Archive for the ‘Certifikayshuns, Skewels and Kawledges’ Category

Filthy Hippies Everywhere!

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

…in Berkeley.

The Realities of College Education

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Having spent a lifetime holding down jobs that are supposed to demand a college degree, while not having any formal education beyond high school, I’m still undecided about whether I possess experience here that should be shared. Maybe I should take the lead, maybe I should keep my mouth shut. I see a lot of evidence for both of those viewpoints.

Oh well, you know this guy knows what he’s talking about.

Get ready for some unpleasant surprises.

The general requirements of the first two years at most colleges are what high school should have been. That is what junior should have learned had he not been busy getting high, getting drunk, and being socially promoted.

Better high schools frequently use the same textbooks for the mandatory requirements that are used in the first two years of college. If a high school draws from the upper end of the socioeconomic scale, the courses will be more demanding than the first two years of most colleges.

Although it is fashionable to talk of our strength being our diversity, it is simply not true when teaching in a college classroom. Teachers have to teach to some middle ground, and that middle ground is going to be higher in an upper-tier high school. A classroom that draws from a wide swath of socioeconomic groups is going to have people of vastly different preparation and skill levels.

You might ask: What about admissions requirements? Aren’t these students qualified to do college work? Absolutely not! Advertised admissions requirements, save for the best institutions, are meaningless. Even in the best institutions, admissions requirements are highly suspect, given the imperative to produce a diverse student body. Advertised standards are what colleges would like their student body to look like. At many institutions, roughly twenty-five percent of students fail to meet published admissions standards.

Public colleges get reimbursed on a head count basis, so taking in more students for unused space means more revenue. In addition, every out-of-state student provides nearly twice the revenue. If your child has a mediocre academic record, have him apply to an out-of-state public college or university. You can experience the joy of paying out-of-state tuition, while still retaining the bragging rights so vital to sending your kid to college.

This is a rather old complaint, but I’ve noticed a subtly different thing going on lately which is a testament to things rounding a sharp corner right about now. I am referring here to the job requirements end of things. Simply put, in the recent years past I am absolutely flabbergasted at the rather humble positions out there that are popularly thought to require a college degree.

That lady in the restaurant who finds you your table and then goes and tells a waiter you’re ready to place your order — we’re not there quite yet. And no offense intended for restaurant hostesses, but if your position does not require a college degree, well, I think for the time being that’s appropriate. Nevertheless. I do expect that to change any year now the way things are going.

It’s like the requirement is applied, or at least some loudmouth is saying it should apply, to any job in which the successful applicant is going to be expected to read.

Nobody questions it. But someone should make an issue out of it, if for no other reason, than to sound the alarm bells about what employers do & do not recognize in high school graduation requirements. The implication, obviously, is that high school graduates can’t be relied-upon to know how to read. Is there some distance between that supposition, and what is really happening?

I hope so. But I don’t think so.

First in Family to Coast Through College

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

The Onion (that means it’s satire, for those who are unacquainted):

“My grandpa wasn’t able to afford school until he came back from the war and got help with his tuition through the G.I. Bill,” says [University of Minnesota senior Daniel] Peterson, reclining on a futon. “He studied hard and took a job at night so he could support my grandma and dad while he finished his degree.”

“Listening to his stories, I promised myself that, no matter what, I would do everything in my power to take it real easy through college,” Peterson adds.

His father a successful engineer, his mother a dedicated social worker, this Rochester, MN native grew up dreaming of an education more painless than the one his parents had known. At 17, he received a letter of acceptance from UMN, and at that moment committed himself to five years of sleeping late, drinking often, and sneaking by with a 2.7 GPA. After scuttling plans to major in video game design, Peterson enrolled in the school’s American studies program, vowing never to sign up for any class that met before 11 a.m. or required him to write a term paper over five pages.
“My father, my father’s father, and all those before them—they struggled and gave it their all so I wouldn’t have to,” Peterson says. “Sure, I could do what everyone else my age does, studying really hard because my parents spent 20 years carefully setting aside money for my education. But I won’t do that to my mom and dad. Not when I can blow off class and do just enough cramming at the end of the semester to pull a B-minus.”

When he’s finished with school, the 23-year-old plans to continue honoring the Peterson name by living off his graduation money for a few months and then maybe temping for a while until he figures out what he wants to do next.

His attitude hasn’t gone unnoticed by his parents.

“I don’t think Daniel is taking his studies seriously,” Peterson’s father says. “When he comes home, I never see him crack a book. He’s always out with his friends or on the Xbox. And now he’s talking about maybe going to grad school.”

“This is everything a father could want for his son,” he adds. “I am so proud.”

Good satire has to have an element of truth to it. The more, the better.

The Onion is known for providing good satire.

I really do wish I could say this was an exception to the rule…but I can’t. I’m afraid it is excellent satire.

Harvard Students Get Rejected

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Yes, they really do.

The dirty secret is out. Harvard students fail sometimes. They are denied jobs, fellowships, A’s they think they deserve. They are passed over for publication, graduate school, and research grants. And when that finally happens, it hurts. Big time.

To help students cope, Harvard’s Office of Career Services hosted a new seminar last week on handling rejection, a fear job-seekers are feeling acutely in the plummeting economy. The advice from panelists could have come from a caring, patient parent. No rejection is the end of the world, they said, even though it might feel that way at the time.

Participants, who wore snappy buttons with the word rejected stamped in red, also received a road map of sorts on handling failure, a pink booklet of rejection letters and personal stories from Harvard faculty, students, and staff members.

Anybody else see something terribly wrong with this? I mean sure, it’s better to produce graduates who’ve been “taught” how to handle rejection than graduates who have not been. Sure.

The problem I have with this has to do with what one might describe as the “default.” Toward the end, one authority tacks on the obligatory “Statistically you are rejected, and probablistically it is fair.”

My beef is this: “Fair” doesn’t enter into it. For such an instruction to become necessary for educational value, emotional healing, or any combination of those two…there has to have been a previously-existing delusion that post-graduate life would be rejection-free. I imagine this crop is not going to be the first to suffer this mistaken notion, nor shall it be the last. But I imagine, further, that once the problem has reared its ugly head…and it must have, with some regularity, for the critical mass that demands such an event to pop up…the soothing balm for the hurt feelings just might not constitute the dominant pressing priority.

To put it more plainly. Are Harvard students taught early on that being accepted is the exception, and being rejected is the rule? Regardless of your Alma Mater?

Hat tip: Dr. Helen.

Thing I Know #263. The one thing that’s wrong with higher education that nobody ever seems to want to discuss, is that it is valued through something called “prestige.” Get this prestigious diploma. Get that prestigious degree. Attend a prestigious university. My alma mater is more prestigious than yours. Trouble is that genuine learning has very, very little to do with prestige. It is, arguably, the exact opposite.

Obama Presses for Longer School Year

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Yup, I can get behind this one. I can’t fully support his motives, but his position, and his stated reason for it, make perfect sense to me.

President Obama said Tuesday that American children should go to school longer — either stay later in the day or into the summer — if they’re going to have any chance of competing for jobs and paychecks against foreign kids.

“We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day,” Obama said, adding U.S. education to his already-crowded list of top priorities.

“That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st-century economy.

“I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas, not with Malia and Sasha,” Obama said, referring to his daughters, as the crowd laughed.

“But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.

“If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.”

“Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us,” Obama said. “In eighth-grade math, we’ve fallen to ninth place. Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours 3-to-1. Just a third of our 13- and 14-year-olds can read as well as they should.”

Among his proposals: extra pay for better teachers, something opposed by teachers unions.

“It is time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones,” he said in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Teachers groups applauded Obama’s speech, largely sidestepping the thorny question of merit pay.

