One of the most heinous problems with value-based debate is that the kids who are actively doing it tend to not understand what a value actually is.  This problem isn’t restricted just to kids.  Ashley Merryman, writing for Newsweek, suggests that “US School Kids Are Doing Better Than Ever – But You Never Hear It” using graduation rates and tests and all of that stuff.  What she never does is correlate that to actual success in a competitive field, or demonstrate that the metrics she is providing have intrinsic worth.  Certainly scoring higher on A Test is going to be a prima facie good thing… but what makes A Test worth taking?  The question is outside the scope of the article, which really undermines its ability to be contrary to the usual doom-oriented thinking that most trolls (like me) engage in.  The closest she comes to providing a qualitative measure of things getting better would be claiming that “fewer colleges and universities even offer remedial programs than they did in decades past.”  I would generally expect that this is because colleges don’t want to have to offer those courses more often than their not being necessary.  First case in point would be Mr. Newell’s counter-claim that in 2001, 10% of students in Oregon’s state university system took remedial math.  But the other counter-point here would be that the selectivity of colleges has gone down due to freshman seats in colleges outpacing the increase of high school graduates.  The evidence is over here, with the key point being

The number of high school graduates in the United States, from 1955 to today, increased by 131 percent, she notes, but the number of freshman seats in the U.S. rose by 297 percent. “This suggests that the absolute standard of achievement required of a freshman who successfully competed for a seat was falling,” Hoxby writes… The number of college seats available to students who — judging by NAEP scores and college admission records — are only moderately or minimally prepared has gone up.

There’s two points to be made here, with the easier point starting a long chain that hooks into the second point near the end.  The easier point to make is that, when offered money to deliver “success,” people adjust their definition of “success” to make it more achievable — and this is especially true for cash-starved state education systems.  The Christian Science Monitor recently summarized a survey of “proficiency” definitions in “Student ‘proficiency’: What is your state’s definition?” which came back with disappointing results:

“A proficient reader in State A may be very different from a proficient reader in State B – even though those students may have the same academic skill,” says Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessment at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which released the study Thursday… The level considered proficient in 31 states didn’t even reach the “basic” level on NAEP. Not a single state had standards that reached NAEP’s “proficient” level… “This is a black box to most people,” Ms. Winkler adds. “The concept of proficiency is bandied about, … but there are a lot of ways and mechanisms states can use to make it appear they’re performing better than they are.”

Never mind the correlation that the Washington State Board of Health found between soda consumption and academic failure, as a nation we’re unable to define success at a level that is actually successful — let alone definitive.  But testing harder isn’t going to give us more learning or better education by itself.  Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, explains to the Wall Street Journal that improving education requires motivating — frankly — smarter people to teach.

The most important thing is to bring to K-12 education college graduates who excel in math and science. Those countries that are doing best are recruiting their K-12 teachers from the top third of their college graduates. America is recruiting our teachers generally from the bottom third, and when you go into our high-needs communities, we’re clearly underserving them.

And this clearly echoes writing from Paul Graham which I’ve linked to elsewhere, even before we get into how lowered standards stifle gifted students — ignoring bizarre cases where you can’t tell whether the school is being dumb about the student or the student is being dumb about the cultural narrative.  My ongoing point, based on my as-a-student experience with mathematics teachers especially, is that we need more motivational teachers to help engage kids with subject matter.  Somewhere along the line, somebody boiled down “smart” to “IQ” which was never the right thing to do — but it fits on a PowerPoint slide! — and we now have to be reminded by New Scientist that the correlation between IQ and intellect is not absolute.

But the tests fall down when it comes to measuring those abilities crucial to making good judgements in real-life situations. That’s because they are unable to assess things such as a person’s ability to critically weigh up information, or whether an individual can override the intuitive cognitive biases that can lead us astray… “A high IQ is like height in a basketball player,” says David Perkins, who studies thinking and reasoning skills at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It is very important, all other things being equal. But all other things aren’t equal. There’s a lot more to being a good basketball player than being tall, and there’s a lot more to being a good thinker than having a high IQ.”

