18 votes

Book Review: The Cult Of Smart

28 comments

  1. [16]
    kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    EDIT: This comment is LONG and covers two different topics. It can certainly be read fully, but for the sake of ease: if you’re interested in reading my comments on charter schools, read the Roman...
    • Exemplary

    EDIT: This comment is LONG and covers two different topics. It can certainly be read fully, but for the sake of ease: if you’re interested in reading my comments on charter schools, read the Roman numerals; if you’re interested in my thoughts on the “Cult of Smart” particularly as it applies to education, read the Arabic numerals.


    This is actually pretty timely, as I finished reading The Cult of Smart a few weeks ago after @skybrian had recommended it a while back.

    I

    I wish I had typed up my thoughts on the book immediately following reading it, while it was fresh in my mind, but I actually avoided talking about it here because I didn't feel that there was a way of doing so without getting myself into the weeds. When I talk about teaching, it's been my experience that people are willing to take the ball and run far in a direction I'm not advocating for, but because I made that initial handoff, it looks like I'm in support of it.

    We see this with Alexander (not sure if I should use this last name or his real one now that it's been identified? I'm going to stick with Alexander for this post) and DeBoer, who both note that the moment you begin to talk about innate differences in people, particularly relative to genes, you have eager eugenicists and scientific racists ready to take that ball from you and attempt to score with it. I actually feel that DeBoer and Alexander do something similar, but on a different axis. I'm tired of complaining about schools only to have people run full force with my complaints into arguments I don't agree with: namely, DeBoer arguing that full socialism is the only effective reform strategy, and Alexander arguing that we need charter schools or none at all.

    I used to spend a lot of time online in the back-and-forths about charter schools. I used to look at studies and data and try to be very analytical and rational about the whole thing, as I initially had a very rosy view of charters, like Alexander still does. I feel that this was largely useless, as it became clear that charters are not a success story in American education, but it's also been my experience the people who believe data-based arguments about charter schools being superior fall back to belief-based ones the moment any data contradicts the narrative that charters are superior, making the seemingly impartial scientific legwork that went into these conversations useless.

    II

    In a recent discussion, @skybrian, we talked past each other about rational thinking versus rationalism, and it became clear that I was conflating the two when I shouldn't. That said, I think this piece is a good example of how, from my perspective, those two intersect and it can be hard to separate them from the outside. Alexander is a thought leader in rationalism and uses very analytical arguments to counter DeBoer's claims, only to take an exit ramp halfway through his piece to full inflammatory language about "child prisons" and unsubstantiated claims that charters are superior.

    This has largely been my experience with arguing about education and queer rights online. People insist I meet their scientific rigor before they'll accept my arguments, only to reject them outright should they not like them anyway, and then follow up with their own equally unsubstantiated arguments, often backed by a passion that matches my own in intensity but with a very different moral alignment. It got to the point that I outright stopped talking about these topics online for years because I felt like I was going in circles with people who were masking their prejudices under a veneer of rationality, when it would have been better if we could have just dropped the act from the beginning and talked honestly about what really mattered to us and why. I have only taken up the mantle in talking about them again now, on Tildes, because everyone here is too polite to be the stick in my spokes.

    I'm not going to re-litigate the charter school debate here, only to say that it has been very heavily debunked even by their own strict and narrow-focused data standards, and, more importantly, the data about charter schools is garbage anyway so we really shouldn't be leaning on that in the first place. I worked in a charter school for a third of my career. I know many peers who have worked in other charter schools. I promise you that I know what I am talking about from an on-the-ground level.

    III

    I know that "believe me" is unsatisfying as an argument, so here are some of my personal stories that have shaped my perspective. I did a site visit for a charter school once, as part of my professional development. They were a local legend with incredible scores, they were part of a larger and well-respected charter chain, and me and some teachers visited in an attempt to see what ideas they were doing that we could incorporate (this is often part of charter schools' mandate, that they disseminate their practices to public schools).

    The day began in the cafeteria, where the entire school was seated. The principal told individual classes to stand up and publicly praised or shamed them based on their aggregate test scores. I was floored watching it, as she told entire classes to stand and then, in front of everyone, excoriated them for their class average on, say, their weekly math test. Not only was this happening in front of everyone from the school (all students and teachers were present), but some parents also stayed after having dropped their kids off to watch and participate.

    Also, they did this every morning. Every single school day started with a public shaming.

    In another charter school I interviewed for, there were lines taped on the floor that students had to walk on. They were not allowed to deviate from the lines, even when traveling in the hallway alone, to go to the bathroom.

    IV

    I find these sorts of practices unconscionable -- the kind of thing that would happen in a "child prison" -- but practices likes these are common in charter schools which not only have less oversight than public schools but also exist in a culture of "nothing matters but scores", so people turn a blind eye to abusive and coercive practices because they believe that the educational benefit the school brings outweighs any negatives.

    Later on in my site visit, in the school that conducted the public shamings, we got to sit down with the principal for a Q&A. I asked a question about students with behavior difficulties -- how did they deal with chronically defiant or delinquent students? Her response was a curt "they wouldn't last very long here -- this is not the school for them", affirming for her school the common criticism that charters slough off the most difficult students to educate as a way of cooking their books.

    This isn't mere implication either -- the charter school I worked at used this exact same strategy of getting difficult students to leave or never enter in the first place. There was also a very heavy emphasis on focusing on "bubble students", which were students whose scores were close enough to the cut point on testing bands that they might be able to move up a tier. If the cut point for a standardized test is, say, 600, you focus on the students who got 590 and 580 the year prior, and not the student who got 480. Even if the 480 learns a lot, they’re unlikely to learn enough to move bands up at 600, which makes the school’s data return on the 480’s growth not “worth” it. I remember being appalled when my curriculum director told me to start teaching my lessons "not to the whole class, but to your bubble kids -- it really only matters if they're the ones getting it".

