High School

I’ve started volunteering with local high school speech and debate teams as a critic.  I’m fortunate to work for a huge corporation that doesn’t just complain about the failing US public education system, but actively supports its employees volunteering at schools — and donates $10 on a per-hour-volunteered basis.  It may not sound like much, but a team going from paying $100  to hire a critic per tournament day to getting $100 for having a volunteer critic per tournament day is a pretty impressive reversal of fortune for a cash-strapped extracurricular activity, especially as budgetary cuts are ravaging local school districts.

I have been asked back to take a more mentoring-intensive role in the program next year, on the optimistic assumption that the program survives the summer.  As a private citizen, I am looking forward to the opportunity to represent my priorities to the public education system in an immutable way… which is a lot of my concern around the budget cuts: most of the people involved in cutting budgets are merely trying to defend the entitlement of their preferred subject or needful child in the educational system.  When the local newspaper reports on several of these potential priorities in sequence, it clearly demonstrates that we don’t know what we want to spend our budget on.

My employer has long been concerned that the US public educational system doesn’t put enough effort into math and science.  The No Child Left Behind thing put emphasis on hitting metrics for math and reading.  My interest in educational priorities piqued a few years ago when my wife was writing a paper in response to an “Art in Schools: Get Your Share” advertising campaign in her college Writing for Artists course:  a brief Return-on-Investment analysis of generally available (and/or mandated) art classes in K-12 public education compared to spending more on mathematics, literacy, science, or writing and composition — so that quasi-remedial courses like Writing for Artists wouldn’t be necessary — brings about the inevitable conclusion that no matter how much we like art, it’s not a priority worth funding above other subjects.  (On an amusing note, she took my line of argumentation and developed it into her position paper that the professor absolutely disagreed with, but could find no logical fault with.)

But the experience made think about which students are the priority of the public school system.  Having survived the allegedly best years of my life, I couldn’t honestly say that my education felt like much of a priority to the school.  What I remember of my senior year of high school was slacking through math class — downgraded from the calculus that had been available to my brother — taught by a softball coach and an awful lot of writing (with the only creative work surrounding a reinterpretation of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” being dismissed with a C because it wasn’t in line with what the curriculum said was an acceptable answer) which got me through the AP English exam, but didn’t really equip me for writing position-taking university-level papers.  At that point, I had effectively forgotten that special education programs existed — I was looking forward to college and was simply glad that I didn’t have to do group projects with the previously inevitable no-account bums and moochers anymore.  Several things didn’ t occur to me about what was happening with regards to my education:

It had occurred to me that the kids who I had academically surpassed had to be in some classroom, but I hadn’t formed the straight-faced connection between an educational and a penal institution.  It certainly hadn’t occurred to me that society might be investing more in their education than it was investing in mine.  Which brings us back to a longer gawk at the  Time article from 2007:

American schools spend more than $8 billion a year educating the mentally retarded. Spending on the gifted isn’t even tabulated in some states, but by the most generous calculation, we spend no more than $800 million on gifted programs. But it can’t make sense to spend 10 times as much to try to bring low-achieving students to mere proficiency as we do to nurture those with the greatest potential… In a no-child-left-behind conception of public education, lifting everyone up to a minimum level is more important than allowing students to excel to their limit. It has become more important for schools to identify deficiencies than to cultivate gifts… [NCLB] has forced schools to deeply subsidize the education of the least gifted, and gifted programs have suffered.

So when I’m judging debates on whether No Child Left Behind has increased academic achievement and not a bloody one of the kids stands up and says “passing a standardized test of competency isn’t the same thing as actual achievement,” it becomes my duty as a cold, calloused, elitist jerk to volunteer to help mentor and coach some of these kids who are stuck in a chronically under-performing system that funds mediocrity above meritocracy.

What does it take to do this?  Just being a critic takes a lot of patience — which I don’t always have — to listen to kids claiming laughably wrong things like “democracies don’t start wars” and that the problem with Hanford can be solved by banning uranium mining.  Which is why I’m looking forward to increasing my involvement if the program survives the summer.  My brief experience actually mentoring debaters this Spring boiled down to adulating them for the arguments that worked, berating them for the arguments that didn’t, and advising them on what they should go read to gain some authority on what they were talking about — with Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma being a frequent recommendation regarding ethanol, subsidies and solving for world hunger.  I was a bit astonished (and elated) that the debaters reacted enthusiastically to the criticisms I leveled against them — they seemed to really appreciate the feedback on where to focus and how to improve.

