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Dec 22, 2011

The treasure trough of secrets

Today was one of the rare days with no meetings, and very low flow of emails. Days like that are best used for cleaning up old entangled messes and for general organizing. It is time to look into the priority list, and pull some things from the bottom of it. It is surprising how important are some of the tasks that in the middle of a crazy semester never come up to the top of the to-do list. Here is an interesting error we make - certain tasks seems insignificant not because they are, but because no one pressures us to do them. But I venture to speculate that for some of the most important things we can do there is no external pressures. No one will pressure you to write that poem, or to read that book you always knew are important.

For example, for a long time, we all thought the assessment instrument descriptions need to be edited - both for length and for consistency. They were pretty well written originally, and therefore there were always many more pressing issues to be dealt with. So today I thought I'd bite the bullet and try to clean them up. While the result may not be impressive to any of you, I was surprised how much fun it was for me. Looking at forms, rubrics, descriptions, and trying to figure out how to make them shorter, more economical, and yet detailed enough to be useful. There is a quiet and meditative quality to this. The tiny discoveries - oh, we may not need this document at all; let's just use that one for the same purpose! - these discoveries are probably similar to those of cooking or gardening, or re-writing a syllabus. They are too small to be of importance to anyone else, and are not really worth communicating to others. But we all have those. They make life enjoyable; they constitute a small treasure trough of secrets we all carry in our heads.

This reminded me, when I was about 5, my preschool buddies and I used to hide little things - candy wraps, buttons, bids - in the playground somewhere, in the dirt. Most of them were probably immediately forgotten, but some we then remembered and dug out - for no purpose, just to know one can have a little thing that is just his, and may sometimes be shared with one or two friends.

My holiday wish to you is to have a quiet moment to remember something small that is not for sharing with others. Because there is no one to judge, you can treasure it as much as you want.

Dec 16, 2011

Neither evil nor stupid

An explosive headline today: Providence Goes to War over Charter Schools. Another bitter fight over charter schools just ended in Cranston. People get passionate about educational reform. Yet there are more and less productive ways of debating.

In every class I have taught for the last ten years or so, student are advised: "Do not assume your opponent to be evil or stupid." Indeed, if you question your opponent's intentions and integrity, why engage in a debate? Evil has to be fought, not debated. If you think your opponent is just an idiot, a dialogue is just as pointless.

A good starting point is this: my opponent has the best intentions and really believes in what she is advocating; she is as intelligent as I am. But my opponent has a different set of experiences, and access to different information, so his opinion is different because of that. My job is to educate the opponent on how the world looks like from my point of view, but also learn why and how he came to his conclusions. The point of the debate is not only to change her mind, but also to admit the possibility of changing mine.

The charter school debate is the classic example of mismatched assumptions. The whole idea of charter schools has been presented to the educational community in the early 90-s as way to establish some space for experiment and innovation. On these terms, many believed it was a good idea. However, some people started to suspect that charter schools intend to gradually replace traditional district-run public education altogether. For example, in New Orleans, 71% of students attend a charter school. Under this assumption, most educators including me would object. The question remains - what is the intent? The proponents say the intent is still the same, the opponents say the intent has shifted. The intent is very difficult to know, and consequences of public policy do not always coincide with its intent. Like any organization on the face of the Earth, charter schools want to grow, regardless of their leader's actual intent.

My objections are theoretical: Education is not a typical market of consumer goods, and consumer choice just does not work as intended there. Unrestricted choice leads to development of concentrated educational ghettos. And as the most active and engaged parents move their children and resources to charters, traditional schools will look worse and worse. They will keep larger and larger proportion of special needs, homeless, and just very poor students with weaker family and community supports. However, FSEHD partners with several excellent charter schools, and I admire their accomplishments. A good school is a good school, and all educators have much to learn from the best of charter schools. As long as they remain a relatively small player, the negative systemic side effects will not be significant and the benefits outweigh the cost. I do not know what is the proper size of charters should be within the public school systems, but definitely not 70%.

A productive debate about charter schools should assume the integrity of intentions on both sides. It also has to focus on the real issue at hand: is this a small scale experiment or an opening act of the total charterization? I think if serious legal guarantees were developed to ensure the limits of charter schools' growth, there would be less opposition. With such guarantees, a large district like Providence can afford another charter school without crossing the threshold.

Another critical point: teachers and parents from traditional schools should see a tangible benefit of the innovation and experimentation promise. The good charters create many of excellent solutions, but there is no mechanism for spreading and adopting them in traditional schools. Charters and district schools are fairly isolated from each other, which breeds mutual suspicion, and defies the whole purpose of charter experiments. This has to be a dialogue of equals, where the best practices of traditional schools are treated with the same respect as those of charters.

Dec 9, 2011

Writing shorts

Yesterday, I have written 50 emails (29 on Wd, 35 on Tue, 43 on Mn), a reference letter, and worked with two differed groups on a conference program, and on a new program policy. I also put together an application form, and made a couple of Updates entries. It cannot be all that good. In fact, rest assured, most of it was not good. Even marginally decent writing takes time. Paradoxically, shorter pieces may not need less work than longer ones. In fact, proportionally speaking, shorter pieces should take much more time than longer ones. Much of misunderstandings can be avoided if we took time with our short communications. An unclear email can open a floodgate of clarifying questions. It can also create confusion, errors, hurt feelings, and many more unintended consequences.

We write more shorts because our readers are not likely to read longer ones. I love an occasional New Yorker article because it is longer than a usual magazine piece. I am assured though that the author put hundreds of hours into developing it, so it is usually very good. But an email longer than half a page is very unlikely to be read thoroughly if at all. A 20-page policy is assured a pompous oblivion. Web sites with hundreds of pages will linger unvisited. We are forced into the world of shorts, and most of us are as graceful there as an elephant in a china store.

No one teaches us how to write shorts. It is a special skill, one that becomes more and more important with time. As the nature of communication changes, “Twitterature” becomes its own art form. It will develop its masters, its own sets of rules and its own beauty and elegance. I always require students to write longer papers, just because I want to know their thinking, and to make sure they can construct a more complex argument. But now I am thinking that we should also teach them the art of brevity. The problem is not in lack of time; it is the lack of skills. The task is putting the same amount of thought into a shorter text. English is already a very economical language, with a long tradition of economical, direct and clear writing. Yet the skill does not come by itself. We can marvel at Twain’s on-liners, or Hemingway’s laconism, and yet unable to produce anything like that.

Yesterday, the Cabinet (Monica, Susan, Karen, Eileen and I) spent more than an hour writing this one page document. And note, it went through two drafts already. Why so long? - Because writing is thinking. Language stimulates our imagination, and we are better able to imagine scenarios – intended and unintended – of a policy when we’re working on explaining it. One may believe we think first, and then write our thoughts down. This is not true, of course; no thought arises outside communication, and no thought can be expressed without interpreting. Now, is our one page an example of good writing? Probably not in the aesthetic sense of the word. But we at least walked out of the meeting with some common understanding on what we want to be communicated.

Let’s try to pay attention to our short writings. It is a matter of proportion: the author should take at least twice as long to write something as it takes the reader to read. I know – we won’t be able to cope up with student and each other’s emails, you think. But I bet we’d need fewer exchanges, if we thought a little better about the message that starts it all.

Dec 2, 2011

Negative bias or What’s good?

My work often involves thinking and talking about problems that need to be solved. As a result, the problems come up more that their absence. This creates a bias – all the good things I know tend to be less prominent; their picture in my mind less detailed. For example, a faculty member told me that she had some great students this semester, and she observed some great lessons. But of course, the reason she was in my office was to discuss one troublesome student, which we did at length. Now I know a whole lot about the one problematic student – her history, her attitude, her errors, - but almost nothing about the good students, other than they are good. After all, we don’t need to do something about them. And I don’t think it is just my situation. Most of my colleagues also tend to worry about the things that do not work; while the positive things rarely need discussion or great analysis. Excellent papers or lesson plans are just less memorable than the bad ones, because the latter contain possible clues for how to improve.

