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Aug 27, 2018

Seasonal, or The Ode to Teachers

Teachers get a little thrill just before the school year starts. No longer bound to agriculture, the teaching planet is still remarkably seasonal. Billions of years ago some random rock knocked Earth off its perfectly perpendicular axis, and here we are. Obliquity – I like the word; it implies a degree of imperfection, a flaw so fundamental it is not a flaw anymore. Equinox, solstice, the turning of leaves, the white Christmas – none of these would have existed if not for that unnamed rock.

California’s weather gave us little warning: well, it was a little cooler at the end of last week. In Siberia, the weather would still count as hot. The start of the school year is about imagining the new students, their lives, faces, idiosyncrasies and breakthroughs. It is thinking of new classes, new things to try. Seasons are all about repetition, yet human life is linear, and seasons are as much about difference as they are about sameness. Every birthday is the same and yet very different from the last one; the start of a school year is like that, except it is less personal and more communal.

One of the few good Soviet achievement was declaring September 1 (the universal first day of school in Russia) the national Day of Knowledge. The idea is credited to Fedor Bryukhovetsky, a famous school principal from Krasnodar. I collected data in his school when he was still alive, in about 1986 for my Russian dissertation. Here is a quote from my field notes:
“When I took over that school in February of 1943, in an almost completely destroyed city, there was nothing in it. Kids, parents and teachers began to bring whatever they could. We cooked ink out of elderberry... Kids were malnourished – skinny, with red eyes. The city gave us four hectares of dirt covered with thorny bushes. Teachers, kids and parents went there to uproot those bushes. Teachers and students both had bloody blisters on their palms. All the crops went to the Railroad Purveyance Department, and they had opened a cafeteria in our school. Every kid could buy a bowl of soup for four kopecks; this is how we fought malnutrition... As for relations between students and teachers, these were relations of a single impulse, of a single breath. Precisely there, on the fields of the supplementary farm, our community came to life... This very attitude towards shared work we always remembered, and tried to preserve in the future.”
Things are less dramatic now, but the essence of the profession is still the same: we connect our lives to our student lives in various ways. There is an invisible solidarity among all people on this oblique planet, who get a little thrill right about the start of the school year.

Aug 10, 2018

Do we really need standards or A case for neural networks in educator preparation

In every complex human profession, a preparation program is very broad. Teachers need to have hundreds of skill, big and small, know thousand things. Therefore, professional organizations create standards that are laundry lists of skills we designate as important. For example, California Teacher Performance Indicators is a 14 page document, with 6 domain and some 45 items just in general pedagogy, plus who knows how many subject-specific items. An element can be like this: “Maintain high expectations for learning with appropriate support for the full range of students in the classroom.” Or, let’s take NASP Standards for the Credentialing of School Psychologists; looks similar. Both organizations (and countless others) had tried to reduce the number of indicators for practical reasons, but instead they made them compound. For example, a school psychologist has to “ in collaboration with others, demonstrate skills to promote services that enhance learning, mental health, safety, and physical wellbeing through protective and adaptive factors and to implement effective crisis preparation, response, and recovery.” To figure out whether a student actually meets this standard, you need to observe his or her collaboration with others – not in general, but in the very specific act of promoting services that enhance learning. And then the same thing about promoting services than enhance mental health. Observe a completely different act of promoting safety, and you have to collaborate with someone while doing so. So it is literally hundreds of actual indicators you need not only observe, but observe long enough to gauge the level of sophistication. In other words, proving attainment of these standards is physically impossible. I understand the indent of the standard writers – you don’t want to leave gaping holes in preparation. Moreover, you do not want to be accused of being less rigorous than the last reiteration. However, I think they should start considering the actual lives of the documents they create, including the unintended consequences. Something is wrong with the very premise of standardizing complex professions. Weren’t we supposed to learn this from the epic failure of Frederic Taylor’s “Scientific management”?

Yet we are where we are. What an accredited program to do? Well, we design evaluation forms, which make sense at the end of the program, where we try to “cover” the bulk of the standard items. Our student teaching supervisor observes students 6 times per semester, for less than an hour. It is actually much higher than the national average of about 3-4 observations. School Psych do even more intense observations, and so does Counseling, Leadership and other professional programs. Still what is the chance that one would see something to show that the student teacher “Participates in school, district, or professional academic community learning events; uses professional learning to support student learning?” What if there were no community learning events? We actually did not observe it, it is all secondary information. And yet we have to meet every standard, or lose accreditation. In some areas, the loss of accreditation is a death warrant for a program.

To cope, we pretend. Instead of actually observing some behavior, we hope that someone somewhere in one of the classes possibly about professional learning communities. Of course, as the supervisor, I had never observed that one little thing, but I will check the little box of hope. Yes, we have 40 or 99 items evaluation forms, of which I can only really tell about 10 with certainty. They have to be more holistic (which is exactly what our colleagues did), but still retain plausible coverage of the standard items. The time is precious, and even if I did not observe all the items, I will check them all, for we are required to collect the assessment data. As a result, the granular data if of very little use. In theory, we should make program development decisions based on the data. For example, one semester, we should see – oh, look this semester we scored lower on “Plan instruction that promotes a range of communication strategies and activity modes between teacher and student and among students that encourage student participation in learning.” We ought to do something! Nah, nothing like this ever happens. The data is flat and boring. The forms can be very effective pedagogical instruments, a chance to talk to the future teacher or psychologist about how they do. As data source they are fairly weak. We rarely learn something about our programs from the compliance data that we did not know otherwise.

