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Feb 29, 2008

Due Diligence

Wikipedia defines due diligence (also known as due care) as the effort made by an ordinarily prudent or reasonable party to avoid harm to another party. This applies to areas other than civil law. For example, this is something I am learning to do in my job. It is not easy, and I probably fail a lot, but I am trying.

Someone like me finds oneself at the center of many different interests and agendas. People come to me to talk about their problems and issues, and I made it very clear that this is very welcome. We cannot operate without informal information exchange. However, most people’s problems have to do with other people, and I am always drawn into discussions of someone’s actions when that person is not there. Some people take the high moral ground and refuse to discuss others in absentia. This is highly impractical, because it would shut down most of vital conversations. Such a strategy would certainly be impossible to carry on in my position anyway. However, discussing someone when that person cannot be a part of the discussion has its ethical and practical problems, which need to be taken good care of. Impracticality if a radical ethical position does not imply lapse of all moral obligations. The problem is with asymmetry of power. Imagine A comes to me to complain about B, but B does not know about it. A just got an unfair advantage over B. This is not necessarily a conscious attempt to manipulate me against B; rater, A has a particular view of B’s behavior. In a conversation, people tend to agree when possible, so my tendency is to see the point A is making about B. It is important to understand that any conversation implies some readiness to accept your partner’s premises, at least to some extent. Otherwise, there is no conversation. So, by the virtue of having my ear, A has created a story that becomes a part of what I know. B does not necessarily have a chance to challenge that story, because she might not know about A’s complaint. Due diligence requires me to find B’s side of the story to avoid imbalance. However, how do you do that? What A is telling me might be said in confidence. If I came back to B and ask, say, I have hear you did this and that?, this will give away the fact of our conversation with A away and breach confidentiality. However, if I never ask, I will never know the other side of the story, and become a hostage of A’s allegations.

This is the dilemma. Whoever comes first, gets a certain narrative established, and it is not easy to exercise due diligence. What do I do? There are several tricks. One of them is to try to challenge A’s story by suggesting different, more generous interpretations of B’s actions. The risk is that A thinks I am taking B’s side in the conflict, because I am looking for excuses for B. In general, when you are trying to challenge or investigate someone’s story, you inadvertently challenge that person’s honesty. Not many people routinely recognize that their perceptions might be limited, and dependent on their interests and positions. Another trick is to delay any kind of actions and decisions, and then try to verify the story indirectly. It does not always work, because a question about a specific incident will almost always allow the person in question to trace the source of information. And yet another trick is to ask someone other than A and B about the same story, to get an independent opinion. The risk here is that any C who knows about the story might already been in my position, and have been influenced by A or B for exactly the same reason as I get influenced by whoever bring the story to me.

Why am I dwelling on all these complications of human interactions? For a very simple reason: I don’t want people to be offended or put off by my exercise of due diligence. I simply need to know other sides of the story not because I mistrust their account, but because we all have specific points of view, and I cannot do anything that can potentially harm someone else without due diligence.

Feb 22, 2008

The Spring Fever

There is a faint smell of Spring in the air. Birds are not chirping yet, but they are thinking about it. His last stretch of winter is especially hard on human bodies and psyches, so everyone is a bit more irritable, and less tolerant of others. Fingers at keyboards get a bit jitterier; fuses become a bit shorter. Of course, in the Academia, this biological phenomenon is exacerbated by the evaluations season. For some it has high stakes such as tenure and promotion. However for most, the stakes are pitifully small and yet the passions run unreasonably high. My instinct is to tell people to chill out, and look at all of this from a larger perspective. Of course, this is easier said than done. If you're anxious, and someone tells you to relax, it can get you even more excited and mad. So, here is a portion of cognitive therapy. What you find below is an absolutely irrefutable rational proof that we all should step a little back and relax, and perhaps have a good laugh about it all.

  1. It is not life and death, not even consequential for one's wallet. There might be consequences for self-esteem, but again, those are as large as we allow them to be. Higher education is notoriously gentle with its work force. What in the private sector will get you fired, will result in someone's finger shaking at you, if you're lucky to be employed by a university. So, celebrate your good fortune, and ignore minor worries.
  2. There is no such a thing as absolutely fair evaluation. Any system will benefit someone and disadvantage someone else. So, what? We are in this profession because there is an inner drive; we do it for our own deep moral convictions and because we want to do it. If the evaluation system treats us a bit unfairly, or it FEELS that way, this is no reason to ruin your mood over it, even for a day.
  3. In the long run, being nice to everyone, including those people you dislike or mistrust is the best strategy. Getting angry is just a way of making people do something you want. Aggression in general is behavior manipulative technique. It rests on a premise that other people will afraid of you and therefore will do your bidding out of fear. But the society has been changed since we developed all those instincts, and non-violent, legal and administrative procedures took over conflict management. So, getting angry, or rather, showing one's anger does not really work anymore. It is but an atavism. So, cheer up, be nice to everyone, and do whatever you have to do to protect your rights through various appeals, legal challenges, etc. There is just a lot more chances to prevail, if you're civil to other people. The civility credit goes a long way, because it indicates you accept the rules of the game.

