I was sitting in the market with my sketchpad, scribbling away as I’m oft apt to do on relaxingly sunny Saturday afternoons when tribulation finds me. She just had this sketch-disrupting aura about her. The kind of aura that said “none of the four little bastards I pushed out have called to tell me that they love me today, so I’m feeling particularly needy at the moment despite operational facade of a superiority complex to which I will subject you to in approximately two minutes.” She was short and round, wearing a sweatshirt with a horse’s head ironed onto it. Her grey hair was a mullet and her face was twisted like a sphincter and I could feel my faith in humanity wilting due to her proximity alone.

She didn’t start out talking to me, of course, any more than a plague lights up Patient Zero in big neon lights. No, she perused the sketches — collectively a series on wolves, sheep and supermarkets — with inquisitional eyes, as if trying to gaze through them to see the next sketch in the stack. Or maybe telekinetically flip the sketch in front to expose the next one. Or at least draw a whimpered apology out of the front sketch for obscuring her view.

The sketches quietly refused to comply.

Eventually she broke down and reached out her hand to move the sketches in the hands-off manner of a person who is confused about why their telekinetic powers don’t work on anything that isn’t part of their own body. But having flipped the first sketch, her curiousity took over and she pawed through the rest of the stack with all of the engagment of a seven-year old that has just had an ice cream sandwich melt all over her fat little hands. I began counting down the seconds until the two minutes of silence were up. Her breathing was getting heavier and huffier in that rapidly exasperated way that short round old women who aren’t adequately appreciated by their children are categorically capable of. Finally, her majesty deigned to address what she expected was a grungy street urchin scraping by at the bottom of the social barrel. Which is to say that she didn’t know about my day job as a computer programmer.

“Do you have anything with horses?” she asked, uncomfortably puffing up her chest to accentuate the horse’s head that I’m certain would be a harbinger of doom in any man’s bed. “I’ve got this thing for horses,” she added as if trying to excuse the visible symptoms of a disease.

I have this thing for horses, too. It’s called “disdain” and it goes back to when I got kicked by one as a child. Now I know that it’s not right to disdain an entire species of animal based on the dumb and spiteful behavior of Mister Dogfood — it’s just that I never got around to figuring out why I should try to like horses in modern society. I grew up and moved to the suburbs on the edge of the city and generally hadn’t thought about horses since, except when reading tourist adverts that suggested that I should take time out of my vacation to sit upon the back of one of these kick-tacular beasts.

“No ma’am,” I replied as my hand continued to scribble away on a newly-focused tangent, “this is the wolves, sheep and supermarkets department. Equestrianism is,” and I paused wondering if any of the other vendors who actually did do this for a living might be able to handle this tribulation better but came up empty and had to end with a dismissive “… somewhere else.” But my hand kept scribbling, knowing that the dismissal wouldn’t be accepted. She was clearly too needy to be dismissed.

“Oh,” she said while the words decomposed in her ears. “Well, that’s too bad for you because if you did horses, I’d have bought them all. Because I have this thing for horses,” repeated her twisted little face as she tugged uncomfortably at her sweatshirt. “You lost a valuable customer by not having horses,” she added. “You should consider doing horses for next time.”

My hand skipped a beat in its scribbles at the ignorant audacity of her closing statements. I’d say it’s like going to a supermarket (like the ones I’ve been sketching) and self-righteously complaining about their lack of sofa selection. Except that I’m not even an art supermarket here — I’m the espresso cart of the Saturday Market art world. I mean, let me check my pockets here, but… nope, no sofas! I had to bite my lip briefly to properly formulate a reply. I glanced down at the sketch that I’d been scribbling together for the past couple of minutes. It was done enough for my purposes. I looked back up at the tribulation and smiled apologetically.

“Thank you for that advice ma’am. I’m sorry I couldn’t meet your artistic needs today. But you may be pleased to know that I’m already working to heed your advice and expand my selection. In honor of that, please take this very first in my new line of sketches; I call it Crazy Old Bat #1.”

Nice Guys

It was a cold and dreary evening in early November on the wet side of Washington. Us guys were sitting around playing cards because that’s what we did back in those days. World of Warcraft hadn’t been invented yet — it wouldn’t be invented for about a year, and even then it would be called “Ultima Online.” So us guys were sitting around playing cards. And some of our friends who happened to be girls wandered in. This pleasant occurance wasn’t unusual. We were varying degrees of nice guys and it was easy for women to come chill out with us.

