pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Shorter Hugo Schwyzer: to make up for exploiting past relationships for personal gain, I won't acknowledge the public facts about the breakdown of my current relationship.

Okay, the exact quote is "I wrote too many pieces about my exes that, while accurate as to fact, needlessly exploited private exchanges for page views. So in the spirit of contrition, I won’t write about the breakdown of my marriage to Eira."

Not writing about the details of his divorce is probably a very good decision, for many reasons. But the fact that he's phrasing it as a sacrifice to atone for past misdeeds, as opposed to a generally good idea, or specifically the very literally least he can do for the woman he fucked over and the children he's failed, makes me think he hasn't learned fuck all.

This isn't the first time he's done this. He described writing his college's anti-student-fucking policy as atonement for all his student fucking. That is not how atonement works.

Criticizing Hugo Schwyzer is delicate at this point, because he's very clearly mentally ill, and I don't pick on people with mental illness But sometimes what you're seeing is not the mental illness, but the deepseated personal flaws that a more able person would be able to keep hidden. And those are fair game
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Some anecdotes I think illustrate a common thread:

  • Megan McArdle has a blog post up about how many women in Harvard Business School in particular and prestigious, demanding jobs in general drop out of the work force. The comments go off on a tangent about how high performing men who previously would have married secretaries are now marrying women much closer to their own achievement level, but post marriage logistics win out and the wives' careers are either dropped entirely or they shift into something emotionally rewarding but undemanding.
  • The "generous, discrete" business man who messaged me on okcupid, looking for "smart, beautiful, intelligent" women to "share an evening with" while he was in town for work.
  • That guy I went out with once who talked about how much he enjoyed smart women, how he couldn't imagine dating a dumb woman, but also couldn't imagine dating someone who wasn't at least five years younger than himself. He also believed all women were two drinks away from bisexuality.
  • A former friend who started dating a 19 year old college student when he was 26 and several years into a career, and claimed she was so smart and mature until the break up, at which point she started "acting her age." AKA she was smart and doing what he told her, and then she stopped.
  • Hugo Schwyzer (noted student-fucking professor), who claims he was never tempted to increase the grade of a student he was fucking because “The only students I was interested in were already A students. It’s not just a pretty face. It’s also intellectual ability.”.

That last one is extra on my my mind this week because I'm at my alma matter on a recruiting trip. I took a walk around the bookstore, and what I found myself most nostalgic for was a time in my life when the success criteria were determined by someone else and reachable via an obvious path. I could sign up and someone would stuff knowledge in my brain and I would get a reward for it. Relative to the real world, college required a lot of effort but very little executive function. Now, a good chunk of my job is deciding what my job should be and getting everyone else on board with it, and that's exhausting.

Simultaneously, what I most regret about my time at college is that I stuck to such a very strict path. I chose my first (very demanding) major when I was 12, committed to a second (also very demanding) my first semester, and had no time left over to explore. I avoided fuzzy classes both because I found the uncertainty inherently scary, and because my schedule genuinely didn't allow for anything to go wrong. I wanted a second major because otherwise all my credits from high school would have me graduating from college in two years, and I really wanted four. It never occurred to me I could use those extra two years to just explore a bunch of interesting things that might be interesting, without a clear use case for them. I was living Alfie Kohn's nightmare.

At the same time, that second major is what got me my current career, a career that has given me untold freedom in my adulthood. That's worth something too.

There are any number of reasons a very smart person could be getting less than an A in Hugo Schwyzer's class. Maybe she has to work to put herself through school or take care of family members and it cuts into her homework time. Maybe her dad died the day before an exam and she didn't know she could ask for a delay. Maybe she's brilliant in a different area and took this class deliberately to stretch herself. Maybe she did exemplary work that challenged Schwyzer's views and he lowered her grade subconsciously as punishment. Maybe she had grad school interviews that semester and they severely disrupted her study schedule. My point is that if Schwyzer is only fucking students getting As in his class, he's not selecting for intelligence, he's selecting for skill at following his rules.

That would be problematic to all on its own, and becomes worse when the perpetrator tries to mask it under something socially acceptable like an intelligence fetish. But I find it almost tragic in this case, because I'm pretty sure Schwyzer has done more to help me recognize this pattern than anyone else I've read or talked to. He is the one that explained that the sign of a good partnership isn't an absence of conflict, it's the presence of conflict that leads to growth for both parties- that "iron sharpens iron"- and that looking for less than that is a failure of moral courage. I'm not surprised he failed to live up this, because his writing always sounded like a dry drunk, but I am sad.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
The Lottery (available on Netflix Streaming) is a documentary on Harlem Success Academy, a chain of charter schools in NYC. To state my biases up front: I think charter schools and vouchers are good things. Not because private companies are intrinsically better than the government, but because they are given more opportunities to fail. Failing teachers can be fired, instead of just traded to other schools. Failing principles can be replaced. Failing schools are themselves shut down, at a frequency and speed unheard of for public schools. I believe that over time this will up the quality of charter schools relative to traditional public schools, even if quality for individual schoolsqw is a random walk.

In the specific case of Harlem Success Academy, they seem to be doing good work, in that their students can read and count and students who applied but lost the lottery by and large can't. This is amazing and good for children and I am so glad that HSA exists and is able to rescue some of the children from the wasteland that is poverty stricken public schools.

And yet, when Harlem Success Academy says their goal is for every one of their students to attend college, I cringed. I have spent weeks thinking about this and I think I'm starting to understand why.

First, it's a low bar. There are some shitty schools that will accept absolutely anyone but do nothing for their students, and it's a disservice to children to pretend that these are worth aspiring to.