On another note, there is Spring just around the corner, and the birds are seriously thinking about chirping. When we are very old, and our great-grand children will ask us what have we done in life, none of us will say: "I received great annual evaluations." We have to think about something else. Let's start now about a possible answer.

Feb 15, 2008

The sleep of reason produces monsters

There are two different conversations about quality in teacher education. One has to do with compliance. How do we gather data that will allow us to report to the State and to NCATE? The other is about what makes sense for teacher preparation as such. Both are probably needed, but what I find more and more troubling is that the first tend to crowd out the second one. Among other things, we tend to create incredibly generic assessment instruments the sole purpose of which is to "cover" certain standards. For example our Elementary teacher candidates get evaluated at the end of student teaching, with this rubric:

  1. Uses knowledge of math and social studies and standards to plan instruction and support student achievement.
  2. Creates a learning environment characterized by acceptable student behavior, efficient use of time or gaining knowledge, skills, and understanding.
  3. Applies sound disciplinary practices in the classroom.
  4. Develops/selects/utilizes resources to enhance the learning of students with diverse backgrounds, experiences, abilities, values and perspectives.
  5. Applies appropriate assessment and intervention strategies consistent with a successful learning environment.
  6. Uses strategies to keep students on task to support learning processes.
  7. Demonstrates instruction which is consistent with district goals and state standards.
  8. Teaches students within the scope of teachers' legal responsibilities and students' rights and follows procedures as specified in state, federal, and local policies.
  9. Reflects on and evaluates his/her own performance to improve teaching.
  10. Is dependable, reliable, and punctual.
  11. Demonstrates effective interpersonal communication skills with students, staff, parents.

Our Secondary candidates are evaluated with a 6-page long instrument that is somewhat similar, although more detailed (the STEP Instrument). If you think of it, it is incredibly difficult to assess these with any degree of accuracy. We do not, agree on what are sound disciplinary practices. Moreover, we do not teach those practices. We do not make judgment on whether such an application is effective or not; it is just "applies." Number 6 is simply funny, because everyone uses strategies, some just use better ones. The room for error is huge, criteria are very subjective, and there is no way to assess the validity or reliability of these monster rubrics. Yet the people who designed those rubrics are very smart, competent educators who certainly know what makes a good teacher. What happened? Very simple: the demands of accountability. The State of Colorado in its infinite wisdom has developed standards (not really bad ones), and demands us to show how we meet all of them. The most efficient way is to copy the standards almost exactly into the rubric, and then have some poor supervisor to check – advanced, proficient, or just good enough. The value of a monster rubric is minimal, because its sweep is so broad. However, the compliance conversation tends to ignore the common sense, and instead leads us to accept the absurd as the normal. The whole last year we were thinking about curriculum and assessment, and yet we were not thinking about curriculum and assessment. Our horizon was artificially limited to those things that produce good compliance records rather than good teachers. It is ironic how the quality movement actually detracted us from working on improvement of quality.

Several colleagues and I have attended the AACTE Conference last week. One of the highlights was the lecture by Deborah L. Ball, Dean, School of Education, University of Michigan. Her point was that teaching is really a precise, highly skilled occupation, which should involve a lot of training, and not a lot of improvisation. She suggested that teaching should be analyzed to its basic elements, and teacher candidates are to be trained in very specific behaviors and ways of thinking. This is simple enough, and we can probably do it right here, within our school. The combined expertise among my colleagues is enormous, and we certainly have the desire to do the absolutely best we can. However, we're running round thinking how to comply. We have no time or strength to think about the substance of what we do.

I say we stop now. Let's ignore the compliance worries, and focus on what we teach and how do we know if we did a good job. Let's look at very fundamental elements of good teaching and then concentrate on how to do more with less. Let's get rid of all monster rubrics, monster portfolios, monster assignments, and make a few very good assessments. Let's find wholes in our programs and plug them all. There is no accrediting body on Earth who could touch us with a six feet poll if we do that. We can always come back and say that these standards are covered by this and that. However we need to stop being afraid and only do what is good for our students. We should put our foot down and only comply to demands which does not hurt what we do. Enough is enough; let's take charge of our own affairs.

Let me try to begin brainstorming. I think we should be able to see a teacher candidate to do the following:

  1. To explain a concept or an operation to children, in several different ways
  2. To assess whether kids get it or not, and then re-teach it in yet more ways.
  3. Organize a learning activity
  4. Respond to kids' questions and problems
  5. Address behavioral problems in classroom and relate to children well

I think this is about it. Well, perhaps I am missing something, but let's keep it short and manageable. The standards movement has ran into problems precisely because no one had the guts to stop proliferating the standards.