Guest Column

The Education Shuffle

by LARRY CLINEFELTER

Today I’m asking you to join me in creating a mental game. The game will be one that is familiar to most--a game of darts.

Picture if you will the circular dartboard centered on a wall in front of you at about chest level. Pick up a dart and aim your throw toward the bull’s eye. Now if you are as much of a novice as I am at darts, hitting the board anywhere is a significant test of skill. But today you will face an additional challenge to the game: Just as you release the dart, the board will move!

To make the game a little fairer, usually you will be told in advance of your toss which direction the board will move. The trick, of course, is that you will not be told how far the board will move. And just to add flair to the competition, on many turns you will have no idea which direction the board will move. Let’s call this new American game the Dartboard Shuffle.

I trust you will agree this might be an exciting contest--one that involves significant skill and a bit of luck and guesswork but one that could easily become frustrating if you are demanding perfection in your game.

Common Scenario
Actually I have envisioned this game for many years. It is seldom that I spend a day at school without creating this game-like scenario in my head. The difference is I tend to superimpose many aspects of the educational process over the dartboard. I call my mental contest The Education Shuffle, which is actually a fairly old American game.

Every few years our teachers are presented with a new testing program. The latest test program invariably will carry a clever name or acronym and will be touted as the answer to our educational woes. It might be called the BEST test or the MAP test. But as teachers aim for perfection on each new test, their dartboard will keep moving. Luck, excitement and guesswork are built into the testing game. The Testing Shuffle is a continuous American game.

With each new test will come the need for a new curriculum. The superintendent and instructional staff will spend countless hours composing and proofing curriculum that matches each new testing philosophy. Then, just when such a teaching plan comes together in a workable fashion, the target moves again! This scenario--the Curriculum Shuffle--is a rather tedious game.

Fast-Moving Targets
Every few years the federal government creates a new educational philosophy. And with it invariably comes federal red tape. The new plan will be touted as the answer to our educational woes. It will predict success for our special education programs, the end to our minority achievement gap and success for all students--or else. It will gain political points for its creator, spend billions of dollars in odd ways and create a lot of jobs for those who shuffle paper. In the Federal Education Shuffle game, the dartboard moves really fast!

Speak to any 70-year-old concerning appropriate school discipline for students. Then, find a 50-year-old parent, a 30-year-old parent and a 20-year-old parent. Each of these generations will have a positive and appropriate response to the disciplinary needs of children and the way in which such matters should be handled. But you will definitely find that the target moves quickly in the game of Discipline Shuffle. And it explains some of the wonderful variety included in the Superintendent Shuffle and Teacher Shuffle games as well.

The month of January is generally a time when about one in three school superintendents will change jobs. Superintendents will be rehired, retired, demoted, promoted or resigned because they tired of the game. They will find the old saying is true that you can please some of the people some of the time, but you absolutely cannot please all of the people all of the time. That’s what the Superintendent Shuffle is all about.

February follows a similar pattern for school principals. They too will be rehired, retired and so on. A building principal will face even more challenges in pleasing most of the people most of the time. The additional element for building principals is that they have to throw at that moving target an incredible number of times every single day!

There are so many shuffle games in education to describe, but time and space simply don’t allow further discussion. School Finance Shuffle, College Shuffle (a fairly long game), Teacher Certification Shuffle, School Board Shuffle, School Politics Shuffle (you can barely see the target in this game), Preschool Education Shuffle and on and on.

Element of Dash
Without the Dartboard Shuffle games, however, the educational process would stagnate and would slow to a very boring game. Eventually we would learn to hit the target and would find no reason to pick up the darts. Change is important and exciting.

Just don’t expect perfection. The target moves too fast.

Larry Clinefelter is superintendent of Laclede County Schools, 726 W. Jefferson Ave., Conway, MO 65632. E-mail: lclinefelter@fs1.conway.k12.mo.us