Revaluation FTWTF

The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.  The state of Oregon has (non-linear) standards for judging high schools, and they apparently rate Glencoe as Satisfactory.  But Glencoe’s reputation at the federal level is “Repeatedly missed targets, on ‘troubled’ list.”  Which really doesn’t hold with what Oregon says, and is rather opposite of the US News rating of the school (which the Oregonian is rather proud of).  See, they say that Glencoe gets a silver medal which is rather more than satisfactory and certainly not troubled.  Who’s right?  Well that probably depends on what you care most about.

So when we get to the Christian Science Monitor not doing a particularly stellar job of explaining “Why US high school reform efforts aren’t working,” we’re keyed to look for a line like “almost half of low-income high school students and their parents say that the primary mission of high school is to prepare them for college, only 9 percent of educators say that’s their primary task” which really highlights the disparity between expectations.

Traditionally, the college education has been viewed as a necessary-and-good step on the ladder of personal socioeconomic progress.  It has been woven into our cultural narrative and Matt Crawford covers it extensively in Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I’ve mentioned before and lays the groundwork of a counterpoint.  The counterpoint has been growing ever since the Dot-Com Burst at the turn of the century left a lot of college graduates trying to start careers that weren’t where they had been the year before.  And now we’ve got Fast Company, as a for-example, asking “Is College Really Worth It?” which is rather more gentle than Philip Greenspun or the Boston Globe’s calling-out of “The college admissions scam” (which we know, from Inside Higher Ed that I’ve referenced in “Valuation,” is partially a side effect of overzealous capacity expansion of universities but is also certainly a bubble effect as we have to rethink the knowledge economy).

So there are two especially glaring issues that are disrupting the dialog about the narrative.  For higher education, the simple fact of the matter is that not all college educations are created equal — the institutions, subject matter, and students all set the stage for unequal return on investment.  But what concerns me more is that our primary education systems are, from a legislative level on down, being told to ensure that we have No Child Left Behind… which conversely means that we’ve got a dearth of Children Actually Getting Ahead.  Public schools are being run with such an aversion to failure that the kids who are fairly well set up to achieve something are instead disenfranchised as “successful enough.”  Yes, I’ve yowled about this before, but the problem is that now we’ve got college professors complaining in the Boston Globe about their “lazy American students” and prompting a knee-jerk response about “lazy American teachers,” go figure.  Now there are numerous things wrong here (more with the latter than the former) but the thing that strikes me as odd as that the latter doesn’t realize that in as much as his complaint about “lazy teachers” covers the High School spectrum where kids are becoming bored instead of disciplined and focused, he’s got the exact same complaint as the college professor.  But the subtler similarity is that both the college professor and the guy who dropped out of college also both assume, per the cultural narrative, that people are supposed to go to college and continue with formalized secondary education.  The professor doesn’t even begin to suggest that perhaps some of her lazy students just plain don’t belong in her lecture hall.  And the person of dubious academic qualifications seems quite sure that the problem with the system is the people who have implemented it rather than anything more core to the system than that.

Anyway, the point behind all of the lazy people is that we’ve got so much common ground we don’t seem to notice that we’re all standing on it.  Our real problem is holding down specific goals, even as we share a vocabulary.  I noticed this a while back when one of my debaters mentioned that there were two years of AP English.  This surprised me at the time, but the New York Times confirms (via Patrick Welsh, a career educator and one voice among several) that advanced placement curriculum is changing:

In the last 10 years, Advanced Placement has become a game of labels and numbers, a public relations ploy used by school officials who are dumping as many students as they can into A.P. courses to create the illusion that they are raising overall standards and closing the gap between whites and minorities. In fact, they are doing just the opposite. And in the process, Advanced Placement has become the College Board’s cash cow as each year tens of thousands more students — or their school boards — fork over an $86 fee for each exam.

So the lingering mental model of AP curriculum that I recall from 12th grade apparently can be substituted with its modern counterpart in the same way that teachers can be substituted for, excepting that they can’t.

But meandering back a bit and on a tangent, what I found to be particularly galling about the “lazy teachers” article isn’t his apparent “I was wronged by the faulty people implementing a perfect cultural narrative and my socioeconomic success is my revenge” attitude, and it isn’t that he seems to believe that cursing the darkness and lighting candles are mutually exclusive activities, but rather that he thinks — sarcastically I’m certain, but the words are there — that the coffee provided to public school teachers (typically in the staff lounge, not the cafeteria as far as I know) in the United States is capable of motivating anybody.  Seriously.  If you think a cup of coffee is going to help, then let’s invest more in their coffee — because I can assure you that the unholy ashes of coffee-flavored substance that typically gets used is pretty much at the bottom of the economic bean-pile.  If coffee is going to help, then how about we start picking up some nice Ethiopian beans?  I’m polishing off a pound of Columbian from El Jordan which is really probably the nicest full-on coffee I’ve brewed since the Ethiopian Wondo, though the Rwandan Vunga was quite nice.  Of course, the best I ever had would be the Panama Geisha at Lava Java… which was sitting at $100 per pound.  But if that’s what it takes to ensure the future progress of our civilization through properly educated youth, then maybe it’s a small price to pay.  Except that it isn’t what it will take and I rather expect that everybody knows it and the terseness of the “wake up and smell the coffee” line is just another form of cursing the darkness because somebody thinks that lighting a candle is too damned hard.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that it is almost that simple.  So I could be wrong, and kudos to the chef who is doing something interesting with his 15 minutes of fame; sir, you do put a smile on my face.

And also, to be fair about the lazy teachers, there are reports of professors using PowerPoint in “the wild” as it were.  You would think that they might have heard rumors of Tufte’s work on the subject of PowerPoint, but evidently not.  Presumably no more than, oh say, their employers realized that they were issuing diplomas to felines.  So we are almost certainly seeing a decline in academic rigor in universities, which strikes me as little more than the first consequence of over-expansion (see above) and will be nothing compared to the shock and pain the industry goes through and entire colleges are culled out of existence because our cultural narrative becomes honest about how the value of a college education is speculative, not guaranteed.

So in the end (more because it is late than because it is over), there’s two things kids need to know about the modern education that is being inflicted upon them which I suspect I’ve said before or at least heard elsewhere:

  1. The goal of primary education is increasingly to ensure that anybody can pass it.  If you want to be somebody, you have to have higher standards for yourself than just “pass.”  There is no set upper limit to your success; there is no set speed limit preventing you from getting there faster.  If you think, for example, that you’re not learning chemistry properly, then go requisition a chemistry set and an experiment book.  It’s not rocket science, but it’s more than I’ve done with science lately.
  2. As far as college education goes, if you’re a smart enough and self-starting enough kind of person, then skip as much of the 100-level coursework as possible.  Even some of the 200-level coursework can be rather flat.  The best singular decision I made in college — which is to say that I made it once and never reconsidered — was to jump right into a (university mandated) philosophy course at the 300-level where the subject matter was focused and the professor actually cared about it… and the class only had a dozen or so students.

Hopefully this will be useful to somebody, but since it is now tomorrow, I’m going to downgrade my optimism to hoping that it’s merely coherent.