But assume they restrict themselves to a certain quality bar of college. It's still outsourcing evaluation, and it's evaluating for very specific things. Some of those things are literacy and numeracy, which I'm prepared to acknowledge as blanket good things. But it's also heavily weighted to those who can sit down and shut up. To quote Alex Tabarov: " A big part of the problem is that the United States has paved a single road to knowledge, the road through the classroom. "Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years," we tell the students, "and all will be well." " We tell children it's college or nothing, and those that don't thrive on the college track are left to rot.

On thing Off the Books made abundantly clear is that people in urban ghettos are incredibly creative and entrepreneurial. They're unable to harness that into fully supporting themselves in the manner to which they wish to become accustomed for a variety of reasons, some of which are fixable. What if we taught kids how to scale their hair braiding or unlicensed cab companies into full businesses? * What if we gave them apprenticeships in plumbing and electrical work and the know-how to turn that into a business?

I'm not saying these kids categorically don't deserve to go to college or aren't good enough for it. I'm saying that some of them would be better served by a different goal, just like a lot of white upper class kids. I also see this push for college as symptomatic of a devaluing of critical thinking skills on at least two different levels. And that makes me sad.

Contrast with this TED talk:

In it, Freeman Hrabowski, present of University of Maryland Baltimore County, talks about how he and UMBC worked to decrease the dropout rate of black students in STEM majors, and then applied these same ideas to help other students in other fields. This is a very different problem than working with desperately poor 5 year olds, so I'm not going to pretend you could just plop Hrabowski in and fix everything I dislike about Harlem Success Academy. And he is measuring a lot of his success in # of MD-PHDs produced. And he says a lot of the same things as HSA about working to remove obstacles for students. But he emphasizes how his students succeed on their own terms. He's helping them keep their dreams, not telling them their dreams are shameful and they should adopt these better ones.

*For that matter, what if we fixed tax and licensing laws so this was possible without hiring lawyers? Not the school's issue, but a thing I think would do a lot of good.
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I am about a third of the way through Empire of the Summer Moon (hat tip: squid314), which is a history/sociology/anthropology of the Comanche Indians, from the time of Spanish contact through around 1900. It is very interesting in ways I so far don't have much to add to, but it does highlight just what is wrong with how American schools teach history.

Like everyone else, I learned history as one thing happening after another. You might have sort sort of causal chain (the classic example being Archduke Ferdinand's assassination leading to WW1), but there's no attempt to understand the system. This tendency to teach isolated facts is why I get actively angry in museums: I feel like I've been handed six pieces out of a 1000 piece puzzle and been told to place them correctly. Even if those are the most interesting pieces, six of them won't show me the larger picture, and with so few pieces "placed correctly" isn't even a meaningful concept. Empire is, more like getting a bunch of pieces from a subset of the puzzle: I may not have the whole thing, but I can at least see how this part works.

Which is useful for all kinds of reasons, some of which are that patterns repeat throughout history but you need to study them in depth at least once in order to recognize them again (ask me about my elves v. orcs theory of the transition from hunter/gatherering to agriculture). The way we teach history is pathologically incapable of providing this. For example, my education was good enough to mention economic uncertainty as a reason for 1930s Germany to turn on the Jews. What I didn't learn until I was 26, and only then because a Jewish friend told me, was that right up until that point Jews were extremely well integrated into German society. Some were more integrated than others and of course there were isolated problems, but their overall position was strikingly similar to, just to pick an example, Jews in America in 2010. Which has some pretty fucking important implications for how Jews, and other currently-embraced minority groups, view and interpret the current situation, and what constitutes an isolated incident versus a portent of terrible things to come.

It's not like history is unique in this. Science education seems to focus way more on teaching specific facts than an understanding of science, much less the scientific method. But we have *got* to do better on this.

Because Empire is focused on the Comanche side of things, it leaves open the question of why European settlers were so willing to move into what was essentially Reaver territory. Which is totally fine: no single book can do all things, especially not at the level of detail I want. And I knew enough history to have some guesses ("too many people in Europe"). But it is interesting that when I discussed this with a friend who knew a lot about European history, he was able to paint a picture of exactly why things were so bad, focusing mainly on the 30 years war. Which I immediately compared to Warhammer 40k ("..the grim nightmare of the far future, where there is only war"), a game I have never even played. And you'll notice my reference point for the raping and torturing done by the Comanches was from a short lived science fiction television show*. And my reaction to reading Nothing to Envy (about North Korea) was "that's post-apocalyptic dystopia bad." Speculative fiction has taught me more patterns than all of my history and humanities education combined. Which I guess is better than not getting those patterns anywhere, but I this is maybe exactly what social studies should have been covering?

*To be fair, the Reavers were almost certainly inspired by the Comanche, at least indirectly
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Since leaving tiny ninjas, I've been teaching biology at a school for sick children and their siblings. The school is really there as a support system and to keep their brains busy, which is good, because the biology program is in terrible shape. I didn't get a textbook until this week, and it is terrible. There is no curriculum, and I'm completely unqualified to teach a real biology class. But I am reasonably qualified to show two kids things I find interesting and show them how to follow up on their own interests. It took me four weeks, but I finally got them to ask questions so I could start opening their minds to the wonders of science.

Unfortunately, what they want to know about is the genetics of racial differences.

They're asking innocently. They used the same tone when asking about the biology of zodiac signs, whether their red hair meant they were angrier, and if the doppelgangers from Vampire Diaries could actually exist. But it puts me in a tricky position. There is a lot of horrible psuedoscience used to support racism, and I don't want to lend credence to it. On the other hand, I don't want to teach them that questions with potentially unpleasant answers shouldn't be asked. Some day they may be doing medical research. Back on the first hand, stereotype threat is a real problem and truth is not an ultimately defense when it is involved. Also, I would like to not get in trouble.

