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Dec 28, 2007

Educational Reform: The Denial of Ignorance

As the presidential campaign flares up, No Child Left Behind seems to be in big trouble; see the NY Times account. Virtually no one wants to keep the law as it is; everyone wants to either change it or scrap it. What is conspicuously absent? You guessed right: alternatives. There is a talk of changing the emphasis from testing to teaching, of changing the punitive aspects of the law, etc., etc. It seems most people, especially on the Left, imagine some vagueS softer version of accountability and perhaps more funding for schools. Folks on the Right still hope for deregulation in education, with vouchers or other form of competition unleashing market mechanisms to improve education. Of course, the Democrats are almost forced to make it an election issue, but all they can do is the negative stance against NCLB. The entire bent of Democratic strategies is anti-Bush rather than pro-anything (with the exception of the host of tame medical reforms); education is a part of this: anti-Bush, and pro-very-little. That and some personal innuendo about who’s got more experience and who’s more of a non-Bush.

However, the political discourse on education suffers not only from the normal campaign-induced shallowness, but from a genuine absence of any plausible alternatives. I wish a politician of any kind, let alone the pres candidates, would just stand up and say: “Folks, we’ve got no idea what to do with K-12 education. There were a couple of ideas, and none of them seems to be working. I am pledging significant support to generating new ideas, which then will all be discussed and tested.” Sounds highly unlikely doesn’t it? Yet that would be the only practical position to take. We do have a problem after all: the educational gap between rich and poor kids is still tremendous, which means education for the poor can and should be improved. We don’t have anything close to consensus on what should be done. Moreover, all existing approaches so far have proven ineffective, or very difficult to replicate.

So, what? We have a number of other problems without solutions; deadly diseases is the most obvious example, but also crime, teenage pregnancy, social inequality, etc. Why is it OK to admit that there is no cure for cancer or even common cold, but not OK to admit there is no cure for education? There is a peculiar phenomenon I would call “the denial of ignorance.” Our culture allows for certain things to be unknown, while others have to be known; we do not admit our ignorance about them. Education is clearly one of these areas of “must-know”; politicians have especially hard time admitting having no clue. Or as Dewey used to spell it, no clew.

See for yourself: OK to say, “I don’t know…”

  • …How to influence price of gas
  • …How to treat Alzheimer’s
  • …What is going to happen with stock market
  • …How to win all elections

Not OK to say, “I don’t know…”

  • …Who I am and what my beliefs are
  • …What’s right and what’s wrong
  • …What to do with education
  • …How to fight crime

The truth is, most people individually, and we as a society, collectively, have no more clarity about the first set of claims than we have about the second one. Our ignorance is abysmal; our knowledge is frustratingly limited. Among other things, we have created the wonder of contemporary schooling, which turned out to have some nasty side-effects, and we have very little idea about fixing it.

The existence of the “denial of ignorance” is an interesting phenomenon; it is a special case of a knowledge claim. Some institutions are based on implicit knowledge claims. For example, it is very hard to claim an autonomous self, if you cannot define who you are. One who is in doubt about right and wrong cannot claim to have ethics. Once you build an extensive public schooling system, and collect tremendous amount of taxes to support it, you’d be a fool to admit that you have no idea how to make it work properly. Such an admission undermines the legitimacy of the whole enterprise. Yet explaining does not mean justifying. I still think an honorable position for presidential candidates would be to admit the ignorance – not personal one, but our quite obvious collective ignorance, and seek real sizeable resources in finding solutions. Admitting the ignorance about educational reform may actually serve as evidence of being informed. A part of the position of ignorance is to leave the system to its own devices, until a solution is to be found. We simply cannot continue experimenting with the huge national system of K-12 education with unproven interventions. Just to remind everyone: no one has shown that accountability measures will positively impact learning achievements; it was simply assumed (wrongly) to be self-evident. What we need is a moratorium to new reforms, a freedom for states and districts to experiment, and most importantly, a call to develop new models of educational reform.

Of course, I am biased, because I have a proposal, which may be one of many. The point is, by pretending that we have a solution, we waste our time and energy on politics, on little fights about this kind of reading instruction versus that kind of reading, etc. If we focus our energies on developing a new, truly new approach to educational reform, well, we might actually get there.

Dec 21, 2007

Right-brained Teachers

Here is an argument by Daniel H. Pink which I find convincing. You can read a short version on-line, or get his book. Basically, his point is that the linear, logical, sequential thinking is becoming less important, for economic reasons, while right-brain "inventive, empathic, big picture capabilities" come to be the most valuable. His reasoning is quite simple: the computer-like information processing that can be reduced to a number of algorithms, can be handled better by computers, and is easily shipped overseas where it can be made cheaper. We see the evidence of this right here, in our School: instead of paying computer programmers some 30,000 for developing a database, we used a commercially available (although quite sophisticated) software and did it ourselves. Too bad for the company that was hoping to sell the thing to us; great for us. I just got a Christmas card from the company, and feel sorry for these people, but we simply do not need their skills; one does not need to know code to develop databases.

