs, get penalized. So, things that people need are produced more, their price falls, and the system reaches equilibrium. Any time demand changes, there is a mechanism that tells producers to cut or increase production.

The problems of capitalism have been known for a long time: because the economy needs freedoms of transactions and private property rights, it tends to produce tremendous inequality. Its strength, however, are also well-known: the system does not rely on centralized planning; it is self-regulating, disciplined, and is much more efficient than any other economic system.

American universities are slowly discovering the advantages and disadvantages of capitalism, only about four hundred years after its invention. Some are more successful at it than others, but most at least dibble into a more entrepreneurial, more market-oriented ventures. Every campus has an extended studies, or continuing education branch that offers off-campus, non-academic, or online courses, wherever there is a demand for them. Those branches tend to be much more flexible, practical, and efficient than the main campus, and end up supporting the inefficiencies of the traditional colleges.

Of course, all universities have to become more like their extended studies programs. Everyone needs to learn to count money and see where the money comes from and how it is being spent. This is the only way of moving toward greater efficiency and better quality. Yet the academic culture is very resistant to measuring educational work in terms of money. Underneath the snobbish refusal to talk money, there is a simple fear of competition, fear of being exposed as less than productive. Some very smart people go to all length with justifying their own highly privileged lifestyles with high-spirited arguments about the intrinsic value of education, sacrifice, academic freedom, and other such nonsense.

Most importantly, our feedback system is extremely weak, convoluted, and unreliable. In most cases, there is no clear link whatsoever between what we do in classes and what the public, the students, or anyone else actually needs. I know my colleagues will be offended by this statement, and assure that they’ve been around, they have the degrees, so they know what needs to happen in the classroom. But any scholar is supposed to ask: How do you know what you know? Is that knowledge verifiable or replicable? Confidence notwithstanding, we have no clue, actually. Just imagine a situation when a car salesman would assure you that he knows exactly what you need, and that one car is the only one you can buy. That you go to the next door lot, and his twin-brother wants to sell you the same exactly model for the same or almost the same price.

The accountability movement tries to solve this problem by making universities to produce some evidence of their effectiveness. I am not arguing that this is difficult to do; I am arguing that it is impossible to do. The market is driven not by research, but by averaging millions of irrational single transactions. This is entirely different feedback loop; it bypasses any single brain, and the information is distributed throughout millions of independent agents. The market mechanisms are more efficient because they are not smart, and do not depend on having smart people making right decisions.

As a first step, we desperately need some link between revenue generation and funds available to colleges, schools, and individual faculty. If there is no direct relation between how many hours a college produces and how much funding it receives, it creates an objective incentive to reduce enrollments. No matter what administrative efforts, how many meetings and speeches we produce, the economic situation does not change. With a fixed income, one must reduce the effort. The same goes all the way does to school an individual faculty. We have every incentive to fight tooth and nail for keeping class enrollments as low as possible, whether it makes any pedagogical sense or not. This is not because we’re bad people, but because cap increase savings do not return to us in any form and shape. We have no incentive to build off-campus cohort until there is an assurance that some of this money returns to those who work on the cohorts.

Money talk is honest; it does not mean having money as the only value. Rather, it leads to seeing clearly that our values are upheld, and not talked to death.

Dec 8, 2006

What makes a problem hard to solve

Here are an examples of hard to solve problems:

1. Two starving sailors on a life-boat are deciding who to eat first. Each has a veto power on the decision.
3. A teacher education program consists of three major course blocks; each block is divided amongst various schools and colleges, and individual faculty. Each involved unit feels passionately about his or her piece and has something close to a veto power, or at least a power to delay resolution. The task is to improve the program by strengthening some components at the expense of others.
What makes both problems difficult to solve? OK, I’ll drop the pretence: what makes the second problem difficult to solve?

It is not the complexity of the problem. We are not rebuilding Iraq, for god’s sake. These course or those course, taught on this semester pr that semester. Not exactly the rocket science, or brain surgery. It should not take longer than a year to figure it out. A week of good planning should do it. Whatever philosophical disagreements people might have, are not very deep and certainly not irreconcilable.

It is not the high stakes; no one expect dramatic improvements from any kind of revision. In education, large effect sizes are truly uncommon, so we are talking about modest improvements. The truth is, whatever the configuration of the new program, it is going to be only moderately if at all better regardless of the specific configuration that takes place. No dependable data can be shown to demonstrate superiority of one proposal over another.

It is not that some people involved are evil or wrong. In fact, all people involved are highly competent, dedicated, and ready for change. I am an incorrigible structuralist, and never believe in much in “human factor” explanations. People tell all the time: “Oh, we would have been able to do it, if not for so and so, who is such a (select your own epithet).” Well, this is almost always the wrong explanation, because when the “bad apples” are replaced, things still don’t work out, and new “bad apples” are immediately and spontaneously appointed to take their place.

What then makes our problem difficult to solve? Very often, it is the way of solving a problem, rather than the problem itself. The smartest sailors should figure out how to fish, or the strongest sailor should fight and eat the weakest one. Deliberations won’t help. The same is true for our problem: if a solution involves real or perceived losses for one of the party, and it is not clear at the start which party will lose, no one should have a veto power.

The process must be structured in a way that the initial parameters make it clear what structural changes are needed to be made. No haggling over resources should be ever allowed, because it always muddles the issue. When people start dressing their concerns about turf in the rhetoric of “commitment to quality”, “research-based teacher education,” “liberal education values” and other venerable BS, no problem will be solved, and feelings will be hurt.

Then the parties affected by the structural changes should be given a full responsibility for making those changes happening to achieve certain given objectives. I don’t believe in holistic and perfect solutions. I’ve seen a lot of neat charts, but in real life, logistics and practicalities, the small details everyone wants to ignore, always trump our utopian designs. So, a series of incremental, localized, small solutions under a unifying vision are always more effective than one overarching, perfect-from-the-start plan. In the complex system like ours, part should be disentangled from each other, so they can show some flexibility and independence to address the practicalities, and remain in agreement on broad definitions of good curriculum.

To reform our IDLA/Elementary PTEP, here is what I would do:

Tell IDLA, PTEP, and Liberal Core faculty: here is your new share of credit hours. YOU will not get less or more; this is all you can play with.

Develop specific proposals for addressing the tasks outlined in the Provost’s charge. Keep in touch with each other while developing the changed.

Within each area, go through a similar process of setting the initial parameters, and them breaking up into even smaller projects (such as course mergers, course redesigned, new course development, advising structure).

Then get together and really coordinate how all your smaller projects will proceed. Appoint a small coordinating committee to make sure you will not step on each other’s toes all the time.

Conclusion: The sailors die not because their problem is hard to solve, but because they chose a wrong way of solving it. Instead of letting the smarter one think about fishing, and the stronger one save his strength for the last battle; they waste time and energy arguing to the point that they can neither think, nor fight.

Dec 1, 2006

UNC’s Organizational Culture and Change

I have been here for 5 month, so perhaps I can be allowed to make some observations on UNC’s organizational culture. The balance is positive; I like it here, and believe this is a very good institution with bright future. So, Svetlana and I are looking for a house, which is a good evidence of a willingness to stick around.

This place is comfortable with change. Most people do not actively resist; they all agree to do the extra work involved in change and improvement. There is also a tradition of openness – almost never do I get a simple “No”; people in all or almost all offices are usually willing to work on whatever problems and projects I bring up. Whether they can actually solve a problem or not is another issue, but everyone seems to be trying, and OK with new ideas.

The lack of inertia is generally a wonderful thing, because all higher education undergoes a rapid transformation, which I would reduce to three major factors: changing demographics, explosion of information technology, and accountability. Those who can change faster, will remain competitive; those who cannot change, will fail. However, this lack of inertia brings its own problems. It is clear that the University is trying to do too many changes too fast. The Banner implementation is the one central process, but it is in addition to the not-quite-complete transition to the new administrative structure, and a number of other changes. The combination of organizational complexity with the complexity of contemporary data systems is a volatile and sometimes dangerous mix.

I hate to admit it, but I am certainly contributing to this problem, because just our School has initiated a number of major changes:

· Two redesigned graduate programs (Ed.D. and a new MAT Emphasis)
· The new Early Childhood PTEP
· The revision of the Elementary PTEP (this one is a biggie; the changes are not very radical, but the numbers of students make it hard to transition)
· Phasing out Helix database and a switch to the checkpoint courses system. This sounds small, but is, in fact, a big change.
· Implementing new assessment data collection systems for all programs.

