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Why I Hate the Starfish Parable (And Why the Drowning Babies Parable Is Better)

There’s a sweet, inspirational story I’ve always hated. You probably know the one: The little boy at the beach grabbing the poor sand-stranded starfish and hurling them back into the sea. The old man who asks the boy, “Do you really think you’re making any difference?” The boy, bright-eyed and righteous, who holds aloft one of his rescued starfish, delivers the line, “It makes a difference to this one!”, and chunks it into the water.

I’m not a cynical curmudgeon. On the contrary, in fact—I’m pathologically optimistic and easily moved. I get tears in my eyes when I watch NCAA commercials. The kid playing hoops in the driveway with his dad, who later cuts down the net at a championship and looks over at his dad to exchange a single meaningful nod…it slays me.

Here’s why I hate the starfish parable.

First off, human interference with nature often ends badly for nature, even when the humans involved are well-meaning little Samaritans. Maybe some species of sea bird needed the starfish for food. Maybe the starfish population would skyrocket out of control, leading to starvation and ecological chaos, if a portion of their number didn’t die on the beach. Who does this kid think he is, Jacques Cousteau?

In fact, maybe the starfish just looked like they were dying, but were actually engaged in some obscure starfish ritual essential to their survival. That starfish he rescued probably said to itself,

“Damn. It took me months to get onto that beach.”

What’s the connection to education? Unintended consequences. Harm done by people who care about kids and sincerely want to do good, but don’t take enough time to understand the education ecosystem. Examples abound.

The second reason I hate the starfish story:

The kid’s going to get tired eventually and go home. The starfish he tossed in will probably wash back up on the beach.

Even if we assume he’s doing the right thing, the kid hasn’t figured out why the starfish are washing up, or how to prevent it. He’ll feel great about himself that night, but the many starfish he didn’t rescue, not to mention the ones who get stranded again, are doomed.

The connection to education? Programs and policies that address symptoms but ignore root causes.

Jonathan Kozol has pointed out that a few decades ago, we still believed the dream of a racially integrated school system was possible. Next we moved to an implicitly “separate but equal” idea that inner-city kids in all-Black and all-Latino schools would at least have access to the same resources as more affluent students. Somehow even that goal eroded to, “Let’s make sure students of color score a little higher on standardized tests.”

As teachers, we believe that education can be transformative. But we also know that root diseases like racial segregation and systemic poverty can only be treated, not cured, by education alone.


The Drowning Babies Parable

The kid’s grown up now, and he’s reading a book beside a gently gurgling river. Suddenly a drowning baby floats by. True to his nature, the Samaritan jumps in and saves the child. But pretty soon, another drowning baby floats past. He saves that one too. And the next. And the next. And the next.

A few hours later, his chest heaving, his arms exhausted, a cold dread settles over the man. He has realized the inevitable: There will come a time when I’m too tired to save even one more drowning child. That’s the point at which he looks upstream and sees someone throwing the babies in.

There are moments that tell you everything about a person. What the man does next makes all the difference.

Does he decide his efforts are futile, and walk away? Does he attempt to reason with the baby-thrower—to explain why tossing babies in a river is, all things considered, not a good thing to do? Does he attack the villain, maybe even push him into the river?

What if the baby-tosser is the size of Mr. T? What if he has a gun? What if there are a dozen baby-throwers, and they all have guns and riot gear?

What would the man do? What would you do?


Should We Stay or Should We Go?

In my mind, the difference between teachers and teacher leaders is this: Teachers pull babies out of rivers. Teacher leaders pull babies out of rivers, and they stop people from throwing them in.

True, there’s a disappointing lack of mustachio-twirling, cat-stroking supervillains to blame for the problems that afflict our students. It’s almost a relief when someone in the news turns out, like Clippers owner Donald Sterling, to unequivocally be a bad person. So many powerful people painted as supervillains—Bill Gates, Arne Duncan—just don’t quite fit the bill.

But there are times when a policy is so clearly harmful to students that every teacher leader I know agrees we should fight it. Cutting food stamps for families living in poverty. Requiring schools in Alabama to turn over undocumented students for deportation. About 98% of No Child Left Behind.

I served on a panel a few years ago with a state representative. He said that if his party (Republicans) managed to take control of the State House in Arkansas (they did), their vision for education was to reduce the definition of “adequacy” so they could spend less money on the poorest schools in the state.

This wasn’t some accidental slip-of-the tongue that revealed his nefarious internal monologue. This wasn’t a private conversation caught on tape the way Donald Sterling’s was. This was a talking point. A pillar of an entire state political party’s platform: Spend less hard-earned tax money on undeserving low-income kids.