    In the first public, non-charter school I ever worked in, every year, in the month before the state standardized test, we would get a windfall of students from charter schools. Their sending schools would amp up disciplinary measures and antagonize problematic or low-performing students as a way of forcing kids out. Charter schools usually have non-replacement policies. They don't have to take new students unless they want to. Thus, the students they forced out would show up in my classroom (in a public school, which is required to enroll students) mere weeks before the standardized test. Because they were enrolled in my class at the time of testing, their scores would count for me and be used to evaluate my instruction, rather than the teacher or school with whom they'd spent the previous months and years. It was transparent fraud, and it happened every year, en masse. We literally planned around our enrollment numbers increasing every spring.

    V

    I could go on, but I should stop here and acknowledge that there's another take-the-ball and run moment here where anti-charter people will point to what I'm saying and think I'm against them entirely. I'm not. Charter schools are, well, just schools for the most part, and the problems that charter schools face are, largely, the same problems that other schools face. Just because there are bad practices doesn't invalidate everything that they do. My charter school was valuable to many of the students who came through it, just as my public schools are valuable to many of their students.

    It's not that charters are fundamentally evil, it's that they are positioned as saviors of American education as a misdirection from dealing with education's real issues. In fact, the problems with charters are systemic problems -- when you have people willing to use abusive and coercive methods to cook the books for standardized test scores, the problem lies in what those people are aspiring to do under the priorities of the system that they're in.

    The problem of charters isn't that they exist, it's that their existence causes people to look at things laterally, rather than systemically. By putting schools in competition with one another (public vs. charter), we can ignore reforms that would tangibly benefit all schools. In an ideal educational environment, charter schools and school choice would be unnecessary because people wouldn't feel the need to opt against the default in the first place.

    They're great for generating wheel-spinning writing like I'm doing here, though. Alexander's post wasn't even about charter schools, and here I am going off on that. Part of it feels justified, as he seems like someone who should "know better" than he does on this topic, and part of this ties into what we talked about earlier, in that there is so much bad faith argument about charter schools from a "rational" perspective that focuses narrowly on numbers and data that it misses the things like the public shamings and the lines on the floor and how those feel for the students they affect. I think Alexander may have fallen for some of this.


    1

    Getting back to the topic at hand, I liked parts of The Cult of Smart even though it was kind of a mess, and I liked parts of Alexander's post here even though it's definitely a mess.

    I initially started this comment to say something else and lost sight of that along the way for my charter school detour, so I want to come back to it, because I think it's by far the most important thing in this wider conversation. The main thesis of The Cult of Smart is that one's intelligence or ability should not have moral value. Basically, smarter people are not worth "more" than less intelligent people.

    It's been my experience that people will largely agree with this in the abstract but counteract it completely in practice. I think it actually pairs nicely with our recent discussion about ableist language. In order to talk about this to the people I most want to express these ideas to, I'm actually going to use some ableist language that I don't normally because I want to speak a familiar language on this. I'm doing this not to contribute to its implications but so that I can more clearly highlight the ways in which I believe its underpinning ideas are misguided and damaging.

    Hearing criticism of people for being "stupid" is commonplace -- inescapable, really. The right calls the left stupid; the left calls the right braindead; and back when Trump was pulling focus hourly in the news cycle, indictments of his idiocy were omnipresent.

    It's not just along political lines either -- stupidity is criticized very heavily and nearly constantly -- it's rare that you find someone coming to the defense of someone who's stupid.

    2

    My role as a teacher requires me to support every individual child I have in front of me. Every single one. I don't get to pick and choose. Even if I have different political beliefs; even if the child is difficult to deal with; even if they aren't gifted in a particular subject. I am required by my job (and, I believe, by moral imperative), to care about that individual and attempt to do right by them the best way I can and know how.

    Furthermore, I'm required to view children as unfinished -- still developing. Each child isn't a point, but a vector -- they've got a trajectory and a magnitude. My job is partially about who they are now but also about where they're going, and the seriousness and efficacy of my job is based in the idea that all of that is still highly malleable. I believe that it is my responsibility to help that vector point in the right direction, and I believe that it is my responsibility to help that vector build its strength and increase in magnitude.

    I say all of this because I think this is an abnormal framework for people outside of education. In wider society, we are used to cutting out people we disagree with or don't want to deal with. We don't have to abide difficult or disruptive people. We can largely choose to interface with whom we please. Furthermore, we are used to handling people as they present themselves to us, not as who they could be down the line. I encourage anyone reading this to consider: what would your life be like if you had to abide everyone?

    Most people think that sounds hellish, and for good reason, but let me ask a different question: what would your life be like if you had to see human value and potential in everyone? What would your worldview look like if you saw people not as they are but as the best potential version of themselves, at some point down the line? That's a tall order, believe me, and immediately people go to the worst examples of humanity as a way of negating the task, but please sit with that for a moment in all of its concomitant discomfort. That is part of my discomfort as a teacher, but it's a discomfort I am completely obligated to set aside and, more importantly, do set aside because I believe doing so is valuable and right.

    3

    Now, I want you to imagine that you have a student that is genuinely "stupid". Again, I hate using this term, but for the purposes of this, I'm using it here just so everyone is clear on what I'm saying. Do you see this student, make a judgment on them, and cast the student aside? Do you dismiss them because of their stupidity? Or do you acknowledge where their point is currently and attend to their vector? Just like every other student, there's a magnitude and a direction there, and just like every other student, those too are also malleable. Why wouldn't you do the same for that student as you do for all others, helping push them along the path to be the best you believe they can possibly be? Do you get to cast them aside because they're stupid? If so, why is that okay?

    As part of my job as a teacher, I work with a lot of students with disabilities. America has what's called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which has a mandate for a free and appropriate public education for all students with disabilities (FAPE). Historically speaking, students with disabilities were treated improperly, often fully separated from their peers, and were subjected to all sorts of awfulness.

    We still have a long way to go, but things are getting a lot better, and the idea that all people deserve an education, including people with disabilties and especially those with more severe disabilities, is still a radical position and one that I am incredibly grateful that my country has pushed for so forcefully. The ideals of American education state that every child is worth educating and that there are NO EXCEPTIONS to this rule. While the implementation of that still leaves plenty to be desired, I believe that the ideal stands on a rock solid moral foundation.

    4

    What I've learned in the 10+ years I've been working in this job is what DeBoer talks about in The Cult of Smart: students have wildly varying innate abilities. People often think about intelligence as a single thing, usually summed up in an IQ score, but it's really a composite of lots of different cognitive functions: memory, processing, reasoning, visual-spatial awareness, etc.

