Enough Room Now For 49 Stars

You’re a grand old flag
You’re a high-flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave

As the Olympics shift from the pool and the gym to the track, we are probably in a peak period for thinking about the flag.  I’ll admit that aside from the Olympics, holidays like Memorial Day and Independence Day, and the start of the NFL season, I don’t really spend too much thinking about the flag.

I do love the flag. We have the customary US mini-flag with stand on our dining room table and I get goose bumps every time the huge flag drops at the climax of the Boston Pops encore of Stars and Stripes Forever.  Three cheers for the red, white, and blue.

The flag just doesn’t occupy too much of my working memory. I was quite surprised earlier this year, therefore, when I acquired some new information about the flag.

Apparently, I lived much of the first year of my life under a 49-star flag.

Let’s review the information that I did have stored away:

  • The flag has 13 alternating red and white stripes (7 red and 6 white) representing the 13 original colonies/states.
  • There is a blue field containing 50 stars, each star representing a state.
  • New stars are added on July 4 following the admission of a new state to the union.
  • Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959, the year I was born. Alaska, the 49th state, was granted statehood at the beginning of the year, and Hawaii became the 50th state, during the summer.

I had all of the information I needed to determine that there must have been a 49-star flag for a short period of time, basically for the 1959-1960 school year. Those pieces of information have been sitting right there in my head for a long time. However, because I never wondered about the 49-star flag, I never had the occasion to synthesize them and come up with that new piece of information.

I am very familiar with the 50-star flag that has been in place most of my 62 years and the 48-star flag that was in place for 47 years. I consider myself a naturally curious person, but until this year I never gave any thought to the 49-star flag.

Why now?

I attribute it to retirement.   [Content warning: Unsubstantiated theory ahead]

Each person has a limited amount of space to store and process information. Some folks are better than others at organizing their space and processing the information within it efficiently, but their space and capacity is still limited.

When I was working full-time, there simply was no space in my head for the 49-star flag – or perhaps it was there at one time and had to be thrown away to make room for other, more pressing stuff.

It takes substantial bandwidth to read and respond to e-mails from people who like to use the term bandwidth to refer to the capacity of people rather than machines. And it takes a lot of space to anticipate the problems and stay one step ahead of all of the Jessicas in state DOE. (Don’t worry. Jessica is not a new pejorative term you have to learn and store in your space, like Karen or Becky. I just had a lot of state clients named Jessica.)

All of that space is available now to ponder things like 49-star flags and wonder what the cute baby wild turkeys wandering around the front yard with their mom are called. (chicks, but the name for domesticated baby turkeys is much more depressing)

Rent This Space

Retirement has also freed up time and space for me to attempt to understand what it is that I actually did all of those years as a consultant and assessment specialist.  I often described my role as problem solving, but I think that is an incomplete description of the service provided. My conclusion (subject to change upon further reflection, of course), is that under the best of circumstances my colleagues and I provided our clients with extra space.

Yes, we had some technical skills along with experience and a level of expertise in assessment and accountability policy. Most of my clients, however, brought many of those skills to the table as well and usually far exceeded my expertise in policy-related areas. The value that I offered was the one thing that they did not have; that is, the additional space to ponder the problems they needed to solve – I become an extension of them.

Taking on that role worked best when I was able to develop a long-term working relationship with the client and was able to gain a deep and complete understanding of their situation and the problems they needed to solve – an empathic understanding to borrow from the literature on the stages of Design Thinking.

Short-term projects with lots of turnover in clients are not conducive to a consultant providing innovative thinking and solving complex problems.

When I joined the Center for Assessment in 2002 the first thing I noticed, and the single biggest difference from my experience with a department of education and a testing company, was the silence. There was quiet time and space to think.

Things got much noisier at the Center over the next two decades as the field and state procurement rules changed. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I am retired.

Solving the big problems in education and educational assessment requires additional resources and additional time, and it requires a level of understanding that cannot be gained standing on the outside looking in, but perhaps most importantly, it requires space – empty, quiet space to synthesize that information that you held along and to finally wonder about that 49th star.

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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