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Mar 21, 2008

Yet another reform

Governor Ritter is proposing a new bill. Basically, the standards will be revised, and then re-revised every two years, and aligned from pre-school to college. There will be two-tiered high school diplomas: one indicating certain attainment, and another indicating completion of high school. This seems to be similar to New York's "Regents' diploma" scheme; only 42% of students actually receive it. Several other states have similar two-tiered high school diplomas. The intent of the bill is not new, and it is a reaction to the testing dilemma. Make the tests too easy, and everyone passes, so we have no standards. Make tests hard but inconsequential, and kids will not try hard, and your data will be meaningless. Make them hard and tie to graduation, and a lot of kids fail, and what do you do with them? Tell them they need to work harder? So, the compromise that many states use and Colorado seems to be going to is the two-tier diplomas. But that really means that the failing students will get a meaningless pieces of paper, and the diploma that counts will be in the possession of those with privileged backgrounds. The two-tier high school diplomas have been tried in other states, and I do not see any evidence it was successful.

What bothers me about the bill is not its intent and not even its proposed solution, but the utter lack of original thinking in it. I don't know how about others, but I am becoming increasingly bored with educational reform. All fifty states do the same things, call them something different, and fail to learn from each other's errors. The bill will produce a lot of revising and revisions of standards, tests, report matrixes and other stuff without perceptible benefits for K-12 or higher education. Instead of looking for true innovations, Colorado seems to be doing more of the same. The bill reads like a lecture on everything that is right and good, and it is hard imagine the State's power is best applied to lecturing through the law. The substance is lacking.

There is a rival bill in the State legislature, which has much narrower focus. It simply replaces the CSAP for juniors with ACT. It is not that exciting, but at least makes a practical kind of sense. The kids would be trying harder, because colleges really look at ACT scores. But again, it is not clear what level of consequences passing or failure would entail. Those who really hoping to get into college will try their best; those who do not will still pretend to take it, ar won't take at all.

The fundamental problem is this: you cannot require people to do something for free, and require to do it well. It's as simple as that: to test people on how well they do something you need first to make sure they want to do it. If certain activity is involuntary, you can increase the effort in one of two ways: one is fear, and another is to make it voluntary and pay for doing it. While tightening standards and improving teaching seems to be the logical thing to do about elementary education, it is not clear that we are doing something remotely effective on the secondary education. The problem seems to be one of motivation to learn, not of the standards or testing requirement.

Mar 14, 2008

Refuse to be second-rate

Like everyone else, our School has a vision. It is better, less bland than most of its kind, but I doubt it really guides our every-day activities. Yet every strong community needs an idea, a one-liner that captures its spirit and sets certain norm. Some people call it the ideology, some prefer vision or belief; in some organizations it is an image or a memory, or a founding myth, but every group needs an idea, an authentic expression of its ideal self. When I first came here almost two years ago, I was asked about developing a vision. My reply was that finding a vision is a process, and it has to come from within; it may never be brought from without. I agreed to be on a look-out, and now I may have found it. This is not something we would put on our promotional materials, but I believe this idea (a motto? a dictum?) captures the essence of what we are all about. This can really be our private vision.

It came about in a casual conversation with one of my friends and colleagues, whose name shall rename unknown. We were talking about something, and considered certain pluses and minuses of a possible decision. And he said in support of his argument "I just refuse to be second-rate." The more I think about it, the more this simple sentence captures our ethos; it acknowledges the challenges we face, and gives us a measuring stick to apply to everything we do.

The challenges are numerous: we are in a state college, besieged by funding shortages. Our salaries are low, workload is large. Our students tend to be first-generation in college, and many have to work through to support themselves. Many are very intelligent, but many also experienced gaps in their K-12 education. College professors, our peers in R1 schools do not necessarily consider us to be their peers; they have incomparably stronger institutional support for their research activities, and considerably lighter teaching load. So, their resumes tend to be thicker than ours, partly because grants and publication game is biased in their favor, partly because we simply do not have as much time to research and write, or lack elite connections in our respective field. On top of all of these pressures, there is a creeping internal pressure to succumb. Some of us allow too many compromises; let themselves to lower standards in both teaching and research. Once they enter into that mode of defeat, they start to water down policies and standards to justify the defeat. Sometimes the university policies tacitly accept the second-rate mentality. For example, our policy allows people to get tenure with half plus one votes, while most universities require 2/3 of the votes. Our vita template uses the designation for publications "Juried: (reviewed by editorial board, or refereed)." This is significantly below a true peer-refereed publication standard everyone else uses.

