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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.

1 comment:

  1. As always, insightful and honest Sasha.
    Einstein said it really well:
    "Not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted counts."