We also have a number of smaller projects in the works: encouraging the use of Blackboard to assist in regular classes, K-12 and Secondary Postbac programs, exploration of off-campus growth possibilities, two searches, new grad admission procedure, building a new database, implementing new on-line registration for Elementary and Secondary PTEPs, new STE Charter, and of course, a new rookie director.

It does worry me that at some point, some of the changes become unmanageable. Of course, nothing terrible will happen, because we are not building airplanes of performing brain surgery here. However, the confluence of the multiple changes may reach a point where some of these changes may become uncontrollable and morph into something no one has intended. Just yesterday, Pat Doherty brought up a danger in our new Elementary PTEP proposal that we have not thought in four months of developing the new Elementary program. It is not a huge problem, and we seemed to be able to alleviate it, but how many bugs are there we still do not know about? My biggest worry is that we miss a small detail that will negatively affect the main outcome – student learning. I trust this is not going to happen, because the ability to cope with difficult change seems to be so ingrained in the institutional culture here. People just do what needs to be done, sometimes at the expense of their personal time. I want to thanks you all for this. We cannot really slow down, because most of the changes are thrust upon us, so we need to find ways of coping with all that stuff.

Change is very expensive and time consuming. My other worry is that no matter how cool our institutional culture is, we might not have enough resources to process all the changes. Just one example: in my old university, at the College that is just a little bigger than UNC’s, we had three associate deans, one assistant dean, an assessment officer,a PR specialist, and an IT manager. Here at CEBS, we have an Assistant Dean, and that’s about it. I know less about other areas, but everyone in Carter Hall seems to be stressed out and frantic. STE’s staff and coordinators routinely get behind, not because of lack of effort or organizational skills, but because there is just too much to do, too many e-mails and phone calls to answer, and too many students to talk to. This is not a complaint and a plea for more resources; I am simply worried if we bit off too big of a chunk to swallow.

Well, it all will look better once we are on Winter break, and in a holiday mood.

Nov 19, 2006

Community and innovation: On the Academic Plannign Process

The University has embarked on a massive academic planning process. The idea is to hold a series of conversations among faculty and administrative staff and identify broad themes on which most people agree, and then develop specific objectives and plans. The process includes broad participation, and strives for consensus. That is the good news.

The bad news is that such a process is unlikely to produce innovation, and here is why. It begins with small groups of faculty sitting around the table and brainstorming on something like SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). Whatever the question is, the small group of strangers has a definite dynamics: one does not want to be weird or offensive, so one offers ideas that are likely to be non-confrontational and possibly not weird. If an unexpected idea comes along once in a while, it is likely to be met with a bewildered looks or silence from the rest of the group. This does not happen because people generally resist new ideas; rather, any new idea requires some time to process, and these exercises are usually brief or very brief. So, the occasional unusual proposal rarely gets recorded. If against all odds, a new idea makes it into the group’s notes, someone else is charged with the task of summarizing notes from all groups. To do a fair job, she or he will have to look for common themes, and ignore wording that occurs just once. This is another powerful filter against new ideas.

The result of the process is going to be both impressive and disappointing. We all agree on most wonderful and most generic principles. Those are so generic, they will border on triviality. Who is against community building? Who would object to rational planning and distribution of resources? Anyone against higher salaries? Proper facilities? This is just the nature of a large group’s consensus; it is essentially conservative, and is never innovative. New ideas arise from a small minority, and are expected to be met with resistance. By definition, new ideas will not gain easy acceptance, and need a period of criticism to prove their worth. This is why the academic planning is unlikely to produce any innovation.

Of course, one may question the premise that a university academic planning should produce innovation. One may suggest that the process is designed merely to produce more cohesion in the university community. The process, one may argue, is more important than the result, and the buy-in is as important as what exactly people are expected to buy. I disagree. Although the process in question can produce temporary sense of community, everyone will be disappointed in the end, when the results turn out to be unimpressive. Success, not harmony is the most dependable vehicle of community building. And to be successful, a university like ours needs to puts itself on the map in some tangible ways. We cannot distinguish ourselves by doing what everyone else is doing. Higher education consists of a large number of essentially very similar providers, separated from each other geographically rather than substantially. There is a relatively small number of bran names, whose product is not that different from generic institutions like UNC. Those brand institutions are not faced with the need to innovate, for they can simply reinvest into brand quality, and continue to project the image of exclusive quality. We can never achieve brand recognition like Harvard or Stanford or even UC Boulder. Therefore, in order to be successful, we must find a very specific niche or niches, and do very few things extremely well. In other words, to achieve the sense of success, we must innovate.

How can innovation be institutionalized? What sort of process can produce innovation? One way to go would be to break down the group dynamics processes I described. Perhaps we can have several small teams, each consisting of people who either know each other already, or are given an opportunity to get to know each other. They should feel safe enough to bring up unusual, weird, or radical ideas. These teams would be given ample time to brainstorm with specific purpose of finding innovative ideas, perhaps in direct competition with one another. Once their competing projects are produced, the teams will need to sell their ideas to the campus community. I am certain that university faculty are capable of supporting someone else’s ideas, if those are good, and are not pushed down from the central administration. An open debate, with rational argument and evidence, will generate more sense of community than the polite and inconsequential conversations we are having now. In the end, we may have a set of proposals, which then need to be carefully considered, critiqued, and eventually acted on.

Nov 10, 2006

Neo-prog’s Educational Agenda

Here is what the next Democratic presidential contender might include in his or her platform in the “education” section. If a Republican one does so, I’ll vote for him, too.

The problems with schools are not as much with teaching, as with learning. Like any worker, a student needs motivation. If for upper and upper middle class the value of schooling is real and tangible, for lower and lower middle class, it is more of a gamble. Some benefit from it, while other don’t. And the odds are not that great. We need to do the same thing Mexico and Brazil do for their poor: provide financial incentives to learning. The programs are called “Progresa” and “Bolsa Escola,” respectively. In these countries, poor families receive cash assistance if their children attend school and do regular medical check-ups.

American attempts to link welfare aid to kids’ school attendance have failed to show significant results (See Campbell and Wright, 2005), but not because monetary incentives do not work. This happened because the US economy is different from that of Mexico or Brazil, and also because the American system of withholding welfare checks is punitive, not positive. There should be significant monetary incentives, attached not to school attendance, but to gains in performance. Instead of having an incentive for “crazy checks”, parents should push their kids to become eligible for “smart checks.” Successful students in poor communities will gain new respect and become role models if their success comes with some significant cash income.

We should design and implement a new generation of accountability:

· It has to become internet-based, so any student can take practice test at any time as many times as she or he wants. To demonstrate proficiency, a wide network of proctored free testing should also be available. Demonstrating knowledge has to be decoupled from schools, so those kids who hate school have the same chance as those who like it. Those who experience high anxiety, should be able to try several times in a low-stakes non-threatening atmosphere.
· PLATO could serve as a prototype of a federal learning measurement system. Although the Federal government has no business in setting educational standards, it can and must provide a new infrastructure for learning for the 21 century. The technology is available; what is lacking is vision and leadership.
· Schools’ performance must be based on both the value-added reading of testing results, but also include the measurements of social capital. The democratic society needs its schools to be civic communities, not places of confinement. Schools should be held accountable to creating such communities.

The productivity revolution has not touched educational sphere yet. We have a very expensive, heavily monopolized, and inefficient industry. Many talented and highly dedicated people work there, but no amount of personal sacrifice can make this system significantly more efficient. No Soviet-style administrative controls can force teachers and students to work any harder. Ultimately, education will become like any other industry, where workers (students) get paid for learning specific things we need them to learn. Later in life, they and their employers will be taxed to replenish the reservoir of knowledge a modern society needs. Teaching will become a service available in many forms and configurations, and students and their families will find the best way of learning what needs to be learned.

Nov 3, 2006

Neo-progs wanted: Toward a new educational progressivism

In the even of the elections, I am thinking politics. The policy of school improvement through accountability enjoys remarkable bipartisan support for over two decades. In the last presidential elections, John Kerry’s position on education boiled down to making minor amendments to No Child Left Behind act. While there is nothing inherently wrong with consensus on a major policy area, it does not seem right in this particular case. Educational thought had traditionally been bi-polar at least from the times of Rousseau, if not beginning with rival educational systems of ancient Athens and Sparta. It just does not seem healthy to have only one vision of educational reform, for the lack of clear alternatives rarely speaks of an unopposed policy’s strength. The Democratic Party lacks clear agenda not only in education; it is a part of overall crisis of American progressivism. However, the crisis may be especially acute in education. How do we find ways of developing such an agenda?

