Category Archives: Education

On On Leaving Academia

Several people in my influencesphere have linked to this essay by a CS prof who’s leaving academia to join Google in order to “make a positive difference in the world.” I am, of course, wholly supportive of such a program, if not of his precise rationale, which is a mish-mash of ranting about wicked Republicans and wild-eyed idealism about the Academy.

What interests me most about his essay is the section entitled “Mass Production Of Education”, which is misguided in all the ways you’d expect from someone steeped in the culture of “bespoke” education. It lists three “worries”:

First, I worry that mass-production here will have the same effect that it has had on manufacturing for over two centuries: administrators and regents, eager to save money, will push for ever larger remote classes and fewer faculty to teach them.

Said differently, technologies that allow fewer faculty to teach the same number of students will allow universities to operate with fewer faculty. Let’s call this worry “Luddism“. I love a good loom-smashing as much as the next guy, but it’s sort of hard to take seriously a preference for the 19th-century manufacturing regime.

It seems likely that in a hundred years our grandchildren and those of us who’ve successfully been cryonically revived will share a laugh about how “education” used to involve crowding people into a room and making them sit still while someone stood up front and lectured at them. And then someone will brain-cast a ludicrous hyper-essay about how 4-D printing is democratizing the singularity, pining for the good old days of 3-D printing. And so on.

Second, I suspect that the “winners win” cycle will distort academia the same way that it has industry and society. When freed of constraints of distance and tuition, why wouldn’t every student choose a Stanford or MIT education over, say, UNM?

Said differently (and with apologies to UNM, which I’m sure is a fine school), if every student has access to cheap, high-quality education, few of them will choose to pursue a low-quality education. It is easy to see how purveyors of low-quality education might worry about this, but it’s hard to imagine why anyone else should.

Are we approaching a day in which there is only one professor of computer science for the whole US?

Seems pretty unlikely, but if we were that would be awesome because it would free up all the other computer science Ph.D.s, many of whom are brilliant, to do other stuff (like building Groupon and Pinterest clones)! This would be sad for the ones who really, really, really want to be teachers, but on balance it would be a huge win for the world.

Third, and finally, this trend threatens to kill some of what is most valuable about the academic experience, to both students and teachers. At the most fundamental level, education happens between individuals — a personal connection, however long or short, between mentor and student.

I have no idea how to say this differently, so I won’t try. Having been a teacher, I agree that the most rewarding moments happened between individuals. (Particularly when one of the individuals was the cute goth freshman girl who aced all the quizzes but still came to office hours.) Were those the most valuable parts of the teaching experience? Less clear. What’s more clear is that what was/is most valuable about my experience as a student was/is learning stuff. And these days most of what I know that’s useful I’ve learned from books or doing or even Coursera, not from the academy. I’ve broadened my horizons by pleasure reading, by arguing on LiveJournal, by discussions with peers on geek hikes far more than I ever did through school. With very few exceptions, my most profound intellectual connections have been with people I met outside of the school system.

It resonates at levels far deeper than the mere conveyance of information — it teaches us how to be social together and sets role models of what it is to perform in a field, to think rigorously, to be professional, and to be intellectually mature.

I suspect you have to have spent your whole life in academia to seriously assert that “the human connection in education” is the only path to these things, or even the easiest path to these things. College taught me how to play the same juvenile bulshytt status games we played in high school but at a slightly higher level. College professors were (sometimes) great role models for how to behave if you ever became a college professor, but not for much else. The levels of professionality and intellectual maturity I experienced in the academy were certainly no greater than I’ve experienced in the real world. I will freely admit to learning rigor (some would say too much rigor) while studying mathematics, which primed me to recognize the lack of rigor in so many other fields.

I am terribly afraid that our efforts to democratize the process will kill this human connection and sterilize one of the most joyful facets of this thousand-year-old institution.

Said differently, “we fear change”. Hopefully at Google he’ll learn to stop saying “democratize”, and maybe he’ll even meet a Republican or two. There must be one or two Republicans at Google, right?

Hyphen Class Post-Mortem

Last fall I signed up for two of the hyphen classes: the Machine Learning ml-class (Ng) and the Artificial Intelligence ai-class (Thrun and Norvig). Both were presented by Stanford professors but one of the conditions of taking the courses was that whenever I discuss them I am required to present the disclaimer that THEY WERE NOT ACTUALLY STANFORD COURSES and that I WAS NEVER ACTUALLY A STANFORD STUDENT and that furthermore I AM NOT FIT TO LICK THE BOOTS OF A STANFORD STUDENT and so on. (Caltech is better than Stanford anyway, even if whenever you tell people you’re in the economics department they always say, “we have one of those?!”)

