The Queen’s Gambit, the compelling Netflix mini-series, has created a mini-resurgence in interest in chess, boosting sales of chess sets and chess books. For nerds of a certain age, however, it wasn’t a fictional account of a troubled young American chess champion taking on the Soviets that grabbed our attention and made chess a required chapter in our coming-of-age story. No, we had the real thing. Coming on the heels of the moon landings, the 1972 world championship chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was the second blow in a geek-fueled one-two combo that turned the tide in the Cold War. And the best part was that while the plan to become an astronaut or NASA scientist was, at best, a far-off dream, we could play chess right away. So, we made space in our rooms for a chess set and clock, right next to the telescope, star wheel, and moon map; and we pored over our paperback editions of Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.
My interest in chess faded over time, as those things do. However, I still have my treasured Napoleon Bonaparte collectors’ series chess set with its weighted and felted pieces (a poor boy’s substitute for the Franklin Mint’s Civil War Chess set); and I display the marble chess set that my sister gave me – a souvenir from her summer in Mexico, a good decade or so after the last time I had played chess. I also have the knowledge, skills, and life lessons gained from those brief years immersed in chess. Those skills include, of course, 21st century skills such as problem solving, persistence, abstract reasoning, strategic and critical thinking; along with invaluable life lessons such as sportsmanship and remaining calm under pressure that come from competition. There is also the knowledge that patience is necessary and that the path to your goal may come in a series of small, incremental, steps rather than one giant leap. In that 1972 World Championship, for example, Bobby Fischer won only 7 of the 20 games played, with 11 games ending in a draw.
Most importantly, perhaps, I learned the importance of all of the pieces on the chess board. Each piece plays a critical role in implementing the overall strategy – even the lowly pawn (from the medieval Latin for foot soldier). The pawns were not simply cannon fodder to be sacrificed or traded for other pieces. Pawn structure, or the movement and placement of pawns, is an integral part of the game. As the 18th century chessmaster Philidor described, “…to play pawns well; they are the soul of chess: it is they which uniquely determine the attack and the defense, and on their good or bad arrangement depends entirely the winning or losing of the game.”
Why is that lesson so important?
Understanding the role of pawns is important because in choosing a career in large-scale, K-12 state assessment, we have essentially signed on to be pawns in the chess match that is education reform and the fight to ensure a high-quality education for every child. We are not the governor or commissioner of education making education policy, and we are not her deputies charged with implementing that policy through department staff. Nor are we content or curriculum specialists whose work directly affects school districts, and we are certainly not local educators interacting with children. No, as large-scale K-12 assessment specialists we play a minor and indirect, yet critical role, in the process of education reform.
We collect data, process it into information, and provide that information to policymakers who we hope can combine it with other relevant information and convert it into knowledge and the wisdom to know what to do next. If we are used well, state assessment can be a powerful and valuable tool in the process of implementing policy. When used poorly, however, at best we clog up the process, and at worst, we leave the commissioner and education reform vulnerable to attack.
So, we spend our careers as pawns searching for the right kings and queens. We seek out states with strong leadership and the capacity to implement policy. We avoid states where there is no leadership, policy, or capacity; or even worse, states in which state assessment is the education reform policy. When you find the right situation, a life in state assessment can be quite fulfilling. During my career, I was fortunate to find myself in good situations more often than not. In those cases, I felt that the state assessment program and my role within it were making a valuable contribution to improving education access and opportunity for every child.
On the flip side, however, every data person worth their salt (especially those who own a Napoleon chess set) knows all too well the fate of foot soldiers asked to implement a flawed policy.