Although the majority of educational theorists could be safely classified as progressives, there is a curious refusal to engage with the defining issue of contemporary K-12 education, the issue that drives the “Era of Excellence” reforms. Of course, there is no lack of attempt to define new progressive educational policies. However, most of these attempts do not deal with the real problem.

The real problem everyone avoids is that funding public education does not seem to pay off. Hanushek and Rivkin (1997) report that expenditures per pupil have been increasing 3.5 percent per year for hundred years, adjusted for inflation. While there has been a dramatic expansion of K-12 schooling, there is no evidence that quality of education has improved as, or very modest gains. The resources allocated to education do not bring reasonable returns. Moreover, the difference in resources between schools does not seem to explain achievement gaps between students of different classes. The strength of accountability movement should not surprise anyone. It is clear that without some control of how money is spent, there is no point in investing in public education. No responsible policymaker will remove accountability measures and go back to the era of purely quantitative spending increases.

Most importantly, the Democrats tend to slip back into the mode of blind investment strategies that have spectacularly failed in the past. Paying more to teachers or upgrading school buildings are not going to bring any tangible results unless there are some strings attached to it. In fact, the evidence I’ve come across shows that salary raises do not necessarily improve student performance.

This is not meant as a criticism of Democrat politicians only, simply because it is not a job of a politician to produce theory. The incoherence of both Republican and Democratic educational platforms is an indictment of educational theorists. The critiques of the current accountability reforms abound, and there is no lack of suggestions about alternative forms of assessment. Yet it is my contention that educational theory has not squarely faced the problem of accountability philosophically, and has not done its homework to propose a plausible alternative. We, educational scholars, simply have not done our homework, and when policy change has become inevitable some twenty plus years, ago, we were not ready with a set of ideas politicians could have used. The testing spree then was simply a default position, the best available model of accountability to adapt.

The neo-progs, like the neo-cons, should be a breed very different from their parent party’s patriarchs. Bill Clinton is a neo-prog; not just a centrist. He and a number of his followers believe that progressive social agenda can and should be achieved with more efficient government and with reliance on self-regulating market and market-like mechanisms. The role of the government is to regulate with double purpose: both to ensure public interests are protected (like in environmental, safety, social safety net concerns), AND to make sure the markets are stimulated and do what they do best, self-regulate and innovate (their globalization policies, building of cyber-infrastructure, etc.). Unfortunately, the Clintonites seem to be losing ground to more traditional liberals within the Democratic party, who can muster a lot of anger against the conservatives, but not able to offer anything new for decades now. Unfortunately for us, the Clintonites were never able to expand their way of thinking into education. Clinton himself has offered next to nothing in the educational reform area, but as I said, it is not his fault. Goals 2000 was a bit ridiculous version of America 2000; oh well…

The libertarian wing of the Republican Party favors the vouchers solution, which does not have much of empirical evidence to support it, and which is successfully blocked by Democrats at the national level, and in most places locally. The solution has some appeal to me, because it does use market mechanisms to improve education. It will not work though, because to the lower classes, education is not a consumer good or service. For market of schools to work, there needs to be a strong consumer demand for better schooling. While middle and upper class have reasons to demand (and are able to get) better school, for lower classes that is not the case—not because of any cultural or social deficiencies, but because without going to college, high school completion does not really pay off monetarily. As college degree looks less and less likely, the completion of K-12 education looks more and more like a burden and an obligation than an opportunity. Poor people are rational economic agent, just like the wealthy, and their circumstances dictate different choices.

So, what could be a platform for the educational neo-progs?


Oct 27, 2006

The Academe and other Soviet states

At one of many meetings last week, we discussed equity in faculty workloads, and how hard it is sometimes to motivate faculty to do something they don’t want to do. My comment that, in the Academe, we live in a Soviet-style economy, brought some laughs. However, I was almost serious.

Now, I do not attach any value judgment to the words Soviet economy. It was quite inefficient, and associated with political repression, but it worked for a while and I grew up within it. The truth is, most of the humanity for most of its history has survived without market economies, and still does. Now, markets are very efficient, although not necessarily just, they have their own share of social problems. If you think about it, market economy has not spread to the entire social fabric of even the most developed industrial nations, and is unlikely to do so. Many areas are still dominated by non-market forms of exchange. For example, relationships within families, volunteerism, much of civil society, clubs, associations, etc. are non-market economies. And oh, yes, I forgot the world of education.

Education is one of the largest industries in America. Every fifth American is a student, the rest of, it seems, are some sort of teachers. This is not a surprise: the economy as a whole depends on constant supply of more and more educated workforce. The problem with the educated workforce that it tends to die rather regularly, and takes all the knowledge to its grave. So we need a constant, massive work of moving all that knowledge from old brains into the new ones. Books and other media help, because it does not have to be direct transfer, but every new generation still needs to learn a lot of stuff. Now, this large and growing industry is in stark contrast with the rest of the economy; specifically, it does not operate on market principles.

The world of education is essentially, pre-capitalist, like Ancient Rome or Egypt, or feudal Europe, or Soviet Union. You may think this is a good or a bad thing, depending on your persuasion, but it is hard to deny that fact. K-12 and higher education present two different types of non-market economies, with their significant differences. But both are not responsive to competition, and lack market discipline. So, yes, it is hard to make people do things they don’t want to do, because you can’t fire them, and because the company (the university) is unlikely to go belly up if they don’t.

Just because this is a non-market economy, does not mean it is not an economy at all. Nor does it mean it can work well, or be efficient. After all, think about Egyptians who organized these massive projects without much of a coercion. How did they make all these people to work without monetary incentives? There are still rules, regularities, patterns, and constrains. For example, university faculty do much more when they do something that is interesting to them. They will do less if a task is unconnected to their interests, or boring, or both. Again, you may think it is a good thing of a bad thing, but to be more efficient, universities need to take this into consideration. Another example, university faculty will be more productive if they feel others pull their fair share of the common weight – this point was made several times at the meeting mentioned at the beginning. However, there is always a perception that someone else does not do enough, and here I am stuck with all this work, and what am stupid, or what. Now, part of this perception is probably true, but a big part of this perception is due to simple lack of information. We simply do not know what everyone else is doing. And when we do, past conflicts or perceptions often cloud our judgments so perceive others as working less than they actually do.

It is impossible to reach the exact match between people’s effort and their compensation, both monetary and psychic. Faculty evaluation mechanisms will never be perfect, or even close to being perfect. However, it would help if we somehow, magically knew who is doing what at all times. As I was working with many of the projects our School’s faculty are involved with, I suddenly came to a realization: they don’t know what the other group is doing, and how much effort the other people make. Of course, if you’re involved with one of these projects, you will assume naturally that others maybe slacking. The truth is, everyone or nearly everyone works rather well, some in groups, some in isolation, but no one, including me, knows everything about other people’s work. How do we make this happen? The sense of being treated fairly is perhaps the best incentive for good work in places like a university. Non-market economies are relational economies; their currency is good will, respect, pleasure from interacting with other people, sense of duty and sense of challenge, excitement, curiosity, pride, rivalry, etc., etc.

All we need to do is to make sure more people experience this sense of fairness and pleasure more often. Err, how about fairness coefficient? OK, forget about the coefficient, but perhaps a show and tell at the next faculty meeting will help.

Oct 23, 2006

Teaching as research

This weekend, I have attended the Annual National Academy of Education Conference, and graded papers from my class. The two activities presented somewhat a contrast. One of the presentations at the conference was on the evidence-based teaching in science. Most of its themes were somewhat familiar: do a pretest and a post-test, get frequent feedback from students to gauge what they know and what they don’t know, be clear on what you want them to learn, and do not assume they are learning until you know they are learning.