What I told them at the time was: most people talking about genetic differences between races are evil and also bad at science (bonus: they're young enough I can shock them by swearing!), there are often substantial differences between small populations, but two distinct Asian populations look as different from each other as they do from a European population. I threw in a bit about how the classic racial categories just are not biologically true, but maybe not enough. For homework I assigned them articles on sickle cell anemia and lactose tolerance, on the theory that malaria and pastoralism are neutral ways to talk about differences in environment applying selective pressure. I dream of ultimately finding one of those racist fact sheets and eviscerating it with them, which would be both anti-racism and pro-science, but we are not there yet.

The problem is that a neutral reporting of the facts is not enough here. There's reasonably good statistical evidence that Ashkenazi Jews are slightly smarter than Europeans from the same geographic areas. There's super interesting speculation as to why*, and I have in fact discussed that speculation is detail with a very socially conscious Jewish friend. But if all I tell the kids is "Jewish people are smarter", I risk reinforcing some really horrible stereotypes. Luckily, the story of the selective pressure is intimately tied up with persecution and bigotry, so it's easy to bring up. If I talk about rice farming selecting for mathematical aptitude or poor hygiene in Europe selecting for a better work ethic, relative to south Asia, I risk reinforcing some really horrible stereotypes. But the things that would counter those stereotypes are outside the scope of a biology class.

It'd probably be much the same if we cover reproduction (not guaranteed- kids are only here for a few months and I'm letting them choose the topics). In a world where kids learn all about enthusiastic consent and masturbation and queer sexuality, I could teach them the biology of reproduction and move on. In the current world, teaching reproduction reinforces the undeserved primacy of straight, cis, PIV sex.** But I don't thing I can assign What You Really, Really Want as part of biology class.

I'm open to suggestions here, on both the meta issue and on specific examples I can explore with them.

*Short version: the risk of spontaneous attacks by Christians rewarded medieval Jews for keeping forms of wealth that were easy to travel with and hard to seize. Farm land was the opposite of this. Gold was pretty good. Intelligence was perfect.

**I have a BA in biology and the only time I ever heard vaginal wetness discussed in college was a psychology class, where they explained that arousal experiments were done primary on men because they were easier to measure.
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I liked but did not love Sherlock Season 1. It had some really funny moments, and I love watching very smart people be mean to stupid people(see also: House), and it was interesting to watch them adapt Victorian stories to the present day. But some of the stories really showed their age, the middle (of three) episodes was interminable, Sherlock had to miss some fairly obvious things to pad out the episode, which killed my suspension of disbelief, and the last (of, again, three) episodes was the sort of stupid, dramatized* and then suddenly negated** bullshit I've come to expect from Steve Moffat. I loved Coupling, but did every season have to end with a break up? Back to Sherlock, it is in general very hard for mysteries to engage me: I get bored if they're easy but resentful if I don't feel they're playing fair, and after watching too many shows avoid having guessable solutions by having the solution make no fucking sense, I assume if I can't figure it out they're not playing fair.

So overall, Sherlock had its moments but I didn't see what the fuss was about.

Then I read Arabella Flynn's posts on Sherlock, where she explained a lot of the subtext about Sherlock's apparent sociopathy being a defensive reaction to always being the smartest one in the room. I am sympathetic to this problem, and eagerly awaited season 2 on Netflix.

It finally showed up, and I have to say, she was right. The subtext on the show is absolutely fascinating, and Sherlock's humanizing arc is a well done statement on something important. The acting is far better than I noticed when watching it in the background. Also, I really want Sherlock's and/or the actor's babies. It reminds me a lot of the second Battlestar Galactica where they took an existing, stupid, skeleton, but used the resources that freed up to create something really interesting around it.

That said, the pacing is absolute crap***, and moments of too-awkward-to-watch are frequent. You're richly rewarded for paying attention and thinking hard about the subtext and metanarrative, but the primary plot is not interesting enough to justify that level of investment.

Steve Moffat, the creator/writer/showrunner is very good at certain things. I laughed my ass off at Coupling. But the more relationship experience I got, the sadder Coupling made me, because I could see that most of the characters' misery was self-inflicted. He wrote the only episode of Dr. Who I really liked (Blink), but when writing the sequel decided that if four of a particular monster was good, ONE MILLION would be even better. And let's give them lots of backstory and technobabble and a great big universe shattering goal. So I think maybe Steve Moffat is capable of great things, but in order to truly shine needs to be paired up with other writers who are capable of different great things.

So bottom line: you could do a lot worse than Sherlock. It's absolutely ideal cardio material. If something exploring the pain and loneliness of being the smartest one in the room appeals to you, it is absolutely worth the slow parts. But it's not without flaws.

*I have a rule for horror movies, which is if people are clearly doing things to up the tension, I stop watching. That doesn't mean the characters have to be brilliant and genre-savy- The Ring did quite well having characters make stupid but believable choices- but it does mean their reaction to a monster can't be to get into bed and pull the covers up to their nose (I'm looking at you, Ju-on). I'm working on a similar rule for dramas, and Sherlock will be Exhibit A for it. Not because it's the worst offender, but because of the shows that do that, it's the one I can bear to watch.

**Even worse is when they build something (say, a cliffhanger ending) up to be huge, and then dismiss it all. That's hurting me for believing you, and I dislike it when people do that.

***The show is 90 minutes when run on the BBC but butchered to fit into some weird time slot on PBS. Netflix definitely had the BBC version for season 1, so I assume it does for season 2 as well. I wonder if the BBC is shooting to prepare for PBS's editing and that's ruining the pacing for both versions?
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So I quit martial arts last week, but this has yet up with my brain calendar, which still thinks Saturdays and Wednesdays are SACRED and anything I want to do must be considered in terms of what classes I would miss. My brain is also perpetually confused by the fact that I'm not trimming my nails to the quick every three days.

