My Not So Humble Opinion Presents: Real Men and Women of Genius

My Not So Humble Opinion Presents: Real Men and Women of Genius

♫♪♫ (Real Men and Women of Genius.) ♫♪♫

Today we salute you, Mr. and Ms. Public School Teacher.

♫♪♫(Mr. and Ms. Public School Teacher!)♫♪♫

Only you would choose to get a Master’s degree so you can go back to school… making minimum wage.

♫♪♫ (Sounds like a crappy deal!) ♫♪♫

Others might work for money or a cause, but you work for eighty screaming kids and their batshit crazy parents.
♫♪♫ (Not another email!) ♫♪♫

Sure, we talk a good game about the children being the future, but we’re still going to vote down every tax hike for education, and you soldier on anyway.

♫♪♫ (Not getting a raise!) ♫♪♫

So crack open an ice cold beverage, Mr. and Ms. Public School Teacher. Because at least summer is right around the corner.

♫♪♫ (Mr. and Ms. Public School Teacher!) ♫♪♫



My Cassandra Moment

“You are not going to believe this.”


The other day I had my first “Cassandra moment”. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the myth, Cassandra was a figure from Greek mythology who was cursed to know the future and never be believed by anyone she told (seriously, that’s the shortest version I can manage. They all get weirder from there.) This has been used as the basis for the Cassandra metaphor, which you may know from the film 12 Monkeys (and if you don’t know that film I banish you until you do).

Are we all on the same page now? Good. So anyway, I was listening to the news and I noticed that I was hearing a lot of politicians and reporters talking about two things in very close proximity to each other: the fact that a high school diploma isn’t enough to get a “good job” anymore and the crushing weight of student debt. Setting aside any discussions about what exactly qualifies as a “good job”, it occurred to me this might not be a coincidence. There are a couple different historical trends that seem to be colliding here, and not in a way that I am at all comfortable with.

The first is this question of what level of education a person “needs”. Now I’m a big fan of education, and I will be the first to say that requiring universal basic literacy and numeracy has done wonders for our country. The marginal return on universal education beyond that point is something we can debate, as well as the shape it should take, but considering that debate is already happening all the way through the high school level I find it curious that there has been a not-so-subtle linguistic shift over the past few decades. It used to be that “every child should finish high school”. Then the norm became that “every child that qualifies should be able to go to college.” Next up was “every child that wants to should be able to go to college.” Now we’re moving into the realm of ‘every child should go to college.”

Notice that shift? The norm used to be a high school diploma, full stop. Now we’ve moved the goal post to “go to college”, no qualifiers. When does that become “Bachelor’s degree” or more? That brings me to my second point.

How exactly did we manage to get “every child into college”? Student loans. Not a big deal really, since the job market was always growing, opportunity was always on the rise, and that would never change. Except of course that it did change, and now we have a generation mired in debt. Nobody’s fault, really, at least that’s what the politicians tell themselves and their constituents. Certainly not the fault of programs guaranteed to extend credit to students to pursue programs regardless of their likelihood of graduation or securing gainful employment when they graduate – but I digress.

So here we find ourselves, pushing to send more kids, all the kids really, to college, while insisting there’s no way that anyone can afford to go to college. If only there was a historical example we could look back on, something remarkably similar in terms of a formerly non-compulsory, primarily private form of education that had become dominated by government influence….

And all sarcasm aside, that’s where I found myself this weekend, with a horrifying new theory and nobody to believe it. I explained it to My Not So Humble Wife, how I saw the government (probably led by the federal Department of Education, possibly with the states taking a strong hand as they do in the current public education system) taking over university education in the next 20 years and making it compulsory up through at least an Associate’s degree and far more likely through a Bachelor’s degree. After all, it’s much easier to soak taxpayers across the board directly to support the schools than to expect students to pay their own way, and then we can make sure everyone has the same “fair” chance (if you really believe the current educational system is fair, kudos on your naiveté.)

She doesn’t believe me. Neither do my friends who I mentioned it to. Maybe they all think I’ve been watching too much House of Cards. (Not true, I haven’t had a chance to stream season 2 yet). Maybe they think I’m just a nutjob libertarian. (True but irrelevant.) Maybe they just think I’m jumping at shadows. (Never; too much exertion.)

Whatever the reason, they don’t believe me, and chances are neither will you. But that’s okay. Just like the original Cassandra, I’m going to make my prediction, and the future will reveal itself in time.

Neverland University

Are you interested in making more money? Do you want a career, not just a job? Are you interested in finding a school that will provide you with a quality education at an affordable price? If so, consider Neverland University!

