Monday, July 29, 2013

Proud But Much Remains To Be Done

I have always been enormously proud to work at a University that was accessible before there were any ADA requirements. When I started at a Hofstra, the only fully accessible institutions were Hofstra and University of California, Berkeley. Today, accessibility is the law; it is more and more prevalent in the United States, and it has made an enormous difference. Individuals with disabilities have the freedom and mobility they are entitled to and our country is the beneficiary.

Having traveled extensively over the years, it is clear that parts of the globe haven't yet made accessibility the priority it needs to be. First the late breaking good news: individuals with disabilities, especially individuals in wheelchairs were very present in Disneyland Paris and were able to take advantage of much of what was offered. Paris and London seemed somewhat accessible, with London seeming more accessible, with individuals with disabilities being much more visible and on the move on the streets. Every standard London cab also has a wheelchair ramp and buses seem to be similarly equipped. This is clearly a model that other major world cities should emulate ASAP. Paris seems to have more barriers and far fewer ways for individuals with disabilities to move around more freely. In all cities, historical sites are the greatest challenge. It is at times particularly challenging to achieve accessibility while maintaining what needs to be preserved.

For some developing economies, with prevalent and widespread poverty, progress will be slow. For other countries that have made significant and dramatic economic progress, more needs to be done in the area of accessibility. As a first step, in these wealthier nations, new construction should have mandated accessibility. Over time this will make a tremendous difference. As an educator I am especially concerned that educational and health care facilities be in the forefront of accessibility in all countries. Health care and education are prerequisites for a better life for everyone, and individuals with disabilities especially need support in these areas.

Serving the needs of all individuals, including those with special needs, must for all of us be an ongoing priority. Even in those places where much has already been done, much remains to be done.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Hard to Understand

My younger daughter was fine in England. We loved being there. The accent was strange to her but people were talking English and she had no trouble communicating. Communicating was not a problem for me either and I was also smart enough not to drive a car and adjust to driving on the "wrong" side of the street. We next took a side trip to Disneyland Paris. English was in frequent use and almost everyone understood and was willing to talk in English. Some of the rides and shows were primarily French but there was always an English version, even if it was abridged. Once again my younger daughter had no trouble understanding or being understood, especially since many of the rides were simply irresistible and required very limited communication skills.

And then we came to Paris and we loved being there. But English, not surprisingly, is much less common in Paris. And in no time at all, my younger daughter said how much "she hated it" when people didn't understand or speak English. And I must admit, when walking through the Louvre, that I would have had an easier time if I had remembered more of the French I studied in middle school (which in those days was called junior high school) and high school. So much of what I studied was mostly memorization, which probably did little to increase either my interest or my mastery of language. What has stuck the longest is a French poem about a grasshopper and an ant. Hard to believe that this was a major part of my grade. Now, I'm not criticizing this fable or moral, just its stage center role in my language instruction.

Neither of my kids seems inclined to study language until they reach the point of proficiency even though I know that language instruction at all levels today is much more relevant and interactive. I will keep lobbying them to continue their study of Spanish. I actually think that this trip has helped my cause. Nothing is more frustrating than not to be understood. English is a dominant language but not the only language that matters. We should all be fluent in at least a second language and my preference would be that the language be a world language.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Along for the Ride

When I was a young kid, my parents owned a mom and pop butcher shop. Both of my parents worked very hard and my being out of school for the summers was a real complication for them. For a number of these summers, my parents did without any vacation whatsoever for themselves so that they could afford to send me to a sleep away camp in Pocono Pines Pennsylvania.

The first year I went to camp, early in my elementary school years, the trip to camp was made by train. My parents transported me and my classic camp trunk to Penn Station. It may not have been the Hogwart's Express but it was nevertheless a great experience and a very efficient way to get from here to there.

Between now and then, I have been on the Long Island Railroad many times and on the Acela Express a few times. But for all practical purposes, train rides, especially covering any real distance, were part of my youth. That is until this year. In the last two months, I have been on a new high speed train in China as well as the Eurostar train which goes under the English Channel, from London to Paris. In both cases, what a comfortable and convenient way to travel. The train in China, which travels to Sanya, the Hawaii of China, is a smooth quiet riding train with speeds that easily match the Acela. The convenience is also unmatched. The Chunnel train, which both left and arrived precisely on time, was equally effortless. With train service this good, cars become a second best alternative.

