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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!