Our sprawling campus offers a diverse set of experiences for anyone, regardless of your field of study. Whether your interest is botany, culinary arts, or even military history there’s something for you here. We pride ourselves on maintaining an open and friendly atmosphere where none of our students is left to feel like an orphan.

For those who are interested in extracurricular activities, we have a wide range of options to choose from. The Lambda Betas are the most popular fraternity on campus, but there are plenty of other activities too. We maintain a Navy ROTC program, and from swimming to camping, there are all kinds of outdoor fun to be had. We’ve also recently changed our school mascot from the politically insensitive Indian to the environmentally conscious Crocodile. That hasn’t stopped us from maintaining a friendly rivalry with our neighboring school, the Buccaneers!

So if you’re serious about graduating from college while you’re still young enough to take advantage of your degree, just send your application to the second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.

Blind to Educational Needs

For decades, the ideal of collegiate admissions has been to be “blind” to a range of criteria that (theoretically) should be irrelevant to the admissions process, and among those criteria has been the ability to pay. But as a reported by Marketplace, a recent George Washington University student paper report found that school’s admissions office was “wait-listing students based, in part, on their need for financial aid.” The report goes on to cite Joyce Smith of the National Association for College Admission Counseling as saying that more universities are also taking this approach.

So here’s the big question: is this right?

On the one hand, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that, in an economy that fetishizes college degrees and higher education has become mandatory in order to get a decent paying job, requiring students be able to pay for a degree before they enter school is dooming lower income students to a cycle of poverty. The haves will continue to have, and the have-nots will continue to not-have. On the other hand, with the rapid and continuing rise in the cost of higher education irrespective of anyone’s ability to pay (or market desire for the product being produced) resulting in crippling student loans, it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest there is any equity to be had in admitting students to a school where they will be spending the majority of their income for decades to pay off their education. In that scenario, those who come in with the ability to pay will continue to have a decided advantage; the haves will still have, and the have-nots will simply have debt.

I would suggest the answer is not need blind admissions, but at least (as GW seems to be moving toward) “need aware” admissions, an acknowledgement that simply taking out loans will not be sufficient and that ability to pay must be taken into consideration at some point in the process. Ideally this would factor in financial aid that does not require repayment, such as scholarships and grants, so as to still allow lower-income students an opportunity to access more competitive schools. This should be paired with a discussion about what should be charged for education at schools, as well as what is and is not supported at those schools; as access to higher education becomes more elusive and more expensive this becomes more of a priority.

I also believe part of that discussion should be at least some consideration for stated major intent. Students who plan to spend a significant amount of time and money pursuing a degree that is statistically unlikely to yield a career that will allow them a decent ability to support themselves and repay any loans they needed to take out should be ranked lower. Perhaps that seems cruel, but I have seen too many students who already come out of universities without the necessary skills to succeed in business; if someone wants to spend $35,000 and up on a Master’s degree in Puppetry they may feel free to do so, but at some level we need to at least take into account the very real possibility they will not be able to get paying work at all, let alone sufficient to repay the loans they have accrued. Giving them sympathy for staging protests in the park doesn’t help; giving them some sense of market demands actually might.

Speaking of market demands, part of the problem here is the incentive structure, and I’m not just speaking of the incentive to get students to take on debt. The incentives to get students to apply just to reject them in a bid to look “selective” is ridiculous, but it’s all about gaming the system. We need a better way of ranking schools. Here’s one: perhaps we should come up with a rating system that judges schools based on the percentage of their graduates who graduate within five years, have a job within two years of graduation, and what salary they are making five years after graduation. Mix in some formula of lower-income admissions if that’s something we value, and be sure to include a percentage rating of how much of their student debt the average student admitted in the freshman class (not just graduates) has paid off within five ten years of starting at that institution.

Wonder how schools would fare then?

The Problem with Education Reform

Recently Fairfax County Public Schools have been in the news because of a proposed change in start times. While I know about as much regarding education as anyone else who’s been through the public education system, if I had any opinion on the subject it would be to offer the following thoughts: (a) schools did in fact start later than 7:20 when I was younger, until they started pushing back the day because (b) they kept cramming in more and more “periods” into an already overfull school day and (c) no, as a matter of fact I never did feel like I was getting enough sleep, even when I wasn’t doing any after school activities (I can’t even imagine what it was like for the teachers).

All that having been said I find the entire conversation to be rather trite and boring, because like most conversations about education it seems to miss the real issues. There always seems to be one of two underlying assumptions, either overlooked and unchallenged or just generally accepted, that need to be dragged out into the light:

  1. The system basically works; we just need to make a few tweaks at the margin (probably by throwing more money at it).
  2. The system is horribly broken, and we need to change everything (probably by throwing more money at it).

