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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.