As I got back to my grading, I realized that even though I know all these principles about teaching, I do not necessarily follow them. For example, in my Social Foundations course, there is no finite list of key concepts and skills I want the students to learn. There are no clear criteria of what level of mastery of such concepts and skills are expected. The learning outcomes I use are rather a wish list, mostly to comply with some external standards. I do not know how much students have known before ever entering into my classroom, so I cannot really tell what they have learned in my class. Moreover, the set of activities I use in class seems “good” to me, because I believe they are effective. Now, do I know for sure how effective each one is? Not at all; these things are deemed to be good, because they feel successful, because students are engaged, not bored, and active. That is all good, but do I know for sure if they actually work, and if some other assignments and activities would not have been more effective. On top of all this, I am not sure how this course’s content fits into respective programs, and which parts of the course are actually necessary, and which are not. I don’t know if my course covers something students have already learned or will be learning in other courses, or what gaps in knowledge they might have, because my colleagues and I assume that the other course covers that stuff. Of course, my colleagues are all better teachers than I am, but I have a sneaking suspicion, that some of these questions might be unanswered in their courses as well.

Now, NCATE and other wonderful bodies try to force us to think about teaching in the same way we think about research. What is not clear to me is why don’t we do it automatically; after all, nearly all university instructors were at some point trained as researchers. The problem seems to be structural rather than personal. In research, there is a well-developed system of quality control, associated, mainly, with the peer review process, but also with the culture of evidence. Nothing like that exists in teaching. A Ph.D. diploma give one a license to teach whatever one likes and however one likes it. OK, not so extreme, but quality controls are extremely weak. To assess quality of each other’s teaching, we rely mainly on student feedback. Of course, students also do not rely on any kind of evidence to evaluate their instructors; their input, although mostly honest, is evidence-free and stems from personal impressions.
Accreditation is important, but it is a wholesale approach to quality. Once every few years, we try to show quality. It is not as effective as piece-meal quality controls. When I am thinking of the thought process that goes into writing a scholarly paper, I have to admit it is very different from one that goes into preparing a syllabus. In the first instance, my audience is my peers, and both my career and my reputation are at stake. A syllabus I develop is unlikely to be read by anyone except for the students, who are not in a position to judge its contents. The motivation to do a good job in thinking through a course is entirely ethical, which is to say ineffective. But most importantly, our courses are developed mainly outside of a conversation with peers, which encourages constant reinvention of bicycles, shoddy work, and inattention to evidence. We feel strongly about the quality of our courses (I have never met any professor who would admit that his or her courses could use some work), because we are the ones to develop and to evaluate them – a clear conflict of interest.

I wonder if it is possible to start a journal of college course syllabi, peer-reviewed, and with respectable editors. One would submit a course syllabus, with classroom activities and assignments, using research to back up whatever is in the course. Such syllabi would go through regular peer-review process, with its rejections, requests to edit, etc. Most importantly, contributors would be asked to provide empirical evidence to show course design’s effectiveness. Unlike other methods journals, this one would accept whole course designs only, not a specific method or curricular material. Because that would be true scholarship, these publications may actually count as real publications. That could make teaching efforts more public and more rigorously evaluated. Eventually, we could make a distinction between peer-reviewed and not reviewed courses, and build knowledge base so the massive reinvention of bicycles would stop.

Oct 14, 2006

Justice is good bureaucracy

Here is the essence of demographic projections by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (Brian Prescott’s presentation at the Faculty to faculty Conference, 10/13/06). Migration of educated people to Colorado has slowed down significantly; we will have to find ways of training our own professionals. At the same time, Colorado high school will produce many more graduates from much more diverse backgrounds then before. Between 2002 and 20018, there will be 40% increase in high school graduates. For the West as a whole, high school graduates from the 2010 class will become majority minority. About half of high school graduates will be from families earning under $50,000. Another interesting trend is increase of the so-called “swirling” students; those who not just transfer, but attend more than two institutions. The traditional transfer pattern from a community college to a four-year institution will also become more and more common.

What are practical implications for us? First, I don't believe we can seriously consider making our programs more selective. We should really think about sustainable growth without loss of quality. Second, we will have to accept large numbers of transfer students to be a part of life, and talk to community colleges about making transfers work. And third, we need to examine the institutional barriers to minority students’ success; at least those we have direct control over.

Let’s put pragmatics over philosophies. We can argue till the end of days what exact configuration of courses and field experiences is superior or inferior to another, slightly different configuration. This just does not lead anywhere, because no actual data can show dramatic differences in quality of teacher training due to slight changes in course delivery formats. There are thousands of teacher education programs around the country, and the difference among them is not in how much time passes between their methods and their student teaching. Good courses, significant field experience, amount of work and quality advising – this is what makes a difference. However, the practical side of things, such as simplicity of procedures, availability of reliable information, clarity of expectations; these practical things make a lot of difference to students, and deserve the same or more respect than philosophical disagreements. I would argue that the pragmatics make even more difference for minority students.

Some may dismiss the priority of pragmatics as simple yielding to convenience or even worse, as lowering our expectations of students. I disagree. For example, the “inconvenience” of looking for a place to stay for five weeks of the student teaching semester – is very important, as important as anything about our programs. The more poor and minority students we have, the more insurmountable barriers like these become. This is just one example, but we have whole sets of procedures designed, essentially, for programs half the size we have, and with a traditional, white and middle-class student in mind. This abstract student can attend numerous required meetings, he does not have a job or childcare issues, she has financial support from parents, etc., etc.

Justice in education is access; access is primarily good bureaucracy, and only then content. This is how I understand our challenge. We all need to think about the procedures in and around our programs, and think how they can be changed to accommodate more students and more diverse students. We need to make our programs much more flexible, much more open, and more accessible. This is something I cannot even begin to address alone; it will require constant collective effort.

Oct 6, 2006

Fall, foliage, and intrinsic motivation

I went outside for a few minutes and have something to report: The dark-skinned trees along the 20th Street are desperately beautiful; their outrageous arrangements of orange and gold can make one instantly drunk. Brunet pine trees stoically ignore the season, but that is just who they are. Breezy Colorado sun delicately touches pedestrians’ eyelids; the pedestrians are a bit shy, but look so pleased. And the smells, the smells sneak deep into my unconsciousness, bringing back random emotions, images, and sensations from the past that may or may not happen.

Now, how do I motivate myself to write an annual program report; a task I was putting off even without the intrusive competition of autumn? How does one justify doing something profoundly boring in the face of such overwhelming beauty? Thoroughly corrupted by years of philosophical thinking, I am turning the very specific question into a more abstract tone: what moves us to do things we don’t enjoys doing, and can probably get away with avoiding altogether?
Most of my motivation comes from explicit and implicit promises to other people; those I learned to like and respect. I suspect it is the same for most others: we do things that just need to be done in an effort to preserve relationships with other individuals, for whom those things are, for some reason, important. Promises move the world. Where direct administrative coercion fails (which is true everywhere except prisons, armies, mental hospitals, and totalitarian regimes), and where internal motivators are absent, it is the power of human relationships that gets things done. I’ll do the report; it will not be that good, and it definitely encroaches on my ability to enjoy Colorado fall. I do it for the teacher, so to speak.
We make a big mistake trying to pretend that school kids should have some internal motivation for learning. That is such an unfair assumption, and it helps no one. They should do boring things for their parents, teachers, friends, and other people they care about. Is it intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? Those psychologist that believe those two are different just completely miss the point of motivation. It can never be either one or the other. The distinction does not hold water. The interplay of duty and pleasure is much more complex. Ultimately, the two are always connected.
Enough of feet-dragging; back to the report.

Sep 29, 2006

Notes from the Dark Side

That is, of course, a joke for those university professors who have become administrators. Most university administrators complain about their jobs, and wish to return to a life of a regular faculty. Now, the complaining is done, in part, to reduce the competition. Partly, we want to deflect criticisms of our performance: “Oh, you think I am bad at it? Would you like my job?”