My background is in math and economics, but I’ve taught myself quite a bit of computer science over the years, and I consider myself a decent programmer now, to the point where I could probably pass a “code on the chalkboard” job interview if that’s what I needed to do in order to support my family and/or drug habit.

I’d worked on some machine learning projects at previous jobs, so I’d picked up some of the basics, but I’d never taken any sort of course in machine learning. At my current job I’m the de facto subject matter expert, so I thought the courses might be a good idea.

The classes ended up being vastly different from one another. Here’s kind of a summary of each:


* Every week 5-10 recorded lectures, total 1-2 hours of lecture time. (There was an option to watch the lectures at 1.2x or even 1.5x speed, which I always used, so it might have been more like 3 hours in real-time. This means that if I ever meet Ng in real-life, he will appear to me to be speaking very, very slowly.)

* Most lectures had one or two (ungraded) integrated multiple choice quizzes with the sole purpose of “did you understand the material I just presented?”

* Each week had a set of “review questions” that were graded and were designed to make sure you understood the lectures as a whole. You could retake the review if you missed any (or if you didn’t) and they were programmed to slightly vary each time (so that a “which of the following are true” might be replaced with a “which of the following are false” with slightly different choices but covering the same material).

* Each week also had a programming assignment in Octave, for which they provided the bulk of the code, and you just had to code in some functions or algorithms. I probably spent 2-3 hours a week on these, a fair amount of that chasing down syntax-error bugs in my code and/or yelling at Octave for crashing all the time.

* Machine learning is a pretty broad topic, and this course mostly focused on what I’d call “machine learning using gradient descent.” There was some amount of calculus involved (although you could probably get by without it) and a *lot* of linear algebra. If you weren’t comfortable with linear algebra, the class would have been very hard, and the programming assignments probably would have taken a lot longer than they took me.

* The material was a nice mix of theoretical and practical. I’ve already used some of what I learned in my work, and if there was a continuation of the class I would definitely take it. As it stands I’m right now signed up for the nlp-class and the pgm-class, which should be starting soon, both of which are relevant to what I do.

* The workload, and the corresponding amount I learned, were substantially less than they would have been in an actual 10-week on-campus university course. This was great for me, since I also have a day job and a baby. If I were a full-time student being offered ml-class instead of a real machine learning class, I might feel a little cheated. (I saw a blog post by some Stanford student whining about this, but he was mostly upset that the hyphen classes were devaluing his degree. Someone should have reminded him about the disclaimer.)

* The class was very solidly prepared. The lectures were smooth and well thought out. The review questions did a good job of making sure you’d learned the right things from the lectures. The programming assignments were good in their focus on the algorithms, although that did insulate you from the real-world messiness of getting programs set up correctly.

* It certainly seemed like Ng really enjoyed teaching, and at the end of the last lecture he thanked everyone in a very heartfelt way for taking the class.


* Every week dozens of lectures, each a couple of minutes long, interspersed with little multiple choice quizzes. This was my first point of frustration, in that the quizzes were frequently about parts of the lecture that hadn’t happened yet. Furthermore, they often asked ambiguous questions, or questions that were unanswerable based on the material presented so far.

* Each week had a final quiz that you submitted answers for one time only. Then you waited until the deadline passed to find out if your answers were correct (and then you waited another day, because the site always went down on quiz submission day, and so they always extended the deadline by 24 hours). These quizzes were also ambiguous, which meant that if you wanted to get them correct you had to pester for clarifications (and sometimes for clarifications of the clarifications).

* This resulted in the feeling that the grading in the class was stochastic, and that your final score was more reflective of “can I guess what the quiz-writer really meant” than “did I really understand the material”. Although I didn’t particularly care about my grade in the class, I was still frustrated and disheartened by the feeling that the quizzes were more interested in *tricking* me than in helping me learn.

* What’s more, the quizzes often seemed to focus on what seemed to me tangential or inconsequential parts of the lesson, like making sure that I really, deeply understood step 3 of a 5-step process, but not whether I understood the other four steps or the process itself.

* The material also seemed very grab-bag, almost like an “artifical intelligence for non-majors” survey course.

