Board-Savvy Superintendent

Lessons From History About Reality


I recently read an interesting book by David Hackett Fischer titled Washington’s Crossing, part of the Oxford University series called Pivotal Moments in American History. It’s a thoroughly researched description of the events surrounding the surprise attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, N.J., in December 1776.

What surprised me as I read this book was how many myths I had been exposed to as a child and believed to be true. Much of what we were taught about those times never happened. I use this book with school boards to lead discussions during training sessions regarding public education and decision making. During my presentation I give them a quick quiz.

Caruso.jpgNick Caruso

I start with a sample. We all have seen the movies where the British soldiers are aligned in row upon row while their officers yell out the commands, “Ready, aim, fire!” The first myth I discovered was that in the British Manual of Arms of 1774, there was no command for aim. All those years of cinematic excitement are pure fiction.

The three questions I ask the board members are these:

Question 1: In the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze, Washington and his troops are shown standing up in their boat. My recollection from grade school was that this was a representation and that due to the fact they crossed the Delaware River during a nor’easter, there was no way they would be standing up, but instead would be stationed down below the gunwales of the boat for protection from the wind, rain and snow. True or false?

Question 2: The reason Washington was able to sneak up on the Hessians on Christmas Day was because the Germans were hung over from too much celebrating on Christmas Eve. True or false?

Question 3: The Continental Army of 1776 was the most literate army in history at that point in time. True or false?

A Common Trap
As we often think of history through the myths that develop over time, so too unfortunately do we allow myths to guide us in our decision making when it comes to our job of improving teaching and learning.

Whether it is about the ability of children to learn based on demographics or family involvement or how to judge effective teaching practices, we often make our decisions based on what we believe to be true, rather than data. Too often, when we apply data to the problem, we find out we were wrong. This is a trap educators often fall into. Even experienced teachers often base their teaching practices on what they believe, rather than what the data show.

Your board of education is probably used to making decisions the same way, and it is up to you to ensure the decisions it makes will really have an impact or student achievement. It is up to the superintendent to ensure that board decisions, and decisions of the rest of the district are made using research and facts. That stipulation also may bring you out of your own comfort zone.

We could easily substitute our quiz with statements like “Poor children can’t learn at the same rate as wealthy children” or “A good teacher knows when her students get it” or, worst of all, “The teacher did all he could to help the child. It’s not his fault that the child couldn’t learn the material.”

I am part of the Iowa School Boards Foundation’s Lighthouse Research Project, which looks at how boards (and districts) can make better decisions based on data. I will cover this in a future column, but I will say that this research has exposed similar myths in education to those I discovered by reading Washington’s Crossing.

The fact is, we know better. It is up to you to work with board members to dispel the myths and ensure that teaching and learning in your school district are guided by reality, not what we believe to be the truth.

Quiz Answers
Now, on the answers to the history questions I administer at school board training sessions.

Question 1: False. The troops all stood. The boats were full of ice and water, and the men would have frozen if they sat in it. Also, the boats were mostly river freighters and had higher sides and wider beams, so it was possible to stand and not be totally exposed to the elements or to worry about tipping over the boats.

Question 2: False. For weeks the Germans knew Washington was somewhere loose in New Jersey, but with no pilotless drones or satellite imagery, they had no idea where he and his troops were. While they were waiting, small bands of militia would sneak up to the German lines and fire a few volleys at the defenders and then run off. Each time this occurred, the Hessian officers, fearing this was “The Big One,” would call out the entire garrison to arms where they would stand for hours, ready for the attack that never came. These small attacks took place constantly during the days preceding the epic battle. The Hessians were incapacitated, not by alcohol, but by sheer exhaustion.

Question 3: True. The Continental Army, an all-volunteer army composed of farmers, merchants, artisans, doctors and lawyers had a literacy rate of approximately 80 percent according to Fischer (though I’ve read other reports that dispute that number).

Nick Caruso is senior staff associate for field services with the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Wethersfield, Conn. E-mail: