Monday, November 17, 2014

I didn't see THAT coming.

I never did get a bill for the ambulance ride home.

So what do cyclocross racing, software engineers, data collection, education policy, and immovable objects in the form of telephone poles have to do with each other? Well I’ll tell ya…

Sara and I have just returned from the Young Adult Literature Association’s symposium in Austin Texas. Generally I love Austin, good food, funky town, warm weather, great place to ride a bike, All were true this time except for the weather – freakishly cold – but still better than the blizzard we left behind us in Ohio.

It was at a dinner thrown by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong – publishers of the Poetry Friday Anthology series that the germ for this blog was first conjugated.

First: Cyclocross.

Cyclocross is a form of off road bicycle racing that is kind of like a steeplechase on wheels.  There are obstacles that one must dismount their bike and hop over, sand pits, sets of steps etc. My son Frank and I have taken it up this season – a season that runs from the Autumn into the Winter. It’s a raucous sport that encourages heckling and cowbells from fans as well as beer and food. It’s the rugby of bicycle racing in my opinion.

Okay, Frank and I are doing a little training – we’ve set up a course that shares two parks about a mile apart – we complete a circuitous course around one park then book like mad down the sidewalks to the second park, run that course and then back again for a predetermined amount of laps. Between the two locations we get a pretty good rehearsal for what we might be encountering on race day.

As we add up the laps though, Frank adds to his lead on me. By our final lap he is around a quarter mile ahead of me or so. I bear down, stand up on my pedals and hope he doesn’t notice my sprinting behind him. I have an idea of my threshold exertion and I stare at my Garmin GPS device on my handlebars. I note speed, rpm, and time. I want to exert the most effort I can without bonking and try to close the gap that my wiry son has opened between us.

It was while I was collecting this data that I did not notice the singular telephone pole that was edged 8 inches more into the sidewalk than the rest of the domino line down the street.  Rather, I didn’t notice it until I hit it dead on with my left shoulder at full speed. I spun off my bike twirling like a boomerang into oncoming traffic. The air whooshed out collapsing my lungs like an empty toothpaste tube. I dizzily rolled myself out of the street onto a nearby tree lawn staring up in the sky and waited for the pain to come raining down new year’s eve confetti style. Which, it did.

I’ve often relied on the kindness of strangers:

Fortunately some concerned citizens stopped to assist me and called the ambulance. I remembered every detail of the accident, so I knew that I most likely didn’t have a concussion. Frank had circled back and looked on with concern as the paramedics checked me out. I didn’t seem to have any broken bones and my pupils looked fine so the EMS team gave me a ride home and Frank wheeled my bike home like a combat solder helping a comrade off the battlefield. I have since made almost a full recovery and even went on to race three days after the accident. But what I really want to talk about is education policy.

My mistake on this ride was paying too close attention to the immediate data in front of me and not looking up to see what was coming down the road.  This is, I believe, the same mistake our high stakes test driven education scheme is taking. We miss what is coming down the road in the long run when we teach to the test, to the point where in some districts a 4th grader can expect to spend over a quarter of their learning time just taking tests.  We’ve got our kids heads buried down and pedaling as fast as they can blind to real world obstacles to success.  We swap out short term graphing of test results for real critical thinking skills.

Context is everything:

Why? Software engineers (see this is all coming together now.) and one in particular, Bill Gates. His billions of dollars have way too big an influence on what is happening in our public schools. He was one of the loudest voices in the smaller school campaign – the one that busted large schools into smaller entities –oftentimes in the same building. Well, this idea crashed and burned in the end. Gates himself has admitted as much. So you’d think we would have learned from the lesson of taking education advice from non-educators? No way.

Now the money is flowing into test taking, data collection, and private enterprise charter schools – sounds more like a computer corporation than a school right?  That’s because data-collecting systems is what software engineers know – and when trying to solve a problem one will go to what they know right? Unfortunately what one knows is not always applicable to the task at hand.

Knowing my exact speed, rpm, watts exerted did nothing to keep me from popping like a water balloon against a utility pole. Data collection was not the route to success for me at that time. Now, had I collected the data and used it later as part of a training program instead of my sole focus during the process I might not be waking up as stiff recent mornings.

Similarly – how do you think a software writer might feel about me asking him or her to go back and rewrite the code for that skyscraper’s climate control system with an eye more toward character development and foreshadowing?  Right tools for the right job.

Just because a guy made billions in business doesn’t mean he should have a seat at the head of the table when education policy is being discussed. Kids are not lines of code and I think the there are a lot of folks messing with education policy that need to get their heads out of their – well lets just say they need to look up.

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