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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Too Fast for Conditions

Too Fast for Conditions

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Under pressure to reach our destinations in K-12, we travel with others who are heading the same direction.  How fast should we go?

For the most part, we travel a similar speed, or at least within a standard deviation from the mean, it seems.  Our speed limit and even its minimum are for the most part, set.  We’ll pass folks here and there, and at times … we’ll be passed.  The legalities, norms, and folkways are generally respected, as we have shared expectations under which we operate.  It’s just the way we roll.

As a profession, we indirectly encourage each other to comply with a K-12 speed limit as we travel from August to June.  We start and end at around the same time, attend the same meetings, listen to the same performance expectations, share instructional pacing strategies, and as metaphor would suggest … listen to the beat of the same radio station while traveling.  Critics would argue, “Easy-Listening,” although I’m not sure that’s really fair, given how hard we work. 

Yet despite new genres and artists, many in education still listen to melodies that take us back to when we were in school.  Some even drive their fathers’ Oldsmobile’s -- creatures of habit, if not history. Willard Daggett once stated, “The problem is not that schools are not what they used to be; it’s that they are” (Daggett, 2004).

A few examples: Running schools when adults are most alert, not the children … sorting students by same-age grade levels … making children start an entire grade over if they fall short of expectations.   The latter is sort of like starting again in Indiana if our car runs out of gas in Nevada, on the way to California. 

Those are our practices.  What is interesting is that we still find them as normal … acceptable.

Further …

We anxiously await test results that arrive at the sound of an alarm clock, perennially.  Encouraged to do things the way things “should be done,” we operate in an arena where outliers are dis-incentivized; transparency is unsettling.

I’m actually a proponent of “outlier behavior.”  What troubles me is that we are not giving equal credence to efforts on both ends of the speed-limit spectrum for efforts in programmatic improvement. 

We seem to value speed over slowness. 
We seem to value seat time over skill development.

At least we behave that way.

In doing so, we oftentimes unintentionally vilify tortoises over that of hares.  Cohort-based graduation rate sanctions are one example, for those who don’t complete in a timely fashion. Tortoises that show success are not provided ample credit, as it happens too slowly for those enacting minimum speed limits. 

At the same time, hares that show success may be glorified and encouraged to sport their wares for potential replication, even among dissimilar contexts. Programmatic commercials are produced for best-practice gatherings.  Participation in the audience is, at times, mandatory for the tortoises, those purportedly needing technical assistance. 

Mainstream thought defines schools too slow as “failing”  -- teachers too slow as “lazy” -- students too slow as “unmotivated” -- families too slow as “uninvolved” -- leaders too slow as “not up to the challenge.”  In this context, one hare’s commercial becomes another tortoise’s entrée on a cafeteria plan of school reform.

Have we considered the inherent risks of trading methodical pace for moving too quickly?  

With hares, a problem exists that is more pernicious than a tortoise’s “slow and steady.”   It involves the notion of Driving Too Fast for Conditions.

Driving too fast for conditions can have real consequences, not just a matter of raising the ire of those who desire a more comfortable speed.  It can impact immediate lives, inconveniencing a good many, while impairing entire systems designed for smooth travel. 

Consider what can happen in moving too fast:

Impaired visibility can impinge upon our ability to see danger that lies ahead. When not able to see what we are approaching, we can hit an obstruction that would allow us time to act if we were traveling more slowly. This could have a pinball effect.

Decreased traction can cause us to lose our footing, with the resultant instability causing us to veer off course, possibly colliding with something we cannot avoid. A potential pinball effect could result here as well.

On the roadways, impaired visibility and decreased traction can cause loss of life.  In K-12, impaired visibility and decreased traction can cause loss of livelihood and learning.

What about the “conditions”?  What variable helps us define speed that is simply “too fast”? 

Conditions in education involve the contexts in which we do what we are being asked to do.  When pressure is on to perform, the conditions are more tenuous -- we experience the metaphorical equivalent of hail, sleet, or snow. Smart folks slow down and proceed cautiously. Others blow by us at a high rate of speed, causing a temporary reduction in visibility for all around.

Our better leaders possess both talent and skill in defensive driving.  They know the speed to select given conditions presented, to maximize control.  This is not “playing defense,” by any means – it is simply a safer way to deploy a smart offense.

I pose this as a prelude to a conversation in what we value … and what we should consider valuing, as we define success in K-12.  Should we value the quickest path to increased student achievement?

I recently returned home from a trip out-of-state after traveling 45 miles per hour on a 70 mile-per-hour expressway.  I made it home a bit later than I anticipated, late for dinner even, but I was still able to enjoy the warmth of a reheated meal, the company of my wife and children, and the reflections of a trip well traveled.  I’m not sure that all those whom I saw in the ditch along the way can say the same.

I acknowledge that a few who drove my route at 70 miles per hour were hugging their children even earlier than I.  I’m sure they ate on time and probably begrudged me for my slower speed as they passed [I understand sign language].

Even with timely completion of their trips, I don’t use define their exploits as exemplary.  Conversely, I think they were reckless, not at all the standard bearers of how to travel from point A to point B in the conditions we experienced.  They may have even run others off the road. 

I think of a family on Interstate 69 climbing out of the top, actually the side (situated on top), of an overturned vehicle.  Do our slower moving students feel this way, after teachers blow through a text chapter on their way toward readiness for yet another standardized test?

I wonder how often a “too fast for conditions” is calculated before we put on a pedestal those who finish first in K-12. How often are circumstantial conditions factored-in as the alarm clock rings on our perennial worth? 

We might instead consider taking a more careful look, over time, at what constitutes successful K-12 travel and completion, considering more the conditions that interfere with learning and those who finish safely, more often.


Daggett, W. (2004, June). America’s most successful high schools: What makes them work. Conference Presentation, 2004 Model Schools Conference, Washington, D.C.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a fan of those who resist the temptation and pressure to sprint, leap, and react quickly to changing mandates, moving targets, and shifting circumstances in education.  If you are a fan of taking a pause to prudently gauge a next step, please feel free to say “HI” to Dr. Donlan anytime by calling (812) 237-8624 or writing him at He would enjoy your company and support.

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