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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Running a Marathon Taught Me About Ed. Reform

By Guest Blogger — December 08, 2014 9 min read
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Note: Andre Feigler, the founder and CEO of Enriched Schools, is guest posting this week.

Hello everyone. Andre here. I’m humbled Rick has invited me to this great corner for the week as a guest blogger. Looking forward to sharing some candid and hopefully interesting thoughts. Eager for discussion, so bring the reactions freely. Let’s get going!

I recently completed my first full marathon. In addition to seriously wondering if I’d make it past mile 22 and daydreaming about the first thing I’d inhale post finish line, I had quite a bit of think-time for a range of topics, including some I hope to touch upon later this week:

  • The role of individual agency to speed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “arc of the moral universe” bending towards justice, in light of recent events and the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and on.
  • Current staffing models in education and ways we might more creatively “cage bust” and use tutors, mentors, creatives, professionals, video delivery and more.
  • The ways we do and do not utilize family and community insight, feedback and voice in the creation and development of edtech tools and new school models.
  • How the arts, particularly dance and theater, prepared me for life and why we should build more schools around them, teaching valuable life skills like creativity and performance.
  • The enormous amount of time wasted in school, accumulated in small bits here and there: waiting in line, movie day with a substitute teacher, 1.5-hour bus rides. And what we might do with student learning instead.

As my mind was dancing around these topics, it struck me that the entire experience of a marathon was also an interesting backdrop for the work I do as CEO of an education startup, and that many aspects of the race were analogous to broader education reform.

Prepare for Rain

For race day, weather projections were favorable, if a bit warm. “Hydrate,” the race director reiterated. I drank 2 extra cups of Gatorade and took off my jacket at the first water station. The chance of rain was below 10%. But then, mile 19, it started raining. Not just a light drizzle—a steady downpour that had my sneakers slogging through buckets of water. I had built my mileage up and followed the checklist: carb loading the 48 hours prior, bathroom pre start-line, pump up playlist primed on my iPhone. But I wasn’t ready for the rain.

As a young high school teacher at a public school a few miles south of New Orleans, it was the unexpected obstacles, just like that random downpour, that created the most pain for me and, more importantly, for my students. Just like a runner preparing for a race, I had all the expected tools at hand: dog-eared copies of Teach Like a Champion and The First Days of School and some video talks of Jeff Duncan-Andrade. A set of crisp composition books, unsharpened pencils, reading-level coded classroom library. Even a new Promethean board.

What I wasn’t equipped for was how to deal with the unexpected. 9th graders who missed class because they were pregnant. Grammar workbooks painfully out of touch and out of reach of my students’ starting reading level. Substitute teachers that led to my students taking 3 steps back when I missed a day for PD.

As a runner, I should have been ready for anything—including having a waterproof iPhone case. As a first year teacher, I wish I’d been aware of and had access to tools to address the daily pain-points that hindered my students’ learning. More edtech solutions should be specifically designed around these sorts of roadblocks, however unexpected and unglamorous they may be. Unsurprisingly, these companies are often led by former teachers seeking to solve their own problems. Jeff Scheur’s NoRedInk, Dan Carroll and team’s Clever, and Liz Chen and Vichi Jagannathan’s MyHealthEd are just a few.

And, more broadly, we need more ed reform conversations centered around straightforward acknowledgement of the real and often unexpected challenges that students, teachers, school leaders, and parents face every day. This would, I hope, lead to more constructive dialogue and informed action that might allow the entire system to run more smoothly when the rain comes in.

Talk About Failure

No one really talks about what actually went wrong in their last marathon. There are blogs about what to eat, books on how to train, top ten lists of what to do and not to do. Pre-race chatter is distracting at best, nerve-wracking at worst: more of “relax, have fun, don’t worry” and less of the candid “I tied my shoes too tight my first go ‘round” variety. The same happens with schools, startups and ed reform.

There’s been much talk recently about the destructive nature of “failure porn” in the entrepreneurial community: how we’ve come to glorify failure and lose sight of the true goal of building something that actually works. While I agree with much of Lewis’s argument, I think it overlooks the value that can come from articulating precise moments of failure and careful, unbiased analysis of the specific factors behind those failures.

I was sluggish during my run; I should have eaten lighter proteins during the week prior and less heavy breads and pasta. I had trouble picking up my pace the second half of the course; I had started way too slowly. My legs overheated within the first hour, and I found it hard to catch my breath in the Louisiana fog; I should have checked the humidity index and worn shorts despite the December race date.

My first year in the classroom, I should have asked my seasoned colleagues about their biggest failures during their early years, not just general advice on how to be a “good teacher.” As a CEO, I work to provide space for my school partners and customers to tell me what isn’t going well: what didn’t work last year, what your biggest mistakes have been, what specific missteps you want to address to make your school run better for kids. It is then my charge to figure out how and where we can help.

