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Dec 30, 2010

Starting over

If the Earth did not have this weird tilt in its axis, we could have been very different species. But it does, so we have seasons, which force us to live within specific cycles. It also spins, which not all planets do, and gives us day and night. The time is given to us as a predictable and inevitable change. We even add to that by creating an arbitrary date in the middle of the winter to start over again. Why start each year mid-season? - Probably, because we want more seasons. We need an opportunity to forget our failings, and fantasize about the future, about how things now will be different, and how we will exercise, eat well, and be organized, and even nicer to others. Even though it is somewhat predictable, we still perceive time as a wave of newness rushing towards us like at a sea shore.  We want to both keep our memories, and yet not let them dictate every future step. The belief in newness is a way of archiving, and somehow discounting the past.
Time is such an interesting thing to think about, because – can you see? – both hope and possibility come from our relationship with time. The difference between the past and the future is freaking profound: We cannot do a thing about the past, but we know it. We can do a lot about the future, but have no knowledge of it. Things we know – we cannot change; things we can change – we don’t know. What a bummer of a world; too bad there isn’t any other. The universe quickly hardens right behind our backs; push and the cement of completeness will not even budge. And the other end of the universe just barely appears out of the fog ahead – visible enough to be scary, but not clear enough to be comforting. What do we do? We chat! We drag the past with us, portending it is still malleable. We pretend the future is real, and can be predicted, prepared for, and tamed.
The New Year for me is the crunch of snow under my feet, and a cold wind stealing my breath when we face each other just the right way. I was probably four or five, and my mother was taking me to the day care, so early, it was still dark. I was all bundled up as only children in Siberia are dressed – almost round, with a scarf over my mouth icy and wet. When I squirm, - and squirm I must - the lights in snow crystals grow large, large, and huge before disappearing. My eyelashes are sticky, but it is really warm. There is no past, and no future; none of that stuff. Yes, one can exist without time, and without the need to start over. It just does not last long.  

Dec 16, 2010

Academic freedom is a contract

1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure started it all. It is a short and simple statement, which is very often misunderstood. The preamble is especially easy to miss. “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” The intent of the document is quite clear: the society must recognize that scholars and teachers know something that the public in general does not and therefore should be trusted to research and teach the way they see fit. However, in exchange we promised to use the freedom for the common good, and the deal must be verifiable.
The recognition of freedom is not therefore given to us individually, but to professional communities to which we belong. For example, to get hired, one needs a doctoral degree, which is conferred by other scholars. To publish a paper, one needs a collective judgment of peers on merits of it, which is done either through peer review, or subsequent critique/study replication, etc. Grant proposals, IRB, tenure and promotion are all instruments of collective judgment. In other words, nothing about the academic freedom is arbitrary or whimsical. You’ve got to prove your point to your peers, even if the public in general, or your dean won’t understand anything you’re saying.
This obligates us to collaborate on program development. No one can claim academic freedom as a simple right to do what one pleases in classroom. If you know your version of the class is inconsistent with those of your colleagues, you are obligated to talk and make an effort to convince each other, using actual evidence and rational argument. If there is no agreement among you in the department, appeal to research and opinion of the professional organization. When no consensus exists, it is fine to experiment, but the results of your experimentation should be discussed, and made public. The same applies to all instances of the curriculum drift: courses once designed as a sequence drift apart, and create gaps or needless overlaps in what students should know. Texts and methods get outdated, or isolated and marginal. Our knowledge of the field may get rusty or lopsided. Our programs may get out of sync with the most current thinking in the field; we may miss important research. Those things are impossible to do alone; we all need colleagues.
We have relatively weak institutional controls to maintain quality of teaching. For example, there is no blind peer review of syllabi, and no routine peer observation. We rarely demand actual data on student growth in our classes (the irony of teacher preparation – we expect our students to develop a work sample, and to actually assess their student learning, but don’t do what we preach). How many of you routinely do a pre- and post-assessment in your own classes? Raise your hands… one, two. When the institutional controls are week, we need to create them, and in the meanwhile strengthen ethical controls. Academic freedom is a deal based on trust; if public loses trust in us, the deal is off.
It is very tempting to just talk yourself into believing how good you are. “I know I am doing a great job in my classroom, and don’t need anyone to check on me.” I don’t know how many times I heard this in one form or another. But hey, how do you know it? If you cannot explain it to your colleagues, how can you prove it to yourself? Oh, you just feel good? You see it in students’ eyes? You receive thank you notes? Would you use any of these “data” in your research? If not, why do you believe it is good enough for teaching?
We all need someone to check on us, and it better be a colleague (next door, or across the country), than the heavy hand of state agencies, accreditors, or administrative types like me. Because you know what? When a dean comes to your classroom or looks at your syllabus, she or he probably has no idea how your field works. In those cases, you should claim your academic freedom and stick to it. But you cannot claim academic freedom against your peers, and you are obligated to be a part of a community. And the community must prove it acts for public good, not to promote its own interest. That was always a part of the deal. 

Dec 10, 2010

Teacher quality as an ethical dilemma

Social institutions and systems cannot work on legal rules alone. Even such hard core mechanistic ones as financial markets depend on a degree of trust and an informal understanding of what is ethically acceptable and what is not. When people rely on regulations too much, the systems eventually collapse. Teacher education is not an exception. In the end, we put our names, our reputation, and our conscience behind every student we graduate. We are in this profession, because we want to be supportive and nurturing to all students. However, our ultimate ethical responsibility is to children our graduates will one day teach. The test is very simple: would you like to have this particular individual to teach your own children, nephews, nieces, or grandchildren? If you are not comfortable with the idea for any reason, you should do something about it.
The screening mechanisms we have are imperfect, and could not be counted on to work all the time. GPA, course grades, and observation forms – all are needed to provide a degree of objectivity to the process, but in the end, it is your professional judgment, and your personal responsibility. Someone can get good grades and try really hard, but just not have the right personality or enough knowledge and ability to be a good teacher. Someone can lack social skills, or have a disability incompatible with teaching. Just like blind people cannot be allowed to fly your airplane, a severely dyslexic person cannot be an elementary teacher. Moreover, such students often do not know or do not want to believe it. But it is not fair to them also to give out false promises, and condemn them to a life of professional failure. They are adults, and can make their personal choices in every respect, except for this one. We belong to a profession, and must protect school children against someone who can potentially cause a lot of harm.
In a recent conversation, a colleague brought up the fear of law suits if we dismiss someone without a proper procedure. It is true, that dismissing or counseling students from a teach preparation program should not be arbitrary, or motivated by personal irritations or dislikes. The rule of thumb is this: if you are the only one who is worried, find other colleagues and cooperating teachers who have the same concerns. Put these concerns in writing – at any point. If they are critical, send them forward immediately. If they are borderline, make it a personal task to follow up on the student at the next stage of the program.  Involve program coordinators, chairs and the Dean’s office. Can you explain your concern to other professionals? If yes, go for it, but don’t worry too much about having a good story for a broad public. It is not necessary. I remember a few years ago one of young program coordinators told me she wants to fail a student teacher. I looked at transcript – nothing unusual there. Why, I ask? – The student lied about her mother having cancer and about other weird things like that. We check the facts, talk to cooperating teacher, and realize the student does have some serious personality problems; she is a habitual and imaginative liar. We’re not psychiatrists, but we just know this student in this mental state cannot be an effective teacher. I am not sure if a non-educator would have the same reaction, but I argue, we should not really care that much. We dismissed her from the program, and took some heat from parents, of course. There were threats of law suit, but it never materialized. Again, our primary ethical obligations are not to our student, but to her potential students. That is a special feature of teacher education, which demands a different moral calculus. 
The fear of legal action cannot cloud our professional judgment. First, it is greatly exaggerated. No lawyer will take on a client who has very little chances of winning a case. Dismissal from a professional program is almost never a winnable case, unless there are signs of discrimination based on unrelated factors. But even if a case goes to court, our collective professional judgment, outweighs whatever myths the fear of legal actions create. Second, if laws were perfect, who would need ethics?
Some students argued with me that they have received good grades and good recommendations before, and therefore cannot be excluded late in the process. My reply is this: just because we made a mistake with you one or a hundred times before does not mean we are obligated to make the same mistake again. The opposite is true – we should correct our own mistakes.
And finally, if you have a good case and your colleagues are with you, I will back you up with all I’ve got. Let’s just make a commitment – not a single bad teacher will come out of our College. And it cannot be someone else’s concern. 