However, my point is this: Teaching seems to be going in the opposite direction. We still are trying to boost very technical skills in teachers. Scripted instructions and standardized assessment seem to call for sequential, linear thinking among teachers. One is supposed to know the curricular standards, and then go through an algorithm to plan instruction, assess, adjust, re-teach, and start over again. Teachers become more and more like knowledge workers and some people link hopes to professionalize teaching with the mastery of knowledge processing. There is nothing wrong with that, except this seems to be too late. We're trying to catch up with a train that is left already; instead of going ahead of the next one. Here is what the new age is calling for, and what we need to teach teachers to do:

High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one's self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning (Pink).

Somehow news reaches education much later. One of my doctoral students, Jen Davis, just turned in a paper which convincingly shows that schools use an outdated model of literacy; they are trying hard to reach a wrong goal. Similarly, teacher education might be improving fast but in the wrong direction.

The routine parts of teaching should and will be taken over by computers. For example, computer systems, such as the PLATO are much better at delivering the right curriculum at the right pace, and minutely assess the progress. They are also much better at individualizing the pace of instruction. Sometime soon they will also be able to individualize by learning style and learning disability. Therefore, instead of focusing on what machines can do better, we need to train teachers to relate to students and their parents, to figure out motivational and learning problems, to build supportive communities in their classrooms, and to spread joy. Creativity specifically can be cultivated in people; instead, we send them through compliance school. Our students are so used to complying; they get anxious when directions are not too clear, and the situation is ambivalent. But teachers should thrive on ambiguity and be non-conformists.

Paradoxically, to be creative, teachers need to know which parts of their work can be delegated to computers, and how to use the new informational universe. To even make a distinction between a linear information processing and an insight takes some skills. We still teach our students how to use PowerPoint, which is simply a glorified chalkboard. However, we spend very little time teaching them how to use the course management systems, or ways of creative Googling, etc. We spend almost no time on development of people skills; such as empathy, the ability to interpret emotions, how to listen, how to read body language, how to modulate one's voice, how to act, etc.

I taught a class like that in Russia for a couple of years. It was somewhere between an Encounter group, or socio-psychological training group and acting class. I taught them how to look in the eye, and how to walk in class. We trained for ability to withstand aggression, how to use self-suggestion, and to command attention. I taught them how to smile and charm parents, how and when to touch people. We practiced reading facial expressions. Not sure if they still do it, but that would be some right brain training.

Dec 14, 2007

Special Interest and Teacher Education

In the last few months, our College has been approached by several groups; among them the Teaching about the Holocaust group, teaching about American Constitution group, the teachers unions, and the alternative non-union teacher associations, the dyslexia advocacy group. Each wants us to do add their specific concern to our teacher education programs. Some are more effective than others, because they come with willingness to help, to contribute resources, and see how their specific agenda fits into our larger objectives. Others just come insisting we should change our curriculum to address their concern, just on the merits of that concern. All come in hope of getting their agendas extra-mileage, because of the scope of our reach. Indeed, we graduate, some 600 teachers a year, each of them will teach thousands of children over her or his life time. The potential reach is enormous, that's why they all come.

Here is an example of some of the most dangerous, although also well-intentional attempts to influence teacher education. On Wednesday, Harvey Rude, the Director of the School of Special Education, took me and two of his faculty along to a meeting with a State Representative, who is considering introducing a bill on dyslexia in the Colorado General Assembly. The representative is a former teacher and is sympathetic to concerns of dyslexic children, so he all but made a commitment to introduce a bill. The question is, of course, what kind of a bill, so he asked for our input, which is a very reasonable.

Yet the dynamics of such an initiative is very troubling. The special interest group is well organized and well connected. They have a very good cause to defend, and have aggregated a lot of expertise on the issue. The group feels, justifiably, that dyslexic children may be misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all, and neglected by the schools. The problem is, of course, that they see the world through the lens of this specific issue; everything else takes the back seat. So, they would like to see something like a special course in all teacher education curriculum, and if not that, a special procedure for reporting to the State how the information on dyslexia is a part of teacher education curriculum. In other words, they would like to see the State agencies such as the Colorado Department of Education to enforce a mandate from the state. The narrow focus and belief in unfunded state mandates are the two problems; the third one is the assumption that teacher education does not do its job, and our graduates are ignorant in dyslexia issues, and just about everything else.

