Fly Fishing and Evidence Use in Education


November 29, 2016


After living in Oregon for seven years, I recently decided it was time to learn how to fly fish, one of the region’s most revered pastimes. So, in early October, my wife and I hired a guide and spent a glorious Sunday fishing on a McKenzie River drift boat (aka dory).

I learned many things that day that apply to education reform. For example, our boat reminded me that all education improvement efforts are better when they are tailored to local settings (McKenzie River drift boats, which allow for easy maneuvering in rapids, were adapted from the open-water dory to meet local needs, that is, the conditions of the McKenzie River—one of the country’s finest spots for fishing).

But the biggest connection I made between education reform and my fishing experience revolved around using evidence to improve schools.

Stick with me for a moment.

From my day on the river, I learned there appears to be a hierarchy of approaches for catching trout. (I could be wrong; I’ve fished only once!)

The top approach seems to be using a dry fly, which floats on water and looks like the insects and small animals trout eat. The second-most-favored approach seems to be a wet fly, which sinks just a little below the surface and that you occasionally tug to imitate the swimming motion of a live insect.

Finally, there is a lure, a mechanical contraption that sinks below the surface and attracts fish through its motion. I get the impression that if you are experienced at trout fishing, you don’t like to tell your friends you landed your catch with a lure.

Here is the connection: The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law last December, includes provisions that give states much greater latitude in using evidence for improvement—and it allows schools and districts to more deeply explore evidence-based approaches that are best suited to local needs and improvement plans.

I’d say that in terms of evidence use, ESSA moves from a “prove” to an “improve” mindset; the focus is not on the evidence, per se, but what it can help achieve. The central question becomes, “Which evidence-based approach is most likely to get the job done?”

I recently co-authored a report on one important element of ESSA: How educators can use evidence-based approaches to improve schools. My colleagues and I made recommendations regarding how state education agencies can think about the three “tiers” of evidence schools and districts must consider when putting together their school improvement plans. In general terms, these tiers are Level 1 (“strong”), Level 2 (“moderate”) and Level 3 (“promising”).

Now, let me turn back to fishing. As a purist, you may prefer dry flies, or at least wet flies, over lures. Similarly, research “experts” may prefer strong or moderate evidence over promising evidence.

But I’d like to report that I caught six trout with a Super-Duper lure, and the likelihood of my catching anything using a dry fly my first time out was close to zero.

Our guide recommended I fish with a lure based on my skill level, the weather conditions and the way fish had been biting that day. And because my goal was to catch fish, given the circumstances, the Super-Duper lure was the way to get the job done.

Put another way, given a choice of “good,” “better” or “best” in terms of fly fishing, I went with good that day. It turned out to be the best choice.

Maybe there’s a lesson there for school improvement.