The complaints are well-known: the days are long, they are very tightly packed; you have to be here alll the time, there is never time to do anything else, and one has to deal with human conflict and resistance. All true, but I just want to set the record straight here: jobs like mine have an incredibly rich good side to them. Since I do lists as a part of professional deformation, here is another list: Ten pleasures of being a university administrator, not ranked in the order of importance:

1. The pay is better.
2. These jobs are anything but boring. Things come from you from all directions; it is a cross between tennis and dodge-ball. Dodging some balls and returning others feels like a game, unless you take it too seriously, which I don’t.
3. The opportunity to solve specific, practical problems is very important, at least for me. No that it happens too often, but when it does, it just feels really good.
4. The intellectual challenge of the puzzles we have to deal with is very gratifying. You’d see a problem that seems to be unsolvable, either because of objective circumstance, or because of subjective history of human relationships. It’s like watching a train going to wreck, and then avoiding the collision at the last moment. Well, it’s never so dramatic, I suppose, but stimulating.
5. You learn a lot of arcane, weird things. I suppose some people may not like it, but I really do. Seeing the world from this angle is just very entertaining. People are most interesting to watch in their struggles, problems, and challenges.
6. Teaching is not overwhelming, so one can enjoy it.
7. Organizations are infinitely interesting; they remind me awkward, slow monsters with many heads and tentacles, moving slowly somewhere no one really knows where. They behave not at all like individual people. They have their own logic, pace, and strange ways of accomplishing something. Just guessing what they are going to do next is a lot of fun.
8. One can avoid doing many boring things because there is someone else to do them. God bless secretaries, work-studies, and other wonderful people.
9. Your mistakes can always be attributed to someone else. I suppose, when you’re a surgeon, and your patient dies, there is no escape from the feeling of failure. IN our case though, there is always someone or something else to blame.
10. People listen to what you have to say. Not that they necessarily believe anything you say, but the pretence of being important is sort of funny. Most people do not realize this, but authority is an incredibly funny thing, just next to fraud and magic tricks. It’s the pretending that the emperor is fully clothed. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I often secretly chuckle at myself and other people who are in charge of something.

So, there; I like my job. And if I start complaining, just tell me to shut up.

Sep 22, 2006

Accreditation and ambivalence

I have just returned from the NCATE conference in Washington, and am trying to figure out what do I think about this and other accreditation processes. It is strange to be ambivalent, considering that I have been involved with NCATE for a few years now, and have even published a paper about these things. Yet I find myself to be uncertain.

On one hand, it is an opportunity to talk to colleagues about what we do and how to improve things. No one I know has said that his or her institution came out worse off after the NCATE accreditation. I also know that there is plenty of mediocre curriculum design and teaching that goes on in the Academe. It is full of very smart and honest people, but without a push, we tend to teach whatever we like, and avoid each other if at all possible. Things do not change for decades; courses often remain isolated. Sometimes we teach the same thing several times in several courses; sometimes we leave huge gaps in our students’ education because everyone thought someone else is covering this and that.

I admire NCATE’s insistence on the diversity component of accreditation. The truth is, in many smaller, especially private religious colleges, the only non-white face often belongs to an NCTE diversity coordinator. The search for evidence also deserves credit. The world of education is largely based on myth, with little or no evidence behind much of what we’re doing. One does not have to believe in all data, and be careful about what passes as “scientific” research, but let’s face it, much of what we do in Higher Education is based largely on totally arbitrary assumptions. What is a good class? – Usually one that feels good, where students were engaged and interested. Did they learn anything? Did that anything fit into some sort of a larger plan? Did we assess what they have actually learned? Are they using any of it in their own classrooms? We really know very little about these things, and don’t seem to care much without an external push.

However, several things disturb me about the accreditation push; some of which I cannot yet pun my finger on. First, it produces the data for the sake of data. The standards are way too many, and to cover them all, we are forced to come up with incredibly broad rubrics and other assessment instruments that become unreliable. Let’s face it, we graduate what, 400 or so teachers each year, and grade all their portfolios a few days before graduation. Am I supposed to believe that each of these students received a well thought-out grade on dozens of elements of dozens of standards? And of course, everyone passes. This makes little sense, and yet this seems to be the only way to get accredited.

In general, there does not seem to be a way of meeting all these standards without a great deal of pretending. A big part of it is the time constraint. What smaller schools do not have trouble doing, becomes a large obstacle to a school of our size. So, instead of having an honest discussion about how to improve, we often discuss the creative ways of compliance. Compliance itself is not a bad thing: all industries have to comply with various safety, quality, environmental regulations. I am not convinced meeting NCATE standards will actually guarantee high quality of the outcomes. Incredibly, the organization built around evidence has little evidence to show that the things it recommends actually works. It does look and sound very good, and very convincing. However, we in education used to believe other plausible things that turned out to be wrong: for example, that class size matters a lot, that kids’ socio-economic background is the major contributor to achievement, etc. I am just afraid a few years down the road some one will show that aligning curriculum, gathering data, and using the data to improve instruction actually do not improve much of anything. I don’t know this, this is just my worry.

There is also something very totalitarian, communist about the accreditation process. Again, I have written about this, and won’t repeat myself, but it just feels sometime very oppressive. It feels like designing your own prison cell.

We will still do it, and I will do my best for us to pass. Yet I think we should only do what makes sense for us, and then report whatever we think will get us through.

Sep 15, 2006

Levine Report

OK, teacher education is bad again, and it’s going to hit the news on Monday, just watch. A report on teacher education by Arthur Levine was widely leaked, and will be actually released on September 18 (See preview as well as NCATE advanced response). I encourage anyone to read the report on on Monday, and to form your own opinion. Here is mine: it sucks. People who do bad research should not claim any authority in issuing recommendations based on it. This stuff would not have been published be it a peer-reviewed publication, because of the obvious research flaws.

The author uses surveys of school principals to make a judgment that teacher education programs do not prepare teachers well enough. At the same time, he claims that quality of teacher preparation should be evaluated by looking at academic progress made by students of our graduates. So, which one is it, subjective opinions of principals or student performance data? He uses the U.S. News and World Report ranking to show that NCTAE accreditation does not improve quality of teacher education (top and bottom of the ranking list have some accredited institutions). Well, the ranking system is hardly scientific; it is based largely on reputations. Levine uses four exemplary teacher education schools, but again, offers no evidence that their graduates actually teach better; he only cites their reputation. This is just bad research, and rather poor logic.

Even if we have hard data on how well students of our graduates perform (which we don’t in Colorado), what is the base line for comparisons? How do you make a judgment that the entire field of teacher education is inadequate? Is it some international comparison? Is it a comparison to other professions like lawyers and doctors? Neither comparison makes any sense. Since teacher quality is only a part of any nation’s academic success, we cannot use K-12 educational achievement in international context as a criterion. Incidentally, American schools are not at all as bad as people might believe, but even if they were, it would be a huge leap to say that this is because of teacher quality.

Ironically, the author of the report says that we need a lot more research, because we don’t know answers to some basic questions like what works in teacher education. Yet he gives out recommendations on that very topic anyway! Just wait till you see those recommendations – they range from trivial to ridiculous. The man wants to close down teacher education programs in institutions like ours and enlarge those at R-1 schools. So, lets put our 1500 students in Stanford Teacher Ed program (that currently has 69 students) and hope they all turn out as outstanding as the original 69. I guess Stanford will be hiring soon!

I am not saying we don’t have any problems. We do, like anyone else. I am just tired of people putting a lot of garbage in what looks like research, and then hit the media circuits. I am angry not because we are criticized, but because we are criticized in such an unfair and incompetent manner. The implications of the critique are that we just don’t have the will to improve, and simply need to try harder or be smarter. This is Friday, I am tired and irritated, and believe we should not take it any longer. This is definitely not what we need to improve.

Sep 8, 2006

Cultural cycles

I worry about cultural cycles today. All cultures exist in cycles of celebrations and the routine, of war and peace, the seasons, and leadership changes. All those short and long cycles maintain culture’s cohesiveness, but also reinforce its values, reestablish the culture itself. Humans seem to be emotionally wired for cyclicity, and are unable to maintain the same emotional tone for long periods of time. They need both jolts of excitement and periods of relative quiet.

Basically any culture, including miniature cultures of organizations like ours, includes series of reminders. The Independence Day is just a holistic reminder of the ideal of American Revolution. Of course, these ideals get constantly revised, and history is always reinvented, but the function of a celebration is still to remind. Christmas is a reminder about Jesus; Passover is a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, etc. Now, Labor day does not remind of any specific event, which is why it is not a real holiday, but rather a long weekend.

We are now in what, third week of classes. Everyone seems to be happy getting back into the classrooms, if exhausted by the demands of work. Yet we all seem to be spread out, working all individually, and not having any time or opportunity to remind each other of what we have agreed on. What I worry about is that whatever momentum we established at the beginning of the school year will not dissipate. Of course, one does not just create a tradition out of nothing, especially in a place like university. The rare faculty meetings usually have the sort of ritualistic celebratory overtones that create and maintain academic culture. It’s the spirit of the place, the intangibles of human group that I worry about.

