Tag Archives: Data Driven

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?

Data Data Data (Part 1) – Preaching to the Choir


There is a fascinating new article titled Charlotte, N.C. Gave Principals Power Over Teacher Layoffs. What Happened? The article points to a “study” done in which data was “examined” and “analyzed” to determine that in a particular instance when “less effective teachers” were laid off, “student achievement benefitted.”

Really? Firing less effective teachers benefits students? Of course it does. This is common sense, which in fairness the article states. But why is a “study” needed to tell us this? If somehow the study showed otherwise should we come to the opposite conclusion? Should we then make the research-based decision to refrain from firing bad teachers? Perhaps we should fire the capable teachers instead, wait a few years and do another “study.”

Our reliance on “data” before we make even the most obvious of decisions is a sad sad indicator of our intellectual state. Especially since either the data is impoverished (the passing rate for the Biology or Algebra EOC when 38% is passing and the test is multiple choice – a 25% chance of guessing right on each question), or the conclusions based off the data aren’t reasoned through (a curriculum pedagogue once told me “data showed” it wasn’t beneficial to do work from previous grade levels if students weren’t up to speed, ignoring hierarchy in learning). Let me be clear, studies of this kind are more than a waste of time. They are an affront to the reasoning mind.

Enlightenment thinkers everywhere are turning over in their graves. Reason is dying in education.

Value and Data: The Fletch Principle

Toby Fletcher was a wise coworker of mine at Falls. While we worked together we were both trying to get back in good running shape and each day we would ask each other how our respective runs went. If I ever reported that I ran that morning but it didn’t go very well, he would respond with something like, “Heck, at our age it’s a win if we just walk out the door with our running shoes on.”

Getting in good physical shape, like learning, doesn’t always appear to follow a nice smooth upward curve.  But if Fletch was right, and I think he was, then every time you hit the gym in earnest, or every time you open a book in earnest, you are indeed making good progress toward your physical or intellectual well-being.

The point is that it usually only appears that learning takes steps back. The reason it appears so is our misuse of data.

For example, if I ran today and fell short of the time I ran a few days ago I could interpret the data as a step back. (“I’m getting slower!”) But Fletch’s point keeps a better context and focuses on the essential. Will I be in better or worse shape after my run today? Surely better. Certainly better than not running at all. Why? Because exercise is a value. I don’t need daily data to tell me this, and I better not let daily data convince me otherwise. Exercise is a value, period, regardless of how fast or far I am able to run on any given day.

Likewise with learning. My oldest son is just learning to read. It’s pretty slow going, but I’m convinced that taking small, simple words and sounding them out together is a valuable process.  If I were a typical data hound like many in education (see Applied Behavior Analysts for the best examples) I might be keeping track of every time my son reads a word correctly so I could see if we are “progressing” or “regressing.” Two days ago he misread a word. Let’s mark it down as another step with no progress, right?

Wrong! It was a great breakthrough! For the first time, on his own, he sounded out the phonemes, and then combined them into a word. He misread the vowel sound, but no matter! He showed an understanding of how to produce sounds from letters on a page and then to combine them to make a meaningful mental unit. The pertinent data is not that he misread the word, but that he sounded it out and combined the letters intentionally.

On a more significant level, the pertinent data is that we simply spent another day working on his reading in a systematic way. Intellectual pursuits of this kind are valuable for many reasons (apart from just learning to read) and can’t be measured by checking a multitude of boxes. Just like, according to Fletch, the pertinent data from my run isn’t so much my time (after all, I’m just trying to get in shape), it’s that I went running at all, because exercise is valuable for many reasons beyond being able to run fast.

There’s more to say about the supposed objectivity of the “data driven instruction” movement in education, but that’s for another post. Until then, let’s see valuable pursuits for what they are and not let impoverished data divorced from essentials and context turn us away from our physical and intellectual health.