* Anyway, partly on account of my finding the class frustrating, partly on account of time pressures, and partly because I didn’t feel like I was learning a whole lot, I dropped the ai-class after about four weeks.

* There were no programming assignments, but there was a midterm and a final exam, both after I quit the course. From what I could tell, they were longer versions of the quizzes, with the same problems of clarity and ambiguity. (I never unfollowed the @aiclass twitter, and during exam time it was a steady stream of clarifications and allowed assumptions.)

* Compared to the tightly-planned ml-class, the ai-class felt very haphazard. In addition, the ml-class platform I found more pleasant to use than the ai-class platform.

* I quit long before the last lecture, so I have no idea how heartfelt it was.

One thing about both classes: I *hate* lectures. I learn much better reading than I do being lectured at, and I found the lecture aspect of *both* classes frustrating. I have complained about this in many venues, but my prejudice is that if you’re using the internet to make me watch *lectures*, you’re not really reinventing education, because I still have to watch lectures, and I hate lectures. Did I mention that I hate lectures?

By way of comparison, I have also been doing CodeYear. It is currently below my level (I am plenty familiar with variables and if-then statements and for loops), but I don’t know much Javascript, and the current pace makes me hopeful that it will get interesting for me after another month or two.

If you don’t know that platform, it gives you a task (“create a variable called myName, assign your name to it, and print it to the console”) and a little code window to do it in. Then you click “run” and it runs and tells you if you got it right or not. There is a pre-canned hint for each problem.

What I really like about Codeacademy is that I can do it at my own pace. The lessons are wildly variable in quality, but I’m glad not to have to sit through hours of lectures every week. They also do “badges”, which I find more satisfying than I wish I did. That said, I suspect someone with no experience debugging code would find the experience impenetrable and waste hours tracking down simple syntax errors, and indeed I saw on Hacker News a post to this effect a few weeks ago.

In the end, despite all this, the way I learn best is through a combination of reading books and writing actual code. I’ve had to learn F# over the last month, which I’ve done by reading a couple of (quite nice) books and writing a lot of actual code. It’s hard for me to imagine the course that would have done me any better (or any faster).

Similarly, if I wanted to learn Rails (which some days I think I do and other days I think I don’t), I have trouble imagining a course that would do better for me than just working through the Rails Tutorial (which I have skimmed, which has convinced me that I could learn well from it).

Similarly similarly, I suspect that the right Machine Learning book (and some quality time with e.g. Kaggle) would have been much more effective for me than the ml-class was. But if such a book exists, I haven’t found it yet.

Doubling the Compost Box

If you are on Facebook you have probably seen the articles about the unnamed school board member who couldn’t do any of the math problems on the math standardized test (and who couldn’t pass the reading section). Most of the discussion drew the conclusion that the tests were too hard for 10th graders and covered topics that were irrelevant to success (at least, if “success” is defined by being an unnamed school board member).

(There was also an unspoken undercurrent that, as standardized testing had been embraced by the Pepsi party, maligning it was a good signal of one’s allegiance to the Coke party.)

The article, of course, did not give any examples of the questions that were too hard, leaving open the alternative hypothesis that perhaps one simply doesn’t have to be very bright to serve on a school board. (Having casually observed the Seattle School Board over the last several years, I am inclined toward this position.)

You probably didn’t see the follow-up article outing the test failer as someone with a Bachelor’s in Education (which he describes as a “Bachelor of Science”, making it sound like he has a science degree, which he doesn’t), a Master’s in Education, and a Master’s in Educational Psychology. Given my prior that each of these degrees is worthless (except, of course, for its value in jumping through some sort of public-servant-pay-grade hoop), I feel even safer about my alternative hypothesis.

Luckily, the second article names the test. It’s the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and the state of Florida has thoughtfully provided sample questions on the web. The questions are not particularly interesting, nor are they particularly hard:

(Although the test is quite plainly biased against students from cultures that lack access to composting.)

What is interesting is his final criticism:

The math section, he said, tests information that most people don’t need when they get out of school.

There is a sense in which this is true. Most people never compute the volumes of composting bins. (Although if the city of Seattle gets its way, soon we’ll all be forced to.)

There’s also a larger sense in which it’s false. Solving word problems is a valuable skill (that most people sadly lack), and word problems have to be about something. And whatever that something is, probably most kids will never have to know its specifics again.

