Archive for November, 2012

Sam Elliott’s Cheatin’-Heart, Gas-Pressure Problem Blues

A few years back, I had occasion to rent a car for a day. My own car needed maintenance, the kind you can’t just do the one-day dropoff/pickup for, and I had a client meeting in downtown Denver that I needed transportation to. So I dutifully called a Major Car Rental Place1 and reserved a midsized sedan for the day. My friendly reservation clerk took my information, asked me if a Toyota Camry would be all right, and I told her that it would. “Great,” she said. “You’re all set.”

The next week, when I showed up to claim my car, there were exactly two cars on the lot. One was a Toyota Yaris, a vehicle that’s barely a car; I was forced to rent one in Phoenix once, and I was stunned to find that it might be the only car left in the world with true rolldown windows. The other was an elephantine pickup truck, the kind you can’t help but hear Sam Elliott’s voice as you climb into. My heart sank, but I went inside anyway to talk to the clerk, hoping that perhaps my Camry was being held in heated storage somewhere.

Nope. They fucked me. It was going to be a choice between the Yaris and the Sam. With snow in the forecast for the day – and some decidedly sketchy-looking tires on the Yaris – I took the Sam, cursing the rental company with each gas-guzzling mile, praying that I wouldn’t be subjected to client guffaws and questions about where my gun rack was2. When I returned, the desk clerk asked me what I would rate my car-rental experience out of ten.

“Four,” I told him. “And that’s only because I was actually provided something with a motor. But you ought to be goddamned ashamed of yourselves. You had a WEEK to get a Camry here, and you didn’t. You also didn’t call me last night to warn me that you hadn’t.”

He paled at that, and replied, “Is there something we can do to change your mind about your rating? I can’t put down a four.”

“Why? No single-digit numbers on your keyboard?” I shot back.

“No, we get in trouble if we don’t record all 10s.”

“But I didn’t have a 10 experience,” I explained. “I just didn’t.”

He went on to offer me all manner of grease to get me to rave about my J.R. Ewing driving experience, and I refused to budge; what was he going to offer me, a free pickup truck rental? So we parted ways, he with his four and impending butthurt, me with my lame car-rental experience, and I got to thinking what a strange exchange it had been; can’t anyone well and truly err anymore? Have we become a society of substanceless ‘tens’ at any cost?

I was reminded of that experience as I read Cheating Upwards recently, the gist of which is that, as a society, we’re installing ever more educationally-onerous standardized tests, which students are ever more inclined to cheat on, wasting everyone’s time involved. (And, from prior readings, I know that the assessors of those standardized tests are also essentially wasting their time). We’ve also lowered standards so that schools can appear to be performing well, balming parental concerns, ensuring that teachers keep their jobs, and giving us an increasingly-delusional sense of our place in the world. In a world where everyone aces their Regent’s examinations – as the, um, protagonist of “Cheating Upwards” did – are we really surprised that some of our students end up behind car-rental counters, begging for perfect customer experience scores?

Moreover, where does all of this jiggery-pokery go? How willing are we, as a society, to accelerate down this highway of bullshit to a state in which every car-rental experience and every Regent’s examination score is perfect – even though everything beneath those veneers is rotten? So Naseem gets into the good school; then what? At some point, exposure is inevitable; this is a cycle without a happy ending, for anyone involved – and, in the long term, for our nation.

We’ve had standardized tests in place, in one form or another, in elementary and secondary education since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 required standardized testing in public schools. And yet we’re still falling further behind with every passing year.  Some of it, I think, is our nation’s insistence that our children get As, regardless of whether those As are connected to any rational form of grading whatsoever. We’re content to take the yearly standardized test findings and set expectations based on where the bulk of our students perform, much like painting red and white target circles around wherever the hell our arrows land. That’s not assessment, and it’s not progress; it’s self-delusion. Worse, we’re wasting the time of everyone involved, and crushing out creativity as we go.