I’m not sure which the Sleep Number debate falls into, but in either case it suffers from the great money fallacy. The issue with education writ large is not, at its core, about money. Sure, money can be a factor, but the largest issue is that we are trying to create a common system that suits the needs and desires of everyone without demanding too much from anyone.

It goes something like this: yes, education is important, but it’s just one of several competing priorities such as housing and food (both on a personal and political level). These are competing needs, and each one requires resources such as time, money, land, and yes, political will, to make a reality. Then there’s the fact that each one has a ripple effect: more housing means more schools, more schools means more teachers, both mean more food, and all of it means more land, and every one of those costs money. That all adds up.

Plus, and here’s the dirty little secret everybody knows but nobody wants to hear: not every kid can learn everything, and certainly not at the same speed. I’m not even talking about special education here. I’m talking about perfectly normal, average, every day Joe and Jane, some of whom excel at math and science but can’t write a term paper, others are great at English but can’t learn French, and then there’s little Bobby who… well, he’s a nice boy. Maybe he’ll do something useful with his life. All the extra sleep in the world isn’t going to change the fact that these kids can’t all learn everything, but we keep upping the expectations and then passing judgment on them for failing to absorb material in high school that we never mastered in college.

There are no simple answers, and while I’m glad that the system is being challenged (even if it is only at the margin), we’ll never get at the complex answers we need until we start uprooting the false assumptions the system is built on. Otherwise we might as well just hit the snooze button on this argument until next summer.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Incentives!

Two news stories caught my attention recently, both for revealing the federal government’s (and particularly the executive branch) shocking ability to ignore one of the basic laws of economics and psychology (and maybe sociology, but I never studied much of that). Pretty much both of these fields agree, to a greater or lesser extent and for various reasons, that people will respond to incentives. In psychology they call it things like “positive and negative reinforcement”, but apparently in the government they call it “ignore the consequences and just do things you want because the ends always justify the means”.

The first of these stories was a report by the Washington Post that President Obama is leaning on banks to “make home loans to people with weaker credit” (direct quote from headline there). According to the Obama administration, lenders should “use more subjective judgment in determining whether to offer a loan”. Personally I find that a little disconcerting, since according to that same article “since the financial crisis in 2008, the government has shaped most of the housing market, insuring between 80 percent and 90 percent of all new loans, according to the industry publication Inside Mortgage Finance.”

Hey, what’s the key phrase in that last sentence? Was it “financial crisis in 2008”? Why yes, yes it was. I seem to vaguely recall that one. It was triggered by something… let me think… oh, that’s right, a housing bubble driven in large part by risky borrowing, which has been attributed by some (including me) in large part to government policies pushing for more home ownership and led to a bail out of Fannie May and Freddie Mac. But they’re cool now, right? Let’s go back to the Washington Post for confirmation: “the government has shaped most of the housing market, insuring between 80 percent and 90 percent of all new loans…primarily through the Federal Housing Administration, which is part of the executive branch, and taxpayer-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” Oh. But that’s not a problem, is it? “If borrowers with FHA loans default on their payments, taxpayers are on the line” – and we’ve already bailed out Fannie and Freddy once before in recent memory.

So what we have here is a political agenda that completely ignores not just economic law and historical trends but recent memory in favor of “doing the right thing” and wishful thinking. Because that’s never caused us any problems before. Here’s a thought: maybe the banks are being overcautious, but they have reason to be. Or maybe they’re being just as cautious as they should be, given that the market hasn’t sufficiently recovered yet. I honestly don’t know. And lest I be accused of being a demagogue, let me point out that I’m arguing against my own interests here. As I’ve noted before, I’d be much better off if the banks started giving out easy money again, because then my wife and I could buy a house (we passed on the last round of insanity). However that’s in the short term, and in the long term it would just be inviting disaster.

But never let it be said I’m not an equal opportunity hater. The other story that got my attention was an indictment of three dozen Atlanta educators for cheating in standardized tests. While the indictment only goes back to 2005, I seriously doubt someone said “Hey, George Bush wouldn’t like this, but I’m sure President Obama would have no problem with it!” More importantly, President Obama wasn’t responsible for the landmark legislation that is the proximate cause for the cheating scandal: No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes testing it engendered.

It’s not just high-stakes for the kids; these teachers apparently had everything on the line, from bonuses to their jobs. Who did they hire as their motivational speaker, Alec Baldwin? I’m in no way condoning what they did, because the people who really got punished are the students. Either they didn’t get the education they were promised or they will always be haunted with the uncertainty of whether they really earned that grade.

But it comes back to incentives, and another phrase from economics, “unintended consequences”. Nobody intended for people to cheat, certainly not teachers and administrators. But the incentives were lined up for them to do just that, just as the incentives are lined up for the common complaint (which I most often hear from teachers) of having to “teach to the test”. Once again we have a case of a political agenda that completely ignores economic laws and (proven after the fact for years) reality in favor of “doing the right thing” and wishful thinking, only in this case we have a clear case of it biting us in the ass right in front of us that is bizarrely reminiscent of a Hollywood movie plot. Unfortunately in this case the underlying problem hasn’t been resolved; we’ve removed the symptom but not the cause.

How We’ve Failed a Generation

I’ve gone on at length before about young people starting out in jobs today, and truth be told my opinion hasn’t materially changed since then. I have been listening to stories from others, however, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: it isn’t just me. Everyone I talk to seems to feel the same way. And it isn’t just the employers, it’s the teachers too (I know more than a couple). This got me to thinking that maybe the problem, dear Brutus, lies not in our employees but in ourselves.

I remember back to when I was in high school and even elementary school (no, dinosaurs didn’t walk the Earth; we even had indoor plumbing), and I can remember being a part of the very leading edge of what has been cited by most of the teachers I have spoken with as the biggest issue of all: the Self-Esteem Movement. For those of you who are not familiar with this, it was the idea that no child should be made to feel bad about themselves, because children who have good self-esteem succeed. It should be self-evident that this is a matter of putting the cart before the horse, and if it isn’t then after a decade or so of bad results I would have expected they would have given it up, but from what I hear every child still gets a trophy (or a ribbon, or what have you).


I’ll admit, I was a little slow on the uptake with this one. I was thrilled to get a trophy at first. Granted, back then they still gave out different size trophies for first, second, third, and “congratulations, you showed up”, but still, I was thrilled to get one. Sue me, I was eight. A few years later when I got my first big boy trophy (for second place) I realized what a sham all the rest of them were, and the truth is it not only cheapened the “also ran” trophies, it even tarnished the big one a little. The idea that I had been feeling good about something that I never really earned took away from the real victory when I finally got it. I’ve heard some places get around this by giving everyone the same size trophies.

Likewise, I have heard tales of schools were students are not allowed to be given failing grades. I fail to see how this is in any way constructive. I was threatened with failure more than once in school, and let me tell you, it is an excellent motivator. Not only that, but life does not protect us from failure. Either we succeed or we do not, and while there may be a sliding scale of success in many cases, the absence of the possibility of failure is a luxury we are rarely afforded, so it is a poor lesson to impart at any age.

But I don’t want to reserve all of my vitriol for the school system. The fact is that as employers, in many cases, we are doing ourselves a disservice as well. When we interview employees, how often are we asked “what will this job entail?” To be honest, I get this question more often than you think, and to my shame, I don’t give nearly as honest a response as I should. Why? Because I actually want to hire someone, and if I told people what the job actually requires, nine times out of ten they wouldn’t take it. That’s not to say the job is abusive, but it’s not “big-thinking”, “creative”, “decision-making” stuff, at least in most cases. In most cases the work can be summed up in one word: spreadsheets.

So I do what everyone does: I soft-sell the job, try to oversell the good parts and downplay the bad parts instead of giving a full and honest accounting of what it’s going to be like, as if I’m a used car salesman and they’re the latest sucker – excuse me, customer to come on the lot. Then they take the job, because they don’t have the experience to ask the probing questions or see past the sunshine, and six months later they’re dissatisfied, disappointed, and despondent, and I’m none too thrilled with their performance. So who’s really to blame, them or me?

We’re saddling kids with an unrealistic understanding of how the world works before they enter the work force, and then giving them unrealistic expectations before they begin the job. After all that, we fault them for not succeeding. I’m not saying they shouldn’t take any responsibility for their own success (because it’s time we expect at least that much of them), but I do think it’s time we stop making it harder for them to succeed than it has to be.


Other posts you might like:

Fashion Advice for the Professional Gentleman

On Achieving Work-Life Balance

The Meaning of Education (guest post from My Not So Humble Wife)

The Meaning of Education

She’s got a taste for it now. There’s no stopping her. Once again, ladies and gentlemen, My Not So Humble Wife.

