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Jan 31, 2008

X, Y, and Z: The University Habitat

There are three species of university faculty. Let’s call them X, Y, and Z. X’s are good scholars; they do research for fun, because they like it, and therefore are successful. It might be the other way around: people who do well start to like it after a while even more. There is a subspecies of X (b) who are no good as teachers, but in our habitat none of those survive for long. Every X here is also a good teacher, and contributes abundantly to service. X’s are good people.

Y’s often go beyond the traditional forms of scholarship, or focus on teaching or advising or administration. However, they all have found other important ways to contribute and to enjoy their work: it could be less traditional forms of scholarship; they may take on administrative duties, or devote a lot of extra time to teaching and curriculum development. Y’s often find their satisfaction in more demanding forms of service. What is important about the Y’s is their work ethic: they work hard, and maintain intellectual curiosity, willingness to take risks, and commitment to our common enterprise. Y’s often have a genuine disagreement with the X’s about the role and the mission of a given university. The difference between X and Y is not that of values, but of preference. Y’s are just turned on by different things than X’s. I am now a Y, although I used to be more of an X. Y’s are good people.

And then there are Z’s, who are just not performing that well for a variety of reasons. Perhaps one day I will become a Z, but just not yet. Z’s are good people.

Now as we introduced the cast of characters, let me show how these three species occupy the same habitat. The X’s, again, are wonderful people who contribute a lot to the common good. However, they also tend to confuse Y’s and Z’s, and confuse low performance with different performance. The Y’s, of course, are threatened by X’s, because they believe that the X’s standards are a bit too narrow. Y’s’ sometimes to seek allies among the Z’s. And of course, Z’s often consider themselves to be Y’s and are trying to sell the lack of effort as the difference in interests.

Then comes the annual war ritual called evaluations. X’s are honestly trying to raise expectations, because they are invested in the future of the institution, and it reputation. Z’s are trying to water down any expectations to the point of non-existence. Y’s are usually caught in between: they want recognition for their various ways of achievement, so they may end up disagreeing with the X’s and with the Z’s, which is a difficult position to defend.

This ecosystem will function well when there is a compromise, an agreement between X’s and Y’s, but not with the Z’s. Both X and Y have a deep ethical kinship, and can be immensely useful to each other. Z’s can be encouraged to join either species. The way to reach the compromise is to allow a broader range of contributions to be counted as productive, but hold a clear line against low expectations. I am not sure if it is possible to achieve through a perfect evaluation document. Rather, mutual understanding should be reached first, and then the practices of evaluations will reflect it.

All people deserve respect, X, Y, and Z alike. Each group should clearly understand that the need for compromise. X’s should allow for a broader interpretation of scholarship (but we do need to have decent scholarship standards to maintain credibility as a university). Y’s should see clearly acknowledge the difference between broad standards and low standards. Z’s should demonstrate the level of effort consistent with the notion of group solidarity (and join X’s or Y’s). And we all need to take it easy, cool down, and not take our differences so seriously. There is an X, Y and Z in all of us, and of course, this is but a simplification.

Jan 25, 2008

Tell me, otherwise I won’t know

Kurt Lewin has invented the T-groups in mid-1940s, by accident. They became very popular in 1960-s and 70-s, and still used today in a different form. A Russian educator Igor P. Ivanov has independently invented something similar, in late 50-s (sorry, no English references; nothing has been translated). The basic premise of T-groups is very simple: in normal life, we do not know how we are perceived by other people. We have a general idea: someone smiles, or frowns, at what we say, etc. The problem is, most people are quite bad at reading these signs, and some people cannot read them at all. Even the best of us make mistakes all the time, because they attribute the feedback signs to something else. In most cultures, the norm is established through a system of reprimands and encouragements; however, in today’s highly complex and multicultural society, the old mechanisms simply do not work. We interact a lot, very often and very fast. We all have slightly different cultural assumptions about the normal vs. abnormal. Yet we always interpret each other’s behavior.