The media’s negative bias has been known for a long time: it is hard to sell good news. It is especially difficult to sell good news if they are not really news. For example, imagine a headline “America remains a democracy with functioning legal system,” or “Rhode Island’s public schools continue to accept all children.” Does not work, right? The tendency to take good things for granted is an evolutionary trait. If it is warm and there is a fresh water lake nearby, you would be wasting your time and energy constantly reflecting on how easy it is to keep warm and on the lack of thirst. All cultures have celebrations to balance the negative bias by setting aside some time to reflect on positives. All religions also make a point of thanking their gods for the blessings. But the very fact that these mechanisms exist tell us about the initial imbalance.

The problem is that we are all working a little too much, and trying to solve too many problems. The negative bias contributes to too much stress, because less and less space remains for reflecting on all good things. The traditional cultural resources for restoring the sense of balance are not sufficient anymore. This is why we should all practice a form of cognitive restructuring, or reframing. I hereby declare a new rule. Every time one of you comes in to my office, you must tell me what is the best thing that happened to you lately; describe in some detail. I will do the same when I come to you. Instead of greeting each other “How are you?,” Let’s use “What’s good?” If we start with those conversations, perhaps the problems may appear in their proper proportions, and we won’t stress over the small stuff. You can tell I am getting into the holiday spirit. It’s all the music in the mall.

Nov 19, 2011

Who is in the audience?

There is an essential tension hidden in our professional language. On one hand, every profession needs its jargon. The special language signifies the profession’s separateness, its special knowledge. Moreover, the professional language is an important claim to authority. Using common language in professional work would be exhausting, because we would need to redefine over and over again whole concepts and theories compressed into the specialized professional words. There is no legal profession without the legalese, and no medical profession without the doctor-speak. On the other hand, we in teacher education are subject to more and more scrutiny, and often public criticism. The public does not know what we do and how we do it. When criticism – fair or unfair – comes our way, the response cannot be presented in the esoteric language no one outside the profession understands. Additionally, what we always treated as our internal documents – programs, catalog entries, program outcomes, learning objectives – all of it became public, instantly available to potentially much wider audience. Our closest partner communities – teachers, principals, superintendants – are demanding their opinions to be considered in teacher preparation. And even though their own professional languages are much closer to our own, they need extra assurances that we are attentive to the rapid changes in their professions, which we serve. And finally, our own students should become partners in their own preparation. To reach out to them, we must be able to explain our purposes and processes in a language they can understand.

We still need to maintain the professional language; without it, we lose identity and dumb down our thinking. And yet I believe we are now faced with an additional challenge, a task to translate our thinking into the everyday language. I must say, we are not good at it. Most of us are not great communicators where it comes to media, and to just simply crossing professional boundaries. Look through our brochures and websites. Nowhere do we explain simply that students go through a number of practical hands-on experiences, that we evaluate and monitor their every step, or that we have an extensive set of screening mechanisms. The simplest things – like what we want future teachers to be able to do – is expressed in professional lingo that has very little meaning for a lay person. See for example, RIPTS or our conceptual framework competencies. They make perfect sense to you if you are within the field, but not to anyone outside. Just try imagine a reporter asking– what are you trying to teach the future teachers? Well, we have a set of twelve competencies, in four groups. For example, “Human Learning and Development: Reflective practitioners have a solid grounding in educational psychology, the branch of psychology that specializes in understanding teaching and learning in educational settings. They know the four pillars of educational psychology: human development, theories of learning and cognition, classroom management, and assessment.” Well, can you explain to our readers what does it mean, exactly? We can’t do that right now, nor did we ever identify it as a priority to do so.

It is important to us to become better public communicators. We need to translate our program’s purposes and practices into the regular lay language, and keep those translations not only publicly available, but also committed to memory. Our audience has expanded, and we may not have noticed.

Nov 10, 2011

On Federalism

The RIC/AFT Agreement was developed some time ago, under the assumption that each Department operates more or less independently on all things academic and personnel. This was the time-honored tradition of liberal education, with its respect for academic freedom and faculty governance. However, things have changed. As a professional school, we now have some serious accreditation, public relations, and assessment needs. In many respects, we need to operate as one unit. For example, we absolutely need to have a Unit-wide assessment system. It would really be nice (although not critical) if course evaluations became a part of that system. We need to speak with one voice on the issues of educational reform and policy. The power is in synergy and common resources. It is simply more efficient to have centralized data storage solutions. We would save time and effort by doing less manual work. It is also very important to develop a common response to the challenges and demands of our respective communities of practitioners. For example, we are expected to modernize our curriculum, to establish common admission and graduation policies, etc, etc.

So we’ve got to set up some long-term agreement amongst ourselves. This does not mean we overrule or contradict the Agreement. No, it has to be a strictly voluntary decision of every department to delegate part of its authority to the School (not to the Dean’s office). In essence, it is the federalism debate on a smaller scale.

There are two cases that brought the issue to the surface. We tried two relatively minor things: to develop a common course evaluation instrument, and to revise the Governance Document. Both areas are explicitly within the scope of authority of departments. Inalienable rights, so to speak. Perhaps naively, I thought we can just develop some drafts with participation of all departments, and then ask each department to vote to accept, and voila. Well, it did not quite work so well. Of course, departments cannot participate in their entirety in development of the drafts. Their “delegates” do not have the explicit authority to negotiate on behalf of all. The timelines are not identical. For example, three departments have adopted the course evaluation instrument, one has small editorial suggestions, and one more has developed an alternative proposal. But we cannot really take the proposals back to the departments that already approved them, and ask to vote on amended drafts. Where the documents were approved, faculty were not perfectly happy, they just decided to compromise and try it out. If you ask to reconsider, they will remember that they, too, had suggestions at the time. And if another department can introduce its corrections, why cannot we? This would create an endless cycle of revisions and counter-revisions. In fact, nothing would be accomplished at all, because faculty from one department are unable to talk directly to all other faculty. The reasoning and the rationale gets lost and misinterpreted. Basically, we have a system where each state has a veto power over any law, no matter how fundamental or trivial.

Should we write 85 papers, or can we just read the Federalist Papers? I mean, the American democracy is a mess, but it has been functioning for a very long time, and almost always better than any other mess out there. Maybe the challenge is not as difficult?

The DLC decided to develop the Charter simply because the existing governance document was a bit out of date. Earlier drafts of the Charter had some more radical ideas; they are all gone in the latest draft. If anything, it is perhaps a document that is a little thin on substance. But perhaps the real issue it needs to address is federalism within FSEHD. We do need a constitution. Some issues should still remain in the exclusive jurisdiction of departments. For other issues, we need to figure out a way of making deliberate decisions, but in a timely manner, and not paralyzed by vetoes. We need a process where people can participate and express their professional and personal opinion, and yet a process that has a beginning and an end. Perhaps we need a congress of some sort, or maybe DLC can be trusted to fulfill that role. I don’t know; this is a call for founding fathers and founding mothers. I do know that without the agreement on how to deal with disagreements, we are divided and weak, and our capacity for change is limited.

