“all you have to do is make private schools illegal”: a rant

I just came across this referenced on Twitter (by @karlfisch, in reply to @chadratliff):

“If you wanna fix schools, that’s easy, all you have to do is make private schools illegal” -Warren Buffett. (The attribution of this idea to Buffett, with slightly different phrasing, is confirmed here.)

I try to tie in every post to libraries but now I’m not, because this just bothers me and I want a place to rant.

My experience in public schools ranged from wildly insufficient to hellish. My town was not awash in private schools. There was a quite good one which (disclosure) I attended, and loved, through 6th grade; that was as far as it went. There were a handful of religious schools serving higher grades which were not known for their academics (indeed they were reputed to be academically weaker than my high school; that could have just been my classmates’ bias, but there are objective reasons to believe it). There were no secular private schools above 6th grade (and the private school I attended went out of business not long after).

Buffett’s quote posits, implicitly, a reason for the problems a public school might have: the absence of parents who value education, and their often-bright kids. My public schools were not lacking in these things. I am from a university town, a university with a med school and a law school in a county seat; my school had piles of professors’ and doctors’ and lawyers’ kids, bright children of parents who valued education. I’m one of them. My parents fought for years — years — starting even before I was in the public school system — for me to have the free, appropriate public education that the law, and my IEP, theoretically entitled me to. They and I fought to have our advances (and we did have a few) benefit others, not just me (and they did). My parents stayed involved in the school system after I graduated.

And I still feel that, with the exception of meeting one of my dearest friends, I basically wasted five years of my life.

There are, let’s be clear here, many reasons that a school might be terrible, just as there are many ways that good schools can be good. Lack of advocate parents is one of them. And maybe it’s a bigger deal in wealthier, more heavily urbanized areas than my hometown. (The link above suggests that Buffett may have meant his comments only in the context of urban education, where I think they’re a bit more salient, albeit still calling for my own personal dystopia.) But I’m from a rural state where many places don’t have the population density to support more than a single high school of any stripe, and does that mean that West Virginia is famed nationwide for the excellence of its education? No. No, it does not.

Banning private schools would not be some magic bullet that would lead to all public schools suddenly having all the resources and community support they would need to be magical. Some public schools would gain nothing of the sort. Others might, but that doesn’t solve problems of vision (sorely lacking in my schools) or culture or leadership or curriculum or teacher quality or staff knowledge or staff buy-in. It might drive incremental, useful changes in those things. It might not. It might create an institution that works very well for the median middle- to upper-middle-class kid, and to hell with anyone whom that one size does not fit. It might produce a world where public schools are slower to innovate and adapt, because they exist in a sclerotic top-down bureaucracy and would lack nimbler competitors able to experiment with new models or to present, by their very existence, a critique of the system.

Solutions posit assumptions about the nature of the problem. I do not believe there is only one problem when any school fails, nor, if it were so, that that problem would always and only be the lack of parent advocates who value education, and their children. Were that the case I would not still want to set five years of memories on fire.

facts, memorization, learning: part 2

I am now going to disagree with myself. (Perhaps.)

As an undergrad, when not running off to a neighboring college and devouring their classics curriculum, I wore a math-major hat.

Klein bottle hat! (CC-licensed by Flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/people/mrsbluff/">Kari_Marie</a&gt;)

One of the outstanding features of my college was that most of the tests in my major were timed, open-book, take-home tests. This, I have to say, played to my strengths: I have a deep grasp of many mathematical ideas and a ghastly memory for details. When my classmates got into ferocious discussions about their favorite theorems, the fine details and applications and limitations thereof, I’d sit there twiddling my thumbs and wondering if I belonged in that major, because hell if I can remember details like that. But an open-book test? Awesome. I can look up all the stuff I forget.

My aforementioned Latin students occasionally asked for open-book tests, thinking that would mean the tests would be easy and they wouldn’t have to study. I told them every time how wrong they were. I did give an open-book final to one of my eighth-grade honors classes one year, a group of brilliant and hard-working boys I trusted with that kind of kryptonite; they’re in college now and I suspect they’re still peeved at me.