“Teachers want to make a difference in kids’ lives, and they appreciate a president who shares that goal and will spend his political capital to provide the resources to make it happen,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers.

Of course, once they’re spending that extra time, what’re they doing?

I can think of two things that would have been of tremendous value to me if they’d taken place in the public school system; one of which would also apply to many others, the other of which, maybe, not so much.

Reconciling a checkbook. I point that out because it’s such an easy exercise that there’s really no excuse for the school not walking the kids through this. You certainly can’t raise the time-honored question “aw c’mon, when am I ever gonna need to do that?”

And, using a binary editor to hack a file. Because whether you grow up into the exciting field of software engineering or network engineering or computer forensics…or not…computer users, I maintain, really should understand what computer files are and how they’re put together. Just like, before you loan your keys to the teenager, they really should have gone through the exercise of pulling the jack out of the trunk and changing the tire, just to show they can do it and to demonstrate a working knowledge of how the parts fit together.

When people talk about having skills to compete in the 21st century, that’s what it means to me. Admittedly, I’m bringing a strong personal bias in to that, but it’s an idea that has some merit. You learn how to work something by understanding how it’s put together, or by understanding how it behaves. If you work with a thing by understanding only how it behaves, you’re working from a script, and that is not competing. That’s “when I press this button, that light is supposed to come on, and…whoops…why won’t it come on??”

And I humbly submit that if education involves something besides enabling self-sufficiency in a little dilemma like that, then a question needs to be opened up as to what kind of education that is, and how it’s supposed to help anyone.

Diploma Inflation

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Two great items about one of my favorite subjects, diploma inflation. It’s one of my favorite subjects because 1) there’s so much denial in the air about it, 2) it’s had a great effect on my professional life over the last few years (interestingly, not too much before then), and 3) it has more potential to rock your world than any other current event taking place right now…or just about. And that includes the swindle-us bill that just passed. Diploma inflation is a stink in the air that will get in your furniture, hair and clothes and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. Over the short term, anyway.

It has to do with degrees, licenses, certificates; any piece of paper that acts as a symbol for having gotten some work done, and/or having learned a few things. And the problem is that not everyone agrees that is what they are for. Quite to the contrary. It is amazing how much energy and effort, at all walks of life, is cranked into the mission of keeping these pieces of paper from actually meaning anything.

Captain Capitalism talks about his experience at a degree-mill (hat tip to Kate at Small Dead Animals). Fascinating stuff.

I first started teaching at this “business” school where the “campus” was a rented out, brown, 1970’s style office building located in the inner suburbs of St. Paul/Minneapolis. The school didn’t even rent out the entire building, but let that be a lesson to you kids, highly ranked schools lease out their HQ in suburbanite strip malls.

I intuitively knew this wasn’t going to be Harvard, but it was a nice part time job and I got to teach my passion; economics – so I didn’t much care.

However troubles immediately started to occur.

The first sign of trouble came when I issued the first quiz, of which 85% of the students failed. It wasn’t an issue of the quiz being difficult or hard. It wasn’t an issue of me being a mean teacher. The quiz was of an average difficulty and any student paying attention would have passed it. However, upon grading the quizzes I realized just what a low caliber of students I was dealing with and made the egregious error of deciding not to LOWER the standards to them, but to have them RISE to my standards and thereby teach them something.

Complaints flooded into my boss about the test being too difficult, they didn’t have enough time to study, “by god I have two children and can’t study this much” etc. etc. And sure enough, at the age of 27, I was called into the office.

My boss explained to me that we are here to challenge the students, but not too much. That my test was unfair and I should consider tailoring it more to their skill level. Of course with hindsight I now see what the charlatan of a dean was telling me; “Dumb it down because we’re fleecing these kids for their money for a worthless degree and if you rock the boat we’ll lose some of them.” But he couldn’t come outright and say that, ergo why he was feeding me a line of bull.

The next quiz I dumbed down, and this time a whopping 30% of the students passed. Naturally there was the same cacophony of complaints which resulted me landing in the dean’s office once again. This process continued until I had more or less realized that not only were the students dead set against learning or trying to feign some semblance of being a scholar as well as the complete lack of back up from management to hold some level of standards to these kids. And so, choosing the path of least resistance, I decided I would not only make the quizzes and tests insanely easier, but skew the grading curve so greatly it would put affirmative action to shame.

To avoid any more criticism that I didn’t test the students on what we studied I made them make their own “study guide” for the tests. This consistent of each student writing a multiple choice question on a piece of paper, me taking all those questions and photocopying them into a guide for each student. We would review the questions and the correct answers, and then I would take the EXACT SAME PHOTOCOPIED questions, photocopy them again, insert 4-5 questions of my own and then give it back to the students as the official test.

Even then, with no more than 4-5 question of my own to give those who deserved an A and A, I would still get students to flunk the test. So idiotic and genuinely stupid, or perhaps galactically lazy, were these students, they couldn’t pass a test where they had the answers the day before.

Regardless, the majority of the students did pass, but with less than 40% of them earning A’s.

It gets much better. Go read it all, every single word.

Inspired by a story from the New York Times about some “real” colleges and the problems encountered there with diploma- and grade-inflation, James Taranto in Opinion Journal’s Best of the Web contributes some worthy comments that make you go hmmm…I can’t see a way to whittle them down so I’ll just read them in, in full.

The New York Times has an amusing piece about the frustrations of college professors:

Prof. Marshall Grossman has come to expect complaints whenever he returns graded papers in his English classes at the University of Maryland.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

Another prof, Ellen Greenberger of the University of California at Irvine, has published a study called “Self-Entitled College Students”:

Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed said that if they explained to a professor that they were trying hard, that should be taken into account in their grade.

Jason Greenwood, a senior kinesiology major at the University of Maryland echoed that view.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

Anyone who works for a living is immediately struck by the contrast between this attitude and the real world. When you hire someone to do a job, you look for results, not “effort.” Someone who works effectively and effortlessly is much more valued than someone who tries really hard and produces mediocre results. Why should schoolwork be any different?

The answer is that, except at the highest levels of higher education, school “work” is the opposite of real work. Students do not work for professors; professors work for students–or, to be precise, students (in combination with their parents and the government) contract with institutions of higher education, which in turn employ professors to deliver services to students.

If students have a sense of entitlement, it is a sense best captured in that old saying: The customer is always right. They’re spending tens of thousands of dollars to get a degree so they can go out and find a job, and they’re working hard on their assignments to boot–you’re darn right they feel entitled to good grades!

Professors, quite understandably, see it differently. To the best of them, their calling is to impart knowledge and intellectual refinement. The degree is merely a symbol. The real “product” that colleges produce is educated young people.

What we have, then, is a mismatch between what customers are buying and what institutions are selling. Colleges and universities have had great economic success marketing themselves as sellers of job-hunting licenses. If they embraced instead an old-fashioned vision of learning as an end in itself, the quality of their product doubtless would improve immensely–but their market would shrink correspondingly.

Professors may be unhappy to be working for institutions that, to a large extent, have degenerated into mere diploma mills. Many of them, however, owe their jobs to that degeneration. [emphasis mine]

I think Taranto nailed it with the “mismatch” comment. A man’s ego is the most convincing prospectus; nothing will get us to believe in a new currency, quite like a past event in which some of our personal treasure has been converted into it. These hard-working mediocre students are simply displaying a well-known human emotion — they paid the money for this job-hunting “license,” and dammit, they want it. Naturally, once they get it, there should be no further challenges down the road. Very much like buying a ticket to a sporting event, and, being able to present it, sitting in exactly one seat, to which you can now lay claim.

Part of the modern-day “your job is your personal property” mindset.