Nov 4, 2011

A modest proposal

            -By Johnathan Swift (as recorded by me)
It is a pity that the outstanding certification policy just adopted by the RI Board of Regents does not fully develop all of its brilliant ideas. I shall take one such idea and apply it consistently, with rigor and enthusiasm. The idea is to abolish requiring advanced degrees of advanced teachers, because there is indeed little evidence that said degrees improve test scores of students. It is commonly known that absence of conclusive evidence to support a claim is irrefutable evidence against the claim. For example, if you eat salad, but are still overweight, salad surely makes you fat! If you groom yourself and still cannot get a date, stop grooming and you shall attract members of the desired sex! Thank God for scientific reasoning! How shall we extend this brilliant idea further?
1.                   The proposal still requires all administrators, support professionals, and specialists to obtain an “advanced degree.” The dreadful phrase appears 18 times in the document! Surely, if it is not good for teachers, it must not be good for anyone else. There is no scientific proof that a principal or a school psychologist with an advanced degree raises children’s test scores. These degrees are issued by the same disreputable colleges caught peddling useless master’s degrees to teachers. If you have the courage to stop the fraud, stop all of it! District-directed, job-embedded professional development will naturally turn an individual into a superb principal, or an excellent superintendent! One will soak up the wisdom of being a Reading or an ESL specialist from having thoughtful conversations with colleagues, and reading powerful books. If this works for teachers, it should work for all!
2.                   No evidence exists that a bachelor’s degree causes a teacher more likely to raise student test scores. I implore the Board to exercise simple logic: A bachelor’s degree is just another pointless academic credential, a collection of seat time sold by the same despicable institutions of so-called “higher learning.” Isn’t it better to measure the effectiveness of teachers directly without regard to their credentials whatsoever? Therefore, bachelor’s degrees are unnecessary. We have the mighty educator evaluation system you all saw working so well for so long! Why certify, if we can evaluate?
3.                   And while we at it, why not abolish the very concept of the approved teacher preparation program! After all, anyone can just teach oneself to be a great teacher by engaging with great books, thoughtful conversations, and worthy examples. Even a shoe store should be allowed to train teachers, as long as they raise the test scores. If we happen to hire a teacher who cannot read, for example, well, his students will not show any growth. Within a few years, we will know that we made a mistake, chastise the shoe store, and fire the teacher. Our children are the least expensive and most convenient instruments for measuring teacher quality!
4.                   Don’t dictate what a teacher can do! You are already prepared to send elementary and high school teachers to middle schools. Let worthy individuals teach music one week, and calculus the next, preschool one year, and an AP class the next. We all know that principals possess the uncanny intuitive ability of judging every teacher’s talents just by looking at them. Principals famously have the ultimate power to hire whomever they want. You have embarked on the glorious path to deregulation that did wonders for this nation’s economy recently. Deregulate until it hurts!
5.                   Attention, the biggest fraud of all times will be exposed now. Did you know that economic research so far failed to demonstrate a convincing link between the high school diploma and worker productivity? It is not clear if schooling is simply a screening mechanism to select talent, or it actually raises productivity. Over 1000 scholarly papershave been published on the subject only in the last ten years. Still no proof! And we already established, no proof is the proof of the opposite! High school diploma is not proven to be good; therefore it is bad and must be abolished. Improve the quality of all education by not requiring it!
6.                   And finally, not even a shred of research evidence supports the claim that having a board regulating education policy has any effect on the test scores. If you abolish advanced degrees, bachelor’s degrees and high school diplomas, there will be nothing to regulate anyway! Take your brilliant idea seriously. Abolish yourselves tonight, for there is no proof you are useful!

I should like to take this opportunity to announce that the Jonathan Swift award goes to Rhode Island, the first government in the world that will improve teacher quality by lowering its expectations for teacher learning.

Brilliant, simply brilliant!

Oct 27, 2011

Dear Regents…

This is not an attempt to influence your vote, but an attempt to influence your deliberative process.

You are asked to regulate a professional community with an internal disagreement. One group of well-meaning and well-qualified people believe in A, and others believe in B. Both are committed and passionate. Who do you trust to make a decision? You do not have the luxury of time to examine the conflicting claims on their own merit. For example, RIDE believes that the certification system should no longer require professional development; it will be handled better by the new evaluation system. Others argue that this would be an unprecedented move, in sharp contrast with other states’ policies. Another example: a professional organization (RIMLE) believes teachers working in middle schools should be required to be certified in this area. RIDE staff believes these should be local hiring decisions, rather than centralized certification rules. How should such disputed be adjudicated? There are two ways, both developed within our democratic tradition.
  1. The first is to ask both sides to tell their own stories, and decide which is more convincing. RIMLE, for example, would have told you something like this: We are concerned that any middle level job opening can be claimed by any high school teacher with seniority, and principals may little say. RIDE has another story, also compelling: one district has recently decided to move its sixth grade into the middle school, and suddenly all their 6 grade teachers become unqualified to teach the same kids in a different building. The problem is that you heard the latter story, but not the former. RIMLE members cannot directly engage with the Board, and their input is actually summarized and responded to by RIDE, a party to the dispute. This is a conflict of interest. 
  2. The second way is to invite a third party, an expert who knows as much as both of these professional groups, but has no stake in the outcome of the debate. Courts do that all the time when judges and jury lack specialized training to weigh the evidence. Invite someone familiar with educational policy research from a neighboring state's university or a research center to testify. It is faster, and although you may not learn as much detail, at least you have another party checking the facts and conflicting claims. 
The same approaches can be taken with the evaluation/certification debate. Both sides are equally compelling; both can commandeer research evidence, arguments, anecdotes, and metaphors. We can (and did) debate those for hours on end, going into more and more professional nuances, imagining more and more intended and unintended consequences. Each side has its biases, and interests in the outcomes of the debate. This is why a non-professional citizen board like yours is so important; the interests of the public should be protected, and no profession should have a monopoly on running its own affairs. But protecting public interest also requires weighing in on disagreements among the professionals.

In the end, you would have to agree with one or the other side. But in a deliberative democracy, the process is more important than the outcome. And can you honestly tell what exactly does RIMLE have against the change? Do you know why do teachers object? Are you sure you understand the Higher Education community’s position before deciding it is wrong? If you can and do, cast your vote. If not, perhaps another look is warranted.


For those unfamiliar with the debate:

Rhode Island Department of education has developed a proposal to revise the State’s educator certification policy. It is due to be voted on by the Board of Regents on November 3, 2011. Many of the provisions were supported by various professional groups, but some were also strongly objected. See, for example, RIC’s Feinstein School of Education letter, and the Resolution of the Certification Policy Advisory Board. There is also the RIDE-compiled Summary of the public comments and recommendation, which in my view, does not do justice to representing the opposing arguments. The three public hearings were recorded. The controversy is mainly around three items:

  • Teachers object to the immediate link between the new teacher evaluation system and the certification policy. Union leaders and many teachers actually support exploring the idea, but feel that the evaluation system (which makes student achievement an important part of teacher evaluation) is just too new, it has not been piloted, and we don’t know if it can generate reliable data. RIDE responds that the actual decisions are a few years away, and if the evaluation data is no good, they would be the first to pull the plug on using it for certification decisions. The issue is – should the safety mechanism be statutory or administratively decided. 
  • Institutions of Higher Education object to removal of professional development requirements from the certification policy. They believe de-valuing graduate education removes an important teacher quality assurance mechanism and sends a wrong message about the value of educational credentials in general. RIDE team believes teacher PD should all be embedded into curriculum work, and is best determined locally, by principals and districts. The issues is – should teachers keep going to school, or their professional growth can be self-directed and employer-directed. 
  • The proposal keeps the Middle Level Certification area, but no longer requires teachers working in middle schools to have it. Secondary teachers will be able to teach 7-12 grades, and Elementary teachers – 1-6 grades anywhere, in any school setting. The issue is whether teacher qualifications are only age-specific, or also setting-specific.

Oct 23, 2011

What’s next?

It is hard for me to get excited at educational policy talks. A good scholarly paper makes me happy; a great story about teaching moves me. But talk on educational policy… Let’s just say, these things usually bring out a skeptic in me. In fact, I can’t remember last time it happened to me, - until Thursday night that is, when Robert Balfanz gave a talk at the RI Foundation.  I thought - these are all things I always knew to be true, but just could not say it. First, he deal with education in terms of dropout prevention. It is a much better lens than international tests. Dropping out of school is a real and often tragic event, coinciding with giving up hope to succeed. In contrast, the shrill calls for outcompeting the world through education strike the wrong note, not only because they are untrue, and are just disconnected from real lives.