This is going to be a short blog, for I only know the question, and even that very vaguely. NO answer comes to my mind, so perhaps someone can help me.

Sep 1, 2006

On human errors

The first week of classes was very busy, yet it went rather smoothly, for which I am extremely grateful to our dedicated staff and faculty. We messed up just a few things. Specifically, we have misscheduled two classes and then I sent an e-mail to a wrong list of student that got really confused. We also have had a few errors with registering students manually, especially for the off-campus program. At least one graduate fell through the cracks, and her license was delayed significantly. Considering the number of things we got right, it’s not a big deal, really. However, this prompted me to think about the nature of human error and ways of preventing these in the future.

Blaming someone is the last thing on my mind, partly because I messed up some things myself, and partly because I don’t believe it is effective. Where people are, there will be errors; it is just a matter of life. Think of Chernobyl incident, all the NASA disasters, and aviation crashes; most are traceable to human error, despite extraordinary efforts to prevent them. We of course, have nothing comparable in error-prevention, but thankfully, costs of our errors are also incomparably small. No one died, and we did not even cause a lot of complaints. Sometimes it is so great to be not-so-consequential. I still want to look at factors that increase the likelihood of a human error in a social system like ours.

  1. Change in routines. Things like the new registration system just through people off enough to concentrate on the newness, and miss errors. Any change thus should be weighed as a balance between benefits and costs; costs should include increase of error probability.
    New people: a new school director, new coordinator or a new secretary; any new person will make more errors simply because of the learning curve. Now, these learning curves can be steeper for some than for others, and there is no point of blaming people for net learning fast enough. Just like in a classroom – if they are not learning, let’s change teaching. Hurrying them up does not help.
  2. Stress on the system. The more tasks we all do, the more we are likely to screw up on at least some of them. People should do less work, and then they will do it better. I still think elimination of routine, mechanical work will allow us all to think more about what we’re doing, and improve all work processes.
  3. Inefficient procedures. Processes that are too complex, or too time-consuming, will generate errors. For example, if a scheduling process involves four or five information transfers (like we have now), the probability of error is multiplied by the number of times information is passed from one person to another. Streamline and simplify, and the rate of errors will decrease.
  4. Lack of check points. Because we know errors are inevitable, we need to build in some quality assurance processes, and clearly identify who and when does check what.

Aug 25, 2006

The anatomy of human conflict

Anything could trigger a conflict; I am not convinced there needs to be a trigger at all. Yet what happens next is fairly universal. “A” does something, and “B” interprets is as a hostile action. It never ceases to amaze me how poor are our interpretations of others' intent. I would call this phenomenon “the hostility bias.” It may have very simple evolutionary reasons: it would benefit an animal to perceive any strange, unexplained actions by another animal as hostile. We can’t really help it; lack of information for interpretation leads us to interpret other’s behavior as hostile. The way we assign meaning to things is by comparing them to our past experiences, but our past experiences are remembered already interpreted. In other words, if you think someone was mean to you in the past (which may or may not be true), any next action of the same person is likely to be interpreted as hostile. That is how we make enemies. An enemy is a very simple category, because it takes all the guesswork and uncertainty out of figuring out the intent. An enemy will always be expected to undermine you, so any of his or her actions should be opposed based on this assumption. Of course, having enemies makes working together very unproductive, because the substance of discussion is overshadowed by the hidden implied meanings of the discussion.

In most social systems, there are elaborated rituals of reconciliation to overcome the natural tendency to suspect evil intentions. People expel bad spirits, they punish each other, forgive, make peace, sign treaties, marry their children, etc., etc. In the academia, such powerful forces of cohesion do not exist or are weak, so conflicts arise easily and rarely extinguish themselves. The only natural defense against the splintering centrifugal forces of conflict is finding a common external enemy. For that, people need to feel threatened in a very profound way. So, paradoxically, if an academic unit is in a decent shape, and is successful, the forces of social cohesion tend to be weak, because there is no plausible enemy without.

Of course, conflicts are terribly distracting. The energy expended on scheming, strategizing, resisting, sabotaging, and mending fences is enormous. How do we establish a culture that is if not immune to conflicts, at least not a Petri dish for them? One rule maybe one that I always try to impose on my students: always assume that your opponent is not evil or stupid. In either case, dialogue and cooperation are impossible. If we do not allow for a possibility that honest, decent people may disagree with us, and neither of us is wrong, then, well, we may as well close down the shop. The room, the assumption of honest disagreement is absolutely essential. Bill Clinton has articulated this idea many times in his speeches, to no avail, apparently, for political debate in this country remains dialogue-free. Another rule: accept uncertainty, do not over-interpret people’s actions. In very simple cases, we can read the general intention of another person from non-verbal cues: is she smiling, is his tone of voice friendly? Now, when we communicate over e-mail, OR when we communicate with complex actions rather than words, these back-up channels of communication fail. We simply do not know other people’s intentions. We like to guess and pretend we understand, but in fact, we often do not have a clue. This is when the hostility bias kicks in. We are animals in search of narrative; we NEED a story to explain the world, including the behavior of others. It takes a conscious effort to tell yourself: “I simply don’t know what they mean.”

OK, to review, two rules of conflict-free work place:
  1. No one is evil or stupid (stupid includes incompetent)
  2. You can't read other people's minds

Of course, there are things I should do as the Director to help this process. One is to allow for greater information flow and transparency for all decisions. Remember, it is lack of information that invites the hostility bias. And two, I should never fully trust any story any of you is telling me about someone else in a context of conflict. So, if you tell me someone was evil or incompetent, I might nod, but just know, I am not really buying it; there probably was a simpler explanation of that person’s actions. My job is not to find out who was right and who was wrong about this or that, much less to take sides; it is to make sure we can work together despite our personal likes or dislikes, or past conflicts or disagreements.

Aug 17, 2006

How to stop turf wars

Having some turf of one’s own is natural. Chimps, for example patrol their territories at night, and can severely hurt or kill intruders from adjacent bands. All primates are territorial animals, and academics are primates with graduate degrees. Human groups have a deep-seated instinctual drive to establish their territory, be it a hunting ground or an academic program. We all need to know the degree and the limits of our freedom in order to be able to exercise our free will. In the academia, having some freedom is especially important, because our identities are closely linked to having knowledge, expertise, and therefore to the ability to determine the right course of actions. We do not react well to limitations simply because they question our competence, and thus jeopardize our very being as scholars. Academics like freedom because it their existential condition, not because of personal preference. We are nothing if we cannot have some claim to independence. Independence means having a piece of turf of one’s own. In reality, universities operate under all sorts of constrains, including, of course, budgetary, but also political and administrative. 

Most of these constrains are completely out of our control. Every time State bureaucrats come up with a new requirement or initiative, we have no choice but to comply, whatever we think the merits of these initiatives are. Such daily capitulations inflict deep psychic wounds, because they demean our identity but forbid admitting even to ourselves that such thing has taken place. Of course, the frustration seeks a way out. We cannot do anything about the State or NCATE, but we can do something about our immediate neighbors from our departments or departments next door. When things get difficult, suddenly “they” seem to become pushy, suspicious, and perhaps wanting to take over our turf. “They” take on almost mythical qualities: they don’t respect what we do, they have questionable ethical beliefs, they plot against us, and they do not understand what we do, but want to meddle anyway. They always have hidden agendas, and they have cause harm to us in the past. Their calls to cooperate are but attempts to trick us into letting our turf go. They do not work as hard as we do, and they make way too much money. They have more power, and they do not respect us. But most importantly, they want a piece of our turf. 

Most of such opinions of course do not have a rational basis. It is very unlikely that the next group of humans with very similar life experiences, educational level, and general outlook on life would somehow contain more unethical, incompetent, or dishonest people. It is possible, but statistically very unlikely. Because of that simple fact, I maintain that the real cause of most academic turf wars is the misplaced anxiety over circumstances beyond our common control. 