Our country already had train tracks in place that makes much of the country, especially major metropolitan areas, easily accessible. What we don't have are attractive, efficient trains, except for the Acela. We have made substantial progress in driving more efficient cars but to make the kind of overall transportation progress we need, we can't do so without having an efficient attractive railroad network that transports not only products but also people. I am not advocating for the end of cars, just advocating for a more comprehensive system that provides alternatives. It's a proven attractive alternative.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Board Service - Provost Prose

I am very fortunate to be able to serve on multiple not-for-profit boards.  I interact with terrific people and in every case, the mission of the organization makes a very positive contribution to society, be it on a larger scale or a smaller scale. Most of the boards I serve on are education related and as a long term educator, I recognize the importance of volunteer service to support quality education at every level.  Especially now, when economic constraints are present at every level, board service can make an important positive difference.

Boards are more effective or less effective depending on the membership of the board and also depending on the relationship of the board to the CEO.  Individual board members are often evaluated on a regular basis according to the criteria of their appointment.  Overall board evaluations happen much less frequently in my experience.  One of the boards I serve on has, for many years (beginning long before I was involved), had board members do an annual evaluation of the overall board.  The evaluation covers everything from how the chair runs the meetings, to how well board members are prepared for the meeting, all with a five point scale and the ability to add comments. Questions are asked about respecting confidentiality, working toward compromise, not micromanaging, keeping your constituency fully involved, evaluating and recognizing – if appropriate – exemplary performance of top management, developing clear policies and providing the resources to support those policies, understanding budgets, as well as establishing and monitoring strategic plans.  There are more than 60 detailed questions in total, and 8 separate opportunities to add comments.

In some years, the board ranks itself very highly while in other years more concerns and self doubts permeate the review.  The honesty and candor of the reviews have been impressive as have the discussions that follow the distribution of the consolidated self assessment.  But the result of this self assessment is a board that is better positioned to lead and also to listen. We know what hasn’t worked well and we have reviewed what could make it better.

This type of self evaluation doesn’t work if one or more of the individuals involved take this assessment personally. There is a conscious effort not to be critical of individuals and to look at the overall board performance.  A few of the questions do however single out the board president and  that person’s individual performance is in fact to some extent under a microscope but is still in the context of the overall board performance.

In the months and years ahead, I will suggest to more of the boards that I serve on and to the individuals I serve with, that a self assessment be built in on a regular basis.  I recommend that my colleagues do the same.  The practice makes sense and the improvement in performance can make a positive difference.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Outcomes Assessment

My car, similar to many recent model domestic and foreign cars, has a stop/start engine capability. If I apply the brakes, the engine stops within a few seconds and once I step on the accelerator, the engine springs back to life almost seamlessly. Initially, I wondered about the reliability of the stop start technology. My painful experience with a Chevrolet Vega has conditioned me to expect that once the engine stops, good luck in getting it started again. But the experience to date, through thousands of miles of driving, has relieved my anxieties and built up my confidence. I know that start/stop works and that it is reliable.

As noted above, the start/stop process is almost seamless but you are nevertheless aware that the engine is stopping and starting. But this is a small price to pay for saving gas and being more economical. But that leads to the following key question: what is the savings involved and in a cost benefit analysis, how does the savings compare to the extra costs involved. In other words, I am looking for outcomes assessment on the car level.

When outcomes assessment first surfaced in higher education and also in K-12 education, I wondered whether these efforts were really necessary. There were many outcomes that were clearly present, so what was the necessity of a comprehensive effort in this area. There were also substantial additional costs involved in undertaking any comprehensive assessment effort. However, working with outcomes assessment over these recent years and seeing how it now leads naturally to continuous improvement has convinced me as to the wisdom of the efforts in this area. Especially the migration of assessment to the individual areas and courses in the curriculum has convinced me that on both the micro level and the macro level, education and our students are the beneficiaries.

On the K-12 level, I am equally convinced about the benefit of comprehensive outcomes assessment but I am also somewhat more concerned. I have this feeling and some supporting data to go with the feeling, that assessment has resulted in an overemphasis on testing. And too much testing too early in a student’s career replaces a love of learning with a sense of apprehension which is clearly counterproductive. We need a balance and we need assessment that is imbedded in the curriculum rather than overemphasizing examinations.

I am a lifetime subscriber to Consumer Reports and a tremendous fan of their highly systematic assessment of the worth of many products and many services. Their testing of cars and their surveys of car owners constitute a model of assessment in the moment and over time that has been unmatched for many years, and still is unmatched by any of the competition.