Balfantz then goes into a simple line of reasoning: future dropouts can be easily identified by sixth grade, and not by test scores alone (one must consider absenteeism and behavioral problems).  Different kids may have very different reasons for falling behind, and they need a different set of interventions. There should be a better allocation of resources: some schools have much more need than others, and therefore should receive more resources. Schools alone, in the narrow sense cannot help them. While kids must all have a good lesson in the morning, there should be a second shift of adults offering rich after school activities, support, specialized interventions, and just the sense of community and belonging. All of these efforts should not only resourced (for example, by shifting resources from the justice and prison expenses), but also targeted and coordinated. Teachers shuld be closely involved with the “second shift” people. Balfantz like to use the term “engineered.” Another metaphor he uses education requires coordination effort comparable to putting together a Broadway show.
I noticed that there were no usual divisions in the room.  The approach can bring people from different camps. Teachers have always rightfully argued that schools and teachers alone cannot undo the effects of concentrated poverty, no matter how hard they try. Many educational researchers have been arguing that schools as institutions of pure learning cannot work, and need to be augmented and diversified to improve. The reformers liked that there is still measurements, accountability, clear numerical targets (the drop-out rate) which have direct economic significance. The after school crowd of course, loved this, too, for obvious reasons. This is one unique case where the idea may actually play well politically, for everyone can be (and should be) included. Balfantz’s strength is in the systems approach. He is basically suggesting we may have enough resources to significantly reduce drop our rate; all we need to do is to organize and allocate them smartly.
The national education policy since Reagan has been doing very few things, each is somewhat promising, but also so mind-bogglingly disconnected. The reform has been dominated by non-professionals, who believe in miracles, and fail to see nuances. Every time one of us in the profession tries to critique another silver bullet, they take it as resistance to change. So, they will not listen, and keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Their passionate, well-intended, but unsophisticated thinking did little to address education’s problems. A quarter of century worth of reforms has very little to show for the money. The thinking goes like this: let’s just do more of the same, and do it a whole lot harder, and for longer, and it should work. If it does not work, overcome the sabotage in the profession. It created a whole new set of political divisions which did not exist before, by asking teachers to perform miracles, and then blaming them for failure to deliver.
A platform that would reunite fractious groups of educators is possible, and it can be developed along the lines of Balfantz’s thinking. Let’s keep all the existing reform efforts. I wish some could be just scaled down a little, take less time and attention, but let’s keep them all, but find proper places.  Yes, we need a set of national standards, and better testing. Yes, we need coherent teacher evaluation systems, better induction practices, and experimental schools. But we also need to bring a whole lot of additional resources into struggling schools – social workers, community partners, - in such a way that they don’t fall over each other. We need to elevate our diagnostics (along the lines suggested by the RTI) to a more sophisticated, and yet simpler level. Let’s measure not just tests and grades, and learning outcomes, but also engagement levels, how attached kids are to schools and to the adult world. Are they fed? Healthy? Have a stable home? We need to think of a whole day, from morning to night, not just about lessons from 9 to 2.
The big task is the system building. It can be done. For example, our friends in PASA have figured out how to bring dozens of after school service providers and putting them into one schedule to serve Providence kids. Central Falls is experimenting with the Restorative justice Approach which integrates social work with education.  They are also trying to connect public schools with charter schools. There are many other examples, recent, local, but also historical, and across the world. It is important to realize that the integration work is a special kind of work. Bringing community partners, schools and social services is no small task. Someone has to develop a model for integrative, logistical services, with the use of contemporary information technologies.
If Arne Duncan was an educator, that’s what he would fund. But I don’t want to wait for another wave of ill-conceived reforms to pass. I think we should just do it in Rhode Island. 

Oct 14, 2011

The capacity for change

We had an interesting discussion today at the TEIL meeting. Why is higher education so slow to change? What we realized is that the best side of us is also the worst side. As an industry, we have some of the most educated, most dynamic workforce. Faculty are trained to be critical, thoughtful, inquiring. This very advantage makes many changes on campuses almost impossible. The minute one small group comes up with an idea, a suggestion, with a plan, other groups will immediately start investigating and critiquing. They will inevitably find flaws in it, and demand further revision. Yet once revised, the proposal becomes the subject of scrutiny by other groups, and other flaws are immediately found. Eventually, the proposal either dies, or is changed to be very similar to the status quo. Higher education is a unique system where almost everyone has a veto power. Many players can say no, but almost no one can produce a definite yes. So the odds are against any potential change. This is a matter of probability determined by cultural and organizational conditions, not a result of any special conservatism.

The other extreme is passivity, where people are disengaged, and they let administration, or a group of faculty to do whatever the want. This is not a good option either. Change can happen quickly, but first, some of it is not good (the ideas were not vetted), and there is little buy-in and support from faculty. Changes like these are easy to do superficially, but they fall victim of slow sabotage of those who consented but did not engage.

We eventually started to talk about trust, and how it is an essential condition for change. To a certain uncertain degree, we need to operate on trust, and suspend our critical judgment. For example, if we trust a committee to develop something, and then find their product unconvincing, we should make an attempt to accept, unless this is something completely unacceptable. We simply cannot develop everything by consensus. Consensus is great for fundamental beliefs and strategic priorities, but fairly counter-productive for developing specific things. Writing by committee only works when people become exhausted, and ultimately disengaged (which is the error of the second kind). All campuses I have seen often fluctuate between the two extremes of jaded passivity (usually about big decisions) and of spirited struggle (usually about the littlest things).

In most cases, our thinking should be like this: OK, you guys were asked to do something; and I was amongst those who asked you. I was also asked for input, but sorry, did not have time to provide much. OK, now you produced something that, frankly, is not that great. I would do a much better job, no doubt. But hey, I was not on that committee; I did not hear all the debate and compromises. I am talented, but busy. Well, OK, perhaps my version would be just as vulnerable as yours. Can I live with what you produced? Is this against my core professional and ethical beliefs? - Not really. Is there ill intent behind this? - Probably not, just benign incompetence. So, I can’t do everything myself, so let’s try it. Next time, I‘ll get on that committee and get things right.

Oct 7, 2011

The human factor

It is a gorgeous Fall Friday, one of those days that can put one’s senses in the state of hyper-alertness. Certain smells, shades, and views bring out misfiled, but never quite discarded memories. This is all I want to think and write about.

However, I am still at work, so these are my five cents on the new teacher evaluation system that RIDE is implementing this year. None of this is news to them; I have had many opportunities to share my thoughts with the RIDE team members responsible for this impressive project. I am writing as a concerned friend, not as a disengaged critic. It does have a good potential, and I wish it very much to succeed.

The main idea is to use the value-added model to evaluate teacher effectiveness. In other words, if your students show growth, you must be an effective teacher; if they do not, you are not effective, whatever you say and whatever your credentials are. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense to the policy makers and to the public at large. And RIDE’s statistics experts developed a very clever model that measures just the growth, not the absolute test scores, against the average growth rates in the state. There are also multiple safety checks in place for teachers not to be dismissed on accident. First, the growth model is only about one third of the evaluation; the rest is observations and professionalism. Second, you’d need to show several years of low performance to be actually dismissed. Third, you will be offered help along the way.  

There are still serious scholarly concerns about how the model is going to behave in a large-scale trial.  Most of them have to do with measurements’ stability. If you were excellent one year, but then poor in the next; the measure is not likely to be accurate. It happens more than people expect – an instrument may be tested to be valid, but after scaling up its use, or after the conditions of use change (say, from clinical to field application), it loses its reliability and validity. The non-measured, external influences may become too strong, your selection of sample becomes less random (more biased), and its size turns out to be too small. Will it happen in this case? We don’t know yet. The RIDE team has run some older data through the model, and it seems to be checking out. But no one can say it will be fine once the data is collected in the context of the high-stakes system. The math in the model is not really a problem. (Well, it may disadvantage teachers who work with gifted students – those tend to score very high on any tests to begin with, so their growth may not be as impressive. It may reflect poorly on teachers who work with students who are so low, their growth is invisible on available instruments.)

Once the evaluation system is established, people will start manipulating it, consciously or unconsciously. That pull may or may not be strong enough to undermine the validity of the central measure, but we simply cannot tell in advance. It is very hard to predict how the pressures of the new system will affect teachers’ and principals’ behavior. For example, if I work for a non-NECAP-able subjects and grades, I get to establish my own learning objectives and measure their achievement with an instrument I construct. There are very good guidelines on learning objectives, and they could be mastered, no doubt. But it takes years of trying to develop a good sense of what’s achievable, to construct a good instrument to measure growth, and people may set learning objectives as too high or too low. Every incentive is to set them too low though.

There is a comprehensive lesson observation and teacher evaluation tool developed on Charlotte Danielson’s framework. RIDE estimates a principal will spend 10 hours a year on evaluating each teacher. I think it is an underestimation, because the learning curve needs to be factored in. Coventry High School has 172 full time teachers, and Frank D. Spaziano Annex Elementary School has 8; on average 42. Even most optimistically, it adds to 420 hours, or 56 full days (if you assume 7.5 hour workday) or 11 full weeks. One third of the entire school year time is gone from the principal’s time budget, if she or he did it alone in an average school.