    For example: I had a student a few years ago who was a very gifted math student and scored well on difficult problems, even those involving complex reasoning. This would make him appear to be quite "intelligent" by conventional definitions, but if you were to talk to him, however, or watch him complete a task, you would think he was "stupid" in the traditional sense on account of his processing speed. He took a LONG time to answer things. If you asked him a question, you could watch him visibly take in your words, consider them, formulate his response, and then articulate it -- a process that often took anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute. Most students can do this nearly instantaneously, or in mere seconds for things requiring a bit more thinking, but even the most basic questions would take him an amount of time that feels excruciating by normal conversational and instructional standards.

    At the time I had this student, my supervisor once did an observation where I worked with him in a one-on-one capacity. In our debrief afterwards, she started crying when she talked about how I worked with him because she found it so meaningful. She said something along the lines of "I don't know if you know that you do this, but you never once pressured him to go quicker or hurried him for an answer. One time, the wait got so long I started timing it, and even then it was a full 45 seconds of silence before he said anything. During that time you simply sat, polite and affirming, full attention on him, waiting for him to answer and knowing that he would."

    This sounds self-congratulatory, but my intention is not to pat myself on the back but to highlight that I work very hard to make sure that I treat a child like that with the same dignity and care that I do other students, and it would be wrong of me to override his innate ability by demanding he complete a task quicker, in a manner he's completely unsuited for. His slow processing is not his fault, and I do not get to cast him aside because of that. To do so would be wrong; immoral; a forsaking of the ideals that I hold closely as an educator.

    5

    The problem with this story is that it plays into the bad disability narrative that there's exceptional ability hiding inside each person with disabilities and we just have to learn to see that. This is wrong, because even if the student weren't gifted in math it would still be the right thing to treat that child with dignity and respect for their abilities. The student's giftedness or lack thereof has no relation to their human worth.

    What we need to do is learn to see the exceptional humanity hiding inside each person -- the humanity that a focus on disability often blinds us to.

    My students with disabilities are fully human, full stop. They have feelings, concerns, wants, desires, anxieties, and a desire for self-determination just like the rest of us. They can be charming, funny, polite, dedicated, and they can also be little shits -- just like all of their peers. The truly exceptional thing about disabilities is not the disability itself but how it pulls cultural focus and then becomes a reason to discard the individual's humanity.

    6

    When we criticize people for being stupid, we're usually not criticizing their innate cognitive ability, despite the fact that we're using a word for it. To see this, consider how, if I were working with a student with disabilities, and I said something like "because you're stupid, I'm going to give you more time with this assignment". I would and should be crucified for that, despite the fact that more time on an assignment is a good accommodation for their individual needs! This is because "stupid" carries with it a judgment of worth. In conveying that message I am not merely commenting on the cognitive abilities of the child in a neutral manner, I am assigning a judgment to it.

    This is why people use the word "stupid" -- because they want to convey that judgment. When people rail on Trump for being stupid, they do so because they want that assessment to have some bite to it. They want it to have a sting that "Trump has poor cognitive functioning/fluid reasoning skills" doesn't.

    What I've come to learn is that most people will cling to ableist words like "stupid" because they want to hold on to the judgment portion of the word, and I genuinely understand why -- you want to be able to identify something that you consider damaging or detrimental and you want to assign a negative value to it.

    In working with students with disabilities, I've learned that ability is not and should not be the primary cause for judgment. When someone is criticizing someone for being "stupid", they very well might be criticizing the person's arrogance -- that individual knows better than experts or is overconfident in their actions. They might be criticizing that person's callousness -- that the person is inconsiderate to the effects of their words or actions.

    7

    There are a lot of other things that fall under "stupid" as a criticism, and "stupid" is only one of the words that helps promote ableism. I used to use it and "dumb" and "crazy" and lots of other negative judgment words because I considered them functional and worthwhile.

    Working with people who are, according to popular belief, stupid and/or crazy for example, however, has shown me how the sting of those words hurts them. It's not just that the word "stupid" is hard to hear, it's that it contributes to a society-wide belief that someone who is stupid is worth less and deserving of judgment. That's the real sting -- not someone's response to the word itself but how the omnipresence of the word contributes to a wider worldview and that person's place in it.

    8

    Whenever I talk about this, the part that's always unsatisfying to people is, well, what CAN you say if you can't say "stupid"? This is a good question, but please remember that it's the underlying mindset that matters more than the language. As such, here's my answer:

    When I focus on criticizing individuals (not something I do often, mind you), I try to draw a division between ability and character. It's not a fully clear line, but it's clear enough for most things. I ask myself "am I criticizing this person's ability, or am I criticizing their character?" Character is fair game, in my opinion. Someone can be an incredibly smart, incredibly talented and an outright awful person, and I don't think that their high ability should counterbalance an terribleness of their character. Likewise, someone can be incredibly stupid and untalented, and I don't think that their lack of ability should counterbalance a good character.

    Qualities of character involve things like integrity, honesty, empathy, conduct, dedication, etc. We can still judge these through an ableist lens (e.g. "dedication" might not be seen for what it is in someone who has to spend more energy on everyday tasks), but I think this is a good place to start.

    What I've found is not that I don't say "stupid" because I'm prohibited from doing so; I've found that I don't want to say "stupid" anymore because it's ill-fitting to a given situation and does collateral damage to people I care about. This is the “Cult of Smart” that DeBoer identifies -- that people put a premium on intellectual ability to the real detriment of society. At present, we treat "stupid" people as if they are not a part of or welcome in our society, when this is wrong, because they already are part of our society despite our many inhumane attempts to ostracize and cast them out, and, most importantly, they should be welcome in it.

    What should be criticized and unwelcome are those whose character erodes our society and the dignity and self-worth of others, and those qualities are not gated by intelligence in the slightest.

    29 votes
    1. [4]
      vord
      Link Parent
      I mean, this applies to almost every discussion I've ever had. I have a friend who dismisses any journalism as opinions unless he agrees with it and ignores any blog post because "they're just...

