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Ovid (2709)

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Stuff with the Perl Foundation. A couple of patches in the Perl core. A few CPAN modules. That about sums it up.

Journal of Ovid (2709)

Tuesday October 27, 2009
08:41 AM

Criticizing Academia -- Oops

[ #39809 ]

I've been known to criticize universities for churning out students who don't have basic skills needed in industry. Now I need to step back and rethink that. Joel Spolsky has a particularly scathing blog post about Computer Science education and at first blush, I was tempted to agree with him. Then I read Joel Spolsky - Snake-Oil Salesman and immediately thought back to my own experiences with academia and have to revisit my thinking.

About a decade ago, I was doing some work with the Alaska Department of Education (side note: if you want to see an example of "dysfunctional", study Alaska politics -- and that's not an oblique reference to Palin). The Department was thinking about creating a Web site that allowed instructors to share lesson plans. Naturally, I learned quite a bit about what was involved. While the people in the Department were dedicated professionals, they were trying to build cathedrals while handcuffed.

Case in point: Alaska was spending a lot of money on education and getting poor results, so the legislature passed a law offering early retirement to the best paid teachers. Many of them took this offer, but grades plummeted. Turns out the best paid teachers were often the best teachers. Who knew?

It's awfully tough to figure out how to maximize return on investment with education. "Pay for performance" schemes are often outlined, but usually by people who have no idea how to measure performance in academia. You can't simply pay for higher grades -- and if you can't see the problem with that, please stop voting :)

Another popular "pay for performance" idea is standardized tests. Give all students the same test and see how they do. Give the best pay to the teachers (or school districts) whose students do the best on this test. One teacher in Oregon lamented to me that she teaches Russian immigrant students. They can't do as well on these tests -- English isn't their first language -- and thus the teachers who take these particularly difficult assignments are looking at less pay for more work. Hmm ...

Another teacher, a friend of mine from Texas, is upset because so much of her time is now spent on "teaching the test". She complains that she struggles to teach her students new skills or critical thinking because she has to spend all of her time figuring out what those tests will ask and prepping the students for those tests. Creative teaching? Forget it. If she doesn't teach the test, her students will do poorer on them and this threatens her job because it threatens her school system's budget. With a lower budget, fewer teachers can be hired. You know who the school system would have to let go.

The "Snake Oil" rebuttal to Joel seemed spot on and from my experience with academia, had the ring of truth (though, of course, I can offer no evidence). Academia is hard. You can't just teach students a narrow set of skills. You have to teach them a broad set because you don't know what will be relevant tomorrow. You don't know what will be relevant to the student. The student won't know what's relevant to the student (which is why we teach algebra to high school students who hate it). It's easy to criticize something we're not intimately familiar with. I should remember that more.

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  • I left working in education just over 4 years ago now in the UK, and the problem is identical there. Education system works reasonably, but the government has an obsession with statistics. You have to keep proving to the government how well the education system is doing, providing "Value Added" figures for students. I kid you not. It's like taking children and turning them into cogs in a machine. Value Added is some weird calculation whereby you take their exam grades at entrance and then their exam gr
  • Hi Ovid

    Have you read:
    "This little kiddy went to market -
    The Corporate Capture of Childhood"
    Sharon Beder

    It documents at excruciating length the very problems you talk about.

    And it's all over the Western world.

  • I know there are a lot of people who idolize him but I personally found him misleading, incorrect and downright bullshitting. I don't like the hype around him and usually I disagree with much of the things he says. Unfortunately some people gubble up his every word.

    I agree with you on the education issue. It's tricky, and I do believe the most damage is done by the government's attempt to control budgets and trying to calculate something - anything - to try to evaluate where the money should go. George Carl

    • Hey, C# is actually a pretty cool language. It shot the Java fish in the barrel, for example :)

    • I don't like the hype/cult around Joel either, but I'm still an avid reader of his articles because I find them funny, amusing and usually insightful, or otherwise giving good food for thoughts and acting as a useful starting point for further discussion of the matter. I don't always agree with what Joel says, and naturally buy everything he says with a grain of salt, but still find value in what he says.

      It seems there's often an opposite phenomenon from what you describe - that many times I mention some

      • I don't like the hype/cult around Joel either, but [...] I don't always agree with what Joel says, and naturally buy everything he says with a grain of salt, but [...]

        That's funny you should say stuff like that. You seemed to me like someone who adores Joel. I'll elaborate on this below.

        It seems there's often an opposite phenomenon from what you describe - that many times I mention something that Joel says for support someone gives an ad-hominem attack [] saying how much Joel sucks and how much it means my article is invalid.

        I think you're missing the point. Yes, people do sometimes have a knee-jerk response of attacking Joel instead of saying "you're incorrect and here's why" but you have the most annoying habit of simply quoting Joel instead of saying why you think he's correct. It really pisses me (and other people) off. Many times in a debate you pull out a Joel fortune cookie as if it's going to win your

        • Well, since we're down to personal accusations and pointless discussions on who ultimately has the burden of proof lies, allow me to invoke Godwin's Law [] and end this discussion: you are a Nazi!

          OK, I've lost, now let's go on with the rest of our lives. I'll continue to link to Joel when and if I agree with him. If you think he (or whomever I'm citing) is wrong and you expect to convince me that you are right, then you'll need to give me a proper argument explaining why and where he is wrong. Otherwise, I'

          • Well, since we're down to personal accusations and pointless discussions on who ultimately has the burden of proof lies, allow me to invoke Godwin's Law [] and end this discussion: you are a Nazi!

            No dice! I'll invoke the Reverse Godwin's Law [just invented] which goes by: "I may be a Nazi, but you're still dead wrong!".

            The beginning offending post was your comment saying I "tend to throw many arguments in the air without giving proper explanation". It's not correct and it's offending. I understand you don't find it so, because you're the one who said it so you give very little (to none) fuck of other people being offended. That's fine, but don't try to turn this into "we're down to personal accusat

  • It's not stupidity to "pay for performance" in education, it's rather how it is attempted to be done. Teaching for grades. :-S Teaching for good performance in standardized tests. Pardon me. You may have a strong class or a rather uninterested one etc. 15 - 30 kids are by no means statistically relevant. There is only one solution: Hire really good testers (so to speak ;-) ) and evaluate teachers "everyday-performance". I am absolutely sure you get very clear results. And I'm a teacher myself. Given that