Tonight, however, something was amiss. One of them had just broken up with Sam. We all knew Sam — he was the nicest, sweetest, cutest math nerd in a twenty mile radius. He was totally Criminy from Sinfest, but without the glasses and probably a bit more self-confidence. So we were a bit surprised that these events had transpired, but we were nice guys so we didn’t say anything. Besides, her friends wouldn’t have let us get a word in edgewise.

“Oh my gosh, he’s just a total sweetheart!” one of them was saying, reflecting our naive perspective on the situation, “How could you break up with him?”

“Well, we just didn’t mesh,” the other explained, while telempathically projecting that she was bored by how boy-next-door nice he was. “But he’s available now if either of you want him.”

“What, and catch this kind of grief from you two when I break up with him?” replied the third.

“Yeah, no, absolutely not,” said the first one with granite authority, “dating nice guys is a losing game because chances are that you will break up, but when you do it’s always ‘oh he’s such a nice guy’ and you’re always such a bitch.”

“Conversely,” continued the third, “you can date a whole string of assholes, and break up with each and every one of them with impunity. In fact, all of your friends will be glad you came to your senses and broke up with the jerk — every single time.”

“See, it’s nice to hang out with nice guys, but you don’t ever really want to go out with them. Nice guys are too dangerous,” the first one concluded.

“Oh, so is that why we can’t ever seem to get a date? Because we’re too nice?” asked one of the guys now that the issue of Sam had been abstracted and apparently resolved.

“Yeah, that about sums it up,” replied the third while the other two nodded.

This was the moment in my life when I first realized that using the adjective “nice” on the whole of a person was really the most tactful way to say “their abject lack of ego around which their personality has fallen flat makes it impossible to use any adjective more more precise than the generally flat four-letter n-word.”  It’s just the next natural step beyond “dependable,” which usually ends up meaning “I appreciate that you’re boring enough to not constantly flake out on me for dumb reasons, especially since I do it to you all the time.”  And as strange as it is to think of quasi-complimentary words having unseen baggage, they most assuredly do.  And just as baggage which becomes unseen may have “What’s that supposed to mean?” asked of it when the person who was expecting it hears that the airline regrets that the baggage will be vacationing in Lisbon, one shouldn’t be surprised if a trite compliment is cautiously rejoined with “What’s that supposed to mean?” instead of merely “Thank you.”


A college diploma is probably the most expensive piece of paper you’re ever going to buy. This isn’t to say that it isn’t worth owning, just that you should be a savvy consumer when you go out shopping for one. After all, it’s not just money you’re putting into this exchange — you’re also probably choosing where you’re going to live for a few years while you go through your papering process. So before you get too far into agreeing to offer up thousands of dollars as sacrifice to Higher Education, let’s throw out some pointers and considerations.

You are not paying for an education.

That may seem a bit odd, but I assure you that it’s true. If you were paying for an education, then you’d have some guarantee of getting an education. But the truth of the matter is that enrolling in college only gives you the opportunity to get an education with your results varying based on a goodly number of things — most notably how sober, awake and keenly interested you are in the courses you are attending. Even the worst of teachers can’t keep the most aggressive of students down.

You are, however, paying primarily for three things: the reputation of the school, the network of the professors, and access to a peer group. Geographic location of the University (which impacts the cost of living of professors and thus how much the University has to pay them) is a multiplier on top of this, rather than something which is directly paid for — but it does have an impact that we’ll talk about before we’re done.


But the truth of the matter is that, for a typical University, most of the money you fork over to them is going to be spent buying into their reputation. Surely you’ve heard the names Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT — they’ve got reputations and huge waiting lists of people wanting to buy into those reputations. And because they’ve got long lines of people wanting to buy into their respective reputations, they don’t actually have to offer much of anybody discounts (that is, “financial aid”) to entice them to join their University. Now it is possible that these reputations are entirely deserved and the Universities are worth every penny — but I doubt it and that’s why I’m writing this for you.

A University builds its reputation on the work of its professors — especially those that can go do research or schmooze with partners in industry instead of teaching lots of students — and its students that have graduated and become wealthy and well-known (and perhaps gave a lot of money back to their University). So if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the network of professors and peer group are things that contribute to the University’s reputation, meaning that the money you’re giving for their great reputation is paying for what previous students got out of their professors and peers.