      People insist I meet their scientific rigor before they'll accept my arguments, only to reject them outright should they not like them anyway, and then follow up with their own equally unsubstantiated arguments, often backed by a passion that matches my own in intensity but with a very different moral alignment.

      I mean, this applies to almost every discussion I've ever had. I have a friend who dismisses any journalism as opinions unless he agrees with it and ignores any blog post because "they're just random idiots rambling on the internet." Regardless of how well they are sourced or reasoned. Unless of course, said sources agree with their outlook. In that same vein: Expecting a fully-formed, ready to pass policy born out of a casual suggestion on how to rectify a problem.

      As for charter schools, I also have some experience, as I live in a neighborhood being wreaked by them. It's a poorer public school district (courtesy of zipcode based funding), and poorer-performing schools get funding cut. So people tout charter schools as the answer, which makes the problem worse because now money is further siphoned away from the public school. Because of all the problems you state, the public schools numbers get worse and worse and the charter's get better and better. Even though the charter school would use the town's library as their library and would just bring the kids in, let them loose with 0 supervision, and the teacher would just fuck around on their phone for 2 hours. Charter schools are for-profit leeches on public education that target and exploit poorer school districts. Go two zip codes over and the public schools have 3x the funding per student and charter school visibility is virtually 0.

      But full socialism (of education) has another major draw: Private schools as a whole (including charters) offer an unfair advantage courtesy of being able to source funding from the wealthiest and cull the poor from their ranks. They can afford better teachers and provide more resources, and it plays into the perpetually increasing inequality.

      8 votes
      1. [3]
        skybrian
        Link Parent
        This reminds me of the stories that are “too good to check” because they confirm my biases, so I share them and someone else who has different biases checks into it further and they turn out to be...

        This reminds me of the stories that are “too good to check” because they confirm my biases, so I share them and someone else who has different biases checks into it further and they turn out to be wrong or misleading. I hate it when I share something that’s wrong, so I try to be careful, keeping in mind my tendency to do this. But I still think it’s valuable to have other people with different biases who are checking things that I don’t bother to check. It keeps me honest, and it’s a way of avoiding groupthink.

        That’s the ideal case, though. Checking things is a lot of work, often too much work for casual chat. There’s an alternative to doing homework or giving homework, which is to retreat from broad, universal claims and agree to disagree on them. Instead we can tell specific stories and share our experiences.

        In the case of charter schools, I think it’s a mistake to try to make a general claim about all charters being good or bad in casual conversation, or even good or bad on average. Figuring that out means having access to information about what these schools are like all over the country (if that’s the scope of your claim). Maybe you need statistics, or refer to other people’s statistics? This sounds like doing social science. It seems like a lot of work? Maybe we shouldn’t spend time on that.

        On the other hand, suppose we share stories about what the charter schools are like where we live and what problems they have, without making the broader claim? Nobody reasonable should be disputing that because they don’t live where you live (as far as anyone knows), so how would they know? At most we could ask questions about what you’ve seen. Someone else could say they send their kid to a charter school and it seems pretty good, and that’s not a contradiction, it’s just sharing another experience.

        In theory that could work, and being careful about limiting the scope of claims you make is something many scientists tend to do, but it seems pretty rare. It’s not natural. It seems to be require training, and even scientists slip up, getting overly excited about the implications of their work and overgeneralizing. There are incentives to play up the implications of your study, and if you don’t, some journalist will probably do it for you.

        What counts as overgeneralizing is disputed. It’s the most natural thing in to the world to generalize from your experience. There are plenty of bad examples of getting attention by making universal claims, whether it’s popular books, bloggers, pundits, memes, or hot takes. It seems like a brave thing to do, to be emulated?

        But in discussions with people who think differently from us, it causes a lot of problems.

        I think part of the solution might be to be more forgiving, to let people make unsupported general claims that we disagree with, out of politeness. But it’s hard to let stuff like that go by, and in the worst case it turns into everyone claiming the right to share memes dissing the sacred cows of the others. It doesn’t seem like thoughtful discussion?

        And there is a problem, that this general rule of etiquette (avoid making general claims) is not something we’ve agreed to, let alone something we’re consistent about. Most people don’t think of exaggeration and hyperbole as doing anything wrong, it’s just a way of expressing yourself. Or they think of it as expressing truth, never really questioning it.

        A community that actually did commit to avoiding general claims would have a different culture from most places on the Internet. Much like with Wikipedia, there would need to be something of an onboarding process, adapting to a different way of interacting. So instead it’s an unwritten nonrule.

        10 votes
        1. vord
          Link Parent
          A lot of what you say makes sense, and I've been working at it, because I have noticed avoiding generalizations helps. However, the crux of the problem of charter schools in my mind is the one of...

          A lot of what you say makes sense, and I've been working at it, because I have noticed avoiding generalizations helps.

          However, the crux of the problem of charter schools in my mind is the one of public funding. As far as I've seen, charter schools are just private schools that are permitted to siphon tax dollars from public schools instead of tuition, and thus excacerbates a downward spiral of a public school.

          I've only encountered two types of charter school proponents:

          • People who think the government is incompetent and everything should be left to the private sector.
          • People who want to siphon dollars from secular public schools in favor of theistic ones.

          Neither group has my favor. Perhaps I'll feel differently if/when education funds aren't tied to zip code.

          7 votes
        2. DMBuce
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          A lot of what you're saying here reminds me of some reading I did into indigenous epistemology. After that endeavor I found that I'm a lot more mindful about limiting my statements to my own...

          A lot of what you're saying here reminds me of some reading I did into indigenous epistemology. After that endeavor I found that I'm a lot more mindful about limiting my statements to my own experiences and avoid trying to extract knowledge from them prematurely, especially if they are on a subject I'm not deeply versed in.

          For anyone who's curious, I really like the perspective that Lee Hester shares in this paper: https://webpages.uidaho.edu/~morourke/524-phil/Readings/hester.pdf

          3 votes
    2. [4]
      skybrian
      Link Parent
      Thanks for writing this! I was wondering if I had made a mistake recommending DeBoer's book to you. I agree that it's a bit of a mess. I am in awe of your patience, and I think that this is an...