Semi-related: if you call a school for sick children and tell them you can tutor high school math and science, they will call you back very quickly.
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There is a lot of debate on sexual assault prevention education tactics. Generally it takes the form of warning women not to do things. The argument for this is that:

  1. Rapists know what they are doing.
  2. They know it is wrong.
  3. Rape is strictly a male-on-female crime.
  4. Therefore, the only people with an incentive to work on the problem are women/victims and their supporters. Potential rapists and their supporters have no incentive to change

I don't think any of those conditions are always true, but I'm willing to grant there's a significant subset of rapists that fulfill conditions 1 through 3. Enough that 4 is a worthy angle to attacking the problem, although not one we should use exclusively. There's also a wide range of how useful the advice is, and how restrictive. "Don't leave a drink unattended at a bar" is a pretty good idea (for both sexes- robbery is a thing), and has minimal impact. "Stay indoors after 7 PM" is effective (-ish), but highly restrictive. There is never, ever a discussion about exactly how risky a given choice is and how that weights against the potential rewards.

The anti- argument focuses on the unfairness of making women feel afraid when they're doing nothing wrong. If points 1-3 are correct, this is irrelevant even if true. I think most of the people on this side are implicitly focusing on the (many, many) cases in which they are not true, but there is also an ideological component that is simply orthogonal to the practicalities. It's easy to dismiss this as a luxury to be tackled later, but I think there are second order effects that may be relevant.

The focus on "what women should do" to prevent the implicit big, scary, obviously ill-intentioned man from raping her subtly shifts rape prevention from a woman's right to a woman's responsibility. The best example of this I can think of is in children. I got what was as far as I know fairly standard little-kid molestation prevention education: "private areas", stranger danger, tell a trusted adult when something makes you feel uncomfortable, etc. If a stranger ever told me there was a box of puppies in the back of his van, I would have been prepared. But that never happened, so the main effects were: 1. I became suspicious and uncomfortable about levels of touch I hadn't before (which, to be clear, were totally non-sexual and appropriate) 2. But couldn't speak up about it, because then I'd be calling a relative a CHILD MOLESTER and that was THE WORST THING EVER. I didn't think much of this until I talked to a friend (as an adult), who had the exact same experience. I haven't run the poll, but the fact that this friend, who had a very different temperament, went to a different kind of school, in a different city, makes me think that there are enough other kids who feel this way that it's worth addressing.

What I think would have been actually helpful is to focus on our right to bodily autonomy without mentioning what we were protecting ourselves from. Actually, look at my phrasing there: protecting. That's a big job to give a six year old. I think the most we can hope for is teaching them to recognize and assert their comfort levels, and to escalate if they feel disregarded. This is not without costs: you have to teach them the difference between the discomfort of molestation and the discomfort of a doctor's visit. But learning to do things you don't like because of the future benefits is a good thing to learn. You have to teach them how to escalate properly, but that too is a useful life skill. If we do this (plus a section on how the puppies in the van are a lie), stranger danger will take care of itself, plus the much greater risk of molestation by people who are known and trusted by the family, plus it's a great foundation for enthusiastic consent when they're ready.

It's sort of like our bioterrorism effort: right now we throw a ton of money at a very unlikely problem with no idea if it will even help, while ignoring things like flu-preparedness. If we threw that money at anti-flu infrastructure instead, we would not only immediately improve our standard of living, but build a robust system that is totally reusable in event of black swan epidemic or attack. Giving kids a robust system of recognizing when something is wrong and giving them the tools to share that without making it a huge thing is the equivalent of well staffed urgent care clinics and a stockpile of tamiflu.

Emphasizing bodily autonomy is not without its costs: you'll have a lot more arguments about whether or not your kid needs to wear her mittens, and you will have to allow yourself to lose the argument about whether he hugs his gross uncle. Many embarrassing things will happen in grocery stores. I can't see how it's not worth it.

How does this translate to adults? Counterintuitively, one of the things we need to do is deemphasize the terribleness of rape to potential victims in favor of of helping people figure out what sex "should" feel like (for them), and the tools to communicate with their partners about how to get there.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates, commenting on Andrew Sullivan's video explaining why he never made an It Gets Better Video:

I think one of the reasons I write as I do about race is because I never really saw myself as a direct "victim" of racism. I thought there were many things that would impede my life--but white people never really ranked among them. I understood--and understand--that racism is a powerful systemic force. I understand red-lining, block-busting, slavery, Jim Crow etc. I don't demean them as forces in American history. But there's a difference between understanding how society views your group and being daily taunted as a faggot or a nigger.

This resonates with me, because as far as I know, I have never been a victim of sexism. No one ever told me "girls can't do that", except my parents teaching me how to respond. I have, on the other hand, heard a lot of anti-sexism. Somehow I was always the representative to the empowerment seminars. One published a book with essays from all the attendees. Mine said "I didn't learn anything here". I crippled my mom with embarrassment when I called a state official at a career panel on referring to men as boys (my dad was super proud of me, especially because I was motivated in part by specific political criticisms he'd made of her months earlier). I can recall several incidents of being told I was a shoe in because they needed women, and none of the reverse. Which doesn't mean sexism doesn't happen to other people or even that it hasn't happened to me in a subtle fashion, but the lack of first hand experience plus the fact that my life is just extraordinarily cushy means it has no resonance for me. In my personal experience, talking about sexism has caused more problems than sexism.

But I have been a pretty severe victim of racism. Or rather, some combination of classism, anti-nerd bias, and sheer cultural differences that got expressed as racism. I was a white, middle class kid moved from a mostly white, middle class private elementary school* to a poverty stricken middle school where I was the only white kid in the class, and I was tortured for it. I think making me poor, or having gone to a public elementary school would have done more to change how I was treated than changing my skin color.** But this is something I figured out years later: it felt like racism, and to this day I'm a lot more passionate about racial, poverty, and educational issues than feminist issues***.

