And a Butterfly Flapped Its Wings…

The Butterfly Effect is a term used for a small change in a sensitive system, that eventually results in large differences in the system at a later date.   It’s the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo can cause a hurricane in the Bahamas.  It’s part of a larger mathematical concept called Chaos Theory, and it’s a concept educators know a little something about.

Most  people would like to believe that public education is a deterministic system. A system that is cause and effect, one in which the outcomes can be predicted from the inputs.  They believe improving student achievement is as simple as do this, fix that.   But I can tell you from first hand experience, that life for educators, and in particular teachers, is not that simple.  Currently, for Wyoming educators, it’s chaos.  And it’s far beyond a theory at this point.  It’s a reality.

Earlier this week, the Wyoming Supreme Court struck down SF 104.  I know a lot of you will want to insert your own political views at this point, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s set those aside and look at this in terms of Chaos Theory.   My stake in this isn’t the court’s decision; the only horse I have in this race is the inevitable Butterfly Effect, and it’s likely to be considerable.

Although the issues related to SF 104 have garnered a lot of attention, the truth is that the current educational weather pattern isn’t the result of seeing the occasional butterfly, flutterby,  it’s more like a monarch migration.

Research has shown that the leadership of school boards matters in improving student achievement.  School board elections occur every two years, and with them changing agendas, expectations, and beliefs about how the district should operate (FLAP).

Research has shown that district level leadership and the length of superintendent tenure is important in improving student achievement.  Yet the average tenure for superintendent’s tends to be about three years (FLAP, FLAP).

Research has shown that principal turnover adversely impacts schools, yet the average tenure for a principal is between three and four years (FLAP, FLAP, FLAP).  I wasn’t a math major, but it doesn’t take an overly analytical mind to notice that school boards tend to change every two years, superintendents every three, and principals every four (FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP).

Now consider the constant change associated with the types of topics that are dominating the educational climate such as education funding, high-stakes testing, accountability models, educator evaluation systems, increasing security threats, and the constant flutter from the adoption of the Common Core State Standards… (FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP, FLAP).  I guess you get my point; our teacher’s wouldn’t bat an eye at Hurricane Katrina.  It’s the daily forecast.

For whatever reason, I’m drawn to severe weather, and I like to watch the Weather Channel when a big hurricane hits somewhere.  They always have that one poor reporter standing out in the middle of it all, showing how they can barely stand up to the elements.  If you think that’s what it’s like to be in education these days, you’re wrong.  Look over the reporter’s shoulder, at the nut job surfing the storm surge, reveling in the chaos, refusing the disaster and creating art from it, then you’re beginning to get a sense of what it takes to be teacher these days.

So as our legislators continue to sort out who’s going to run the Wyoming Department of Education, please remember that the butterflies flapping in Cheyenne often end up creating quite a storm in our little corner of the world.   If you happen to come across one of our fine educators in the near future, and they look like they’ve been caught in a hurricane, don’t hesitate to offer them a flotation device of some sort.  They might just need it.

About Jay Harnack

Superintendent of Sublette County School District #1
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6 Responses to And a Butterfly Flapped Its Wings…

  1. Bill Mulvaney says:

    Jay – outstanding blog today! To say that you hit this one out of the park is and understatement. I love the reference to the nut job surfing the big wave – that’s the Jay i know!


  2. Cyd says:

    Excellent! I hope everyone reads this!

  3. Carolyn says:

    Resonates with me! My career students have been thinking about the organization of complex phenomenon, ie. the world of work. We’re trying to conceptualize something that is ever changing…

  4. David J. Bell says:

    Thanks. We used some of your thoughts in a letter to Gov and Legis leaders today.

    Sent from my iPhone


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