To put it another way, it requires more than latent talent to think; you also have to be engaged.  Po Bronson, who also writes for Newsweek, allegedly on the same column that started us off, appears to have  been surprised by this when he (mis-)wrote “Why Dumb Toys Make Kids Smarter” and lost most of his credibility with me.  The article in question isn’t about dumb toys at all; it’s about toys that don’t tout their educational benefits — in this case, collectible card games.  Po was previously unaware of how much directly-applied math and statistics kids are inspired to learn when competing with friends over zero-sum card games.  He is still, as near as I can tell, unaware of how to teach the less pleasant of economic realities associated with collectible card games — and I speak from my experience having been a kid who obsessed over baseball cards because Magic: The Gathering hadn’t been introduced quite yet, but boy was I a sucker for that, too, when the time came.  I shudder to think of the conclusions of Po’s slack-jawed drooling if I were to point him to the World of Warcraft Recount add-on which is, frankly, is really stinking awesome but utterly fails the directive of “Under no circumstances should you not solve a real problem” and thus needs to be taken as it is, and as limited as it is, because Po’s experience with Pokemon which his son abandoned of his own volition made Po realize

When it comes to kids, we often bring moralistic bias to their interests. There’s a pervasive tendency in our society to label things as either good for children or bad for children. Cultivating children’s natural intrinsic motivation requires abandoning all judgment of good and bad content. Society has a long list of subjects that we’ve determined they should learn. But learning itself is kick-started when enmeshed and inseparable from what a child inherently loves.

This may be a bit overstated, but is consistent with Mike Crawford’s claims about Shop Class as Soulcraft, in which he cites Doug Stowe making the much more precise assertion that

[I]n schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.

which, again, echoes links I’ve previously made to Paul Graham, and reminds me of my own experience with the public school system.  Simply put, any student who is merely smart (in the “quick-witted and/or clever” sense of the word, not necessarily in the “learned” and certainly not “wise”) can coast through through the continually diminishing standards of our public school system without ever developing the kind of motivation that they should have to maximize their value to society and civilization.  Put another way, most kids “value” education because people tell them that it’s the ticket to a better life, rather than because they love being educated, probably, I expect (based on my previous experience as a student and current feedback as a volunteer) because teachers that can share the joys of applied discovery aren’t the norm, and are further constrained by state-specified curriculum — which is why I’m happy-enough with my choice to be a programmer instead of a teacher at this juncture.

My volunteering with a local school is motivated by the belief — for which I have no actual evidence — that there is a statistical band of kids, probably between the 85th and 97th percentiles that are disenfranchised by doing well-enough such that they don’t warrant the kind of special attention that geniuses or failures or “socioeconomically underpriviledged” youth get in our society.  Intel recently sponsored a study that found that a lot of parents aren’t really involved in their kids’ homework — specifically math and science, in which, to be fair, I’m not involved in either — without regard for whether the children were socioeconomically underprivileged or not.  But this detachment between parents* in the real world and kids in contrived classrooms only serves to reinforce how contrived the classroom is and demotivate the child from appreciating the material so that it can be readily-known for real-world application later.  I have even seen this in debate cases written by one student who is sharp enough to apparently be bored out of his mind and thus doesn’t seriously consider the resolution on his way to writing something which is as outlandish as it is theoretically correct.  While the limits-testing he is expressing can be healthy, the limited amount of time spent in coaching and competition mitigates the actual learning he could be doing, both in his testing of limits and, when he (quickly) tires of that, plumbing the depths of the resolution as originally intended.

The consequence of the students who are good enough to be disenfranchised (no matter which of the multifaceted points of causation rouses the rabble at the moment) appears to be showing up in “Student-to-College Mismatch seen as Graduation-Rate Issue” which starts by pointing at the book Crossing the Finish Line.  This book “suggests that one reason so many academically talented students leave college without a diploma may be that they enroll in schools for which they are overqualified.”  The article goes on with some actual evidence, noting that

Among all North Carolina students who qualified on paper for a top-tier state school, the study found, those who chose the next-most-competitive level of school were 15 percentage points less likely to graduate within four years, and 22 percentage points less likely to graduate in six years… Some other experts have pointed out, however, that the findings do not take into account other differences among students, such as variations in motivation or drive, that could also explain the better outcomes for high-achieving students at the elite schools.

And I would agree, within the multifaceted nature of this issue, that “variations in motivation or drive” are absolutely the source of collegiate disconnection, and here we hook the second point on reduce college admissions selectivity.  Given a college that needs some moneyed students (or rather, parents) to pay full price for their education and some students to be support staff, as it were, that will provide the academic laurels that will inspire said moneyed parents to pay for the less academically capable students to attend the glorious institution — I’ve written about this — then the combination of “Oh, you belong here” and “Here’s a generous financial aid package to make it easy” are going to sucker fully-capable kids into enrolling in and filling seats at universities that are — frankly — not capable of fulfilling them.  Having survived four years of high school with the anticipation of moving on from the contrived, boring and sterile classroom, the prospect of paying any amount for four more years of boring, contrived and sterile lecture hall — which is how most freshman classes are; they don’t get better until the 300 level and above — may motivate students to quit.  Honestly, I expect the only reason I was able to get my 4-year degree from the university I did was because I got it in 3 years: I couldn’t have tolerated it for another year.  (And it was just as well — I got out of college and into a job just as the dot-com craze began to collapse.)