But there’s a bigger sense in which it’s irrelevant. Most of what you learn in high school (insofar as you learn anything) is information that you’ll never need again. I myself have forgotten almost all of my American history (although I remember our teacher’s stories about her redneck neighbors, who used to jump out of their second-story door after their deck collapsed), almost all of my chemistry (although I remember that the teacher had a toy stuffed mole named Avogadro), almost all of my English lit (although I remember that F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to use “flower imagery”), almost all of my Spanish (although I remember listening to cassette tapes of commercials for “Pal-mo-LEE-vay”), almost all of the pep rallies (although I remember that DHS Wildcats are “paw-some”), almost all of the motivational assemblies (although I remember the “what thou see-est, that thou be-est” guy), and almost all of my classmates (although I remember Josh Adams, because he visits Seattle every 10 years or so).

And the things you do need to know vary a lot from person to person. While it’s important to me that the Wildcats are paw-some, it might be equally important to Josh Adams that when the Wildcats rock the house they rock it all the way down. A test that asks about one neglects the other, and vice versa.

To the extent that most of what you learn in school is useless (and, believe me, most of what you learn in school is useless), any test that makes sure you actually learned it is going to be testing information that you don’t actually need. Blaming the test for that hardly seems fair.

And to the extent that your fancy degrees in education are useless (and, believe me, your fancy degrees in education are useless), then they’re not going to help you answer questions on a test. Again, blaming the test hardly seems fair.

All that said, standardized tests are essentially a 19th-century technology, and fixing education will almost certainly entail getting rid of them (although merely getting rid of them will not fix education in the slightest). I don’t mean to offer a blanket defense for them, only a defense against the criticism “I have three degrees and can’t do the test and therefore the problem is with the test.”

That leaves only the unresolved issue that you don’t have to be particularly competent to be on the school board, although if progressive Seattle is cool with it, then I imagine everyone else is too.

Machine Learning Beverage

Although my formal training is in subjects like math and economics and animal husbandry, most of the money-work I do is in subjects like data science and fareology and writing over-the-top religious polemics. This is one of the reasons why I’m so sour on the value of college, as my multi-million-dollar investment in tuition and pitchers of Ice Dog beer and Tower Party t-shirts didn’t even provide me the opportunity to learn any of these.

I did get to take an “Artificial Intelligence” class. The only listed prerequisite was the “Intro to CS” class, but a brand new professor was teaching and she decided to make it a much more advanced class, and then I was going to partner with my friend who was a CS major so that he could handle all the more advanced programming aspects, but he dropped the class after a couple of weeks so he could spend his senior year focused on “not taking classes”, which meant that I got to spend my senior year focused on “learning enough about computer programming to not fail the class”, after which I picked up a bit of “how to sometimes beat the computer at tic-tac-toe” and “how to sometimes beat the computer at Reversi” and “how to narrowly avoid coming in last place in the classwide ‘Pac War‘ tournament.”

Despite that initial setback, over the course of my career I’ve managed to learn bits and pieces of what’s variously called “machine learning”, “artificial intelligence”, or “guessing stuff”. I suspect I would be more popular at data mining parties if I had a smidge more training in these subjects, and so I was very excited at the prospect of Stanford’s free online Artificial Intelligence Class and Machine Learning Course, both of which are offered this fall. (There’s also a Database Class, but I know too much about databases already.)

You don’t get actual Stanford credit if you take the classes online, but I don’t particularly want Stanford credit, which means that’s not a deal-breaker. You get some sort of certificate signed by the professors listing your rank in the class, which will probably be somewhere in the millions thanks to all the Chinese students who will be cheating on their assignments, but I don’t particularly want a certificate either. I wouldn’t mind some sort of bumper sticker (“MY COMPUTER ALGORITHM IS SMARTER THAN YOUR HONOR STUDENT AND FURTHERMORE WON’T EVER BE UNEMPLOYED AND LIVING IN MY BASEMENT UNDER A CRIPPLING MOUNTAIN OF STUDENT-LOAN DEBT”), but that doesn’t seem to be part of the plan.

Most likely I won’t have enough time to devote to the classes anyway, what with work and training the baby to take over the world someday and trying to finish the novel about the boy who likes to play baseball but is no good at it. And this isn’t helped by the fact that both classes are going to have hours of online lectures that I’m going to have to sit through. Lectures!

