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Oct 23, 2017

False promises, or When doing the right thing may be the wrong thing to do

As it is often the case, several things that happened recently, have madу me think about the same thing. Giving false promises is not a good thing, as a matter of principle. And of course, principles are pretty shabby tools when they meet reality. So, there is a shortage of teachers in California, a very serious one. Of course, teacher preparation institutions want to help. After all, most of us are public institutions, we serve the public, and want to do our part. However, we can make a difference in a fraction of the problem. The problem is actually in abysmal rates of retention. 20% of new teacher leave within three years, up 50% in urban districts. It is caused by to things – salaries and working condition. Teachers are still significantly underpaid, and feel alienated from their own profession.

Teacher education programs will never be able to fill the leaky barrel bucket. Now the big question is – by trying to be good, by trying to help, do we give the public a false promise? Now, within the narrow circle of informed policy experts, it is well known that retention is the key for solving the shortage. However, I don’t think the public is aware of that. However, I am having trouble imagining the teacher education community rallying under the slogan “No, we can’t.” It does not sound good, even if true.

Here is another, a more dramatic spin on the same dilemma. If we do nothing, the labor economics laws will be allowed to play their course. Acute and worsening shortages will force districts to raise salaries, and to try to make teachers happier. Our honest efforts to produce more new teachers divert the public attention away from the real problem, and perhaps delay a sound response to the actual problem. How’s this for a paradox of the week?

Similarly, I was asked by my Russian friends to comment on a foresight of how technology will change education. Well, if my friends do a good job, the risk is that their input will actually sustain the Russian government’s illusion that technology can solve its problems without real economic, judicial, and political reforms. If my friends refuse to cooperate, someone less qualified will do it anyway. It is a no-win situation.

Now, an even bigger version of the same dilemma. Educators in general have been complicit in distorting the reality on a grand scale. By doing our best, we may have given an impression that education can solve the problems of economic inequality, and lift the American underclass out of poverty. However, it is not true; only income redistribution and smart social safety net can actually make a dent in the inequality. Education may own a small part of the problem, but it seems to take on an exaggerated role. The question is, again, how much do we contribute to prolonging of a dangerous public illusion by doing good?

The right thing to do is to continue to do our best, but state openly, loudly and repeatedly the limits of what we can actually do. We have to be honest with the public we are committed to serve.

Oct 15, 2017

The California Autumnal

A slow autumn takes small bites out of the green rows of parade-cheering trees along the streets; lazily, absentmindedly, as if yet undecided. Sequoias and pines look decidedly determined to ignore the whole thing, wink. The deciduous brethren, nervous, shiver from the lightest wind. They know what is coming, alas, at last.

And so are people: some evergreen and seasoned, and some are more seasonal. The stoic ones keep their cool, while others melt under the angular autumnal light. We breathe in the smells of leaves, we savor the decay, as if this is the end of everything. We breathe out words, reduced to sounds dripping down like small leaves. Shallow mounds of yellow leaves are left forlorn, to shuffle through.

The memories of all past falls ooze out of my headache, those other, faster, more dramatic autumns in other places. The autumns form an amalgam of lights and languages, and leaves, and losses, smells, and little somethings too tiny to remember, but there nevertheless.

Oct 8, 2017

Remaking education to help regional development, a pitch

A Bay Area company that considers moving to Sacramento area is not after reducing costs (there are cheaper places in the US), but because of the labor pool. “Creativity, not cost,” says Barry Broome, the President and CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council. How do we boost creativity in our region’s population? We should transform the region’s education into an innovation powerhouse.

For years, the value of educational innovations has been measured through impact on the standardized test scores. The impact has been relatively low, with average effect size of 0.4, according to J. Hattie. Top-down reforms such as school choice or accountability have produced similarly low results. However, if student creativity, in addition to test scores, has its own economic value, testing is not a good way of measuring impact. We have some evidence that teacher innovation fosters student creativity. A teacher, who keeps experimenting in her or his own classroom, is likely to pass the passion for innovation on to his or her students.

Educational systems that develop a reputation for innovation are able to entice middle class parents to come and stay in the area, and keep children in public schools. Of course, the test scores are also important, but reputation for innovation is definitely a significant independent factor as well. This is not just a theory. Our testing the waters with the ReinventEd, a competition for grassroots innovation in education has been very successful. There is much interest in educational innovations, just look at the list of the jury members.

Sac State’s College of Education is in a very good position to take on a leading role in establishing a regional ecosystem for educational innovation. The aim of it is to permeate our regional educational system with grass-roots innovation, including, but not limited to start-ups. It is to encourage educator innovation and to shape our students’ taste for creativity and innovation. What can we do, if given the needed resources? We can reshape Sacramento Valley’ education into a nationally known beacon of educational innovation. Specifically,
  1. We can stimulate innovation through a significantly scaled-up version of the ReiventEd competition
  2. We can establish a research center to study and promote what is already happening in the region
  3. We can champion specific promising innovative ideas such as maker education movement
  4. We can establish links among various players within the educational sphere: schools, after-school programs, informal education, maker spaces, community colleges and universities.
  5. We can establish partnerships with various players beyond the educational sphere, including businesses, industries, governmental agencies, public and private organizations, local and global communities.
If you would like your or your company’s name to be associated with this major transformation, let’s talk about the opportunity.

Oct 2, 2017

Do we need a catastrophe to feel real?

This morning news of the mass shooting in Las Vegas brought me back to the text I was working with yesterday. Boris Groys writes, “Confronted with a world of total design, we can only accept a catastrophe, a state of emergency, a violent rupture in the designed surface, as sufficient reason to believe that we are allowed a view of the reality that lies beneath.” Indeed, no one is questioning the news, no one suspects that the news is fake or spinned in one direction or another. Even Trump has found something uplifting to say. He quoted scripture and reminded us about unity and hope.

If he right though? Is catastrophe the only way to access the authenticity of the world? 58 people are dead, hundreds are injured. Is this the only way to get in touch with reality, to break through the overdesigned surface? Are unity and hope otherwise unattainable? It is a terrible price to pay, but look – CNN and Fox News look the same for a while. The discourse of suspicion is suspended; not for long, not for long.

Hillary Clinton has twitted about the gun control bill. Really, someone wants to make SILENCERS more readily available to the public? Why would you need a silencer, if you’re not a murderer? Or are you a really terrible marksman that keeps missing a deer, but don’t want it to notice? And of course, Fox news have slammed Hillary for her poor knowledge of the firearms. They put the worst ever picture of her on the site. Yes, someone there took time to find it, on the morning like this.

However, right now these are all still side stories. Give them a few hours, and they will dominate the media discourse. Unity and hope will be forgotten; we will be back for the designer's reality. Yet the glimmer of hope, and the memory of unity can live, if we can chose to remember.