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

The parable of the little boy and the starfish is sweet, inspirational, and full of hope. Here’s why I’ve always hated it.

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?