      Thanks for writing this! I was wondering if I had made a mistake recommending DeBoer's book to you. I agree that it's a bit of a mess.

      I am in awe of your patience, and I think that this is an excellent attitude to have in a teacher.

      I am wondering what we should say about people for whom it's just too much and they want to be left alone to do their own thing? It seems like this is where Scott is coming from, and this ties into strongly supporting the right to try a different school if they hate the one they're in. If your parents are rich enough, this might be a private school, and the impulse towards supporting charter schools seems to be about wanting anyone to have this choice. Not that it's necessarily better, but at least it's a change. Getting away from people and social situations they dislike seems to be a strong desire in some people. This is something many of us can do as adults and they think we should have had as kids. I sympathize to the extent that I find it hard to imagine I would have missed school much during the pandemic, so long as I was allowed to study by reading and doing homework instead of hellish hours of video classes.

      I didn't hate school like Scott apparently did. When I think about it, I remember hating gym class like that. It was every other day. Days were better or worse mostly based on whether I had gym that day or not. Maybe it made other classes seem good by comparison? I did, however, withdraw into reading, and since I did so well academically, my teachers let me. I carried books around and used them the way everyone uses phones nowadays, as a way to kill time.

      Although we all looked forward to summer vacation and cheered when there was a snow day, I don't remember blaming school in particular for being boring or a waste of time because so many other things seemed pretty boring and a slog to get through as well, whether it was the chores my father would give us, or when Mom would take us shopping, or sitting in church. And left to my own devices, I wouldn't necessarily have a better use of my time. I remember coming home to read USA Today and then lie on the couch and watch reruns on TV until dinner. Another way to escape.

      And I expected more of the same. On the one hand, I expected to go to college and have a pretty bright (if vague) future, but on the other hand, I expected to go to work after that, and if work were fun it wouldn't be work, my father would say.

      I don't think this passivity and acceptance of my general situation did me any favors later, but on the other hand, it seems a whole lot more livable than feeling trapped and unable to make the big changes you feel you need and deserve.

      (It also seems pretty self-centered either way, and entirely inadequate to living up to the ideals you hold sacred, of giving every person the educational attention and respect they deserve.)

      7 votes
      1. [3]
        kfwyre
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        Good question. I actually am in agreement with a lot of Scott's sentiments about schools, and I think they look very different now from when I was a kid, and I'm not even very old! I wouldn't go...

        Good question. I actually am in agreement with a lot of Scott's sentiments about schools, and I think they look very different now from when I was a kid, and I'm not even very old! I wouldn't go so far to call them "child prisons" but I understand where that sentiment comes from (which is why I wish he would be honest and upfront about those feelings -- there's a lot worth exploring there!). I am someone that loved school when I was younger, but I often think about how, if I were a child now, I would hate it. So much has changed in American education, and so quickly -- I'm not even that old!

        When we think about education, there's a really tough balancing act between doing what's good for kids even if it's uncomfortable for them, versus creating unnecessary discomfort that does more damage than good. This is a tough line to walk, and it's different for every kid. If we leaned in to student preference entirely, my classroom wouldn't be a classroom but would be a warehouse for kids to play Among Us and watch TikTok videos daily. They would be getting what they wanted, but this would have significant negative long-term effects, as they would be ill-prepared for adulthood and participation in society.

        Creating some discomfort by forcing students to engage with academic tasks builds valuable skills, including many soft skills (e.g. resilience, organization, etc.), even when those are boring, unnecessary, or difficult. Group projects, for example, are a common bugbear (and I know I personally HATED them), but part of the reason they exist is because it forces students to practice skills in the areas of communication, negotiation, leadership, etc. Even a failed group project (as many are) still has instructive value, because many students learn what NOT to do from a bad group experience and know better how to handle things next time. Education, in many ways, is a form of "eating your vegetables" -- something kids are often averse to even though it's good for them. This is made all the more difficult by the inundation of metaphorical "sugary snacks" (e.g. video games, social media) that want to pull students' focus constantly and also tries to hook them on immediate and repeated gratification. A teacher I worked with once described her class as being "a 50 minute interruption for Instagram". The kids were simply clockwatching -- waiting until the passing period when they could check their phones again.

        This is why DeBoer's belief that students should be able to drop out at 12 is very irresponsible to me. I believe that is far too young for a student to make that decision, and I believe allowing something like that concedes a lot of ground to outright predatory forces that don't have kids' best interest in mind in the slightest.

        I say all of this to temper some of the "school sucks" sentiment out there, because it sort of by design has to fundamentally suck in certain ways, and we can't nor shouldn't iron all of those out. That said, I do think there is a very solid argument to be made for "school sucks more than it should" right now, especially in America. This is a much larger conversation, but it's also where I think things like greater variety in schools and curricula would be beneficial. The current setup has a set curriculum it believes is foundational for everyone, but I think it's distressingly narrow and has its priorities all out of whack. I would love to see things like more domain-specific schools (e.g. a STEM high school, a performing arts high school, etc.), as well as a return of things like vocational and trade schools.

        Right now everyone is thrust into a college-prep pipeline that believes that foundational mathematics for life includes Algebra II but excludes personal finance. It's absurd on its face and even moreso in practice. The number one complaint of students is that school is boring, and while sometimes it's boring by design and that complaint shouldn't be heeded, most of the time when they are saying this, they are articulating that they are studying something that is not interesting to them. What if we designed schools with student interest in mind? What if we allowed for a lot more academic freedom and exploration? What if we incorporated far more student choice, so that students can start to determine a desired academic trajectory prior to college?

        This is all incredibly hard to effect, and would require a pretty fundamental shift in how we think about education. Standardization in America has been treated as an equity issue: we need to ensure that all students have baseline foundational knowledge. This is a genuinely noble idea and sits on a history of gross misconduct aimed at denying certain populations proper education, but unfortunately it's an ideal that been poisoned by a profit motive. Standardization is what has allowed testing to consume American education. It's hard for people to understand this from the outside, but standardized testing (run by a for-profit industry), has outright devoured my job and directly contributes to many of the complaints students have. It creates a rigid inflexibility for education, and it also creates failure by design. Standardized testing is a way of "objectively" (and perpetually) casting education as failing so that they can create the need for further testing, in addition to selling "solutions" to the problem.

