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Aug 28, 2021

Nostalgia is a poor guide to the post-COVID future

Some people want to get back to the happy times where students were buzzing around the campus, faculty had passionate debates in person, when grass was greener, and the sun shone brighter. That is all good and dandy, for we all need some energy to keep going forward. However, nostalgic feelings prevent us from being more realistic, more specific about the future. It stands in the way of actual serious planning of the post-COVID world.

Nostalgia is just a feeling, not a roadmap. Some conservatives create a version of the past that never existed: with full families, innocent teenagers, and wholesome TV shows. They attach their personal warm feelings to the made-up picture of the golden age and try to get there somehow. Just to be fair, not all conservatives do that. Some are also pushing a specific version of the future, not tied to any specific version of the past. They want to preserve certain principles, not their own rich imagination.

OK, back to the universities. As the first step, let us acknowledge that some of its operations will stay online. Student crowds will be thinner, although perhaps as joyful. Students will not come to campus to get advice, to turn it a paper form, or two attend every single class. Moreover, different students will have different preferences. The young and single would want to spend more time on campus, while those older and with their own families – less. Following that pattern, staff and faculty will spend less time on campus, and work more from home. Again, some jobs require no on-campus presence, while others will remain pretty much as before. We may avoid building more classrooms (for most classes will be hybrid) and more offices (those can be shared by partial telecommuters).

Planning is about nuance, about differentiation. It uses a different kind of imagination. Nostalgia is too wholistic, too undifferentiated to be useful. It assumes an average student, an average faculty and staff member. Such people do not exist. Let us get a little more realistic, a little more specific. Let us use our differences to our collective advantage. This is actually a very good time to start a conversation on re-imagining the future. We all learned much about ourselves, our preferences, our jobs, and technologies that help us. Going back while blinded by nostalgia is not much of an option.

Aug 13, 2021

Modality and morality or Do not go back to normal if it was abnormal

There we go again. I felt smug about figuring out a perfect solution, only to realize it does not work in real life. In ASL, facial expressions are an essential part of the language. Wearing a mask makes it very difficult to communicate. Face shields tend to fog up and they have a glare problems. I thought we would keep ASL interpreters on Zoom, and project the Zoom onto the large screen for meetings – and pipe any presentation through the same Zoom window. All participants, on Zoom and in the room would see the same thing, and the interpreter would not have to wear a mask. So, Binod, Michele, Leah and I went in to test the hypothesis. We tried our most advanced media studio room.

Here is how it went:
- What happens when a Deaf person from the audience wants to speak at a meeting? I need to see them up close, - says Michele, our interpreter.
- They will sign into a special laptop station with a camera. For equity, all speakers will have to come up to that station to speak.
- That’s a lot of commotion for everyone to come up to the speaking station, even to ask a quick question.
- OK, what if everyone will have a laptop and be logged into Zoom at the same time?
- Multiple Zoom sessions will create audio feedback, bunch of echoes – we learned that last year.
- OK, they will all be muted, and the room mics will pick up their speech.
- I imagine bunch of people in the room, each staring at and speaking/signing into their laptops… Why did they come f2f to begin with?
- [Silence]

This is just a small part of that testing exercise. At some point, we realized that someone had to be essentially a camera operator, and make sure the right picture is on screen and in Zoom. We have to develop a process where people on Zoom would feel as included in the conversation as people in the room – same opportunity to speak, same level of empowerment to affect the outcome of the meeting. In other words, every little problem has a solution. However, in aggregate, they are too much to overcome. Every little thing can go wrong. And it is too much to handle for whoever facilitates those meetings. Since I lead the College meetings, it would be me. I am not tech-shy at all, but that would be too much even for me.

Do not always listen to techno-optimists. Sometimes the technology is simply not there. The techies are trained to think how to solve problems. It is very difficult for them to say “sorry, we cannot solve this problem yet.” They will keep thinking about yet another camera, another powerful microphone, another trick to match displays, etc. Interestingly, the ed tech industry have been working on the problem of split classrooms for decades, so it is very hard for them to admit the problem has not been yet solved. It may be one day, like in Sci-Fi movies, where you are talking to a hologram, and are not aware this is not an actual human being. But we are very far from that.