Dec 3, 2010

Personal lives

Emergency rooms and OR waiting areas are tense places. I spent some time in them this week with my son who had to have an emergency back surgery (he is OK and recovering). It was hard to concentrate on work, although hospitals now offer internet access. Among other things, I was thinking about all my colleagues – these three have been fighting cancer, that one broke her hip; another person’s father or mother is dying, someone else is going in for a planned surgery. But someone just simply had bronchitis, and someone else I don’t know about had sick children, broken transmissions, family troubles, or financial crises. How do they all cope, and how do I know where my requests, demands, and messages come into their lives?
Somewhat disparagingly, It is called personal life; as if a life can be anything but personal. One is supposed to keep it separate from work, or so I was told by someone.  But can we, really, any of us? – nope. It affects us, and sometimes in ways that are not easy to trace. I found myself, for example, very cranky and critical (more than usual anyway) when I came back on Wednesday. Why? Because I am worried about my son, because I wonder if I could have done anything to prevent his injury; perhaps one more word of caution, one more doctor visit could have made a difference. I am frustrated because unlike Windows, real life does not offer a system restore point. But that’s just a theory; this may very well be a mild flu or something else entirely.
We are not rational beings, far from it. Our subconscious minds do things for their own strange reasons. We do not understand much of our emotions and reactions, sometimes until later, sometimes never. And if we do not understand or fully control our own actions, how can others? This is way humans have developed the judgment gap, the ability to suspend judgment. “Well, he is rude but who knows what’s going on in his life?” “She is absent-minded lately, but it will probably pass when she works through her issues.” That sort of empathic imagination is not given to us at birth; it is something we struggle to build; some with the help of religion, some without. It competes against our very basic need to defend ourselves, to counter aggression with aggression. If someone is rude to you, you must feel very secure to blow it over, and allow for complexities of a human psyche. If you are threatened, the empathic imagination shuts down, and forgiving becomes very difficult.
I am thinking – how can we help including our colleagues’ personal lives in the fabric of our work lives? How do you mix and blend, helping both be good and worth living? Is it a too tall of an order? 

Nov 19, 2010

Rhode Islanders

This is the fifth state I live in (after Indiana, Washington, Ohio, and Colorado), plus two different cities in Russia (Novosibirsk, my home town, and Moscow). Regional differences are my private delight. Some people enjoy looking for big essential differences. For example, I am often asked about cultural differences between Russians and Americans. I find those conversations very boring and generalizations mainly wrong. Both countries are extremely diverse on many different levels, and almost anything you say about them in general sounds false. However, the tiny variations of accent and affect between, say northern Colorado and Northwest Ohio seem to be fascinating and somehow more profound to me. For example, people in Novosibirsk generally walk slower than the Muscovites; Siberians hate waiting lines and everyone in them, while Muscovites tend to be somewhat more social in line and enjoy a good talk with strangers. One small thing that always gives away Russians in America and Americans in Russia is the eye contact with strangers: quick and intense for Russians, longer and inconsequential for Americans. Ohioans can say “I am fixin’ to…” in a sense “I intend to…” I have not heard that in any other state.  Coloradoans still keep the pioneer spirit – it is very easy to talk them into trying something new. Seattle is a city with subtle and sophisticated culture, which you can miss entirely if you stay there for a short time.
Because this is my private hobby, I don’t have to be right about anything. This is just a way for me to feel more at home in a new place. We tell ourselves stories not only to learn about the world, but to create a frame of reference, to domesticate our experience. If I can at least understand or pretend to understand just one rule in the new place, I feel better.
Here is my scoop on Rhody. When a driver facing you wants to turn left, you should blink your headlights, and let him or her go. It is expected, and makes a lot of sense on narrow streets with heavy traffic. You’re not going very fast anyway, so why not unclog traffic going in the opposite direction? If you don’t, you can get a finger. Traffic lanes are more optional, so you should be hyperaware of your environment. Someone may drive on the wrong side of the street, so you need to scoot over to the shoulder. But there is always enough space for you to scoot over – that’s the rule. Russians also have a whole set of informal traffic rules, not written anywhere, but clearly understood by most people.
Rhode Islanders are not quick to smile; you have to deserve it. They are more of a wise-cracking, get-real bunch, rather than the sunny and smiley Westerners, or chill-and-let-others-chill Seatleites. Ohioans tend to be exaggeratingly polite and welcoming, but it actually takes much longer to get closer to them; there is a clear line between the locals and the outsiders. Of all places, I found Ohio to be the only place where my foreignness mattered for a while at least.  In Rhode Island, once you pass the initial test, and proves to be not a jerk, most people seem to be very helpful and open, with actions more than with words.  I had several experiences with DMV and other offices, where clerks all look somewhat unwelcoming, but are also willing to look the other way when your paperwork is not exactly perfect. The partings are inevitably much warmer than the greetings. This seems to be a place with a stronger working class subculture, which I can relate to. Believe it or not, my working class neighborhood in Siberia was not that different from those in Providence. People will be suspicious to BS in all its forms, and expect some solidarity in the common purpose to defy the authorities. But they are not above trying to take you for a ride, if you look like gullible.
Of course, there is the Rhody accent. I still cannot hear the differences between local variations within it, and perhaps never will. But there is also a specific mannerism in speaking – more loud and more direct; “I am telling it like it is” seems to be the subtext, which I rather enjoy. In the Midwest and in the West, I sometimes get in trouble by arguing with people. While in Eastern Europe disagreement is a sign of respect (I am taking you seriously if I bother to challenge your thinking), it is not in the Western half of the United States, and I suspect in the South. You need to give out other signs of respect first, and only then can you openly disagree. Here I find a number of people who like me enjoy a good argument, and mean no disrespect by it.
There are probably others who think differently, but they have not come out yet and told me so. Please do if you’re one of them. We all come from somewhere, and bring assumptions with us. The big differences are easy to spot and deal with; the small ones can often go unnoticed and be attributed to ill intent rather than to a cultural accident. 

Nov 14, 2010

What do we want from the State?

There is a group of deans and directors of teacher education, RIACTE. We have met twice, trying to find our way into a more engaged relationship with the State agencies in general, and RIDE in particular. That we want a seat at the table, and contribute to solving the State’s education problems, is a given. It is a little more difficult to figure out what is it we – meaning all teacher preparation programs - really want from the State. From my point of view, we don’t want too much:
1.       A sensible and less burdensome state approval process. What we have right now is an outdated, excessive bureaucratic exercise spelled out in an 83 page document. It consists mainly in providing a host of different charts, almost entirely on inputs. If we at least could use our national accreditation (which can also use some streamlining, no doubt) for the purposes of state approval, it would give us a gift of productive time. It is not that we don’t want to be regulated; not at all. We just do not want to produce mountains of useless paperwork, that’s it. Something closer to the audit model would work much better. Come and see what we do – talk to graduates, read our internal documentation, our reports, our data, and make an informed judgment on the integrity of our programs. Instead, we are asked to produce things we do not normally use for our operations, and things that are unlikely to improve the way we work. This encourages cynicism and discourages professional responsibility.  As we prepare to submit all of the needed information electronically, it becomes less and less clear why RIDE wants to send 20 people to review us, and why do they insist in staying in Providence hotels. Why not review all materials online and just send 2-3 people to talk to faculty, partner schools, and to our candidates.  
2.       We need a support system to follow up on our graduates. Teacher preparation should be a system for long-term professional training, which integrates pre-service training with meaningful induction and professional development. Right now, there is no meaningful state-wide induction system, and no professional development system. It is very difficult for us to conduct any follow-up activities, not just because no funding exists to support it, but mainly because there is no system to tap into.  (We cannot even get information on how many our graduates were hired, and where they work. Eventually, we are supposed to get data on student performance linked to teacher identifiers, which in turn should be linked to their teacher preparation program. That would be a very interesting research data, but I doubt it can be readily used to evaluate quality of our programs.)
3.       The State is planning to revise its teacher certification, which is probably a good thing. We would like an opportunity to discuss some clear distinction between initial licensure and added endorsements, mobility between types of licensure, etc. In general, an opportunity to provide input in policy decisions would be welcome. Policy-making is a messy business, and often leads to unintended consequences. Teacher certification changes may lead to revisions in multiple programs, which is very costly, and tend to distract us from program improvement. A simple opportunity to provide input into the process is quite vital to our work.
There are probably other things we need and want. In the end, we want to be useful, and treated as a partner and as resource rather than as an obstacle and a passive object of regulations. 