How did it come to impact me, then? It seems these knuckleheads with diplomas that they worked really, really hard at getting, while simultaneously working really, really hard to keep them from actually meaning anything, fancy themselves as enjoying an exclusive, personal license to dilute currencies by printing up counterfeit things. It comes down to this: They can’t do things. But they paid their money, argued with troublesome professors who tried to make ’em learn things and do things, wrote to their deans, threatened their lawsuits, and they got their piece of paper. They aren’t competent but they have the paper.

They come to find out someone is applying for a job, and that someone can do the job but doesn’t have the piece of paper, and this bizarre hypersensitivity erupts like Mount Pinatubo. Moderation would be: Fine and good, let’s staff this data center with a mixture of people who make their living by knowing how to get things done, and other people who make their living by waving pieces of paper around. That would be moderate. But there’s no room for moderation. Emotions are impacted by this. The folks who don’t know how to do what they’re doing, who got their pieces of paper by harassing people like Captain Capitalism, dumbing down the currency that is the certification or diploma — are suddenly just now concerned about inflation. They’re concerned that this guy has a counterfeit stadium ticket. It comes down to that.

In short: Getting a job by knowing how to do it? There’s no room for that here. I got my job by having a ticket to it and not knowing how to do the job; you might make me look bad.

True, true, some folks have the piece of paper and also know how to do the job. They’re in the minority. If they weren’t, this wouldn’t be such an emotional issue. They’d simply say “well, let’s see what you can do,” as job candidates have been told for over a hundred years, perhaps for centuries. And that’d be the end of it.

But the “I got a ticket to my seat” mindset prevails. And as a direct result of that…in a society in which you have to have a four-year degree to have any job, nevermind the information-technology and engineering ones…it’s getting so hard to accomplish just basic intellectual work, such as communicating verbally with someone when you place a food order…this robust, information-based super-technological society is just about to grind to a halt. We can’t get food now. We have such little respect for information making things work, that we can’t eat. No, I’m not going to sit here and type in some words to the effect that we’re starving to death. I will not say that. We’re fat as hell. But a techno-industrial society is losing its ability to accomplish basic things, and does that not become undeniable when we run into strange, arcane, unnecessary and sometimes insurmountable difficulties acquiring the staples of life?

This “Got My Ticket, Want My Seat” mindset does not yet enjoy complete unanimity in the academic circle, or in the professional one. But it does enjoy dominance in both. And that should be of concern to us, if the United States is moving away from a manufacturing economy and into a service-oriented one — which it seems to have done, a generation or two ago. Is that still up for discussion?

No? Then, if we are in a service-oriented economy, and with the passage of time we’re only becoming more and more enmeshed in a service-oriented economy…my suggestion would be that we concentrate a bit more effort into performing some services. This “ticket-seat” thought model isn’t going to do much to enhance that, and seems to have already done a dandy job of having gotten in the way. If we continue to let it, we might not be so fond of the future we’ve made for ourselves, down the road when it’s too late to reverse course.

Now, do what I say, dammit, I worked hard on typing that stuff.


Thursday, January 1st, 2009

Paul Graham.

Money quote(s):

Before credentials, government positions were obtained mainly by family influence, if not outright bribery. It was a great step forward to judge people by their performance on a test. But by no means a perfect solution. When you judge people that way, you tend to get cram schools—which they did in Ming China and nineteenth century England just as much as in present day South Korea.

What cram schools are, in effect, is leaks in a seal. The use of credentials was an attempt to seal off the direct transmission of power between generations, and cram schools represent that power finding holes in the seal. Cram schools turn wealth in one generation into credentials in the next.
History suggests that, all other things being equal, a society prospers in proportion to its ability to prevent parents from influencing their children’s success directly. It’s a fine thing for parents to help their children indirectly—for example, by helping them to become smarter or more disciplined, which then makes them more successful. The problem comes when parents use direct methods: when they are able to use their own wealth or power as a substitute for their children’s qualities.
The obvious way to solve the problem is to make credentials better. If the tests a society uses are currently hackable, we can study the way people beat them and try to plug the holes. You can use the cram schools to show you where most of the holes are.
By gradually chipping away at the abuse of credentials, you could probably make them more airtight. But what a long fight it would be. Especially when the institutions administering the tests don’t really want them to be airtight.
Let’s think about what credentials are for. What they are, functionally, is a way of predicting performance. If you could measure actual performance, you wouldn’t need them.

Perfectly in keeping with what quadropole said in response to me over at Dr. Helen’s place:

I’ve done a fair bit of hiring. Hiring sucks. You are trying to filter through a large pool of applicants, most of whom are not appropriate, and filtering through them by hand is miserable.

So folks do a lot of things to try to improve the ‘hit rate’ on appropriate candidates. Requiring college degrees is one of them. If 10% of the folks you interview with a Masters in CS are even vaguely appropriate for the job you are interviewing for, and only 1% of those without it are, you tell your HR department to only bring you MSCS or equivalent candidates.

It’s a trade off on costs, on the one hand, you might miss out on a *really* good candidate without the credential you list, on the other, you save *enormous* time, energy, and frustration on screening applicants.

I think the essay linked makes it intuitively obvious what is wrong with quad’s logic, but I’ll walk through it anyway.

What’s being advocated is like a lossy image compression algorithm. Reality would be getting a skilled, qualified applicant; the status quo is an image of reality, getting a credentialed applicant. It’s not identical to reality, nor is it intended to be — it’s only supposed to be a close approximation. Something to help save this time.

Trouble is: How close is the image to reality? “Within tolerable limits” is the presumed answer to that. But no one ever checks it. Managers tell their guys to go do something, and as the guy walks out of the office the managers say Where does HR find these people??? Does the frustration find its way back to HR? No, it does not. So the system operates within a vacuum. The deviation from reality is presumed to be within tolerable limits, and is further presumed to be remaining static, not rising.

This is all blind faith. No one tests it.

I have exactly two reasons to be biased against this, one selfish, the other far more practical. First of all, I’m not educated. So I’m the first guy booted out of the process when the hunt goes on for these credentials…from “cram schools”…which are set up to preserve wealth in families…wealth the Freeberg family has never even come close to having.

The second reason, which is far more socially responsible, and boy I can list you some names of people who will give anything not to be able to see the logic in this —

— fields like mine don’t function well this way. People in my line of work have always been “escalation points”; they solve problems that others have tried to solve, and haven’t been able to solve. So in any one of a number of jobs I’ve held for the last few years, if you get hold of some sardine-guy who can be relied upon to do things exactly the same way as any other fish in the can, it really isn’t going to do you an awful lot of good. If the problem could be solved using “typical” methods, it would’ve been solved awhile ago. No, we’re the S.W.A.T. team, here to take out the problem the police couldn’t touch.

The passing-of-tests does something worse than leaving that whole talent area untouched. It credentials in opposition to it. That’s because a test doesn’t necessarily test outcome, it tests methods. It unifies the way people work on things. This is one step forward and three steps back, because you can’t solve a problem by thinking things out the same way as the other guy who tried to solve the problem, and wasn’t able to.

Or, for that matter, like the guy who made the problem.

Pregnancy Pact

Friday, June 20th, 2008

One of our more objectionable radio PSAs extols the virtues of early sex education in the public schools; I can’t remember if that’s the main thrust (sorry!) of what’s being said, or if it’s in passing. The one vivid memory I have about it is where the narrator mentions some kind of a myth that sex education causes an increase in teen pregnancies, “which isn’t true!