To counter this subtle cultural change, T-groups offered very simple technique: people tell directly how they perceive each other, and what sorts of words and actions lead to what kind of emotional response. What Lewin and Ivanov both discovered was that such groups learn to cooperate a lot faster than a regular group. People who have been trained in a T-group are a lot more sensitive to other people’s reactions, but what is more important, they are ready to communicate their perceptions of others to those others. Of course, all of this requires a level of trust that would guard one’s feelings from being hurt. It should be done in the spirit of mutual help, rather than criticism. If I see you doing something unwise, which might hurt you or others, I feel an obligation to find a way of pointing this out to you. So, you should do it for me, too.

I am not going to suggest anything like the T-group at our School. Many years ago, I used to facilitate such groups, both Lewin’s style and the Russian style (there are significant differences), and know that those are risky, delicate, time consuming, and did I mention risky? What I want is for other people (especially the more secure senior faculty) to tell me how they perceive me, especially when I make a mistake, or they think I make a mistake. For example, there is absolutely no way for me to know that my frequent forgetting to turn off the cell phone during meetings is annoying, and may be perceived as a sign of disrespect. Someone has to tell me that directly, and I promise I won’t get offended. To the contrary, I will appreciate the information and appreciate the trust, whether I agree with the assessment or not.

This is a small example, of course. However, the small things tend to accumulate, and pretty soon we become unhappy, annoyed with each other, and don’t even know why. As everyone knows, familiarity breeds contempt. And God knows, the Academia is full of departments where people have been working together longer than most marriages last, and hate each other for no particular reason. But why does familiarity breed contempt? -- Mainly because people who know each other well don’t really know each other well. They tend to accumulate small misunderstandings, annoyances, errors, and never get around clearing this stuff out. Pretty soon a mistake becomes recorded in history. We do not adjust our behavior because we do not realize we should. Communication errors clog the relational veins, unless they are countered by direct, open communication. I don’t want this happen to us as a group, and especially to me in this group. So, please, do tell me, otherwise I won’t know.

Jan 18, 2008

Politicization of Teacher Education

Yet another report on teaching and teacher education hit the waves. This time, it is National Council on Teacher Quality Policy Yearbook. We've got an overall grade "needs significant improvement," with GPA 2.33, if you average these grades:
  • D for Meeting NCLB Teacher Quality Objectives.
  • B for Teacher Licensure
  • D for Teacher Evaluation and Compensation
  • D for State Approval of Teacher Preparation
  • C for Alternate Routes to Certification
  • D for Preparation of Special Education Teachers
Hmm, but who is the grader? Who asked this group to grade Colorado's teacher quality, and how did they do it? First of all the organization claims to be non-partisan, and it states that it does not accept any direct funding from federal government. That is not quite true; it received $677,318 in 2003 – 2004 from the Federal Department of Education. But OK, it may no longer receive any federal money, not recently. But if you read the criteria under which they judge, it becomes clear that this is an attempt to influence the State's policy through pretense of giving it an objective assessment. Here is a recipe: Put together a non-profit, get some private funds, release a sleek report, and give states grades. Then release the report to the media, try to get headlines like " Colorado Gets a D on teacher quality." The more the merrier. Then an outraged politician will think, oh, well, we need to do something. Who do I ask to propose a new legislation? Why, of course, the group that gave us a D, or perhaps someone they know and recommend.
The reality is, two groups of researchers, with specific political leanings produce very different findings about quality of teachers or teacher education. They largely ignore each other, or engage into skirmishes, criticizing each other's methodology. There is a wide political campaign against teacher unions, public schools in general, teacher education faculty, certain methods of teaching reading, etc, etc. So, NCATE-bad, alternative certification-good. Content knowledge- good, methods courses – bad. Testing – good, standards – bad. Teacher merit pay – good, teacher tenure – bad.
I do not necessarily reject all of these people's proposals, but I question their way of pushing these proposals; it strikes me as manipulative. People used to run for public office to influence policy. Now they influence policy in order to get into public office. Because let's face it: for the Republican Party to ensure its long-term survival, the power of teacher unions needs to be diminished, number of public employees needs to be reduced. Hence the attempt to inflict the death by a thousand regulations onto public schools and traditional teacher education programs. However, regulation is contrary to Republicans' own long-standing deregulation philosophy. I am not saying the other side is any more principled. The Democrats are just interested in the unions' support, so they have become the educational conservatives who preserve the not-so-glorious status quo. The two parties' distinctive ideologies stopped beliefs and became means of getting elected.
Here is an interesting quote from the report, page 118:
A few more [STATES] have required that all in-state programs, public and private, attain national accreditation. These policies are inappropriate, since they require that public funds and institutional resources be spent meeting the standards of a private organization that has yet to be recognized as the undisputed guarantor of minimum quality in its field.
Yet the organization that writes the report is also a private organization, and it believes public funds should be expended to meet its recommendations. Is there any evidence that states that heeded to their advice do better in preparing quality teachers? The report than suggests that all Social Foundations of Education are all but useless, but then gives a list of sample topics that should be covered in a teacher education program, including "The social and cultural roots of the achievement gap; learning challenges from poverty." But that's what we teach in a foundations course.
Here is another logical pearl:
NCTQ's research shows that there are teacher preparation programs in the majority of states where teacher candidates are required to complete 60 or more credit hours of professional coursework. We found programs in still more states where candidates are required to complete 50 to 59 credit hours of professional coursework. [UNC requires 40-44 — A.S.]These are excessive requirements that leave little room for electives, and often leave insufficient room for adequate subject matter preparation. Though there is no research data to confirm this, it seems likely that such excessive requirements are likely to discourage talented individuals from pursuing teacher preparation—and public school teaching.
They are adamant about requiring evidence, except when they claim something weird. NCTQ is very much concerned about the availability of alternative licensure, but none of its goals include strong induction programs and in-service training. Wouldn't this be an interesting area to explore? What if support provided to novice teachers actually increase their chances of success?
I could go on and on — the bottom line is, if you put out such a self-assured, cocky assessment full of recommendations ("The State should" phrase is used 118 times), it does not hurt to check if the standards you want others to follow apply to your own report.