Nov 5, 2010

The Pen and Line case

Here is a great case study for an organization development course. This is, of course, an imaginary scenario.

A new Dean comes to a School that has decided to adopt a new electronic portfolio management system called Pen and Line (P&L). This is a second attempt for the School – the first one failed because the previous provider went bankrupt. The School has gone through a thorough process this time, evaluating several commercial providers, and the committee has unanimously selected P&L. It seems to have everything one may need for building a School-wide assessment system, with some great reporting features. Although no one had any illusions about the time investments into learning and customizing the system, the long-term benefits seemed potentially very high. Having a unified assessment database with multiple users would eventually save a lot of time and human resources. The Dean, however, still had nightmares from similar efforts at another institution and with a different commercial provider, that took five years instead of one year, and still did not provide an adequate solution.

Projecting too much from previous experiences is never a good idea, because it substitutes actual history of an organization with one’s fantasy; the fantasy will eventually collide with reality. After some internal debate, he admitted being wrong, delegated authority to a small but very capable implementation committee, and just asked them to go slow and begin with a small scale pilot.

There would be no story, if it went reasonably well. In a healthy organization, leaders should be told to back off, and to delegate; people should be able to correct each other’s mistakes. However, the committee, initially very enthusiastic about the platform, started to discover problems – none of them separately seemed too big, but together they just reached the level when the group should start worrying. It is probably worth it for students to pay $80-90 for a product that works well, but is it for a product that does not? Now, this is not a proof the Dean was right all along; no one had the understanding of the system, and he certainly had no greater knowledge than anyone else. The difference between stupidity and an accurate prediction is often explained by random chance.

Here are some problems: there does not seem to be way, for example, to enter lesson observation evaluations without creating an individual account for each cooperating teacher, and bringing them on campus for training. Given the significant size of the program, and very fluid cooperating teachers’ body, this would mean committing vast resources, and possibly causing a lot of frustration. There is no way to use evaluation instruments other than rubrics. There is no way to combine 5-scal rubric with a 2-scale rubric. The company’s customer support is very weak, documentation almost non-existent, which only means the School should hire someone to develop all these. Some of the features were never piloted before, so the School is actually providing an important field testing for the company, for free. However, let us not forget the strengths: the program has a great data reporting capabilities; it looks and feels modern, sophisticated, the company behind it seems to be stable, and there is a chance the bugs will be fixed at some time in the future.

There are two very important complicating factors:

No one knows of a much better provider. Adopting any other system may mean throwing away all the precious P&L expertise already acquired, only to buy into another product that may have a different set, but perhaps the same number of problems. Going back to paper and pencil with manual data entry is almost unthinkable – not because it is necessarily more expensive, but just because it would project a wrong image to students and partner schools. It is really going backward in the digital age. There is another – intermediary – solution, with using a free product that is not as sophisticated, especially with respect to reporting. It would meet most of data collection needs, but does not offer a true portfolio option (which could be easily shared with the world). In other words, none of the alternatives are perfect or risk-free. 
Some faculty and programs took the implementation plan very seriously, and already invested their time in P&L. The product works well for smaller programs, and very well for individual classes. What is more important, the early adopters told their students to buy the product, motivating the request by the impending School-wide implementation. However, there is another group of faculty that do not see the need for the new system, feel they were not consulted enough about adopting it in the first place, and are generally tired and simply do not want yet another darn thing to learn. This happens to be a particularly difficult year, because it is the accreditation report writing season. The demands on faculty time are pushed to the limit; a revolt of a sort is not out of the question. The School leadership is now stuck in an unpleasant situation where either of the two decisions – to go ahead and eat the cost whatever it is, or to pull the plug on P&L – is guaranteed to offend and alienate someone. There is probably a group in between that does not care one way or another. However, this is not about the numbers. The early adopters are a very important group – they try things out, they take risk, they support the School’s initiatives. How can you afford to alienate them, considering they have not done anything wrong, other than trusting you? The active resisters are also a very important group; they keep the organization healthy by providing pushback and keeping the bureaucratic expansion in check. Those two are what ecologists call “critical species:” not necessarily most numerous, but a system falls apart without them. 
The case study question for an aspiring manager/leader: what would you do? Keep in mind the group dynamic question: how much of an active role can the Dean play, considering he made a mistake of projecting past experiences and micromanaging once already? Who should decide and how? How does one make a decision in the absence of hard evidence? Consider group dynamics within the leadership group and between the leadership and all other faculty groups, with their diverse interests and cultures.

Analyze the situation and find a balanced solution. Consider general options below, but seek other creative options:
  1. Commit to the product unquestionably, and implement as soon as feasible. Benefits: reduces the gap in implementation, provides stability for the early adopters, and enhances credibility of the office. Risks: What is the level of problems with the product will turn out so high that we cannot sustain it long-term anyway? We simply do not know the extent of challenges yet. 
  2. Pull the plug now; let programs use the P&L if they chose to, but switch to the intermediary no-frills-product for all School-wide data needs. Benefits: we know it can work, and it is free to students. Risks: The no-frills product may also have bugs; it still requires development and testing, and it will never get to a true portfolio level. Another risk: it is plain embarrassing to do that; we look like fools. 
  3. Delay full implementation, and continue piloting for at least another semester. Alternatively, ask the early adopters to pilot, wait with everyone else. Advantages: We will better understand the extent of the problems and feasibility of solutions; learn about the cost of implementation. Risks: We’re getting deeper into the product without guaranteeing that it will be fully adopted. This maybe just an unacceptable risk for the early adopters. It also creates a disincentive for active resisters – they may never believe us again. I n addition, keeping data in different places defies the entire intent of the project: creation a single data management system.
Isn’t this an interesting case? I bet someone can come up with a simple and elegant solution, which will keep everyone happy and yet provide the School with a useable, flexible, and modern data collection and reporting system. If you want to try, submit your comment here – signed or anonymous. The comments are moderated, because of spam robots, but all relevant ones will appear within a day.

Oct 29, 2010

Getting there

In most cases, we know what is the right thing to do, but how to get there is a much more difficult, and I would say, a much more important question. It is actually fairly easy to see what is wrong in the world – both in the larger world, and in our small world. Imagining how it should be is also not that hard. The large swaths of the territory in between tend to lay unexplored. People who go there are my heroes, even if they sometimes get lost. They come up with ideas about how things should be changed, revised, improved, and approved. To every objection, they have yet another idea, another plan of actions.
My son is reading Dostoyevsky now, and I was reminded about his descriptions of Russian intelligentsia: people who cared deeply about injustice, and knew how a just and kind society should look like, but never cared enough about how to get there. Their problem was in misunderstanding of the Czar’s authority. They simply saw the beginning and the end of the journey, and assumed that one in power should be either very evil, or very stupid not to make the journey. Till this day, most people identifying themselves as intelligentsia perceive authority as something unclean, if not outright evil. Having never had been in power, they do not understand how it works, its limitations and challenges. Only for some very brief periods of time some of them tried to run the country, every time with disastrous consequences. The optimism and moral outrage quickly turn into cynicism: if it cannot be changed right away, then it cannot be changed at all. That’s where I am the least Russian, hopefully.
Peoples with democratic traditions have overcome this disease, to various degrees. Many Americans, for example, took part in running something – a PTA, a club, a block party, a car pool. They have been to elections, where their voice actually mattered. Any illusions about a simple way from A to B tend to dissolve by adulthood.  But the human impulse behind it such an illusion is always in place; it is natural and one has to train oneself out of it. It goes like this: when A is so bad, and B is definitely so much better, why doesn’t someone DO something about it? Like, RIGHT NOW? Well, probably, because there is no someone, or someone does not have enough authority, resources or time, or someone simply has no idea how to cross that stretch of land.
This is all, of course, about the coming elections. Go and vote for someone who you think has a better idea on how to get there from here. 

Oct 22, 2010

Talking Points, sound bites, and other useful ammunition

Last night, I had a long conversation with someone very thoughtful, and knowledgeable about educational reform. Basically, she asked two things: how do you respond to various criticisms on the quality of teacher preparation, and what kind of innovation is happening at RIC. I tried my best, but in the process realized that I don’t have a list of talking points. Thinking on the fly is not hard, but formulating your thoughts is. And because I felt inarticulate last night, here is my attempt at the next morning come-backs, if you know what I mean.

