Coming Full Circle To The Road Not Taken

It has been a long and winding road that has taken me to this place where I am making presentations and writing about things like pedagogical content knowledge and assessment to inform teaching and learning.

Thirty-eight years ago this month I stood figuratively before two roads diverged, sorry that I could not travel both, trying to decide which doctoral program to enter. The final choice came down to Stanford University and the University of Minnesota. Like most difficult choices in life, this choice was difficult because one option was not clearly superior (or inferior) to the other. Choices are only difficult when, as in Robert Frost’s poem, both choices appear equally promising, or perilous, and there is no obvious advantage to choosing one option over the other.

I had never visited either school (I still have never been to Stanford), and most of what I knew about their programs came from my Master’s advisor and the literature the schools provided. I was aware of Stanford’s reputation and Minnesota’s winters.

And both that morning equally lay …

What made the choice difficult? I had been awarded a fellowship at both schools. The difference was that the fellowship at Minnesota came with a stipend. The little research that I was able to do prior to the internet confirmed that the cost of living might be “just a bit” higher in Palo Alto than in Minneapolis. For starters, I determined that I would need to own a car at Stanford, but could probably do without one in Minneapolis. [Note 1: I wouldn’t start driving regularly until 1990.]

As the deadline approached,  I struggled to make a choice, contemplating a future along each road.  When I was just about at wits’ end, I received a phone call from Lee Shulman at Stanford – and that made all the difference.

We discussed the inability of a small private school on the west coast to match the offer made by a large, Big 10 university; yeah, I had already attended one of those small private schools on the east coast. And we discussed the relative strengths of faculty (very good faculty at both) and students (some very good students at both, but likely a wider distribution at Minnesota) at a place like Stanford and Minnesota.  I decided to attend the University of Minnesota. Go Gophers!

I didn’t know in April 1983 that by 1986 Lee Shulman and his graduate students would be publishing articles about a cool construct called pedagogical content knowledge and I would be trying to figure out how to make a dissertation on teachers and classroom testing fit into the measurement and evaluation program in Minnesota.

I also didn’t know in April 1983 that my decision to enroll in a behavioral psychology course my first semester in Minnesota – just to hear the counterargument to everything I had heard about behaviorism at Harvard – would introduce me to Stan Deno. And I had no idea that meeting would lead to a research assistantship, bring me into the work that Stan and his graduate students were doing on an emerging alternative called Curriculum-Based Measurement, and produce lifelong friendships.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

The graduate school decision in 1983 was not the first time I stood before those same two roads. Six years earlier in April 1977, I faced a similar decision – accept a full scholarship to Boston University or attend Harvard College with a needs-based financial aid package. That time I turned down the money and enrolled at Harvard, a decision made somewhat easier by the fact that I was rejected by the College of Fine Arts at BU. [Note 2: It’s fun to watch a school scramble when they award you a full scholarship after you have been rejected.]

In part, my graduate school decision was influenced by the urge to try the other road. Having travelled both roads, I know that Frost was right, both roads were just as fair and because way leads on to way as we make our way through life, it is not possible to actually ever come back and try the road not taken.

While traveling along the first road, I met the woman who would become my wife in 1984 and join me in Minnesota. In January 1986, we decided to return to Boston at the end of that school year. That decision set into motion the chain of events that led to my accidental 30-year career in large-scale assessment. Would we have been as likely to decide to return to Boston from Palo Alto as we were in the middle of a Minneapolis winter?

Would her career as a database analyst have progressed differently if we had settled in Silicon Valley rather than along Boston’s Route 128 Tech Corridor in the late 1980s?  Would I have met Brian Gong at Stanford and still ended up at the Center for Assessment for nearly 20 years?

Two roads diverged in a wood – and I …

 Two roads diverged in 1983 and I chose the snowy one. The road I chose in 1983 eventually led me away from the classroom toward large-scale assessment. Yet here I stand today.

  • My final professional presentation before retirement , A Balanced Approach to Using Assessment Data to Enhance Instruction, was made at the 2019 MARC Conference, Enhancing Effective Instruction and Learning Using Assessment.
  • Sue Brookhart has invited me to co-author the chapter on Assessment to Inform Teaching and Learning for the fifth edition of Educational Measurement.
  • Next week, I will present a paper at the NEERO 2021 annual conference centered on pedagogical content knowledge and assessment literacy.

Perhaps the diverging roads you stand before in life are like I-35W and I-35E around Minneapolis-St. Paul or like taking the Pacific Coast Highway instead of I-5  between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The journey will be different, but eventually you end up who and where you’re supposed to be.

Image by keywest3 from Pixabay

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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