Here is a really profound question for you. Why do we want to get back to f2f “normal” meetings? Because we enjoy the full spectrum of sensory experiences - an occasional short chat, a glimpse of other people, an aside joke, the body language, the energy of the room. But many of those things are inaccessible to Deaf and hard of hearing, to people with limited vision, with a difficulty processing facial expressions, not fluent in the working language, etc. What is fun for an able-bodied person is exactly the thing that excludes others.

Zoom is also incredibly limiting, but it is limiting to everyone in about the same way. At least we figured out how to make the interpreter visible. Thanks to artificial intelligence, the auto-captioning is actually OK: not as good as the best human captioner, but better than a terrible one. We learned that zoom-based meeting are not as much fun, but they do the job – things get discussed, and decisions made. Now, tell me, on balance, would you trade fun for most for more inclusion for all?

Moreover, the split modality will create a new underclass of people who cannot come. The very nature of the duel (split) modality puts the two groups of participants in two very different positions. It is impossible to provide equal opportunity and equal experience for both. By the way the few faculty that tried to teach the split classroom (we call it HyFlex here) all hated it. It requires too much effort from the instructor and takes attention away from teaching. Add accommodation for disability to this already very difficult task, and this is a recipe for disaster.

Now, when we go back completely back to normal, and not driving to a meeting will be indeed a preference, then we do not owe that much to people who chose to stay home. We can provide marginal participation opportunity for them, as a courtesy. If you want full participation – come here. But we are not in that world yet. People who do not come may have medical concerns for themselves, and their families. It looks like Zoom meetings are here to stay for some time. And even then, why go back to normal that has been exclusionary? How do we redefine the normal, so it works for more people? It may be the case that Zoom meetings are here to stay for a long time.

Aug 9, 2021

From the dictatorship of tests to a new educator preparation framework

It took a global pandemic to start undoing the damage done by the regime of teacher preparation that can be describes as over-under-regulation. A whole succession of federal policies is largely responsible for it: The No Child Left Behind, the Rate to the Top and the NCLB waiver regime. The Fed finally got out of the business of reforming education, but states continue to demonstrate significant inertia.

The regime consisted of two somewhat mutually exclusive pillars. The first is imposing multiple regulatory hurdles on the individual teacher candidate. No, it is not enough to finish high school; you must also pass a basic skills test. No, it is not enough to get a major from an accredited university; you must also pass a subject-matter knowledge test. And in many states, including California, you also must pass either a reading test, or somethings else to appease some crazy lobbyist still shock-shelled after the ancient Reading Wars. If the first pillar is about over-regulation, the second one is the opposite: let anyone, any school district or a local brewery open their own teacher preparation program, as long as they comply with some basic rules. That was a response to the conservative attacks on teacher preparation institutions in the University. We were called “Too theoretical” (read “Too social justice-oriented”).

Now the dictatorship of tests has started to crumble simply because during the pandemic, there was no way to administer all these tests, and states had to show some flexibility. And guess what – the sky did not fall on earth. This is beyond just teacher preparation; the entire duopoly of SAT/ACT is unraveling right before our eyes. Many universities had removed them from admission requirements, and guess what? – Yes you guessed it right, nothing terrible happened or is likely to happen. If anything, elite universities may become a little more diverse

What should state governments do? Right now, they are simply suspending or abandoning the most burdensome and non-sensical requirements. However, this time of change calls for a more comprehensive, more intentional shift in regulating teacher preparation. Both the intent of the new policy and its content should be constructed with the full use of research base, but also with the clarity of values connected to public interest.

One approach would be to prioritize diversification of the profession and encouraging professional self-regulation. For states like California, with rapidly changing demographics, the former is no brainer. The latter may be a bit more controversial, for we are asking our officials to overcome decades of suspicion toward teacher preparation programs. However, in our business professional ethics had always worked better than external controls. I’ve been at it for over 30 years. Every single time when we managed to improve something was because my colleagues wanted it to happen, not because someone told them what to do. Ethics is a material tangible asset. As far as regulatory tools go, shame and pride are much more powerful than accountability and compliance.