I mean, gosh & golly, let’s just forget for a second about whether the possibility exists that a sex education program might promote teen pregnancies, and concentrate on how we go about finding out one way or the other. Just gathering the statistics you’d use to find out…there must be hundreds of ways. Good ways, incompetent ways, ways designed to make it look like this is exactly what happens, ways designed to conceal it. And then there’s common sense — which tells me, sure, such a program has all the potential in the world for putting the teen pregnancy statistic on a steep rise or on a rapid decline. It would have to depend on the content, and the competence of those who run it. You doubt me? Put me in charge. Task me to put together a sex education program guaranteed to cause a baby explosion. I’ll make one guaranteed to work…with my eyes closed. Then have me put together a different one that’ll nip teen pregnancies in the bud. I’m a guy. You’d better believe I can do that too.

So I object to the three words being tossed ’round with no foundation. It’s as if to say, “those other guys are getting their myths out there, we’d better get our myths out there too.” So thanks, Mrs. nameless faceless invisible PSA announcer person, but your authority here is somewhat lacking. I’ll continue to believe that sex ed program have at least the potential of sending teen pregnancies through the freakin’ roof. That seems only reasonable.

Especially when I read things like this…H/T Boortz, although I heard it on the radio the other day.

As summer vacation begins, 17 girls at Gloucester High School are expecting babies—more than four times the number of pregnancies the 1,200-student school had last year. Some adults dismissed the statistic as a blip. Others blamed hit movies like Juno and Knocked Up for glamorizing young unwed mothers. But principal Joseph Sullivan knows at least part of the reason there’s been such a spike in teen pregnancies in this Massachusetts fishing town. School officials started looking into the matter as early as October after an unusual number of girls began filing into the school clinic to find out if they were pregnant. By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, “some girls seemed more upset when they weren’t pregnant than when they were,” Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Then the story got worse. “We found out one of the fathers is a 24-year-old homeless guy,” the principal says, shaking his head.

The question of what to do next has divided this fiercely Catholic enclave. Even with national data showing a 3% rise in teen pregnancies in 2006—the first increase in 15 years—Gloucester isn’t sure it wants to provide easier access to birth control. In any case, many residents worry that the problem goes much deeper. The past decade has been difficult for this mostly white, mostly blue-collar city (pop. 30,000). In Gloucester, perched on scenic Cape Ann, the economy has always depended on a strong fishing industry. But in recent years, such jobs have all but disappeared overseas, and with them much of the community’s wherewithal. “Families are broken,” says school superintendent Christopher Farmer. “Many of our young people are growing up directionless.”

The girls who made the pregnancy pact—some of whom, according to Sullivan, reacted to the news that they were expecting with high fives and plans for baby showers—declined to be interviewed. So did their parents. But Amanda Ireland, who graduated from Gloucester High on June 8, thinks she knows why these girls wanted to get pregnant. Ireland, 18, gave birth her freshman year and says some of her now pregnant schoolmates regularly approached her in the hall, remarking how lucky she was to have a baby. “They’re so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally,” Ireland says. “I try to explain it’s hard to feel loved when an infant is screaming to be fed at 3 a.m.

The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers. Sex-ed classes end freshman year at Gloucester, where teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC. “We’re proud to help the mothers stay in school,” says Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, which runs the day-care center. [bold mine, italics in original]

Blogger friend James Bostwick, whose site does not seem to be online anymore, proffered a hypothesis about the female mind that he called Girls Gone Wild Syndrome — named after the curious phenomenon in which shy girls, self-conscious about flashing so much an innocuous body part as a flabby ankle or a toe with some of the nail polish missing, would suddenly have no reservations at all about ripping the sweater up and flashing the pink puppies once it became The Thing To Do. Simply put, GGWS is good old-fashioned peer pressure, but it’s also the observation that our females are more hooked into it, on average, than the fellas. Boys and girls are both stupid enough to “jump off the bridge if your friends all do it too,” but the boys are a little bit dim on this. They’ll come to the conclusion their social status will suffer if they don’t go along with the crowd, after it’s been made clear to them. Girls have more energy here. They anticipate. When it comes to hopping on a bandwagon, girls are active, boys are passive.

I think what we’re seeing here is GGWS in its purest form, exercised according to its original design. Once you ignore man-made conventions and taboos and concentrate on nature, you see a girl is most likely to sway to and fro according to The Thing To Do, at almost exactly the same minute in which she is most likely to get pregnant. So that’s my theory — GGWS is a trait boys inherit from the girls; and it’s sexual. It has to do with procreation, and it’s an evolutionary trait.

A tribe is hit with famine or disease or war, the numbers of that tribe dwindle, it needs a device for replenishing its numbers and it needs it to work fast. And so getting pregnant is The Thing To Do. Because let’s face it — one young maiden out of the village feels all frisky & froggy, that isn’t going to do a whole lot of good. It takes ‘er nine months, and she can only bust out one or two new tribe members. You’ve got to have a wave; for that, you’ve got to have some groupthink. You need a pregnancy fad. And so humans, in their most primitive form, are built to accommodate pregnancy fads.

Like Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park: Life will find a way.

This kind of groupthink is going to hit the girls hardest, because we guys don’t need it. We’re already in the mood. We’ll poke whatever is ready to be poked. Whatever stands still long enough.

So if my theory is correct, this is something that needs to be understood about sex education programs. That the programs, with all their tolerances and sensitivities and extra accommodations and extra attention, touched off this pregnancy pact, seems indisputable — here. But for the rest of the districts putting them on, I think it would be good to understand the lessons from Gloucester High. Presuming my theory has something to it, the human genome supplied the gasoline and the sex ed program lit the match.

What if my theory is wrong? Then we’ll have to revert back to what we already know for sure: In a school in which “strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders,” the cheerleader lacking a stroller will have failed to integrate socially, and in so doing will have brought a sense of utter futility to her expensive (incomplete) cheerleader uniform. She’s going to want to have a stroller to go with. If that supposition hasn’t been lifted out of the realm of what’s subject to dispute and question, it certainly should be. So unfounded protestations from the radio PSAs that sex education programs — good ones, poor ones, imaginative ones, lazy by-the-numbers ones — don’t cause upswings in teen pregnancy trends, would remain most unhelpful. They’d be intellectually lazy at best, and socially disastrous and irresponsible at worst.

America’s Most Overrated Product: The Bachelor’s Degree

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Money quote:

Colleges should be held at least as accountable as tire companies are. When some Firestone tires were believed to be defective, government investigations, combined with news-media scrutiny, led to higher tire-safety standards. Yet year after year, colleges and universities turn out millions of defective products: students who drop out or graduate with far too little benefit for the time and money spent. Not only do colleges escape punishment, but they are rewarded with taxpayer-financed student grants and loans, which allow them to raise their tuitions even more.

I understand it’s overly-simplistic to focus on one bad guy, and having not been to college, I realize this is a little bit out of my league.

But I’ve held a lot of jobs in which you’re supposed to have a college degree, without actually having one. And I’ve met a lot of frustrated college graduates who are not enjoying much of a career boost, or are enjoying one far too late in life.

I don’t have to go swimming in poop, to know it isn’t my thing. And I can tell a busted situation when I see one. Something’s busted here.

Out of the Diversity Market?

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Well, this is interesting on a number of levels.

Elite colleges have been undermining their own efforts to diversify by giving much more weight to high SAT scores than they did before, according to an analysis of College Board data presented this morning at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association.

Over the past two or three decades, the share of freshman-class seats that elite colleges award to students with high SAT scores has risen significantly—and risen more quickly than the number of high scores, according to an analysis by Catherine L. Horn, an assistant professor of educational leadership and cultural studies at the University of Houston, and John T. Yun, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

What’s interesting is, to me, the way the whole college-admission thing was explained when I was a kid, I was told this is how it’s supposed to work. You’re smart as a whip but your scores are low on this-test or that-test, nobody’s going to care how smart you are.

And in life I’ve found as you get further away from the actual work that needs to get done, this becomes more and more true. Officials who are in charge of promotions, hiring and admission, being insulated from the actual work that needs to get done, but needing some kind of data on which to base their decisions, will start to rely on one or several arbitrary testing mechanisms.