Let's consider all three assumptions:

  1. "My issue is more important than your issue." It is very easy to believe, especially if you have a child of your own who suffers from a particular disability. The special interest groups by definition do not attempt to reconcile their interest with others. However, it is a deeply unethical assumption. What would you like us to remove from curriculum to make room for the dyslexia education? What about other disabilities? Other concerns about teacher training? Also notice that disability does not know class distinction, which is why these groups can recruit a lot of middle class, educated parents to argue for their cause. We never see Latino parents lobbies or poor parents or single moms lobby at our doorsteps, simply because they have little resources to organize. And their children deserve to have a teacher who can individualize instruction to meet their needs, and be sensitive to their specific issues. So, I argue, to be effective a special interest group must be not so special, and show empathy for other causes. They must form broader coalitions, and figure out broader solutions, and make an effort to be useful to people whose work they want to change.
  2. "Just tell them to do it." Many special interests groups just do not know how higher education and its teacher education branch work. They tend to assume that the State law can effectively change curriculum. In fact, new mandates without any funding attached to it wreck havoc on higher education, and do more damage than good to whatever just cause they are supposed to help. Part of it is that such states as Colorado keep their public colleges on a starvation diet. So faculty feel resentful, tired, and hate new demands. Second, state mandates can create a flurry of reporting activities, but rarely change what is going on in college classrooms. Short of monitoring every classroom, how do you ever know that what we report is actually happening? Third, university faculty's sense of self-esteem comes from being specialists in their fields. State mandates always ignore controversies in scholarship, and prescribe something at least part of faculty does not agree with. Dyslexia is a case of this. When I listen to the advocacy people, they seem to be hundred percent sure about what works and what does not. I come back to my colleagues who actually research the issue, and they are telling me, wait a minute, it is not really that clear, and we do not know much about dyslexia, or even how to define it. Telling a faculty that the State mandate must override his or her scholarly knowledge is most often counterproductive.
  3. "You suck, because there is a problem." The special interest groups rarely find out what we already do. Their logic is this: there are reports from schools that our issues is not addressed adequately, therefore teachers are not adequately prepared. For example, such and such percent of US population cannot say how the Constitution begins. Therefore, teachers are not prepared to teach it. Notice no one claims that because certain percent of cancer patients still dies, we have a disaster on our hands with medical training or medical research. People who care about cancer get together and find ways of raising money and helping raise awareness. People who care about K-12 schooling mostly get together to lobby state governments to pass laws. Lobbying is a lot cheaper than research. I would like to propose a law to cure cancer by the year 2010, and have all hospitals send the State government annual progress reports… The deep fallacy here is that everything is believed to be possible in education, while in medicine, there are limits to what can be done. In fact, all areas of human activity have intrinsic limits of what is possible. Back to dyslexia: it is possible, that after a careful study, one could find that within the limits of the possible we indeed do not do as much as other comparable institutions do in these areas. However, no one has done such a study to make such a claim. Instead, someone has spoken with this woman who is a UNC graduate, and she even did not know what dyslexia means. On the basis of such "evidence," the entire State of Colorado may introduce a new law.

This is not about us protecting our turf, but rather about the unhealthy blend of special interests activism, popular conceptions about education, and reckless law-making.

If you're not too tired yet, here is the entire letter I have written to the State Representative after our visit:

Dear Representative Merrifield:

Thanks for inviting us to yesterday's meeting on dyslexia, and for allowing us to provide further input. Here is my five cents.

  1. The Performance-Based Standards for Colorado Teachers already include Standard Six: "Knowledge of Individualization of Instruction: The teacher is responsive to the needs and experiences children bring to the classroom, including those based on culture, community, ethnicity, economics, linguistics, and innate learning abilities. The teacher is knowledgeable about learning exceptionalities and conditions that affect the rate and extent of student learning, and is able to adapt instruction for all learners." Our Teacher Education programs are authorized by CDE on these standards, and it would be very difficult to show actual evidence that these regulations are not enforced. Of course, you can suggest that this specific standard receives more attention or that CDE introduces the Dyslexia Directorate to make a whole new set of standards out of this already quite specific standards. As I mentioned at the meeting, there is a fundamental problem with this sort of regulatory enthusiasm. Among other things, multiple sets of standards present an oxymoron: a standard only makes sense when there is only one. We already have four sets to comply with; three of them overlap greatly (The Licensure standards, the PBSCT, and the Reading Directorate).
  2. I believe The Colorado Educator Induction Statute (see how CDE is applying it at can be amended to include more incentives for partnership for collaborative efforts between higher education institutions and school districts in induction programs; and also include partnerships with non-profit entities such as IDA who have collected a wealth of expertise. Such partnerships were encouraged by the Statute, I believe in 1994, but as far as I know, none established with UNC. Perhaps the Statute can be amended to give more teeth to requiring meaningful induction programs. Teacher Education research has plenty of evidence that good beginning teacher training is more effective than piling up a lot of stuff in pre-service programs.
  3. I also suggest that Colorado experiments with state-NGO partnership models. Frankly, the State has no funds and limited expertise in such highly specialized areas as dyslexia or other learning disabilities. However IDA and its peer organization do have significant expertise and some resources. So, why not use them not only for legislative activism, but also as a resource to promote their causes with State's help? For example, CDE can serve as a clearing house for resources to be used in higher education instruction; to have a list of guest-speakers, of adjunct instructors with specific expertise, etc. In my experience, relatively little money used as mini-grants can generate a lot of interest among university faculty. It can be a mixture of the NGO's money and State matching funds. NGO's such as IDA can help review applications and evaluate the results of such mini-grants. University faculty's buy-in is incomparably higher if they are enticed rather than forced to comply.