So I’m looking forward to the fall and having the opportunity to introduce a small batch of almost-adults to patterns of thought that are absolutely not on the standardized public curriculum, starting with Paul Graham’s “What You’ll Wish You’d Known.

June 22, 2009: The misaligned emphasis on special education funding hits uncomfortably close to home:  parents with an ADHD kid have successfully sued the Forest Grove school district for full reimbursement of private boarding school expenses to the tune of around $65,000 per year, which they unilaterally decided to ship him off to after the district decided that the child’s ADHD didn’t have a “sufficiently significant adverse impact on his educational performance.”  By way of comparison, the Forest Grove school district spends roughly $7850 per student per year, such that the cost of educating this especially needy child is more than it would cost to educate eight other more-ordinary kids.  So when the parents say they “felt good that it was a victory for children with special needs throughout the country,” they can only do so with a selfish and wanton ignorance of all of the people that they’ve ripped off to do what they wanted to do.

Pardon me if I don’t sound sympathetic here, but as an Oregon taxpayer I’m feeling robbed.  I just don’t see one kid’s ADHD as a condition that could possibly warrant a public expenditure of $65,000 per year.  Maybe it’s because I knew a handful of ADHD kids in public school back before ADHD was popular.  We had a bunch of mentally retarded folks, too.  We had a kid who lost his limbs in a farming accident.  We had a deaf girl doing quite well on the debate team.  So this notion that parents who aren’t satisfied with how a public institution caters to their offspring’s demands can sue, effectively, society to fund a “separate-but-not-equal” version of the institution strikes me as a gross insult.

But that’s where this really goes back to, isn’t it?  This decision clearly undermines the public school system by effectively allowing conservatives to re-introduce “separate but equal” (even though nothing here is equal) while getting liberal help to subsidize the “most vulnerable members of our society.”  Chief Justice Roberts would certainly dismiss this allegation with a smirk, noting that only 1% of parents nationwide place their children in private schools due to special needs.  But this claim is missing the math:  if a student with special needs costs as much as eight ordinary students, then the fiscal damage to schools that don’t have 1% of special needs students is going to be clocking in at the disproportionately high 8%.  No matter how much I dislike him, I expect that Chief Justice Roberts is a smart man and has absolutely done this math.  To this end, I have to view this decision as a malicious attack on public education with all taxpayers being unfortunately caught in the blast.

November 11, 2009: There were a couple of articles in The Oregonian the other day about Oregon public schools.  And they are astonishing.  The first — and more awful — article says that our schools are generally doing fine against the metrics officially set for them.  Now as much as I’d like to claim that they aren’t, that their test scores are far too low, etc, I really can’t do that because I’m I know that I’m an unsympathetic elitist jerk and shouldn’t be surprised that our test scores tend to come in at the traditional “average” bracket.  No, the part I call shenanigans on would be where the scoring goes from being an objective measure of a schools’ ability to prepare any student for life to being a game with some students being worth more than others — particularly the ones that are harder to educate:

The Oregon Department of Education, which graded public schools using a single method for 10 straight years, changed its approach this year. The agency wanted to be more fair to schools and to put more emphasis on getting historically low-achieving groups of students to catch up, said Tony Alpert, director of accountability for the department… Among the biggest changes: There are three rating categories, down from five; schools get credit for helping students show growth; and a school’s success or failure with its low-income, minority, special education and limited English students counts twice as much as its results with traditionally higher scoring groups.