The researchers say that, by focusing so heavily on high scorers, the elite colleges they examined are ignoring promising minority students with lesser scores, increasing the competition for high-scoring minority students, and potentially “simply ‘pricing’ themselves out of the ‘market’ for a more diverse learning environment.” Especially among the most prestigious of the 30 institutions, it is hard to believe that putting less emphasis on high SAT scores would cause the institutions’ quality to suffer. [emphasis mine]

Well, well, well. Talk about a darker skin color, and suddenly the most entrenched eggheads start to sound exactly like me. All of a sudden…we need to explore ways in which a single score from a single test, even a prestigious and well-known test like the SAT, might not be telling the whole story.

Whatsamatta? Why can’t we just go off the test score and very little, or nothing, else? Isn’t “promising students with lesser scores” an oxymoron? After all, if a student is promising, the onus is on him or her to bring up that test score right?

Once again it looks like I’m in trouble with the prevailing viewpoint. Back when it said skills/promise/aptitude were all synonymous with the value of a test score, that did seem overly simplistic but I could see the logic in it. Then it said no, there might be more to the story than that. There was logic in that too. Nowadays, the answer is all-of-one or all-of-another, but before we figure out which one it is we need to know the skin color under discussion.

And I’m sorry, but I can’t see any logic to that whatsoever.

And isn’t it interesting…if there was an explanation behind the phrase “hard to believe that putting less emphasis on high SAT scores would cause the institutions’ quality to suffer,” the entire article would have been justified. Since there isn’t one, all we have here is a bunch of colleges making decisions based on test scores, which is what they are conventionally supposed to be doing — and an egghead researcher who doesn’t think that’s the way it should be done. And can’t, or won’t, say why.

He and I could be kindred spirits, if the soft bigotry was dropped. Tests, even the Scholastic Aptitude Test, are exercises in following instructions. When you’re talking natural aptitudes, the aptitude of following instructions is oppositional to the aptitude of figuring out what needs doing & doing it. So even without the skin-color bean-counting, we already have a big problem there — leaders of tomorrow are filtered in to the higher educational system based on their abilities to follow instructions, not to actually lead.

Now we’re getting all hip to the idea that the process may be broken and in need of a fix or two…but only within the context of “minority” concerns. And on that subject we’re going to talk about nothing but minority concerns. Aptitudes that may be useful in roles of responsibility, that are beyond the scope of the testing mechanism, are things that I’m injecting into the subject myself in my own comments. The article itself doesn’t make any mention of them.

So the problem here is that we may be going through the motions of embracing excellence when we’re actually embracing mediocrity. We may be…it seems the researchers don’t want to commit on that one way or the other. For example, I can’t possibly be the only one who thinks the statement “‘pricing’ themselves out of the ‘market’ for a more diverse learning environment” is bizarre in the extreme. There, again, the article approaches an explanation of what is meant by this, but doesn’t actually pursue such an explanation. What exactly is a “more diverse learning environment”? Is it an exercise in excellence, or mediocrity?

Three decades after Bakke, with that phrase being tossed around with such a frequency and to such an extent that it has become tired and worn, I’ve never heard anyone in any position of authority say which one it is. Is “diversity” the pursuit of a zenith, or of an average?

And as a general rule, when persons in positions of authority refuse to explain things, bad things are about to happen.

The Widget Boss

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Blogger friend Phil picked up on our rant about what’s happening to Information Technology, and blogger friend Buck went over to participate…sharing this interesting tale. Thereby, of course, releasing it into the public domain.

Which I’m sure he realizes. Oh, well. His tale is too good not to tell.

Early on in my post-USAF IT career I was reassigned to a boss like that, who was also in his first manager-slot (a great UNIX guy, promoted to his level of incompetency). He and I had one of those “introductory” meetings and he gave me the list… and scheduled a follow-on meeting. I was supposed to submit three career goals, in writing, for the next meeting and I did. Stuff like:

1. Spend more time at home,less at work.

2. Take a REAL vacation this year.

3. Get laid more often.

The subsequent discussion was sort of a life-changing event for the guy. He went on to become a competent manager, and I got a great deal of satisfaction from popping the corporate balloon. Win-win.

Faking the Grade

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

This kind of overlaps to the thing we were writing about earlier with Information Technology, where the word “skill” is being re-defined — away from the ability to do things, toward a big fistful of paper statements from third parties that someone was able to do something.

It’s led to the creation of a whole new industry.

Throw a few hundred dollars to the right P.O. Box and you too could have a medical license, engineering degree or credential of choice all without cracking a single book. And many unscrupulous students do.

“[The diploma mill industry] is so large that it’s hard to believe the numbers,” comments Dr. George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign…”We think that U.S.-based diploma mills are selling as many as 200,000 [phony] degrees per year.”

What’s even more alarming than the size of the industry — estimated at more than $1 billion per year — is who’s funding it. Anecdotal data gathered from now-defunct institutions suggests that up to 5 percent of all diploma mill buyers are federal employees, 1 percent are purported medical doctors, and a frightening number are parading as Ph.D.s.

“The number of fake doctorates sold each year is in the range of 50,000 to 60,000,” states John Bear, author of “Bear’s Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning.” “The number of real Ph.D.s is around 40,000. In America right now, more than half of all the Ph.D.s are fake.”

Funny thing about these articles is — they never draw a distinction between the diplomas that are “fake” because they involve out-and-out undeniable fraud, and other diplomas that are “fake” because they come from “diploma mills” that are not quite as prestigious as they might appear to be. The phrase “all without cracking a single book” seems to indicate that everything under discussion under here, falls into the first of those two categories.

But to receive an application that boasts of a diploma or degree taken at XYZ, and to do the necessary research on it, learning only after digging that XYZ was one thing and you expected it to be something else — to call that a “fake degree” is kind of like referring to a sexual encounter as rape the morning after simply because you didn’t like it.

Not that I think any of this is defensible. In my mind it isn’t…not on the supply side…or on the demand side. But it’s simple economics. You say “we are not going to allow you to advance beyond this arbitrary point until you bring to us this arbitrary piece of paper, and as far as what you are supposed to have learned when you produce that paper not even we have a clear understanding of what that is” — to say that, is to produce a black market in manufacturing those pieces of paper. It is a practical guarantee.

You are saying, we don’t care what you really know, we don’t care what you are supposed to have learned. Or if we do care, we aren’t saying what it is, in fact we’re taking great pains to avoid saying what it is. Just bring in the piece of paper. Cover our butts. And so, disqualifying the instances in which an intent to defraud can be proven…what we really have here are examples of efficiency, not deceit. The diploma-mill customers arrived at a dirty game, and they played dirty hands.

And I’m just as inclined to question the qualifications of those who demand those pieces of paper, and are chagrined about the nature of those pieces of paper once they are delivered, as I am to question the qualifications of those who deliver them. Those who so demanded, are saying “when I asked to see such-and-such piece of paper, I had it in mind that he’d be going to classes…very much like the ones I took…even though that isn’t exactly what I said.” In most cases, I’m sure, those-who-supplied are unscrupulous. But also, in most cases, their “crime” is spending $500 instead of $50,000…and fulfilling the letter of the requirement, a requirement on which they were soured & cynical because they thought it a silly requirement from the get-go.

And if I’m to condemn them for that, well, I’m in no position to. I’m really not. I’ve met far too many people who have those pieces of paper, “proper” ones at that, who wouldn’t know their asses from a hole in the ground.

Blame the CIOs

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

There are a lot of ways to look at this:

The real problem behind the skills shortage is that many companies don’t keep IT professionals for the long stretch.