1. Teacher quality is poor, - one should always ask, in comparison to what?

a. In historical terms, our graduates now are better prepared than any generation of teachers before them. Our grads know more about child development and learning theory than older generation of teachers; they know more about how to teach reading, numeracy, and other basic skills. They know much more about differentiated instruction, diversity, and English language learners. They have stronger content knowledge, and are more carefully screened.

b. In terms of international peers, there is no reliable data for these kinds of comparisons. However, there is no reason to believe that our new teachers are less prepared than those in any other country in the world.

c. If you are measuring up against an ideal – what a beginner teacher SHOULD look like, then no one can measure up to that. This is a moving target, and tends to be unrealistic. None of the pictures of an ideal teacher are based on any kind of research.

d. If you are comparing an average graduate to an exceptionally bright and charismatic young teacher that sometimes is also highly effective, it is a mistake, too. Just because exceptional talent exist does not mean we can count on millions of superheroes to fill the ranks of the most numerous profession. Traffic laws and roads are not designed with NASCAR drivers in mind; we should not assume the education system can operate as if every teacher had extraordinary talent.

2. Blaming teacher preparation for persistent achievement gaps in American schools is like blaming police academies for persistent crime, or blaming medical schools for persistence of the seasonal flu. How about blaming schools of social work for persistence of poverty? Where the problems are systemic, and solutions are elusive, looking for a scapegoat is a natural tendency, which reasonable people should resist.

3. Like in all advanced professions, pre-service training is only the beginning, and intensive in-service training and support are simply necessary. That need has been neglected for many years. Turning an 18 year graduate of a regular high school into a competent beginner teacher is already a miracle we accomplish in four years. Turning an 18 year old into an expert teacher equal to someone with experience is simply impossibility. We never promised that, and never will.

4. On innovation. While a radical redesign of teacher preparation is theoretically possible, not one has proposed it yet. Therefore, we concentrate on improving the existing approaches by learning to collect better assessment data, by organizing curriculum, and by improving quality of field experiences. We realize some people expect a more dramatic story, and a silver bullet, but we are not willing to produce a dog and pony show to entertain the public and harm our real work. It is an ethical and professional choice, not a lack of imagination.

5. We do have a lot of things to improve. For example we need to prepare teachers for classroom assessment, working with special needs and ELL kids, etc. You really need to be a professional to understand most of it. Just because you have children does not make you an expert on education, no more than having eyes makes you an ophthalmologist.

6. The way we are regulated by the State does more harm than good. Its review is all input-based, and takes our time and energy away from really important conversations about improving our programs. NCATE accreditation is marginally better, but the balance of time we spend on it versus actual improvements is still negative.

I am not saying we should always be on defense, but we simply must find a way of inserting our story into the public discourse. To do that, we need to make it accessible, and at least somewhat interesting. We should begin by challenging the most common myths, and knowing our evidence. For example the myth is that American education in general is in decline. That’s is simply not true by any account. International scores are slowly rising, the achievement gaps among ethnic and racial groups is still very large, but slowly shrinking. Teaching preparation is improving. What really does us all damage is the endless series of short-lived spasmodic attempts at reforms, which serve the purposes of building political capital in next election cycle. A lot of work is put in developing programs, which are abandoned as soon as there is a change of guard in state and federal offices. As an example: we looked at the list of state-wide initiatives which the State wants us to teach to our students. The document was revised in 2009, but about half of these initiatives are already defunct. Who can have any trust in reforms if none of them stick long enough to produce any results?

Oct 15, 2010

The why of the how

If you have not seen the row of maples next to the Henry Barnard School, you definitely should. Wait for the next sunny day, and go. It is the beginning season of almost unbearable beauty. The color, the smell, the lazy movement of those leaves – all this will awake some wonderful memory of another fall, a memory you forgot you had. I remember my leafy Siberian places. I remember the contrast between the dark-haired pines, arrogantly ignoring the autumn, and the blond and read-haired deciduous species, desperately flaunting their new dresses, and shedding them at the same time.

Our minds are more likely to keep good memories and suppress bad ones. But there isn’t nearly enough memories floating on the surface, - not enough to feed our emotional selves. That is why you should go and see the maples next to HBS. They are available all the time, no appointment necessary.

That is what I do when I am tired or lose focus. We all have deal with many complicated tasks, with people who are just too many and too much, with lack of time, and with some nonsense that has to be done anyway. This entire onslaught we call life nowadays. This is not what human beings were originally designed to do. Our ape ancestors did not know multitasking, speed reading, report writing and deadlines. So we tend to lose the ability to remember why we’re doing all those things, and concentrate on the how they must be done. Maybe you’re different, but I need remindters. The how is an important question, but without the why it quickly runs out of room, corners itself, panics and becomes unanswerable.

And what I discovered over the years, is that the why does not reside in one’s beliefs, or priorities, or in jobs or whatever else looks like a reasonable habitat for the whys. No, the why resides in the maple tree leaves, and can be found there in most sunny October days. Of course, your why maybe living in a different place than mine; I just know they all like to hide and love to be found. It’s the hide-and-seek game for the whys; the hows prefer tag. 

Oct 8, 2010

Always start from the end

How do you design something new? - a new teacher evaluation system, a process of transition to new state curriculum standards? But also, how do you put together a faculty evaluation process, or a new graduate program; a new student teaching application, a new way of paying people for practicum and mileage, etc., etc.?

In one of those groups that think about implementing a project, I was involved in an interesting conversation. The leaders of the project argued that we need to first agree on principles, to lay out what has to be done, what is the right thing to do, and only then lay out specifics, address questions about logistics, feasibility, and perhaps scale the plan back. I was arguing that one should always start from the end, from specifics and the limits within which you operate. You need to see how much time and money (which is ultimately, the same thing) you can have sustainably over long time, then translate it into what maximally can be done. Then you need to visualize, to paint the picture of the end result. The next step is to share that picture with all people affected, so they are not scared of the future, and can ask questions about what really bothers them. And only then you should go into how to get there, which is the planning process.

My opponents argued that if you start with limits and specifics, you never set goals that are large and ambitious enough. My way, they say, encourages more-of-the-same kind of thinking. I am not sure that is true, especially for significant change that involves thousands of people who by necessity cannot be all included in the deliberations. If you set up abstract goals and principles, but do not communicate specifics, people will all imagine the worst case scenarios for their particular circumstances, where the new way of doing things works against them. As a consequence, you end up with resistance before you even have done anything. The imaginary stories take root in people’s heads, and soon become reality of its own.

However, if you start with telling people a story, paint a picture for them (but also show a form, a sample, a time estimate), that becomes a part of their imagination. People who are affected but excluded will always feel vulnerable, so they need to be able to ask their questions right from the start. If you tell them – oh, wait, we did not get there yet in our process, we will figure out how to do this later, - this does nothing to reassure them. It is just a poor communication practice. It is especially worrisome when very significant, fundamental (but unexpected) questions are put on “we will get to that later” list. Every time you do that, the anxiety level goes up, not down. It decreases confidence in your team’s ability to complete the change.

You can be both ambitious and start from the end. Just tell the person affected how this new thing is going to work for her or him. Is this going to be fair? Burdensome? How is it going to benefit each of us in the end? Educators have been the unwilling participants of perpetual reforming for many decades. Hosts of national, local, and district-wide initiatives were either not completed, or degenerated into a joke. Many have become suspicious of reforms – not because they are against change or don’t see the need for it, but because education reforms have never been implemented especially well. Most, I would argue, were not good ideas to begin with. That fact alone should merit a different approach to communication. You cannot simply make your journey from the abstract to the concrete public. In fact, you will be better off to keep your preliminary deliberations completely secret, until you have some clarity on specifics. By the time you go public, you need to start from the end.

Do I always follow my own advice? I wish that was true.

