Sisyphists and Principles in Education

According to economist Frederic Bastiat in his essay “Effort and Result,” there is always a ratio between an effort employed and a result obtained. As expected, people in most tasks try to increase their results while minimizing their efforts. This is what Bastiat calls progress. However, in some cases, people do the opposite. Their approach to a task causes an increase in effort, with a simultaneous decrease in the result. To the extent that people do this, Bastiat calls them sisyphists, since if they were entirely consistent and succeeded in creating a maximum effort with zero results, they would be like poor Sisyphus, engaging in a life of toil that produces no benefits.

Bastiat, being an economist, was referring to sisyphists in the realm of economic policy, usually advocates of a protectionist policy, those who put artificial obstacles like tariffs in the way of producers and consumers. While this is certainly a relevant discussion to have today (see President Trump’s views on free trade), my concern, being an educator, is the presence of sisyphism in education.

During this time of the summer, the more conscientious school districts are looking forward to the upcoming school year, discussing appropriate strategies to serve their students best. Sadly, for most, this will be based on a break down of the school’s/district’s state test data. Why sadly?

There are many problems with state testing data, but that’s for another post, and not really relevant here. Assume that the data is good and reasonably accurate if you like. Let’s also assume that the data indicates that students in the district are underperforming on a certain test, or even a certain part of a test, since each test is broken down into multiple categories. Now what? The answer will be something like, “We need to teach the material assessed by that part of the test better, or longer, or differently.” Why? “Because the students need to improve their scores on that part of the test.”

But notice, where is our attention?  Is it on how we can best spend our time with the student so that he has the knowledge and reasoning capacity to flourish as an adult? Is it on how we can develop a culture of excellence in our classrooms, a culture whose fundamental is students and teachers taking their learning and creating seriously? Is it on how to best foster intellectual independence in our students? In our teachers? While it could be the case that an analysis of state test data could lead to these fundamental questions, I suspect this rarely, if ever, happens. And yet, the answer to these fundamental questions is the real driver of a school’s success. So why not start there? After all, addressing these fundamental questions is difficult and time-consuming. Instead, it appears that a primary purpose of the organization is using test data to drive our ability to increase test scores. This is an obstacle. We are becoming sisyphists.

Not only is the emphasis on test data an obstacle, it is a red herring. Can you imagine an honest, conscientious staff at a school thinking they had successfully created a culture of excellence and intellectual independence amongst themselves and their students, such that students left the school as beneficiaries of their education (not products), ready to flourish intellectually as an adult, and yet were proved wrong by test scores? I can’t. If we are worth anything as educators, a focus on test scores will only tell us something we should already know (that in some area we need improvement), or allow us to evade our poor job if by chance the test scores are acceptable, which is entirely possible considering what counts for passing on these tests. In both cases, it diverts our focus away from a principled approach to education. Our attention will be directed away from how to address those fundamental questions that truly determine the success of a school. We will have hampered our ability to create legitimate educational results because our focus will be on something other than proper goals.

Bastiat saw sisyphists as people who needlessly (even purposefully) create obstacles, but this formulation misses the root cause. What sisyphists do is change the goal of an organization (or emphasize a contrary or derivative goal). To those who still cling to the old goal, the steps to the new goal seem like obstacles which increase effort and minimize results. So, if we are not going to be sisyphists in education, we need to make clear our goals as educators and ruthlessly integrate all that we do to the service of that goal. So, let’s do it. Is our goal to be educators whose vision is driven by state test data—the test data-driven approach with a change in that data the implicit goal? Or, is it the explicit goal of helping foster knowledgeable, intellectually independent thinkers who can flourish and be happy as adults—the principled approach?

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