*I feel like I should note this was a school for the children of aging hippies, not an andover prep school.

**As I heard it, the one hispanic student at my elementary school, who came from a very poor family and was on scholarship, went to one of the best public high schools in the city, and got eaten alive, because even if his home life was tough, he was used to be the scariest one at school.

***Reflected more in my charitable giving than my writing because I maintain a healthy skepticism of my ability to educate Ta-Nehisi Coates about poverty and race. ***

****Actually, I did write him once explicitly to give him new information, on a racial issue, and it was well received. But I assume a key part of this was that I was passing on actual scientific data.
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(sorry, I let this one sit in my drafts folder for too long and lost the source links)

A bunch of people are talking about new research purporting to prove that the really impressive New York City magnet schools- stuyvesant, brooklyn tech, bronx science and some equally impressive Boston schools that no one is naming- aren't any better than regular schools. I have a few problems with this interpretation.

What they actually showed is that kids who scored just above the cut off (and thus went to the special schools) did no better on "the state standardized achievement tests, PSAT and SAT participation and scores, and AP scores" than kids just below the cut off (who went to normal schools). A month or two ago another paper came out showing the exact same thing in some other district's gifted program, using the exact same methadology.* It's flawed. There are any number of alternate explanations:

  • Maybe the tests are dead on and the cut off is in exactly the right place. After all, the premise isn't that Stuyvesant is good for everyone, it's that it's good for people who have a lot of gifts already. That's why you have to pass a test to get in. This seems incredibly likely to be a case where marginal benefits really aren't predictive of average benefits.
  • perhaps the tests involved are not sensitive enough to catch differences. If the barely-rejected kids are scoring 90%/1400/4, there isn't a lot of room for the selected kids to do better.
  • perhaps the tests are measuring the wrong things- if you spend a lot of time on a subject not covered here, it won't show up.
  • They only measure participation for PSAT and SAT, not AP exams. If a higher percentage of magnet kids take the test and score equally well, I would score it as progress.
  • Maybe the tests are crap and a magnet school is beneficial, but they're not screening properly.
  • The rejected kids probably went on to be the smartest kids in their own school, which has its own advantages. But do they scale as well as Stuyvesant?

But even if none of this were true, I would still support magnet schools for the following reason: of all the friends I made in college and beyond, the only ones who glowed when they talked about their time at high school went to Stuyvesant. They didn't subconsciously cringe when they admitted liking something nerdy. They didn't have to wait till age 18 to be treated like human beings, and thus didn't have to wait till age 18 to start learning to be human beings. And oh yeah, they didn't spend 4 years being tortured, which is a bad thing in its own right. I want to be careful not to overgeneralize from my small sample, and I should note that I know other people who liked high school (but not as much as the Stuyvesant kids, and both from situations- one large suburban high school, one snooty liberal arts private high school- where I know many other people were miserable), but g-d, that sure seems like something worth supporting even if the academics come out in the wash.

*Nothing provable, but I notice all the bloggers blogging this and not the earlier study, and mentioning the NYC but not Boston schools by name, grew up or live in NYC.
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For me, the coolest story in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was just how virulent her cells had become. A good number of other human cell cultures had either never been truly successful, or had been contaminated and outcompeted by the HeLa cells, driving them to extinction. There were hints of this very early on, but it couldn't be conclusively proven until genetic marker identification became available. When it did, it showed that a lot of research that researchers thought they were doing on specific tissue-type cells (e.g. liver cells) had in fact been done on cervical cancer cells. Oops. If this were true, it would have completely invalidated thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of peoples life work. So they did what any human being would do under the circumstances and denied it was a problem. (Spoiler: it definitely was, and their lifes work was invalid).

The fact that one little mistake could invalidate everything someone had done from age 22 on is a side effect of how specialized scientific research has become. You spend years in general education, then field education, then your tiny tiny subspeciality. Then you spend all your time working on one little problem, probably with one method because learning new methods or new problems just takes too much time.

Contrast this with the scientists in The Enlightenment, which I am an expert on because I read Quicksilver, a fiction book about many of them. Admittedly they wasted a lot of time on ideas that later information revealed to be batshit insane, and they were constantly worried about being scooped by one another, but they had substantially fewer eggs in any one basket. If your calculus proof was scooped by Leibniz, you still had your study of lenses to feel good about. And the guy you beat to lenses can feel good about founding cell biology. It was in many ways a more humane system than our current one, which requires such specialization that you're boxed in by necessity.

I feel like this might be tied in to how insane competition for schooling has been. You have to get into the gifted kindergarten so you can get pre-calc in middle school so you get calc in high school and finish your engineering pre-reqs by sophmore year so you can begin to specialize. It's painful to those involved and I don't even think it's that efficient.


Jun. 25th, 2011 11:00 am
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This is inspired pretty much by Sharon Astyk's blog as a whole, there's no one entry I can point to. To summarize the overall sense I get from it: Community is important to Astyk. She wants to build strong, interconnected communities. The economist in me says "but I am tied to the people who grow my food, even if it's mediated through a supermarket", but I also know that getting my eggs from an urban chicken farming friend from martial arts feels different than buying them. I just can't explain why.

I'm not going to do justice to her position, but in a nutshell: Astyk wants us to move to much more of the eggs-from-friends model, she wants communities that are heavily linked together and mutually supportive, and she wants these communities to be accepting of everyone. I think she's missing some of the costs of this, but that's a topic for another post. I have nothing but admiration for Astryk's attempts to form the world she wants by altering her own life and teaching others how to do the same* even if I don't want to participate in them**.