Sep 24, 2010

The information puzzle

This week, I spent quite a bit of time playing with information. I was finally able to edit directly the School’s site (it will take another couple of days to publish the updated version), we were able to launch the bare-bones site for  NCATE and RIPA Institutional reports (it is called, and we had another go at the on-line student teaching application. I actually enjoy this kind of work immensely. Every time a simpler, more straightforward way of conveying information is found, it makes me happy. Where does it come from? I am not sure; perhaps a hobby, an inclination.
Sometimes I wonder if a dean should be spending his time cleaning up the School’s website. Not normally, not routinely. But at this point of my life here, it is extremely useful. Understanding of information flows is understanding of the organization. Understanding something is simply organizing one’s thoughts, telling a coherent story about it.
Here is an example: NCATE and RIPA reports are both due in May. They have somewhat similar content, but very different structures. For example, NCATE wants to know about our technology resources in Standard 6, while RIPA  - in Standard 2. We of course, could write two separate reports, but the problem is – each has to come with hundreds of pieces of evidence. It just becomes a logistical nightmare to collect and organize all of this stuff. However, we figured out that a website does not have to linear, and it allows the same document to be easily attached to two different outlines. Why is it important? Well, if you are working on the description of technology, we must wait until you’re done to incorporate it into the report, and you would put it in two different places. And then we discover an error, or additional piece of information – we then need to edit both places, and make sure it still connects to the previous and subsequent text. A website, however, can be used by all the members of the team as a working instrument – many pages can be edited at the same time, and retain their links.
Anyway, for me it is like a puzzle or chess – a somewhat abstract game of solving information flow problems. But in the meanwhile, I think I start to understand what we actually need to collect and how we should present the good work we do. I would not like to do it all the time – meeting with people, talking, listening are still by far more important and enjoyable parts of my work. But I like my puzzles, too. 

Sep 17, 2010

Rainy mornings, worthy projects, and good stories

Autumn is not here yet, but you can smell it. The tiny pungent aroma of wet leaves, still deciding whether to turn or not. The slow lazy rain openly invites all procrastinators and homebodies to stay put, get a Netflix movie, and do nothing. It is wonderful morning for me to break my usual frenetic pace and just think about things.
One of the issues I tried to tackle this week is that of our various partnerships, grants, and public service projects. Which ones should we support, and which we should not? And to what extent can we do it? All wondering comes from ignorance. Several requests for different kinds of support made me realize I have no method of deciding.
What if you found out your Dean has used School’s money to support a particular charity; let’s just say , which I happen to like. Just cut a check from one of our accounts, and sent it to them. Would that be OK? - Of course, not. I do not have faculty and administration consent, and there is nothing in our mission that would justify this kind of expenditure. Note, the project is undoubted worthy, and deserves support. But the intrinsic worth of a project is not enough.
OK, what if you found out we provide reassigned time for someone who offers free or deeply discounted classes to teacher of… let’s say Anthropology, in Rhode Island? This feels closer to what we do, and perhaps should be supported. But maybe not? The job of a Dean is really not that closely supervised, and I am not likely to be questioned on decisions like these. However, I always want to have a good story as if somebody asked.
So, let’s slice it. First, any kind of material support should be connected to our mission, which is, if you have forgotten, “is to prepare education and human service professionals with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to promote student learning and development.” Anthropology teachers pass the test, but Russian orphans do not.
Second, the needs of the community are immeasurable, but we have very limited resources. The public (represented by the Board of Governors) wants us to keep tuition low. If we teach for free, or offer deep discounts to one group of students, how is it fair to other groups of students? For example, we run a graduate class for Anthropology teachers for $50 per credit, and charge other students $342 per credit. The latter are, in effect, subsidizing the former. But did we ask students if they like to help out? Did we ask the taxpayers of Rhode Island if they would like to help out Anthropology teachers specifically, at the expense of, say English teachers? No, we did not. Therefore the project cannot drain resources from other programs, and it should at least pay for itself, no matter how worthy it is.
However, things get complicated when a subsidized project actually has direct benefits to our main programs. For example, if we manage to get a status of Peace Corps Fellows site, it may help us recruit completely new population students, which will increase revenues and help everyone. Just the free advertisement of RIC on their website is probably worth good money.
Here is another example of a paradoxical logic, from my previous institution. A colleague was asking for substantial reassigned time to edit a major national journal with 40,000 copies circulation. How is this not a pet project? How does it benefit the rest of us? I argued that every time the journal is printed, 40,000 people will see the name of the institution on its cover page. This kind of publicity costs a lot, and we are getting a great deal doing it for a few thousand dollars a year needed to replace him. Should everyone who edits a journal get the same perks? Of course not, the logic of equality does not apply here. A small journal with only a few dozen readers will not provide nearly enough exposure to justify the cost. It is also easier to edit.
That’s some of the thinking that goes into assessing all the worthy projects for material support.

Sep 10, 2010

Incentives and the Goldilocks Zone

Much of this week, I have been thinking and talking about an incentive system for off-campus programs. I was also reading several recent books on higher education Educational Theory asked me to review. All books express concern over commercialization of the nation’s colleges. The decline in public funding forces many universities into endless pursuit of revenues, and may undermine their public purpose. It is all true, and there are many things to worry about. However, let’s look at a typical state college as a form of labor arrangement. It works reasonably well for traditional students who come on campus to get a degree. There is a well-defined distinction between instructors and a range of support services, from IT to the Bursar, to health center, the library, etc. Each specializes on one function, and because we concentrate a large number of students on campus, the economies of scale make it all work.
This arrangement fails spectacularly, when we are trying to go into the world of working professionals, such as teachers, or school psychologists, or principals. They don’t want to come to campuses anymore, and expect educational services to be available either at or close to their work places, or on-line. They want education to fit into their very busy schedules, families and commutes. These needs dictate cohort-based, hybrid or online, flexible schedule, but high quality programming from an accredited, reputable institution. But to put together and to see through a successful cohort, we need to send someone to another location, and be a jack of all trades: a marketer, a recruiter, a cashier, a mobile library and bookstore representative, an academic advisor, and a registrar and financial aid officer. While many faculty members actually can do all of these things, it is entirely unclear why they would. A full time faculty is guaranteed a teaching load and a stable salary on campus; it is entirely unreasonable to ask people to increase their workload.  
It takes a different economic model, and a different system of compensation to get the off-campus behemoth moving. Many universities across the nation have realized it, and established cash-funded programs, financially distinct from state-funded programs. It goes something like this: a group of faculty believe there is a need for a graduate program at a specific location. They use their own social and professional networks, find out exactly what people want and need, and then create a cash-funded cohort. The institution decides whether the project is financially viable and academically rigorous (because remember, our reputation is our most valuable asset). After that, the initiator(s) do most of the leg work recruiting students, helping them to register, to buy books, to use campus technology, etc. In exchange, the cohort coordinator and instructors are paid stipends. At the end of the program, whatever profit the program generates, is divided up between the originating unit and the central administration.
The model works well, but it needs a careful balance. If the incentives are too strong, it may suck the life out of existing on-campus programs. Full-time faculty members become too preoccupied with cash-funded operations; they also tend to convert some viable on-campus programs into off-campus ones, just because pay is a better. If the cash-funded operations empty your campus, you end up wasting significant resources. It is unlikely to happen, because of the constant demand for traditional undergraduate experience, but it may.
If the incentives are too weak, they do not generate the needed level of initiative and effort. If you’re running out of space and capacity on-campus, and do not grow off-campus, you’re also losing opportunities and hurt your institution. The cash-funded programs need to be in this Goldilocks zone – not too hot, and not too cold. It also needs to be highly predictable. If you keep changing the rules every year, people will avoid taking risk.
Another inevitable side-effect of any “capitalist” system is inequality: some units just have naturally more opportunity to earn supplemental income than others. If you see a colleague next door buying laptops and cameras, and you have nothing but the bare paycheck, you start feeling unloved and forgotten. So the deal must have some way of sharing the riches, or it will collapse. Some honest conversations need to take place on what exactly does one promise to do, if one accepts the cash-funded program stipend. Those working exclusively on campus will then know exactly what they don’t have to do, because of the campus support services. There are other nuances. For example, you need to make the cash-funded courses be available as both in-load and overload, otherwise staffing flexibility is greatly reduced. To do that, you need a protocol for transferring money back from cash-funded accounts into the state-funded ones. Other quirks and deformations are possible, and you can only do so much to anticipate them. And we chronically lack time to do anything in a measured way, with all precautions. To start something in the Summer of 2011, we need recruit students in November. To recruit students, you need a clearly defined program. To get to the program, you need an incentives policy in place. To get a policy, you need to talk with at least a dozen people, and more than once. 

Sep 3, 2010

Assessing the assessments

Speaking forcefully to an audience with which one does not share a long history is dangerous. One subconsciously refers to one’s own experiences, and the layers of meaning associated with it. The audience refers to its collective experiences, and to the semiotic fields created by it. It is like carrying a conversation from one company to the next; you might be right in substance, but have an undesired effect. I would like to apologize to the Assessment Committee, the Director of Assessment, and all those involved in the developing of the School’s and programs’ assessment system, if I sounded dismissive of the work they have done so far or have planned for the future. It was not my intention at all. The work they have done so far is very impressive, and is certainly one of the much better examples I have seen or heard about. That is why I am still very confident we will get through accreditation by NCATE and RIDE next year, although with some considerable effort. My intention was only to encourage all faculty members to take charge and ownership over their parts of the assessment system, and make it a priority to use the data for actual decision making, and to improve what seems to be too burdensome or ineffective. That is the difficult part – to make all these instruments and data sheets actually work.

