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The Starfish Story

Forget trying to fix all of school's problems, concentrate on one student at a time.

It's a familiar story, but one worth repeating. A young girl was walking along the beach early one morning. The tide was receding, leaving numerous starfish stranded on the beach. The girl began picking them up and tossing them back into the water.

Engrossed in her task, she didn't notice the crusty old fisherman sitting quietly watching her. He startled her with a gruff, "What are you doing?" to which she smiled and enthusiastically replied, "I'm saving the starfish."

Good teachers and
administrators want more
freedom to experiment
and innovate.

He laughed at her and launched into a scoffing ridicule. "Look ahead of you down the beach," he said, pointing to the seemingly endless expanse of sand and surf. "There are thousands of starfish washed up on this beach. You can't hope to save them all. You're just wasting your time. What you're doing doesn't matter," he exclaimed in a dismissive tone.

The girl stopped, momentarily pondering his words. Then she picked up a starfish and threw it far into the water. She stood straight and looked him in the eye. "It matters to that one," she said, and continued down the beach.

Applying the story to schooling

For many educators this story harmonizes with the motivations that led to choosing the profession, and it inspires an already active desire to help make the world a better place. But isn't it true that too often in apologetic defense of our system of education, we're more like the crusty old seaman than the bright-eyed girl?

Consider, for example, the goal of providing an individualized education for every student. We know customizing curriculum is a fast track to increased student achievement; but we also know customizing is antithetical to the traditional school setting. Schools are designed to educate large numbers of students in fixed groupings and tightly monitored timing sequences-essentially a one-size-fits-all model.

It doesn't have to be that way, especially with today's technologies making mass customization possible both economically and logistically. Never before have we been better able to provide every student with an individualized education program. Yet we don't reap the real benefits of technology because that requires reconfiguring the very way we do school. Instead, we settle for sticking six computers in the back of a classroom hoping teachers will "integrate them into the curriculum." That approach doesn't have a chance to produce an educational advantage.

But this column is not about technology per se. Good technology is just one means to a desired end. It is really about empowering good teachers, thousands of whom are enthusiastically walking the beaches of today's classrooms. They crave a reconfigured school setting, seeking a structure that will grant them more time with each student and enable them to better customize resources and activities. Good teachers-and administrators-want more freedom to innovate.

New models of schooling are necessary, but I'm convinced there is no one right way to reconfigure schooling. Take the KIPP Academy, for instance. I began writing this column after receiving a Christmas card from a KIPP student in Houston. I have to admit that my first take at reconfiguring school would not have produced KIPP's super-long school day and almost militaristic "no shortcuts" approach. Yet, after visiting and interacting with faculty and students, I admire their accomplishments and applaud their proclamation that "all of us will learn."

Maybe most noteworthy is that KIPP has done it without "skimming the cream" in selecting students (which critics of expanded choices and new models often claim will happen). To the contrary, KIPP takes some of the neediest students and consistently produces high achievers.

But KIPP is just one model. Like me, most school administrators wouldn't have thought to create KIPP. But that's OK, there are many other approaches that work. The point is that it's in initiating, fostering and promoting new models that what we do will matter most. This is our moral imperative because the present system and structure under serve so many, particularly the most needy. Like KIPP and other break-the-mold models, our legacy can be students who say of our work, "It mattered to this one."

Daniel E. Kinnaman,, is publisher.