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Monday, February 1, 2010

Another visit to the shadowy realm of catherdrals and bazaars

I've covered many U.S. budgets over the years and so am suitably wary about the gulf that grows between what an Administration likes to see and what Congress ultimately rewards. That said, education seems to top the list of "winners" in this first round of budget wars.
From the Washington Post:

"K-12 education. Despite the straitened times and his freeze on overall discretionary spending, Obama is increasing federal funding for public education, one of the three main areas of his domestic agenda, alongside energy and health-care reform. The Education Department's proposed budget is up by nearly $3 billion, or more than 6 percent."

Although Obama's team seems happy to dismantle parts of the NCLB legislation, which most teachers despise, they don't want to let go of the idea of accountability. From the NYTimes

“We want accountability reforms that factor in student growth, progress in closing achievement gaps, proficiency towards college and career-ready standards, high school graduation and college enrollment rates,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in announcing the proposed changes. “We know that’s a lot to track, but if we want to be smarter about accountability, more fair to students and teachers and more effective in the classroom, we need to look at all of these factors.”

But there's a kicker: we don't really know how to measure what works in classrooms and what doesn't. A report issued in Sept. 2009, from a group under the Institute of Education Sciences on "Using Student Achievement Data to Support Instructional Decision Making," came to a heart-rending conclusion:

"Overall, the panel believes that the existing research on using data to make instructional decisions does not yet provide conclusive evidence of what works to improve student achievement.“

The report lays out a number of contributiong reasons for why we seem to muddle through the dark. Teachers don't use the same measures. We don't have control groups. We don't systematically keep and report data. We aren't quite sure which is the data and which is the noise.

All of which got me thinking about Eric Raymond's classic: The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Raymond's musings on why a ragtag group of programmers could craft a study and even elegant operating system has become a classic. Among his observations (I've left out a few that feel less relevant at the moment):

1. Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.
2. Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).
3. ``Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow.'' (Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month, Chapter 11)

6. Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.
7. Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.

8. Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.
[Sociologists years ago discovered that the averaged opinion of a mass of equally expert (or equally ignorant) observers is quite a bit more reliable a predictor than the opinion of a single randomly-chosen one of the observers. They called this the Delphi effect. It appears that what Linus has shown is that this applies even to debugging an operating system—that the Delphi effect can tame development complexity even at the complexity level of an OS kernel.]

9. Smart data structures and dumb code works a lot better than the other way around.
10. If you treat your beta-testers as if they're your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.
11. The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better.
12. Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong.
13. ``Perfection (in design) is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.''--Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Not one of his stated rules but it should be:

It's fairly clear that one cannot code from the ground up in bazaar style [IN]. One can test, debug and improve in bazaar style, but it would be very hard to originate a project in bazaar mode. Linus didn't try it. I didn't either. Your nascent developer community needs to have something runnable and testable to play with.

19: Provided the development coordinator has a communications medium at least as good as the Internet, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one.

Long way of saying: we're at a moment on the opportunity curve where change is possible. All we need is a starting point -- even if that starting point is a long, long way from the ending point.

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