Autoblography Part 24: Mr. C

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Oct 5, 2011

Filed under: Personal 248 comments

A few entries ago, reader Amanda left an important comment about grades and how they shape instruction and testing. I’m reposting it here in full:

I'm a teacher (college).

The problem isn't homework. The problem is just grades.

Specifically, the problem is that we have to give them.

The related problem is that you might want them for some reason.

I don't want to give out grades. I just want to teach the material, and see how I can get people to learn it. Right now I'm teaching an essay writing class. The most interesting part is trying to coax better writing out of students. The most boring part is trying to attach numerical values to their learning.

The easiest way for me to manage this disconnect is to make my grading system as transparent and obvious as I possibly can. That often turns in to a “do the work, follow the steps,” mentality because it's easier for me to check off. Yes, some of the grade is based on quality but a LOT of it is based on effort which is easier to quantify and be out in the open about. Ultimately I want to just teach writing, and see a real difference in skill between the start and end of the semester. But I am stuck having to give grades as well.

On the other hand, I'm also taking an art class right now of a different sort. Two weeks in and so far it's a great experience. Everyone just shows their work off. The work is critiqued. No one is given a grade so far. You can tell based on the feedback you get if a) you're improving your personal best and b) you have a long way to go compared to other students.

I want an amazing piece of work from the class. I do not care if a score is assigned to it, but I want it to be the best I can personally do. However, when I was younger, I was programmed and conditioned to want As. Then given the exact means by which to get there, or not. This isn't a good way to teach children. It will take a hell of a thing to fix it though.

The damn thing is that a lot of people are trying to “gamify” education in the wrong direction, by adding even more metrics and +1s and Gold Stars and pointless rewards, rather than trying to make the learning itself more fun.

This is very interesting, and I think explains a lot of the educational dysfunction that we see in my story and in the stories shared by other readers.

People talk about reform, textbooks, unions, low pay, and curriculum, and certainly these things can all produce dysfunction. But I suggest that these things we’re talking about are an emergent result of having large groups of same-age students stuck into a room with a stranger, who is then given the task of producing education that can be measured on a scorecard.

Anyway, let’s continue with my junior year of high school…

Halfway through the school year, Mr. B leaves Vo-Tech and is replaced with Mr. C, who looks exactly like the dad from the comic strip Family Circus. He’s even more of a computer scientist than Mr. B was, and less of a teacher. Some of the kids really hate him. They see him as obtuse and unfair.

“What do we need to know for the test?” demands one girl in exasperation.

This is what school is to her. You memorize some crap for a test. You don’t need to be able to understand it, relate it, or apply it, only recite it. Mr. C is a bit socially awkward, and he acts more like a boss than a teacher. He gives us instruction, but they’re sort of brute-force info dumps. I don’t know how well I’d absorb this material if I didn’t already know it and didn’t have a passion for it. In any case, the tests involve skill and problem-solving, not repetition. You can’t do them unless you can actually program.

The tables have turned, and now I am obliged to look up to my little brother.  His height came very, very suddenly.
The tables have turned, and now I am obliged to look up to my little brother. His height came very, very suddenly.

I thrive. For the first time in my life, school seems to have shape and meaning. An assignment is a goal: Go and make a program that can accomplish X. They aren’t particularly challenging (for me) but they require creativity, which is what makes them fun. They tickle the left hemisphere of my brain, which hasn’t happened in school since that one freak math assignment in sixth grade. At no time am I ever asked to copy things, or memorize things, or fill in worksheets. Everything I do has purpose.

A lot of the kids that were succeeding under Mr. B are now failing, and the distinction between Students and Programmers becomes dramatic. On one hand, I can empathize with these kids who suddenly find themselves failing a course, and I can see why they would want to blame the teacher. After all, they are good students and successful in other subjects, and they didn’t have any problems in this class until we changed teachers. On the other hand, they were never going to be programmers. The idea that they were “passing” a programming course with no working understanding of programming was ridiculous.

Mr. C and I discuss programming. Not assignments or homework. Just… programming. He introduces me to concepts that would be far beyond the curriculum here. He points out the problems with the Pac-Man clone that I’m making, that if it were run on a faster computer, the game itself would run faster. It’s a shame that Mr. C didn’t have a job wiriting games. The early 1990’s are going to be littered with videogames written by people who don’t understand this. A lot of those early games will break or malfunction as computers become exponentially faster.

I quietly observe the problems he’s having. He seems to be involved in a number of conflicts with students, and possibly enraged parents. He seems stressed and unhappy. He seems to be up against people who insist that schooling involves learning indisputable facts from books, doing, homework and taking tests. Now the class is more about learning a skill. It’s like a woodworking class that has the audacity to grade you on your ability to envision and construct sturdy and useful furniture. You either get it or you don’t. A lot of these students aren’t even worried about their lack of skill, they’re more concerned that they will have a bad grade on their record. This is the only class I’ve ever taken where the grade was tied to the student’s understanding of the material, and where failure to understand would result in a failing grade. We’re a long, long way from the, “Do all the work and you’ll pass” mentality that pervades the rest of the school system.

Mr. C explains to me that he won’t be around next year. I don’t know if the school is getting rid of him or if he’s leaving of his own volition, but I’m very sad to see him go. As the year winds down, he does me a favor. Somehow, he convinces the school to let me take home one of the classroom IBM machines for the summer. Up until now I’ve been using an ages-old Tandy that saved data using a tape recorder. I have fully explored the boundaries of this machine and have learned everything I can from it. Now I’m going to have a proper, modern machine. It will have a massive 640k of memory, which is forty times as much as I’m used to. The machine has two floppy disk drives for storage, and uses a proper computer monitor instead of a television. This is a massive leap forward for me.

Also, this new machine can run much better games.

I’ll never see Mr. C again, but I hope he finds someplace that appreciates him.


From The Archives:

248 thoughts on “Autoblography Part 24: Mr. C

  1. Chazz says:

    God educators have always understood that grades and GPAs don’t lead to valuable learning. Plenty of research has been done in this area as well, so I hope that we’re heading in the right direction now. A good group of strategies are currentlymlumped under the heading “Assessment For Learning”.

    Good schools get this stuff and force teachers to think about it. Hopefully there re more good schools thn there used to be

    1. Ingvar says:

      Now I am wondering how patient (and harm-proof) a teacher would be to have Loki, Thor and Ares in the same class…

      1. Dovius says:

        That seems rather easy:
        Any fights? Ares’ fault.
        Any tricks or pranks? Loki.
        Anything involving thunder? Thor.
        Seems like a really easy class to punish :D.

        1. theLameBrain says:

          I think it would be more complex than that.
          Loki would play a trick on Ares. Ares would throw down with loki, only to be side-swiped by Thor, because Loki is Thor’s brother, and I see Thor as the kind of kid that would stick up for family.

          So you have Loki up to mischeif, and Thor and Ares fighting. Which one is in trouble?

          1. sab says:

            Brother? I thought they were BFF’s. Unless you mean brother, not brother. Doesn’t change the fact that they would stand up for one another of course.

            1. tengokujin says:

              Loki is Thor’s half-brother.

              1. ARDIS MEADE says:

                No, He’s not. See my comment below.

                1. Dragomok says:

                  Where are Norse mythology specialists when you really need them?

                  1. uberfail says:

                    Why is a greek God taking a class with some norse ones?

                    1. Leonardo Herrera says:

                      Celestial Affirmative Action.

          2. Jeff says:

            I imagine a good teacher would punish the instigator while warning those who responded to the provocation.

            1. ARDIS MEADE says:

     Seems relevent here.
              Also, despite what Marvel says, Loki and Thor aren’t brothers. They’re not even “bros”. Loki and Odin are the ones who are really close. So, if anything, Loki would be more like an Uncle.

          3. delve says:

            Send them all to Odin and let Him sort them out.

  2. Kdansky says:

    Sadly, getting rid of grades doesn’t work either. Some schools in my country have tried, and the results were horrible: Instead of learning pointless facts, the students would end up knowing nothing at all, which is even worse. At least with grades, people learn how to memorize stuff, which is a very useful skill to have when you suddenly need to acquire a really useful skill, be that carpentry or programming.

    Most people don’t give a shit about learning though, they just try to pass the time until they can drink beer, and would gladly spend all their day being useless and “having fun”. The problem is that our society is (and always was) way too rough for that, and many children don’t realize that until it is too late, and they have graduated from a bad school with the minimum of grades, know no mathematics and can barely read and write, and then end up in a job where they have to clean windows all day long, which they absolutely hate, but they need the money to pay for food and housing.

    The best teachers I had were good at one thing: Motivating students to learn. As soon as your students want to listen to you, teaching becomes a breeze.

    1. M the Cheddar Monk says:

      At least with pointless facts, they could get rich off of Jeopardy.

    2. Deoxy says:

      Very good post – that last bit is the best, of course, and the easiest to quote.

    3. Mistwraithe says:

      Agreed. While in theory the idea of schools without grades has some benefits you still need a way of distinguishing between the students who are learning and those that aren’t, then it also becomes useful to be able to distinguish between those are just passably learning and those who are really great at the subject. And suddenly you have grades.

      Where it sucks is when the grades have no relationship to understanding and are just based on regurgitation. But that is a quality issue with the curriculum and the teaching rather than a problem with having grades.

    4. James Pope says:

      I’ve been in classes where the grades weren’t determined by anything anyone could precisely point a finger at and go “this is where my grade comes from” and ultimately about half of them weren’t about learning or motivation or anything like that either, they were about schmoozing and interacting with the teacher. That’s a key skill in any educational setting anyways, but at least when you’ve got explicit hoops to jump through you’re not at the mercy of “that last time in class where you questioned what the teacher was trying to say and successfully argued your point making her look foolish in front of students.”

      Worse, I’ve been in some of those classes where at some point I’ve just had to explain: “Look, I’d love to learn something in your class, but I know everything you’re trying to teach everyone else and you’re boring the shit out me.” And sometimes those classes do end up in some informative fashion, but not until your instructor has decided you’re some lazy slackwit because you’ve read Shakespeare dozens of times or read through the textbook before the first week was up on the hope there would be additional material covered outside of the book.

  3. Vagrant says:

    Your autobiography never ceases in reminding me of my childhood. I’ve felt the same way about my schooling but never had the words to define what it was that I felt. Like you it wasnt until high school that I met teachers who actually seemed to care. I remember my computer teachers, two old men who introduced computers to the school way back when, and how they spoke with contempt about what the school system wanted them to do. Your writing has been moving/entertaining to read. thank you

  4. Raynooo says:

    Gradeless teaching is a thing a lot of teachers would love to be able to do (my family is overrun by teachers, I’m the ugly programmer duckling) ; problem is I think you need to have people willing to learn for it to works.

    As said by Kdansky, if people just don’t care about school and want it to be over as fast as possible, the only way you’ll have them working is either grades or having them actually interested in what you want them to learn and understand. So either only teaching geniuses or motivated kids…

    1. TSED says:

      Like I said to Amanda: look into contract grading.

      It doesn’t work for all subjects – mostly writing, really – but it really motivates the students to learn. Or at least it did in my CrWr class, with the additional anecdotes from the prof who used and praised it.

      1. 4th Dimension says:

        From what I understand, contract grading is based on basically a deal with a student which stipulates which grade is he going to get for how much work.

        The problem is, does teacher have time to assign each of 30+ students a assigment, when he needs to come up with first grade in barely two months with 2 classes per week.

        1. TSED says:

          The assignment can still be for everyone in the class.

          Do the assignment – you know, reasonably – and get your B. Start putting in more work, start getting a better grade…

          As is obvious from Shamus’ earlier posts, this would not work with, say, math. Or comp sci. Or most sciences before the you-do-research-now stuff?

          1. 4th Dimension says:

            You mean same assigment for entire class? What’s preventing student from copying each others work?

            1. Paul Spooner says:

              That’s something I never quite understood. In the “real world” copying other people’s answers is usually the best plan. If I know Bob is the smartest kid, why can’t I just copy his answers? This whole “everyone do their own work” mentality seems very anti-social, anti-economic, and counter-instructive. I understand the justification for it, but it seems pretty weak in the face of how much “cheating” goes on anyhow.

              1. Mistwraithe says:

                In the real world of computing you wouldn’t be paying two people to do exactly the same thing so copying your colleagues rarely works out well.

                Copying on a much looser scale by using existing stuff for inspiration is however feasible BUT it is only a simple starting point, you still need to know how to make it work for what you are currently trying to do.

              2. guy says:

                People don’t get paid to do work that the company they’re working for is legally allowed to copy. Sure, in the real world there’s no point in re-inventing the wheel every time you want a new car, but what you’re actually being paid for is doing something new. If you’re copying my answers, what assurance is there that you actually know how to do something on your own?

                1. krellen says:

                  My job at my Help Desk is to write the procedures to fix common problems. The job of the students that work for me is to copy what I write.

            2. TSED says:

              I stated, multiple times, that it’s not for every subject (like math). It’s for writing. If you really think that two students would want to hand in the exact same essay AND think they could get away with it… umm… No.

    2. MichaelG says:

      I think if you made the kids do projects that involved learning skills, they would be more motivated. The problem isn’t with grades, it’s with subject matter that’s completely sterile and divorced from reality.

      Kids know that almost no adult they’ve met outside of school ever uses algebra, talks about the Civil War or cares about the things they’ve “learned” in school. It’s just busy work to please their parents.

      I don’t mean all of school should be vocational training, but there’s no reason you can’t learn some amount of math and science by building things. That would at least get them started and help them realize that people actually *use* this stuff.

      1. toasty says:

        This seems strange to me for a few reasons:

        A) First of all, most adults don’t use algebra yes. But if you want to study math after High school you really NEED ALGEBRA. Second of all, if a teacher can’t explain why Algebra might be useful to a student working in a business or managing his own business, the teacher is probably bad. Geometry is also equally useful in a variety of situations.

        B) I dunno about you, but my family talks about things like the Civil War all the time. Maybe we’re a bunch of nerds. Maybe I like History/Theology/Philosophy too much.

        Regarding grades: here is the problem with grades. I want As, but I want to learn more. I’m in the Honors Program at my university. That means i need to get a 3.5 GPA (on a 4.0 scale). But I’m more interested in learning. My roommate last year, another honors student, was interested in grades. He “played the game” and got Grades. The second he realized he had a teacher that wouldn’t grade seriously, he wrote a bunch of bullshit for all his papers and got an A. It took me, in the same class, until the final paper to give up and just give the teacher what was literally the worst paper I have ever written in my academic history. I got an A in the class. I was frustrated to no end by a teacher that seemed to have no way to motivate me to work because, at the end of the day, I was gonna get an A. My own work ethic only goes so far.

        In comparison, I had another teacher that semester who gave me a D on my first assignment. I spent the rest of the school year in her office talking about my papers. I got a B in that class and learned more about writing in one semester than I did in my entire High School career. Because of one class (I’ve now taken 4 classes that had a major writing component). If my teacher hadn’t used grades to motivate me to work harder, I would have done adequate work, I probably would have done okay, but I wouldn’t have LEARNED.

