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Jan 25, 2013

The Age of Flexibility

Our programs developed in the era of oversupply of candidates. At stake were both quality and crowd control. We designed rules and policies, in part, to keep someone out. In most cases, it was because their academic background or dispositions were not right for the profession. But we also wanted to know if the student can follow a few rules, and if they could not, that did not speak well of their organizational skills.

The two functions – the quality control and the crowd control – got intertwined in interesting and sometimes problematic ways. For example, some of course prerequisites have firm academic grounding, because students need skills from the course A to be successful in the course B. But in other cases, it was simply a way to sequence a program, to screen out enough students early enough, so more advanced courses that require much personal attention do not get overwhelmed with too many students. And of course, most instructors want to work with more advanced, more mature students, and want someone else to work with younger, more numerous, and less prepared ones. Therefore the clear statement “they need specific knowledge and skills to take this course” has been gradually replaced with “they are too immature to take this course,” or “it would be better if they took three other courses before.”

When we had the large numbers, the excessive harshness was at least somewhat justified. After all, we wanted the most persistent and the most dedicated students. However, with smaller numbers, our requirements suddenly become even harsher. We cannot offer courses every semester, and cannot offer multiple sections of them. Suddenly, more and more students get stuck in sequences of courses or schedule conflicts. So the numbers dwindle even more, and the whole ecosystem is ratcheting itself down. I am not sure this systemic feedback loop is visible to everyone.

I was never a fan of hard course sequencing, because life gets in a way. The proportion of transfer students is steadily increasing, and those are especially hard-hit by course sequencing. The more rigidity you introduce to a system, the harsher and more exclusive the system becomes. And do I need to mention that the most vulnerable experience the unintended exclusion first? We also tend to ignore students’ work commitments and family lives. However, those are more and more important, and not exactly optional for the majority of our students. It is also reasonable to expect a certain number of errors students commit, and the imperfection of our advising support. So when one mistake throws a student a whole year back, I don’t really care whose fault it is. If we work with humans, we must build in some tolerance for errors.

It is time for a hard and honest look at our course prerequisites, and other policies. Which ones are truly academically sound, and which ones are mostly motivated by crowd control considerations? Which sequences are really justified, and which ones just sounded like a good idea back in the day? This is not an attempt to increase our enrollments, although I cannot deny I am worried about that too. But we are entering a different environment, and the systems that worked fairly well in the past may not be working as well anymore. The mantra should be – maximum flexibility without sacrificing quality.

Jan 18, 2013

Pareto efficiency and charter schools

Is there the right balance between charter and district schools? It is raised over and over again across the country where legislators of different levels consider the limits the growth of charter schools.

On one extreme of the debate some argue for unrestricted growth of charter school, citing parent choice and unrestrained competition. This in effect, may lead to disappearance of district schools, or perhaps reducing them to special service providers. I don’t believe this would be a good policy outcome. Dismantling an entire public institution is risky; it inevitably wastes a lot of resources invested in it. There is also something to be said about having the provider of the last resort. The district schools do not close, accept all, and provide safety net if charter or private schools close. Additionally, district schools provide competition for charter schools in the labor market through the conditions and pay levels of their unionized labor. Without them, charters would be tempted to keep down pay and increase work day. The district schools are better at delivering some services that require significant concentration of resources (just a few examples would be severe and profound disabilities, athletics, career and technical education). Larger districts may be better at providing teacher induction and professional development; they tend to have better facilities. There is also a theoretical argument against viewing education as a market of consumer goods.

One the other extreme, there are people who say that charter schools should be completely abolished, for they drain resources from districts, and in effect remove the best students, leaving only the neediest in districts. That is also not a positive policy outcome, because the proposal addresses none of the benefits provided by charter schools. Good charter schools provide better alternatives to families. They are also intended as laboratories of innovation, and many do innovate. Charter schools provide an important pressure for district schools to innovate or lose students to competition. More broadly, our educational system becomes more and more heterogeneous, splintering further and further to serve different needs of various populations. It now included district and charter public schools, a number of schools of choice within districts, parochial and secular independent schools, homeschooling, and online schools. It is more than likely that district schools will have to learn to co-exist and collaborate with all of those forms of education. In many instances, charter schools can serve special populations much better than the district schools (young parents, the deaf and hard of hearing, for example). In any case, it would be an extremely poor policy to eliminate already existing and effective schools. As I said to one of charter school principals recently, don’t let any of my doubts prevent you from actually giving good education to even one child.

The question of the right balance is then not trivial. Is there a point of no-return, after which a public district will collapse under the weight of its obligations and diminishing resources? I am not aware of any scholarship that helps answering this question, nor do I think we have precedents where that actually happened. Finally, the answer may be very different for a large public school district and a small one. While it would be tempting to suggest a specific number (10%? 40%) of students to be allowed into charters, I don’t think anyone really knows. It is important, however to establish that a question is answerable, before trying to answer it.