        When students hate school, I don't blame them, because I hate a lot of it too. In my role I am told I need to prioritize things I don't believe in so that I can teach curriculum I don't believe in to support standards I don't believe in all for outcomes I don't believe in. That is not ideal for me, but it's definitely not ideal for my students. I do my best to work around that immovable boulder in my way, but it would be a lot easier if I didn't have to. Plus, the longer I do this, the more tired I am of dealing with the boulder, and the more I see that no matter what I do, the boulder is going to win in the long run.

        So, ultimately, I'm very sympathetic to people like Alexander who had terrible school experiences. I think that's sadly very common today, and I wish I had the ability to do something about it, but much of what makes school terrible isn't in my control. When a complaint is localized, it generally has an individual cause, but when it's nearly universal, it generally has a systemic cause. "School sucks" is a nearly universal complaint today, from students and teachers alike, and it's why I think we have to consider systemic causes.

        11 votes
        1. [2]
          skybrian
          Link Parent
          I wonder if it would be possible to get charter schools (or any schools, really) that are less devoted to test scores? It seems like if everyone is obsessed about test scores on the same tests,...

          I wonder if it would be possible to get charter schools (or any schools, really) that are less devoted to test scores?

          It seems like if everyone is obsessed about test scores on the same tests, that's going to result in similar pathologies for kids who struggle with the test material wherever they go. (Not to mention schools trying to get rid of them.) Maybe it's just the kids who are obviously going to do well on the tests that get some relief if they don't have to sit through test preparation sessions?

          "We don't care about test scores" doesn't seem like a winning advertising campaign.

          3 votes
          1. kfwyre
            Link Parent
            Unfortunately, the "deal" for most charters is reduced oversight and greater autonomy in exchange for higher test scores. There are some that are able to do more novel things, but by and large...

            Unfortunately, the "deal" for most charters is reduced oversight and greater autonomy in exchange for higher test scores. There are some that are able to do more novel things, but by and large most of them are under the same thumb public schools are -- if not moreso.

            6 votes
    3. [3]
      eladnarra
      Link Parent
      It was a nice surprise to see the Spoon Theory out in the wild (not in a community focused on chronic illness/disability). There's a fair amount of discussion in those communities about...

      It was a nice surprise to see the Spoon Theory out in the wild (not in a community focused on chronic illness/disability). There's a fair amount of discussion in those communities about productivity and "laziness" and how those concepts are used to harm people who can't meet society's current standards. "Hard work" is often given a moral value in the same way that "intelligence" is.

      Your feelings on "stupid" mirror mine — in the ableist language thread I was trying to explain how its use affects disabled people. But I think you explained it better here:

      At present, we treat "stupid" people as if they are not a part of or welcome in our society, when this is wrong, because they already are part of our society despite our many inhumane attempts to ostracize and cast them out, and, most importantly, they should be welcome in it.

      6 votes
      1. [2]
        kfwyre
        Link Parent
        The Spoon Theory was a very helpful framework for me, so I hope it helps others find similar understanding. As a teacher I've learned a lot about calibrating my expectations to be fair to the...

        The Spoon Theory was a very helpful framework for me, so I hope it helps others find similar understanding. As a teacher I've learned a lot about calibrating my expectations to be fair to the student and their needs and abilities rather than arbitrary and often unfair external demands (of which there are many in education).

        Also, thank you for the kind words, and thank you in particular for sharing your own experiences and perspectives regarding disability here on Tildes. I've privately cheered you on and found wisdom and insight in your words multiple times in multiple different topics, but I don't think that I've ever personally reached out to you to let you know how valuable I find your posts. Thank you for your advocacy.

        5 votes
        1. eladnarra
          Link Parent
          Thank you - I've been trying to figure out how to say it, but that means so much to me to know at least one person has gained something from my ramblings about disability. :)

          Thank you - I've been trying to figure out how to say it, but that means so much to me to know at least one person has gained something from my ramblings about disability. :)

          1 vote
    4. [4]
      streblo
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      Thanks for sharing your insight. Can you shed some light on charter schools in the context of the American school system? As a non-American reading the Wikipedia page I was not altogether clear on...

      Thanks for sharing your insight. Can you shed some light on charter schools in the context of the American school system? As a non-American reading the Wikipedia page I was not altogether clear on the design goals of such schools. Presumably they serve groups wanting to create specialized curriculum e.g. religious schools or vocational schools like outdoor or technology-based education? Without knowing the specifics that seems like a large sacrifice the public is making in terms of being able to set a common curriculum.

      My wife is a teacher at an outdoor education school in Canada but it is still a public school that is required to meet the provincial curriculum requirements. In my opinion this has been a great thing because it becomes the educators responsibility to balance achieving their school design goals while meeting the same curriculum goals as the 'regular' public schools. As some of the founders at this school are what one could consider to be activists in the area of outdoor education this matters a lot in ensuring things like mathematics get enough focus.

      6 votes
      1. [3]
        kfwyre
        Link Parent
        No worries, charter schools are quite opaque. I worked at one and even I'm not fully versed in everything! Part of the problem is there isn't one set "thing" for what a charter school is. Not only...

        No worries, charter schools are quite opaque. I worked at one and even I'm not fully versed in everything!

        Part of the problem is there isn't one set "thing" for what a charter school is. Not only do they vary from school to school, but different states often have very different regulations. A charter school in California might look very different from one in New York, for example, despite the fact that they both share the "charter" designation. Plus, with that said, a charter school on one street of New York might look different from another one street over. There's a lot of variance even within states.

        The easy way to think about them is replacing the word "charter" with "contract". The school is formed when a contract is made regarding the school's operation, and that contract usually involves less oversight, less regulation, less funding, and greater autonomy. Part of the variation in charter schools comes from the fact that different charters can specify very different things, and that's what the school becomes beholden to.

        The foundational idea of having this option in the first place that greater control and less red tape will lead to better educational outcomes. They are also often touted as ways of trying out different educational strategies -- sort of innovation incubators for education. When charter schools are at their best, this is what they do -- offer a rich and valuable educational alternative. There are some that do this. There are many that do not.