CIOs keep complaining that they can’t find workers with the skills they need. In fact, two recent surveys on top issues among IT executives—one from the Society for Information Management and another by Robert Half Associates—rank finding skilled IT professionals as the No. 1 issue.

Many IT executives gripe that universities are not producing a stream of IT graduates who are prepared to function in the business world. Some worry about the unflattering image of technical professionals as socially awkward. But no one is more to blame for the skills shortage than CIOs, especially those at large companies. The reality is that IT executives are creating the skills shortage they grumble about.

Point one: …about which they grumble. That’s the way you do it, about which they grumble. What’s so hard about that? It’s not awkward at all. “…they grumble about” is just plain wrong. Anybody who’s seen Beavis and Butthead Do America knows, a preposition is not something you ever want to end a sentence with.

Point two is best articulated by blogger friend Virgil:

Funny thing about us americans.

We want everything yesterday and when we’re done with it.

We throw it away.

Appears to me that we have now reached that point with employee’s if I read this article in CIO – Insight correctly…Perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and realize that the problem is in fact us as we are reaping what we are sowing.

My take on this is slightly different. I believe in things like mentoring, friendships, setting up the “two way street” and so forth. To the extent that is voluntary and not a mandate from on-high from some busybody politician telling real businessmen how to run their businesses, sure I can get behind that.

Vast Power of CertificationPoint three is mine: We are very confused — and I think the blame for this does fall somewhat on the CIOs — about what it is we mean when we use the term “skills.” What do we mean by that? The problem is, as I see it, that we’ve just finished undergoing the most insidious and extremist flavoring of thought-replacement possible, and that is the thought-replacement that is achieved by means of word-replacement. Skills, skills, skills…think about it. Your sink is busted and you need a plumber who has skills. What does “skills” mean in that context? It means, plain and simply, someone with the ability to fix your sink.

There it is, no ifs, ands or buts. And yet — that isn’t what CIOs talk about anymore when they use the word “skills.” They mean something very different. This is proven easily: You can be “more skilled” or “less skilled” than another plumber. There are plumbing problems some can fix that others can’t. This is an ancient tradition dating back to Roman times and before — apprentices, journeymen, etc.

We’re getting rid of that ancient tradition. “Skills” is becoming a pass-fail thing. You have it or you don’t.

Blogger friend Buck and I got into another one of our friendly disagreements about this:

…from Business Week:

The controversy over visas for high-skilled workers from abroad looks like it’s about to get even hotter.

The program for what are known as H-1B visas was originally set up to allow companies in the U.S. to import the best and brightest in technology, engineering, and other fields when such workers are in short supply in America. But data just released by the federal government show that offshore outsourcing firms, particularly from India, dominate the list of companies awarded H-1B visas in 2007. Indian outsourcers accounted for nearly 80% of the visa petitions approved last year for the top 10 participants in the program. The new data are sure to fuel criticism of the visa program from detractors such as Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “These numbers should send a red flag to every lawmaker that the H-1B visa program is not working as it was intended,” said Grassley in an e-mail.


Critics such as Grassley and Durbin charge that the outsourcers are abusing the U.S. program. The work visas, they say, are supposed to be used to bolster the U.S. economy. The idea is that companies like Microsoft, Google, or IBM can use them to hire software programmers or computer scientists with rare skills, fostering innovation and improving competitiveness. Instead, critics say, companies such as Infosys and Wipro are undermining the American economy by wiping out jobs.


A clash is likely in the coming months. Durbin and Grassley are pushing for more restrictions in the program, even as tech companies are advocating for a sharp increase in the number of visas handed out each year. The senators want to tighten the program’s criteria, by requiring participating companies to try to hire American workers first and to pledge that visa workers will not displace American workers. U.S. tech companies, meanwhile, want Congress to increase the visa cap from 65,000 a year to at least 115,000.

I agree with Senators Durbin and Grassley… it appears the Indian outsourcers are abusing the program. But I also agree with the corporate IT guys in that we—the US― need more H-1B visas, not less. Finding qualified American IT workers was pretty danged hard in my day, and I can only imagine the situation is worse these days and not better…given the growth in the IT industry. I had a bunch of database administrators (primarily Oracle DBAs) working for me in the last job I held. Out of the five DBAs on my team three were Indian, one was Russian, and only ONE was American. And these are six-figure jobs we’re on about, Gentle Reader. The financial incentives and rewards are substantial in the IT field, particularly for DBAs, so why don’t we have more native-grown talent in these areas? That remains a mystery to me…

And how, exactly, was I supposed to pass that up? I couldn’t move on without turning that rock over…

Durbin, et al, are correct just like you are, but their motives aren’t as pure as yours. They’re just beating up on eevyl korporashuns to keep themselves in good graces with the watermelons (green on outside red on inside).

This word “skills” is very seldom explored meaning-wise. It needs exploration because it’s a Yin-Yang thing, and has two different meanings in the two worlds. In the world of Yang it is demonstration that you have completed coursework, and in the world of Yin it is aptitude. I have skill pumping gas into my car. Now if the time comes where there is certification handed out for pumping gas into a car, and I don’t have it, the inquiry “Does Morgan have skill pumping gas into a car” will elicit a definite yes from half of us and a definite no from the other half.

So in my world, when Bill Gates goes to Congress and says he needs more H1-B’s to address this lack of “skill” he must have a different meaning in mind of what “skills” are than I do. (In fact he does, because his statistics have to do with number of graduates from computer science courses.) That, or else America has gotten really atrophied at the “there’s [a way] to do this and I’m gonna find it by cracky” meme that used to be our defining characteristic, what made the country great and wonderful.

I like my world a lot better and I think Mr. Gates should [too]. It has to do with getting the job DONE. On time, under budget. Not following rules…not showing you have the right letters after your name. PERforming over CONforming. Not to badmouth my accredited, and sometimes overly-accredited, brethren in I.T. since having those kinds of “skills” is not mutually-exclusive from being able to do the job. But it isn’t synonymous either.

And the fact of the matter is, if we all agreed on what the word “skills” meant, and we were all concerned about getting the contraption built on-time, under-budget, so it stays built and does what it’s supposed to do…and if America had the kind of spirit it had in the John Wayne days…this wouldn’t be an issue at all. We’d see what needs to be done, pick the most capable from among us, and get ‘er done.

To which Buck, former manager of database administrators, said…

You bring up some good points… but it takes more than just will to “git ‘r’ dun” these days. You can’t just pick up a book and figure out how to optimize a database, or worse: fix one when it goes belly-up. Same thing where sys admin (in general) is concerned. It takes a lot of study or natural talent (similar to that “talent” for languages), coupled with experience, to be effective in tech. But you know this…

Yes I do. And Buck is absolutely right. Right, anyway, about the subject immediately under discussion, which is database administration. And with very few exceptions, I would broaden that floodlight out to shine on anything in Information Technology with the word “administrator” in the job title: E-mail administrator, access administrator, etc.

Your needs here aren’t at all like having a plumber fix your sink; not by a damn sight. You have anything you’ll be using that interfaces with a larger network…a car that needs to be registered…a phone that needs to be plugged in…you really want the work done the way anybody else would do it. Otherwise you embark on this technical-support tumbling-dominoes nightmare — we’ve all been there, haven’t we? “Sorry, Mr. X, I have another call to make and I’m going to have to come back to this…I don’t know who did the previous work on this, but it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before…it’s just weird…”

But then there is the job I held when I was a “Sr. LAN Administrator.” The name of that job was converted when I got a new boss who didn’t have a technical background and couldn’t understand what “Sr. Network Systems Engineer” meant. That job had a very simple definition, both before and after the name change: It was at the top of the ladder of escalation resources for technical problems that could not be resolved by others.