But here’s the thing: a University actually has a whole lot of reputations that vary from department to department despite tuition being a fixed fare. The school I went to had a great reputation for music, nursing and teaching. Their math and computer science departments were relegated to old trailers on the edge of “lower” campus, past the “old” gymnasium. Suffice to say, I got ripped off when I paid tuition for those courses. (Though, in the University’s defense, they did have one Computer Science professor who was fantastic and the course I took from him was entirely worth the tuition. Additionally, I was a Communication major first and foremost, and the Communication faculty were fabulous.) The key learning you should take away from this is if you are paying for a course that isn’t in, roughly, the favored top third of departments at the University, you are paying too much. There are two implications that branch off of this: First, fluff classes (called “General University Requirements”) are very probably overpriced because they’re from those other departments that are desperate to keep their classes running — try to take similar classes elsewhere (like community college) and transfer the credits in. Second, and more importantly, it is almost certain that going to University before you’ve got a clue as to what you want to study is a waste of money because if you don’t know what you want to study then you won’t know which University you should attend to study it.

Do not misunderstand this — you don’t have to have your major set in stone before you step into a college class. There is a world of difference between being undecided (or “on the fence”) and not having a clue. If you’re undecided between several options, you can still go to a University which has strong academic programs for your assorted options and then choose one of those later. The point here is to avoid paying premium rates for courses that your University isn’t very good at teaching and you can’t do that if you are taking whichever courses a guidance councilor is sending you to.

So that’s the crucial first lesson: don’t pay for a University’s reputation if their reputation doesn’t really extend to the department that you’re taking courses from.


The next thing that Universities are going to be billing you for is access to their professorial staff outside of the classroom. Some Universities will brag about how all of their professors teach and they don’t have aides giving lectures. I can assure you that this isn’t valuable — ignoring that some professors are just plain awful at professing anything, what you should focus on is this: time that a professor spends lecturing to a room full of students is time that they’re not giving you focused attention or feeding you unique opportunities that have come across their well-cultivated social network. What kind of opportunity should you be looking for? Well, consider that I didn’t learn to write by going to class — I learned to write by spending time with the professors going over what I was writing in one-on-one sessions until my voice was consistent from my speaking to my writing. On the flip side of that, our Computer Science department was honestly proud of getting students internships with Weyerhauser, the pulp and paper company, which is about as uncompelling of a resume line as a technologist can possibly write. Again, I got my money’s worth from one department, but not the other.

This probably sounds odd because you don’t yet know what to expect from a University professor. A good University professor is a total geek about their preferred subject and will chatter on enthusiastically about it if you even begin to suggest that you are deeply interested in it — that’s what their Master’s or Doctoral papers were all about. Well-rounded professors keep in contact with their peers and previous students and use that social network to help hook their favorite current students (and professors absolutely play favorites) into internship and job opportunities. Finally, ideally, good professors manage to balance their tolerance for disinterested students and the amount that they are contractually obligated to teach students who they identify (rightly or wrongly) as disinterested, such that they have adequate time reserved for the keenly interested students that they want to spend time with — these may be referred to as “Office Hours” or, if you’re lucky, be held at a nearby coffee shop. Professors are most likely to fail at that last element — professors are geeks first, not teachers, and are thus quite vulnerable to feeling like their teaching job is distracting from from getting on to the stuff they really care about. This is doubly true when you realize that most professors you will have access to probably aren’t paid nearly as much as their industrial peers or ex-students, a fact which often exasperates them to no end.

So the second crucial lesson is that you don’t really want to be paying for a professor to teach a class so much as you want them to make their other qualities available to you — to which end, you will absolutely want to spend time visiting with professors and interrogating them on their specialities and social networks to get a feel for how well they’ll hold up if you give them that same kind of treatment as a paying student.


But the University isn’t just charging you for the reputation it has built on the shoulders of its professors. No, it’s also charging you for your fellow students. This thought probably doesn’t occur to most High Schoolers, whose experience with “fellow students” comes down to a freakish happenstance of geography, but it’s true. If you attend Duke or Notre Dame or one of those schools with a huge reputation and no discounts, you are getting (amoung other things) access to people who come from backgrounds and families that can afford to send them to a school like that — and who better to start a business with than a classmate that won’t have to go begging for venture capital? You’ll encounter this same behavior later in life if/when you go to buy a house — rich people spend a lot of money to live in certain neighborhoods where they won’t have to be near poor people. The upshot here is that you should revel in the availability of your fellow students and make some good, smart friends that you intend to keep in close contact with for an awfully long time — the University is certainly charging you for them.