And yet what we can and should do in the face of all these pressures is just this: refuse to be second-rate. Being second-rate is really a state of mind, a set of operating assumptions. We should try to act as if we were among the best. Should we hire someone who is only OK, and no one is especially excited about? Well, would you even ask this kind of question if were a Stanford or Yale faculty? - Probably not. So refuse to be second-rate and operate as if you were the best of the best. Similarly, if you're working on an article, should you aim for the top journal or for the regional one where the editor is your friend? Again, the hesitation before answering it may betray the second-rate mentality. Aim high, and then if it does not fly and you've lost interest to the project, OK, maybe send it to a less rigorous publication.

And finally, one more point. We beat the harvards of the world by the value-added measure. They accept the best of the best, who are either exceptionally talented or exceptionally privileged. We accept students from various backgrounds, from some good and some bad public schools, and almost never from the very elite schools. Our teaching may very well be much more effective than that of harvards'. Just as an aside, would it not be awesome to know this for sure? To measure teaching effectiveness on a fair, consistent, and value-added basis? The elite institutions' teacher education programs tend to be small and selective or non-existent; ours are large and successful. At the end of the day, a head-to-head comparison between our graduates and their graduates will probably reveal similar results even though our freshmen come at lower academic levels. And finally, we have a mission no one else can fulfill. What am saying is that the pride and self-respect I advocate is not self-delusional, or purely inspirational. We do have much to be proud about, we can do a lot more; we just need to always refuse to think and act as a second-rate institution. I am asking everyone, before making any decision, just remind yourself to refuse to be second-rate.

Mar 7, 2008


Much of my interactions with people are fasttalk through e-mail, in person, or phone. However, certain kinds of problems can only be effectively resolved through slowtalk. Slowtalk is a unique, powerful communications tool, although it is quite expensive in terms of time. On the practical level, Eugene Sheehan's three emails rule works well: when you exchanged more than three emails with someone on the same subject, it is time to set a meeting. It means the fasttalk ceases to be efficient, and becomes wasteful or worse. What kinds of issues can be dealt with though fasttalk, and what requires slowtalk? What does it do that fasttalk does not?

  • Slowtalk minimizes the mismatch in assumptions. When you fasttalking, your counterpart may have a completely different background information, and therefore different set of assumptions. Fasttalk is just to get a point across as quickly as possible. Slowtalk allows one to react to the smallest mismatches of meaning between oneself and a conversation partner. That is why in slowtalk, you can often hear admissions of cleared misunderstanding: "Oh, I thought you mean this, not that," or "I assumed you knew that." But how do you know that your partner has different assumptions? By reacting to the mismatch of meaning; that is, when you have difficulties interpreting your partner's words, because they mismatch to your understanding of the background.
  • Slowtalk clarifies the affective component of the problem. We are emotional animals, and always keep track of what we think is friendly or not friendly actions by other people. That is just how our brains operate. So we tend to attribute much of people's actions to their intent. So, the slowtalk helps to find out if indeed there is another, emotional agenda, or it is just an issue to be resolved. Fasttalk, on the other hand, tends to ignore the affective component, and thus reinforce errors in understanding.
  • One of the best uses of slowtalk is to consider complex solutions. In However, if a problem is indeed serious, and no close precedents exist, the only way to weigh in all the possible consequences is through slowtalk. Slowtalk allows people model the future much more effectively than any of them can do individually. Multiple participants model multiple interests, so we tend to disagree with each other a lot more than we disagree with ourselves.

Fasttalk and slowtalk are two very different modes of communication, and should be used appropriately. For example, I refuse to engage in slowtalk about the colors of our walls; I don't think that be a good way of discussing it, because fasttalk is just enough. However, the recently discovered glitch in our digital archiving system deserves some slowtalk. It is a truly new problem; it can be potentially very serious. So, folks, if you think you see an issue deserving slowtalking, don't hesitate to set aside time and meet; it may be in the end much more efficient than series of fasttalks. However, estimate the scope of the problem, too; if it is not that important, fasttalk is just fine: brief, to the point, yes or no.