However, let me return to the initial assertion: turf is good; even if the turf wars are rarely productive. An honest conversation about the boundaries may reveal not only that there is enough turf for everyone, but that there are huge surpluses of nobody’s turf out there. A clear statement of rights of a particular group goes a long way in understanding that others may not really want to violate these rights. In other words, turf must have more or less clearly marked boundaries. Good fences make good neighbors. Only when groups are secure about their turf they may come to a conclusion that collaboration with neighbors can be beneficial. Moreover, they may realize that boundaries sometime maybe shifted without the threat of total annihilation. Ultimately, the forces beyond our control may be somewhat controlled if we figure out how to stop turf wars, because, as everyone knows, it is still the old “divide and rule” world.

Aug 11, 2006

Your director's list of task, abridged

Here is what is on my project list. I realize this is not going to be interesting to everyone, but if you’re wondering how your director fills his work days, here it is. The list is not prioritized.

  1. Fall schedule. It has a number of unresolved issues.
  2. Helix to Banner conversion. This is a biggie. We maintain Helix database that needs to be phased out during this academic year, because it is a Mac-only database, and new Macs will not support it. But Banner is also new, and IT is very busy trying to make it work. We need a comprehensive review of all program and licensure procedures. I am chipping away at this task, while learning the programs.
  3. The printing/copying savings. To save some money for travel fund, we need to cut down on these costs. This cannot be done overnight, but rather gradually, so our faculty, students, cooperating teachers and others get used to electronic form of communication.
  4. The book of policies. I am trying to spell out the rules that will govern our school’s operations: scheduling, workload assignments, evaluations, tenure and promotion, expectations, etc.
  5. Web site redesign: the basics are there, but a lot of work remains: see
  6. Program development. We have several projects in works in various degree of completion.
  7. Doctoral degree – I suggested a number of revisions of the existing and well-developed proposal (Thanks, Linda, Michael, and Fred).
  8. Early Childhood PTEP. We will try to develop a joint program with Aimes or another community college.
  9. Revision of MAT. It is just an idea (Fred again), to redefine the existing MAT so that along with the Elementary specialization, there would also be Ed Studies of C&I specialization for secondary teachers.
  10. Another just an idea – a certificate in Middle School for teachers, a state-wide on-line program (Barb).
  11. iWebfolio: We are working with Elementary, and will start working with Secondary faculty on implementing the new on-line portfolio system, which should help us collect and analyze data for accreditation purposes, and just for fun. Data party? Data Picnic?
  12. My own syllabus for EDF 366.
  13. Learning URSA.
  14. Program procedure review. This sort of relates to number 3, but is wider in scope. The idea is to simplify and streamline all procedures, using Banner, e-mail, and website so that the office staff and program coordinators are liberated from much of routine and boring work.

Aug 5, 2006

On the nature of human knowledge

I have been on the job for a month. Despite an effort to learn everything there is to know about the School and its programs, many details are still escaping me. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation I suddenly realize that what I thought we are talking about is not the same you thought we are talking about. Some assumptions just do not hold, because my past experiences are not identical to yours. What you call A or B at UNC may not necessarily mean the same things at BGSU. Sometimes this is funny, sometimes frustrating, often just a bit annoying, because it wastes time and makes me look foolish.

How much does one need to know to make good decisions? It is clear that perfect knowledge of anything is but a fantasy. Therefore, one has to be able to differentiate knowledge that is more useful to have and knowledge that can be safely ignored. There is another distinction: some things I need to know, while other things should be known by other people. No one can know everything; our brains are just not big enough for that.

I have a list of projects of various scope and level. It is close to dozen, although some are related. How do I know that Helix-to-Banner database conversion is more or less important than the new Doctoral degree or Early Childhood PTEP program? Is iWebfolio project more or less important than the retreat we are planning for late August? Of course, there are University’s documents such as Charting the Future, etc. We also have started the strategic planning process this week. Yet I don’t believe most people operate strictly from the plans they develop or set of priorities they set. There is also another way of prioritizing that is for internal consumption. When I look at my to-do list, what mechanism do I use to select which thing should be dealt with first, and which can wait? It is more of an instinct than a rational thought. But then, how do I know it is right?

Events have their own way of prioritizing; some issues become more pressing, and some quietly go away. I cannot play defense all the time though; there should be a couple of projects that are not in response to immediate needs, and do not feel urgent right now, but will make a difference in the long run. I guess this is one reason I write this blog – to remind myself that there is more to this job than keeping things running or make sure they are somewhat improve.

Jul 28, 2006

On authority

There are two types of authority: relational and institutional. Both always coexist in any organization and any culture, but one of the two usually dominates.

Relational authority is rooted in reciprocity: A chief makes certain favors to some of his subjects; they return those favors by supporting the chief. It is a very effective form of human relations, partly because our brains are wired to keep track of who owes us and who do we owe in return. The only issue here is that the chief can provide only a limited number of favors, so he has to develop a group of favorites who receive most of favors. The favorites develop a sense of loyalty for him, and can be counted on for continuous support. This creates class system, which is constantly challenged by those who end up in less favorable status. So, inequality is a result of the arrangement; not only between the chief and the people, but also among the people. This is because the authority itself is derived from the chief’s ability to provide one person a favor at the expense of others. If everyone gets the same treatment, this type of authority simply does not exist. The chief would have no power, and be an ineffective leader, which in turn, further diminishes his authority.

Institutional authority is also rooted in reciprocity, but of a different, generalized kind (I am loosely using Karl Polianyi’s term). It’s reciprocity between a person and the polity. It is based on a set of rules, to which all or most of people consent. When the rules are developed, no one should be able to tell who they will benefit in the future, so people make sure the rules are as fair and equitable as possible, and promise to comply even if in the future, they may not personally benefit from the application of these rules. The chief then becomes a guarantor of the rules. He is basically, a hired manager, someone who is trusted to enforce the rules, but not trusted to change or develop them. It is his office rather than his person that possesses authority. In a paradoxical sort of way, the chief’s authority comes from inability to provide favors, because he is bound by the rules which are beyond his control. People agree to tolerate his leadership precisely because he promises to stick to the rules.

OK, that was a bit of theory. In practice, I don’t want to be the administrator who makes individual deals with individual faculty. Although some flexibility is expected and is healthy, a set of firm written rules should govern our practices. These rules cannot change too often, and should reflect basic principles of fairness and equity. In the Academia, there is place for seniority considerations (especially in tenure and promotion decisions); there is also the reality of contractual differences between full-time and adjunct faculty. We have to agree on who has more expertise in specific areas, but once such an agreement is reached, it should hold. Outside those very specific cases, everyone should be assumed to have the same worth and dignity, and pull the same weight. More work should be better compensated than less work, but the rules of determining what constitutes more work have to be developed collectively. The agreement on what the rules are should always outweigh personal relationships among faculty and between faculty and leaders. Most decisions should be transparent and well-reasoned, and dissociated from personal likes or dislikes. I want to make sure the rules are not twisted to provide someone a little extra benefit. Even though the human instinct is to be popular, and to give at least some people what they want, in the long run, I would rather have most people dislike me, but admit I am fair than some people like me a lot, while others feel exploited and alienated.

Now, I am not naïve; where humans meet, they tend to engage in personal relationships, and those by very definition are partial and biased. Yet even if some bias is inevitable, its influence should be relatively small or at least limited. Moreover, no system provides actual equality. However you set the rules, some people will be in a position to benefit from them more than others. Yet the inequality created by a system that is transparent and fundamentally fair is different from the sort of inequality produced by the relational authority. It’s a difference between a byproduct and the essence. In relational authority, the system works because of inequality; in institutional authority, the system works despite inequalities. The latter systems tend to work much better in the long run, and everyone comes out better off in the end.

Jul 21, 2006

Big ideas

I was taking my son Gleb to the airport on Wednesday, and he asked me how was my job and if I had any big ideas about it. My response was that the job is great, and yes, I do have some ideas. I was not sure whether they are big though. What I am quite sure about is that we need to streamline some of the procedures, and save/make some money for the School. Those two are actually closely related. We should probably consider expanding our off-campus offerings to both generate revenue for the School, and allow people to make some extra money, while offering quality programs. We need to try to get into some more grants. We also have to make sure we get accredited by the State and NCATE. Are these ideas big though?

Now, how do you come up with big ideas if what I inherited as a director are programs that are already very good, thoughtfully put together, and with some great track records? I have wonderful, talented faculty and competent staff. It clearly ain’t broken, so what am I going to fix? Management is really a form of service. My job is to make sure faculty have the means and right conditions to do their job well. It is in the classrooms and in the field where rubber meets the road, not in my office, or in my hard drive.