Frankly, it’s one hell of a way to tell the kids you expect to be successful that you really don’t care so much about them.  Which is something they already know, only now it’s published in The Oregonian as state policy.  And this is sad to the point of absurd for the teachers who are in the classroom (and the first-line administrators like Principal Yarnell of Aloha High School) seeing the bright sparks fizzling out from boredom in grades 11 and 12, but are being told to keep pouring resources into the kids who haven’t been bright in the past decade-ish of time in the public education system because their objective, numerical test scores are somehow worth more.  This is an abject disavowal of equality, a reversal of meritocracy, and an obscene display of pandering to the Cult of Self-Esteem by suggesting that if we just coddle the long-running under-performers even more then they’ll be monumental successes that we can have twice as much pride in as the kids that we actually expect to go on and do great things with their lives.

The other article is about how we’ve only got mediocre innovation in our schools.  This shouldn’t surprise anybody.  It’s a side effect of teaching being the career instead of the specialized subject matter being the career.  The distinction is that we have math teachers instead of mathematicians who teach.  So when we’re talking about a school that has teachers with an average of almost 12 years of professional experience — I’m only coming up on 11 as a programmer — we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re really passionate about “reaching” the kids (especially the ones that are marked as being worth twice as much?) but don’t have substantial passion for what they’re teaching.

I was judging the Silverton speech tournament last weekend.  Of the three (maybe four) math classes I judged rounds in, only one of them appeared to have any interest in math.  One room had no interest in anything, while college basketball and self-esteem overwhelmed any subject matter that might have pervaded the room(s).  As far as connecting mathematics to where the students wanted to go or the problems the students wanted to solve in life, there was no visible connection.  And this is sad because one of my most distinct memories from college was my Computer Science 270 course where Dr. Edison would completely geek out (frequently and often) on the joys of basic data structures because he cared more about the material than he necessarily cared about us and was generally relying on his enthusiasm being infectious to draw us in, rather than reaching out to offer us something that wasn’t really relevant to him.  He had exactly no visible interest in self-esteem or sports of any kind; his grey matter was focused on bits and bytes.

It’s not easy to get a teaching pool full of Dr. Edisons, but we should try to fill our teaching pool with people who can be passionate about what they’re teaching.  Except that we not only know that we’re not doing that, but by distancing teachers from their curriculum (and it’s a spreading plague) we’re ensuring that the teachers can’t be passionate about what they’re teaching and thus have diminished capacity to explore their subject matter — or at least connect their own personal geeking-out to their teaching — to provide students with the most sterile and least compelling educational experience money can pay for.  Which is to say that even for the teachers whose passion can measure up to their best intentions (which I expect they generally have to have in order to become teachers), the bureaucratic public system is designed to ensure that their ability to actually teach is mitigated from the start and diminished over the course of their career.

November 24:  This past weekend, I met a little old man who is a teacher.  I don’t recall what started the particular spur of conversation I listened in on (I do remember a later chunk involving a lady going to teach middle school to the shock and horror of her peers) but this guy was talking about how he’s got cheerleaders in his classes that have been arrested for assault (in broad daylight) and prostitution (probably not in broad daylight).  There are a lot of little monsters out there — “evil” was the word being tossed around — and I really do appreciate the teachers with the best of intentions keeping the bastards away from me.

But what I was really coming in to write about was a TAG article in the Oregonian about my dear Hillsboro school district here.  It makes me wonder if my ruckus-raising is starting to have an effect.  Mostly it’s talking about trying to find gifted kids in minority communities.  The key thing to note is that

By law, school districts must identify their talented and gifted students and educate them at their level and rate, or pace, of learning. [but] The district budgeted $439,000 for TAG this year, which is slightly less than last year as a result of budget cuts. Many districts spend nothing. The state does not fund TAG programs.

That’s a mixture of fantastic and disappointing, but generally not too surprising.  Where things get odd is when the article says

Schools must also recognize students who demonstrate the potential to perform at the 97th percentile. Typically, those students include minorities, low-income and learning disabled students.

While I can understand how a socioeconomically disadvantaged student may demonstrate gifted behavior, and expect that a socioeconomically disadvantaged student is “likely” in a minority group somehow, I’m utterly unsure of how a learning-disabled student is going to demonstrate giftedness.  But it could just be a fluke of the article, which also cites “The kids may not have a computer at home” as a reason for students not seeming to be talented and gifted when studies that the teachers were chatting about on Saturday are showing that the interwebs are preventing the neural pathways related to attention span, memory, and coherent analytical thinking capacity from properly developing.