When Congress was considering the sequester, 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year Megan Allen displayed Kennedy’s definition of courage—“grace under pressure”—at a Congressional hearing. She spoke calmly, clearly, and passionately about the many programs at her school that would be reduced or eliminated if the sequester went into effect, detailing the devastating consequences for her 5th graders. She told the story of her student Daniel, a homeless child who gave her a rock as a gift and told her, “School is my rock. I can really hold onto it.”

Megan Allen saw powerful people rolling up their sleeves to throw babies in the river. She didn’t walk away, and she didn’t take off her shoes to jump in and save a handful of children. She walked upstream to the source and spoke truth to power.

The part that’s even harder is getting power to listen.

Teacher-developed solutions are critical, but we have all seen constructive, student-centered proposals chopped down when a single powerful legislator or administrator felt his power threatened. I wish I had easier answers about how to change that.

My main concern about teacher-led change is that we often fail to partner with the powerful. Nevertheless, I feel a physical pang every time a remarkable classroom teacher leaves the profession—even when they leave in order to gain the institutional power that will help them advocate for students.

These teachers invariably leave the classroom in order to do equally great things: become education professors, develop outstanding math curricula, lead nonprofits, pursue PhD’s in policy. They do great good in their new roles as principals, professors, superintendents, or even righteous policy wonks with a head for data and a heart for kids. They leave the classroom, but they carry their students with them when they go.

Despite knowing all of this, it troubles me when so many leave. I pump my fist in the air every time I hear about a teacher—including CTQ Teacherpreneurs like Jessica Cuthbertson—who lead but don’t leave, who teach masterfully and lead masterfully though hybrid roles.

For those of us who choose to teach for a lifetime, we love teaching and we know how much it matters. Yet we can’t content ourselves with dragging kids out of the river when we know who’s throwing them in.


Being Both

How do we not just speak truth to power, but get power to listen? How do we enter those halls of power ourselves, yet not become corrupted once we’re there?

There was a devastating saying during World War II, spoken of those who collaborated with the Nazis in the hopes of ultimately sabotaging their plans:

“First you pretend to do what they want. Then you do what they want. Then you’re them.”

How do we speak the language of legislators, make our case to test-developers, and work for change through official channels in our district, while holding to our convictions about what school should be?

Someone needs to pull the babies out of the river. Someone needs to stop the people throwing them in, too.

Which “someone” are we? What does it take to be both?


Bill Ivey commented on May 7, 2014 at 4:00pm:

For me,

it's getting those in power to listen - and beyond that, to listen accurately. One of my students once said her father told her he thought that if we all were perfectly rational and had the exact same information, no one would ever disagree. That makes sense, but of course those two propositions are the key. Active and respectful listening (which doesn't automatically imply agreement or even acquiescence) can set the context for someone else listening actively and respectfully to you. Maybe that person is the person in power, maybe someone like you. Both conversations matter - there's also power in numbers, which we can all work to build.

I find myself, too, wondering about lasting effects in another way. We can certainly pull babies out of the river and work to prevent them being thrown in. At some point, though, do we also need to teach babies how to get themselves out of the river? (I say this realizing some may be thrown in further from shore than others, to perhaps push the metaphor too far.) After all, just like parents (really, for the vast majority of kids, even more so than parents), we will not always be there for them to depend on us. At my school, one of things we're trying to teach (still somewhat imperfectly) is self-advocacy. Somehow, that seems to be part of the solution, too.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on May 7, 2014 at 4:48pm:

Sink, swim, or...?

Bill, I can always count on you to write comments that could be posts in themselves, and to push my thinking--especially when it comes to elaborate metaphors.

To make this specific, I'm thinking of my state's different policies on testing ELL's, which have generally improved.

Phase 1: ELL's got to opt out with a portfolio that took a tremendous amount of time and taught them virtually nothing. Essentially teachers "coached"/told them what to write and they kept redoing drafts of responses to prompts until their work was flawless, regardless of how much they understood.

Phase 2: They all got tested, if they'd been here more than a year.

Phase 3: They all got tested but a version of a growth model let them move from Below Basic to Basic and have it help our school.

When their time was being wasted with the portfolio, I see it as an example of (generally well-intentioned) policymakers throwing them into the river. I'm not sure what they could do to drag themselves out, but anything they could do would be some version of "You can't change the wind but you can adjust your sails"--making the best of a bad policy through persistence, or camaraderie, or a grasp of irony, maybe.

I do think, though, that their teachers and parents and principals all had some degree of power to advocate for a better policy. I've seen examples of high school students being effective advocates for policy changes, but it's tricky with young kids--how to help them advocate for themselves without becoming puppets of adults who want certain policies.

When do we toss kids a rope? (i.e. scaffolding, advice....) When do we let them thrash their way to land, because we know they're (probably) capable? When do we explain, "Yes, it's true you got a bum deal when that big guy threw you in the river, but you can't change what happened. Here's how to swim."?