I twittered the other day that if I have to sit through lectures then you’re not really transforming education. A lot of people (reasonably) interpreted this as a dig at the Khan Academy, but I was more angry at the Stanford CS department, which is tech-savvy enough to offer courses over the Internet to millions of cheating Chinese people and yet not tech-savvy enough to think of a better method of knowledge transmission than lectures with slides, which were invented by Moses or possibly even God, making them thousands of years old. I’m happy to take their quizzes and solve their problem sets and write their examinations, but the prospect of having to spend time listening to lectures is really glooming me down.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate what they’re doing, but if the Stanford Computer Science department really wants to revolutionize the educational process, they should figure out a way to upload information directly into my brain, or to embed it subliminally in Spider-Man cartoons, or to make it somehow drinkable. “Machine Learning Class” is the past; the future belongs to whoever first figures out “Machine Learning Beverage”!

College Savings Plans are the Modern Dowry

Because baby Madeline is half-Indian and half-regular-person, she has both Indian friends and regular-person friends. The parents of her Indian friends worry about dowries, which are expensive gifts that they have to hand over when their daughters marry, and that they have to save for until then. The parents of her regular-person friends worry about college savings plans, which are expensive gifts that they have to hand over when their daughters matriculate college, and that they have to save for until then.

Both represent fairly nasty Prisoner’s Dilemmas. “Save for dowry/tuition” is a dominant strategy, which leads to the unattractive “Everyone saves for dowry/tuition” equilibrium, which is pareto-inferior to the (non-equilibrium) “No one saves for dowry/tuition.” To sustain the “no one saves” optimum you need some sort of rule-changing side-deal.

Because the government of India is run by a bunch of amateurs, they introduced a (revenue-neutral) law that bans dowries. If they had any political savvy at all, they’d instead be selling revenue-generating pre-paid dowry plans. (If you’re reading my blog, Indian government, I suggest a clever name like Dowry Opportunity Provision Experience.)

A common objection to this line of thinking is that a dowry buys your daughter something useless (a husband) whereas a college savings plan buys her something useful (a degree in “Chican@ and Latin@ Studies” and also tens of thousands of dollars of nondischargeable debt to pay the tuition and fees above and beyond what’s in the college savings account). This is a subtle point, which I’ll explore in my future posts “Student-Loan Debt is the Modern Indentured Servitude” and “Dressing up as a Sheep and Waving a ‘Mattress Sale’ Sign is the Modern Working at Borders.”

On the Education of Joelene, Part I: Introduction

Although little Joelene is expected to arrive in about 10 days (which means that she could show up today if she really felt like it), I toyed with fate and flew down to Long Beach last weekend to attend the BIL conference, which is (in some sense) the open-source equivalent of the TED conference. It’s organized (to the extent it’s organized) by some of my beautiful and amazing friends, which means it’s also an opportunity to visit with them. And, of course, it’s a great chance to meet new beautiful and amazing friends, which I did, although none of them live in Seattle, which means most likely I won’t see them again until BIL 2012, at which point I’ll have a little Joelene with me.

BIL is a wonderful experience on its own merits, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t especially appreciate the myriad times people told me how excited they were that someone like me was reproducing. Closer to home, people are certainly excited for me, although there’s in addition an unspoken sense that being my kid would be somehow akin to being raised in a haunted house, or a museum of oddities, or possibly a laserium. BIL is full of people who (for lack of a better description) legitimately wish that they had been raised in a laserium (or perhaps even were raised in laseria).

Once you have a kid (or are close to having a kid), people start to ask you all sorts of questions about how you’re raising and educating (or planning to raise and educate) said kid. Fortunately, education is something I spend quite a bit of time reading about, thinking about, and delivering heretical soapbox speeches about.

As a result, when I wasn’t talking about “How to Be Funny” or rinsing out fruit juice jugs or hijacking charity auctions*, I was pontificating on education. As I told the same stories over and over, boring more and more people, I started to realize that I should write my ideas into blog posts. I suspect there will be about seven parts, but I may add or subtract one or two. It’s possible I’ll even get them all written before Joelene shows up.

In the meantime, you can watch a delightful video of the BIL experience, if you are so inclined. Part 2 (working title: “The Time Suck”) coming soon.

* The BIL ethos is “if you see something that needs to be done, do it.” The auctioneer (who is a dear friend of mine) was not living up to my expectations of how lively and aggressive and barker-y a charity auctioneer should be, so I barged on stage, asked him for the microphone, channeled my inner Fred Northup, and squeezed an extra couple of hundred dollars out of the audience. Many people, I’m told, assumed this was part of the plan all along.

