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May 25, 2007

The cost of fairness

It’s Friday before the Memorial Day weekend. Absolutely no one will read this, I hope. People should be enjoying the summer weather, resting, reading trashy novels, taking trips; not working.

I have been thinking a lot of the world of work, and its opposition to the world of leisure. This has to do with my theoretical understanding of learning as a form of labor. But as an administrator, I have to deal with work every day: how do I make people’s work more productive?

Human civilization is, in fact, a complicated device for making people work – to work more, or to work more efficiently, or both. It is also a way of enhancing the world of leisure, although if you take a look at it, we are much more sophisticated in work than in leisure. Our pleasures are still very similar to those of animals, and they revolve around the body pleasures and entertainment. But we have invented a lot of ways making each other work. Why? The further away we are from naturally entertaining hunting and gathering, the more boring most of the work becomes. The division of labor especially made us more efficient at very narrow operations, but the operations themselves become less and less entertaining.

For example, this week I needed some data to be entered – from paper into a database. It’s very boring, but we have our wonderful work study students. Labor relations are very simple with them – they will do it because we pay them an hourly wage; they are free to quit at any time, we are more or less free to fire them at any time. Things get a bit more complicated when we need to do something more complicated, but perhaps just as boring, say, writing various reports. The labor relationships between universities and faculty are immensely complicated, and for a good reason. Faculty are not laborers; they have a great degree of independence and power. This is, of course, what makes it so interesting to work with them, but this is what makes getting things done more difficult sometimes.

If you just ask people to do additional things on top of what they normally do, they may resist for obvious reasons. However, if you try to introduce a by-hour sort of compensation for specific small jobs, they will get offended, because you treat them like laborers. Many faculty work really hard, but most are under the impression that they work harder than the next person, thus the equity considerations. Most people feel strongly about their commitment to students and to our common goals, but they also do not want to be taken advantage of, and do not want someone else to slack off. Of course, those worries are warranted, because some people do work much more than others. But can we know exactly, who and how much more? Not without resorting to some minute hour-by-hour record keeping system. But such a system would be offensive to everyone because it reduces the faculty member status to that of a laborer for hire, mainly because it would rob a faculty member of independence. Such is the price of complete fairness.

This is what happened to K-12 teachers: in search for fairness, equity, and security, they, as traded independence and professional status off for fairness and equity. You cannot be a professional and have the end of school day specified at 3:34 in your contract). This is the dilemma for university faculty, especially in the age of accountability. We do not want faculty reduced to the level of a laborer, and yet we have a strong interest in equity and fairness.

I was thinking about these things as the College Directors were struggling to find a way of distributing summer stipends. I was one of those initially arguing for minute, detailed analysis of people’s work. Some of my more experienced colleagues were hesitant to do so, and they were right. At one point a faculty member told me that he does not want to get paid at all if the compensation is, let’s say, $5 for doing one specific little task. At that moment I began to realize that fairness comes at a price, and it can be humiliating. So, when I started to divide up whatever little money we have, my lenses have changed: I had to think about these sums to be a small, and how people would react to minute, detailed justifications for every dollar. So, some vagueness, and more egalitarian distribution would do better for the morale, even if it is less than fair to individuals. For example, a stipend of $1125 might be offensive, while $1000 might be OK. Getting paid $100 when someone else gets $2000 maybe fair but offensive, while a smaller gap would be more acceptable to both parties.

As universities become more and more business-like and start counting money like any other organization, they will benefit from paying close attention to their specific culture, with strong egalitarian tradition, and genuine concern with independence and respect. However, in order to survive, the universities must learn to be a lot more flexible, competitive, and enterprising. How do you reconcile these contradictory considerations?

May 17, 2007

What is most important

When I talk to one of our students, I often imagine hundreds of children behind the student’s back, looking at me from some distance, expectantly. These are children our students will teach. An elementary teacher gets to know and teach 25 students a year, a secondary one – up to 150 and more; let average to 75. Over a 20 years career, she or he will have taught 1500 kids. Our School graduates about 500 teachers a year, which means we potentially affect 750,000 children in one year, or 7.5 million in 10 years. OK, not all of them will make it 20 years, so divide it in half, still a huge number. I am a cynical, and an unsentimental guy, but this is awesome. Just imagine once in a while all these hundreds of faces behind your students’ backs, waiting. What they all need is really the bottom line of what we do, not state standards, not laws and not educational fads. They are our main constituency, not that I presume to know what they need.

