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Jul 31, 2017

The shortages of the noble profession

Even the excellent 2017 report on teacher shortages in California stops short of asking a fundamental question: Why teacher salaries do not rise? В. Carver-Thomas and L. Darling-Hammond, the authors of the report, make a point that wage competition disadvantages poorer districts, because wealthier districts poach good teachers away from them. They more or less concentrate on the supply side of the equation, while also noting that enrollment in teacher preparation programs are at all times low. But why is the enrollment low? Why so few young people want to enter the profession?

In the end, the only way to ensure labor supply is to increase the wages, and improve working conditions. However, everyone acts as if it is impossible, and that there is some magic way of to increase the supply by offering shorter, and cheaper alternative teacher preparation programs. Note, no other industry thinks about their labor supply in a similar way. If you are short on software engineers, well, you either pay them more or import less expensive ones from abroad. Teacher imports do not work for a variety of reasons, but we do not even discuss the wage increases across the board.

Of course, districts would not compete for the same few qualified teachers, if their salaries would not depend on local property taxes. No one wants to see how bizarre really is the school funding system in the United States, and how, over the years, it contributed to residential segregation, as well as educational inequality. A politician, who would even bring up an idea of taking over the school finance by the State, will be signing his or her political death warrant.

I am not a politician, so I am bringing this up. I think, we need to be honest with the middle class. I know we all want something better for our own kids, this is why we bought these houses we cannot really afford, so our kids could go to better schools, and taught by better-paid teachers. However, in the long run, it is an unsustainable, self-defeating position. The other people’s kids are still here, they will become your neighbors, your employees, your colleagues. They deserve everything your child deserves. And yes, good education costs more money, and you should pay more taxes. We need to socialize education. In fact, teachers who work in more challenging social and economic localities should be paid more, not less.

Of course, we have been through this conversation before. There was a number of court cases against states, with mixed results. Again, in the end, court activism only gets you so far. We actually need to convince voters that equal finance of schools is the right thing to do.

Instead, we allow the talk about teaching as the noblest profession. What does it mean, exactly? Is it an appeal to work for less money, because, well, it is so noble? I think lawyers are a noble profession, and so are doctors and engineers. A software engineer is a darned noble thing to do, a calling, really. Yet we pay all those people as much as the market can bear, so there is no need to get all syrupy and sentimental. The discourse on teacher shortage will never change, if we as the profession will continue to feed it with sugar. We help perpetuate these distorting memes, because it feels good to be noble.

Jul 21, 2017

To pay or not to pay, that is the question

I will declare the next year the year of curriculum. For a variety of reasons, we have accumulated curriculum revision needs. Some programs just need a face-lift: a minor adjustment, sexier course titles, add or remove a course or two. Others need to be converted into the online form. Still others need to be completely reconfigured in terms of scheduling, sequencing, and switching to a cohort model. We also need to develop several new curricular products, like certificates and full programs. We are also considering at least two brand-new degree programs: A Youth Development BA and a Maker Education MA. All of these changes are needed because of the competitive pressures, and with changing patterns in demand. Our competitors are many and growing: other regional universities, online universities (both public and private). California also has a number of non-university providers, like County offices of education, CalStateTeach, that is run out of the Chancellors office, district-run programs, etc. Some of our competitors beat us on flexibility, and convenience; we still have an advantage in name recognition, price, and, most importantly, in faculty quality. Some of our graduate programs for in-service educators, suffered during the crisis, and never quite recovered. Therefore, it is an all-hands-on-deck situation. We just have to update, and delays are no longer feasible.

How do you do this? Curriculum revisions take significant work: first conceptually, as a list of courses, and their sequence, then each course and program requirements, the catalog entry – all had to be discussed, and put on paper. Because of the curriculum approval process on campus, and in many instances, at the Chancellor’s Office level, all of these tasks have to be accomplished in about two months – September and October. Otherwise a program risks to miss the catalog deadline.

On one hand, the curriculum development is traditionally a faculty service to the institution. The contract says something like that. So, the mean part of my mind tempts me to say to faculty: “Hey, if you want to save the program and teach in it, you should work on it as a part of your service. After all, curriculum is a faculty responsibility!” On the other hand, my more rational and compassionate part says something different: at least some of these projects are quite substantial. Faculty at CSU teach 12 units per semester, plus we have service and scholarship expectations. It is just hard to add this extra effort on top of everything else. If you expect quality work, you need to find a way to give people time. And there is no point revising, if you are not producing the absolutely the best, the most creative, a world-class program.

Back to the one hand – we really do not have the resources to pay to everyone, or release too many people from teaching. In the end, assigned time is also money, but also the program quality and reputation. In addition, if you compensate one group, but not the other, there are equity considerations. Plus, don’t forget the power of precedents. Once you set an expectation that all curriculum revisions deserve assigned time or a stipend, that becomes the norm. Precedents do not remember the nuance; they do not remember that there was an exceptionally hard project, or that the person in charge was very busy. The precedent remembers the naked fact.

Ok, now back again to the other hand: the projects are not all equal. Some are more of a minor tweak, others require ten brand new syllabi in subjects we have never taught. Some projects are very likely to be successful, and bring us students, glory, and revenue, while others are a lot riskier, and will really of interest one or two faculty here. If they want to do it, great, but not on the College’s dime. In some of them, chairs and program coordinators, who already have assigned time, can be central or help a lot, while others will be done by faculty only. Some people are more organized, while other do unnecessary work, talk a lot about scheduling the next meeting, argue endlessly about the titles, etc. Finally, some faculty think it is their work, and are interested, while others think the dean should revise all the programs, and their jobs are safe no matter what. The multiple overlapping considerations make a consistent approach very difficult. Therefore, I may have to resort to individual negotiations, which are not the best of solutions, but perhaps is the best in this circumstances. Now, individual deals tend to create suspicion and resentment among faculty, because they are not transparent. Is this too high a price to pay?