I was homeschooled for a year, my brother for three, to get us the hell out of middle school. The number one question my parents got about this was "what about socialization?", which is weird, because no one asked about socialization when I was being ostracized and assaulted at my traditional school, or when my friend (at a different school, who I met as an adult) was facing daily rape threats and her teachers were laughing about it. So really, fuck you concern trolls.

But homeschooling socialization is different than going to traditional school, and that should be acknowledged. By and large, you get to choose who you see. There may be some organized activities, and even some long running ones, but it's not the same as school. This changes the dynamics of friendship: you have to learn to take far more initiative than you do at a school. That goes double for if you have a fight: there's no continual proximity to wear away the hurt (or motivate you to forget the hurt). It also gives the kids fewer chances to learn to tolerate people they dislike, or once liked and now don't. On the other hand, that probably makes kids better at deliberately reaching out, and it means they don't spend 13 years being told that they have to put up with bigger kids hitting them (or don't face a rude awakening at age 18 that people only tolerated them out of fear, and now they have no social skills). Overall, homeschoolers are going to learn more about deliberate action and less about putting up with shit.

I think the modern world has brought to adults what homeschooling brings to children. When 95% of the people born in a small town died in the same small town, it was a lot like school: you had no choice about who was there, you saw them constantly, even if you ignored them they still had a huge impact on your life. That produced some valuable friendships that wouldn't otherwise exist, and made people better at tolerating the obnoxious (from their in group). But it also meant that you couldn't get away from assholes the way you can now, and you were sort of screwed if you didn't fit in with your community of birth. I know that the free contact model for adults works vastly better for me, but that doesn't mean it's morally superior.

*I suspect I'd be less thrilled about her political actions, but she doesn't write about them often.

**I do want a milking goat, or at least a friend with a milking goat.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
As a child, I loved writing and reading, but fairly early on I started to hate classes focused on these things. They weren't *objective*, so I could be graded poorly through what felt like no fault on my own^. And even if STEM classes had been as subjective as English, my math homework exposed exactly 0% of my soul. Also, there's a rough correlation between how technically "pure" a class is (with math being 100% pure, and Gender Studies as 0% pure) and how much a professor's stupidity matters, and I was not prepared to deal with professors' stupidity.

My CS/Bio double major hurt more than it looked. Not only did it require a lot of courses, and a lot of very long sequences requiring exquisite timing on my part*, but it made my schedule very rigid. I couldn't take the risk of signing up for a potentially interesting but also potentially stupid class, because I couldn't afford to drop it without replacing it, and the chances of finding something else that interested me, fulfilled my degree requirement, and fit into my schedule were miniscule. So I not only refused to take more than the bare minimum number of required social science and humanities courses, I went through some shenanigans to lower the investment those took**.

Lately (5 years post college) I've been regretting that decision. I can do my own reading in social sciences and humanities, but I lack a wise mentor or informed peer group to discuss it with. I'm eternally grateful for the internet for the blogging community that lets me approximate these things, but it's Not The Same.

But maybe it's Not The Same for the better. I went to a Feminist Science Fiction book club last week. I hadn't enjoyed the book, but it was the kind of non-enjoyment that could be turned around by an interesting discussion revealing things I hadn't thought of. That did not happen. My big thought when I left (early) was "hipsters are real." On the other hand, the friend that went with me, who was a religious studies major, felt like she'd gone home to college. So while I'm extremely happy I was able to introduce a friend to something she loves, I'm now thinking maybe it's just as well I kept to my narrow range of interests. Yes, the straightjacket feeling was unpleasant, but it was the only way to get both majors, and they given me a huge degree of freedom post college. In retrospect, the thing to do would have been to gather data from friends about which professors were actually good and try to take their classes, but it didn't occur to me to choose based on anything but class description at the time (hello, introversion***).

So I was reaching peace with my college course selection when I had a dream that I'd reenrolled at my undergrad institution and was majoring in biochem (a subject that interests me more now than it did then, but is still not an area of focus for me). This inspired me to wander around undergrad institution's course website, and then my local university's website. And man, I just want to go be a professional student forever now.

^Which seems like exactly what Alfie Kohn was taking about in Punished by Rewards

*My last semester, I had to pray German 2.5 and a stupid intro CS courses I hadn't completed because nothing depended on it didn't conflict, because I was screwed if they did.

**College required you to take two classes focused on pre-1900s (@ courses) and two classes focused on non-Western civilizations (# courses). The phrase "it had an @ and a # and it was only three credits at a convenient time" may have been uttered. Also, Acting 101 counted towards the humanities requirement.

***Note that I had friends, had friends who took squishy courses, and had friends who were majoring in squishy things. I just couldn't make the leap to soliciting the information from them that I could process into something useful for me.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I am almost sold on the removal of grades, but not quite. As people evaluating the use of grades based on their own experiences go, I'm not a bad choice. My elementary school was Alfie Kohn's wet dream, I went to a super traditional (and shitty) middle school for 6th and 7th, was homeschooled for 8th, which meant no grades, but a substantial emphasis on passing the state exams. My high school didn't do grades but did have "evaluations" , and I took a bunch of college classes (with traditional grades) during high school.

No grades worked great for elementary school and homeschooled year. I'm innately self-motivated/had really internalized my parents motivations for me, and I learned a lot, with a useful but not excessive amount of stress. My elementary school managed to sort us by ability for math and literature classes without us figuring it out, and that was sheer win. Grades in middle school were neutral to negative: I was crushing my fellow students academically despite not working particularly hard.* My mom briefly tried to enforce making me do three hours of homework a night regardless of how long it took me to do the assigned work, but it didn't stick, and I had my As to argue against any attempt to learn more. The only time I got less than an A was when I got sick and missed a test, which was a regular occurrence because I was getting ill from stress, and boy did those Bs devestate me. Also, my good grades led to substantial threats of physical violence. So grades were pretty fail here.