If you think about what we do in this light, priorities will change. For example, I am less worried that we may fail to provide a specific skill or a knowledge item to our graduates. What I worry about is that some the negative experiences our graduate received here reverberates throughout the years and all those kids. I also worry that we let thorough a mean or incompetent person who will ruin school for many children. We can multiply bad karma really fast. Of course, the opposite is also true: whatever good lessons our students have learned here may multiply and affect thousands of other lives, indirectly, but quite tangibly. And again, it is not about how much algebra the kids are going to learn, but the experience of a relationship with an adult who is willing to lend her powers to others, to help, to listen, and just to be there. So, if we are successful, we can produce a lot of good karma really fast, if there is such a thing.

It is all about relationships, not so much about technical competencies. As Nikolay, my Russian teacher friend once told me, relationships spread like waves on water surface: if teachers treat each other with dignity and respect, they create a pattern that then spreads into kids’ peer culture in wider and wider circles. And when they treat each other badly, the bad patterns spread just as easily. In teacher education, we are at the center of an incredibly large circle: whatever our students see and experience here is going to repeat again and again in many places.

There is a story by Rabbi Jack Riemer’s "The Rabbi's Gift" (although the authorship is unclear; the story appears in M.S. Peck. The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 1987:13-15. It was retold so many times, it became a folklore phenomenon). In the story, a rabbi tells an abbot of a dying monastery: “One of you is the Messiah.” The monks then started to treat each other with greates respect, just in case on of them indeed was a Messiah. Here is what happened next:

“Because the monastery was situated in a beautiful forest, it so happened that people occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, people began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. And it happened, that within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi's gift, a vibrant center of light and spirit." (Cited on Tufts Hillel website)

OK, this is a cheesy story, and a bit of a cliche, but there is some very good reasoning behind it. Between Nikolay and the rabbi Jack Riemer, it is clear to me that we need to take good care of our own community, and treat each other with respect and dignity. Perhaps this is the most important task we can do, because this will spread through our students to their students, and to their children. We should do it not for any moral or religious convictions, but just because of the place we occupy in the world.

I don’t want to oversell our influence: the wider the circle of waves, the less influential is the center. Many other forces shape our graduates, including family, mass culture, and, most powerfully, their own K-12 experiences. Most teachers teach in about the same way they were taught. This is the very basic mechanism of cultural reproduction in place. However, the narrow window of opportunity to change how schools operate belongs with us. If we take care teaching them well, treating them with respect, good things will happen on their own.

May 11, 2007

Zeno, Buddha and Program Development

It is the end of the school year, when bodies rebel against indoor confinement, when final exams are nervously taken and mostly passed, and edgy students sleepwalk across campus in not-so-fresh T-shirts. It is finally spring time in Colorado, or so I was told by less than reliable locals. My thinking naturally drifts from the every-day and mundane things like reporting, grades and budgets to observations on human lives and relationships. I was thinking about overinvestment in beliefs.

Many people, from Zeno of Citium to Siddhārtha Gautama, AKA Buddha, argued against excessive attachment, that is, essentially, clinging too closely to anything: desires, ideas, thoughts. I am always extremely suspicious of passionate beliefs people have about anything. I cannot help but wonder, why are you so attached to it? What makes this link between a person and a belief so strong? What is the story behind it, and what does this attachment replace in your life?

OK, let’s assume we have a disagreement among colleagues. Let’s just say some people believe in A, while others believe in B. And it is so happened that B people seem to prevail, because there are more of them. But then A people have hard time accepting the outcome, because they have strong belief that the B people are wrong, and A is the only way to go. Keep in mind that we do not really have any positive knowledge of whether A or B is correct; we simply don’t know, and won’t know until we actually experiment. Knowing how education works, one must admit there is an extremely high probability of being no great difference between A and B. In education, there are no strong effects. In such circumstances, you would expect relatively low level of discontent. Instead, you hear exaggerated claims about certain ruin that awaits our programs, etc. Why is that? How do people grow so attached to A or to B, so they cannot let those ideas go?