And then again, enter the human factor. Most of observation criteria are by necessity vague, the time is very limited, and the stakes are fairly high. From my experience, this is the recipe for the “regression to the excellent” phenomenon, which we are struggling with in teacher preparation. If you are a principal, checking 80 items within 50 minutes, and you know it actually matters, you will be tempted to evaluate everyone high, just to be safe. Then you get flat, uninteresting data in the end, where everyone is above average. Looking at the data will reinforce your low buy-in. That is the real danger. Once people lose faith in the system (even when they are at fault), their next cycle of observations becomes even less accurate. Why should I care if this does not tell me anything useful anyway? You can probably tell I am speaking from experience here. What begins a big scare ends up being a biggest joke.

Now, I don’t want any of these things to happen, and I hope they won’t. This is not a call to abandon or dismantle the new evaluation system. We should give it a very serious try, and work earnestly on using what we all learn. Expect years of finding new unintended consequences, not despairing, but fixing them all, one by one.

I do, however, believe that the timelines set by the Federal Government are utterly unrealistic. The State’s educators led by the “RIDE rangers,” no matter how competent and hard-working, simply cannot deliver a functioning evaluation system within a couple of years. It would be also absolutely unrealistic to count on that system to work properly within the next five years. So when we pin our other items on the reform agenda on this unrealistic hope, we only increase the uncertainty. For example, moving the professional development requirements from certification into new the evaluation system is just a hugely risky. We are dismantling one quality control mechanism, on pure hope that the new one will be better. Yes, the old system was not that great, but at least we know it worked somewhat. Remember American education has been slowly improving over the last thirty years by almost every measure available.

There is a huge distance between a promising idea and a working public policy, with all its underlying processes and procedures. The new evaluation system elevates the level of complexity tenfold, because of the sophisticated information technology requirements, and the number of decisions that needs to be made and recorded. One cannot expect the Great Leap Forward. Didn’t we try this before? The Goals 2000, anyone? We all remember what happened- the financial collapse, the stimulus money, the mad rush to spend it. Mistakes have been made, but they must be corrected. The sense of urgency is great, but not when it can actually make things worse rather than better.

This is not really a message to RIDE – they cannot do anything about the timelines in the Race to the Top grant, on which the entire State (with the exception of higher education) has happily signed. The feds screwed up (which never happened before, right?) We should try to persuade our Congressional delegation to work with the Federal Department of Education to allow for more flexibility.

I worry that every new failed reform undermines our collective ability to hope, to learn, and to trust each other. And we do need all of those three things to move education forward. Hope, learning, trust is what we need the most. It is easy to get cynical, and just wait for all this to pass, for stuff to hit the fan, etc., etc. That is not much of an option, really. Educators in this State have already invested an ocean of energy into the reform. Let’s just do it right this time.

Sep 30, 2011

Arne Duncan should check his facts

Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, has just spoken to release his plan for teacher education reform. Once again the plan cites the McKinsey report : “only 23% of all teachers, and only 14% of teachers in high-poverty schools, come from the top third of college graduates.” OK, let’s go to the report. It in turn, cites these numbers and the source is “Derived from the US Department of Education, NCES, 2001 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Survey.” Well, this does not shed much light on the methodology, so I asked them. But in the meanwhile, let’s look at the raw data  to see how they found it out.
How do you actually identify the top third of college graduates? Note, they don’t cite the ETS report on SAT scores, also erroneous. We certainly do not rank students in our graduating class, unlike some med schools do. The survey has only a few categories related to performance:
  • Overall Undergraduate GPA
  • GPA in Undergraduate major
  • Graduated with academic honors
  • Received incomplete grade
  • Repeated class to earn higher grade
  • Withdrew from course due to failure

What do we see? Graduates who work in Education (which is mainly school teachers) have the third highest average Cumulative GPA, the highest GPA in the major, the second highest number of people graduated with honors. They are in comfortable thirds and second quartiles on the three other quality measures. This is consistent with our data for just one institution. I don’t know if my data table will re-run for you, but you can easily rebuild it, or see my exported table.
Anyway, as Russian say “Either I am stupid, or these skis don’t slide” (Don’t ask). But I really would like to know how is it that the secretary of education finds is acceptable to cite a non-refereed source in a major policy speech, and how that source can publish data without at least explaining its methodology.

Sep 23, 2011

Do master’s degrees matter?

In the last few months, I happened to have many exchanges on this particular question. Does it make sense to require teachers to continue their professional development in a formal academic setting? Do master’s degrees or their equivalents matter? All these talks made me realize how differently people view research depending on how they perceive and understand it. In any public debate it is important to assume that your opponent is neither evil or stupid, and that differences may arise from different, unspoken assumptions, which in turn, created by different life experiences.

Those of us who struggled through a doctoral dissertation or another research project, walk away with a deep but ambivalent feeling. On one hand, we know just how messy the research process is, and how deep is our collective ignorance about the world. On the other hand, we learn to tell the few things we really do know from the mountains of common sense, nonsense, and political hype. Having a doctoral title does not make anyone smarter, but it does add both a specialized expertise and a particular ethos of looking at research claims.

For example, here is the summary of current findings, which I borrow from Dan Goldhaber and Michael Hansen’s recent article:

First, teacher quality, measured by value-added models (VAMs), is the most important school-based factor when it comes to improving student achievement. For example, Rivkin et al. (2005) and Rockoff (2004) estimate that a one standard deviation increase in teacher quality raises student achievement in reading and math by about 10 percent of a standard deviation – an achievement effect that is on the same order of magnitude as lowering class size by 10 to 13 students (Rivkin et al. 2005). Second, teacher quality appears to be a highly variable commodity. Studies typically find that less than 10 percent of the variation in teacher effectiveness can be attributed to readily observable credentials like degree and experience levels (e.g. Aaronson et al. 2007; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Third, while the evidentiary base is thin, it appears that only a strikingly small percentage of teachers are ever dismissed (or non-renewed) as a consequence of documented poor performance.

I am not going to dispute any of these. But when I read it, I think immediately: “the most important school-based factor” is teaching, yes, but the school itself is probably 15-20% of influence over student outcomes. The rest of it is the social circumstances, so why are we focusing so much attention and money on the 15%, while almost ignoring the rest: early childhood and expanded learning programming, and taking care of children’s nutrition, health, and young parent education? Even if a miracle happens and we put an outstanding teacher in every troubling school, it is not going to solve the problem.

I also reflect on how pathetically little we know about the reasons the good teachers are good. The definition of a good teacher Rivkin uses (I believe it is actually Sanders and Rivers definition from their 1996 paper) is tautological. You’re good teacher when your students progress well, this is how we know you’re good. This is more of a mystery than a finding useable in public policy decision-making. We don’t know how to predict who is going to be good, nor do we know how to improve people’s performance. We don’t even know if their success is owed to some intrinsic features of their mind and character, or to their training, or to the kind of work environment and support they receive when they start. It is very likely that a combination of all three is at work, but no one could back this up with a large-scale study. And finally, on the point that academic credentials do not predict teacher performance. I also happen to know that none of these studies so far disaggregated between degrees in education and all others. Of course, if you a teacher of Chemistry and are doing a degree in fashion design, it is likely to detract you from doing your job. But if you are an elementary classroom teacher, and you are in, say an M.Ed. in Reading or TESL, we can expect impact on student learning – no one just got around measuring them.

And that’s the problem – most people do not realize how little research is done in education. Same scholars who are now so excited about the teacher factor (economists, mostly), were commenting for decades that teaching does not seem to matter at all. It does not mean the quality of teaching was unimportant for 30 years, between 1966 (The Coleman Report) and 1996 (Sanders and Riversmpaper). The reality did not change, but our thinking has changed somewhat, and will change again. Just because no one has done a good study on measuring teachers’ academic credentials on their performance, does not mean it does not exist. It is also frustrating that much of great research that is outside of the simple linking factors to student test scores, gets no public recognition, and is routinely ignored by policymakers (just browse through recent papers of P. Grossman, D. Boyd, M. Cochran-Smith, L. Darling-Hammond, B. Floden, and many others).

But someone else looking at the same paragraph, has a very different reaction. Of course, they think, we need to find out how much student growth each teacher is responsible for, and get rid of bad teachers. Of course, they say, we need to stop requiring master’s degree of practicing teachers, because they do not matter. A similar inconclusive set of research findings exist about teacher certification, so let’s get rid of teacher training while we are at it, and replace it with short alternative training programs.

