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Jan 29, 2011


A couple of programs are thinking or already started to re-map (sequence) their curriculum. These are critically important tasks, which I will support very enthusiastically. Every program should consider doing something like that.
Curriculum drift is quite natural; it is actually an evidence of a healthy program. When programs are designed or redesigned, there is usually a broad agreement on what should be taught in each course. However, people tweak their courses, change them a little, improve, and try new things, as they should! An unintended consequence of it is that curriculum pieces drift apart: gaps and redundancies form, expectations begin to vary, and program coherence deteriorates. Fractures appear between core course, and even among several sections of the same large course. Individual courses may actually improve with time, but the program as a whole may suffer. For example, students would read the same book two or three times in different classes, but never learn other important texts or concepts (everyone assumes they learn it somewhere else). Students may hear about the basic difference between formative and summative assessments three or four times, but never actually manage to build or critique either. Lesson plan formats is another drift-prone entity. There are dozens of them around, most are not substantially different from each other, but have different structure and look. Yet every instructor has a favorite, and student never have a chance to improve on what they have already done in a previous course.  I observed very similar concepts to be sometimes called differently in different classes, so students do not see the connection, and cannot build on existing knowledge. A group of students told me that in their various practicum courses, one may get no experience working with small groups of kids, or miss the on-on-one tutoring, depending on which individual instructors happen to teach those. We may have two sections of the same class, but field component in one is twice the size of that in the other.  A student may write three substantial papers in one section, and none in another.
The only way to fix the curriculum drift is the academic housekeeping; really routine maintenance. It is not a big deal if done frequently, but as it is the case with any maintenance, defer it and problems accumulate. Ironically, most accreditors miss the curriculum drift entirely; curriculum cohesion is not on their radar screen. They would only request one official master syllabus – who has time to read them all? But we should mend and align our programs anyway – it gives students better experience, and makes them more effective teachers. We also look a lot better in our students’ eyes, if we act collectively. Our professional judgment is the biggest accrediting body.
There are several ways of curriculum alignment/sequencing. One can just collect all syllabi and map what is being taught now. Gaps and redundancies would become visible. Here is an example:
Main texts
Key concepts
Key assignments

A teacher preparation program, together with major is probably about 40-60 credits, or 12-20 courses (depending on how well the major is integrated with the pedagogy cycle). But completing the table is a lot of work, and syllabi are always imperfect reflections of reality.
Another way of doing it is taking programs apart, and sequencing, for example, literacy cycle in Elementary, or the Foundations cycle (Ed Psych, Social Foundation, generic methods, content methods, etc.)  in Secondary. It is much more feasible, for you could have 4-5 people around the table, rather than 20.
And finally, faculty can just start with not what is, but go straight to what should be, skipping an entire time-consuming step. It would be the same, or a similar table. Identifying a few cross-program curriculum threads, as well as common expectations is the essence. Some ideas and concepts are course-specific; only a few can be managed to go from course to course and develop. And those are not necessary global ideas, but also very simple things like the lesson plan format or a writing rubric everyone uses. Programs do not have to get it all – just a few stepping stones to cross the creek. One interesting trick is to start with a curriculum map that is addressed to students, rather than to other faculty. It forces to use simple. Straightforward language, and encourages students to understand their own program of study, which may add a little pressure for faculty to stay within the negotiated limits.
I asked Chairs to plan departmental or program retreats and submit curriculum sequencing agendas and budgets. Perhaps we could manage to do some of this work right after the end of the school year, or right before the next one begins. When I see faculty sitting around the table and talking about curriculum, my heart sings. That is what we should e doing, not running around trying to write accreditation reports, collecting student work samples, and filling out paperwork. 

