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.