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Mar 29, 2013

Time to transition

By necessity, I have to switch to more of a clean-up mode, trying to finish the unfinished, to put in writing what I know. There are little skirmishes we need to finish fighting, and unresolved issues to put in a more manageable state. I am trying to avoid making any new commitments and come up with new ideas because other people will have to follow through on them.

People around me are changing their strategies, too. They now think – “Oh, I have to take on this responsibility,” and this simple thought makes planning a lot more pragmatic and realistic. A few minor projects will inevitably be abandoned, because I failed to get wider support for them. The majority of traditions and initiatives were put in place long before me, and will continue to go on. And many things we started together in the last three years will continue go on without me. Someone will take the lead; they already have.

My role is changing ever so slightly. I am asked more for advice and opinion rather than for approval and for commitment. This subtle shifting of gears is very encouraging. I think I wrote about this several times, but here it is again: Administrators have to deal with the future in a little more concrete and tangible way. We always think one to three years ahead, because organizational processes tend to be longer than in the everyday life. For example, the next NCATE visit comes in 2018, and we already have a shared folder for evidence, and are building a data depository to prepare for it. But the point is – I can actually now see this future without me; the sketchy outlines of events and routines, of faces and issues, without me there. I am helping to plan myself out of the picture. It is slightly weird, like an out-of-body experience, and yet somehow also very comforting.

One thing I learned for sure – longer transitions help. We all need a little time to wrap our heads around change, to get our imagination going, and to re-map the future if it changed. When I was leaving Colorado 3 years ago, we did not have much time. I just found my previous “Leaving” blog – it was on May 7, 2010. We had enough time for technical transitions, but not for the kind of imaginative ones. It was probably a little more disruptive there. Imagination is what makes communities possible. We imagine our common past – not very accurately, but convincingly. We also imagine our near future even though it would be difficult to articulate what that is. There is the unconscious imagination that prepares the background for the story of our lives to unfold. While change is inevitable and sometimes fast, having some time to reprogram our imagination is a good thing.

Mar 22, 2013

Don’t worry, you will be fine

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, many greetings and best wishes came my way. Many thanks to all! Sometimes a little worry would be mixed into these greetings. Although I am very flattered by it, I also know that the School will be just fine, and will move forward without me. The institution is just so much larger and stronger than one individual. If I was able to steer it a little to one or another side, it is only because it has its own tremendous power. Think of it as surfing: it may look like the surfing is controlling the wave, but he is only riding it. His skill is in staying atop, not in telling the waive what to do. Of course, I have my opinions on what should be done to stay on course, and I will lay it on you, in the best tradition of the lame duck advice.

First, try to keep all the things that have been working so far. Most fundamentally, the culture of attention to teaching and to student needs is worth defending and developing. It is the School’s and RIC’s largest asset. Several traditions should just keep going – the Promising practices, the Writing Project Conference, the faculty retreats, and now the Spring Conference, the Education Day at McCoy Stadium, the Special Olympics training day and the Admission Accomplished celebration of teaching …. I am probably missing a few. Departments have their own traditional events, celebrations and habits. The worst thing to do is to let go things that work. RIC as a whole has a strong tradition of faculty governance. It is important to maintain, to keep the rules explicit, and change them when they become obstacles. Faculty taken together present the most important power center on campus, and if you want something changed, all you need to do is get together. DLC has been an effective leadership center, where issues are honestly discussed, and collective decisions are made.

Second, we are a professional school, and you all should keep one foot in the respective professional community. It is important to be engaged – either in the local, or the regional or the national level, but we need to show up, know what’s going on, and involve ourselves whenever possible. Try to maintain and cultivate the myriad of existing partnerships and connections. The new Central Falls partnership may bring much more - and different - opportunities. It will be probably not one unified project, but a serious of smaller partnerships, which is just fine. Actually, a more flexible, more agile organizational structure will ensure the project’s adaptability and long-term sustainability. Engagement is difficult to do, for it requires additional effort without any additional compensation. But in the long run it is hard to imagine something more important. We cannot afford to fall behind in our fields.

And third, continue to tweak curriculum and programs. This has to become a habit – every year something needs to move, change, improve, and get reconsidered. I think it is extremely important to keep moving. And next to these incremental improvements, you should keep at least one or two more radically innovative things going, just to hedge your bets. We have built significant expertise in marketing of our programs, recruitment, off-campus and online delivery; these should be shared more widely, and become a part of every-day work. Again the CF project may be used as a lab for innovation. And we have a number of very good structures for free, open, innovative thinking – the professional learning communities, TEIL, informal reading and writing groups. It really does not take much to put one together, but those conversations may as well be the most enjoyable parts of our jobs. Undergraduate enrollments should probably bounce a little back, but will not be at the highest levels any time soon. And it is probably a good thing. The graduate programming is a lot more open question. If going to cohort model and off-campus is not going to save them, then online would be the next logical move. To be prepared for it, you will need to keep working on the right skills and experiences.