Research is a funny thing, it is double-edged. It exists to correct our common sense assumptions. However, in unskilled hands, tidbits of good research can be used to make huge policy mistakes. With the research information becoming readily available to anyone, many smart, well-intended, but unprepared people are trying to interpret it. It happens not just in education – we have millions of amateurs reading medical research, and forming passionate if not militant interest groups. Thank god, very rarely do they make a visible impact on policy.

Within the educational research community, most people are trying to behave honorably, and always disclose the limits of what we know. But their caveats and disclaimers don’t make it into the media, and ignored by overeager reformers at all levels. For example, Dine Ravitch spelled out in May of 2010 that none of the key provisions of the Race to the Top program can be backed up by research. To my knowledge, no one has disputed her claims. And yet thousands of people around this great country believe as if they are acting on a program of reforms backed by research.

We must work on reform, but only when we know our plans are going to make things better, not worse. How do we know? Research is the best option; it often cannot answer questions we are asking. The next best thing is professional consensus: it is not always reliable and subject to professional biases, but at least it provides some ways of sorting nonsense from good ideas. But we must rule out one way of reforming our education; it is when a few passionate, smart, but unprepared people misinterpret research findings and convince themselves that they know all the answers. Many of them tend to believe that things cannot get worse. In that, they are sadly mistaken. 

Sep 18, 2011

Mushroom picking in the Rehoboth forest

An early autumn day can make air so transparent, you half-expect to see the past. I almost expect to see my father, mother, my brother and me when I was five in the next clearing. The air is not thick with fragrance like in the Summer; it is colder, lighter; it breathes light covetously while it lasts. The light is different; colder and yet more penetrating, as if coming from a different direction. And the sound too has changed slightly; it is crisper and less crowded. Svetlana and I went to the Rehoboth forest; the name seems to be picked from Tolkien’s books (although it is Biblical, oh well, the same thing; the name is inviting of giants and creepy things). We went to enjoy the early fall’s air and pick mushrooms.

Picking mushrooms is a multisensory game, which very few Americans seem to enjoy. Good, more mushrooms to us! It is biologically programmed in us: walking in the woods, searching, recognizing patterns, shapes, and colors, reading tracks of looking for food. Just like watching water or fire, one never gets tired of it. And then, of course, there is the inevitable talk about which species are edible, and which are not, with touching, smelling, breaking the fungus in question. Ah, we’re two days late, and worms have feasted on mushrooms that could be all ours. We compare our respective families’ folk traditions, remember how we learned this in our childhood, and who taught us. Our fingers turn black and sticky from some mushroom juices. The dog is happy sleuthing without a leash, engrossed in knows what private doggie fantasies. 

People generally overestimate the risk of eating wild mushrooms. Only a couple of species are deadly, and those are easy to recognize. I remember colorful pictures of common poisonous mushrooms – mulhomor and poganka shown in my preschool. My mother points them out to me every time we go to the forest. Many inedible mushrooms will give you a diarrhea, or will taste bad, and not much more. Driving to the forest is a lot more dangerous than eating the mushrooms we pick, with our average Russian knowledge of the forest. I think about risks we take and do not take. I think about my own life – did I take the right risks? Too many or too few? Who knows what the right amount is? Perhaps the dog, but he is preoccupied with his own thoughts, and won’t tell.

Sep 11, 2011

I know the future

Like everyone else, I remember the morning of 9/11/01 very well. I was teaching two Foundations classes back to back; it was at BGSU in Ohio. The second plane hit the building at the end of the first class, and during the break, the scale of the event has began to sink in. I told students that if they want they can stay in class and watch the news with me, or go home. I remember telling the students that many people died today, and please think about them and their families.

Two recessions and two wars later, I keep thinking about both fragility and resilience of the human civilization, and this fine country in particular. That nine guys with box cutters can rattle it to this degree is scary and disconcerting. The fact that that the Lower Manhattan now has more businesses - small and large - than before is also quite astonishing. I just came back from the PARCC institute, where people from 24 states enthusiastically and systematically work on new common curriculum standards for children. This somehow impresses me even more, maybe because it was going on exactly ten years after 9/11.

Educators are optimistic not just by inclination, but also by job description. We do things that usually take years and decades to materialize, and we never quite know how exactly our work is going to turn out. We cannot believe that the world is about to end – according to Mayans, or if the Rapture is just around the corner. No one knows the future, except for us. The future has many names and faces; it brings us homework and asks us questions. It wants a better grade, and it cannot quite get things right away, but we can help. But it is quite real; you can look it in the eye.

Sep 1, 2011

Teacher Education Innovation Lab

Over the summer, I started to think more and more about innovation (see this June blog). One reason for that is that we failed to get ourselves into the news in any meaningful way. And it just occurred to me that we do not have any news, in the sense that the media would recognize. I also was listening/reading a lot of Harvard Business Review, the Economist, and the Financial Times, paying attention to the discourse of innovation in business. One simple lesson  learned is this: you need to actually spend time and effort on innovation, support and nurture promising ideas, kill the dead branches, and generally have a strategy. It does not happen on its own, or in occasional spurs. And we don’t have a strategy of innovation.

So, here is my plan for this year. We will have a group which I called TEIL. I only have a rough outline of the beginning – first two or three meetings; so we will spend some time talking about our own process. We start with thinking about everything but teacher education: about the world of business, non-profit entrepreneurship, politics, products, services, the internet, the social media, etc. There may be some homework here, where the group’s members will investigate a favorite company, or an organization to see how it innovates. Then we will take a very thorough look at ourselves – what do we spend our time on, how new ideas are born, introduced, how they are implemented or dropped, why and why not.  I want to talk about the quality of experience as the key criteria for improvement – our students’, our faculty and staff’s. Then we should try several structured brainstorming sessions to try to find several new ideas, especially if they fit together.

Just one example: Let’s think about the ritual. For us to make a stronger impact on our students, we need to employ what all cultures in the world do – ritual. We have a few; none is specific to teacher preparation. Why don’t we have admission to Feinstein to be a memorable event? Why don’t we ask them to take a teacher’s oath?

Perhaps at some point we will split into smaller project-oriented teams, and each team will develop a proposal, while other teams will provide feedback. Perhaps by Spring we will have a clearer idea on what innovation support structure we should have in place, and what resources we could muster to support it. By that time, we should have the Advisory board operating, and perhaps it can help by bringing an outside critical perspective. We also do need to look at a few truly innovative ideas that exist in our field today.

That’s what I have so far. Not much, I know, but this is going to be a collaborative and evolving process. How can I sell it to faculty and staff? How can I convince at least some people to come and spend a few Friday afternoons doing something in addition to their regular heavy workload? Well, only this: teacher preparation as a field has not shown a lot of innovation. We placed all our bets on the continuous improvement process spearheaded by AACTE and NCATE. While it is useful and in the long run is going to be effective, it is just simply not enough.

Another argument: I came to work to higher education, because I like to talk to people about ideas. If you do, too, sign up. You only need to make the majority of meetings, not every one of them. 

Aug 26, 2011

Google, the Big Brother

Here is what happened: Google deleted this blog, and then it was brought back from the dead within a few hours. After a half-billion settlement for advertizing fake Canadian pharmacies (RI prosecutors did the work, I am so proud), the Google team is just a tad paranoid. Who can blame them? Apparently, they now delete first, and ask questions later. My son Gleb guessed, the algorithm thought my blog was about gay porn. I must confess, I learned about all the bear connotations much later, after the blog was published for a while. I was actually going after the Cold War imagery of the Russian Bear; you know the one always invading the neighbors. But the algorithm did not know that. It happened to me before – the Providence Public Schools’ spam filter put me on their junk sender’s list, because I include the word Russian in my signature. The stupid machine thought I am trying to hook up all those fine eligible district bachelors with Russian fiancés. Thanks to Spencer, I was white-listed. Oh joy of being white-listed.

The challenge Google faces is enormous. I own dozens of documents, most of published on the web. Other people may have hundreds and thousands. The size of the Internet is approaching astronomical scale. How do you police all of that info-space, if you could be found liable for the content you host? The only way is to use the digital Robocops – computer algorithms that will kill bad blogs by the hundreds. Google’s human capacity is limited; its server space is not. It is probably cheaper to kill automatically, and then restore by hand than the other way around.