Most schools of education around the country are going through more or less the same journey. It started with NCATE’s new standards developed some 15-20 years ago, and requiring institutions to build comprehensive assessment systems, which rely on performance data. That was light-years ahead of the rest of higher education, and no one knew exactly what they want. NCATE made a huge mistake of requiring too much and being too specific (they are trying to fix it now, with various degrees of success). As a consequence, most schools, especially large and complex ones, scrambled to produce some data – any data to satisfy the expectations. Because there was very little incentive or tradition to collect and use data, many faculty treated it as a burden, as another hassle from the Dean’s office. No one had good technology to quickly aggregate and return data back to faculty. As a result a combination of not-so-good quality of data with late or difficult to read data reports emerged. By the quality of data I mean just how informative it is.

If I were given a task to develop a student teaching evaluation instrument, which must cover a number of SPA standards, plus a good number of state standards, I just made a long list of indicators, and check marks, with a rubric spelling out each indicator at 3-5 different levels. To begin with, those standards are not always well-written. Then I was not paid for doing this, and no peer review was conducted. I produced something that looks good and covers a lot of ground, but… let’s just say, not very useful. In the end, I got “flat” data – every student is OK or excellent, on every indicator. We also tend to mingle the function of passing students for the class with the function of providing them with meaningful feedback: the former is high stakes, and discourages honesty; the latter should be kept private, and merciless. Formal evaluation and coaching do not mix well. OK, so you I this report, with boring data I myself produced and inputted, and I lose faith in the whole enterprise of assessment, so I tend to be even less honest and less careful providing the data next time. That creates a vicious cycle I like to call the compliance disease. It is not because someone did a poor job; we all got it, because of the institutional restraints we operate in.

Most thoughtful assessment folks across the country understand the problem, to a various degree. However, they lack explicit mechanisms of fixing it. For one, there is only so much you can push on faculty before they rebel. You just convinced everyone to collect and report data, and now what?... Come again?... You want us to go back and revise all instruments one more time? But it is imperative that faculty own assessments. It is very hard for an assessment coordinator to openly challenge instruments designed by faculty, because the authority is supposed to flow from faculty members through elected members of the Assessment Committee, to the assessment director and to the dean. But authority is a funny thing – everyone says they want more of it, but no one really wants to have it. Many assessment coordinators have recognized the symptoms long time ago, and are now moving to the next generation of assessment systems. My aim was really to help Susan, the Assessment committee and program coordinators in what they are already doing, not to hinder their important work. Again, my apologies if at the meeting I did not express my full confidence in them.

What would the next generation of assessment look like? It will have fewer, simpler, more practical but more robust instruments, very selective but very focused collection of data, efficient technological platforms (such as Chalk and Wire) for instant input, analysis, and dissemination of data, and firmly institutionalized process of using data to improve instruction. But most importantly, it will require a change in the culture of assessment. The new culture will have faculty being active participants, fully engaged into constant re-design of instruments, and not passively taking orders from the Dean’s office. The last thing we want is compliance for the sake of compliance (we also do not encourage rebellion for rebellion’s sake). What we want is engaged critical minds that share the purpose, and are in dialogue about the means. We need to get this assessment thing right, because there is simply no other way to proof our worth to society. We need to be confident that our measures make sense to us and to our students. Then they will make sense to any accrediting agency.

Aug 27, 2010

How do you make it work?

We had a wonderful faculty meeting this week, with considerable poetic talent displayed. The discussion was about where we are and where to go next. Now I am thinking about how to make it all work. It is a different question altogether. Operationalizing and institutionalizing ideas is the hard part. How to capture the energy, include all voices, and at the same time have a manageable number of projects and tasks, so nothing is forgotten and abandoned half-way. For example, we can hurry up and ask people to volunteer to join one or more of the projects below. But do I have the right list? We did not finish discussing which need to be done now, which later, and which – never? Is it worth waiting for the next DLC meeting for two weeks to finalize and edit the list of projects? How exactly do I ask for volunteers? Another survey? Just an e-mail? Ask chairs to identify some names, and then perhaps approach people more individually? Also, what happens if I call for volunteers, and very few people step up? Perhaps I should try to write out specific charges for each of the projects, so people understand what kind of commitments they are getting into. This is Friday afternoon, and it becomes clearer to me that I am not ready to answer most of these questions. However, it is not clear if the energy and enthusiasm will not dissipate somewhat. Those of you who taught for a while, know, that after classes started, but no major projects are yet to grade, there is this brief Indian Summer, a quiet moment in each faculty member’s life. I don’t want to waste it.

Here is another pressing issue: both the AFT-led Innovation consortium and RIDE are working on revising teacher evaluation systems. Both received substantial funding, but the two projects run in parallel. They are trying to merge them, but it is not clear if they can. It is very clear though that for us to compete for professional development business, an on-line portal of some sort needs to be created, where faculty expertise and specific classes/workshops are listed. In fact, if I could show something like that this week, we could plausible affect the proposed system(s). But we do not have anything comprehensive to show. Again, the dilemma for me is this: rush and get some info from some people now. Or go slower and get a better result. Doing it fast is likely not doing it right. Then we’d have to ask people again, for more information, and it just diminishes my credibility among faculty. However, if we go slow and deliberately, with a proper committee deciding how to build the PD portal, consulting with our partner districts, determining what questions to ask, etc., we may miss the boat altogether.

It is unlikely that RI will simply expect a Master’s degree from its teachers as an indicator of professional development. Although many states do just that, RI probably won’t. There is a good reason for that: just any random degree does not help to improve teacher performance. However, there will be some professional development expectations. It can go two ways right now: either each district will just determine its own PD policy, or we will be able to establish some sort of a state-wide market place for PD, where at least some quality of offerings is guaranteed. To weigh in on the decision, we cannot just promise something or have good ideas. We need to demonstrate some capacity, and give people an image, a picture of how it can work. Otherwise, by default, it will go to option #1, which we don’t want. But then again, if we produce something half-baked, it would damage our credibility rather than enhance it. That’s been the focus of my week.

I also attended a Board of Regents meeting, which discusses an interesting issue: to go to two-tiered high school diplomas (like in New York – one can get a Regent’s diploma or just a district diploma), or simply deny diplomas to a number of high school kids. Will this affect us? Definitely, because much stricter graduation requirements will trigger an exodus of border-line students from high schools, if they figure out there is no point in attending when a diploma is not likely to materialize. This affects high school teacher jobs, and our own enrollments… Everything in education is connected. And results of small decisions made today may have large consequences in the future.

My both children, Maria and Gleb are both visiting, which makes my evenings wonderful. We do not get to see each other that often, but now both are within 1.5 hours away from us.

Here is a list of projects, slightly edited to reflect the discussion
1. Shock and awe. Promote graduate programs and ED@RIC in general. Develop a PR campaign: ED@RIC newsletter, mailers, radio sponsorships. Identify the ED@RIC “Brand” tagline. What is it people should have in mind when they think of School of Ed at RIC? Repeat graduate follow-up surveys and employer surveys.

2. Acreditación o Muerte!. Get through NCATE, RIDE, and NEASC reviews, or die trying

3. Wag the dog. Accreditation is important, but we must not let that tail wag the dog. Let’s review all our assessment instruments and processes, with these goals: 1. Stop collecting data no one uses, and 2. Trim down all instruments to the size where they are useful for coaching purposes, and make sense to us.

4. Chalked and Wired. Designing a single point assessment system, with data export capabilities that are useful to faculty in making decisions.

5. Common Core and Classroom assessment. Revise curriculum and assessment to infuse the new Common Core standards for K-12. Develop vertical curriculum threads for each program on how to design and understand assessments, how to make sense of the data.

6. Web 2.0. Working, flexible site with simple logic designed for different audiences, not to reflect our organizational chart (no one cares about that). Provide clear and consistent advising materials. Eventually take direct control over editing the site. Develop a face book page, videos.

7. Operation Off-campus. Market off-campus graduate cohorts (certificates and degree programs). Offer convenient locations, schedules, and hybrid delivery. Develop incentives policy for off-campus, online and hybrid programs. Create a faculty learning community to boost expertise.

