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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.