I think we should give up on the idea of standards altogether. Professional organizations can concentrate their intellectual resources on development of good observation protocols, evaluation instruments, and tests. Just cut the middle construct. Instead of asking what a good teacher or counsellor is, ask what a good one looks like. It is a big shift, if you think about it. How does a very perceptive professional actually recognize competence in others? There are probably telltale signs of both a potentially good teacher, a struggling teacher, or a hopeless teacher. Eye contact, body posture, speech patterns, their kids’ behavioral clues, the kinds of interactions, the ability to pause, the kind of measured display of emotion. Why pretend that we came to these signs through some theory? I think if we commit due attention to the act of recognition, analyze and distill it, we could come up with much better instruments, and much better data. We should concentrate on what is visible, and which signs are more meaningful.

This is where we should try to use the neural network approach, the first realistic application of artificial intelligence. I’ll skip the explanation on how it works – read Wikipedia for that. Fundamentally, the process is this: ask several master teachers to rank video clips of beginner teachers. Don’t ask why; we are studying master teachers’ perceptions, not the beginner teachers’ behavior. The neural network can actually detect what is in common among the good ones. The neural network will “learn” the traits which are basically patterns with a massive data set. The clips that rise to the top through collaboration of humans and the AI, will become the models to analyze and imitate. The neural networks are actually not that good at explaining why they selected particular cases. That is a feature that makes them uncomfortable for humans to use – they really work, but no one really knows how. They also can reproduce human prejudice, because the initial concepts come from humans. We have to be careful. Yet my point is - human intuition is also uncomfortably opaque. As a species, we evolved not to analyze, but to synthesize information. We process whole images, search for cues to reveal patterns. An ancient hunter did not have a checklist of hunting procedures when he taught his son. He presented the whole of his practice, and alerted his son to cues that others do not see.

Aug 5, 2018

Why do I remain optimistic in the Age of Trump?

A friend has recently asked me why am I remain optimistic about the American democracy. Indeed, there does not seem to be many reasons for optimism. The man elected to the highest office in the country cares very little about democracy. If you look through the entire body of his speeches and interviews, you will find almost nothing on democracy, democratic institutions, or the rule of law. He cares a great deal about the economy, trade, immigration, politics, and most certainly about his own legitimacy, just not about democracy. It never crosses his mind that democracy is important or that it needs defending. Obama, in contrast, talked about democratic institutions hundreds of times. To be exact, a search on Democratic Institutions yields 310 hits in his speeches. Moreover, President Trump has been very successful at controlling dissent within his own party, thus limiting one important check. He has been partially successful in delegitimizing the free press, his own national security agencies. His term in office is definitely one of the low points in the life of American democracy.

And yet the democratic system is working as designed; it creaks and groans like an old house in a storm, but it withstands. The system was designed with redundancies, exactly with someone like Trump in mind. This is the stress test, and checks and balanced are mainly in place. The Congress pushed back several times, as the media have done. Many states and cities keep pushing back, and within the Republican party there is some resistance even if not very public yet. While the Supreme Court is bound to become more conservative, it is very difficult to imagine it becoming irrelevant, of undermining its own power.

When Putin came to power in 2000, many Russians expressed doubts about sincerity of his democratic commitments. No one in Russia thought the weak democratic institutions could withstand the corrupting pressure from the very top. Those people were right; Putin was able to marginalize and weaken the very institutions he was elected to defend: first, the free press, then the parliament, then the Supreme Court, and last, the civil society. Russia is a dystopian warning of how weak democratic institutions can be hollowed out from the top within a few years. Weimar Republic is one example of erosion of democratic institutions during the early Nazi era. Similar processes had happened in several Latin American countries during their era of dictatorships.

Nothing like that is happening in the US, because the institutions are much stronger. The structure of American political system has been created for the times like these. Its multiple, robust separation of various powers make the Russian scenario almost impossible. While I appreciate the creativity of the Handmaid’s Tale, very few reasonable people believe it is likely become true. Even if the first layer of defense for some reason fails, we have police, National Guard, security forces, the armed forces, all of whom share a deep commitment to democracy, Hollywood conspiracy flicks notwithstanding. Americans are obsessed with dystopian visions of post-apocalyptic world. Let us not confuse our fears with reality.

The political science actually tells us that in the so-called “hybrid regimes,” greatly weakened democratic institutions have a tendency to come back to life. In the end, I am optimistic even about Russia. Its institutions - no matter how weak now - will come back to life, eventually. In the US, those institutions will barely flinch at the Trump’s relentless assault. I think it is important to keep in mind. It will take some work, but let us be clear: Donald Trump stand zero chance against American democracy.