Correlation and Causation

Another day, another plan to spend more money on education:

President Obama said on the “Today” show Monday morning that American students attend school a month less than kids in other countries — contending that the school-year gap puts them at a competitive disadvantage in the global economy. “The idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense,” he said, when asked if kids should go to school year-round.

The logic here is pretty sound:

A) Other countries have longer school years.
B) Other countries produce more “competitive” graduates.
C) Therefore, we need a longer school year.

There are a number of other attractive policy prescriptions that follow from the same reasoning. For example, here’s a similar plan to increase standardized test scores:

A) Asian students eat more rice than non-Asians.
B) Asian students do best on standardized tests.
C) Therefore, we should feed our students more rice.

Just so we’re clear, it’s certainly possible that spirit-crushing, year-round education is in part responsible for the “competitiveness” of other countries’ graduates. It’s certainly more likely to be true than it would be if we observed that countries with year-round education produced “less competitive” graduates.

Nonetheless, in the absence of a clear causal mechanism, it’s possible that there are other differences between those countries and ours that are much more reponsible for any differences in “competitiveness.” Maybe they have smarter students, or they don’t put lead in their school lunches, or they don’t make their 8th-graders play “concussion ball” in gym class. It’s always worth checking to make sure you’ve got causality correct before you eliminate summer vacation.

Another key plank of Obama’s proposed reforms involves “evaluation of teachers based on their students’ test performance.” This is fine, I suppose, if you want to define a good teacher as one whose students perform well (or perhaps better than they used to) on tests. It’s not clear to me that this is the best criterion, but I never paid a whole lot of attention to most of my teachers anyway, and I always liked best the ones who taught interesting things and who let me sleep in class when I was tired.

And in some ways this aspect of the debate seems silly, because back when I was in school everyone knew which teachers were good and which weren’t. We didn’t need Value-Added Analyses or Professional Observers or DNA Tests, we just knew. Everyone knew. Students knew. Parents knew. Other teachers knew. Everyone knew.

Not that it mattered, since you didn’t get to choose your teachers. Sure, if you signed up for Latin then you were going to have the Latin teacher, and if you signed up for German then you were going to have the German teacher, and if you signed up for Calculus BC then you were going to have the Calculus BC teacher.

But when you signed up for 10th grade World History (which you would, since it was pretty much required) you were going to end up with a crapshoot of a teacher. Maybe you’d get a good one, maybe you’d get a bad one. (I got an awesome one, who insisted that Turkey was a de facto US colony since we had missile bases there, and who let me sleep in class, but that was pretty much just dumb luck on my part.)

The same was mildly true in college, where freshman science and engineering majors had to take a year-long “survey course in the humanities.” Since there were lots of science and engineering majors, there were lots of course sections of HUMA 101 and 102, taught by anyone who couldn’t talk his way out of it.

My first semester (Bible, Plato, Homer, Virgil, Canterbury Tales, etc…) was taught by a Women’s Studies professor from Germany who always brought her “friend” to class and who made most of the works about Women’s Studies. (Our crowning achievement, if I may brag, was that we convinced her to let us bring in a boom box and listen to “Achilles Last Stand” as part of our discussion of the Iliad).

My second (Shakespeare, Descartes, Kant, Flaubert, Kafka, etc…) was taught by a Continental philosopher who used terms we didn’t understand like “cathectic” and “I-thou duality” and hated every paper I wrote except for my final one, a giant clusterfuck of buzzwords tying together Kafka, the Tower of Babel, “modernity” [another of his favorites], and all sorts of other bullshit that I made sound like one of his lectures as much as I could. (I still preferred him to the first professor, though.)

Neither of them really instilled any sort of appreciation in me for the stuff we read, whereas the “American Literature of the 1970’s” course I took (“There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge.”) was taught by a grad student with no agenda other than that he really loved the books, and so I grew to love some of them too. It was, as you might guess, not a required course, and if it had turned out terrible I might well have dropped it.

The HUMA courses, though, were both required and capped at ~20 students, which meant you needed to fight for a slip of paper with a time that worked for you and then just put up with whatever luck-of-the-draw teacher that worked out to. I guarantee you that if there were any actual choice involved then the first teacher’s class would have (after a semester or two during which institutional knowledge was being generated) been routinely empty, as it deserved to be.