        The problem of course comes around when students don’t want to learn, they just want an A. They want to memorize information so they can take a test and get an A. Lucky for me, I’m a theology major, so while there are some rote facts I need to remember, a lot of it comes down to opinion and communicating your opinion. That’s something that you can’t fake. In the case of my roommate, he was an unmovitated genius. If a teacher was smart, they would punish him with good grades and he would wake up, get all the work done properly and maybe “learn.” But if they weren’t, he’d just play the game and throw out some crap and get good grades.

        BTW, I hated my roommate for this, among other reasons.

        1. MichaelG says:

          Shamus school experience is an example of not taking the material seriously because he can’t see any use for it. Even to the point of hurting his education (see his comments on avoiding the difficult math courses.)

          I was an A student. I was good at school and proud of it. It wasn’t until I tried to teach myself programming that I realized how poorly prepared I was to learn anything on my own or solve problems where all the information you need isn’t lined up for you.

          In the U.S., 25% of kids aren’t even graduating from high school. Another huge chunk are scraping by with D’s. Most kids forget nearly everything they learned, and only remember that they hate school. They never want to go into a classroom or read a book for the rest of their lives. This is deadly in a “knowledge economy.”

          It’s one thing for a teacher to list a few uses for math. It’s another to actually use it to solve a problem. I think my own experience of learning how shallow my education was, or Shamus experience of never being rewarded for what he actually knew, show the problems with the current system.

        2. Meredith says:

          I found that high school writing assignments in no way prepare anyone for what college professors actually want, despite the claims of my high school teachers. On the other hand, I’d turn in essays I thought were the worst I’d ever done and get As, even in my MA program; so what do I know?

          1. CTrees says:

            Agreed. In college, once I finally taught myself how to write “A” papers (significantly different than good papers), I generally wrote most of my essays the morning they were due. I could crank out about four pages an hour, with citations, in upper level English and Philosophy courses, and get A’s. It’s… not something I was exactly proud of.

            1. TSED says:

              Funny. That’s a skill I am proud of…

            2. Kavonde says:

              Heh. That’s a bad habit I’ve fallen into, too. Once I figured out that I write my best (according to my professors) essays while under a looming deadline, I never went back.

              1. Knight of Fools says:

                I had an English Composition teacher that specifically prevented students from doing that. He would ask for three different drafts – Each with corrections and improvements for the next draft – before turning in the final draft. The only paper he explicitly graded was the final, but he made sure you were doing something to improve your essay over the weeks.

                He also had an air of authority that made me want to improve my papers, because he knew what he was talking about. It was a very educational class, even though I spent several hours a week completely rewriting papers I wasn’t happy with, because I knew he wouldn’t be happy with it. It was probably the closest I’d ever gotten to doing something to try to please a teacher, so to keep that facade I kept trying to be contradictory to his opinion in my assignments.

                In spite of that, I got an A. He’s one of the few teachers I’ve had that valued decent writing more than robotic regurgitation and the mindless worship of the teacher’s opinions.

                1. TSED says:

                  That really, really, REALLY grates me. I hate that kind of essay grading (which I haven’t dealt with since highschool, or maybe even middle school).

                  You see, there’s this wonderful invention called the “computer.” On the computer, someone figured out how to make these wonderful programs known as “text editors.” These are AMAZING programs, because you can make a mistake, and go back and fix it two seconds, two minutes, two hours, two days, two weeks, two months, or two years later. Or put in new sections that build off of the old sections without needing a new “version.”

                  The different-drafts thing can work (for me) if you get feedback on the draft before the final is dealt with, but for the most part… that doesn’t happen. Professors don’t have the time for that. Students don’t have the time for that.

                  In conclusion: BDARGH I hate the drafts-required type of thing. I haven’t done that for years and it STILL makes me grumpier than any other scholastic practice I can think of.

        3. James Pope says:

          Funny, I find myself using algebra all the time. Not explicitly, by writing down equations, but the fundamental laws of algebra? Oh yeah, it’s like saying you didn’t learn anything in science class and no one needs to know anything about electricity but electricians.

      2. Monkeyboy says:

        A) I’m staining my deck this afternoon, how many one gallon cans of stain do I need to do the 15X20 space? (Actual example used it on my son when we went to the hardware store).
        B) Admittedly as a Civil War reenactor I’m probably way out on the bell curve, but history defines and creates populations, you can’t understand people or events without understanding their background.

        1. Knight of Fools says:

          A) It’s a shame schools would be thrown down the lawsuit drain if they had kids actually doing stuff like that. “Class, today we’re going to figure out how many gallons of paint we need to repaint the school, and then repaint it ourselves! First we measure the length and height of the walls…”

          B) Which is something that schools seem to religiously avoid, because that leads into the awkward discussion of race, religion, politics, and millions of diverging opinions. Discussing any of those is obviously not conducive to a learning environment.

    3. Confanity says:

      I’m in favor of a system that measures proficiency. If you got people who really knew a field — like the Misters B and C — and possibly also have formal study of education as a discipline, and have them design tests that cannot be passed without proficiency — like Mr. C’s assignments — then you don’t need grades at all; you just need pass/fail.

      And while we’re at it, why not abolish school years along with grading? You study each subject at a given level until you think you’re ready to try out the level’s assessment; if you fail that, you study until the next chance (I see these tests as occurring periodically; every quarter, perhaps?) and try again. When you pass, you move to the next level and start studying the material there.

      You study each subject up to the level of your ability and desire, and that goes on your transcript. Being in level 7 math doesn’t prevent you from being in level 4 Spanish, nor in level 10. You don’t have to achieve any particular level of anything to graduate, but any potential employer will be interested in your transcript to see what you’ve mastered. In some cases there might be branches (Science in particular would branch and re-branch), and there might be recommended prerequisites (you’re almost certain to fail Physics 13 unless you have Math 12), but in theory at least it’s a simple system, difficult to manipulate and totally free from both arbitrary letter and number assessments, and from being forced to study the same things as everybody else your age regardless of individual ability.

      1. Shamus says:

        I don’t know what other kids would think of it, but I think I would really have liked this.

        1. Deoxy says:

          See Montessori education for a real-world implementation of that (though a bit less formalized). The Montessori motto is “Follow the child” – that is, help them learn what they WANT to learn (and occasionally help them find out what they want to learn).

          I’m going to post at the bottom here in a minute… and it’s likely to be long, so I won’t go into to it any more here.

          1. krellen says:

            Just be careful of ever taking a kid OUT of Montessori teaching; when I transferred from Montessori (where I was three to four grade levels ahead in every subject) to public school, the public school principal wanted to keep me back a grade instead.

            1. PAK says:

              Yeah, I personally think Montessori’s great when taken on its own, but it’s not totally compatible with the status quo. My experience of transferring out was a bit different. I was EMOTIONALLY unprepared for public school, because my Montessori school’s philosophy of conflict resolution and teaching kids to be considerate was, contrary to what you might expect, really damned effective. Dealing with bullies who had been allowed to develop their habits basically unchecked? Ouch.

      2. 4th Dimension says:

        The problem here might be of organizational nature.
        Even if the kid has mastered the course A before the end of it, you can’t move him further untill the end, because he can’t simply join a next level class in the middle of the term. And chorter terms mighit not work.

        1. Confanity says:

          You say “shorter [I assume that’s what you mean] terms might [ditto] not work,” yet terms are already broken up into “units” in every school discipline. If you divorce the material being learned from the anachronistic artifact that is a school year (which arose from children being called away to work on the farm during the warm months), then it seems not only easy but natural to me to have the length of each segment, or level, or whatever, be relatively short. With testing at set intervals, nobody would be joining or leaving a “course” in the middle. Students who hadn’t grasped the material yet would review it each time the segment repeated, while those who had, would move to the next. A less efficient system than one that can monitor and advance each individual student at their exact pace, but also less resource-demanding.

      3. Zombie Pete says:

        Let me guess, Confanity: You play Runequest and not D&D. ;-)

        It’s a cool idea, but the problem I see is that the real professionals like Mr. B and C wouldn’t take the drop in salary to teach in most cases.

        And the problem I have with Amanda’s note at the top is that she teaches college — the kids are already about 1000% more motivated than high schoolers (give or take a few hundred %) because they’re essentially volunteers who have paid for the privilege of being there. So grades might not be so important for them. But those kids that are forced to attend class have to see some goal at the end of the tunnel besides this nebulous (to them) “understanding the material.”

        1. General Karthos says:

          This might have been true once upon a time, but nowadays, in a lot of places, you’re just EXPECTED to attend college. Not because you have a desire or reason to actually attend, but because your parents will be disappointed in you if you don’t. I was one of those kids who was motivated (because a degree was actually useful to my future), but I worked alongside a fair number who were at my school because their parents were wealthy and who had no real motivation to actually do any work.

          1. Knight of Fools says:

            At the community college I attend, where (I’m guessing) half of the students rely on federal aid to study, the line between wants-to-learn and just-give-me-a-degree-already is frighteningly clear. Federal aid for college is not a bad thing, but it’s badly abused, just like High School. They just expect it to have some mysterious monetary benefit, because everyone says it will, so they do it, but they’re left woefully unprepared for whatever job they’ve chosen to specialize in.

        2. Confanity says:

          Zombie Pete — I’ve never played Runequest in my life, but I’ve played at least one version of every edition of D&D, from back when there were only three alignments through to a stab at 4E. 8^P

          You seem to have mistaken my intent for the B and C crowd (so to apeak) — it’s not that I want professionals in field X to be forced into teaching X; it’s that I want the people who design the tests to know enough about the material and about education itself to be able to create effective tests that pass you if you’ve mastered the material, and that tell you your weaknesses if you haven’t.

      4. Ben says:

        Congratulations, you have just invented college….

        if you count the people who drop out or fail, then retake the class as not taking the final “proficiency” test :)

    4. Hal says:

      The problem is that we already have gradeless teaching, effectively. Up until high school, you won’t be held back from moving on to the next grade unless you fail most of your classes. Even when you’re in high school, most schools will simply have you repeat the material that you failed, and in some cases that is “good enough” to graduate.

      This results in kids who move through school, failing in every sense (never learning important material or reinforcing the things they did learn) and they end up in high school, or beyond, without the ability to write properly or do basic math without a calculator.

      I’m not saying everyone has to be able to do calculus, but I watch my girlfriend grade high school essays. These are kids who won’t even be able to fill out a job application because they can’t spell the name of their high school. That’s a symptom of a broken system and a broken community.

  5. Lalaland says:

    The ‘grades aren’t learning’ arguments seem a distraction to me. I can see where the proponents are coming from in that education is about truly understanding as opposed to rote repetition but on the other hand if you truly understood a subject would you get a ‘D’ in a test on it?

    I’ve been listening to the ‘Tell Me More’ podcasts from PBS for a few years now and while I accept the limitations of a single source on the education debate in the US the arguments seem circular to me. On one side you have teaching unions that bemoan ‘teaching to the test’ and how this damages students enthusiasm for learning. On the other you have parents asking why their kids grade averages are so much poorer in the three basic subjects than peer groups in other countries or even the next county. If a teacher is amazing then why can’t their kids show improvement in test scores from 1 year to the next? I don’t see how a teacher can be seen as excellent or even good if they can’t at least hold still.

    I guess I’m coming at this from Europe where the state sets standards across the entire country and the curricula are all decided at the centre. I can understand wanting local standards for a history course or other humanities but how are the understanding of reading, writing and math meant to be vary from state to state? Let alone the sciences but given that there appears to be a ‘debate’ in the US on evolution maybe that’s just too hard a hill to climb for politicians.

    1. Svick says:

      I don’t think it works the same way in all of Europe. For example, I think the curricula vary quite a lot from state to state in Germany. At least that’s what I remember from my German class (me being a Czech).

      1. Lalaland says:

        My own ignorance there, it makes sense given the aversion to central control that’s all over the post-war constitution.

      2. Kdansky says:

        Seconded. Switzerland in particular is complicated, we have about 25 different systems, one per Kanton (the equivalent of an American state). Needlessly complicated? You bet!

        1. krellen says:

          You can’t really parallel Europe to the US like that. Kantons aren’t states, and they’re probably not really counties (how we further subdivide our states) either.

      3. Mephane says:

        Indeed, each individual “Bundesland” in Germany basically features its own school system. Though there are many similarities between them, they have a lot of freedom both about how and what to be taught.

    2. Zukhramm says:

      I thought a D meant you passed tha class, so yes, if you got one you should supposedly understand the subject.

      1. noahpocalypse says:

        But it is a very poor understanding. On the grading scale of 0-100, you pass if you get > or equal to 70. A 70-74 is a D. A 93 and up is an A.

        1. Zukhramm says:

          That sounds like a poor system then. Even the lowest passing grade should be a “good grade”.

          1. Kdansky says:

            Our grades work like this:

            6: Very good
            5: Good
            4: Passing
            3: Fail
            2: Fail
            1: Fail

            I have wondered for a long time why you’d need to differentiate levels of failure more than levels of passing. And on top of that, 6 is not actually used for “very good”, but rather for “perfect”, which means that everyone’s grades go from 4 to 5.5, which is all but meaningless in its distribution.

            1. 4th Dimension says:

              Three levels of Fail?!? How are they used? Do they determine what to do with a failling students. It’s the first time I hear anywhere has this system. Our system is:
              5: Excellent
              4: Verry Good
              3: Good
              2: Passing
              1: Fail (Insufficient)

              1. Kdansky says:

                They are relevant if you take averages, which is usually done to figure out if you repeat a year or not. If you have the grades 5,5 and a 3, you pass barely (avg 4.33), but if you are at 5,4 and a 2 (avg 3.67), you fail.

                On the other hand using an average doesn’t make the least bit of sense either. If I pass Math with decent grades, why should I have to repeat it? That’s a waste of time!

                1. 4th Dimension says:

                  The pass is determined by average? And aparently grades are not whole numbers. New things to me.

                  Here you fail entire grade if you have 3 or 4 (depending on school) failling grades out of 10-15 subjects. Also if you have less fails, you still have to pass them in august before the new year starts, or you will fail all the same.

            2. guy says:

              I dunno about the whacked-out grade systems of other states, but we’ve got:

              A: Very good
              B: Reasonably good
              C: Passing
              D: Passing very slightly
              F: Failure

        2. Syal says:

          Often a 60% is a D and a 70% is a C, although I think it’s becoming more common for D to be a failing grade as well.

          1. Kacky Snorgle says:

            In my experience it varies by academic level. In high school an F was the only failing grade; in college a D was failing for most purposes; in grad school a C was effectively failing.

            Makes sense, in that the sort of people who are D students in high school probably don’t belong in college, and the sort of people who are C students in college probably don’t belong in grad school. The grading scale does lose resolution as the number of passing grades is reduced, but that makes sense too: when you’re in a Ph.D. program, your relative level of performance in mere classwork–provided it isn’t horrible–isn’t all that important anyway, compared to the quality of your research.

    3. SyrusRayne says:

      “I can see where the proponents are coming from in that education is about truly understanding as opposed to rote repetition but on the other hand if you truly understood a subject would you get a “˜D' in a test on it?”

      No offense, but this is a bit backwards. The problem is that you don’t necessarily have to ‘truly understand’ a subject to get an A.

