My wife is a runner. I love my wife. That's why I woke up this morning at 4:45 in a Pittsburgh hotel.
We did this last year, but last year she ran the full marathon; this year she's a first-year first-grade teacher who lacks the time to train, to put in the 147 hours of prep required for six-year-olds, and to occasionally hang out with me. So this year she ran the half marathon instead.
I've been to many races to cheer and hold a coat, but the Pittsburgh Marathon is about the realest race I attend. And since some folks really like a race as a metaphor for the ed biz, I thought it was worth noting some of what I saw.
The marathon allows lots of different people to race in different ways. One of the most exciting moments comes before the runners start, because ahead of them are the "wheelchair" racers. These folks use recumbent hand-pedaled three-wheelers, and they get to go first because they move like bats out of hell. They take on the course with their own equipment and their own separate set of rules.
The marathon also includes a blind runner or two. These guys run with a partner, a sighted runner tethered to them wrist-to-wrist.
Don't they all run the same course? Well, no, they don't. The full marathoners and half marathoners start together, but along the way the fulls turn left and the halfs turn right and they each take their own route to the finish line, depending on what sort of challenge they have set for themselves.
Pace is wildly variable as well. At the front of the pack are people who run at speeds I don't even like to think about. But at the back of the pack are runners who will take half the day to finish. The city opens the streets up again behind the six hour pace, but runners are free to continue if they wish (just watch out for traffic) and as we left the city today, there were two determined runners still loping slowly up the sidewalk. It seemed clear that they would finish on their own terms, whatever time it took.
The race has roughly 30,000 entrants. You might think that this means there are 29,999 losers, but that doesn't seem to be how it works. True, there can be some tight competition-- this year's men's winner of the half-marathon won by two seconds. But every runner runs for reasons of his/her own. (You can look at all the reasons on twitter under #runfor.) And that means every runner has his or her own definition of success. My wife wanted to break two hours. My friend the choir director wanted to 1) finish and 2) not die. They were both successful and both came home feeling entirely winner-like. Because at this real race, your own definition of your own success, based on your own understanding of your own strengths, weaknesses and goals, is the only definition of success that matters.
So a racing metaphor like Race to the Top seems like it would be pretty clear cut-- everybody completes the same task on the same path to the same destination, and those racers are easily sorted into winners and losers, because to race means to subject yourself to the strict judgment of an outside authority. Simple and clean, cut and dried, macaroni and cheese, right? (Sorry-- rule of threes demanded something).
But when you're actually there, it turns out to be not so simple at all. For some it is the order in which they cross that finish line. Others race against themselves. For some it's just the journey, a rambling trip across bridge and river, through neighborhood after neighborhood, surrounded by music and beauty, cheered by friends and strangers-- the finish line is one of the least important parts of the race. The runners select the challenge they feel best fit to meet, train, practice, make the modifications they need to make, and enjoy an achievement of their own making-- and their own measuring.
I've written elsewhere that a race is a terrible metaphor for education. It's possible that I was wrong.