Anyway, my point is that everyone knows which teachers are good and which aren’t, and all this talk of “testing” and “value-added analysis” and whatnot is just a way of pretending that we don’t. If you were to let students and parents choose which teachers they wanted, I bet things would get sorted out really quickly.

Will Someone Please Invent the Virtual Locker Room

Bill Gates, always a man with big ideas, suspects that the internet is going to shake up our educational system:

“Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world,” Gates said at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, CA today. “It will be better than any single university,” he continued.

In fact, this is already true today. When I used to bus-commute across the bridge, every bus ride that I didn’t spend reading pirated young-adult Star Wars novellas or playing “Angry Birds” I spent watching “iTunes U” lectures from Stanford and MIT and iPorn about “Machine Learning” and “Computer Science” and “The Naked Female Body.” If only I could somehow put these on my resume, I’d be able to talk my way into all sorts of jobs I’m not really qualified to do. BillG has got a plan for that too:

He believes that no matter how you came about your knowledge, you should get credit for it. Whether it’s an MIT degree or if you got everything you know from lectures on the web, there needs to be a way to highlight that.

Now, there is a cynical school of thought that says that the value of a MIT degree is not that it signals that you learned dozens of MIT-lecture-worths of things; rather, it’s that it signals that you were admitted to and jumped through all the hoops necessary to survive four years at MIT, in which case the hypothetical third-party credentials “watched a bunch of MIT lectures on the bus” probably aren’t that useful to employers.

Furthermore, being lectured at is frequently not the best way to learn something. Nonetheless, I join BillG in applauding this trend. If it puts competitive pressure on colleges, it will be a good thing.

It seems to me that it’s even more promising for K-12 education. Rather than having centrally-assigned, underqualified teachers trying to lecture 30 students who learn at varying paces (and several of whom are disruptive), each student could find the lecturer and lecture style that works best for him. In many cases these might be no lectures at all. Think of the innovations that would ensue! I bet BillG is most excited about this:

He made sure to say that educational institutions are still vital for children, K-12. He spoke glowingly about charter schools, where kids can spend up to 80% of their time deeply engaged with learning.

But college needs to be less “place-based,” according to Gates. Well, except for the parties, he joked.

Wait, what? K-12 education needs to be “place-based”? I mean, I understand that the internet can’t yet teach kids valuable life skills like “staying in your seat” and “raising your hand before you speak” and “not going to the bathroom without getting permission first” and “getting duct-taped to a bench in the locker room for being too slow at running laps.” But surely virtual locker rooms and virtual duct tape are only a few years away!

(Also, for those of you who don’t know, I am delighted to report that the post-college years contain a huge number of parties, including Oktoberfests, Nights of Decadence, 80’s Parties, Bacchinaliae, Shut-up-and-Drinks, and Lovett Casino Parties.)

It’s tough to assert with a straight face that competition (from the internet or otherwise) will provide vast benefits for students in grades 13-16, but has no role to play in grades K-12. If Bill ever decides to spend his vast fortunes improving education, hopefully he’ll revisit his opinion on this first, before he wastes billions of dollars.

The Cornerstone of Democracy

Most towns have some sort of “school board,” which is tasked with deciding which subjects need to have Biblically-influenced syllabi, taking kickbacks from textbook publishers, and not firing incompetent and/or criminally negligent teachers.

They run for election every few years, filling our medians with campaign signs festooned with grade-school-evocative clip-art like apples and rulers and dunce hats. Their voter’s guide blurbs affirm their commitments to teacher-unionism, to social promotion, to eco-awareness, and to our children.

In Denver, it turns out, they have an additional responsibility: entering into financially catastrophic $750 million derivatives contracts with JPMorgan Chase in order to shore up massively overpromised pension funds:

To members of the Denver Board of Education, it sounded ideal. It was complex, involving several different financial institutions and transactions. But Michael F. Bennet, now a United States senator from Colorado who was superintendent of the school system at the time, and Thomas Boasberg, then the system’s chief operating officer, persuaded the seven-person board of the deal’s advantages, according to interviews with its members.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how a bunch of educators and schoolparents got taken for a ride by some Wall Street salesguys with slick PowerPoint presentations whose area of expertise is taking people for a ride with slick PowerPoint presentations. Luckily, it’s not actually their money at stake, and the people of Denver (some of whom likely have kids in the school system) ought to be happy to pony up for the difference.

After all, half-billion-dollar loans to pay pensions to former employees of the public school system are the cornerstone of democracy.