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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.