Zooming out to the edtech community and the broader education reform movement, there isn’t enough open dialogue grounded in specificity about what hasn’t worked. Why did that particular school get shut down? Why did this specific edtech startup fail? Too often the public narrative and retweeted headlines involve glossy explanations about leadership challenges, fuzzy data on subpar test scores, or generalities about funding limitations. Most often, the real explanations are much more nuanced, layered, and requiring of local context. It takes courage to speak the truth about mistakes, prop “open the hood,” and unabashedly articulate specific areas of failure, but we all gain from this type of candor. Leaders working for educational equity, regardless of if and how they identify as “reformers,” would do well to insist upon as much clarity and specificity as possible in order to learn from individual failures and push forward the collective of our work.

Find a Buddy

Around mile 22, David from Morgan City saved me. I’m a solo runner and trained alone, so I wasn’t too concerned about completing this race in the company of my own playlist and breath. But given the unexpected rain (see above), I’d already had to handoff my iPhone and thus my carefully curated playlists, and I hit the proverbial wall—hard.

Just when I was ready to downgrade my jog to a fast walk, David and I found ourselves at a similar steady pace and my mind relocated from my aching knees to the rapidly approaching post-race party. The most helpful banter was about my new running buddy’s previous 12 marathons. He knew precisely when the course would snake around the “big white house” and how we’d “hear the band” once we reached the big magnolia up ahead. The conversation continued and before I knew it, the finish line was in sight.

It’s not a novel idea, of course—finding your “tribe” or, at the very least, a like-minded founder, mentor, or friend to share the ride with, whether on the track or in the boardroom. Nevertheless, it seems to me that both the edtech and ed reform worlds could use a bit more of the buddy system.

I’m fortunate to be part of a diverse and dynamic community of education innovators in New Orleans. 4.0 Schools regularly brings together entrepreneurs, teachers, techies, and more. The close-knit education community here helps too: I literally bump into leaders like Vera Triplett (who opened a zero-expulsion, holistic learning lab, Noble Minds) on my evening walk, or have the opportunity to pilot a new Enriched partnership model at Josh Densen’s extraordinary school, Bricolage. There are conferences and online communities, bloggers to follow, and local “edupreneurs” to compare notes with over coffee or beer.

But I’m missing a David. Or rather, a connected, vocal, engaged community of Davids spread across the country. The promise of truly game-changing education innovation depends on consistent collaboration across states, sectors, and ideologies, and requires a commitment to shared leanings and growth by policymakers, system leaders, and entrepreneurs alike.

Show Me the Numbers

The mile markers annoyed me at first. You don’t really want to be reminded you’re only at mile 4 when running a marathon. But once I crossed the 20-mile mark, the signs became my goalposts. I wanted to see exactly where I was and adjust my watch, pace, and self-talk accordingly. Quite literally, I became fervently “data-driven.”

Every good teacher has their own tracking system, measuring everything from academic progress to behavioral, non-cognitive and even social-emotional indicators. And there are great edtech platforms designed specifically to help schools track the things that matter most to them. But at the system level, we’re lacking collective benchmarks of progress.

A strong company regularly consults their dashboard, obsesses over key metrics, tracks indicators of success, and adjusts actions based on output. Along with a stronger community of collaboration, imagine what we could measure and improve if we had a comprehensive data dashboard for ed reform. What are the most salient indicators of progress, and where do we, as a nation and as individual regions, fall against those metrics? Not merely common standards or student achievement based on test scores, but rooted variables and holistic reagents that could more accurately tell the story of where and how we see progress and what we should all learn from each other.

Remember Why

My favorite part of the 26.2? The final 1000 feet, without a doubt. Not because I made it to the “magic mile” or could taste the jambalaya waiting for me, but because I’d been surprised by Adison. She drove up with her mom at 5am, popped out right when I needed a final boost, and asked if she could run in with me. Or maybe I asked her.

Either way, this jubilant 10-year-old reminded me “how cool” it was to be crossing the finish line. A few minutes later, Adison’s mom shared how thankful she was that I am in Adison’s life and how it was special to see how “Adison looks at you as if you hung the moon.”

As educators, we have the privilege of working to make education better for kids. Of advocating for underserved communities. Of writing policy that enables equity for all students. Of building services and products that help close the achievement gap.

Ultimately, I’m the lucky one to have Adison in my life and there with me at the finish line. In the day to day life of an education founder or reformer, it’s easy to get caught up in the theoretical, the bottom line, and the debate, but it’s our responsibility to stay grounded in why we do this after all.

--Andre Feigler

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.