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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.