      1. CTrees says:

        This. Also, you run into problems like me. Tests? All A’s, all the time. Teachers grading my notes, the pointless (for me) homework, “make a collage about this scientific principle, worth as much as a test, with half the points coming from the aesthetic qualities,” etc? That’s what brought down my grades.

        If I can get the test 100% correct, my notes were sufficient for my purposes, so why am I getting marked down for them not being good enough? Very confusing for a child. Yes I’m bitter.

        1. Entropy says:

          Well that kind of stuff is nonsense, pure and simple. Never had to deal with anything ludicrous like that.

          1. CTrees says:

            But that’s what brought down my grades. Never tests or essays, always the extraneous crud. Take my high school biology class – seemingly only to help bolster the grades of students who did not understand the material, and thus struggled with any parts of tests which weren’t pure memorization, we had to write journals (no relation to the subject required), had our notes graded, were required to make at least one collage that I remember, had to make models of DNA for… some reason (a diagram would suffice for understanding, but this carried the weight of a test), and… there was more, but I’ve blocked it. Along with the normal “Whee, I’m an accountant!” style homework/classwork and so on.

            In that class, I remember I started doing all of my notes in crayon, on rolls of those industrial papertowels classrooms use, and turning them in as little scrolls. I met all the requirements of the assignment, as well as proving that it was of no use to me, and showing exactly what I thought of it. Also, the DNA model? I used a dremel, jeweler’s wire, and tiny, tiny beads to make a model mounted on top of a penny. Actually got a 100% on that one, “because it was creative.” Obviously, it was another “I’m sick of this crap.”

            Most of my other classes weren’t *quite* that bad, but it was a shining example of everything I found to be wrong with public education. So very many problems… It was the Windows Live of education, really.

            P.S., that was an honors class. I don’t even want to think about the remedial version.

            1. Deoxy says:

              Actually, depending on the teacher and the particular honors system, those can be WORSE about that kind of crap – some teachers (and some entire programs) associate “honors” and “intelligent” almost entirely with “creative” – that is, clearly, smart kids want to do “creative” stuff, so we need to get some of that in every “honors” class, no matter the actual subject matter.

              1. CTrees says:

                That’s… actually a really good point, which I hadn’t much considered. It only makes me more bitter, though. I mean, I was in the honors class because I wanted to learn more science, not because I needed another arts and crafts hour.

                1. Tuck says:

                  Ah, but the teachers were able to motivate you to use your creativity using reverse psychology, as well as you being able to process and understand the information being given (even if the information didn’t go as far or deep as you would have liked).

                  I have a picture of them chuckling to each other in the teachers’ room over your frustration and placing bets on how creative your next expression of this frustration will be. Of course the one giving grades can influence the result by giving you a lower grade than you might be expected to receive from the quality of your work.

                  Okay, maybe it wasn’t their intention…but I hope it was. It would be a shame to ruin the picture after I’ve typed it all out.

        2. guy says:

          I’m pretty much in the same boat. I have extremely little tolerance for doing schoolwork at home, and I hate taking notes. If I need to re-read information in my textbook, I will re-read my textbook thank you very much. Despite the best efforts of modern textbook writers to hide all useful information with irrelevant sidebars, colorful graphics, and retorical questions, they’re still useful.

      2. Abnaxis says:

        I had a physics teacher who had a very effective solution to this problem. I don’t understand why no-one else ever uses it.

        See, there was a homework grade. It was something wild, like 60-70% of your grade. However, for any material in the course, if you got an A on the exam covering that material, you’re homework grade would be counted as an A, regardless of whether you turned it in.

        The idea was, the professor didn’t give a crap whether you turned in the homework or not if you knew the material, but if you were going through the effort of learning and you weren’t getting it (or you were not good at taking tests) you weren’t stuck with a crappy grade. It worked for absolutely everyone–those that didn’t learn by doing homework, those that were just taking the course to fill a prerequisite, and those that were struggling.

        I loved it, and I aced the class. Almost everyone did, despite the fact that the teacher was a ruthless grader.

        1. Deoxy says:

          This is a great idea for students with poor test-taking skills, as they can show mastery in a non-test environment.

          It’s also MUCH more game-able in that homework can be completed without mastery (most likely with “help” that may or may not be entirely honest).

          More about this in a full post lower in this thread.

          1. Abnaxis says:

            So what? What’s the real harm in that?

            Furthermore, as you say below, gaming is one of those universals so far as educational systems go. No matter what system you set up someone is going to game it.

          2. LassLisa says:

            It’s actually an easy system to screw yourself by trying to game – a lot of people think they don’t need the homework (or don’t need to attend class, or…), and don’t realize how much they’re falling behind until the test comes and they don’t get that A they were counting on. This is one reason for making people do the homework – it’s true that there are kids who learn without doing it (or who learn from doing, e.g., one problem in each section). But there are a lot MORE people who think they’re that way but actually will show much greater mastery if they’ve done it all.

            1. Abnaxis says:

              Bear in mind, this isn’t an all out “you fail this one test and you’re screwed” thing. Anyone who thought they could do it but couldn’t would screw up the first test, learn their limits, and start doing the homework for the remaining three. Unless they completely screwed the pooch, there were still three tests/homework sections to bring them up.

        2. Anachronist says:

          I had a graduate-level astrophysics course where the teacher did something similar. He announced at the beginning of the semester, “The problems on the exams will be problems from the textbook.” The end of each chapter contained a dozen or more problems, and each problem would often take hours, even days, to work out. You can guess the effect of his announcement: All six of us (small class) did every damn problem in the book regardless of the homework assigned.

          And sure enough, the exams included the toughest problems, and typically required the student to pick two out of the four or five presented and solve them. There was no way to pass unless you were already familiar with them.

          This was an effective technique to get students to study and learn the material, but it works only when the problems in the book are challenging, time consuming, unique, and require thought and creativity to solve.

    4. Abnaxis says:

      Responded to wrong thread

  6. Primogenitor says:

    This tale reminds me of my Masters course (yes, Masters – as in post-graduate, expensive, time investment). The class divided into two groups – those that “got” (and wanted) programming and those that didn’t. I found this really weird because the course description clearly stated that programming was required – the first module was “Introduction to Programming: Python”. Why those that did not want to learn programming decided to do this course, I have no idea.

    Yet the teachers/lecturers couldn’t do the sensible thing and say “if you don’t want to be here, go away”. This would have benefited both types of student, and saved the teacher/lecturer a lot of hassle. Alas those were fee-paying students and had to be taught regardless of their interest or ability.

  7. Phill says:

    I’m reminded of Richard Feynmann’s experiences when he started teaching in University (he was one of the best physicists of the 20th century, and almost universally regarded as the best teacher of physics). He didn’t want to give out grades, because he didn’t see the point. He wanted to teach the students. When he announced that the wouldn’t give grades, most of the students complained. They wanted a grade to put in their record. So he gave everyone the same grade for turning up. And the students (particularly the brightest ones) complained that they wanted grades that reflected how well they were doing (and, I suspect, some of the bright students wanted their intellectual and moral superiority over the rest of the class in writing… :D ).

    EDIT to add: there is of course a big difference between teaching in a school where many kids don’t want to be there and want to do the bare minimum to pass the class, and teaching in a university with students who want to be there, are paying to be there, and who have a high degree of interest and ability in the subject).

    1. Lalaland says:

      I can see his point but is he not also disingenuous? Is he not saying ‘I’m so good at this you were all taught equally well’? Does it help his students when they go to apply for grants or jobs to say ‘Well I did really well in his class, I got the same grade as everyone else’.

      Some people exceed at courses, others do not, eliminating grades altogether seems like utopian nonsense to me and I barely scraped my degree.

      1. noahpocalypse says:

        If you get the highest grade, then your potential employers will see that you did well in the class, no? And he wasn’t saying he didn’t need grades, he was saying that nobody should use grades, regardless of how good a teacher you are.

      2. Phill says:

        I don’t think he had an issue with grades on the final exams. Just on dishing out ‘meaningless’ grades on assigments during the course.

        1. Zukhramm says:

          I have not have a single university course were assignments were graded beyond a binary “done it/not done it”.

          1. Kdansky says:

            I have. It wasn’t pretty when the prof figured out that graded homework increases cooperation between students manifold, and accused everyone of cheating.

          2. TSED says:

            I have had about 5 classes where assignments were graded in a binary yes/no.

            In… 2 of those classes, not ALL assignments were graded that way, but the other 3 were*.

            *Not counting essays, because, you know. Essay.

      3. CTrees says:

        Well, it’s not that difficult to teach an entire class equally well. Having an entire class learn the material equally well is an entirely different matter.

    2. Abnaxis says:

      “there is of course a big difference between teaching in a school where many kids don't want to be there and want to do the bare minimum to pass the class, and teaching in a university with students who want to be there, are paying to be there, and who have a high degree of interest and ability in the subject).”

      In my experience, there are always two type–people who want to be in a course, and people to have to be in a course–even at the university level. It might not be as pronounced where you are from–the university I went to was a little crazy in requiring courses that were mostly irrelevant to any particular field, like theology and humanities courses–but no matter what there are some basic subjects people aren’t interested in, but they need it to get to the good stuff.

      The problem is, most teachers decide they need to pick one to dedicate their efforts to–those that want the knowledge get served in universities and those that need grades get served in primary school, since they make up the majority in their respective circles. I talked above about a physics teacher who would give either one a good grade–he had a homework grade that he ignored if you did well on the test. If you got a good grade, it was either because you knew the subject or put a lot of effort into learning the subject. I think that is the proper way to grade, at least in a class that focuses on concrete subjects, like math or physics.

      1. Tse says:

        In Bulgarian universities there is practically no choice of subjects, you learn what everybody else does (except for 4 minor subjects, which have little impact). Some of them are quite useless.

  8. Tobias says:

    I do like the idea of a proficiency based education. That means instead of (almost) everyone passing at different grades but at the same thime; you have everyone passing with no grades assigned, but at different time.

    For the simplest change leading there: Imagine if everyone could repeat every test as often as he wanted until he gets an A.

    The first time I was introduced the idea was this paper by david mackey:

    You finally have computer better then my first one. ( Atari ST with 512kb core, no hd, and one (famously loud) floppy drive. )

    1. Kayle says:

      When I was in grades 4-6 (about 30 years ago), my school had an experimental program with a good chunk of the kids (I’m thinking it must have been 1/3 to 1/2). The program attempted to do learn-at-your-own-pace with teachers giving individual attention as much as possible instead of everyone-at-the-same-pace lecture. I have no idea how they attempted to assign grades; at this level, I suspect teachers must have been grading on effort fairly heavily.

      For mathematics, I ran through all the math units that the program had on hand, which covered up to, but not including, integral & derivitive calculus, though there wasn’t any classical geometry, probably the school or the teacher misplaced that unit. (I also missed out on classical geometry in high school due to a placement test where I solved the geometry problems using analytical geometry instead)

      The school gave up on the program a year or two after I moved on to jr. high (grade 7-8); my younger sister never heard of it. I suspect the school gave up on the idea as too teacher intensive and fell back to everyone-at-the-same-pace, possibly with some tracking. Tracking is what Shamus described: separate into two or three groups based on ability (at least in theory, though Shamus apparently put himself into the wrong tracks): remedial track, standard track, advanced track.

    2. Confanity says:

      I can see that Mackey’s heart is in the right place, but this “paper” has the feel of an academically-flavored rant rather than anything actually persuasive to the coldly rational recipient. For one thing, it’s lousy with assumptions based on anecdotal, rather than rigorously gathered, evidence. “I had a lecturer once say this to me” is all the support offered for the assertion that current student/teacher relations become periodically adversarial, for example… but in what percentage of cases does that actually happen? And he speaks as if being scored and ranked will automatically cause Bob and Charlie to give up, to become sly system-gamers or hate-filled dropouts, but in what percentage of the time does that happen — at university, no less? There’s also a perception that students will learn more from post-secondary courses that they pay for out of their own pockets than ones paid for by their parents, but in a rigorous study which would have the greater effect?

      Mind you, I agree with his conclusions; I just don’t find anything in his essay that actually supports them.

      One more, contrarian, point: it makes any task easier, psychologically, if it can be broken down into steps. That’s an argument in favor of graded assignments and testing and gamification: students (which includes young children going through compulsory education, not just university students!) who don’t feel the sheer joy of education, or whose personal style doesn’t mesh with the teacher’s, or who are just in the wrong mood on a given day, can still be motivated to learn the material though a series of attainable goals and incrementally-increasing accomplishment.

  9. Kayle says:

    In most fields, to develop skills, you need a base layer of factual knowledge. Unfortunately, many primary education classes are structured to have almost all base knowledge acquisition and very little skill development.

  10. X2-Eliah says:

    I’m sure there could be another very insightful post about learning to program here, but I’d rather ask this:

    Did Pat’s epic mullet also appear as suddenly as his height-advantage over you, Shamus?

    1. Jarenth says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that picture is amazing. Combined with Patrick’s deer-in-the-headlights look, I get the impression that that hairdo just jumped up and bit him in the back of the head.

      Shamus, meanwhile, looks impressively unimpressed. All he needs to finish the look is a leather jacket.

      1. Will says:

        The flash of the camera probably startled the mullet, causing it to dig it’s teeth into Patrick’s head thus resulting in the ‘ow oh god what the hell’ look he has on his face.

        1. Kian says:

          Pat may have the height advantage, but it’s Shamus that gets to pick the pictures ;)

        2. noahpocalypse says:

          Headcrab! Gah!

      2. Sleeping Dragon says:

        When I read the description under the photo it looked to me as if Patrick seriously just suddenly grew taller than Shamus (I mean, like literally in a matter of seconds) so he’s like “whoah, what just happened” and Shamus, who was probably in the middle of the harassing he mentioned a few posts back, thinks “Oh come on karma, really?”

      3. Fat Tony says:

        This is pretty much the firts picture where Shame (us) isn’t doing his “goofy” smile (seriously cant think of a different discriptor for the smile you have in EVERY picture but this Shamus, even the Profile one eith —> Nerd, has that goofy smile)

    2. Joe Cool says:

      Oh god! The mullet! It burns the eyes!

  11. Dra9on says:

    This talk of grades reminded me of the way tafe, which is a trade school i guess, in australia works.
    There are 2 grades, pass and fail.
    The teacher decides which group you belong in.

    1. Nick says:

      Competency Based Testing it’s called, they switched to this about halfway through my course there, there wasn’t really that much of a difference. If you were getting an F before, you were now getting a NC (Not Competent), if you were getting a passing grade before, now you got a C.

      All it did was remove class rankings. Probably made it easier for the lecturer though.

  12. Mayhem says:

    One thing to make clear, there is a very distinct difference between teaching a practical skill vs teaching knowledge, but both are best done together. As an example, the traditional apprentice task of being given a box of nails, a hammer and some offcuts and being told to go away and not come back until they can hit the nails in cleanly with one hand teaches a very useful and important skill for carpentry. It also subtly starts teaching some useful knowledge about woods, which the apprentice may or may not realise. Different densities, working with or against the grain, lots of abstract knowledge that is very hard to understand without practical experience.
    A good teacher finds a way to translate their accrued experience into something a student can relate to so that they can gain understanding.
    Repetitive tasks can be a handy shortcut to have students practice a particular skill in such a way that they gain understanding of the underlying reasons why that skill is useful.

