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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?