Jan 11, 2008

On the Science of Lawmaking

Yesterday in Denver, there was another meeting on the proposed dyslexia legislation. The State Representative that heads this initiative, made an interesting if inadvertent admission. "This is the first time, - he said, - that I develop a bill with various groups represented around the table. Usually, a special interest group just comes up with a draft of the new law." He was a bit frustrated, because there were a lot of ideas, and some disagreements, but there was no specific language he could put in a bill. Yet this remark made me think about how laws are developed.

Many major professional activities have recently move toward some rational way of decision-making. There is the Evidence-Based Medicine, God knows education has been struggling with accountability, and outcome-based education. The best practices movement in business, programming, construction, insurance, and accounting slowly but surely change the way people do things. However, lawmaking remains a game of competing rhetoric, trial and error, and special interest influence. Laws are passed constantly, but their effectiveness is often unknown or minimal. The same is true about public policies that interpret and implement the laws. The major example is the No Child Left Behind act, if you discount the Texas Miracle (and you should). It was premised on the idea that raising accountability plank will improve educational outcomes. It seems obvious and self-evident, but is actually an untested idea. Colorado Governor Ritter just came up with another "most revolutionary shift in education policy" in years. Not that I am opposed to it necessarily, but I am cautious about another set of laws that will inevitably follow, the revision of the Colorado Content Model standards, and the work of revamping K-20 curriculum to meet them. Perhaps if someone shown me some evidence it's going to make any difference, I'd be less skeptical. But no, people want me to take their word for it, and I just have hard time doing it.

People who write laws are very smart, well-meaning, and experienced; no doubt about this. Yet all those doctors who for years prescribed drinking more fluid to flu sufferers (does not help, actually), are also all smart and experienced. It's just that the scientific methods allow us to go beyond the individual life experiences, which are statistically speaking, are often useless.

Let me begin a rough list of law-making standards here; perhaps people with better knowledge of law and policy can expand or dispute these. I will turn them into questions. I believe each bill introduced should have an accompanying package of materials questions like these should be answered. Right now, nothing like this is available; so the proposed laws maybe great or poor, we simply do not know. It is expensive, and perhaps it is time there were private independent law audit agencies, like in accounting, that would study these things. it might be expensive, but no more expensive than a poorely conceived law and policy. I know some of the questions below are asked one way or another; that's not the point. What I want is a set of standards, with some evidence of meeting them.