Hence my comments about PERforming versus CONforming. When problems are kicked upstairs to you, it really doesn’t do you or anybody else an awful lot of good for you to do things exactly the same way others have done them. If that worked, after all, the problem would already be solved wouldn’t it?

Yes, it would. So Buck’s comments have a validity to them; the validity extends well over what he has in mind. That validity does not extend to what I have in mind. Information Technology is a big world, in which you need his type of skill as well as mine.

So through this word replacement game, what we’re doing is eradicating, completely, PERforming in favor of CONforming. We’re making entire IT farms scrubbed clean of anybody who does anything outside of the box. And we don’t even have the vocabulary necessary to reverse this if we choose to, because now the word “skills” has been re-defined to infuse all IT farms with more of the same: Bright, golf-shirt-and-goatee wearing “engineers” richly skilled in Step 1 Step 2 Step 3, who, if the previous guy didn’t work that way (or something’s just plain busted) may not understand enough about how things work to fix little bits of it.

They are valuable people. We need them. But they are admins, not engineers.

I think the vision of the CIOs makes sense on some level. The assumption under which they’re operating is that when one of these unorthodox problems comes up that requires this escalation to guys who can think outside of the box and do things differently than the way the next guy might do them…it was probably caused by one of those guys. Speaking as one of those guys, I do have to say I can see the merits of this argument. I have seen this happen many times. Someone didn’t follow rules…someone who has an “admin” job and wants to have an “engineering” job and acted as an “engineer” when he was expected to act like an “admin”…and now we have a mess.

But I still blame the CIOs for that.

I blame them because it’s simplistic thinking, the kind of thinking they’re paid good money to avoid, to say this is the cause of all IT woes. This drive to expunge IT of anybody who colors outside the lines and saturate it with the “step 1 do this step 2 do that” mindset, makes sense only if you presume this is the only type of technical problem we can have. And after twenty years in the biz, I think I can provide my assurances that this is not the case.

I further blame them because it’s an avoidance of responsibility. This thing we talk about now when we use the word “skills” — it isn’t like the olden days when you’d talk about someone’s skills after spending years personally witnessing his use of them — it’s decidedly a third-party definition. You have skills, I point out you have skills, and what I mean is there is some third party esteemed accreditation institution that has put out a piece of paper that says you have the skills. Nobody expects me to know anything about the details, I’m just Player B. And, of course, if we’re talking about another guy who also has these “skills” it is logically impossible to compare the two of you. It’s strictly pass-fail.

You know, in IT and outside of it, we have a need for pass-fail jobs: You’re qualified to do them, or you aren’t. My point is that all jobs are not like that. If you’re going in for brain surgery or heart bypass surgery, you aren’t going to be satisfied with a surgeon who went through a pass/fail and got his piece of paper saying he’s got “skills.” You’ll want to know a bit more than that. You’ll be throwing around the word “skills” with the spirit in which we used to use it. You’ll want to talk to someone who’s worked with your surgeon, preferably for years, with a big ol’ saga of war stories to tell.

And I think people need to understand that with all the services they use, Information Technology is not going through a process of confining that kind of talent to the very top. It’s going through a process of cleaning it out. Everybody in our data center, top to bottom, is here to follow rules, to CONform and not to PERform. If something pops up and nobody can figure it out…well…nobody will figure it out. We’ll end up replacing huge things at great cost instead of smaller things at reduced cost — and don’t even ask what that will do to the delivery schedule involved in the repair, you don’t wanna know. We are making it into a bureaucracy — it only works if everybody follows the rules. Nothing Invented Here.

…here, where we expect things to be invented.

A lot of people don’t see an issue with that. I think I see a big one. Time will tell if I’m right.

Update 3/24/07: Run, don’t walk, over to Phil’s place to see what he has to say about this.

The Vast Power of Certification

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Well, I have personal reasons for stopping to read news like this. We live in an accredited world. You have to have a diploma to get work…at pretty much anything. When your father’s father became a man, people told him the same thing, and they were right to. Get that diploma, son. And so back then, success depended upon sheepskin…nowadays, it likewise does…it just seems logical to assume, every single day in between it was the same way, right?

Well, of course there is that problem with the early eighties, when we got an entire industry going by a bunch of college drop-outs. And the industry actually gave us stuff. That worked. That we use. That defined what a career really was, for millions of people, including me.

Some say I have formed a personal bias from a skewed perspective. They’re right. I’ve learned some things that I just can’t ignore. Back in the olden days, I was a high school graduate…and a “champion.” Not, as in, best of the best of the best — not that by any means. I’m referring to the old-school definition of champion. The Middle English version. You want your side to prevail, you pick a knight, and you declare victory or suffer defeat, based on the victory or defeat of that knight. I was that knight. Employers would dip into their savings accounts to give me paychecks, and to earn those paychecks I would sit down in front of a computer network and make it do what it was supposed to do. I was the “best bet,” college degree or no. And I set out to make sure it was a winning bet.

And so while I do have my personal biases, my real concern is what I’m seeing happening to business. I come from a time when those who made the decision to hire, had a personal stake in seeing things come out right.

Look what we got going on nowadays…

Are highly educated teachers worth the extra pay?
Those with master’s paid more, but studies cast doubt on benefit
06:53 AM CST on Monday, January 15, 2007
By ANDREW D. SMITH / The Dallas Morning News

Dallas-area school districts spend nearly $20 million a year on extra pay for teachers with master’s degrees.

The payments make intuitive sense: Advanced training must help teachers teach better.

But scores of studies show no ties between graduate studies and teacher effectiveness. Even among researchers who see some value in some master’s programs, many urge dramatic reforms and an end to automatic stipends.

“If we pay for credentials, teachers have an incentive to seek and schools have an incentive to provide easy credentials,” said Arthur Levine, a researcher who once headed Columbia University’s Teachers College. “If, on the other hand, we only pay for performance, teachers have an incentive to seek and schools have an incentive to provide excellent training.”

Count James R. Sharp Jr. among the defenders of the programs. The first-grade teacher in the Garland school district says his recent graduate studies at Texas A&M-Commerce in Mesquite improved nearly every aspect of his performance.

“I learned to maintain discipline. I learned to manage time. I learned to communicate better,” he said. “It was a tremendous experience.”

Yet a large body of research casts doubt on the value of master’s programs, of any kind, in the classroom. A roundup published in 2003 by The Economic Journal, a publication of the international Royal Economic Society, unearthed 170 relevant studies. Of those, 15 concluded that master’s programs helped teachers, nine found they hurt them, and 146 found no effect.
“We teach practical matters: curriculum, law, reading, classroom management,” said Madeline Justice, [Texas A&M] interim department head for educational leadership. “Students tell us wonderful things about our program.”

Asked if she knew of any studies that showed systematic benefits of master’s degrees, Dr. Justice said her school was conducting a study of its master’s degree students but that data had yet to be tabulated.

William Sanders, who pioneered many analytical techniques while at the University of Tennessee, has found no clear benefit of master’s degrees from any education school.

“I did one study that compared graduates from 40 different schools of education, everything from tiny no-names to national powerhouses,” Dr. Sanders said. “Each school produced great teachers, mediocre teachers and lousy teachers in roughly the same degree.”

Look, I’m not going to sit here and type in something to the effect that a Master’s Degree doesn’t mean anything. It seems like a given that someone who has one, has achieved something that has not been achieved by someone who does not have one.

But at the same time, it’s pretty easy to see how the Dallas-area school districts got here. The requirement for a formal education, is a requirement that tends toward absolutism. In other words, you insist this position over here be filled by someone with a degree, you have to insist that position over there also be filled by someone with equal credentialing. And then you insist on the same thing for that other thing over there too. Before you know it, everyone has to have the same degree.