No parent or educator is trying to teach kids that money will make you happy, but I think we are inadvertently doing just that. Early in elementary school children are inundated with the importance of going to college. In middle school, the grades where I teach math, kids worry about taking the right classes and getting good grades so they can take college credit advanced classes in high school and get into a good college.  It’s a huge focus of their little lives. The problem is when you ask them why college is such an important goal, their reasoning leads to an unhealthy place.

I’m nearing the end of my Master’s in Education and became interested in student motivation. I wanted to know why students felt education was important and what inspired them to succeed in school. So I conducted some simple interviews with a variety of students both officially and unofficially. I asked a simple question, “why is education important?”, and unfailingly it lead to the same basic discussion:

Me: Why is education important to you?

Student: It’s important so you can go to college.

Me: OK, Then why is going to college important?

Student: …<hesitation> So you can get a good job?

Me: And why is getting a good job important?

Student: …….<more hesitation> So you can make good money?

Me: Why is making good money important?

At this point most students became visible uncomfortable, shifting their weight, looking around, and fidgeting. While some students might eventually shrug and say they didn’t know, the majority said that making good money was important so they could have the things they want, some said that’s what it means to be successful, while others said it was important so they could be happy.

Truth be told, I was asking these kids some really hard questions. Questions that they had probably not even considered before and that many adults would struggle with. That said, I’m worried that kids are getting the point but missing the message.

Have you ever thought about why you want your kids or family to go to college? Hopefully, it’s not just about getting a job that pays enough for that McMansion in the burbs. I want my students to pursue a college education so they will have choices. Having an education means that you have the opportunity to find a vocation that you feel passionate about instead of having to take any job that presents itself. Yes, it’s important to be able to support yourself but a college education gives you a better chance at enjoying the process of earning a living.

So next time you’re talking to your kids about college make sure they know that getting a good job means getting a job they will enjoy or that is important to them. That college gives them the chance for expanding their choices for the life they want to live. That it’s not about the money, it’s about living a life they will find fulfilling.

The Vacation of Reason

I have written before about why nobody should go to college, and yet I am myself still pursuing a college degree. I do this a little bit at a time, just a couple of classes a semester, while I work full-time and still try to produce brilliant, quality content every week for you, my discerning readers. Why do I do it? Is it arrogance? Is it hypocrisy? Is it good old-fashioned stubbornness? Now that I’ve reached the end of yet another in what is coming to seem like a never-ending parade of semesters, I have taken a moment to think about it, and the truth is: I’m not really sure.

Part of it, if I have to be honest, is that I like being in school. Heresy, I know, but for the most part I enjoy my classes. Once I get out of the general education requirements (most of which seem antiquated and bizarre, if not an outright bilking of students to support unpopular departments) I find that the material is fascinating. I am challenged in ways that I will not challenge myself, and as I grow older I have found the expansion of knowledge to be valuable for itself.

Also, and I won’t lie, there is something to be said for the idea of finally completing what I started so long ago. I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger, and if I can someday hang that magic piece of paper on the wall, it may not correct those mistakes, but it will at least lay some of those old ghosts to rest. It will also justify, in some small way, the vast amounts of time and money I threw down what seemed to become a bottomless pit.

Of course, like so many people of my generation, I was inculcated with the belief that you can’t succeed in life unless you have a college degree, and while I may finally have enough work experience and a strong enough professional network to nullify that once-certain claim, shaking it is as easy as a Depression-era kid shaking their need to hoard food and money. The need may be gone, but the fear is not; until I am independently wealthy I will never be secure, and perhaps not even then. After all, money comes and goes, but an education is forever (and so are student loans).

Most of all, I spent some time in deep introspection, and I realized that I can blame it all on my mother.

Now I know what you’re thinking, and you can stop. This isn’t going to be one of those typical sob stories about how my mother pushed me so hard as a child and why didn’t she love me enough. No, this is actually something quite different. Well, mostly. Mom did push me to achieve in school, but no more than any other kid. But what she really did was she went out and got her degree.

I remember when I was in high school, Mom went back to college. She worked full-time, had two kids, and she was always there for every performance (my sister was in choir, I was in theater). And yet somehow she found the time to take classes, to study, and keep going for years (it seemed like an eternity to me) until she finished her degree. She always said she was doing it for work, to get better opportunities and faster promotions, but all I remember to this day (and trust me, it’s been a long time now) is seeing her standing there in that gown, a newly-minted graduate.

It’s been a long road, and it’s still a long one left in front of me. But someday I’ll be standing there, in my gown, a newly-minted graduate. And on that day, I’ll finally be able to say “Here I am Mom. I finally caught up to you.” Even though she was behind me the whole time.