To make a larger point, most of the projects and problems that I deal with on my job are like that, messy. There are two or more sides, a good deal of uncertainty. Almost every move has a potential cost. In the end, you often have to take a leap of faith and decide on something without ever being sure it is the best solution. It is not like you can always follow clear principles. Or, rather, you can, but then you have to ignore other principles, and you won’t get anything done.

Having said all this, I am very open for suggestions. I have at least 17 potential curriculum development projects on my list. How do we do it?

Jul 17, 2017

The hiring mind

The simplest and the most profound idea about hiring people is that no one is perfect. While it is trivial, our mind often resist accepting it. The way we evolved makes us biased judges of people. Our hominid ancestors had to select a friend quickly, in a hostile environment, among a limited set of choices. It goes like this: our brain does is this: we select unconsciously whoever we like, and then the rational mind keeps finding more and more appealing features in whoever we have selected already. By extension, our rational minds keep finding faults with people we did not select. Anyone who has ever served on a search committee knows how mind-boggling the conversations can get. We tend to play with fact, emphasize strengths, exaggerate weaknesses – all, more or less, to justify whatever unconscious choices we have made already. If there are “real reasons” for our decisions, we are often unaware of those. And then we try to discuss those things collectively.

In fact, all the HR procedures, deep down, have the same fundamental purposes – to check our subconscious minds against some sort of structured objective process. In addition to those formal (and very important) procedures, all managers have their own bags of tricks, their private mind games, some strategies to force their own brains see more, dig deeper. My bag is no better than the next person’s but here are some of the tricks.

I always ask to tell a story or to give a specific example. Somehow, the stories are a lot more informative than the questions asked in the abstract. When someone says “I like to help students,” she or he has always something specific in mind, an image, a story. But I may have a very different image in mind, so stories help align the understanding of a concept.

When a specific skill is required, I always find a way of testing applicants for it. For example, when I needed a bilingual editor, I had to design an editing task. People who came up on top would have never had a chance in an open competition. Their competitors had much more charisma. But the skill is either there, or not there, and some of them can be tested for. If not, it is still very important to assess whether an applicant has the fundamental skills needed to be successful.

I also try to imagine the person in front of me doing her or his specific work in a day-to-day environment. Does this person look organic at the task? Sometimes it becomes clear, this person is really great, but would really get bored with the kind of a job we are trying to fill. In other words, I have to separate the “strong in general” from the “good for this job.”

I always check for the sense of humor, if it is a people position. Folks with a weak, very idiosyncratic, or overly sarcastic sense of humor rarely make good team members. They still could be great at solitary work though.

Then I always re-examine my own reactions. It is not just “I (dis)like this person,” but “why do I feel I (dis)like this person?” We all are hostages of our past. People can trigger a memory about an episode they bear no responsibility for; people bring back memories, good or back, but it is not their fault or virtue.

Unfortunately, the tendency gets stronger as we age; it is the tendency to recognize “I have seen this before.” That is a very troublesome side effect of life experience. I always try to weed out those thoughts to the extent possible. The troubling part is that experience both allows for very useful shortcuts, and increases understanding, but also imposes a kind of blindness to the new. A note to self: if I ever lose the capacity to recognize the newness, it is time to get out of leadership.

Jul 10, 2017

The Giant Sequoias and the Universities

Thanks to a vacation trip last week, I have learned that giant sequoias that inhabit the Calaveras Big Trees State Park, have evolved to live through forest fires. They have a thick layer of bark, and their branches are high off the ground. Some of the trees are thousands of years old. Their size, age, and adaptability are awe-inspiring. Yet those giants used to be all over the Northern Hemisphere and now they survived only in a few places in California. They could withstand forest fires, but not the Ice age. I am not sure why that is the case, but pines, maples, and oaks did just fine. Not as majestic, and relatively short-lived, they dominate both northern continents.

Universities have been around for a long time, and they survived wars, depressions, revolutions, change of regimes – everything. Moreover, they have been growing, including more and more people in more and more countries; see Martin Trow’s theory of university massification. The only glitch is that no one can figure out how to pay for the last stage, the universal higher education. It is just too expensive. Countries that chose the exclusively public financing have to limit the growth, or they break their budgets. Those countries that use mixed financial models, and rely mainly on tuition, risk creating a financial bubble of unsustainable student debt. The source of funds does not really matter; it is just very expensive to allow the majority of the population to have a full college experience. One unfortunate consequence of this cost dilemma is that students from lower classes tend to receive poorer quality experience. For example, Russia have one of the most universal higher education systems in the world, but half of its students study in a low-quality correspondence/online programs. Instead of equal opportunity, universities can reproduce inequality. The same thing happened to elementary and secondary education in the past – initially intended as equalizers, they became vehicles of inequality.

I am wondering if massification is the universities’ Ice Age. As far as I know, no one has a credible solution. For a while, high hopes were pinned on information technologies. Some hotheads like Clayton Christiansen predicted a total victory of online education. Such predictions were without merit. What most people value in their educational experiences is the human relation. It is the the economics of rationality that creates the enormous cost. There is and will be a huge demand for higher education, and it may or may not be connected to labor market. People just want college for their kids, period. And they will find a way of financing it. The open question is whether the existing universities will be able to figure out a way of meeting the demand, or it is going to be pines and maples, and oaks of some sort – also pretty, but not as majestic.