On The Road Again

K-12 education and the road to recovery

K-12 education is about to head out on the road again. This time it’s the road to recovery from the pandemic.  As I think about K-12 education starting this journey, I can’t help but make the connection to a journey of my own that took place 50 years ago this summer.

When I was young, we were fortunate to be able to take a few special family summer vacations – all by car, of course. (I didn’t see the inside of an airplane until I was heading off to Minnesota for graduate school in 1983.) First, was a trip to Niagara Falls. The following summer was my first visit to Washington, DC. Both of those vacations were one-day, approximately 450-mile, drives from our home in Boston.

Those first two trips were amazing experiences for a kid who had not been more than 40 miles from home, and both required a good amount of planning. They were just precursors, however, dry runs if you will,  to “the big trip” that followed a couple of summers later – my father’s dream trip around the country (picture Chevy Chase in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation).

Phase 1: Making Sure the Conditions are Right and Everything in Place

The two dry runs mentioned above provided some critical travel information (it’s good to have a motel reservation, some snacks travel better than others – does anyone else remember boxes of potato chips?). Those dry runs, however, were just a small part of the preparation and planning process that made the trip possible.

The first big step was my father completing his M.Ed. and making the switch from  teaching at a Catholic school to a suburban public school system. The increase in pay meant that he didn’t have to work the entire summer and that my parents could set aside some money for the trip.

Next was deciding how to make the trip.  Initial plans called for an RV. Additional research and planning, however, revealed that motels, anchored by Holiday Inns, would be the more economical and comfortable choice (kids under 12 stay free, swimming pools, air conditioning). Attention turned to making sure the Caprice was up to the trip – with the assistance of the retired mechanic next door.

Then it was waiting until my younger sister’s tenth birthday. I had just turned twelve, (eleven if anyone at the hotel asked, see above). My father was convinced that we had to be at least 10 years old to remember and appreciate the trip. I’m not sure of the science behind that, but my nephew’s memory of his first trip to Disney World is chasing birds around the hotel parking lot and the sliding door on the rental van.

Phase 2: We’ll all be planning that route. We’re gonna take real soon.

The trip was really going to happen. The date was set for the summer of ’71. So, where were we going to go?

Disneyland, of course. (Disney World wouldn’t open until that fall, and my first trip to Florida would also have to wait until graduate school — and my first conference presentation.)

The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Mt. Rushmore were at the top of the list.  We also each had our personal must-see destinations: The Golden Gate Bridge for my mother (Tony Bennet’s influence), The Hoover Dam for my father (I believe there was a scene in Then Came Bronson that caught his eye), and the NASA Manned Space Center for me. I’m sure that my sister had someplace special, too.

A close family friend, a priest at my father’s first teaching job, was now assigned to a school near New Orleans. My mother’s cousin (career army) and his family were stationed at Fort. Bliss in El Paso.  Niagara Falls was worth another look.

There were also some iconic things that we all wanted to see: the Pacific Ocean, a cactus, an oil well, a corn field, the redwood forest, diamond deserts, amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties. You get the idea. (One note on the oil wells, what we really wanted to see was the oil derrick that we finally saw in Pennsylvania on the way home. The oil wells we saw in Texas were a major disappointment.)

The loop around the country was taking shape. It was off to AAA for a shopping bag full of TripTiks, maps, and tour books. The tour books offered additional sites to see. Seriously, who could resist a Corn Palace?

Other decisions followed:

  • How many miles to drive per day?
  • How many days to stay at each destination?
  • What to pack?
  • What type of travel games to have in the car?
  • Who back at home would receive a postcard, a souvenir, both?