So I'd be all set to get rid of grades entirely, if I hadn't gone to my high school. It nominally had narrative assessment, but each category was summarized by "exceeds expectations" "meets expectations" "below expectations" and "substantially below expectations", which functioned just like grades, except that teachers could mark you down to "below expectations" because they expected you to discover cold fusion and you merely did all your assignments and got 100%s on tests. Doing narratives for 5 classes of 10-30 kids each was a substantial burden for the teachers. Whatever the potential benefits of narratives are, they're lost when the teachers start copy/pasting between evaluations (sometimes forgetting to change the name) or otherwise writing pro forma evaluations without reflection. For a while I gave the evaluation forms to my college profs who were also giving me formal grades, and that was really interesting information. For example, many teachers/professors can put aside their personal dislike of you and grade you fairly. But give them a blank space to talk about your citizenship skills and they will tear you down. The net effect was that you stopped being graded on your work and started being graded on your worth as a person. I'm pretty sure Kohn would agree this is bad.

The thing is, the criticisms of my social skills were probably merited. Listening to headphones during class was inappropriate, and there were substantial issues in my interactions with other students. But getting graded (I'm sorry, "evaluated") on them at the end of the semester just made me defensive and angry, especially since my poor interactions might have something to do with being in an environment where it was not out of place for a girl I didn't know walked into my homeroom and asked "to see the smart girl", and I recognized it as the same fascination -> resentment -> anger pattern that my hellish middle school experience had followed. By systems thinking, there were things I could have done to improve my situation, but morally, it was Not My Fault and fuck them if they thought they were going to trick me into admitting it was My Fault by listening to their stupid grades. Which is I think a substantial part of what Kohn thinks normal grades are doing to most kids, and yeah, I can see that.

So I'm very, very on board with grades as fail, but it's one of those things where an attempt to implement the solution in a less than perfect environment will inevitably end in something worse. My (small, homogeneous, private, populated with the children of aging hippies) elementary school could pull it off. My (small but being forced by the district to grow too large, heterogeneous, public, populated with kids who were failing out of normal schools) high school could not, and the results were worse than when (really, unbelievably shitty) middle school or traditional colleges just assigned us grades. It's sort of like how I wanted to go to a large college specifically so I could be just a number. I'd had personal attention and I didn't like it.

*Not to downplay my own intelligence, but I think a lot of my advantage here came from having parents who could afford to feed me regularly. Only 10% of students were judged capable of paying the full $1 for lunch.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Punished by Rewards presents some very compelling evidence that rewards don't make us do tasks better, except for extremely simple tasks we already know to do perfectly. For anything other than assembly line work, incentives discourage creativity and exploration and thus often end up leading to worse outcomes. Sort of like that research showing that men get dumber in the presence of pretty women. I'm willing to accept that premise, but I think what the author ignores is that money determines whether a task gets done at all.

He shows a number of studies where people were either paid to do something or told to do something. Universally, the people who weren't paid performed better and were happier. But that's not a fair comparison, because it's not money vs. nothing, it's money vs. cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance is extremely powerful. So that's great, if you're dealing with students who don't have any choice. But even though I like my job a lot, I wouldn't do it if I wasn't paid. Oh, I'd do things, and some of them would be coding things, but why should I help work generate money for work when they're not generating money for me? Money is the signal that I should be working for them rather than, because more people want what work produces* more than they wanted the sock pocket, and way more than they want me being Malcolm Gladwell, however much I might enjoy it. Money isn't everything, of course, and I'll trade some money for better conditions, but if everything paid the same, had the same job security, and had the same working conditions I'd be a scientist. Which would be bad in a global sense, because way more people want the product I work on than want my biology research. Ce la vie. More than that, different people give different levels of value to work. Suppose someone slightly preferred the environment at Google, but was may more valuable to Microsoft. Differential pay is how we make it more enticing to work at Microsoft.

So while I agree with Alfie Kohn that trying to use pay to *incent* better work output, differential pay in response to differential output is still a valuable signal that should not be ignored. One consequence of this may be that people work slightly more to get slightly more money, but the real value comes from the sorting

*All two of you that don't know where I work: I'm paranoid about googlability, but you've heard of it, and it's popular.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
One thing that kept driving me absolutely nuts reading Punished By Rewards was his insistence on tutoring and collaborative projects. Every muscle in my nerd body screams at this. "NOT FAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIR. DON'T LET THE DUMB KIDS DRAG ME DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWN."

But a large portion of that stems from our grading process. If there is no grade, the dumb kids can't drag down it down. An additional portion of my rejection of the idea comes from the fact that the smart kids who mostly help others are going to get tortured by the other students. But again, a lot of that comes from grades. If every kid has the sense that they're learning and that they aren't competing with other kids, they'll be a lot more accepting of help. I still find it problematic if there's a huge differential in abilities, so some kids are doing most of the helping and some the majority of receiving, but in groups of roughly equal-ability kids who each have their own strengths and weaknesses, that seems like a brilliant idea.

It's not like group grading is such a good deal for the left half of the bell curve either. They may get a higher grade, but they're not learning as much, and they know they didn't earn the grade. In a world where they didn't have to care about the grade, they could focus on learning.*

*Obviously there's a few more steps in between those two points, but I am beginning to think that grades as know them are flawed.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Time to talk about one of the things Punished by Rewards gets right: the use of punishment and rewards can mask other problems. To take an obvious but important example, take a kid misbehaving in class. Maybe he's just a twerp, and being punished for bad behavior/rewarded for good (Kohn doesn't see a difference) is the only solution. But maybe he's acting out because recess is too short, or he's anxious about what a bully is going to do to him after school, or because his eyesight is too poor to read the board. In those cases, everyone would be better served by longer recesses/not turning a blind eye to bullying/glasses.