8. PD or not PD. Research professional development needs of RI districts, build an online database of experts/ professional developer instructors; package whole programs. Establish a common pay scale, an easy way of requesting workshops or whole programs. Pilot of the Coop Teacher Professional Dev Course

9. Onlining and streamlining. On-line application to School, to graduate programs, to student teaching; requests for payments from teachers; requests for travel money for faculty, annual evaluation reports. Scanning/archiving paperwork. Helping faculty scan and upload reading materials to Bb. Review all department procedures, and kill off everything that is not essential.

10. CRC. Create a working committee with reps from each department to help the Library with their curriculum resource center

11. A playground of one’s own. Let’s take more risks, and return the meaning of “Lab” to the Lab School. Create inter-departmental innovation teams with HBS faculty included. Internship program for undergrads.

12. JERICO. Create Journal of Education at Rhode Island College, Online. It could be focused on what we’re strong in: a dialogue between practitioners and scholars.

13. Sorry, forgot to include this on the firsttry: SASS-Y (Student Assessment Support System?); A group to help students to get through the revised PPST admission tests

Aug 19, 2010

The ethics of simplicity

Some years ago I was writing about complexity. It seemed to me mostly a question of efficiency. I now think it is also an ethical issue. When our programs are too complex, and our communications are too confusing, who is impacted? – The most vulnerable amongst our students. Those include the first generation in college, or unlucky enough to live in a wrong neighborhood and attend a wrong high school. Students who have not had enough exposure to official language and complicated procedures tend to be intimidated and less likely to pursue a teaching career or even stay in college.  
It is often attributed to Mark Twain (although it probably belongs to Blaise Pascal), - "If I Had More Time I Would Write a Shorter Letter." This is not a joke; effective communication requires substantial time. To edit handbooks, websites, and guides takes much time, which we do not usually have. What seems a trivial matter, - where should admission requirements to FSEHD be posted?, - actually takes much thought. But this goes beyond communications. Adding requirements, forms, checklists, assessments, and procedures is not always done with the organizational ecology in mind. In other words, people who make a decision to introduce one of these are not always the same people who get to implement it. Moreover, they do not know how the new thing interacts with all other requirements, forms, checklists, assessments, and procedures, and how a student can navigate all of those. And because procedures evolve over years, they tend to accumulate. And we tend to get used to the complexity we create as we learn to navigate through it.  However, our students are always new; this is something Hannah Arendt called the human condition of natality. If I am lost in the School’s website, imagine an 18 year old, with no knowledge of college systems, of teacher education conventions and no parent to call on for help.
And because we make things more complicated than necessary, and then fail to explain them clearly, we end up with an enormous burden of academic advising. Some administrators have a romantic notion of advising: deep conversations about meaning of student’s life and career, mentoring about life and professional choices. But most of us know that 99% of advising encounters consist of explaining the same thing over and over again, - simply because students failed to grasp the meaning of it through catalogs and websites, or did not understand how to complete a form. And then we get irritated at them for being so… young?
I am not being critical here; this is just a reflection on how things work, and how we can understand and resist the flow of complexity. This is just a plea to treat simplicity as a moral imperative. 

Aug 13, 2010

The Organization Animal

People often personalize organizations; they think a company or a school can have feelings, preferences, thinking and decision making processes similar to those of individual people. That is a misconception. I find it useful to think of an organization as a very large animal, like a behemoth in which we all live, but none of us can see the whole thing. As a whole, it is only partially self-aware, although it has many intelligent parts. The organization does have its logic; it operates and changes according to some rules and certain clock, but those do not resemble anything like you and I operate as individuals or as small groups. Certain practices that may appear as absurd, stupid and even evil, in fact may be artifacts of the internal logic of the organization animal. This is not to say that absurd, stupid or evil things do not exist; they are just much rarer than some people imagine.
An example may help to illustrate my point. Just a couple of weeks ago we discovered that the proposal for the new practicum pay developed late last Spring actually has no funding attached to it. Implementing it fully would put the School some two hundred thousand dollars in the red. We cannot allow this by law; RIC’s budget must balance. Why the fiscal analysis was not done at the time? Very simply, the organizations did not have a clear rule on who and when would check the cost of such a policy change. Several people involved were all assuming that other parties are responsible for checking and as a result, no one did. It’s like an animal without the sense of smell cannot be blamed for missing a stinky warning. Of course now after this experience, it will grow a nose for the future. Just as an aside, adding more organs does not necessarily improve the beast’s agility. Too many checks and balances can be as bad as too few. Simplicity of operations has its own value and its own cost.
Now, the proposal was approved, so department chairs have done the incredibly complex work load assignments under the new set of rules. Then the new Dean came in, and he is a bit jittery. Understandably, he does not want to screw things up in his first year, so he starts running some spreadsheets, and discovers the lack of funds. Here we have a typical organizational dilemma: on one side, there is a legitimate (and mostly fair) decision, on the other side, it is impossible to implement. The easiest thing to do would be to find money to honor what was agreed on. However, the organization has its cycles and rhythms, which, I remind you, are nothing like the human clock. The new budget year has begun, and to increase one unit’s budget would mean literally cutting someone else’s budgets. It could be done with advanced warning, but doing it in a matter of a week is impossible. It is like expecting an elephant to climb trees: perhaps an elephant would like to, but it is not an issue of will.
The solution we finally found is neither perfect, nor is it generous, nor inexpensive. It is a compromise, which still carries a considerable risk of overspending our budget. If you just see it, it may make little sense. For example, we had to take into consideration the exact title of the course as it shows in the catalog. Titles have little to do with the amount of work and therefore, with the expected compensation. Yet the animal has a set of organs related to the contractual obligations. Just think of it as high pitch sound; you cannot hear it, but your dog can. So, your dog’s behavior may make little sense to you, but the dog knows what it’s doing.
I am not writing this to somehow ridicule organizations and this organization in particular. To the contrary, I grew to respect the organization animal. Some are more evolved than others, but in the end, they remain a species profoundly different from their human creators. Our ancestors had to learn to cope with their natural and social environments; sometimes they tried to curse or bribe rain or sun, but it usually did not work. Adapting worked better. For example, living in a desert with a small band of hunters and gatherers is very different than living in a traditional village or a city; you just need to know how those settings work. Organizations are an important part of our environment, too. If you want to improve them, you need to understand how they work, where their strengths and limits are, and what kinds of things they can and cannot deliver. I am not calling for passivity or accepting things as they are. There is no great mystery to an organization. This was just a case against the anthropomorphic bias. Don’t like how your organization works? Don’t get mad, figure out how it can work better. 