One possible principle to apply here is what economists call the Pareto Efficiency. It is basically, a situation where no one can be made better off without making someone else worse off. In other words, the ideal Pareto balance is when not one more student can take his or her funding into a charter school, without damaging the remaining district students’ chances to get good education. But even to begin to talk about the Pareto balance requires a common understanding of the end game. If we only agreed that both charter schools and district schools are here to stay, then our contentious conversations would move from the realm of politics to the real of policy, where they belong. The Pareto efficiency may not lead us to a universal answer, but it can be an important way of considering evidence. For example, when debating adding another charter, we can ask – what will happen to the district if another 200 students left? Not in theory, not in the realm of abstraction, but specifically? What effect it will have on finances, staffing, facilities, etc.

Jan 12, 2013


This last week, I had some chance to work through a few computer-related problems. One was designing a form in Word, another had to do with a malfunctioning Survey Gismo instrument, and the third – with layout issues for the Syllabus journal.

To you understand the nature of the thinking machines one has to appreciate their enormous limitations and their profound advantages over us. The same works with dogs and children – you need to see clearly where are the limits of what they can possibly do, but also where can go much farther than you. Software is a creature, and the intelligence and errors of their creators is constantly visible. Of course many people that dogs and children are similarly created, but even if it is true, their creator would be so profoundly different from us that we can have no idea what he was thinking. Software is written by someone like us, which makes reading the intent possible.

Computers are ultimately predictable. There is always a solution. Dealing with machines, you will not be faced with the profound mystery of the naturally evolving universe, or with unpredictability of human behavior. Machines do not yet have their own will, interests, and rights. They don’t have moods, tempers and mid-life crises. But they are also profoundly autistic and cannot understand our language, our emotions, or read our simplest intentions. Communications have to be in the language they are able to comprehend. Like savants, computers have incredible memory and a gift for crunching numbers. They don’t get tired of endlessly repeating the same task a million times. And yet their intelligence is so limited that they cannot recognize the simplest patterns in the world we occupy.

The only way to be on good terms with computers is to enjoy tinkering. Many people tinker. All good teachers constantly tinker with their courses. Gardeners tinker with plants and soil. Tinkering is really experimenting with something of which you have no deep knowledge. Most of us will never become software engineers, or understand how computers actually work. But tinkerers acquire a different kind of knowledge, an intuitive sense of what’s working and what’s not; what is achievable and what is unlikely to achieve. It is understanding without really understanding. Tinkerers develop their own metal maps of whatever they tinker with, which have little resemblance of the “real” maps the creators used. I tinker with software, and you may tinker with old cars, but I recognize the kindred spirit. 

Tinkerers of the world, unite!

Jan 4, 2013

The rule of rules

Here is an existential question for you: how do you know a policy exists? In what sense does it exist? Does it exist because we have been applying it before? Where is the line separating policy from custom? Does a policy have to be written somewhere, and where exactly (the catalog, the website, a program advising sheet, a syllabus, scribbled on someone’s notebook)? Should a rule have a traceable history of adoption? If no one can remember the reason for the rule to exist should it still be enforced? How do rules die; does someone kill them? Who has the authority to establish and to abandon it?

Anyone who knows anything about organization theory will find these questions familiar. For people who learn to work in and manage organizations, the most difficult mental shift is to recognize that the organization is an entity of its own, separate and distinct from the people that comprise it. In a very real sense, rules and policies do exist. It is equally important to recognize that their existence comes in different degrees and forms; their lives are weird, messy, and often unpredictable.

In this office we deal with rules every day. Thankfully, none of our decisions are about life and death, but they do involve real people, their careers, their money, and the potential impact they will have on their students and clients. Many of these decisions have to do with interpreting the rules and policies. One typical decision goes like this: do we let someone to continue in one of the teacher preparation programs, or do we enforce a rule to the fullest extent? A policy is a rule with a specific intent, a rule that hopes to achieve a specific objective. And this is why policies contradict each other – their intent is different (not necessarily because some rule-making body screwed up, which also happens). For example policies that protect student rights conflict with those that protect the right of their future students and clients to have a qualified teacher or counselor.

The rule of rules is this: Interpreting rules is an exercise in ethics. Sometimes people invent rules to relieve themselves from making a hard decision. In a way, every policy indeed is designed to make an automatic decision. So when someone’s GPA is lower than we demand, we can just say, sorry, rules are rules; it is not my call to make. A policy separates decision-making from context, both for efficiency reasons and for considerations of fairness. Yet it is very important to recognize that such automatism has very clear limits. First, it is because very few policies are intentionally designed to have no exceptions. Second, because there is almost always a counter-policy that may or may not overrule the one in question. And finally, no policy can force one to act unethically. A little unethically – yes, but totally wrong, no. For example, we may have a rule that is unenforceable because of the technical error we made. So we let a marginal student to go on. It is not a big deal, because we don’t know for sure how good or bad a teacher she or he will finally make. However, if I see someone I am reasonably sure will not ever be good, no policy flaw or past errors will prevent me from using the full arsenal policies, or even making new ones to stop this person from ever entering a classroom full of children. I may fail at the end, but not for the lack of trying. Another way of putting the rule of rules is this: rules are important, powerful, dangerous, but only means to an end.