This reaction to underwhelming sterility is a reaction to an unnatural normality.  Going back to Mike Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, he writes “It is a rare person who is naturally inclined to sit still for sixteen years in school, and then indefinitely at work, yet… this has become the one-size-fits-all norm, even as we go on about ‘diversity.'”  And now we’re seeing the fallout in the quantity of people that aren’t sticking with the cultural narrative of getting a college education as being the absolute ticket to a better life.

So let’s look back to Ashley Merryman, who, in the context of a value debate, would almost certainly claim to value “education.”  There’s nothing wrong with that stance — I expect a lot of people would value education as a piece of the cultural narrative.  But what does it mean?  With deference to a Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr., let me say…

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about [education]. All right, here is how I feel about [education]:

If when you say education, you mean the transferring of knowledge and experience from an elder generation of our species and civilization to a younger generation, such that the younger generation is better-prepared to address and succeed in the world they inhabit and are to inherit, then I certainly am for it.

But if when you say education, you mean the blanket conferrence of state-approved homogenized cultural norms onto the vital and vibrant youth of our great nation in the taxpayer-funded isolation of structures and institutions which create the pejorative meaning of “school” until they have generally attained such age and conformity as they may be fit to serve the continuity of our civilization, perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan, then I certainly am against it.

“This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

But hopefully it shows how a shallowly held value can be readily twisted by the implementation of efforts to promote that value, how criterion and metrics can be skewed, and the fruitlessness of debating on the merits of achieving a value through any manner of action that can be described in a 16-minute case (inclusive of rebuttals) — with that final point being a bit of wisdom that we ultimately hope our debate geeks will all come to realize before they slack their way into something myopic that may mitigate the realization of their potential.

Update November 17, 2009: I’m afraid a lot of my education-oriented writings may come across as generally disparaging of teachers.  To be clear, I generally regard people who teach because they want to teach as having an abundance of good motives (required to make up for the lack of socioeconomic appreciation), but varying degrees of capability — and those with the most capability tend to get it mitigated out of them by bureaucrats reinforcing Parkinson’s Law and our lovely society misallocating resources for maximized ineffectiveness.  So when the New York Times runs a story about teachers selling lesson plans online, I have to generally say “Good on ya!” to the teachers that are doing good enough work to package and sell.  While I have a strong preference towards supporting the teachers that reinvest their revenue stream into either their classroom or their continued education, I have to say that I generally support this on the initial assumption that the career teachers that are successfully selling lesson plans and not currently reinvesting the revenue in the career have likely already spent more than their supplemental income on spare training or materials for their classrooms or specific students anyway.  The odd flip-side of this, of course, are the teachers who are buying these materials: given that selling is a sign of capability, then buying is necessarily an admission of incapability.  And when there is more incapability than there is capability in any professional, then they’re not really operating at the “professional” level, are they?  And these are the people — the football coaches actively misteaching history, the little old ladies extolling the virtues of not consuming poison or sharing venereal diseases as a “health” class, et cetera — that we actively rely upon to do a disservice to young people throughout the nation so that we not only don’t feel guilty about ignoring them ourselves but can also use to demonstrate a failing educational system that shouldn’t have more money thrown at it.  Rejoining back to the question of who I’m disparaging here, it would be the people whose (hypothetical) good intentions have outstripped their capacity for professional success — because the best of intentions do nothing to mitigate the worst of results.  Of course, the other issue is that of copyright on the lesson plans and, legally speaking, school districts can make claims that they own the copyright on those works as teachers are employed and salaried and so forth.  Legally, I expect this is correct.  I don’t believe that it is right, but it is legally correct.  And thus the people who are lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness only to find that the candle must meet union regulations and state requirements on where is goes and what it illuminates… become more unfortunate examples of good intentions being compromised by capabilities.

* Parents who may well be eagerly anticipating the day they can be emancipated from their children by the simple act of buying the burdensome offspring A Car! — yet another aspect of parenthood I don’t feel I’m missing out on…