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on May 7, 2014 at 4:53pm:

Another thought, Bill...

Your thoughtful comment also made me reflect on international development. I first heard the "babies drowning" parable in the context of a course about international development, and your insight about teaching kids to swim made me realize that there may be a perspective flaw in the metaphor. It's easy to see outsiders (i.e. American Peace Corps members) as the ones who are going to stop the person throwing babies in the river, and the actual inhabitants of the developed world as the babies.

Obviously, that's a paternalistic view that assumes an almost complete lack of agency on the part of the "babies." One of the things my professors in Africana Studies emphasized was the framing of "slaves" as victims who had been and always would be slaves, vs. "enslaved Africans," which implies that this unnatural thing was done to them, along with emphasizing some of the courage, ingenuity, and community that helped many Africans both survive slavery and free themselves.

As always, thanks for pushing me to think these things through to further levels.

Brianna Crowley commented on May 8, 2014 at 7:27pm:

I could have predicted...

...that it would be you, Justin Minkle, who would pull me from my self-imposted CTQ reading/commenting fast as I desperately attempt to meet 2 huge deadlines by May 16th. It was your title, really, that drew me in--what was he referencing with this starfish metaphor? Starfish metaphors are the heart of CTQ's current philosophy--is he critiquing it? 

Once you had hooked me into clicking that fb link, I was sunk--sunk into the fantastic discussion that you always seem to prompt. I'm thinking about the framing of the futile savior vs. the effective savior. I'm thinking about the current state of our teaching profession and the insight it takes to even look up from the river to see the origin of the problem--the big guy throwing the babies in. So many teachers love to feel like that lone lifeguard--diving in with all the passion and sacrifice they can muster. Living for that moment when the "baby" looks up and gives a silent or audible "thank you." 

But you're right. That can be selfish at worst, and innocently futile at best. Selfish when we glorify the teacher-martyr role because if grants us purpose and self-righteousness. Futile when teachers realize that so many of these babies are products of a system creates to perpetuate only a few of them thriving. When educators don't step back and examine the problem beyond their students, beyond their classrom...When teachers say they are "too busy" to care about systems or political votes, or broader impacts that affect every single kid they claim to be so sacrificially fighting for every day...they are making a choice to be that lone lifeguard rather than the leader they have the potential to be. 

Sometimes teachers muzzle themselves and then turn an angry and accusing finger to the person who sold them the muzzle. 

I also love the pushing Bill gives to an alternative option. Maybe our job isn't solely to "stop" the source or "rescue" the babies. Maybe we need to coach from the sidelines, throwing in the rope, the floating devices to keep those babies alive longer and to empower them to figure their own way out. It's much less gratifying. To patiently describe how to tread water, how to coserve energy, how to think strategically about the tools within grasp--this doesn't allow us to play hero, but the much less powerful position of a mentor, a guide, a rafiki to our Simba's and their uncle Scars. Oh dear...see what you can to do an English teacher when you introduce metaphors! I'm going to stop while I'm not ahead :) 



Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on May 8, 2014 at 9:45pm:

The two dangers, and the benefits of being a cog in a wheel

Ah, how I do love you, Brianna. Some people can't resist the lure of alcohol or chocolate; your "demon brew" is a conversation rife with metaphors.

You make wonderful points. My worry about this post, having thought about the responses, is that it sounds like I'm saying it's not enough to teach well. Effectively teaching a single class of kids takes untold hours and years, and I don't think that everyone needs to disperse their energy in dozens of directions with political action and other systemic efforts. In fact, one of the two dangers I see in the starfish-saving kid is burnout.

The kid doesn't have any friends or mentors there on that beach. No one to help him out, or tell him a more efficient way to save the starfish, or ask the probing question, "Are you sure they're dying? They look pretty happy to me."

The second danger I see is that lack of understanding of the whole system. The drowning babies metaphor is usually applied to international development, I think, and probably the reason I thought of it relative to teaching is that most of my career has been cross-cultural--even though I've been in my own country, I've been teaching kids with a different language, culture, and socioeconomic reality than my own, alongside (in my current school) a predominantly white staff. So that danger is more real.

The big shift for me since college has been the transition from wanting to be that lone intrepid change-maker to being more content to work as part of a system. We're in a pretty individualistic culture, with metaphors like "cog in a wheel" when it comes to working through "the system."

I thought about this question on a personal level when I was going through the classes to become Catholic before marrying my wife. I told a friend in my teaching program as we played tennis in the Berkeley Rose Gardens one day, "I just don't know if I want to go through with this. There's so much in the Church I don't agree with."

My friend shrugged it off and said, "I don't agree with everything the Oakland Unified School District does, but I still taught for them last year."