Aug 6, 2010

Knowing what we have

It is very easy to see the threats to RIC. The policy winds are a-changing. Undergraduate enrollments will decrease because of the push for selectivity. Graduate enrollments react to lack of incentives for educators to get a masters degree. The national climate is also unfriendly to schools of ed, and the word “alternative” seems to indicate something good, regardless of its actual quality. The pressures are real, and tangible.
It is very important though to not overlook what we have. A sober and critical inventory of assets is crucial in any sort of transformation. It’s the set of card we are dealt with; important to know the weak ones, but even more important to see your trumps. One is the large base of loyal customers, if you pardon the business expression. Our students, current and alums, seem to genuinely like RIC, and their experience here. They are treated well, learn from competent faculty, and remember their years here fondly. It is huge, and not very easy for anyone else in the State to match. If we can come up with very attractive, well packaged graduate degrees and professional development ideas, and they will buy. An outsider, for example, will have a hard time selling on-line and hybrid programs to Rhode Islanders, but RIC is the name many of them trust. Of course, we don’t have a particularly strong expertise in that area, but it can be built – there is no secret in how to do it.
It is the same with professional development. Only if we learn to present and package the expertise we have to offer, school districts will use us. Why? Because we can do it at lower cost than out-of-the state consultants, and because many of the people in school district offices are our graduates.
Of course, we’re not popular with everyone. I suspect a portion of educators, especially those in top leadership positions, may not be our graduates, and may not think much of us. They think RIC is a bit old-fashioned, and is not offering the cutting edge education anymore. Some of this maybe well deserved, while some is just innuendo based on myths and no facts. Some examples where it may be deserved: we do need to teach our graduates how to work with data, and how to interpret contemporary assessments the professions actually use. We do need to catch up with the K-12 accountability reforms and methods. Examples of innuendo: your faculty are out of touch with schools; you should do more field experiences. We do not always present our best side to the public, and may not support high-visibility and high-risk initiatives. But that can be reversed in a relatively short time. And let’s be realistic, some people will never ever like teacher education, just because our very existence is contrary to their narrow ideological point of view. However, most people are not like that; most are pragmatic. If we offer something of value to them, they will come to appreciate us.
We also have a full-blown clinical model of professional education. AACTE is trying to toot is as something new, but it is not, at least not new for RIC. All our programs have very significant and rigorous field components. What is most important, practically all our faculty members spend significant time in the field. They can never be accused of being out of touch with their respective professions. We have thousands of personal and professional connections with practitioners. The social networks are a highly valuable asset. Private companies spend millions and millions trying to get the kind of informal networks. I wonder if there is a way to use technology to help those networks to connect with each other. But even as is, let’s not forget we have that in our possession. When we’re ready to market something, I will ask all faculty to give a few phone calls to their teacher and principal friends. It works much better than an ad in a newspaper.
As far as I can tell, we also have a good work ethic centered on students. That is an important asset, which really is the main source of the other. We need to preserve it by recognizing great teachers and advisors, by creating intolerable conditions for slackers, and by just taking pride in being there for our students. We need to protect people from burn-out, create spaces for informal conversation, creativity, and scholarship.
To review, our major assets are four: a loyal customer base, the clinical model, social networks, and the work ethic.
There are other things: we have about the right size, an OK physical plant (I know, needs sprucing up, but believe it or not, the bones are not bad). We have good people in charge, both on the administration and on the union side; competent support staff, and no major conflict on campus. Let us also remember that RI is not defunding us at the same pace as some other states do. It looks like we still have some public support and friends in the General Assembly.  
So, let’s start with laying out our weapons and ammunition, like in that archetypal American action movie scene. We’re definitely well stocked; just need a plan. Remember how they always design a clever plan and it is not disclosed till the battle scene? That’s what we need. 

Jul 30, 2010

Simple Math and the Curriculum Creep

Formula Load Hours (FLH) seems to be the currency of this realm. The union has negotiated 12 FLH for all faculty, plus “other professional responsibilities” such as service, advising, etc. In addition, just our School reassigns the total of 309.5 FLH in the next academic year from teaching to other things, such as research, coordination, and various worthy projects. In a series of very interesting conversations, I was trying to figure out the logic behind the reassigned time and FLH we attribute to various courses. At RIC, we often give students 3 credits, but pay faculty 4 or more FLH for teaching the course. How do you know what project or course is worth in terms of time? I was looking for some underlying simple math that makes those things fair and equitable. What I am trying to avoid is the individual bargaining – I will do this for X FLH, but not forY FLH. Why? - Because in academia, everyone without exception is working harder than the next person. This is just how it is; we all are acutely aware of our own work, because we’re doing it. The other people’s work seems to be much smaller, no matter what. It is one of those existential biases we have by the virtue of being human.
Anyway, several people, quite independently of each other, have proposed this underlying math: a regular course is about 3 hours a week, for 15 weeks. So reassigned time, or more demanding field hours courses should be measured like that, too. If you can show 45 hours of work over the semester, it is equal 1 FLH. Makes sense? Not really. One thing about simple math – it runs in all directions. For example, the total load is defined at 12. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument, “the other responsibilities” amount to another 3 FLH. If you equate the FLH with 15 clock hours (one hour per week), this mean you’re only expected to work 15 hours a week. Imagine a headline in ProJo: “RIC faculty members admit their work week does not exceed 15 hours!” And then try to fight the public perception. Of course, it is not true, and everyone works much, much more than that. In fact, an average faulty member works 50-52 hours per week, with tenure-track but not tenured people working 52.5 hours. I would not be surprised is RIC faculty actually worked more than the average, because we’re a teaching-intensive institution, with very dedicated faculty. Each hour in class needs at least a couple of hours outside of classroom: developing syllabi, assessments, and teaching tools, grading, communicating with students, individual work, collecting data for accountability, etc., etc. There is no end to it, especially for someone new to the job, or someone developing new courses.
So the simple math should go more like this: my teaching takes at least four full days a week, and the other responsibilities take the fifth day. 15 FLH a week mean I work about 8 hours on each 3 FLH. Therefore, to be reassigned for 3 FLH, I will have a project worth about 15 full days, or 120 hours.
What we do is very hard to measure accurately. And the last thing faculty want to do is to become card-punching, log-keeping been counters. But some kind of a simple math underlying our reasoning is helpful I am not saying my math above is good or workable. The point is more basic: we do need some basic rationale for all these negotiations. One reason I enjoy working in higher education is that rational argument usually wins. I like to be persuaded by reason, and I like to persuade others the same way.
We also need to make sure our programs are sustainable. For each little bit of faculty work, there should be a clear revenue stream. There are two reasons for that.
  1. We cannot pile more and more work on students without having their currency of the realm – the credit hour – reflect the actual work load. That is what I would call the Curriculum Creep. Everyone thinks students need to know more in one’s subject, so we add and add. But then students cannot do the work, because their week is too full. As a result, the general quality of their training dilutes, and we achieve the opposite realm. Does anyone still expect two hours of home work for each credit hour in class? Really? The real solution should be like with the Federal Budget: pay as you go: a. no extra work is added without extra credit hours; and b. no credit hour is added without cutting it somewhere else. If this means a little turf war, fight the war, and find a rational argument to convince faculty in other parts of the program that your course is more valuable.
  2. We cannot kill the College’s budget by the death of a thousand small cuts. We make many small deals, and bargain for getting paid a little more, because of the curriculum creep. We start doing it on our own, because we care about students. But then at some point, it becomes simply unbearable, and we revolt and demand more pay – we forget that we created the situation, and just crave for justice. But then at the end of a year, those people who are responsible for the entire budget, take a look at the numbers and realize, there is no room for salary raises, and we do need to raise tuition. So, students who we were going to protect by not charging them enough, end up paying anyway. By haggling over a tiny pay increase for a small group of faculty, we may damage the chances of real increases. In the end, higher education is not exempt from the larger economic trends. Either we figure out a way of controlling our cost of doing business, or taxpayers will revolt.
I use the first person plural, because I have done all those things, and did not see them till I went to the Dark Side. So, this is the Darth Vader speaking; can you hear the heavy breathing behind the mask? And by the way, don't take this as a sign that I don't support the revision of our compensation for practicum courses. I really do and have been spending a significant portion of my time (I'd say about 1.25 FLH) trying to figure out that puzzle. I am very hopeful we can announce something next week.

Jul 23, 2010

How do you know what you want?

 It was a third meeting with various techies people today on how we can have a direct control over the School’s web site. what do you want to be on the site, -- I was asked once again. That reminded me one of those long and interesting conversations people have at conferences. My friend Bing and I were thinking about the connection between desire and cognition: How do you know what you want? How do you learn about your own wants and preferences? It is not really that simple; we are not born with a set of preferences; we both discover and define them from experiences.
As I am trying to figure out ways to work at RIC, the question comes up in many interesting forms. For example, what I really want is not having to express my preferences to the web master. I want us to change things quickly, to experiment, and to collaborate. By putting forth a specific web site structure, I would limit the ability to change it later. This is true for every choice we make: choosing one door closes many others. Another example: I needed some data exported from PeopleSoft. It was something simple, like a report on faculty loads over a few years. While the data was provided to me quickly (beautifully presented and formatted) I really wanted more – an ability design and run this and other queries on my own, whenever I needed. Ideally, we should be able to pull some numbers while talking to someone on the phone. In other words, what I want is to want many different things in the future.
But of course, it is not so simple. We have a centralized way of publishing the College’s web site for very good reasons. Such a site looks professional, consistent, and is quite accurate; it was designed in response to a chaotic situation in the past. If you let everyone run with their own sections of it, the site gradually deteriorates and will include dead links and inaccurate information. I don’t want that to happen either. The complication with our desires and preferences is that we have conflicting ones. Moreover, we very often want things that are bad for us, because we cannot imagine consequences of our choices. This is why the social world is full of tension: we must constantly check and balance each other’s desires. To put it simply, we cannot always get what we want. I am not someone who easily takes a no for an answer; I will keep pressing the issue until the reason for the no is very clear, rational, and considers all possible solutions. However, it is very important to not miss that point where a tentative and ephemeral no becomes a substantial no with which one must agree because it is consistent with other things one wants. Just want to let you know – we’re not there yet with the web. I still want the direct editing privileges; just don’t know how it could be done.