    But where the system falls over is where the pendulum swings too much to one side or the other. Universities are condemned for being ivory towers of useless theoretical knowledge. Everyone knows stories of fresh graduates who have to be taught the most basic parts of their job before they can become productive. On the other hand, the Indian IT system churns out dozens of indentikit technicians, who have learned by rote how to fix particular systems, but never learned *why* their fixes work. Put them on a new system and they are completely useless.

    The biggest problem these days is the public education system is being manipulated to produce valuable employees, not necessarily to produce people able to think. Most modern companies have no interest in training their staff beyond what is necessary for them to do their job efficiently. Staff that teach themselves are almost seen as liabilities, because they tend to want to move on and stop being nice little interchangeable cogs. You can see this in the decline of institutional knowledge in terms of people, and the rise of vast data collections that management can run reports on instead. He who has the knowledge has power, and restricting access to that knowledge restricts where the cogs can go.

    Compare that with say the traditional apprentice scheme, where a steady influx of beginners feeds into journeymen and eventually masters, nowadays most commonly seen in kitchens. The whole idea emphasises constant learning from both above and below, and that changing positions and moving on to start your own operation is not only endorsed, but expected.

    1. MichaelG says:

      You say “The biggest problem these days is the public education system is being manipulated to produce valuable employees”, right after you point out that these *aren’t* valuable employees because they don’t even know the basics and have no flexibility.

      From what I can tell in the U.S., employers have next to no input into the school system. It’s run by academics, teachers unions and the education establishment in general. They are the ones who want docile students, not independent thinkers.

      1. Deoxy says:

        Exactly – brainless drones are useful to the school system itself, and not much else. Even burger flippers require some mental development in comparison.

      2. Abnaxis says:

        Employees with flexibility might be useful in small to mid-size companies, but the giant corporations all seem to want drones who specialize in a single ability, with no creativity needed. Flexible people need not apply. And the giant corporations are the ones employing the majority of people, these days.

        Flexible != employable.

        1. krellen says:

          Which is in itself a problem. We have an excess of people, and need less efficiency.

        2. Monkeyboy says:

          Have to disagree with this, large companies are just more likely to have starter jobs that are cogs with one mission. Companies (in my experience) spend lots of money on continuing education programs and a lot of promotion decisions are made in finding new and innovative ways to do more cheaper and better. Yeah you may get a cubicle and a TPS report to fill out when you first get hired out of school, but the quickest way to get out of the cubicle is to find a way to save X man hours by automating the TPS report.

        3. somebodys_kid says:

          I think your numbers are mistaken, a slight majority of private employees are at small businesses…at least in the US

          1. Abnaxis says:

            Ehh…no, my numbers are fine. There are a lot of games you can play to inflate the statistics–and considering the source you’re citing is the U.S. Small Business Administration, I am leery. Some immediate concerns:

            1) Self-employed individuals are considered “small businesses,” but they’re not hiring anyone. That drops 10%-20% off the 52% quoted in your source by itself.

            2) Even if the snapshot you’re looking at is correct, the job security of those people is at issue as well–the vast majority of that 52% probably won’t have a job a year from now.

            3) Their cutoff where an firm stops being a “small business” is 500 employees–while it’s no Wal-Mart, that is definitely not a “small business” in my eyes.

            I think I’ll stand by my earlier statement.

            1. somebodys_kid says:

              1) Your original point I was contesting was “giant corporations are the ones employing the majority of people”. Adding self employed to those employed by small businesses would still yield a majority of employable people NOT being employed by giant corporations.

              2) Why do you say that? It would seem to me given macro economic trends that big businesses would be just as likely to lose jobs as small ones; they wouldn’t go OUT of business, but I think they’re just as likely to shed jobs.

              3) What do you define as a small business? 500, to me, is nowhere NEAR a giant corporation.

              1. Abnaxis says:

                1) I was replying to Michael G., who was talking about what sorts of employees employers are looking for. “self-employed” is not an employer.

                2) I don’t know what the percentage is on small-business failure rates, but I know it’s above half. That means more than half the people employed by small businesses will be looking for work in the near future. Layoffs notwithstanding, big corporate jobs are much safer jobs.

                3) The company I used to work at has been in business since 1931 and currently employs something like 300 employees. They have a warehouse, five fully staffed manufacturing facilities across the united states, and have sales offices in the US, United Kingdom, and Australia. Categorizing them as small business is ludicrous.

        4. Mayhem says:

          With the trends towards outsourcing anything possible, and replacing expensive local labour with cheap overseas labour, I stand by the idea that most education these days is focussed on producing fundamentally interchangeable cogs that all have a basic knowledge of simple maths, language skills and a good understanding of how to follow instructions.

          Once we talk about university level education, we immediately start selecting the above average half of the populace – those below average are ruled out by virtue of being either too poor, too unmotivated, or simply not being welcome.

          And the worst thing is, these days a university undergraduate is a commodity as far as the university is concerned. They are a renewable resource that mostly pay for themselves, at relatively minimal expenditure of resources. What a university prizes is the post-graduates, those who will undertake research that can provide the institution with fame and new knowledge, which can then be easily monetised.

          For the last thirty years, western goverments have been striving to increase the amount of people in higher education. And all we have done is push the barrier to entry to the workforce up by a few years and a lot of dollars. It means those with a priviliged background still get the easy entry they always have, while the rest jump through more and more hoops and devalue their own education.

  13. Chuck Henebry says:

    I’m sorry you don’t give Mr. C a name. He deserves the credit.

    1. Shamus says:

      The truth is, I don’t remember. :(

      Hell of a thing to forget. I don’t remember Mr. B’s name, either.

      1. Mom says:

        What grade did you get in that class?

        1. Shamus says:

          No idea. I don’t know what grades I got, anywhere. Ever.

          1. Patrick the Iconoclastic Hairmodel says:

            Pfftt…dont remeber my ass. He got D’s.

            In everything.


            1. Shamus says:

              I’d be happy if you would not call me a liar, in public, on my own blog. This isn’t you and me joking around in my office about the old days. This is a serious and soul-searching account. Thanks.

              I mentioned before that I got almost all D’s, but I’m sure there were exceptions, and I’d be very surprised if I got a D in CIS at Vo-Tech, seeing as how Mr. C gave me a computer for the summer.

              1. krellen says:

                Not to start a fight or anything, Shamus, but I think most of us are, by this point, familiar enough with Patrick’s personality to not take him too seriously when commenting on you.

                And even if it’s not Patrick specifically, many of us know how brothers work. :)

                1. Paul Spooner says:

                  Didn’t know how to say this tactfully, so thanks Krellen.
                  Aaaanyhow… yikes. Tension.

  14. MadTinkerer says:

    “I'll never see Mr. C again, but I hope he finds someplace that appreciates him.”

    Mr. C, if you’re reading this, I appreciate what you did.

    I wasn’t able to get this kind of education until college, and I don’t even remember what was taught in any of my high school “Computer” classes. Not that I ever disliked any teacher who ever taught a “Computer Class”, but I don’t even remember what we were taught because

    1) I was far, far beyond the toughest course being taught. I don’t know if MS DOS Batch File programming has ever been taught in high school.

    2) Everyone used shitty Acorn computers. Now don’t get me wrong: I understand full well that at the time they were the cost effective solution. But using Acorn computers to teach a Computer Class is like using iPhones to teach a Computer Class.

    Like iPhones, Acorns were designed to let consumers Do Stuff Easily by obfuscating all the How It Works. In other words, going completely against what the goals of any proper Computer Class should be. I understand why they were popular with the British consumer on a budget in the 90s, but they were totally crap for learning How It Works.

    Now my introductory programming courses in college were a Godsend. My teachers loved me, because I totally got all of it and could figure out on my own how each new widget they taught could be put together in different ways. The courses had a huge dropout rate, not because the material was too hard, but because the classes were taught properly and most of the students had never encountered a class where they had to do real programming. I think if more of them had been raised on the simple stuff (just BASIC and the like, not Batch files), it would have been easier for them.

    1. blue_painted says:

      Just for clarification: You are saying that DOS batch files were a harder course than BASIC on an Acorn?

      1. Phill says:

        The BBC Acorn computers pre-dated PCs and DOS (although not by much). And they were never designed to “Do Stuff Easily by obfuscating all the How It Works” – just the opposite in fact. They were designed to be used in teaching, and compared to the direct competition (the ZX spectrum for example) they were a great improvement. You try programming in BASIC on a spectrum which was positively peverse, and then try again on a BBC, and there was a big difference in programming usability. Plus the BBC was almost unique in having a built in assembler for writing in assembly language, and mixing it in seamlessly with BASIC.

        Once you get into the era when PCs were more established (mid 80’s onwards) the the acorn machines (BBC and Archimedes) start to lose relevance (altough the Archimedes was the first truly 32 bit home computer and continued the tradition of having a built-in assembler / BASIC interaction).

        I always found them to be far more programmer friendly than any of the alternatives I’d tried, and would if anything fault the PC for starting the “Do Stuff Easily by obfuscating all the How It Works” trend (and in fact the “do it in a needlessly obscure way” trend too….)

        1. blue_painted says:

          Spectrum BASIC wasn’t that bad! And there was always “Goold old” RAND USR ….

      2. Peter H. Coffin says:

        From the standpoint of teaching concepts and experimentation? Yeah, I’d agree that batch files are harder and less useful for teaching “Programming” as a thing to to be understood than BASIC.

        1. blue_painted says:

          I agree that using batch files to teach programming is just a bad idea, but that means the course was hard because it used inappropriate tools.

  15. Manny says:

    This reminds me of the passage from highschool to the university.

    During highschool I had to memorize lots of text for history, geography, biography, mathematics and physics. It was a huge pain and time waste since I couldn’t remain concentrated while trying to memorize bits of text.

    Then, in university, it was suddenly all about understanding and being able to solve problems. During all of the tests we could use some pages with a self-written summary of the most important formulas and other reminders that we thought were useful – basically what was called “cheating” in highschool. I was delighted, and I knew that I ended up exactly in the right place.

  16. Ross says:

    Oh man, that picture of you and your brother is classic! More so thanks to your caption.

    By the look on his face it appears that he instantly gained the height just as that picture was taken. Very suddenly indeed.

  17. Vextra says:

    I kinda wish there were Mr.Cs around locally, or heck more Mr Cs in general. Finding Teachers who are actually passionate about teaching the subject is rare enough, but ones whose passions align with actually vitally useful work skills is almost unheard of.

    On a less depressive note, I have to agree that this seems an insoluble problem- you simply cannot apply a universal solution to learning, anymore than you could apply a universal solution to say, fixing a car, any car. A truly flexible school system would be one capable of accounting for multiple styles and methods of learning, rather than having one universal rigid fixed grades system which might be fine for your dialectic subjects, but which only hinder the majority when it comes to specialisms.

  18. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    I love that what you point out in the picture is pats hieght. You make no mention of the glam rock mullet. Atop his head

    1. noahpocalypse says:


      Headcrab! Gah!

    2. krellen says:

      It was the 80s. That’s what hair looked like back then.

      1. Irridium says:

        Good lord… why?!

        1. krellen says:

          No one knows. It’s one of the great mysteries of science.

        2. Patrick the Iconoclastic Hairmodel says:

          Why else do guys do anything at that age. Chicks liked em. And yes, the ladies loved my mullet. Well, some of them did. Most notably the slutty ones, which were the ones I was going for. enought to justify its existance anyways.

  19. Shawnee! says:

    Back off ladies, Patrick is taken! Who could resist that hair?!?

  20. Deoxy says:

    OK, wall of text coming up – this is a subject worthy of much discussion and thought, and I’ve put a lot into it over the years.


    Grades are an attempt at measuring learning. All attempts at measuring things that aren’t directly measurable must use proxies. All proxies are game-able – that is, you can work to improve the proxy instead of what it is a proxy for (“teaching to the test” is an honest, open version of this, and is relatively benign, at least if the test being “taught to” is thorough and useful).

    But you MUST have some kind of measurement, or you attract lazy people who just want a paycheck/credential (teacher/student). The lack of holding teachers accountable for the learning of their students is one MAJOR fault of the public education system – it attracted people who wanted a paycheck for the least work (and the least accountability). That seems to be getting a bit better (though the costs for that improvement, paid in other areas, are painful).

    Bad Teachers or Bad Students? ()some of both, really)

    A significant number of “bad teachers” are the lazy, “just here for an easy paycheck” kind I mentioned above, but leaving those out, it’s still hard to be knowledgeable AND good at giving that knowledge – that is, teaching is its own skillset, but to truly make good use of it, you need to be a “good teacher” AND be good at the particular subject matter.

    Someone who is knowledgeable can be a good resource to the student who really desires that knowledge, especially if that student is also talented in that particular area, but they will fail utterly with other students.

    Someone who is good at teaching but doesn’t really understand the subject (there are jokes about elementary school teachers and math for a reason, unfortunately) can do a decent job of bringing even un-interested students up to their own limited level of understanding on the topic, but they will be essentially useless for the student who is talented and/or interested in the topic.

    We don’t have enough people with both skillsets to teach all of our students. Also, the “teaching” skillset is generally poorly taught (in part because there is a significant chunk of people who just want the piece of paper that allows them to getting a teaching job so they can get an easy paycheck, so they don’t care if the actual skills being taught are useful, they just want it to be easy to get the credential).

    Systemic Flaws

    Public school system – no market forces, lots of kids there who don’t want to be, etc, etc. Insert huge discussion about lack of accountability in the administration, ridiculous waste of resources, etc, etc. Generally, the whole “smaller government” screed can go right here, only tailored to the school system in particular, and with lots of very specific and thorough support from years of documentation. Self-serving bureaucracy stuff goes here, too (most teachers unions, for instance, unfortunately).

    Also, we need to allow failure. ALL kids lose out to keep a few uninterested or incapable ones around, most of whom gain no benefit from being kept around. Sorry, they need to go. Yes, many of them may regret it later, but that happens anyway, and it hurts the education of all the others. Lots of cost (both monetary and otherwise), exceedingly little benefit.

    At a more basic level, the “age cohort” method of learning is very convenient societally and simple to understand, but it inherently puts learning in a secondary position. If learning is your goal, this is bad.

    OK, this is already getting too big. I could spend hours discussing all of this (and I have), so I’m just going to stop now.

    Oh, and programming: I took my first programming class in college, and by the second week of class, people who had taken that language in high school were asking me questions. The valedictorian from my high school was in that class, and he had to work his hind end off for his A, even though he was of above average intelligence (work ethic goes farther in life than raw intelligence, and he embodied that – intelligent, not genius, but worked SO SO SO hard all the time). As others have said, it’s really not about intelligence – you either are a programmer, mentally, or you are not. It’s almost binary – there are VERY few in the middle.

    1. krellen says:

      There are 10 types of people in the world: Those able to think in binary and extrapolate from incomplete data.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        The completeness of the data does not determine whether or not decisions are based on it.

        Neither does it determine the necessity of said decisions.

      2. Pete says:

        /me tips off imaginary hat

        Bravo, good sir. Bravo!

      3. Deoxy says:

        Heh. Hadn’t heard the “extrapolate” part before.