The answer is in the phenomenon of switching motives: the disagreement appears to be about a certain issues, but is in fact about something else. The participants may or may not realize the deeper motives for disagreement, but the real ones will never be discussed in public. There was a long history to this disagreement, a history in which one side’s victory gradually became another side’s loss. The history is more about power, respect, mutual suspicions, retributions, real or perceived injustice; it is the history of skirmishes and small victories and defeats. So, the meaning of A/B dichotomy becomes excessively rich in human relationships, and their residue. At some point, it becomes very difficult for people just to say, “OK, whatever”, because all of the relational connotations of the decision.

What is the lesson here? A purely philosophical one was known well to both the Stoics and the Buddhists: do not let yourself be attached to any idea too strongly, especially to a fairly trivial one like A vs. B. Such an attachment will only hurt, whether you end up in a losing of a winning camp. Such attachments will distort reality, create anxiety and generally make people unhappy. They create a need that can never ever be satisfied.

There is also an organizational lesson: Let disagreements be resolved quickly, so there is no time for people to grow strong attachments to competing ideas. Do not create situations where people who are in conflict will be able to latch on ideas to justify their personal animosities. Where there is already mistrust, all A vs. B and C vs .D disagreements are surely to take semi-permanent, exaggerated significance. Resolving them becomes very costly to institutions, because small disagreements grow into huge issues over which people resign, leave or feel alienated. All of this is both unnecessary and damaging to an organization, not to mention personally hurtful and distracting.

And now something completely different. As we were dancing at yesterday’s party, I thought this Russian’s rock-n-roller has some nice lyrics:

I fear all infants, I fear all the dead
My fingers carefully feel my face again
My insides’re cold from the spasm of dread –
What if I am just like all those people, plain?

All these people who live just above me,
All these people who live just below me,
All these people who snore in the room next door,
All these people who live under ground floor?

I would have given anything for a couple of wings,
I would have given anything for an extra eye,
For a hand with exactly fourteen long fingers,
To breath I need very different air.

Their tears are salty, and laughter is rough,
Nothing for all is ever enough,
They like to see their faces in morning papers,
But yesterday’s papers are thrown to waste

All these people who make little babies
All these people who suffer from constant pain
All these people who shoot at other people,
But who cannot eat food without salt.

They would have given anything for a couple of wings,
They would have given anything for an extra eye,
For a hand with exactly fourteen long fingers,
To breath they need very different air.

—Vyacheslav Butusov, lead singer/song writer, Nautilus Pompilius

May 4, 2007

What makes me angry

I rarely get angry on the job. Other people’s and my own errors don’t bother me much; I find the institutional quirks amusing and generally acceptable; human conflict seems natural and sometime entertaining. However, this week I got really angry, to the point of fuming. What gets me angry are the large, blunt, and completely irrational policies that know not what they are doing. A bad policy is a like a blind elephant that crushes everything on its way, without really having any ill intentions; it’s just very powerful, and cannot see.

OK, Carolyn, our Assistant Dean and I have met about the incoming State Reauthorization reports. The first news is, the two state agencies, CDE and CDHE, ask for separate reports. They do not get along that well, so they were unable to come up with a unified way of reauthorizing teacher education programs. But CDE is also very proud of its standards, and it will never just switch to NCATE standards like some other state did. As if being a Colorado teacher is somehow dramatically different from being an Ohio or Maryland teacher. So, we’d have to align out curriculum with State standards and the NCATE standards. It gets better: there are four sets of standards the state of Colorado would like us to consider:
1. Endorsements Standards (Program standards in Educator Licensing Act of 1991, 8.0-12.0)
2. K-12 Model Content Standards (What kids in schools supposed to know)
3. Performance-Based Standards for Colorado Teachers
4. Colorado Reading Directorate Literacy Standards

You’d think they all are different, won’t you? Well, the K-12 are different because they are about content knowledge, but 1, 3, and 4 cover the same ground. For example, look at just one standard for elementary school teachers:

Endorsement standard: 8.02 (4) (b) effectively utilize assessment results and related data to plan for appropriate student instruction
Performance-Based Standards: 3.5 Use assessment data as a basis for standards-based instruction.
CRD Standard: Select, administer, and interpret progress-monitoring assessments to evaluate students’ progress toward an instructional goal and determine effectiveness of instruction / intervention and regularly articulate progress to students
ACEI: Candidates administer assessments (i.e., formal and informal) to inform and to make decisions about objectives and materials

Or, as a Russian saying goes, horseradish is no sweeter than radish. Those are the same ideas, some more snottily expressed than others. CRD language is the snottiest, but completely unoriginal.