And position after position after position is filled this way, with no one ever called on the carpet to account for how this helps to accomplish the job at hand. Yeah, the certified people are going to be performing at-or-above the level of the non-certified people…more or less. But from working with highly educated people, I’ve noticed something over the years: A problem one of them can’t solve, tends to be a problem many of them can’t solve. Their backgrounds tend to overlap to the extent that it becomes an occasion when someone “brings something to the table” that hasn’t already been offered by someone else.

Kind of like giving your children a narrow gene selection by marrying your sister.

But of course when the higher-education folk can do everything asked of them in their positions, that is fulfilled by someone without the same credentials, is that so wrong? I suppose maybe not. The article makes mention of some $20 million allocated for teachers with Master’s Degrees. I guess whoever’s paying that $20 million would be in the best position to answer that question.

But I think that explains my concerns. There is cost; there is lack of diversity. Real diversity, as in, diversity of backgrounds and diverse personal capacities to competently confront challenges that come with the position. Thing I Know #40 is “We are a tribal species, although we’re loathe to admit it, and when people extoll the virtues of “diversity” they tend to talk about skin color and nothing else.” Obviously, I’m talking about something else, and this goes unsatisfied when a department is packed full of people with degrees, when their positions don’t actually demand them.

And finally, there is the marriage between those who make the decision to hire, and those with a stake in having the requirements of the position filled well. Performance goals being met or exceeded. The unthinking insistence on degrees that may or may not be related to the demands of the position, tends to drive a wedge between those two parties.

For example, in hiring a zookeeper, most people would be unable to articulate just how a candidate’s application could be bolstered by a degree in…let us say…astronomy. But, hey. It’s kind of technical to deliberate that issue, isn’t it? We can’t burden our human resources guy with the chore of figuring out if astronomy has something to do with hosing shit off the floor of a bear cage. Maybe there’s some overlap. Maybe there isn’t — but we know it takes something to get an astronomy degree.

So once the job offer goes out to the guy with the astronomy degree, can the human resources guy who made the decision, really bet that he’ll make a good zookeeper? That’s the question. And the answer is…well, nobody knows. You see, the human resources guy isn’t betting that. What he’s betting, is that if the candidate turns out to be a lousy zookeeper, he will not be blamed. It won’t be his fault. See, he hired someone with a degree.

That’s a ludicrous example, since of course zookeeping is a far cry from astronomy. But it’s not that distant from…botany. Or climatology. Shift the degree to those, and it becomes more realistic. And the ramifications remain the same. The human resources guy, is effectively outsourcing the vital decision-making that he’s earning good money to do. He’s leaving it up to an outside source, in the form of the degree-criterion. It’s human nature to do this. You have to make decisions day-to-day, you find ways to take the decision-making out of it.

That isn’t to say I think higher education is meaningless. But I think it’s fair to say that sometimes, we get a little too caught up in confusing “certification” with “having accomplished something related to the job at hand.” So I’m not surprised that some studies have gone out looking for payoff from hiring teachers with Master’s degrees, and have come up a bit empty.

After all, you probably don’t have too many people ready, willing or able to say, “THIS is how a teacher with a Master’s degree is going to do a better job than a teacher who doesn’t have one.” Yeah, you’ve got James R. Sharp. And I’ll wager everyone in his position, is going to say the same thing. He’s simply saying he had an experience that makes him better at his job. Hell, I’ve had lots of experiences that made me better at every job I’ve ever held. That’s what experiences do…formal ed, or other.

That doesn’t mean a prospective employer is going to come out ahead, by insisting every candidate have the same experiences. If they were to do such a thing, an honest study would come to the conclusion that employer had effectively been wasting money. And it looks like that’s what has happened here.

But there’s more…

“America has 3.2 million teachers who together make up the nation’s most powerful political lobby, and more than half of them hold master’s degrees. They’ll fight for that money,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based nonprofit that funds and reviews education research. [emphasis mine]

Ah…there ya go. Read back up at TIK #40. We are a — what? Tribal species, although we are loathe to admit it. It’s demonstrated that a big chunk of this “money for people with degrees” thing, is nothing more than “I want everyone to be exactly like me, and if they aren’t I just want them to go away.”

Again, it’s just how we work. Human nature.

Back to Sixth Grade

Thursday, December 28th, 2006

This blog, which nobody actually reads anyway, is one of the last places on earth where people are respected for knowing things — specifically, knowing how to do things. All over the civilized world, this respect is in a rapid decline. It is receding faster than my hairline. You doubt me?

Check out the word “qualified.” Listen real close the next time you hear it used. Does it have anything to do with ability…anything at all whatsoever?

No, nobody uses it that way anymore. “Qualified” no longer means you’re experienced doing things equal to, or greater than, the task to be done, and have made a success of yourself as you do that. That’s what it used to mean. Qualified, today, means you have some kind of accreditation. That would be bad enough if said accreditation had to do with demonstrating that you know things, but this has been corrupted too. Today, it has to do with holding the right opinions about things. Yet-unproven opinions. As in…you think boys are better at three-dimensional problems and girls have better social skills, you fail — you think boys and girls are equal in everything they do, you pass. Opinions like those. That’s what it takes to be what we call “qualified” for things now. We’ve become a rather pasteurized, utopian society, in which promotions to higher offices of trust have less and less to do with merit and competence, and more and more to do with ensuring people with good opinions outrank people with bad ones.

For an even more incandescent example, listen a little more closely next time you hear the word “unqualified.” A generation ago this would have meant someone was about to mention inexperience in whoever was unqualified. That’s no longer the case today. Again, it’s got to do with holding unpopular opinions…or failing to present credentials, which would have proven a candidate holds the right opinions.

And every once in a great while we see evidence of this problem, said evidence usually not quite as damaging as it could be, when you think about it. File this one under “cheap warning about where we’re headed.”

Talk about a high-stakes test. The radio audience was live and the question for teachers union president Randi Weingarten involved sixth-grade math: “What’s 1/3rd plus 1/4th?”

Weingarten, however, is a not a sixth-grader or a math teacher. She’s a lawyer and a union boss who once taught high school social studies – and no one told her there was going to be a quiz. “I would actually have to do it on paper,” she said when asked yesterday to complete the math problem on WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show” where she was a guest. Mike Pesca, who was filling in for Lehrer, introduced the show’s education topic by saying American college grads can’t do basic math while high school grads in Canada and middle-schoolers in India have no trouble.

After Weingarten stumbled, another guest quickly produced the correct answer: 7/12ths, leaving Weingarten to explain herself.

“I do it the old-fashioned way,” she said. “You take your paper, your pen, you add it up and get the fractional whatever.” “And you show your work,” Pesca offered. “And you show your work,” Weingarten agreed. “A good teacher will look at it and talk to you about what went right and what went wrong, like they do in Singapore.”

Math expert Alfred Posamentier, dean of the City College school of education, said most Americans can’t add fractions in their heads, leaving Weingarten in good company. “I hate to say it, but I would cut her slack on that one,” he said.

I wouldn’t. You know, just take a look at what’s happening here. It’s a case of one class of people, entirely abdicating their rights and responsibilities, surrendering them to be administered by a different class of people. The assumption in place is that these non-producing, life-and-death-decision bureaucrats know something that “qualifies” them to make these decisions. Everybody knows that isn’t really true; everybody understands it’s really about having the right names in your Palm Pilot. Nobody says that out loud, everyone understands it’s so.

And the President of a teacher’s union can’t do sixth-grade math.

Oh yeah, I understand that’s the way of the world. I understand the dunces are in charge, and we’re instructed to believe they’re oh so much smarter than everybody else when they’re really not — unless the name of the guy on top is George W. Bush, anyway. I know things have worked this way for a long time, and anyone who expects anything different, is simply showing their naivete. I get that. What I don’t understand is this:

Things are this way, because we put up with it. Why do we put up with it?