So where do we go from here? Well, for starters, we should probably stop wasting time on tests that aren’t connected to any objective, global reality, and start instituting more PISA-driven testing. But even then – and I’m certainly joining a loud throng in saying so, but I’ll add my voice – we should probably stop wasting  time on testing as it’s currently constituted, period.

I’m not even just talking about elementary and secondary education, either. E recently took both the EXPLORE and the ACT within the span of a month, so I’m fairly steeped in upper-middle school/college prep exams right now, as we worked through a bunch of the ACT prep material together. At one point, I noticed her getting very frustrated with the timed practice test, and after the section was complete, I called proceedings to a brief halt.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“If this is what college is like,” she replied – bless her heart – “I don’t think I want to go.”

So I had to explain that, no, college wasn’t really like this. The math section does resemble a typical timed college exam, only you’re not trying to retrieve four years’ worth of concepts at one time. Not much of the rest has anything to do with day-to-day college, other than the Writing section. Reading does have some applicability in building comprehension skills, and it’s good to build a robust reading rate in life anyway, but I never saw commonplace work anything like the Reading section in terms of time pressure once I got to college (and before you dismiss Reading out of hand…it’s not as easy as you might be thinking.) Science is easily the least valuable of the sections, hurling huge volumes of data at the test-taker and demanding that he or she solve temperature and gas pressure problems in a matter of seconds. It would be great training if you were contemplating becoming an astronaut, but – as we’ve argued elsewhere with estimation – there are precious few situations in professional life that demand complexity, accuracy, and (ridiculous) speed of execution all at the same time.

Do I have a substitute ready for all of this aging, creaky testing infrastructure? I don’t. But I do have the pragmatic Midwestern philosophy of ‘it really doesn’t matter how big or imposing it is – if it’s broken, and it can’t be easily fixed, then back up the truck, ’cause it’s going to the dump.’ And this, my friends, is a situation that is calling for the truck.

Paging Sam Elliott.


1 I won’t name it here, but in pop culture, it had a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds.

2 I know everyone thinks that each Colorado citizen is issued a truck, a gun rack, and a pair of skis at the state line, but we’ve evolved a bit. Call us…semi…politan.

Back to the Future

Dave and I have been having a lot of conversations lately while researching and planning for the next school year. (I know, I know, you’re shouting at me: “Next school year – I’m just trying to get through this semester!“) We’re there with you. But – we’ve learned (sometimes painful) lessons over the last few years about doing things far in advance, since prerequisite testing, application deadlines and school planning conferences all seem to creep up on us as the year flies by.  So – we start early, and then by the time we have to really solidify our plans, we’ve had time to rehash options with the whole family about which direction each child would like to proceed. Then, we secure what we need to head in each direction, and change the course as we go along. We dream about having a DeLorean time machine to go forward in time and see how things turned out.

Trying to help our kids hack their way through this jungle is complicated. There are a multitude of options, and they have to answer some difficult questions along the way. What things are you interested in learning more about? Do you want to exclusively homeschool, continue to go to school part-time, or go to school full-time? What grade(s) do you see yourself in right now? Which subjects would you rather do at home? Do you want to do project-based learning or enroll in a formal online class?

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about the “endgames” of their respective educational experiences – or, really the lack thereof.  I’ve discussed in my previous posts that our only goal is for them to be as happy as they can be. We don’t care if they save the world, or find a cure for cancer, and we are not caught up in the prestige of their education or profession. We’ve lived our lives, and are happy with what we’ve become, so we have no need to live through them. We also think they need to be prepared for a future that might demand the flexibility required to raise their own (possibly) gifted children.

I have come to believe our kids may be the “in-between” generation for education: they will likely still need a degree(s), because right now it’s the path to choose if you’d like to pursue your passion as a profession.  On the other hand, given the seismic shift that is taking place in higher education right now,  it’s entirely possible that many positions won’t require a degree ten years after they’ve gotten one, and then they will be alongside probably very capable people who never had to invest as much in their education.  After all, we’re moving towards a lifelong learning model, rather than one of defined education. Sure, there will still be professions like mine which will require training and licensure; but if someone can perform well on the MCAT, and knock the medicine boards out of the park, do we really care as a consuming public if they have a degree? Or are we more interested in how they perform as a doctor during their training and beyond?