The State wants us to develop matrices for each set of standards, showing which courses meet which standards. Then they want us to align all our syllabi to meet these largely overlapping standards. And, they want the syllabi, clearly marked with the standards. Imagine a course syllabus of, say an undergraduate Reading course for elementary teachers. It would have a list of course objectives, and each with a mysterious line like this: ESS 8.2 (4), PBS 3.5, CRD 8.1.1, ACEI 4.1. None of our students will ever ask what these things mean. None of the instructors will take the time and pain to explain this to students. No human being can teach a class while constantly thinking about meeting four sets of standards.

The State examiners will look at the matrix, then randomly pick a syllabus, find the code of the standard there – and voila, we are reauthorized. This somehow passes for evidence that we do a good job here at UNC. What makes me angry is that this work is completely useless, and does not help to improve the quality of our programs. The work is wasteful, because we will spend hours upon hours compiling matrices no one will even look at with any degree of seriousness. It makes me angry because we will do this instead of doing something really important, like talking about improvements and program development. But what makes me especially mad is that there does not seem to be any realistic way in fighting the madness. And mind you, ours is a small State where our Dean can pick up the phone and speak directly to most CDE and CDHE officials. It is not a huge faceless bureaucracy; all these people from CDE and CDHE have faces and are well-meaning and generally pleasant. They just have too much power and cannot see.

And it is madness. The very notion of multiple sets of standards is oxymoronic to the point of being simply moronic. You need a standard as long as there are no other standards; that is, roughly, an idea of a standard. If you have both a VHS and Beta, one should be on its way out, because they do essentially the same thing, so one must be better than the other. There should be just one short, clear set of standards, easily measurable by outcomes, not by inputs. And the State should be interested in evidence of whether our graduates can actually perform in the field, not whether we put the stupid codes in the syllabi. Don’t they realize it just does not change anything? Taxpayers should complain bitterly when the accountability process starts damaging the very work for which we are supposed to be accountable. This is wasteful and unethical. It is also horrendously inefficient, and does not serve the purpose. So, the public is interested in how well we spend the dwindling state support money? Well, let us show that our graduates teach well, but don’t pretend the few characters on syllabi mean anything other than our willingness to comply, comply, and comply. The State’s Education Deans for years have asked to find a way of identifying teachers by a college from which they graduated, so kids’ performance can be traced to their teacher’s college. This is too complex, apparently, and has not been done. Yet it is easy to ask for four matrices (multiplied by our dozens of programs) and hundreds of coded syllabi, because the regulators don’t have to prove they actually have read all of this stuff.

As a friend pointed out, this is done by a political party that argues for less government interference. Where are the good fiscal conservatives when you need them? So far, they seem to out-regulate the liberal regulators, at least where education is concerned. Why do they believe the whole economy has to be efficient and driven by the markets, while education must remain state-run and state-regulated to the extreme degree?

Picture a third grade teacher who tells her students: “And now, class, we are going to see how well you can add and subtract. Please write down when did you learn how to add, how did you learn it, how did you feel when you learned it, and finally, tell me if you did learn it and how well, OK? We will do this for the next two weeks. I will expect every one of you to write a book titled How I learned arithmetic” She never asks them to solve any problems, and they skip two weeks of math instruction. Well, this is what the State is, essentially doing with its teacher education programs. The regulators are unregulated, and only interested in maintaining appearances, with total disregard for efficiency or cost of compliance.

Who is going to regulate the regulators? Can we put limits on how much reporting and what kind of reporting the State can demand? Can the regulators be held accountable for following the best practices of regulation? Does anyone actually check their review process for integrity? Can someone ask them to prove that their specific way of authorization actually does ensure quality of programs? How about some validity check here? After all, the standards demand that any elementary classroom teacher understands the concepts of assessment validity. Yet the very people that demand it, do not seem to demonstrate any knowledge of the concept.

Can you tell I am still mad? I think we should sue the State for imposing unreasonable reporting expectations. Their case will withstand no court test, and perhaps a law suit can generate some public interest.