This is where we can talk about the discounts (they’ll call it a “scholarship” or “financial aid”) that Universities with lesser reputations may offer to entice you to join them. Do not think for an instant that they are offering you a discount just because you are smart or talented. They are offering you a discount because they’re hoping that some of your brilliance will help to illuminate the dim-but-rich kids who are paying full price for their education and that your almost certain post-graduation success will improve the University’s reputation thus allowing them to raise their prices. The discount that a University offers is really just open admission of how much they need top-caliber students to build their reputation and justify their non-discounted price.

Naturally, there are two sides to this. If a University offers you a huge discount, then be cautious that they might be desperate because they don’t really have anything to offer you and really just intend to offer you to other students with similar interests but less refined skills. Additionally, remember that for all of the “scholarship” and “financial aid” talk they give, it all boils down to a discount, which might as well be a coupon. There is no guarantee that they will keep giving you the same discount from year to year — the initial discount I was offered was cut in half for my second year despite my dogged efforts to retain the discount because I didn’t understand that it really was just a discount and not a reward for my qualities and virtues. That said, there’s no reason for smart and talented students to not expect a discount from any mid-grade University; they want you because you’re going to make them look good.

The point of this aspect of the discussion is to clear up any illusions you may have about financial aid, with my advice ultimately being to not look at how steep the discount on University fees may be but at the overall cost. A small private University with an expensive list price that is offering you a steep discount may not actually provide a better educational opportunity for you than a large state University that simply has lower tuition from the get-go — pay attention to their reputations and figure out what you’re paying for and what each of the Universities will expect from you.


To close, we should discuss where a University is located. I previously mentioned that rich people will spend a lot of money to live in a neighborhood where there aren’t poor people. But if a University is located there, or a lot of the University’s staff live there, then I can assure you that the University is going to cost more than another University with a similar academic reputation. But the price difference isn’t necessarily bad. After all, if you are physically co-located with your University, then we’re talking about where you’ll be living for a few years and living someplace nice isn’t bad. I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to this and ended up going to school in what was effectively a ghetto in South Tacoma. Had I been thinking broadly, I would’ve spent more time looking into options in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas (or at least Austin).

That said, there is a distinctive lingering socioeconomic impact, particularly if you end up taking out student loans to pay for your time in University, and it is that you will be saddled with the heightened cost of your socioeconomically advantaged University no matter what you do or where you go afterwards. As a for-example, one of my friends went to UCLA down in Los Angeles. It’s a state school and not obscenely expensive by local standards, but significant student loans are par for the course. Now he’s married (and his wife also has UCLA loans) and has some kids. A while back his wife wanted to move to San Antonio, Texas, so he solicited some job offers and what he told me is that he could move to Texas and support his family well enough there with what he was offered because San Antonio was a cheap place to live — but because San Antonio was a cheap place to live, he wouldn’t be getting paid as much so he wouldn’t be able to pay those student loans that were based on the obscenely high cost of living in Los Angeles.

The upshot of this is to not ignore the regional economy of a University and how it will impact the total cost of your college experience. If you go someplace that is economically depressed, you may miss opportunities (if opportunities are there at all). Conversely, if you go someplace that is astonishingly expensive, you may end up regretting the preclusion of future life choices based on your need to pay off student loans.

So when you are choosing which University to give many thousands of dollars to, remember to consider the following:

  • Are you getting your money’s worth out of their reputation?
  • Are the professors adding unique value that you couldn’t get from a textbook?
  • Are you getting good value out of your classmates?
  • Has the University offered you an appropriate discount for the value you’ll provide to it?
  • Do you expect that the University experience will be worth your net investment in it?

The college diploma is a strange thing indeed: You can invest tens of thousands of dollars and several years of your life and not get much back of it at all. It’s because tens of thousands of dollars and several years of your life isn’t really what you’re putting into it, but what you’re ante-ing up to have the opportunity to put something into it such that you can really get something back out of it. To that end, you need to spend some careful time researching your University options to figure out which is the optimal choice for you.

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.