You also invited us to comment on the Colorado Reading Directorate.

  1. The core problem as I see it is that CDE is trying to regulate the input rather than the outcome. CDE and CDHE should be mandated to stop wasting public money and use national accreditation to the extent allowed by Colorado statutes. For example, 39 states have adopted or adapted the NCATE unit standards as their own and apply them to all institutions for purposes of state approval. The national accreditation agencies simply have more resources and have better accreditation systems, which are increasingly performance-based. CHEA is another example.
  2. The legislature should regulate the regulators. Can we put limits on how much reporting and what kind of reporting a State agency 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? You guys pass a statute, which then is converted into rules and regulations document that may or may not have anything in common with the intent of the law. For example CRD, in my view, clearly exceeds the authority granted to CDE by the State law. The line between regulating and prescribing which textbooks to use in which course has been crossed; with absolutely no reason to believe it will do any good to anyone.

Anyway, thanks for listening. If you want an angrier version of the regulations argument, feel free to read

Dec 6, 2007

Something uplifting

A colleague told me last week, “Why don’t you write something uplifting in your blog; this is the holiday season.” What she meant to say was that many of my blogs read like litanies of problems and complaints. You read them and think the guy is working at a horrible place full of problem. Of course, she is right. The blogs are intended to share my world with my colleagues, and my brain works in such a ways as to focus on problems, and their solutions. This can present a somewhat skewed picture, so let’s count our blessings.
First, STE is generally a very happy place. We all are a bit overworked and sometimes cranky. However, our little group has a tremendous amount of good will and good energy. Simply put, most people do not walk away from problems, and embrace new things. Every time we accomplish something, I have a funny feeling: is this all it took? A complete list would be boring to read, but just a few things: we finished NCATE program reviews this fall, and working on the State review; we revised out biggest program twice; we have a new and growing teacher preparation program; our Doctoral program is revamped, and growing, our off-campus offerings have doubled, we agreed to learn on-line and hybrid pedagogy, our people get grants and publish books and articles… Anyway, this is not a newspaper, so no more bragging, although this could go for another page or two. I guess the kick I get out of all this is connected to the sense of agency. Hope others experience this too. There is nothing worse than knowing something should be done, and not being able to do it. Conversely, the knowledge that if we agree to do something, it can and will be accomplished, this feels really good.
Second, we are a very collegial group. I would love to claim credit for it, but cannot. My colleagues have made a collective decision to get along and become one cohesive community, and they carried it out. Considering the history of typical academic mergers and splits, plus some unfortunate past personality clashes, our School is a remarkably professional and cordial group. This demonstrates that any community has cultural mechanisms of healing. While there are clearly differences in opinions, they rarely grow to become interpersonal conflict. For example: my own proposals and ideas are just as likely to get voted down as they get to be supported. And this is, of course, OK with me and everyone else. At the same time, I am proud to say, I have no enemies. Moreover, there is very little animosity among my colleagues.
Collegiality is very important; so important that pre-tenure faculty cite it as more important than compensation in job satisfaction. Court consistently recognize the lack of collegiality as a valid reason for termination of employment or tenure denial, even if it is not specifically spelled out in contracts and tenure and promotion documents (references are available upon request). A lot is at stake with collegiality; not just warm and fuzzy feelings, but life or death of an institution. A lot of my colleagues understand it better than I do, and we try to keep this place friendly and collegial.
Thirdly, we have some of the best jobs around. Even though faculty and staff are relatively underpaid, our jobs are not boring; they include a lot of intellectual and emotional stimulation. Tons of people would like to be where we are now, so we should really feel fortunate. Thos who complain about working at a university most likely have not really tried anything else, or have forgotten.
So, let’s reflect on what we have, and what we have achieved. This will help us develop an ambitious view of what could be yet achieved. Or as Randy Bachman said and Al Gore repeated, you ain’t seen nothing yet.