Jan 21, 2011

An incubator for innovations

My personal organizing system is fairly simple. From any meeting, I usually walk out with a piece of paper, which has doodles on one side and a list of actionable items on the other. Back in the office, I take the list of actions, and do one of several things: If an item can be dealt with immediately, I try to do it on the same day, unless it is really crazy – send an email, make a phone call, or ask someone to perform a task. If it is important, I try to create an Outlook task with a reminder. Items that require a longer process are moved on my to-do list, next to the monitor. Other actions, after consideration, are ignored as not worth pursuing. After all that, the piece of paper goes into the recycling bin, which is very satisfying. Whatever comes to me through e-mail follows the same logic: messages sit in inbox until they are processed in one of the same way. If I am waiting on a reply, they go to the “Waiting” folder.
Yet there is a class of things on my lists that are very difficult to process. Those are ideas that cannot be acted on, but interesting enough to not throw the paper away. They either come from whoever I meet with, or they occur to me during the conversation. Here is an example. One of superintendants I met with last week, said that our student teachers should think about how they can be useful in the schools of their placements. For instance, they can share some new technology, or a new science lab experiment, etc. Now, that’s a very interesting thought. What if we asked student teachers to prepare a presentation for their cooperating teacher, and perhaps for other teachers in the school. Something that could be valuable in the process of a regular peer—to-peer professional exchange? A professional development requirement? The problems are a ton: we already have too many requirements, there may be no chance to present it at school, etc. Yet the potential payoff could be significant – our partners might develop an expectation that RIC students always come in with something new to share. That would change s lot I our relationship.
Another superintendant asked if we can offer a data literacy workshop for teachers – how to read and interpret assessment data, and use it in the new teacher evaluation system.  That’s not a new idea, but it made me thing that someone  could offer the simple service of taking someone’s data and making it digestible with summary tables, graphics, and interpretive statements. Can our School serve as a think tank for the local schools? We have plenty of people who could do it, but no organizational way of processing such requests. Anybody wants to set up a small business? There will be demand for sure.
Those are just two small examples. The point is – we all probably have these ideas that are too vague and unproven to be immediately evaluated and converted into actions. But they may be promising enough to keep them alive. That’s my question for today – how do you keep them alive? How do we let them grow, incubate them, give them a chance to prove their worth? Innovation is really a systematic process – ideas have to be invited, collected, supported, nurtured, and examined; most of them would have to be rejected. But a small percent could turn out to be very fruitful. And there is always a chance that one of them will change everything. One of my fellow Deans said we need a system to incubate new programs, especially those crossing the boundaries of Schools. That’s a great idea; we also need an incubator for ideas.
Anyone, an idea about what to do with all the ideas? 

Jan 13, 2011

On planning

How much of long-term planning should we do? On one hand, it seems silly not to have a strategic plan of some sort. And the School has developed a good one before I came on board. On the other hand, things change faster that we can say “strategic plan.” For example, the School has planned to develop new graduate certificates. However, the suspension of I-Plan and uncertainty about the future certification made these efforts much riskier. Another example: we spent an extraordinary amount of time trying to synchronize the national accreditation visit with the State approval process – only to discover that the latter is suspended. We need to be flexible and opportunistic, especially now, when the whole profession is in flux, and our future is uncertain.
Here is another consideration: how much should the big plan change with the new Dean? I find all the ideas laid out in the plan sensible, but what should I do if I see a different set of opportunities, and perceive different things as priorities? What if I don’t believe certain projects will work out? What if I have certain expertise that can be used, and lack some other expertise, and the combination does not quite fit the plan neatly? It does not seem like I should hide any ideas and misgivings; I was hired to think and lead, not to just accept and follow. However, the last thing I want to do is to damage something valuable, or overwhelm people with changes.
I don’t want to be all philosophical and contemplative; this is just a request – do let me know if you think I am neglecting something important – either from what was planned, or something that just came up.

Jan 7, 2011


OK, it’s time to get proactive and define our own destiny. The public wants us to do that, our profession has moved and our partners in the State expect us to define how exactly we are going to improve quality of teaching. I believe we should build a coalition of various groups, and identify a specific agenda for teacher education in this State. Here is a rough draft below, developed with input from PC’s Dean Brian McCadden and URI’s Director of Teacher Education David Bird. I am calling on faculty members to organize and think about what we need to achieve. I don’t care if the draft below would change dramatically. As long as we have a short least of achievable objectives, and get our partners to join us, we will be in a good shape. The goals should be few, very realistic but still aspirational, and be placed in the context of the national and professional conversation. We need to get a clear vision. Let’s just do it!

VISION 2020: Goals for Teacher Preparation in Rhode Island

Teacher preparation institutions are inviting K-12 and community partners to develop a common vision for teacher preparation. We want to bring together the State’s educational reform agenda and the latest thinking in the teacher preparation profession to create a partnership dedicated to building innovative and comprehensive state framework for teacher preparation. We are inviting others to provide input:

1. Teacher candidates will be
o Recruited primarily from the top half of their class
o Required to demonstrate competency in all key teaching skills
o Will be licensed when they can prove impact on student learning
o Followed by their teacher preparation programs into the first years of teaching for mentoring, support, and research

2. K-12 Partners will
o Play a major role in designing teacher preparation programs, their assessments, and outcomes
o Take part in evaluating teacher candidate readiness
o Be supported and encouraged to play an active role in teacher preparation
o Help provide data on teacher performance to teacher preparation programs

3. Clinical instructors will be:
o Master teachers who demonstrated positive impact on student growth
o Specifically trained to provide coaching and mentoring
o Closely connected to full time college faculty
o Recognized and rewarded for their work

4. Teacher preparation programs will
o Implement clinically based model of teacher preparation
o Focus curriculum on student achievement
o Develop strong research components to use student performance data for program improvement
o Eliminate gaps and redundancies in programs, accommodate changing needs of K-12 partners, and reflect and surpass best national practices of traditional and alternative models

Potential Participants

What do we do next?
1. Submit your comments, suggest your ideas on this public forum. Mention your name.
2. We will set up a faculty meeting to discuss where we are going, and who else do we need on board to get there.
3. We will also reach out to other programs, our K-12 partners, and other potential players.
4. We make it an actionable plan.