But I have to tell you, it does not feel good to be on the receiving end of the cyber justice. You want to update your blog one fine Friday afternoon – and it is just gone. Coincidentally, someone marked my Weekly Updates Google Doc as inappropriate – who knows, by error or as a prank. Maybe another stupid machine did not like a word or two in it. Now try to prove you’re innocent! The presumption of innocence does not seem to be working on the internet anymore. And the human mind is paranoid; it tends to believe the machine on the other side is just like us. Two things occurring at the same time look like a conspiracy. Am I being attacked? And then, on the same day, Google decided to check my password on the Droid phone. Well, I don’t wear reading glasses (although I should), so I simply could not see their scrambled pass code, you know the one you need to enter to prove you are human. Not fun; I must have tried a dozen times. With each attempt, I could feel how the Big Brother is becoming more and more suspicious. Each attempt made me a little more guilty. But I just could not see the damned made-up words! I had to come home, find a pair of glasses, and only then prove I am human. How did we get to the point where we must prove the machines we are human, over and over again? And since when having good eye sight has become a pre-requisite for being human?

And you want to please the Big Brother; you don’t want to offend him, oh no! Those of you who share with me the totalitarian past know exactly what I mean. You want to make sure the Big Brother knows you’re OK, while being angry more at oneself than at him . You don’t want to pick another fight with him, because those fights are just plain exhausting. You are ready to challenge him and die, but please spear me the small little every day fights, over every single little thing. Totalitarianism does not threaten; it exhausts you.

This is new, and paradoxical – Google is desperately trying not to become the Big Brother, and yet it is being dragged into the role against its will. Americans, who are genetically allergic to all these annoying things, may soon learn how is it to be watched. Life is surely full of irony. What Stalin could not do to the free word, its own technology may just accomplish.

Aug 19, 2011

The planting season and risk management

Summer is the planting season for us, college administrators. We plan, anticipate, try to see what’s coming, prepare for what we don’t see coming. Some of the seeds are easy to plant. For example, I started a whole new journal in a matter of days. It already has about half the editorial board (more people from around the world will be joining). No one knows whether this particular plant will thrive or even survive. But the idea seemed to be good, the cost is minimal, and potential return on investment can be significant. This is a no brainer, really. Another easy picking: we figured out a simple way of collecting students’ Praxis II scores and sub-scores (which we always need for accreditation and quality assurance). No one could see potential downside, and the time commitment is minimal.

Risk is best measured as ratio of investment size over likelihood of success over the potential benefit. OK, for those mathematically inclined, I*B/S, or I/S/B (I is investment, B is benefit, S is likelihood of success). If the investment is small, and return is large, even less likely to succeed projects should be attempted.

Other examples are less certain. There seems to be support for some program revisions, and new programs to be developed. These things are expensive in terms of time and effort. The outcomes are more certain – the programs will be improved, but it is never clear to what degree. The more radical is the change, the larger is our investment in development and implementation, but since the rate of return is uncertain, at some point radical changes become unwise. Now, once you tried a specific practice and found it to be both effective AND replicable, then a more radical change becomes less risky. But there is always cost to change: time we spend trying to change is not spent on tiny every day improvements, which are sometimes more efficient in the end than the large change with uncertain outcomes. However, if a program’s enrollments are dropping, or it has not been revised in 20 years, a higher degree of risk is quite justified.

This is not exactly math, because too many variables are in place. For example, I really want to start an innovation lab. Why? - Because we don’t spend nearly enough time and resources on innovation. It is not a priority for us. We may say it is a priority, but we do not act as if it were one. A real priority is something you spend a lot of time on. So, in this particular case, the investment is relatively large. I plan to spend several hours every week to work on it, and am planning to ask other people to do the same. The likelihood of a radically new and effective idea is not very high: there are hundreds of institutions just like ours, and most try something new once in a while. However, there are significant side benefits that are almost guaranteed: it is a lot of fun, and quality of work experience is going to be better for me and all those involved. Activating creative collaboration is very likely to bring better morale, better communication across departments. At the very minimum, these conversations will help us learn about each other’s work, and it is not a small thing. Even if the big idea never materializes, many small ones will be shared or created.

And one last concern: we only have so much of a garden plot; time and human resources are limited. Planting too much leaves no breathing room; we end up working too hard, chasing too many projects, and doing none of them really well. I always try to overplant just a little, because not all seeds germinate, but not too much, so we don’t have to weed out perfectly good plants. And of course, one can never plan for floods, droughts, and hail.

Aug 12, 2011

How do we really do?

As I am working on the State of the School talk for the faculty Fall retreat, some very simple questions come to my mind. The simple questions are not necessarily easy to answer. For example, how do we do? Of course, I can simply give my enthusiastic assessments, like, “The School is in a terrific shape!” Or, “The School is in trouble!” It becomes just a rhetorical choice; what do I want to do more, to raise the morale and cheer people up, or to create a sense of urgency? The choice somehow feels wrong. Mainly because my colleagues will immediately see through whichever rhetorical choice I chose. Who are we kidding?

So, how do we really do? Any time you cannot answer a question, you should step back and ask – what kinds of things would help me answer that? That’s what a researcher does, and so should all people.

So, OK, there is the court of public opinion. No one has asked Rhode Islanders what they think about RIC’s School of education. And I am not really sure if there is a good way to ask. Judging from the local media coverage, we hardly exist at all (did we try to pitch our stories? You bet). But then again, the media creates, as much as reflects, the public opinion. Judging by the Fall elections, there is a lot of good will toward public higher education among the voters, who approved some serious money for our new Art building. We are definitely lucky to have a Governor who believes in public higher education. But that’s about all we know.

Next, there is the opinion of our professional community: teachers, principals, superintendants, RIDE, various non-profits, the two State boards, etc. Again, it is hard to tell. The last thing these people want is another survey. Because I have been specifically asking many of them, here is my summary, highly unscientific: “You have good traditions, but the place is not dynamic of forward-looking.” And yet another big question – are these people right about us? I personally I don’t think it is a fair assessment. RIC as a whole is on the move, and our School is no exception. But to I know it or do I simply believe it? What’s the argument, “Yes we are, no you ain’t?” Is there a dynamism index somewhere?

External evaluators? NCATE thinks we are wonderful, for we are continuously accredited for decades. They have liked our recent report, and are coming back in November to verify it. NCTQ, on the other hand, does not think that much of us – our student teaching is rated week, believe it or not. The first is a national professional association, but have been criticized for approving not only good, but also marginal institutions. NCTQ, in my opinion, has very little research credibility, but they surely can publish sleek reports and generate publicity. The sticky pint is this: neither can actually prove that their approval means an institution is producing better educators.

How about some hard data? Our students have high GPA, pass both basic skills and professional licensure tests (some are slightly above the national average, and some are slightly below). We know for sure that our future teachers do not come from the bottom third of the class, contrary to some popular myths. They score higher, for example on SAT than non-teaching majors, have higher GPA and more honors. But still, is this good enough or what? It would be great to report that we score much higher than the national average on all licensure tests, but it is not clear if the tests are good proxies for quality. There is a lot of internal data, but none of it compares to other institutions. We develop our own measuring tools, so whatever they show cannot be used to say how well we do for sure.

And of course, there is our own self-perception. Most of us believe we are doing a good job, just by seeing our students perform, and by being tired all the time.  I, for example, always think that I was not nearly as well prepared as are students these days. But I don’t know for sure. Can one trust self-perceptions? I am sure people who worked in all of those companies that go bankrupt every year were tired, too, and believed they are doing a good job. But we don’t have market or bottom line to provide the final judgment on quality and competitiveness.

This is the age of sound bites and clips. I have no problem looking into a camera and saying,“ We are the best in the State and one of the best in the nation,”  and actually believing it. It would be nice though to add “And I can prove it to you.”  The truth is, I can’t, and neither can you, or any of our peer institutions across the country. We want to, but we cannot. The entire higher education cannot figure out a way of objectively measuring an institution’s comparative effectiveness. The US News and World Report rankings are simply entertainment: they all are based on measuring inputs, none of which has proven to affect outcomes.