      4. Confanity says:

        [holds up three fingers] There are five kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can remember what the hell they were talking about. 8^D

    2. Abnaxis says:

      Between the religion debates and this I get the feeling that if we ever met IRL, incessant debate would ensue which may or may-not end up in blows :)

      The problem with an education system that is not run by the government is that there are, in fact, children out there whose parents cannot or will not fund private tutelage, due to necessity as well as neglect. Those children should not be doomed to destitution. Speaking as one of those children, I can say that there is nothing more discouraging than struggling to afford college while others get better opportunities that they don’t even need because their parents have more money than mine did.

      Ineffectiveness and inefficiencies aside, public schools at least give everyone a chance at an education. I will rejoice when all of the money that goes into private schools instead goes into making our public education system passable.

      1. Ben says:

        Um, no.

        Other way around, really. 1) You don’t have to pay for a private education. Most people *do*, but you don’t have to. 2) Better opportunities are not fixed commodities. No one is taking yours away by getting a college education easier than you are. 3) Public schools *do not* give everyone a chance at an education. They give everyone the illusion of improvement. Public schools sometimes give students a piece of paper stamped “educated” that may or may not mean anything. Frequently, it’s a complete lie.

        I personally would rather rejoice that all of the money going into public schools could be kept and used by the taxpayer as they see fit, including however they wish to have their child educated.

        1. Abnaxis says:

          I love numbered lists. It’ makes the dialogue so orderly!

          1) I’m not just talking about money. The fact is, some kids are born to parents who are unprepared for ensuring their children go to the school that is right for them. How do you tell a high school drop-out parent how important algebra is? There is a very real disconnect–believe me, I know–between the educated and the uneducated. What is a child supposed to do if they want a better education and their parents have no idea what to do with them?

          2) Yeah, actually, they are. Colleges only take so many students. Schools only offer so many classes. My parents only have so much money, and my city only has so many schools.

          3) We can debate about the efficiency of public schools, however I would argue that while there is no direct way of proving that public school students are better off, I doubt the United States would have a 99% literacy rate without them. You might not consider the education provided by the public system complete, but it is most certainly better than nothing.

          1. Ben says:

            I framed my first response in terms of money because you stated that there were parents who would not or could not fund private tutelage. If the question is one of parents who will not or can not seek out a quality basic education (which is what I thought you were talking about, rather than any education beyond high school), that is a separate issue.

            In terms of degree programs and specialized training, I certainly concede that those opportunities are controlled and limited. With certain exceptions (such as, for example veterinary medicine) I have not encountered a situation where a student was absolutely refused, but I haven’t attempted every degree program offered by every university in the country.

            The public education system in the United States is definitely better than nothing. My argument is that a system of privatized education would actually be better than “better than nothing”. As repellent as the concept is, I could even make an argument for the outcome described below by Patrick being better than what we have now; considering we get a lot of the results he describes with the current system.

            1. Abnaxis says:

              And I am trying to make the point that children have no choice what hand they are dealt. What resources are available to them is completely luck of the draw–do they get lucky, and born to wealthy, intelligent parents or are they stuck with the short straw and born into the household of loving, but ignorant parents?

              In a privatized system, there is absolutely no incentive to give the latter student a chance to learn what is beyond their living room. Why should a school take a student who is unable to pay and, frankly, less likely to succeed when there are plenty others who can afford more tuition and bring greater prestige?

              The only way that child has a chance is if some third party intervenes and makes the opportunity available to them, because it is not the most economically feasible thing to do. But it is the right thing to do.

              Use public funds to run private schools. Outsource the management. I don’t care. But education should be free, information should be free, and no child should have to suffer ignorance because their parents are ignorant. Opportunity for education should be equal.

              1. Ben says:

                Here it sounds very much like we’re actually arguing for similar concepts from different assumptions and points of view. Public schools *are* funded by private funds. We take the private funds from individuals via a wide variety of fees and taxes, call them public funds, and use them to pay for schools (among other things, of course). It’s the same money. The differences are the choice and the management.

                Every private school that I have been aware of (and I certainly am not familiar with all, or even most private schools, just several) make available a massive array of scholarships. They do this because they believe it is beneficial for as many children as possible to receive, in their view, a superior education. I believe that such a system would prove a greater benefit to society than the current public school system. To clarify, however, I *would not* seek the elimination of public education. At least not until such time as a mostly privatized system actually demonstrated the ability to provide universal basic education.

                1. Abnaxis says:

                  Let me be more clear–schools need to be not-for-profit. There is no profit in helping those children that really need the help. Furthermore, educating children takes a metric shit-ton of money. More than you are going to find among donators, unless those donators have some other agenda they want to push. That means it has to come from taxes. Split hairs all you want about what is a private fund and what is public domain. That is not germane to my point.

                  Further, those scholarships you tout do not help the people who really need them. I can quote studies if you like, but I know from experience and from study that the vast majority of scholarships for the ‘needy’ only help the students who are already well enough off to be aware of them. They are minorities with educated parents, who know how to jump through hoops for the gratification of the money lenders. That does not include the poorest of the poor, who would be left behind if we let go of the reins and let schools go full private.

        2. Patrick the Mojave Mullet King says:

          I have thought about the benefits of privatizing schooling, believe me, I am a borderline anarchist that calls himself a liberitarian. The involvement of government more often than not leads to whatever entity it is involved with to devolve into the lowest common denominator, in this case it teaches every child as if it is the dumbest kid in the class, leading to the stamped paper that is meaningless, as you described. While that is a bit to harsh of a judgement, there are many people who leave public schools with a good foundation for productive adulthood. Lets face it, most of us here went to public schools, including Shamus, and here we are having a relatively intellligent debate as to it’s merits. It can’t be all THAT bad.
          The problem is when I thought about what the alternative to public schools would be, a myriad of prrivate schools. To which consider the following:
          1.This is America. A free market economy.
          2.There is alot of money that changes hands in the name of education. I don’t have any real numbers to quote, but I do not think saying that the entirety of America’s public schools would be a trillion dollar a year industry. That’s alot of zeroes.
          3.This is America. We are greedy F***s.

          Is there any doubt that not to long after we privatize schooling Wal-mart would be opening School “branches” all over the place? McDonalds elementary. Geico Senior High. Google Junior high. You know it would happen. Its an inevitability. Lower income neighborhoods would be sponsored by Chico’s bail bonds and churn out illiterate burger flippers. Those with means would send their children to the Microsoft School for gifted youngsters. Children with athletic ability would go to The school of Nike and churn out 12 year olds that can dunk, but answer every question with a mono-syllabic grunt. Economic and racial inequalities would be magnified.

          “When space exploration becomes a reality, it will be the corporations that get the naming rights. The IBM stellarshere.
          Planet Starbucks.”

          1. Kel'Thuzad says:

            I’ll address the points one by one.

            1.This is America. A free market economy.

            Theoretically it should be a free market economy, yes. It is due to this that removing public education would be a good move. Competition between different entities is always good for the consumer. At least start with school vouchers.

            2.There is alot of money that changes hands in the name of education. I don't have any real numbers to quote, but I do not think saying that the entirety of America's public schools would be a trillion dollar a year industry. That's alot of zeroes.

            All the more reason to open it to private enterprise. A lot of government money is wasted on education, something that shouldn’t have been done in the first place. Funding has increased massively and it hasn’t done anything to the quality of education.

            3.This is America. We are greedy F***s.

            Everyone’s greedy for different things. I don’t see why that matters either.

      2. Paul Spooner says:

        I get the feeling that if we ever met IRL, incessant debate would ensue which may or may-not end up in blows

        We can see here that you think that believe force is a valid way of changing someone’s mind. I think so too. The fact that this is a discussion at all means that the government holds the power to force assent.
        Instead of directly addressing your (very valid) point that life is not fair, allow me to counter with a proxy. I choose you Frederick Bastiat!

        God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form as well as a human form. And these social organs of persons are so constituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

        And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.

        1. Abnaxis says:

          Erm…what did that have to do with the point at hand? Hm, let me see if I can dig something up with google…

          1. Paul Spooner says:

            Bastiat suggests (and I agree with him) that, instead of taking people’s money (theft) and giving it to other people (through the means of “artificial systems” such as public education or “government schools”) the government should enforce justice, and punish theft. That quote comes from “The Law” which you can easily find with Google.

            Just found another fantastic quote, which may or may not apply. This one from “Economic Harmonies” by the same author.

            Truly, modern reformers, when I see you trying to replace this admirable order by a contrivance of your own invention, there are two things (or rather two aspects of the same thing) that utterly confound me: your lack of faith in Providence and your great faith in yourselves; your ignorance and your arrogance.

            1. Abnaxis says:

              Ah. In other words, screw poor kids. They should know better than to be born to poor parents. They can stay warm on the good feeling they get from knowing Bill Gates gets to keep all his money to invest in China.

              I’m glad Bastiat doesn’t run things.

              1. Confanity says:

                To be fair, according to Bastiat the government shouldn’t steal your money and give it to silly social services like the police either, so if you can kill a rich person’s family and steal their resources, it’s yours by right of personal superiority, right? After all, my personal belief in “provenance” is that the gods help those who help themselves. [/wry]

                1. Paul Spooner says:

                  Well, Bastiat argues that it turns out better for everyone, including the poor kids. I mean, really, who would actually believe “Screw those poor kids, they can go starve!”? I don’t think anyone wants that, or at least admits to it. However, there are a lot of people (then, as now) who agree with you in rejoicing that his theories have never been fully tested.

                  To be fair, according to Bastiat the government shouldn't steal your money and give it to silly social services like the police either

                  While I see where Abnaxis is coming from, this statement is actually extremely unfair to Bastiat’s views. The justice system (police, courts, criminal law) is the main thing Bastiat claims is the right sphere of government. So, no anarchy, killing rich people, etc. Sorry.

                  1. TSED says:

                    Yeah, um.

                    A Christian anarchic state? No thanks. That is the very last thing I ever want to be anywhere near.

                    I’m public educated, and I got myself a job at the local hospital with said highschool education. Then, I took my paychecks and got myself – MY self – most of a bachelor’s degree (getting there, getting there…). All of my pre-college friends fall in one of two categories:
                    1) Parents were worse off than mine. These friends are all either here or in a handful of other cities, working terrible jobs (one was excited because she was being considered for promotion to management… for a local Wendy’s!). I have nothing in common with them any more, and have no idea how to contact most of them. Secondary education is not only out of their reach, but they don’t even see the importance of it.
                    2) Parents were better off than mine. These friends are ALL in one or the other of two specific cities, enjoying life and the headstart they got on me. I’ll be catching up to them when I finish my degree. My old optometrist’s son, who was a friend in middle/high school, already makes about ten times what I make. They got to skip a lot of the steps I didn’t.

                    I live in the most right-wing province of Canada, and it’s awful. The city I’m in is suffering from a decades-long brain drain because the provincial government has financial motivation to keep education away from here. Econo-Anarchy would make everything so much worse! I already have anecdotal evidence that wealthy parents = fast track to success. People DON’T look out for other people. Take away my public school, and I’d be a dry waller now, in my dad’s business. That’s a horrifying thought for me, thank you very much. I’m happy to live on substandard wages but I am NOT interested in manual labour.

                    Secondly, seriously? God? I’m an atheist, and saying “let’s just chop off all of the government that takes care of people and let GOD do that” fills me with a dread I can’t even put into words. Tell me, Bastiat-believers, should the USA instantly scrap the entirety of its military budget and rely on God to keep its borders and citizens safe?

                    1. Shamus says:

                      Yeah, this thread has gone far enough. (Not just talking to TSED, but to all sides.) I allowed a religion debate a few entries back as a special exception. I didn’t declare an open season for this sort of thing.

        2. Abnaxis says:

          Who said anything about using force to change someone’s mind? I just figure we would get so annoyed at each other our emotions would win out :p

      3. somebodys_kid says:

        In the US, your tax dollars go to the school district that you live in. We can keep the public funding and instill some parental choice in the matter by allowing the parents to choose which school the child attends, and then have the money follow the student. This will ensure the destitute do not go without education and also hold schools accountable to parents who can simply transfer their children without an added financial burden. It’s absurd that I MUST fund THIS particular school because I live at this address, rather than fund the school I CHOOSE to send my kid to.

      4. 4th Dimension says:

        I finished a public “free” state sponsored official colege, so I can tell you a coupe of flaws in such a system.

        Major advantages of such system is that it mostly eliminates family wealth from the equation determining who gets a degree. Enrolment is done by weighting candidates according to their sucess in the school (High School or whatever was prior) and then taking N best, where N is the number of students that state can sponsor. Colege allso takes another N students who were “below the line” if they can pay. And even if you payed to get into first year, if you succesfuly pass it you are automatically swiched to sponsored group, and will not be paying. Reverse is possible, a sponsored student can all to easily become paying student if he fails a certan number of subjects. For good students there is even accomodation if they are good enough. So only thing that you pay (if you don’t get into state sponsored student apartments) is accomodation and food (again there is a colege cafeteria where you can pay to eat at hevily discounted rates (not that the food is excellent, but you won’t starve)).

        So far so good right?

        Well there are fiew teeming issues.

        First is that applying students are weighted by their grades in high school, but it’s not taken in account weither or not that school was a dificullt one or not. Meaning we can have applying students A and B where A studied at some simple high school (let’s say Agricultural) and consiquently has better average score and better grades in important subjects, while B who is better student but finished a more difficult generalist gymnasium will have a less of weight and might fall below line.

        Also there is allways pressure by Universities and by the public to enroll more students (public wants their kinds to get a diploma, uni’s want better funding), so you start inlarging N, so in end you take in something like 60%+ of the total number of kids with finished high school, while there is no actuall need for so many people in the workforce with degrees. Couple that with systems like Bolognia convention which were suited to unis where all students pay, and there are rules that at least 50% must pass, and poor knowlege base attained in high schools, and soon enough you are issuing too many degrees to people who realistically shouldn’t get them. And are devaluing such a degree.

        While I’m all for state sponsored free education, these problems need to be solved.

        1. Blake says:

          In Victoria/Australia it’s somewhat different.
          After year 12 (‘high school’ here is 7-12) we can apply through VTAC to get tertiary education. We choose up to 10 preferences, then based upon our our scores (year 11 and 12 subjects are anonymously marked across the state) we get the highest preference our scores allow (after all the universities have picked the ‘best’ students that applied to each course).

          In order to account for difference in schools, we also have a test called the GAT (General Achievement Test) which instead of being marked against the state, is used to mark you against your peers. The GAT then adjusts your total score to bring you in line with where you’d be if all schools were the same.

          In my case it meant that although my scores weren’t the greatest (except for my perfect 50 in Multimedia VET (VET being a TAFE certificate you can get as part of your VCE)), I ended up placed in the 92nd percentile of the state for the year allowing me access to the course I wanted, sponsored by the state (‘Commonwealth Supported Places’ have a higher barrier to entry than fee paying places).

          Unfortunately CSPs also leave you with a big old debt to the government you get interest on so after all the public schooling I could get I still owe the government 20 grand for it.

      5. Deoxy says:

        The problem with an education system that is not run by the government is that there are, in fact, children out there whose parents cannot or will not fund private tutelage, due to necessity as well as neglect.

        You are conflating management with funding.