If you’re having a hard time grasping this concept, imagine a scenario in which, about five years after your child finishes college  (at a $100,000 pricetag) employers start widely accepting certificate degrees from MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) sites. The prospective employees who’ve earned those certificates are willing to take a lower salary, because they didn’t just shell out for an expensive degree, and the employers are happy to pay them less as long as they can demonstrate the same level of competence. I’m not saying this will happen, but it’s a definite possibility in our kids’ lifetimes. Let’s say you knew this scenario had an 80% chance of occurring; how might this change your current thinking on what’s important?

I believe the answer is the familiar advice of encouraging your children to do what they love, and preparing them to have more than one career in a lifetime. What they love might involve attending college and graduate school, or it might involve using the money to start a business, and learning the skills in online classes for free.  Currently, we present options to our kids as sort of an anything-you-want buffet, with the caveat that we have the final approval on the plan. And, just like taking our kids to a restaurant, the choices can sometimes seem overwhelming to them. If so, we step in and guide them along, letting them know that if they want cheesecake, they should get some salad, too.

I don’t know what the future holds, and I certainly don’t have the necessary stainless-steel car and flux capacitor to find out. I do have faith that if we follow our passions, and do what we love, we’ll enjoy the adventure.

And in this corner….

My kids argue with each other. A lot. Loudly. ( I’m sure most parents say this.) Siblings, it seems, are meant to argue.  They argue while they do everything: playing outside or inside, bike riding, swimming, playing minecraft, cleaning their rooms, doing dishes, watching a movie. You name the activity, they argue during it.

Eventually, the noise of the arguments reaches the level that either Dave or I has to utter a curt “Hey!” as our way of getting their attention. They have learned that this is their warning signal to keep down the volume. We rarely intervene in arguments, because really, what’s the point. They don’t believe that we know the correct answer to their argument any more than they believe their sibling does. There are times, when we’re possibly getting to pre-hair pulling or scratching, that we have to wield the ipad, armed with Google, to settle a dispute. Even then – since they’ve learned that not everything on the internet is true – they will scrutinize the source before conceding defeat on a point.

Why do I let them argue? Won’t they hate each other when they grow up? My kids’ arguments are not malicious in any way. They truly love each other and express affection towards one another, congratulating one another on their accomplishments. Plus, they are not very competitive individuals. A is the only one who still competes in any sport – flag football; H and E prefer to exercise individually at the rec center, and even A dropped swim team so he could swim laps on his own with Dave. We are able to sit down for our dinner at night and discuss the day, laughing, without arguing. So I don’t find it interferes with family time.

So, why do they argue so much? I think they have found someone comfortable to try things out with. They need to attempt to assert themselves, or make a point, all with someone who has to accept them at the end of the day. It helps that they are doing this with someone who can understand the argument, retort back with a counterpoint that makes sense, and continue the argument, volley for volley, with them. I’ve come to think of arguing as mental sparring for them. A way to try it out, try it on, and see how it fits, without getting hurt. If they’re wrong, they haven’t lost anything other than an argument to a sibling, or lost their cool. Easy enough to pick up, dust yourself off, and go again. No permanent damage done.

Why do I  let them argue? Besides just conceding the futile, arguing is actually quite a good adult skill to have.  Being able to effectively and calmly argue a point as an adult has gotten me further in life than most of my education. I’d rather have them try it, time and time again, with their siblings, before they have to perform this task expecting real results. It’s a skill that takes a lot of practice – patiently managing a discussion, steering it towards its conclusion, without losing your cool.

So-Dave and I have learned to tune out the arguments (we call them “discussions”) and get on with our day, until the volume gets to fever pitch. Then we help them bring it down and cool it off, taking it to their corner until they are ready for the next round. Tellingly, they all seem to head back in with a smile.