Train Problems

Are train problems still a staple of the elementary and early secondary school curriculum? 

I hope so.

Sure, problems based on train travel were already an anachronism by the time I was solving them in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Trains? Who was thinking about trains when people were flying to the moon and crossing the ocean faster than the speed of sound in supersonic jets? Yes kids, both of those are things that people used to be able to do back in the 20th century. 

But still, there is something magical about trains and train problems. 

There may be nothing finer than having your ham and eggs in a dining car in Carolina, but watching the sun rise over New Haven Harbor after attending a Taylor Swift concert at Madison Square Garden, grabbing a couple of slices of pizza and a Diet Coke, then catching the 2:40 a.m. train back to Boston has to be a pretty close second. 

For better or worse, trains are part of American history and a critical thread in the fabric of the American spirit. The great American songbook is filled with songs about trains. More recently, but still a long time ago, we had the Peace Train, the Love Train, and the Midnight Train to Georgia. Nobody wants to be a rider on a downbound train, and we all spend our lives trying to avoid the long black train. 

In contrast, we long ago left behind songs about my merry Oldsmobile, my little deuce coupe, getting our kicks on Route 66, and seeing the USA in a Chevrolet. In fact, I can think of only one song that describes the “pleasures” of driving along I-95 in the Northeast Corridor. Similarly, there are relatively few songs about more modern conveyances such as airplanes, supersonic or otherwise; and the best of those involve the plane crashing, except perhaps the one about getting drunk on a plane. 

That’s because there’s nothing romantic (in any sense of the word) about being crammed into a plane. Sure, thanks to planes, I actually have looked at clouds from both sides now, but still, I really don’t know clouds at all.  Planes are all about the destination and not the journey, but as everybody knows, it “ain’t about how fast you get there”, “ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side,” “it’s the climb.” The party in the USA doesn’t start until after you hop off the plane at LAX. 

Sometimes a train is more than a train

Ah, back to schools and train problems. 

Train problems have become a trope, the symbol of all that makes students disinterested in and disengaged from mathematics and from school. But it was never about the trains. 

“D = RT.”. It’s the first function, or formula, they teach us; and like most things included in the curriculum, it’s there not so much because of the mathematical concept, but because it imparts a valuable life lesson. Distance equals rate times time, always has, always will. Some people never learn that lesson. Those people, as my grandmother used to say, will be late for their own funeral.

We started by figuring out how far we could go on a train traveling 60 mph for 5 hours. 

Then it was how long would it take us to travel 500 miles at 50 miles per hour. 

Then what time would we arrive if …

How fast would we have to travel to …

Where would we meet if ….

And then there were problems about tickets and money and people and produce and schedules and routes.

For some of us it was on to Physics and more train problems.

Calculus, more train problems.

Philosophy, bigger train problems.

And before you know it, you’re tasked with designing and implementing a state assessment program and you find yourself applying everything you ever learned about trains.  Funny how that happens. 

Once I built an assessment, made it run
Produced valid scores every time
Once I built an assessment, now it’s done
Brother can you spare a dime?

“One Thing About Trains: It Doesn’t Matter Where They’re Going. What Matters Is Deciding To Get On.”

As we moved through life, the train problems became more challenging. At some point in our career in K-12 testing, we have all faced situations where the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a train barreling toward you. 

For some, the train might have been the commissioner’s decision to report individual student scaled scores on state assessments. Perhaps, the train was the governor and state board deciding to use those student scaled scores to make high-stake graduation decisions. For many of us, a big old train was NCLB, AYP, and determining whether schools were “on track” for 100% proficiency by 2014. Then there was the Obama/Duncan initiative to use state test scores for teacher evaluation – a train bound for nowhere that quickly went off the rails.  

When you do see and hear those trains a comin’, rolling’ round the bend, you have to decide what to do, and you are usually faced with three less than ideal options:

  1. Stand on the tracks and try to stop it.
  2. Step aside and let it pass by without you.
  3. Hop on board and ride along to wherever it takes you. 

(Some people think that a fourth option is to hop on board and try to stop the train from the inside or at least slow it down, but in my experience that never works out as they hoped.)

The decision would be easier if we knew for sure where the train was going or how things were going to turn out. If you know the train is pure evil, or even just seriously misguided, you try to stop it no matter the personal cost. If you know that the train is on a righteous journey, you hop on board – again, regardless of the personal sacrifice and cost. 

Of course, we rarely have all of the information, outcomes are rarely certain, and our trains are rarely pure evil or totally righteous. 

That is the situation and decision folks in assessment are facing today. There is a big train out there picking up passengers and speed as it rolls “from the great Atlantic Ocean to the wide Pacific shore, from the queen of flowin’ mountains to the south lands by the shore.” 

And you look up, and you know many of the people on the train, and they are singing

This train is bound for glory, this train. 
This train is bound for glory, this train. 
This train is bound for glory, 
Don’t carry nothing but the righteous and the holy. 
This train is bound for glory, this train.

And you are ready to jump on board, but then you remember the words of the poet

Have you ever had it on your lips or said it in your head
That the person standin’ next to you just might be misled?

So, you wait. 

And the train is getting closer and bigger and louder.

And then you …

(Sorry, you have to complete this post on your own. Neither I nor anyone else can complete it for you.)

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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