        I actually DO support public FUNDING of education despite the inherent market distortions that brings specifically because of the benefits of 99% literacy, etc.

        But otherwise, I wish to introduce as many market forces into it as possible. Yes, some children will still get the short end of the stick, be stuck in the worst school available, largely because their parents don’t care… but even for them, it won’t be any WORSE than it is today for far more children than that!

        1. Abnaxis says:

          I’ve actually thought the same thing. I don’t really care who runs it, but I wish we didn’t have this schism that exists between the private and the public schools.

          The main problem I see with privatizing schools on the public dime, however, is that there are already separation of church and state issues when it comes to school–adding a third party would make it even more of a minefield.

          That’s more a problem with implementation, however. The fundamental idea is sound, as opposed to the idea of a fully privatized system, which is fundamentally not sound.

    3. Dev Null says:

      Do you know, I’m not sure I believe there are that many people who get into teaching “just for the paycheck”. All of the teachers that I know – and I’ll admit they’re mostly young, and you do say the system is changing – end up doing a colossal amount of work for very little pay. And thats after doing a fairly large amount of education to get to the point where they’ll let you start. If all you wanted was to do as little as possible and get paid, I’d think you’d just get a job as a checker at Kmart.

      I’m serious. I did some poking around – average starting salary for a teacher in the US: about 31k. Average salary: about 46k. But you get that after paying for 5 years of education (in most states, you need a BA and a teachers certificate.) Average salary for a checker at Kmart seems to start around 15k, but if, in the 5 years your counterpart is going to school, you can work your way up to Assistant Store Manager, the pay range is almost exactly the same as for teachers: low end is 34k, average is 43k. And instead of 5 years worth of tuition debt to work off, you’ve been earning enough money to at least not slip too far into debt. And thats if you choose Kmart as your chosen profession; apprentice yourself to a plumber at 16, and your lifetime income will outperform most doctors, and you’ll never be up all night grading essays.

      I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but I’m thinking that you’d have to be a little bit crazy to get into teaching for the ‘easy paycheck’.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        Teaching is extremely, extremely contextual as far as the rewards it brings. Depending on what district you are in, a teacher can make anywhere from $30K to well into the $50K range. Further, some districts mandate all teachers have a degree in teaching, while others do not. My father has no degree of any sort, but has taught elementary because my school district only requires a background check to teach (at least, at the time it did…).

        I’ve heard a saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” While it is not universally the case, or even generally the case, teaching is an outlet for many who cannot hold down a job any other way in some corners of the Earth.

      2. Shamus says:

        It’s true that if you want GOOD money, you’ll stay far away from teaching. However, if you want EASY money, teaching in a public school with tenure is a safe bet. Yes, some teachers DO work their asses of. In my story, Mr. Markle was an outstanding example of a person who worked harder than the system required because he believed in the work, and he had an impact on my life. I will always be grateful for him.

        But there are a lot of lousy teachers (or, were, in the 80’s, and I don’t expect much has changed) who can continue to put in the bare minimum, do a horrible (even counter-productive) job, and endure very little in the way of consequences.

        The natural reaction to this is, “Let’s watch the teachers more closely to find out which ones are doing a good job!” Of course:

        1) This leads to more testing, which arguably exacerbates the problem.

        2) There’s no point in figuring out which ones are doing a lousy job if you can’t fire them.

        1. Dev Null says:

          I don’t deny that there are many teachers who put in the bare minimum, are counter-productive, and/or are mailing it in for the pay _at this point_. Some people are just terribly terribly bad at their jobs. And as
          CaptainBooshi points out below, many of them have just given up. What I have difficulty believing is that there are hordes of people spending years and money getting their teaching credentials for the express purpose of saying “Ha! I made it! Screw you kids; I’m set for life” on day 1, and making as little effort as possible from that point on. I don’t have any real evidence against that – I mean, how would you know? – but it doesn’t ring true. Going for a low-paying job because its safe income for life is a fairly lazy strategy, and getting into education seems to require too much planning and forethought for the person who is, in the end, only doing it as a way to be lazy.

          1. Ben says:

            I think the more accurate point would be not that there are people setting out with the goal of screwing kids for a paycheck, but that most teachers are teachers because it’s a job they could get. It’s *just another job*.

            In the last years of high school and later in college, *teaching* is what you did when your first three career plans fell through. Failed the wrong class? I guess I’ll go into teaching. Turns out you’re not really interested in medicine as a career? Go back and get your teaching qualifications. Oops, I’m pregnant/got someone pregnant? Well, you can always go into teaching.

            Some of those people will be good at it. But for most, they will be minimally competent and mainly interested in getting their paycheck. Teaching is not a magical career where you have to be accepted and blessed by the Teaching Fairy in the Magical Wood behind the College of Business. You just meet the qualifications and get a job, if you can. Draw a decent salary with mostly decent benefits and put up with a lot of BS…just like most middle class jobs.

      3. Deoxy says:

        You have left out some VERY important parts of what constitutes “work” in your claims about teacher pay!

        – Teachers generally work fewer hours than other professions (on average – yes, there are good teachers who do more, that’s not the point)

        – Teachers get WAY WAY WAY more time off than any other profession.

        – The actual work REQUIRED is generally fairly low – that is, if you just want to phone it in, you can get by with not much.

        To give you an example, I was several years of experience as a programmer when my wife finally graduated and started teaching. Her STARTING salary was more per work day than mine.

        Also, as some others have mentioned, “those who can’t, teach” has some serious truth to it. I went to a school with a fairly well-respected education program, and it was still a joke – the “elementary math” class was, essentially, just that, and it was still hard for a noticeable number of them. Oh, and it was also the holding area for girls who were there for their MRS degree.

        And this was a GOOD program. Schools that just churn out teaching credentials are notorious for the crap they shovel.

        So yes, near-unfirability (especially in some states – see New York and try not to freak out), decent pay (at least – some states go a good bit further) despite MASSIVE time off… yeah, if you want easy street and still have a middle-class income, this is it.

        Good teachers in the current system are only good BY CHOICE – the system does not require it (it’s getting a bit better).

        1. Mayhem says:

          Hah. Always good to see that old chestnut stir its head again.

          In commonwealth nations, most of the education systems are broadly similar. All promote the job saying the teachers getting the same minimum 12 weeks holiday as the students. Except they don’t.

          The sheer amount of paperwork that has to be completed by your average high school level teacher these days is ridiculous – multipage assessments on every student, along with the usual marking load, creation of lessons, ensuring your lesson plan matches with what the standards body expects .. and then the curriculum gets changed every four years as a new goverment “fixes” the broken education system.

          In NZ, the average day starts well before 8am and finishes well after 5pm, though the students are only there roughly 9-3.
          And teachers are paid a salary, so all those extra hours are unpaid. Take a specialist teacher, say for chemistry. They will have an average of six different classes per day. Expect at least 35 students per class. Thats over 200 individuals who they have to teach, assess and provide appropriate support to. And then write up what they did and why. If they are lucky, they might get a rotating free period during the week to catch up on the paperwork, more likely it has to be done out of hours or on the weekend.

          The only profession I can think of that expects more out of underpaid staff is Law, and for much the same reason – the new entrants get on the treadmill and put in the long long hours to get Tenure, or be made Partner, at which point they can finally stop worrying about being laid off at any point. By that stage though, most have been long burned out, the survivors are deeply cynical about everything and some of that has to rub off on the kids.

          Your best teachers are either in their first few years, and young and enthusiastic, or in their later years and past worrying about politics. Those in between, aya.

          1. Abnaxis says:

            “The only profession I can think of that expects more out of underpaid staff is Law”

            I looked at that and went “BWUH!?!”

            Things are indeed quite different between NZ and the US…

            1. Mayhem says:

              To be fair, I’m referring to the treatment of interns or junior lawyers when I refer to Law. Once you reach a particular level of seniority, you certainly get well remunerated. That being said, working consistent 80-100 hour weeks is not unusual for your first few years, as a number of my friends who completely dropped off the social radar after graduating can attest to.

    4. PAK says:

      Small nitpick: I would argue that it IS in fact about intelligence, insofar as that word has any useful meaning. The problem is, the culture uses that word to refer to a large suite of talents which science is only beginning to show us are in fact separate from one another (if sometimes interrelated) and which don’t always scale together. Propensity toward the sort of linear, logical reasoning and modelling required by programming is certainly a talent. Like many abilities, the lack of a talent for programming may be partially made up for with hard work, but not completely (as the tale of your friend shows us).

      I agree with much of what you say, and think this post, and the one near the top recommending proficiency-based learning and evaluation, contribute a lot of positive things to the dialogue.

      My own pet concern in all of this is how you disentangle the issues of talent and work ethic–currently by convention having an “F” on your record is viewed as being pretty bad, but on the other hand Shamus’ point that passing tests without knowing how to solve problems within the domain of the subject at hand being absurd has a lot of merit. Currently, the system is balanced (in a highly gamable way, as you rightly assert) to reward those who make a good faith effort to do the work even if they don’t achieve understanding, so that they have a reasonable means of avoiding a societal stigma even if they don’t have some of the talents that make understanding of the subject more achievable. Any truly succesful system will have to account for this problem.

      1. Patrick the Mojave Mullet King says:

        See I think everyone looks at state funded education in a personal perspective rather than in the utilitarian view it is meant o be percieved.

        Elementary and Secondary education are provided to you, by governement, NOT to educate you but to give you THE BASIC TOOLS the individual needs to function in the community. If you want to learn more, do it yourself. If you want to know more about a particular subject, got to college and pay for it yourself. They don’t teach you details like the how and why in history because it would be a waste on the majority of students.

        Public schools are not designed to better or improve YOU. If you want to be more educated, got to college and educate yourself. And in a similar vein, grades are actually not for YOU either, they are a measure of the level of education being imparted to you. Grades that are given to you are for their benefit, not yours.

        Our governments, for the most part, do not do things that benefit individuals unless they can also benefit the whole. Any action taken is usually taken with the idea of benefiting as many people as possible. Public schools exist because they benefit the whole. Beyond that, whether or not they meet the needs of each individual is something that isn’t even considered. Ever. They teach you the basiscs, and if something catches your fancy, like computers or history or biology, well then great. Go see your guidance counselor for a friggin PEL grant application and brochure to The university of….wherever. Public schools aren’t for YOU, they’re for the public. They don’t care what grades you get anymore than they care what race you are when they ask on every application. They aren’t interested in your ancestry, they’re interested in a balanced scatter plot.

        Krellen made mention above in regards to efficiency and employment and the needs of corporations for people to be task oriented, not flexible or capable of multi-tasking at lower levels. Companies don’t care if you can do many things, they want you to do one thing. Some times they don’t even care how well it is done.

        Similarly, we keep trying to apply concepts of logic, efficiency and optimization to an entity ( governement) that is desgned to be as pragmatic and self-serving as possible. The system is incapable of recognizing anything except its own needs.

        It isn’t about YOU. It not only doesn’t care what YOU think or what is best for YOU, it is incapable of caring.

        MEh…what do I know…I was up till 3 am playing NHL 12. Most of you are probably little more than hallucinations from sleep deprivation. And those of you who don’t like the mullet can kiss my Aqua-Net wielding ass.

        1. Abnaxis says:

          You make it sound like it’s so easy for a child to not only figure out exactly what they want to do and where they need to go to do it, but to have the agency to enact that decision. Where do they get the money from? Where do they even learn the difference between a good education and a bad one? If the school they need to go to is in another community, how do they get there?

          There are some parents out there who, quite frankly, should not be having children. They are just ill-equipped to nurture a child into this world. A kid who is born into such a disadvantage should not be trapped into being poor just because their parents are dipshits. All the services you are saying are outside the mission of the public school system are exactly the services such a child needs.

          1. Patrick the Mojave Mullet King says:

            If I implied it was easy then it was ommision on my part to mention that education, is in fact, difficult. It isn’t easy to figure out what you want to do with your life as a kid. In fact its almost impossible. MOST ADULTS can’t figure out what they want to do with thier life. Most people change their major something like 4 times in college. Who among us can say that what we do for a living now is exactly what we thought we would be doing when we were 7? or when we graduated high school? Or college? How many of us still do not know what we are supposed to do in life? Sometimes there are no answers, no absolutes, no definative solutions, just a never ending barrage of variables.

            And beyond that economics and technology advances make obsolete jobs everyday. Even if I , growing up in the 80’s, had decided that I wanted to and was destined to be a surveyor or map maker, what do I do when the invention of GPS makes those jobs extraneous? Become a tibetian monk? Blame the public school system?

            It isnt easy to figure out what you want to do in life, but it is outright impossible for the school system to figure that out FOR YOU. The whole point I was making is that, in the eyes of the public school system, there is no such thing as a GOOD education or a BAD education to tell the difference between. The only education the governement care to provide is the education most beneficial to itself. There is no black and white, only one uniform color of gray. If there is a better school for the individual in another town, then that is up to the individual to determine and up to them to arrange how to get there. And it most certainly does not care where you get money from. This is the education this community is offering, if you don’t want it, then go away. Stay or go, it doesn’t care about YOU OR YOUR EDUCATION.

            Not because it is mean spirited and selfish, but because it isn’t designed to be empathetic to the individual. Does your chair care if you are comfortable? The chair is designed to be sat on, some chairs are meant to be comfortable to as many people as possible. But there is no ONE CHAIR that fits every ass. And its absolutely silly to expect the chair to care about you or your comfort. It’s just a chair, it has no feelings. It only has purpose. It doesn’t matter to the chair whether anyone ever sits on it, who they are or if they are comfortable. The school system is the same. If you are one of the small percentage that finds their education style the perfect fit for how you learn, well thats nothing more than a statistical anomoly. Same odds as buying a chair tailor made for your ass.

            Its as impractical to expect that every child be allowed to chose their own school lunch everyday as it is to allow every parent and student to dictate how they are taught, to have every subject and every class tailored to their unique learning abilities. Its designed to be as educational to as many individuals as possible, but only inasmuch as that education benefits the community. It isnt about education, its about functionality. Its utilitarian. It is devoid of conscience or emotional awareness.

            And it certainly could not care any less whether you think it is easy or not.

            1. Abnaxis says:

              I see what you’re saying, but I still contend that the real benefit society receives from school is not that it gets smarter, more capable people, but that it imbues a measure of equality among its students. Many people consider equality of opportunity important, so much so that they built schools that all children can go to and learn and have a chance at going to college.

              That function–making the community more equal (at least in their eyes)–is not compatible with the “gray area” mentality you are espousing. If the institution willfully chooses to ignore an entire segment of the population because they are abnormal, its is not providing equality of opportunity. Thus, while the schools themselves certainly don’t do what we would consider a good job of fulfilling individual needs, the institution itself should still strive to provide the best education it can to everyone, even going so far as to adjust itself to fit learning styles.

              1. Patrick the Mojave Mullet King says:

                Well, it does change to fit styles, TO A POINT. Shamus was taken out of “regular” class and placed in special education for that specific reason, because he learned differently. Most schools can and do adapt their style of teaching, but this is only for obvious and extreme cases such as Shamus. It was OBVIOUS he was an intelligent kid, and they did as much as they should be expected to do given the fact that they have 699 other students to consider as well. If we were to expect each school to adapt and change to fit each child we would have every child have their own teacher for each subject.