        Proponents of charter schools tend to value the idea of "school choice" which allows students and families to self-select an educational experience that is most valuable to them. Proponents of public schools tend to value the idea of raising the floor on public education universally, so that no matter what school a student attends, it is valuable to them. Proponents of charter schools tend to argue that charter schools introduce incentives for competition and efficiency into a stagnant, cruft-filled educational system. Proponents of public schools tend to argue that education is a developmental and societal good that shouldn't be subject to market-based paradigms. Proponents of charter schools tend to argue that public education is failing and position charters as a solution to that failure. Proponents of public schools tend to argue that charter schools are failing and position better educational policy as a solution to any perceived failures of public schools.

        That's about as neutrally as I can frame the topic, though you've read my other comments here, so you know that I'm very non-neutral on this. I actually support the spirit of charter schools in that I think we need greater diversity in educational practice and outcomes in the US in general. In that regard, the idea of having different schools that offer different things is very valuable to me.

        In practice, however, it's been my experience that charter schools in the US exist primarily to give privatization some inroads into a public institution, degrade the perception of public schools at large, and achieve successes through strategic selection of students rather than a commitment to the education of all students. It's not that they cannot be valuable or successful themselves -- again, they are still schools, and I think education is fundamentally valuable. It's more that they are not an effective way towards widespread improvement of educational quality.

        7 votes
        1. vord
          Link Parent
          As a proponent of public education, even I agree that the ideal form of a charter school could be a good thing. I would still want it to basically be a public school, regulated and funded as one,...

          As a proponent of public education, even I agree that the ideal form of a charter school could be a good thing.

          I would still want it to basically be a public school, regulated and funded as one, just one with a different focus or technique, to accomadate differing needs better.

          3 votes
        2. streblo
          Link Parent
          Fully agreed here. The school my wife teaches at is neat and offers students in our district an alternative approach to getting a standardized education. It's a shame that the US is so focused on...

          I actually support the spirit of charter schools in that I think we need greater diversity in educational practice and outcomes in the US in general. In that regard, the idea of having different schools that offer different things is very valuable to me.

          Fully agreed here. The school my wife teaches at is neat and offers students in our district an alternative approach to getting a standardized education. It's a shame that the US is so focused on pushing things outside of government even when it's a more viable alternative. While it's not perfect, the system we use here works well to meet the demands of a local school district (think town/city and surrounding region). I chatted with my wife a bit more about it and here's how it works here:

          • Interested parents and educators want to make some vocational school. (Technology focused, arts focused, outdoor education, etc. etc.)
          • They approach the school district (elected officials and bureaucrats) with their plan. The district schedules some panels where stakeholders present their pitch including supporting educational research, community demand, budgetary/resource/location concerns etc.
          • The district then accepts/rejects the proposal and takes on the initiative of launching the school.

          This puts the power of vocational schools into the community such that their needs can be met while still requiring them to meet provincial public education standards as they are public schools staffed by regular school district teachers/support.

          3 votes
  2. [6]
    thundergolfer
    (edited )
    Link
    “Child prison” sounds like an idiot libertarian take on public schooling that focuses on one obvious restriction of freedom imposed by truancy rules and ignores all the other freedoms it produces...

    “Child prison” sounds like an idiot libertarian take on public schooling that focuses on one obvious restriction of freedom imposed by truancy rules and ignores all the other freedoms it produces that are far more valuable to a society.

    (I have not read the review)

    Edit: I have now read the review. In multiple ways this review is pretty good, and in multiple ways it’s pretty bad. That’s not exactly an unusual reaction for me to have with this guy’s writing.

    I think this review is better than his review of Klein’s book, but maybe that’s mostly because I’m very familiar with Klein’s work and not familiar with De Boer’s.

    The pretty good stuff is the level of detail and background research. The pretty bad stuff is the needless (deliberate) misunderstanding of socialists like De Boer. If you’re able to parse through research papers, why are you letting yourself down by getting confused about basic ideas like meritocracy and public goods?

    8 votes
    1. [2]
      cfabbro
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      If you haven't actually read the review, why make a totally separate top-level comment that is essentially just a grandstanding reply to skybrian's own comment on the article where he mentions the...

      If you haven't actually read the review, why make a totally separate top-level comment that is essentially just a grandstanding reply to skybrian's own comment on the article where he mentions the term being used? Especially since if you haven't actually read it, how do you know if you're correctly interpreting the author's intended meaning behind using the term before adding your own commentary on its use?

      RTFA before commenting!

      (p.s. Sorry for teeing off on you, but people not doing that is a huge pet peeve of mine. And lately, I have encountered a number of other top-level comments on Tildes where people clearly haven't read the source material, which is incredibly aggravating to see happening here. Although I suppose at least admitting to not reading an article in such a comment is better than not mentioning that fact at all but still commenting.)

      10 votes
      1. thundergolfer
        Link Parent
        Fair. Should’ve been a reply but got lazy after missing the small reply button on my mobile a couple of times. The “post comment button is like 10 times the size 😄.

        Fair. Should’ve been a reply but got lazy after missing the small reply button on my mobile a couple of times. The “post comment button is like 10 times the size 😄.

        4 votes
    2. vord
      Link Parent
      I agree that there is a child prison aspect, I felt it myself, and I think my version is a pretty reasonable take. American public schools are very homogeneous. Everyone has same lesson plans,...

      “Child prison” sounds like an idiot libertarian take on public schooling that focuses on one obvious restriction of freedom imposed by truancy rules and ignores all the other freedoms it produces that are far more valuable to a society.

      I agree that there is a child prison aspect, I felt it myself, and I think my version is a pretty reasonable take.

      American public schools are very homogeneous. Everyone has same lesson plans, everyone learns same stuff (aside from some topic branching), all together. And while there are advantages to this method, they fall apart when students are outside a standard deviation of each other. I did well in math all through K-12 and the first few years of college. But it was incredibly boring that we'd spend the first 3rd of the year recapping what others didn't learn or missed from previous years, and then going at a snail's pace beyond that, even in some of the most advanced classes.

      This crippled my ability to learn. I resented being forced to sit through classes where I learned nothing. I resented having to do homework where I learned nothing. It fostered laziness. So when I did actually hit a math difficulty that didn't come easily (Calculus 3ish), I didn't have the skills developed to learn about it.