I see more value in finding systems you're willing to be parts of, flaws and warts and all, and then A. trying to make them better than they are but also B. trusting that your individual impact fits into a much larger system that's doing good you couldn't do alone.

Brianna Crowley commented on May 8, 2014 at 10:07pm:

It is enough.

It is enough to teach well. That's the beauty of a great metaphor though. It's like a sparkling, well-cut diamond. The more ways your turn it, the more colors, light, and patterns it throws. One angle of your post is challenging teachers to see beyond the incredible pull of our individual students and classrooms--that's the lens that struck me on the initial read. It speaks to the urgency I feel in a system that seems often too cumbersome to evolve at the speed necessary for our students and teachers. 

However, you wrote it with the diamond turned a bit perhaps. Your intention wasn't to imply that the job of a teacher solely focused on students was anything less than a gigantic, worthy task. In that, I agree. I just don't think at this point it will do the important work that needs to be done in our systems. We need people to do more, look further, and ask what role they play in the evolution of the system, the community, and the national conversation around education. Not that everyone will, just that more must. 

Burnout is huge, and I agree that many wouldn't be as effective if trying to expand in too many directions--Lord knows I have lived this in personal experience! But each person could find thier one way to look beyond the classroom and those individual kids. Maybe the "system" they are trying to influence is simply their own community. They make a concerted effort to speak often and loudly about the work they see their colleagues doing in schools, and they make it a point to speak that truth to those in the community outside of the school. This would be like that starfish kid taking pictures of those starfish and posting them on a community bulletin or web forum. Even if he took a picture of each one before throwing it back in, he would stay focused while expanding the potential of his efforts beyond that place and time. Is that making sense? 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on May 8, 2014 at 10:29pm:

The problem with love

It is making sense, of course. I also think we're on track to set a record for number of metaphors and variations on a single metaphor in a blog post.

The best depiction/explanation of love (any kind of love) I have read is in The Little Prince. That idea that one flower or one fox isn't any more important than the other thousands of flowers and foxes, but that one can and should become more important when you come to know it, growing a bit closer every day. You know its particulars, its story, so you end up loving it and sacrificing more for it than any other flower or any other fox.

The problem, of course, is that all the other flowers and foxes ARE equally unique, equally worthy of love and protection.

That's part of what I'm trying to get at--that on one hand it's not just understandable, but wonderful, to become so close to your own students, to your own school in your own district. At the same time, we have to keep conscious that all those unknown students are equally worthy of what we want for our students. It's always a judgement call how much of our finite time and energy to expend on "other people's children," but in general, I think if we each zoomed out a little and spread our influence a little further, kids as a collective would be better off for it.

Footnote: I struggle with this as a parent. For example, let's say there is one amazing 1st grade teacher at my daughter's school next year and one beastly one. I'd almost certainly do what I could to get her in the class with the amazing teacher, even though in my head I know that I'd be depriving some other 1st grader who might need the amazing teacher far more than my daughter, simply because I haven't met that other 1st grader and she's not mine.

Deidra Gammill commented on May 8, 2014 at 11:44pm:

Lighthouse Keepers

Ok, I am completely out of my league here, so I'll keep my comment uncharacteristically short.

Teachers often feel like they’re responsible for saving the world; every starfish we miss adds to a self-imposed burden of guilt. That's one reason it's so incredibly important for teachers to know their individual strengths, to recognize their unique gifts. When we work together, we can do far more than any of us could have done alone.

I’ll risk adding another aquatic metaphor to this thread: I imagine educators, not as cogs in the machine, but as lighthouse keepers - some keep the lamp lit and the glass spotless; others constantly scan the horizon, looking for ships in trouble; while still others man the lifeboats and rescue those in the water.

Thanks for such eloquent and enjoyable food for thought. I am in awe of the writers who share on the CTQ.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on May 9, 2014 at 12:00pm:

Beautiful metaphor! (We can't have too many, right?)


No way are you out of your league. The lighthouse keeper metaphor is beautiful and I would LOVE to see you write a blog post elaborating on it.

Since we're a little short of metaphors on this thread (kidding) here's another one bouncing off your insight about knowing our individual strengths as teachers: X-Men (and-Women).

The X-Men each have different powers, and while the individual mutants are powerful, they're truly a force as a collective. I think in education, especially post-NCLB, we've gotten too preoccupied at diagnosing weaknesses while neglecting strengths.

As a school staff or as a profession in its entirety, not only can we combine our various "powers," but we can use our collective strengths to address our individual weaknesses/goals.

Example: At my school, we fill out a 'wish list' each year with techniques we want to learn or improve (i.e. teaching CGI math, teaching informational text through a Writer's Workshop model), then we observe teachers in the school or other schools who are particularly good at that skill to learn from them.

Keep the beacons lit...


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