                And also consider, and lets be honest here, some children just aren’t that smart. Some just DO NOT want to learn. Some don’t give a shit. Imagine the finacial commitment needed at the local school level to determine, definatively, whether each underperforming student is lazy, apathetic, overwhelmed or just stupid?
                The organizational intelligence needed to make such determinations effectively is more than the cost/benefit most communities are able and willing to accept. This is of course to say nothing of the backlash you would get when you start placing kids into the “lazy” classroom or the group of kids that someone has determined is “apathetic”. Good luck telling the parents their child is being placed into the “stupid kids class”. As school administrators let’s be sympathetic to the reality that they have to make descisions to continue a special education program that is costly and only helps a few, or using that money to pay for things that benefit the whtire group. Would you continue to pay for a program that helps 2% of your students raise their grades by 12%, or pay for field trips for the entire school? This is what I mean by being pragmatic and utilitarian. The needs of the many do indeed outwiegh the needs of the few…or the one.

                I guess i’m not saying its perfect, far from it. But it’s as good as we can realistically be expected to create given the almost unlimited number of variables to consider. could we come up with a better education system? Probably. Should we spend 20% to only see a 3% increase? To revisit the chair analogy, how much would you be willing to spend on a chair? Even if I told you this was the most comfotable chair ever, that it will last forever and you can fold it up and take it everywhere you go, how much would you be willing to spend?
                A million?
                Not only is the chair itself an impossibility, the cost of it changes from person to person. Even if we could invent the “perfect” education system, would it be finacially viable for every community?

                1. Abnaxis says:

                  Of course there are limits. There always are. I’m just saying that the bulk of the student body is not the only concern of the system. If assisting a disadvantaged sub-group that only comprises 3% of the population makes every student cost 10% more to educate, there is still some justification for paying the costs, because part of the core purpose of public schools is to make the disadvantaged less so.

                  I understand there are costs, and I have no idea where the tipping point on the cost/benefit scale lies. It’s not so simple as “get as many students as much education for as little money as possible.” There are other social forces involved.

            2. 4th Dimension says:

              A nitpick, while GPS can give you a rough outlay of land, you still need a guy with a tridolite to preciselly measure and map landscape.

        2. PAK says:

          Maybe I’m just working from a strange background or something, but this doesn’t seem internally consistent to me. A proficiency-based system such as than touched on earlier in the comments would naturally foster specialization. You say the workforce favors specialization (which is true) but specialization is not actually encouraged by public education, which actually encourages homogenization, and generally speaking a rounded but shallow familiarity with several topics. At least in America, specialization is not encouraged until postsecondary education.

          Also, you imply that fostering individual needs doesn’t neccesarily improve the group dynamic. As the one is composed of the other, I don’t follow.

          As far as the government’s pragmatism is concerned, I suppose you could argue it is being served by the current system if you take the cynical stance that the government is in the hands of a power elite that is deliberately keeping the masses uninformed to maintain control.

          If you take the view (okay, I’m asking to be called naive now, I realize) that the governemt at least should be serving the people, it seems hard to argue against the value of having a workforce of skilled and varied specialists to pick from to perform your labor.

          1. Patrick the Mojave Mullet King says:

            The public education system certainly does not favor specialization. this would mean the school system at some point would start dividing kids into groups and teaching each group a specialized skill set. Is that something that we should want, ignoring the fact that it would be next to impossible to determine what a 6, 12 or even 17 year old child should be specialized in.

            As for fostering individual needs, no it cannot and should not to that. Go to a local town meeting, to the smallest piece of governement in existance, and you will find 10 people who can’t even agree on the color of the flyers for the local pumpkin festival. The only way a government can foster individual needs is to teach you to do figure it out for yourself. Or maybe we can all agree that the government should decide what our needs are without our input.
            It is not the governements job to make the community better, or to improve the group dynamic. Thats our job. Thats our civic duty. “Ask not what your country can do for you….” and all that overly patrotic rhetoric…corny as it is. It’s true. The true purpose of government is to protect the group dynamic ( which is an excellent term BTW) from becoming compromised by violating the inalieable rights of it’s members. That we all have the economic power to increase the likelyhood of that dynamic succeeding does not mean we should assume that it is a primary responsibility of any level of government to tell you what to do or how to do it.

            In fact, is that what you want? he schools to start telling kids what they can and cannot be? To choose their area of specialization for them? Of course not. They exist to provide younger members of the community th MOST BASIC SKILLS they need to become productive members OF THAT COMMUNITY. And thats it.

            Lets put it this way:
            1.You have 300 kids coming to your house every day for the next 180 days. Including the 2 parents, there are 900 people for which the following rules apply.
            2.You have a budget. It is fixed. You must spend exactly that, no more no less.
            3.Every day you must feed each child.
            4.They must all eat the same food, or some of the parents of other kids will be upset that thier child is being ignored, discriminated against, picked on, bullied….
            5.You cannot use foods that could be offensive to any religous or ethnic groups. It must be food that every child regardless of religion, race, creed, physical disability and sexual preference is capable of ingesting.
            6.Make everyone happy.

            1. PAK says:

              Patrick, you make excellent arguments. Thanks for all your friendly debate with a few of us today. You’re certainly right that I don’t want the government making all my decisions for me. I don’t want them telling children HOW to specialize, no. But I suppose, in my ideal world, they would make greater allowances for it.

              However: “It is not the governements job to make the community better, or to improve the group dynamic.” Aha! Now I see why we keep talking slightly across purposes. Yeah, we’re operating from fundamentally different orientations of mind on that point. Ah well, I can understand your position, even if I can’t bring myself to accept it personally.

              Interestingly, I have a whole different perspective on your point about local government. Oh man, you’re right that it can be totally nasty. But my mother has been involved in various capacities with local government for years. Among other things, she served a term on city council. The council was composed of members of wildly disparate political positions. But they had visioning meetings at the beginning of my mom’s term, realized there were some concessions to be made by all sides for the greater good, and accomplished more than any other council in YEARS, including many tasks that arguably sigificantly improved the community. (Establishment of community gathering spaces, beautification of the town that allowed the community to take more pride in the area, getting our local hospital into a self-sustaining position again, and many other things.)

            2. susie day says:

              What about letting a child decide what they want to specialize in?

              I think it’s pretty sad that children have no say in their future, and most of us know what we’re interested in by the time we’re 12.

              1. Blake says:

                I agree with this, I knew since before then I wanted to program games, I had to trudge through history, SOSE woodwork, textiles, cooking and art, all of which I didn’t enjoy, wasn’t good at and as a result learnt nothing from because I was too busy disrupting the classes (or simply actively getting myself kicked out so I could get away from my history teacher).

                Maths, science, IT, I was good at those, enjoyed those, and continued doing them through uni.

                The only class I didn’t like that was useful to me was English (which here is one of the 2 requirements to passing VCE in year 12), outside of that it was all wasted time that could’ve been spent having fun and learning useful skills.

                People might not know exactly what they want to do by the time they’re 14, but they certainly know what they’re good at and should have the option of persuing that.

                1. Zukhramm says:

                  Really? The mathematics (or any other subject) I studiet at age 12 and what I studied in the same subject just a few years later were so different from each other that they did not seem to meaningfully connect in any way.

    5. CaptainBooshi says:

      A lot of your arguments seem to depend on the idea that tons of people enter teaching just to make an easy paycheck, and I’m going to have to disagree with that unless you can show me some evidence(in the form of studies or something similar, preferably). I went through 12 years of public school, 3 of my siblings went through public school, and I have never once met a teacher who went into teaching for an easy paycheck. I’m not saying they don’t exist, but that they must be rare. I’ve met plenty of teachers who had given up, and were utterly horrible, but even then, I would find out they used to be really into the job, and just stopped caring, at least according to people who knew them when they started. I’ve also know teachers who were really just bad at teaching, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

      I can tell you, most of the people on the county school board fit that description, but you have to be elected into that position. My mom’s been on the school board for almost a decade, and she complains about that all the time. The other board members never want to investigate, ask questions, or do any work on their own, and just rubberstamp whatever is recommended to them. The ones who did care have left because better positions opened up or they couldn’t just deal with it anymore, which has almost driven my mother away as well. Even my mother, who is frustrated by almost everything she encounters in the job, doesn’t think the problem is that teachers are just there to earn an easy paycheck.

      There is no way to get rid of the people who stop caring, and all too often no way of getting rid of the bad teachers, which is a huge problem, but fixing that would create it’s own problems, just as big.

      This is a tough issue, but one of your fundamental assumptions about it seems to me to be completely flawed, unless you have some actual studies to back you up on this, and my experience has just led me wrong.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        I’m willing to bet everyone either wholly disagrees, or wholly disagrees with this, and it all depends on where you grew up. There really is a radical difference in teachers’ outlooks depending on where you go, because our education system is so localized.

        1. PAK says:

          I, for one, come down on the side of wholly disagreeing rather than wholly disagreeing. ;P

      2. Zukhramm says:

        What problems are created by being able to remove bad teachers? In all other jobs, if you’re unable to do the work required. A cook serving uncooked food or a buss driver who cannot drive will lose their jobs, why shouldn’t the same happen to a teacher? What makes teaching so special?

        1. CaptainBooshi says:

          Essentially, the problem is that any process that would remove a bad teacher will end up also removing teachers that give deserving kids bad grades, and teachers that teach controversial subjects, like evolution, and teachers that get on the wrong side of the wrong parent by not treating their kid like the special little angel they know they are. It would give principals excuses to get rid of any teacher they don’t like, which may very well include teachers who are more concerned that the kids learn the subject rather than regurgitate the necessary material for whatever standardized test is coming up this year. As an example, my sister’s principal in high school changed the curriculum so most students had to take an AP (Advanced Placement) course, whether they wanted to or not, and made teachers try to force students to sign up for an AP Test, whether they were prepared or not, because she got a bigger bonus when more students who took an AP Test in her school, no matter how they performed. It made many of the AP classes in the school completely useless. This is not someone I want deciding who counts as a good teacher.

          There is also the matter that it is simply harder to decide who is a bad teacher than a bad cook or a bad bus driver. Do you use grades or standardized tests? Part of the problem everyone is complaining about in these threads are that they aren’t actually useful in judging whether or not a kid is learning or a teacher is good. So much depends on the kids that a teacher happens to get. There are obvious bad teachers, but that won’t apply to most of the people getting fired.

          Like I said, there are huge downsides to not being able to get rid of teachers who are obviously bad, but there are also huge problems if we go the other direction. One of the reasons I don’t really like talking about this is because I don’t have any good ideas about what we should do.

          1. CaptainBooshi says:

            I realized I forgot to answer your question “What makes teaching so special?” It’s essentially the difficulty is discerning good from bad teaching (telling great from awful is easy, but good from bad really, really hard), combined with the fact that the education of children is one of the touchiest subjects in the world.

          2. Mayhem says:

            That’s really well written. Just wanted to say that.

  21. Meredith says:

    I’m glad you finally got a teacher you could relate to, and who taught to your learning style. It was epic of him to get you a school computer for the summer! That honestly blows my mind; schools are usually so distrustful of students.

    As for the whole education/learning style debate above, here’s my two cents: We need more charter schools. It’s completely impossible for one teacher with 30+ students to vary her methods for each child, so the students need to be sorted by both ability and learning style. Mix kids up from all over the school district so there are enough of each type of student to make full classes and match the teachers’ strengths to those of the students. And let kids start to specialize more in the subjects that particularly interest them in high school. They’ll be eager to learn more – better for everyone.

  22. Dev Null says:

    I swore I wrote a comment about this earlier in this thread, but I’ll be damned if I can find it now.

    I think one of the biggest problems with our education system is that very “Do all the work and you'll pass” mentality. It should be “convince me that you understand the material and you’ll pass”… but with that should come a change in expectations. People shouldn’t necessarily _expect_ to pass. Passing shouldn’t be the default, it should be the the happy goal that everyone is working towards but only some will achieve. And if you don’t pass you should go back around and take the subject again until you do understand it, instead of moving on to things that build on a basis that you don’t really have. If half of high schoolers took Introductory Algebra 4 years in a row and finally understood it, but never saw Geometry at all, surely thats better than them rote-memorizing enough factoids to bluff their way through both, but having no real understanding of either. And if it was _normal_ for students of different ages to be in the same class, instead of “all 14-year-olds Shall Do Algebra and if you’re held back a year then You’re a Freak” then much of the social stigma of doing the subject twice would go away.

    The problem is in how you measure the students’ understanding. What do you do with the students who just aren’t motivated to learn themselves, and aren’t finding any inspiration from their teachers for whatever reason? I don’t have any answers for that one…

    1. MichaelG says:

      Nothing in the “factory style” school system prevents them from mixing ages. I think they want all kids of a certain age together to reduce bullying. Otherwise, the older, slower, bigger, stronger kids would just run the class and terrorize the younger quicker ones.

      Being in a wheelchair, I was mostly off limits for fights. But I got my share of dirty looks for answering questions in class and making the other kids look bad. I’d hate to think what it would be like if the other kids were older and wanted to “teach me a lesson.”

  23. Tizzy says:

    It is a common disease in our modern world (and I think it’s been slightly worse in the US, for at least a century, but only slightly) to assign numerical values to measure things. It’s convenient, of course, but the problem is reification of your measure: the delusion that the number is the thing, rather than a very imperfect snapshot of what is going on.

    Examples are so numerous that it’s not even a challenge to come up with a list:

    — grades (gpa, SAT, …)
    — IQ and other measures of “intelligence” (emotional intelligence, …)
    — Impact factors for academic journals
    — Tech benchmarks and measures (3DMark, RAM, CPU speed,….)
    — Credit scores (for individuals, bond ratings for countries,…)
    — …

    I could go on, but when you think about the many ways in which this shared delusion results in tragic consequences, it ceases to be amusing rather fast.

    So the problem with grades is just a symptom of a much deeper problem in our societies.

    1. MichaelG says:

      If you don’t measure something, you can’t tell if you are improving. Competition also does wonders in bringing out the best in people.

      I would argue that the curriculum is poorly designed and that the tests don’t even demonstrate real knowledge of what you are learning. But no tests at all means no real feedback. You’ll get people graduating who think they know a subject and find out they don’t know anything. There’s too much of that already.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        I don’t think Tizzy was saying that the measure itself is bad, but rather how we look at it. If you give people a number, they will naturally treat is as an absolute. If I say my IQ is 120, that means I’m smarter than someone else with an IQ of 115.

        The problem is, intelligence isn’t an absolute physical property, it’s an abstract construct we are sticking a number to. My 120 IQ isn’t worth jack on a math exam if I can’t do long division and my colleague with an IQ of 115 can. Yet people still regard me as being smarter, because the number says I am, right?

        That said, we do need some sort of performance metric. And as soon as we assign grades, people will start seeing them as absolutes. I don’t think this is a recent development, in fact I’m willing to bet someday a smart neurologist is going to find that our brains are just wired to work that way (if they haven’t already). It’s not something that is going to change anytime soon. You might as well say the problem is that there are too many people, and expect everyone to quit reproducing.

        1. Tizzy says:

          Yes Abnaxis, this was exactly my point.