      It works well in reverse too. Those on the lower end of the curve get outpaced by the average and get left behind. Or the whole class shifts to accommodate them, and the average kids also feel that frustration and resentment. There's often few resources to help those behind or to let the advanced skip ahead. Skipping grades is an option, but if taken too far can make you a social outcast.

      Mix that in with an environment that disciplines you for trying to find something to cope with immense boredom, bullying (rewarding conformity) and inflexible mandatory attendance. You've created a prison. One which has value for education, but is a toxic environment that breeds resentment for learning.

      9 votes
    3. [2]
      Greg
      Link Parent
      It seems childish, in the same way that anyone using their own made up "evocative" term rather than a common word tends to come across as a bit of a fool, but it can still be coming from a place...

      It seems childish, in the same way that anyone using their own made up "evocative" term rather than a common word tends to come across as a bit of a fool, but it can still be coming from a place of sincere personal experience.

      I didn't read it as a point to push libertarian philosophy on the nature of freedom, I read it as an expression of genuine pain that was very likely informed by the author's own experience of school. The description certainly resonated with me, even if I did roll my eyes at the wording. I've literally been told verbatim, by a medical professional, that it sounded like I was describing prison when I was intending to give them an honest overview of my school days.

      7 votes
      1. thundergolfer
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I can fully appreciate that school can be like a prison, but Scott going off at Marxists like De Boer for the reality that modern USA public schools are shitty is pretty off-putting and...

        I can fully appreciate that school can be like a prison, but Scott going off at Marxists like De Boer for the reality that modern USA public schools are shitty is pretty off-putting and unhelpfully antagonistic.

        Leftists have provided wonderfully radical visions of public education that are so far from being prison you’d be more on the mark pointing at an cinnamon bun and calling it a shovel.

        3 votes
  3. [2]
    skybrian
    Link
    This is a pretty remarkable blog post and I'm not sure that's in a good way, but it seems worth noting. It starts out as a book review. In passing, it has Scott Alexander's clarification (or maybe...

    This is a pretty remarkable blog post and I'm not sure that's in a good way, but it seems worth noting. It starts out as a book review. In passing, it has Scott Alexander's clarification (or maybe you'd say non-clarification) of his position on The Bell Curve. And, it has a long rant where Scott explains that he really, really doesn't like public school, referring to it repeatedly as "child prison."

    I sometimes sit in on child psychiatrists' case conferences, and I want to scream at them. There's the kid who locks herself in the bathroom every morning so her parents can't drag her to child prison, and her parents stand outside the bathroom door to yell at her for hours until she finally gives in and goes, and everyone is trying to medicate her or figure out how to remove the bathroom locks, and THEY ARE SOLVING THE WRONG PROBLEM. There are all the kids who had bedwetting or awful depression or constant panic attacks, and then as soon as the coronavirus caused the child prisons to shut down the kids mysteriously became instantly better. I have heard stories of kids bullied to the point where it would be unfair not to call it torture, and the child prisons respond according to Procedures which look very good on paper and hit all the right We-Are-Taking-This-Seriously buzzwords but somehow never result in the kids not being tortured every day, and if the kids' parents were to stop bringing them to child prison every day to get tortured anew the cops would haul those parents to jail, and sometimes the only solution is the parents to switch them to the charter schools THAT FREDDIE DEBOER WANTS TO SHUT DOWN.

    Which sounds terrible, but I guess Scott doesn't see the kids that actually like school and miss it? At the start of the pandemic, most of my friends with kids seemed to think that their kids miss school.

    7 votes
    1. NaraVara
      Link Parent
      Also does Scott think charter schools are some kind of magic, bully-free zone or that they don’t do basically everything a regular school does that makes him call them “child prisons?”

      Also does Scott think charter schools are some kind of magic, bully-free zone or that they don’t do basically everything a regular school does that makes him call them “child prisons?”

      11 votes
  4. [4]
    tempestoftruth
    Link
    Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs has a great piece on this same book, if anyone's interested in hearing another take. This review completely changed the way I think about intelligence, heredity,...

    Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs has a great piece on this same book, if anyone's interested in hearing another take. This review completely changed the way I think about intelligence, heredity, and disability, so would highly recommend.

    4 votes
    1. [3]
      skybrian
      Link Parent
      It’s a good piece but I’m wondering about the anecdotes about students who can’t get around to filling out forms. I’m sometimes a procrastinator myself, but I think you do need to get this...

      It’s a good piece but I’m wondering about the anecdotes about students who can’t get around to filling out forms. I’m sometimes a procrastinator myself, but I think you do need to get this somewhat under control to make it through life?

      This may not be a problem with a student’s intelligence or make them a bad human being, but it’s still a problem and shouldn’t be trivialized. Sometimes in life, you just have to do the work? What happens when you screw up like this and it matters to someone besides you?

      There are probably better ways to fix it than kicking people out, though.

      2 votes
      1. [2]
        eladnarra
        Link Parent
        My question is — why have we structured school and society in such a way that someone isn't supported when they have trouble with something like registering for classes? The student might have...

        My question is — why have we structured school and society in such a way that someone isn't supported when they have trouble with something like registering for classes? The student might have been procrastinating, they might have been anxious, they might have executive dysfunction due to something like depression, ADHD, or autism. But honestly, the reason doesn't matter. (And "just" procrastination tends to have an underlying reason.)

        So... What if the college was set up so that they noticed late registration and reached out? There are usually academic advisors, so perhaps some students would benefit from having a meeting automatically set up with one before every semester where they talk through options and get signed up. Maybe all students would benefit from that.

        Signing up for your classes on your own isn't a requirement for college, any more than doing your own taxes is a requirement for a job. I think having trouble with filling out forms is a problem because the world has many forms, but the problem isn't necessarily in the person but the society that can't accommodate them.

        7 votes
        1. skybrian
          Link Parent
          We're going on third-hand info. I think we'd need to know more to judge whether this particular college's accommodations were reasonable for that person.

          We're going on third-hand info. I think we'd need to know more to judge whether this particular college's accommodations were reasonable for that person.

          2 votes