In the absence of real evidence, the next best thing is to do what you and your colleagues believe is right. Whenever the belief can be reinforced with actual research, it should be. In the rest, it just an opinion. The important qualifier is this: we should acknowledge that and live with the uncertainty. If you are clear on it, it is easier to change your mind when new evidence comes in. When you deny your own ignorance, you end up defending an empty dogma.

Aug 5, 2011

The technology dilemma

In the last twenty years college campuses went through an extraordinary revolution. Here is how RIC home page looked on November 13, 1996; nothing before that survived. Anyone remembers Gopher? Mouseless Word? Registering for classes by phone?  IT departments grew in size and sophistication, the information infrastructure has been evolving, and there is no end in sight. Right now, we live through a peculiar moment, with some unique tensions. I am an outsider, not a part of the IT world, so you should not take my comments too seriously.
One relatively recent big shift was adoption of integrated data management solutions that include human resources, financial management (purchasing and payroll), records, financial aid, admissions, reporting, and almost anything else, including custom applications. There are two main competitors: PeopleSoft (Oracle) that we use at RIC, and Banner (SunGard); there are probably others, as well as home-built systems. They address the mind-boggling challenge of multiple data systems that colleges were and still are suffering from. Heroic IT teams all over this country have more or less tamed the beast, which is very difficult even with the help of either of the two commercial providers.
But here comes the dilemma. The comprehensive data management systems are so complex, you need to have specialized knowledge to mess with them. This is not just because of security (which is very important). Allowing many non-specialists deeper level of access can clog the system with repetitive and bloated quires, create redundant and improperly related fields, and generally destabilize the system. It’s like letting airline passenger kids play with flight controls. However, faculty and administrators on campuses got used to instantly available data, online workflows and forms, and functional websites. They do not understand why cannot be more of this stuff. But because everything is locked into one or two data management systems with little backroom access, all requests go to the same few exhausted IT people. They become the organizational bottlenecks unintentionally, and at no fault of their own. Of course, those on the academic side usually cannot even comprehend what sort of challenges the IT deals with, so there is often disconnect.
Here is an example. I received an e-mail today from one of our partner schools; their new hire for second grade fell through, and they wanted to find a year-long sub with permanent prospects, preferably within a few days. I am thinking, all I need to do is to export the class roster of those who did Elementary student teaching in the Spring, and send them an e-mail. One of our grads may land a great job, and we may help out a partner. OK, but the course ID number from Spring Semester is not available on schedule, at least I could not find it. NO roster can be exported without an ID. This is Friday afternoon; by the time I get someone at IT to do it, it will be a few days, and too late to be helpful. And besides, I cannot afford to spend my time, and commit the IT resources to this task. And what is frustrating – the data I need is right there; potentially at my fingertips.
Another example is the websites. They are not easy to figure out, as I have mentioned before. You need to try, to experiment, preview every step, tweak, play; it is a dynamic and highly interactive learning process. All of this is very time consuming as it is. However, if you add to the task the need to schedule a meeting with someone else (a web master), sit down and explain your needs, then check how it turned out, and ask for fixes and revisions – if you add all this, it becomes simply impossible. Most academic departments just give up; they type up whatever they need to publish, and ask these files to be uploaded. They print out handouts, and just keep them in the front office. Students come in, take them, and the life goes on. The web site in the meanwhile becomes a graveyard of past projects and old announcements that no one remembered to remove, and did not have time to update. So, students learn to mistrust the sites; they learn to come and ask someone at the office, or send an e-mail; just to make sure. As a result, chairs, advisers and secretaries become burdened with volumes of unnecessary advising, and hundreds of e-mails a day. They get so busy, there is even less time to update websites; the task becomes a chore rather than a way to communicate more efficiently.
What’s next? I am quite convinced the next will be the devolution of access. Many more people on campus will have to be able to edit websites, create queries, put together online forms, collect data, and collaborate online. There is just too much of it for a few IT types to handle, and I don’t see a sudden hiring splurge. The cycle is going to repeat itself: from chaos to centralization, and back. Hopefully, it will be done with less chaos than in the earlier age of information technology. But we need to learn to accept a little more risk in exchange for access. We also need to accept more fragmented and less coherent solutions. We must re-think our over-reliance on the comprehensive, complex, and by definition fragile informational superstructures, and look into outside providers. It is already happening, and will happen regardless of what we decide. It is much better to control the process somewhat, rather than just let it happen.
In our School we already use several unrelated platforms: People Soft, SurveyGizmo, Chalk and Wire, Google Docs, SharePoint, Twitter, Blackboard, Face book, networked drives with Access, Nabble… there may be a few more I cannot remember. They all suffer from inability to link data easily from one to another. None of the products (except PeopleSoft) are professionally designed and carefully edited. They are buggy, glitchy, have typos and possibly factual errors. But so what? The other option is stagnation, relying on the involuntarily bottlenecks, the loss of dynamism. We all did manage to use word processing, spreadsheets, email and online shopping. Now it’s time we all learn to build websites, surveys, forms, collect information, share it, and most importantly – maintain clear, simple and accurate information flow to benefit our students and ourselves. The overworking is self-inflicted; we need not to work more, but work smarter.
Technology does not move forward only. Just this week, we figured out it would be simpler and less work to collect hard copies of OPR, and have our work-studies to enter the data manually, then to train and support hundreds of cooperating teachers to use Chalk and Wire. The same goes for faculty – they all can, of course, enter the data online, but then again, perhaps they are over-qualified for this kind of work? It is still hard to take a laptop into classroom for observations, so most take written notes, and then enter on-line. It is really not hard, but subjectively may feel a little boring and unproductive. But then, others may do some thinking and writing when they fill out the form online. Anyway, there will be a choice for people and an experiment for us. 

Jul 29, 2011

All-volunteer workforce

One business writer whose name I could not track down, noted that in creative industries, we deal with what is essentially an all-volunteer workforce. What he meant to say is that to motivate people to work, he needs to create an environment where they are challenged, interested in problems they are solving, and enjoy working together. Otherwise talent just leaves and goes where it is more interesting. Or else, they stay, but you cannot make someone be creative.  It is no longer just about pay. Money is a great motivator in the industrial society, where many jobs are routine, boring, and repetitive. Not so in the knowledge society.
Higher education is a creative industry, and the same observation applies. I realized long time ago that it is very hard to make faculty do something they do not want to do. And even if I could, people are not terribly effective in such situations. The best thing to do is support someone who already has a passion for something, or try to ignite the passion for a project I find important. People also do things out of the sense of solidarity with their colleagues or the sense of duty to the institution – this is how many service jobs are done. And this is not true just about faculty – support staff is a lot more productive and effective if they see the point of doing something, and find the work somewhat enjoyable.
However, colleges are weird organizations. They have the core of highly independent and creative workforce, but also a large bureaucratic structure that is a result of the complex logistical operations and government regulations. What happened to the higher ed is not unexpected, but still a difficult situation. Many of the creative types learned to be creative alone. They select a few things that are of interest to them, their research, or teaching, or a particular community engagement. And they shut the door. They cannot be blamed for it, because collaboration with others is time-consuming, is easily marred  in politics, and just plain inefficient. I always rant about the way faculty committees often operate – meeting every month for an hour, and taking at least a year to accomplish anything.
Fun is a serious business; it is both the condition for our success and it is an important component of success. If we learn how to be creative  together, we are in a great shape. First, because we will nto only retain, but attract the best people. Second, because fun is contagious, and our students will be happier here, more self-confident, and ultimately more successful in the field. This ability to be creative working with others is not just an extra bonus; it constitutes the core of a good educator.
Fun is a difficult business. Community building is like raising fragile, delicate, and exotic flowers. Many things can go wrong, and there is no good recipe. It is also difficult because of the organizational structures in place. Most people simply do not have the time, and our schedules do not easily match. Unlike young Google engineers, most of us have obligations at home. Some have to drive for an hour to get here.
I don’t have a lot of ideas on how to get there. As I said before, we should stop doing what does not have to be done. We need to become a lot more efficient and shift all routine and repetitive work on computers. And we need to set the priorities straight: this place has to be a lo of fun to work in, and this cannot be an individualistic type of fun only.