Phase 3: See the USA, in our Chevrolet

On the morning of July 6, 1971, with our travel diaries and souvenir money in hand, we set off on our six-week trip around the country. The AAA TripTiks guided us along the way. We saw everything we planned to see and a lot more: fireflies, the full moon rising over the Smoky Mountains, a roadrunner, Grand Teton National Park, the salt flats, Mexico, Bourbon Street on a Saturday night, some mythical jackalopes in Wyoming, some very real lizardy things in Louisiana, and a bear at our car window in Yellowstone.  We discovered a wonderful delicacy called Chef’s Salad at a restaurant along the Pacific Coast Highway. There were miles of road signs beckoning us to Wall Drug (we stopped) and Ruby Falls (we didn’t). And we saw corn, corn, and more corn.

The planning, including the dry runs, prepared us for a lot. Of course, there were surprises along the way. My sister, evidently, now got carsick on long drives. There was minor car trouble on Day 2 in Virginia and major car trouble when a small rock went through the radiator between the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. A mechanic, originally from New Hampshire, at a small gas station/garage/home on the side of a mountain road provided a temporary fix until we got the radiator replaced in Utah.

The trip was a success and remains a highlight of my childhood. My sister can recall every moment, so my father was right about 10-year-olds remembering. That doesn’t speak to whether she would have remembered just as much as an 8- or 9-year-old, of course, but Dad knew which type of error he was trying to minimize.

Understanding where you are, where you want to go, and what it will take to get there is maybe 80% of a successful journey. Being prepared, implementing your plan with fidelity, and having the flexibility to handle the little rocks through the radiator along the way is another 15%. Making the commitment to the make the journey a success is the other 5%.  My parents were all in, 100%, and we had the trip of a lifetime.

The Road to Recovery Will Be Paved with Good Intentions

 As we shift from survival mode and K-12 education starts the journey toward recovery from the pandemic, the first instinct will be to jump right in and fix things now, as quickly as possible. Make no mistake, there are situations that need to be addressed immediately. Sometimes the fever is so high that it is a threat in its own right and must be lowered before we attack the disease that caused it.

Then, as we move forward, good people with good intentions will do what they do best. Teachers will teach. Administrators will make schedules and allocate resources. Talking heads who toss out buzzwords, will continue to talk and toss out buzzwords. Things will start to feel more normal and there will be recovery — inevitably, more for some than others. And my assessment sisters and brothers will document it.

For the recovery, in general, however, it’s critical that we take the time to decide where we want to go, commit to the journey, and then engage in the planning and preparation necessary to ensure that we reach the destination. We must ensure that all students reach the destination; that we don’t continue to send some on a bridge to nowhere.

We know that it won’t be enough to simply return to the pre-pandemic status quo. For many schools and students, we were already in recovery mode before the pandemic started. How do you recover into an ongoing recovery?

In an article posted today, good old Checker Finn asks, “How ya gonna keep ‘em back in that old school?” As early as last April, merely weeks into the pandemic, many were suggesting that schools and schooling would never return to the status quo.  Parents who had seen behind the curtain would demand more. That was well before the events of the summer of 2020 and the sense of urgency around anti-racism, social justice, and equity, and before another year of disrupted learning. Entering Year 2 of the pandemic, the stakes are so much higher. The curtain of K-12 education has been torn into two from top to bottom; and the earth has been shaken, and rocks split. Going back to what was will not be acceptable – even to people worn down, beaten up, and yearning for any sense of normal.

The good news, as an old friend and mentor reminded me just last night, is that the problem is not a lack of educational research, or even the lack of money and resources.  To a large extent, we have understood where we are, where we need to go, and what it will take to get there for years, perhaps decades. We know what effective instruction looks like and we know what effective schools look like. At the state level, we have implemented high-quality assessment programs that can continue to provide policymakers with data about where we are. And, as a people, we have always been good at handling the bumps along the road. That’s 95%.

What we have lacked as a people, however, is the final 5%, the commitment to do what it takes to get there – to get everyone there. Without that commitment, even the best planning, preparation, and data can get you only so far. Are we ready to make the necessary commitment?

Recovery is a choice. The choice is ours and the choice is simple. The time is now. As a certain 43-year-old quarterback might say, LFG!

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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