But as I type that, I'm coming up with caveats. What if he's acting out because of a really terrible home life? Or what if that's why the bully is bullying? Fixing the long term problem is a fantastic goal (if you can accomplish it without creepy government melding), but we can't put every child's education on hold while we make their lives perfect. Moreover, at some point they will need to learn how to behave well, and not hurt other people, even when they are suffering themselves.

Okay, so there's a continuum here. But I have no trouble believing that right now we're too far on the "incent them into doing it" side, and spending insufficient time on fixing the ultimate problems. I see it in workplaces too: rather than do the hard work of creating a good working environment, companies try to solve the problem with money. And they might get slightly more.

There's a related issue of "just because you can edit doesn't mean you should"

I think this might represent a more general problem of "rewarding good behavior" versus "creating an environment where good behavior is easy." A prime example of this is money. In theory, money incents good behavior (and good behavior can include things like producing a widget or hospital care). But it is also the raw material with which we produce things (like widgets, and hospital care). Our policy of throwing good money after bad in the worst schools is insane, but so is our policy of rewarding schools that are already doing well with more money while keeping their student population the same size. The invisible hand doesn't actually work by creating incentives to make widgets, it works by driving sub-par widget makers out of business.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Me, to kids: okay green belts, you need to figure out a schedule for who's going to lead warm ups today.
Kids: Usually the instructor leads the first class.
Me: Do you guys think you could do it?
*the two green belts look at each other*
Green belts: can we do it together?

How much cuter could they get?
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
One of Punished By Rewards points is correct but a bit of a straw man- Rewards don't teach anything to anyone, they just change behavior while the reward is in place. Well, yeah. When my dad promised us dinosaur toys if we behaved through all of the grocery shopping, I don't think he thought we were learning a life long lesson about the value of not screaming for every sugary treat in sight. I think he was tired and stressed out and assessed that he didn't have the energy to deal with a meltdown, and the dinosaur toys did that. Compared to giving in to a meltdown, or being strong though the meltdown but yelling at us the rest of the day, bribery was a pretty winning strategy. Kohn's insistence that parents and teachers should, at all times, be willing to put infinite energy into teaching the correct long term strategy, no matter what the short term costs, seem like the kind of nonsense you get from nonparents- or, since he in fact has two kids, the kind of nonsense you get from breadwinner parents who refer to parenting their own children as babysitting.

This is even more ridiculous when you apply it in classrooms. Teachers only have so much time and energy. If you have an assignment where the value comes in two parts- the actual learning, and the learning to learn and be self motivated and all that jazz- any one student will probably benefit more from getting 100% of both of those, even if it slows him down. But the time it takes to teach that one kid to *want* to do the assignment comes at the expense of the traditional learning of the other 29, and it may well work out that everyone is better off if they only get 70% of the self motivation. Or it maybe not. That's an empirical question that I think he should be lauded for raising but questioned for assuming the answer lay all the way on one side.

It does, however, raise questions about merit pay. If you pay for the sort of things that can be created in students via bribes, you'll get more bribing and less instilling a lifelong love of learning. He also brings up evidence that when students are rewarded for teaching other students based on the junior students test scores, the senior student gets a lot angrier and teaching suffers. Those are both valid concerns. On the other hand, paying the same amount whether you actually teach students or spend all day watching film strips does not seem to be working out for us.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Got a new batch of tiny ninjas today, some of whom are ninjaing for the first time. Since the last time I taught, three weeks ago, I've gotten halfway through Punished by Rewards, whose premise is that external rewards, up to and including certain kinds of praise, are counterproductive. It has every sign of being a rewarding book, in that it's well researched, well written, and it goes against large portions of my beliefs. I'm not sold on it completely, but it certainly had some points that were worth considering.

One of the biggest challenges in assisting/teaching is knowing how much correction to give the kids. Up till know, my big concerns were not discouraging them and not disrupting the class.* So most of the time I stuck to things that could be explained in one short sentence: "hands up", "wrong leg", wrong technique, etc. In certain situations I might try something that required a longer explanation and/or modeling, like shortening their stance or correcting the motion of a kick. I also try to state things in the form of question ("where should your hands be?") as often as possible, because I want to respect the distinction between "knowing but having difficulty applying" and "not knowing." I also try to recognize their achievements as often as possible, so that me looking at you intently doesn't become a bad thing.

Punished by Rewards has added new things for me to worry about. For one, over praising children is way easier than I thought. Information is good, but praise as reward can demotivate the same way tossing them an M&M after a good kick could.**

Second, any time I correct them, I'm denying them the chance to notice and correct themselves (or in certain circumstances, a chance for their fellow student to notice and help, teaching them both many valuable interpersonal skills. This sounds like the sort of thing educational researchers who never interacted with actual children would say, but I actually saw it and it's really impressive). One of the things the new kids struggle with is translating the instructor's words and demonstration into motion in their own body. When I go up and give them individual instruction, they missing a chance to practice teaching it to themselves.

On the other hand, learning by observing or even listening is basically impossible until you have a certain core skill set. It's like trying to learn a language entirely by observing an emotionless lecture with no visual aids. Once I've, say, shown a kid the difference between extending her leg and flexing her leg, she'll be much quicker to catch that distinction next time. And it's really frustrating to known you're doing things really wrong but lack the skills to know what. I guess what I'm saying is there's an early version of the Dunning Krueger Hump, which is nearly impossible to overcome without enough instruction to orient yourself, and I'm trying to help the kids over that.

But I've given up on getting them to actually punch things instead of softly swinging their hands, or on shouting on impact, rather than after they finish a technique. They'll get that in their own time.

*And also making sure I was telling them the right thing, but to do that I just avoided correcting the upper belts.

**I am not 100% convinced on the extreme version of this advanced by PbR, but I said this was a thing I was worrying about, not a thing I was definitely doing wrong.


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