Because, the thing was, I studied for those. OK, in college, I didn’t really know how to study, but I was clear that there was a study process for this kind of test, and it would be at least as brutal as for a closed-book test. Because, see, the people writing closed-book tests always had bounded expectations of what we test-takers would know. They might be hard tests — I felt like someone had physically beaten me after the second-semester freshman physics final — but I also recognized a lot of it from the homework or textbook (which I had read nonstop for a week; physics and I had already established a brutality-oriented relationship). I was asked to know the whole course, sure, but not (too much) to innovate beyond it.

But math? Math could ask me anything. Math tests expected an encyclopedic knowledge of every relevant theorem, its conditions, its corollaries, its applications…every proof technique we’d touched upon…everything. And it turns out you can’t look up everything on the fly, for a three-hour test, unless you already have a passing familiarity with it. I could look up those details I’m no good at remembering, but I’d better understand — perfectly and fast — how to apply them. For that matter, I’d better know exactly where in the book to look, or be very good friends with the index, and know where everything in my binder was (I indexed that too) because I didn’t have time to flip through it all hunting for the one problem that could save me.

All of which is to say: math, the one subject where I could genuinely look everything up, was also among the hardest for me. The kinds of questions my teachers felt free to pose, in the look-everything-up world, required a broader, deeper, more sophisticated understanding — certainly of the concepts — and even of the universe of available facts (if not the facts themselves) — than any of my other classes.

The world we live in, the real world with the Internet and all its facts at our fingertips and, increasingly, in our pockets, is a world even more unbounded than my math tests. At least there I could get away with knowing nothing more than Dedekind cuts and Cantor diagonalization and a few dozen other things like that; the world might ask me anything. How do you study for an untimed, take-home, open-book test of infinite scope?

You will, to be sure, forget the details. But you may well have to understand…everything.

I don’t have a good title for this post but I bet Google does (?)

A quick thanks to everyone who’s tweeted about the guest posts from a techie patron (part 1, part 2), and welcome to anyone joining us from Twitter! You would make my day if you subscribed (RSS above right) or commented. Today, though, we take a break from the woes of web design and shoes, reach into my teaching background, and talk about learning…

Thank goodness: an article which critiques the notion that learning facts is no longer important because you can just look things up on the internet.

I have a special bias on this question: I am a former Latin teacher, and languages are perhaps the single subject resting most on memorization these days. (In fact, one of my major tasks in Latin I each year was to teach memorization skills to students who had generally not, up to then, had a reason to acquire them.) You can, yes, look up the endings to the five declensions every time you encounter a noun; but if you haven’t — not merely memorized — but internalized them, to the point where you instantly recognize the ending, grasp its potential syntactic roles, and connect those to semantics — you will lose the forest for the trees. You will have no hope of ever reading the sentence, much less its paragraph; it will be a set of disconnected facts of grammar, too many to hold in your head for the purpose of drawing connections.

(Those of you who took, say, at least three, four middle-school years of Latin, or equivalent, will recognize how desperately that final clause wished to be gerundive — but only, of course, if you have fully automatized the concept of “gerundive”. Those of you who have to look it up will probably not understand what I am talking about, even after you look at the definition. Of course, had I not written this parenthesis, you would’ve have known it was there to be looked up at all…)

The notion that we don’t need to learn facts because we can look them up betrays — I think — paradoxically — the belief that education is nothing but the knowledge of unconnected facts. It treats possession of these facts as the beginning, and end, of learning. I think, rather, that the possession of facts is a prequel to synthesis. I have heard the “no point in teaching facts we can look up” crowd go on to say we are thereby liberated to spend our time on higher-level thinking skills, but I have never been clear on how these skills can be taught in the absence of content.

(They are, of course, right that the particular content may be both unimportant and ephemeral toward this end, but the content must, nonetheless, be there. And as long as it is there, why not make it content that can be synthesized with other parts of an education? Why not make it mean something? I was, for instance, always disappointed that the Latin textbook I taught from gave, as Latin reading passages, made-up stories of made-up people, rather than myth or history, which could have been teaching two things for the price of one…)