  1. Is there an existing law on the books that already covers the same ground? If yes, why has it been ineffective? How is this one better?
  2. Is the intended result of the law clearly defined? Is it measurable?
  3. Is the effectiveness evaluation mechanism built into the law and adequately structured and funded?
  4. Is there a sunset clause that allows ineffective law to expire if it has not shown effectiveness?
  5. Has a similar law been passed by another state or another country? If yes, is there any evidence it worked?
  6. Have unintended negative consequences been systematically considered and ruled out?
  7. If negative consequences are unavoidable, does the law include measures for mitigating it?
  8. Does expected benefit outweigh the expected loss?
  9. Is it feasible to comply with the law?
  10. Can compliance be actually measured, detected, and enforced?
  11. What is the cost of compliance, including the reporting burden cost? Is there a funding mechanism to cover it?
  12. Who specifically has written the draft of this bill (names, affiliations)?
  13. Who is likely to benefit and who is likely to lose?
  14. If the law is written by those who is likely to benefit, are the losers' representatives consulted in advance?
  15. Are the opponents arguments included?
  16. How does the law help or hurt its sponsor's political career?
  17. Which agencies and institutions will carry the burden of compliance and enforcement? Were they consulted on the law's feasibility, and compliance cost?

Jan 4, 2008

On writing

I was able to write a little over the break, and reflect on joys and pains of writing. My current project is a book, with a working title Labor of Learning. This is a treatise on economics of learning; a project I have been engaged in for several years. I have some ten papers written and published with this book in mind. However, when they all are put together next to each other, and I begin a search for some logic, it becomes apparent that there are some glaring gaps. For example, there is no way to write this thing without confronting Dewey directly. I was avoiding doing it, mostly because Dewey scholars expect a lot of detailed knowledge about Dewey in all writings about him, so it is almost impossible for an outsider to publish something in a refereed journal. They always say "But you omitted this passage from the Public and its Problems…" Or whatever. They also love the guy too much. Dewey was a prolific and an incredibly dense writer, and I cannot imagine reading all of his stuff. That would kill me. Yet I must engage with his main ideas, because mine contradict his. Anyway, here is where a non-refereed publisher helps – I can say whatever outrageous things about Dewey, and it will get out.

But my goal is to understand the particular drive; what is it that moves me and many other people to do this? The work is tedious, incredibly time-consuming. It takes one away from real human interaction with family, colleagues, students. The returns of it are not that great: unless you write a best-selling textbook, money is puny. There is not much glory in it either: with the exception of a few academic superstars, most academic books never break a 1000 copies sold ceiling; out of those sold most are never read, because libraries buy them. The whole industry of academic publishing seems to be in great peril, with opportunities to publish a book dwindling. I have finally gotten a book contract with a start-up publisher out of the Netherlands, after some thirty rejections. Also, as an administrator, I am not expected to keep up with academic publishing to the same extent as faculty. In other words, it is a lot of hassle without much in return.

And yet, any time I have any time, my mind inevitably wanders into one or another writing project; it just does. It starts laying out logic, structures, points to be made, etc. SO, here is my hypothesis: people like me are easily bored, and are not good at relaxing. We create an alternative reality; so writing is a lot like computer games. The world has certain rules, certain obstacles, and one can overcome them all and reach an end. That's it, it is a pure mind game, a way of glorified entertainment. It has the same sense of agency without really any danger and much responsibility like computer games. Reading fiction does similar thing, but it is too passive; you don't get to act.

I don't think it is possible to write because of the tenure expectations, or because you want to improve the world, or because it is your job. None of these strike me as strong motivation. People who find other ways of occupying their brains are not addicted to writing, and do just fine without it. This particular way of living and acting does not appeal to everyone. It is easy to judge someone and claim my particular preference to be more honorable and more advanced. We always like to measure ourselves with a stick to which we measure well. So, being good at chess – good; being a computer game champion – bad. Scholarly writing – good; spending all the time teaching – not so good. The institutions we create are biased in favor of some people and against some others. I don't think it will ever be corrected, although some openness and some broad-mindedness should be welcome.