There are some decisions to be made in the next few years. One of the most important depends on the outcomes of the program approval process by RIDE. Depending on how well it is integrated with NCATE, you all will have to make a call on whether to stay with NCATE accreditation. It is a difficult conversation, for we have benefited, but also spent a tremendous amount of resources on it. Of course, NCATE (now CAPE) is also changing its standards and review practices, in some cases very significantly. So this is not going to be a simple call, and I would encourage you to spend some time mulling over it, weighing all pros and cons. But once it is made one way or another, it will lead to reconsidering the assessment system, perhaps the entire curriculum. Anyway, this can be a very long blog indeed. All I wanted to say is – FSEHD is a strong organization, perhaps stronger than you imagine; you all will be just fine.

Mar 8, 2013


The news is definitely out; I am leaving RIC at the end of this school year. I have accepted position at the Higher School of Economics, in Moscow. Svetlana and I are moving to Russia this summer. What were some of the pros and cons of this decision?


We like it in Rhode Island. Our two children, our son-in-law and our granddaughter live nearby. We grew to like the city, and the rest of the State. We have a great house in a nice neighborhood. I really enjoy working at RIC, have wonderful colleagues, and would like to see some of our projects to fruition. I have met many people in this State, and developed a great professional network here. The size of the State makes it a little easier than in some other places. And most importantly, I think I just started to figure out this job, and stopped making rookie mistakes.

It has been over 20 years (I came in 1991 first, Svetlana joined me in 1992, and the kids – later in the same year), and in many ways we all have become Americanized. Of course, the kids went almost completely native, but neither Svetlana nor I can pass. Yet we feel like we belong here. Notre Dame, Seattle, Bowling Green, Greeley, Providence – all of these are our home towns. From that place in my chest to every one of these places, the invisible emotional threads are tied. Pull on them, and you wake up memories, images, places, names and faces of friends. This is home, and we don’t want to leave.


We were always reluctant immigrants, with one foot in the old country. Our extended families are still there, many friends and professional connections. We did not flee poverty or prosecution, and have no bitter feelings towards Russia. We have gone back many times, almost every year since 1996. Fundamentally, we came here for education – to educate our children and to learn about the world and about this country. Well, that mission is almost accomplished. We always wanted to go back one day, although after years of telling that to people, they stop taking your seriously. I have been actually asking my Russian connections for years about a possible job back there, but nothing came up (although I interviewed for another job in Moscow in 2006). So when this opportunity came to my attention, we were intrigued. It is going to be an interesting and challenging work, but that is what adds spice to our lives, doesn’t it? The university is commonly known as Vyshka is one of the newer ones, founded in 1992 (as opposed to Moscow State University, 1755). It has become one of the leading research universities, now expanding into social sciences, humanities, and education.

We lived in Moscow in 1987-90, and still have many friends there. Maria went to her first school there. There is another invisible thread leading to that wonderful city. It has changed remarkably, and yet at some deeper level it is still the same – incredibly eclectic, both sophisticated and profane. The city has 164 stage theaters, and 116 movie theaters. And yet you could find places there that you really don’t want to find. It has some of the worst traffic, but also some of the most efficient public transportation systems in the world. It’s a maddening city, and we don’t mind that.

It is not easy, you see, and this all may be one big mistake. But we would never know until we tried.

Mar 3, 2013

The Value-Added Scandal

A scandal broke out at the 2013 AACTE conference. A session brought together several proponents of the value-added model of evaluating effectiveness of teacher preparation programs from Louisiana, Ohio, and Connecticut. After their upbeat reports on how their respective states implement the model, Cory Koedel, a respected researcher reported that all of their models are based on incorrect interpretation of statistics. Judge the quality of his evidence for yourself in an earlier paper on the same subject. In previous studies, there was a significant clustering error; to prove it, Koedel and his co-authors employed a clever technique: they assigned teachers to teacher preparation programs randomly and still found something that looked like a statistically significant “difference” between the purely imagined programs. The random assignment should have shown no difference at all, but it did, which proves the clustering error. After adjusting for the error, they re-run the analysis for real programs and found virtually no statistical differences among the programs. It may be because we still do not have large samples, or because teacher preparation programs are similarly effective, or because other unknown factors like school leadership or culture are more important than we thought. There may very well be differences among teacher preparation programs, but using test scores of its graduates’ students is not a good way of measuring them. Variance within each program is way more important than the variance between programs.

The scandal is not in the error itself, but in the fact that we now have an entire federal policy based on the error. Both the Race to the Top and the NCLB Waivers regime include a push for states to develop teacher preparation evaluation systems based on the value-added model. Many states, including Rhode Island, have it as at least a stated goal. Louisiana has already ranked its teacher preparation programs, and may have closed some, based on the same error. Of course, Koedel’s discover happened after RttT became fact, but the question remains: how can Federal Government implement a very significant policy on the national scale without proper piloting, and without rigorous analysis of the underlying statistical methods? I don’t think each state can be blamed for adopting the idea; after all, the US Department of Education demands it – and puts its name and reputation behind it.

The next step would be re-analyze Louisiana and other states’ data to see if correction of the error will produce different results. I don’t believe it can be the case even in theory, because of the Koedel’s falsification experiment. It is just too darn compelling. But what is next policy-wise? The emperor has been shown to have no clothes. Will the policy change, or will the Department keep pretending that nothing has happened?