  1. Radical expansion of access. Right now, admission to teacher preparation program in almost every state is a nightmare of hoop-jumping exercise. The profession is just not welcoming to anyone, especially to candidates of color and to first generation in college.
  2. In admissions to credential programs:
    • Expanding ways of demonstrating subject matter mastery based on academic credentials earned plus possibly some review of transcripts.
    • Abandon basic skills testing. It does not exist for other professions. If regionally accredited higher ed institutions give bachelor degrees to people without basic literacy skills, let’s fix the higher education accreditation. But stop suspecting every future teacher of being illiterate.
    • Valuing cultural competency and lived experiences as well as subject matter knowledge. It is not that difficult to achieve. Take into consideration the exposure to diversity in high school experience, fluency in a second language, experiences of living abroad, etc – such forms of cultural capital are important for future teachers.
  3. In awarding credentials, move away from blanket EDTPA control to assessing a random sample of candidates. We helped Pearson collect hundreds of millions of dollars from struggling students, for a well over a decade now. Isn’t this time for them to show that EDTPA actually predicts teacher performance in the classroom? Is there proof that it does? If they still cannot do that after all this time, perhaps we should think of some other way of external validation for teacher preparation programs? The evidence so far is very mixed (Goldhaber 2017) or negative (Greenblatt 2015).
  4. In program approval, most states and CAPE use meaningless procedures like looking for places in syllabi where a certain ill-considered standard element is introduced, taught, or assessed. This ritual has nothing to do with research, nor does it reflect the real strengths or weaknesses of the program under review. The standards are made by a consensus of random experts and determined by each expert stamina more than their expertise. Almost none of the teacher preparation standards have any research base to rely on. And this is no secret – everyone in the know knows that. What works in program approval is when colleagues from other institutions come and look into what we do. States should keep and strengthen the peer-review part of the process, and radically reduce the mindless compliance activities resulting in thousands of pages of paperwork.
I am not going to insist these exact approaches should be used. However, I am certain state governments need new frameworks, some coherent strategy on what to do with its educator workforce and educator preparation.


Goldhaber, D., Cowan, J., & Theobald, R. (2017). Evaluating prospective teachers: Testing the predictive validity of the edTPA. Journal of Teacher Education, 68(4), 377-393.

Greenblatt, D., & O'Hara, K. E. (2015). Buyer Beware: Lessons Learned from EdTPA Implementation in New York State. Teacher Education Quarterly, 42(2), 57-67.

Aug 3, 2021

Can a university stop planning?

One of the most basic assumptions of all management is that one has to plan. One of the key functions of management is the ability to predict the future and prepare resources, information, procedures, and plans to make that future more successful. That assumption has been working for universities for a long time, until suddenly the future became unpredictable. So we get caught into a vicious circle of predicting planning, then abandoning the previous plans, because of the new virus variant, or some other unexpected health data. The problem is not only with our time wasted on multiple preparations for things that never happened. The problem is also with communications: we lose just a little bit of credibility every time we are forced to let go yet another solid plan.

Wilson in his classic Bureaucracy describes how a significantly outmanned German Army defeated most European armies and almost defeated the Soviet Union in the early 1940-s. Their murderous ideology aside, the German military had understood something the rest of the world did not. Instead of detailed plans of massive military operations, they gave field commanders just most general objectives, and allowed to improvise. The highly mobile infantry and tank units penetrated the best organized defense lines, and used a number of various flexible tactics to win. The Soviet Army was especially vulnerable because in a totalitarian society, everyone waited for Stalin to approve all moves. BY the time у got the message and woke up late, the situation on the frontline changed dramatically, and a new directive became irrelevant.

In the normal times, universities derive many advantages from centralized delivery of most essential services. It makes a lot of economic and practical sense. However, we are not in normal times. Perhaps a little more decentralization would actually make their various departments and programs more flexible, and better handle the changing landscape. However, such a shift is very difficult to achieve. Top-heavy hierarchical systems are accustomed to governing from the top. Avoiding universal decisions makes top leadership feel like there are dodging their responsibilities. And this is not a criticism – all managers feel that the best decisions are made at their own levels. While I expect to have more authority at the College level, I am not in rush to grant the same to our chairs. Of course, we are small enough to talk a lot, and make most of the decisions collectively. Still it is important to remember the limitations imposed by my own vantage point.

It is not productive to blame the system for doing what it knows how to do. Once we return to normal levels of predictability, it will become more functional yet again. After all, we are not at war, and there is significant cost to everyone running its own guerilla operations. My answer in general is no, universities cannot stop planning. However, a little decentralization during the time of unpredictability would be helpful.