          I use mathematics every day, so I am well aware of the progress that was ushered in by the systematic use of numbers (something that comes much later than you would imagine, more or less the Renaissance).

          But it also means that I am less likely to be impressed by numbers and formulas that people pull from their backsides: see e.g. the

          Samuel P. Huntington NAS controversy

      2. krellen says:

        Competition doesn’t bring out the best in me. It makes me shut down and withdraw completely.

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          Wait, how is that not the best? :)

          Seriously though, competition can be helpful, or unhelpful. A lot of people (my younger brother Amos for example) absolutely thrive on competition. He once asked my Mom “What dog is the fastest?” She answered something like “The Greyhound” to which he responded, with an intense but quiet determination, “I want to be the fastest dog.”

          For myself (and krellen perhaps?) competition is a double edged sword. I’m not interested in competing except to gauge how well I’m doing. I don’t care to win, just to improve. The “winning is everything” attitude works for some people, but sometimes it takes camaraderie and teamwork to inspire performance.

          I still like to win, but I’d prefer that everyone wins. Sometimes that makes me feel like a coward, that I won’t compete for fear that I’ll lose. Beyond that it gets pretty complicated.

          1. MichaelG says:

            This is probably some phrase a coach came up with, but I’ve read that runners run faster in competition than they do on their own (un-timed). It’s that other person next to you that tells you how well (or poorly) you are doing.

            I’ve also had a teacher tell me that they needed the smart kids to show the slower ones what is possible. If you have a remedial class full of slow kids, they think they are all doing OK, since they have no basis for comparison.

            1. krellen says:

              I always walked the mile, no matter how much peer pressure was put on me to run it because none of the other kids got to go in until I finished. It didn’t motivate me to go faster, just made me hate the arbitrary coach.

              And, other than knowing I’m in the 99th percentile for intelligence, I don’t really need to demonstrate that to everyone. And I resent it having to be my responsibility to show up the slow kids, too.

              To paraphrase Fezzik: I can’t help being the smartest and the most knowledgeable. I don’t even study.

    2. 4th Dimension says:

      There is a “sollition” that avoids numbers, a it’s callled descriptive grades. Basic idea is that instead of teacher giving you one symbol from a small limited set signifying your knowlege of the subject, teacher gives a description, describing your good sides and bad sides. Such a system is supposed to be more personal and more precise, BUT it has significnt drawbacks.

      What happens when you try comparing descriptions on same subject from two students from two different professors. Well problems happen, because those two professor most likely have different standards and use different wording, so such a grade is basically usless to you. The “solution” for that is to use standardized descriptions for different things that can be described. But by standardizing wording you in the end end up with basically a numerical grade that is simply expressed in sentences.

      1. Tizzy says:

        Actually, narrative evaluations (as they are also known) can be pretty robust: any evaluation is subjective anyway, but with a narrative it’s easier to pinpoint precisely in what ways a student’s work was exceptionally good, or in what ways it failed to be satisfactory. And these kind of evaluations are routinely used in the real world, and some smaller colleges do use them. I would gladly use them too.

        The main reason why people use numerical/letter grades is convenience: if the graduate school of your dreams requires a 3.5 GPA to even apply (again, pure nonsense, as if such a threshold had a universal meaning), what will you do if your grades are narrative only?

        Many paper-pushers have no interest in reading descriptions of someone’s academic accomplishments, but can tell if a GPA is larger than a given value.

        1. Zukhramm says:

          If a school takes a high number of students reading and judging individual evaluations for every student might be hard to do. There’s a finite numbers of students they can take so there needs to be some way to decide which ones to take. Sorting by grade is one way, lottery another (whish they resort to over here when there are to many students with the max grade applying). I don’t know if there’s a better way but there needs to be some method in place for making this decision.

        2. decius says:

          The main reason why people use numerical/letter grades is convenience: if the graduate school of your dreams requires a 3.5 GPA to even apply (again, pure nonsense, as if such a threshold had a universal meaning), what will you do if your grades are narrative only?

          Best solution for that problem is to apply to a graduate school that also uses narrative evaluations.

  24. LurkerAbove says:

    Personally, I need grades, I need some sort of benchmark I can look at as “enough.”

    Otherwise I will drive myself into a panic, or paralysis. I’ll feel incredibly guilty I don’t spend every waking minute learning, and then feel like giving up since I can never learn it all. I need that sort of structure, because I have NO confidence in my ability to decide if I’m working hard enough, or long enough. The phrase “do your best” is terrifying; do what you think will get me 80% (or whatever) is much more manageable.

  25. SoldierHawk says:

    I’ve finally figured out what I love so much about your blog, Shamus. Not just the blography, but your site in general. It’s not the content (although it’s what I come for and I love it), its the fact that what your write, be it this, a DMoTR, or a game review, inspires intelligent comments and discussion. Amazing.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      Yeah! I totally agree! The down side is that most of the people who frequent the site already mostly agree, so there’s not a great deal of intellectual diversity. Not that that’s a bad thing really, but the “discussions” mostly end up being “Yeah! I totally agree!…”

      1. krellen says:

        I disagree.

        There’s enough diversity here that there is sufficient room for debate on many subjects; there’s no one person that is the “odd man out” always arguing the opposite side (also a good thing), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a discussion that was a resounding string of “I agree”s.

        1. Abnaxis says:

          Oh, the irony!

          1. krellen says:


            1. Paul Spooner says:

              Okay SoldierHawk, now you reply to this comment and we’ll have a pretty post palindrome.

        2. Long Time Listener, First Time Caller says:

          I agree completely!

  26. Geoff says:

    He points out the problems with the Pac-Man clone that I'm making, that if it were run on a faster computer, the game itself would run faster. It's a shame that Mr. C didn't have a job wiriting games. The early 1990″²s are going to be littered with videogames written by people who don't understand this.

    Its funny you mention that. My favorite game growing up was the old, DOS based Pool of Radiance D&D game and its sequels. I replayed it many times over the years, but it was also one of those unfortunate games that played based on the speed of the computer, not set to a specific time frame.

    This meant many conversations, what passed for “cinematics” (still images with text typically) and combat would usually zip by in a less than half a second by the time I last played the game. Its one saving grace was that the plot wasn’t really that complex (not to mention I was very familiar with it by that point) and the combat was turn based. So even though I wasn’t entirely sure what the enemy had done during the last round, I still got a chance to take my turn!

  27. I ran smack dab into the divide between rote learning and learning to love learning in college. My classes were all about learning how to problem solve, how to think, and giving us the tools to solve these problems. Almost all my exams were open-book and take-home.

    Then I decided to go to grad school and took the GRE for physics, which basically tests you on “do you know all these formulas”. Yeah, that went so well, it discouraged me from applying to grad school completely. I even had a professor tell me after that he didn’t remember all those formulas off the top of his head and thought it was ridiculous that they expected me to.

    “You aren’t allowed to look confused yet, we haven’t started physics.”

    1. Kacky Snorgle says:

      Re: Memorizing formulas….

      A few months back, I was talking to my father on the ‘phone, and he mentioned that he’d been designing something-or-other at work, and it so happened that he’d had to use the quadratic formula for the first time in several decades. He couldn’t remember the formula, but he remembered that there *was* such a formula, so he went and looked it up.

      I think that’s what formula-memorizing is really for: it forces you to become familiar with the list of what formulas are available. Later on, in the real world, you probably won’t remember all the formulas; but you *will* be able to look at a problem and recognize it as the sort of problem that you once knew a formula for. The student who never had to memorize the formulas will more often be unsure as to what formulas even exist, and so may spend time hunting for a formula when another approach would’ve been better, or spend time working a problem from scratch when a simple formula would’ve done it in thirty seconds.

  28. wumpus says:


    A couple relevant comments on teaching, testing, and grading:

    I nearly failed my first semester of college physics, despite having had (very bad) physics AND (very good college) calculus while in high school. The attitude of the physics department, as stated by some professor at one point was, “You can’t teach physics. You just present the material and those that can do it will.” Which strikes me as being dangerously close to Mr. C’s teaching style. It is entirely possible to teach both physics and programming, and if you can’t manage to teach people who are smart and motivated to learn, then you are doing something very, very wrong.

    I only experienced one true believer in the ‘grade on/by a curve’ school of grading ever. This is the extreme of the classical school of grading thought that learning outcomes are statistical events like rolling dice or shooting at a target: some students will always do better, some worse, and most will fall in the middle. (And it is important to spread your grades across this field.) This professor structured his tests (in particular) to facilitate curved grading; he put so many questions on his tests that no one could possibly hope to complete them. It worked very well; the 2-3 students who knew most of the material already before the class started, many of whom where math and/or engineering prodigies with parents already in the field, got scores well ahead of the pack. The few who didn’t know the material well, or who, like me, got hung up on a problem and spent too much time on it, did a fair bit worse than the pack. He gave the pack a B-, I got a D. This in a department in which you had to maintain a B average to stay in the department. It didn’t matter to him that the pack had a perfectly reasonable understanding of the material, had worked hard, etc. It mattered to him only that they were statistically average.

    It has often occurred to me that tests should perhaps be designed by someone other than the teacher of the class. (Which is actually more or less how thesis committees work, and, unfortunately, standardized testing.) The idea of the class is to learn a certain body of material; anyone who knows that body of material should be able to examine your students to see if they have mastered it or not. If the students do poorly on the exam, then the teacher didn’t do a very good job (assuming students who wanted to learn, of course).


    1. Paul Spooner says:

      He's even more of a computer scientist than Mr. B was, and less of a teacher… On the other hand, they were never going to be programmers. The idea that they were “passing” a programming course with no working understanding of programming was ridiculous.

      I think Shamus would agree wtih you that Mr. C is a pretty lousy classroom teacher. However, his point was that Mr. C knew how to test understanding.

      So, yes! In your scenario, Mr. C is the guy who should be writing the tests (so that only people who can program will pass). Someone else should be teaching the class (so that as many people can learn to program as possible).

  29. Bill says:

    Hey, Shamus. I wanted to send your autoblography as a link to some teacher friends of mine but I don’t see a convenient way to link to the start of it without searching for the first one. Could you split these posts out into its own category or something? When I click the “personal” category it starts with posts back from 2005…
    Thanks! Keep it up. These have been great! It feels like you are describing my school experience exactly.

  30. Ben says:

    FYI Shamus this is one of the few website I have ABP disabled for… but today I had to turn it back on due to an ad that was a major eyesore. It had a rapidly blinking red light that made it difficult to read the article. I’ll turn ABP back off in a few weeks if I remember to, just thought you should know.

    1. Ben says:

      Turned it back on for a sec and it was the ClassesUSA ad. I literally can’t read while this ad is on my screen.

      1. krellen says:

        I see the ad you’re talking about, but it only blinks for me if I mouse over it.

  31. Joey Palzewicz says:

    Mr. Young, this has been a really great read so far. Informative throughout, funny when it needs to be, touching when it needs to be.

    My question is, will you be doing a re-run of the Seven Springs hotel trip? I mean, you learn a pretty important lesson at the end of it, and I imagine that it would have a large impact on your life afterwards.

  32. CoyoteSans says:

    I knew this guy in college. Very smart, but disrespectful of the teachers. Anyway, he told about his favorite teacher once.

    Apparently, the way he’d teach is he’d start lecturing about a subject and writing on a chalkboard. However, what was being written on the board was completely different from what he was saying, and he would erase the board at the end of the lecture. Therefore, you apparently had to learn to be both ambidextrous and a multi-tasker to take notes on both subjects. Furthermore, at the end of the class he would assign a reading assignment from the textbook which was yet a third different topic.

    I think it goes without saying that all of this information would end up on the tests this man gave. I think I’d curl up in the fetal position if I sat in those classes.

  33. susie day says:

    Good God … what hair!

    I just started college, and I have not received a grade yet (only 1.5 weeks in). I must say that it is really hard to do home work, and write essays without any feedback. I don’t care if it’s a number, or actual feedback (which would be better!) but I wish I could know how I am doing instead of feeling like I am dumping my work into a black hole.

    Getting feedback from my fellow students isn’t a substitute as they don’t know anything about the subject either.

  34. Zak McKracken says:

    I guess that’s the problem with a good Programmer who isn’t a good teacher at the same time: Works well with people who already got it, but won’t be able to actually teach someone something.
    My “good” CS teacher was occasionally like that. In one test he simply asked a question we had never talked about, and had no way of knowing the answer unless we had found out by ourselves. Pretty unfair, and I told him that. Lucky for me, I’d also was one of the good students so it wasn’t ignored (as it would have been coming from the less fortunate ones).

    My guess is that your problem is not as much the bad school system but rather your incompatibility to it. What fits you doesn’t fit most others and vice versa. Of course the inflexibility of the school system is again a problem, but still … If my teachers had at any point refused to give me grades, I’d had a problem. I _wanted_ feedback, and I _wanted_ to see how well (or not well) I was doing. I wouldn’t have minded though, if some teachers could have changed the criteria for their grades. Not that they were not free to do so.

    Then again, we had many a good laugh when exchange students to the US returned and told tales of stupid multiple choice tests that required only basic common sense and no real understanding to pass … I’d like to know whether you had those, too, or if it was just a thing that was done in the few places which I happened to know about.

  35. Vekni says:

    Ahyes, I had a Mr C. He was fired for teaching us how the legal system works. Due process, limitations of the law, OUR RIGHTS. More than once the principle sat in to nitpick and question why we would ever need to know these things, if we were good people.

    1. TSED says:

      … As a philosophy minor, I find that horrifying.

  36. Reach says:

    Just got out of the public education system myself. Now that I’m in college, I’m starting to see the difference between good ways of learning and bad ways. I would say that the problem is how universal school has become. The focus for lower level class is to do well on state minimum-requirement exams, and the focus for upper-level classes is to pass international AP tests. The biggest tragedy is that schools don’t allow students enough room to pursue their own projects. I would much rather have an interesting and unique program on my resume than a perfect AP score, but unfortunately public education focuses solely on these universal standards and worse, private institutions are trapped on this standard too. America’s system is so focused on turning ability into a number no one actually seems to care what a student is actually capable of.

  37. uberfail says:

    You can scrape by an NCEA (New Zealands exam esystem) exam, without understanding but you’re not going to get an Exellence (the top mark) without a proper understanding of what you’re doing.

  38. ENC says:

    No such thing as bad students, only bad teachers.

    These kids were probably being thrown in deep-end, struggled, then instead of getting thrown a life raft they instead got pushed down to see if they could also hold their breathe for 5 minutes underwater. Mr. C was catering for kids like you where he had to assume that the rest had been learning the coursework (schools don’t do much repitition these days). At least when I was doing VCE with proper teachers we were taught a concept, then applied it to questions in the textbook that were repeated in different ways. The good teachers, however, took what parts that extended our concept of it so we didn’t have to do 50 questions for 30 minutes so they could see where we misunderstood or where they failed to fully explain, so you understand the topic, then you can apply it to situations.

    You never were really taught WHY things did that or how they interacted, that much you had to learn on your own (I know how to use this if statement but I don’t know WHY to use it, what I can use in place of it that does something similar or what it does so if something breaks so I cannot brute force fixing it).

  39. elias says:

    Re: grades and teaching methods
    Check out the books Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn and Summerhill School by A.S. Neill. I found both fascinating.

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