If one looks at education in general and teacher education in particular, one may notice quite a few significant improvements over the past 20 years or so. Those are mostly related to the wave of quality management techniques we have borrowed from the world of business. Various forms of accreditation, notably NCATE, fall under this broad category of systematic, incremental (and well, let’s admit it, tedious) improvements. This stuff is annoying but it works. No one came out of an NCATE review worse off than before. Yet it is essentially the same teacher education that was around long time ago. Just like modern car engines are vastly superior to those of the past, but they are still the same: burning gasoline mixed with air. What I would consider a big idea in education should be what a hydrogen engine is to the internal combustion one. In my opinion, we have not had such a big idea in education for about 100 years, since the advent of Progressivism. So, my answer to Gleb is that no, I don’t have any really big ideas. And maybe this is a good thing.

Yet we need to keep our eyes open, in case one of those appears. It’s about time, and we have many challenges that do not seem to go away. The tremendous rate of attrition among teachers is probably the central one. We keep training all these competent teachers, yet some 4 million Americans with teaching licenses do not teach. The root cause of the problem might be well beyond our reach, yet I cannot get rid of a feeling that something is missing in the very model of teacher education. Specifically, why the so-called hard-to-staff schools (mostly urban) present such a difficulty for young teachers? I mean, being a doctor or a firefighter, or a cop is also very stressful, but people do not quit in such large numbers. Perhaps one solution would be to concentrate on communication, acting skills, on the ability to relate to students? How about a boot camp for future teachers, something that would restructure their personality, their psyche, not just their knowledge and competencies?

Well, perhaps a number of small ideas are better than a search for a big one. But I still wonder…

Jul 15, 2006

Complexity and catch-22

I have spent most of the last week digging into the School’s procedures. Complex would be an understatement in describing those procedures. I began with our largest, elementary program, and asked our knowledgeable staff and program coordinators to put together a detailed description of who does what when in order for a student to go through the program. It is very clear to me that each and every step is necessary, and important. Each was introduced as a necessity, based on experience and good knowledge of both the program’s requirements, and our students. We have many checks to make sure students’ experience going through the program is as smooth as possible. Briefly, students turn in information sheet (which is really a pre-application), then submit an application to be accepted into the program, then they apply for Block I, and then Block II (student teaching, and then, ultimately, for the sate license. At each step, our staff and coordinators check whether they meet necessary requirements, and remind students what they are still missing (TB tests, background check, or a test). This creates enormous amount of work both for staff and for program coordinators.

We face what one may call catch-22 of program complexity, a paradox that I have observed before, and which seems to be common in the world of teacher education, and whole higher education. As some students fail to comply with somewhat complex state and institutional requirements, we introduce safety checks that would prevent very expensive and frustrating errors. An example of safety check would be an application form, a reminder letter, a required meeting. Yet the more safety checks we introduce, the more complex our programs become, and more difficult for students to follow all the steps (or jump through all the hoops, if you’re less generously inclined). So we are forced to increase our advising efforts, which take much time, and force faculty to think of new procedural checks that would catch a lot of common errors they encounter in advising. So, we create self-replicating complexity, because all checks become institutionalized, and never go away, while new ones can be added at any time. Note that all of this is done out of genuine concern for students. However, eventually, faculty and staff grow frustrated because so many students fail to follow procedures they laid out. Students grow frustrated because they cannot keep up with complexity of programs.

What is the way out of this? Can the programs be so clear that even the slowest of our students would understand its flow and become the responsible adult who monitors his or her own progress? I am not sure. We deal with young people who may or may not have the maturity level and experience necessary to get themselves through the program in a responsible manner. What we can do, can be this:

  1. Simplify and streamline the program requirements.
  2. Let computers do most checking (in our case, let Banner handle most of it)
  3. Make information available and clearly presented on the web; this is how contemporary kids learn about the world.

Jul 10, 2006

On vision, geeks, and technology

I have received congratulations on surviving the first week on the job. These were nice, but not warranted. It has been very interesting, and even fun. Everyone around me was so welcoming and supportive. I felt like a kid who got a new videogame for a birthday, and is anxious to figure out what it can do. OK, my ability to comprehend things was a bit overloaded, but I have learned a great deal about the School and its programs. And this is only the beginning; there is so much more to learn. My focus was to understand various office procedures: who turns in what form when, who enters the data where, etc. I really was enjoying reading the minds of people who designed the programs, and make them work so well.

It is my firm belief that only all faculty together can generate a vision for its school. In order to be shared and accepted, it has to come from within. My role is to help integrate various views and agendas into something coherent. We can actually start working on it only in the Fall, when everyone is back. In the meanwhile, I am trying to develop a list of smaller, more focused projects that will address specific challenges our School faces. Here are two examples:

  1. Problem: no money for faculty travel. A partial solution: Cut mailing and copying costs. For example, we can put all student teaching handbooks on-line, use more e-mail instead of snail mail for communication with students, encourage faculty to put their syllabi and handouts on-line. Can it save enough the money? I need to do some math on this, but it is clear that we are talking about thousands of dollars, easy money.

  2. Problem: too much manual data entry. As a result, our staff is overwhelmed with manual work, and has no time to think about improving and streamlining procedures. Much of the problem can be traced to the redundant databases: one is maintained by the University (Banners) and another we keep just for teacher education programs (Helix). The long-term solution is to phase out Helix and configure Banner to serve all our needs. This may take a while, partly because Banner is so new to begin with. However, there should be a number of short-term solutions. All we need to figure out is how to download data from Banner and upload it to Helix.

As one can see, much of my thinking on solutions involves the use of technology. So let me explain my relationship to it. I am probably more proficient than most university professors are, but I am not a geek. I belong to another group of people, let’s call them expert users (EU). Now, geeks are a clearly defined category. They are people who love technology. Unlike geeks, EU’s have no feelings for technology, no love for new gadgets, although they like to know what is generally available. A geek discovers a new amazing gadget, and then is looking for ways to use it. An EU has a specific practical problem, and only uses those bits of technology that can solve it. A geek is looking for an elegant solution. An EU prefers imperfect solutions, patches really, if those an be done quickly, cheaply, and without much training. If I can hammer virtual nails with a virtual microscope, so be it, and don’t tell me I am not doing it right. Geeks hate Microsoft, EU’s don’t care where stuff comes from, as long as it does the job. Geeks spend hours learning how their tools work. EU grows impatient if software does not make sense within an hour, and deems it unusable.

Nothing personal against geeks; in fact, some of my best friends are geeks. And both kinds of people are needed, of course. Just let the users, not the toolmakers be in control of which tools are used and how. Even the nicest of geeks tend to believe they know better what we need; they are often patronizing and sometimes arrogant to people who can’t code. In fact, they rarely understand the specific, practical problems users face, biggest of which is always lack of time to learn new technological tricks.

Anyway, this is enough philosophizing. Let’s try to use technology, but be cynical, pragmatic, and hard-headed about. Like any tool, it is only worth investing in (time and money, but mostly time) when the benefits are clearly obvious. So, mail merge training, anyone?

Jul 2, 2006


This blog is for the faculty and staff of the School of Teacher Education, University of Northern Colorado. By definition, it is also open to anyone on the web, although I am not worried about unwanted attention.

As your rookie director, I will try to share my thoughts, musings, and observations. Transparency is good for any transition, so I will strive to be transparent. Hopefully, this will allow us all to avoid mistakes and get the School where we want it to be.

Feel free to ignore the blog or give me feedback - both here (your responses become public) and privately through e-mail.

My first official action will be to thank Karon, Layne, and Meredith for a nice office, wonderful furniture, and little things like pens and sticky notes - they all make me feel welcome and somewhat important. Michael, the tech guy, has set me up with a nice computer.

It will take a while for me to learn everything about this School and its programs, but I am not at the zero mark either, thanks to Karon, Linda, Vicky, and Marita who started my crash course on the School's affairs. I plan to meet with all faculty individually, and if you're around in the summer, let's think about having a chat sometime soon. My intention is to have an open-door policy: if the door is wide open -- come in for anything, including small talk. If it is half-open, come in if you need to talk. If it is open just a bit - come in if it cannot wait. If it is shut, I am probably not there at all. Of course, Karon and I can both set specific appointments.

I am looking forward to solving the puzzle called STE and hope you all can help me with that. I am excited about the new job and its challenges, and hope to do some good, with your help.