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Common and Historical Understandings of Accountability

From local news stories to federal policy, we hear talk of accountability. And, indeed, it seems that, at least to an extent, all of us can be on board with calls for accountability, for, as philosopher David Blacker asks, “Who could be against monitoring whether or not desired ends are being achieved?”12 This is especially the case when our tax dollars are used to fund public schools and we therefore have a vested interest in determining whether our children or those of others around us are being adequately educated. Of course, it is in debates over who should monitor the schools, how, and with what aims in mind that differences in our views on accountability become more pronounced.

Although I will soon introduce a more nuanced discussion of what accountability means, we have heard the term used in many different colloquial ways connected to schools, teaching, and democracy. Accountability is a term that is often used when someone or some institution serving the public must be answerable to expectations of the public, especially when there is a problem and the entity must give an account for failing. In some circumstances, accountability is largely an economic concern, where taxpayers seek efficient use of our money and a satisfying rate of return on our investment in children. On a larger economic scale, educational accountability is about ensuring schools’ ability to achieve American dominance in international rankings of student achievement on comparative testing, which is thought to correlate with American dominance in productivity and participation in the technology-based global market. On a much smaller economic scale, many parents expect schools to fulfill their private economic goals and those of their children by awarding them degrees or certifications that will ultimately enable them to secure lucrative jobs.13 Some parents who may want to support their local public schools ultimately choose to enroll in private schools believing that there they can obtain supposedly greater exchange value for their children’s education and ensure a more successful economic future for their kids.14

Certainly schools are held accountable in noneconomic ways as well. For example, some parents expect that schools will affirm their own social, political, and, increasingly, even religious worldviews. Some have gone so far as to leverage legislative protections enabling them to place demands on the school for an alternative curriculum or pedagogy if those of the school are not aligned with the views of the parents.15 Others turn to themed charter or private schools because they are better able to employ and enroll like-minded individuals, thereby making those schools more likely to meet goals upheld by that collection of parents. Traditional public schools, conversely, are in the more challenging position of having to be all things to all people by nature of their open and equitable employment and enrollment guidelines.16

Part of the problem with accountability, then, is that the traditional public schools are tasked with fulfilling nearly everything we want across an economic, political, social, and sometimes even a religious spectrum. When they inevitably fall short of such lofty expectations, support from the public is jeopardized. And when our expectations are misaligned with the content or process of measuring accountability or do not reflect democratic criteria, the legitimacy of schools and the democracy they are a part of is at risk. The current focus on accountability puts the onus on schools without sufficiently considering the role of citizens relative to schools as an institution of democracy and without considering the connection between accountability and legitimacy.

Before making those connections in upcoming chapters, let us first consider the history of accountability in recent decades in a bit more detail. Social movements during the 1960s and 1970s brought forward new challenges to government institutions, as citizens who felt that these institutions’ performance was subpar, inequitable, or unjust demanded change. For example, civil groups focused on the well-being of racial and gender minorities revealed inequitable facilities, extracurricular offerings, and treatment within schools, working collectively to goad change. As a result, some public schools and related state agencies appointed new offices and positions to respond to these demands. These positions helped to ensure that citizens’ calls for improvement were fulfilled but also resulted in further bureaucratizing the schools.17 Around the same time, court decisions and federal policy (including IDEA, racial desegregation plans, Title IX, and related efforts to increase equality in our schools and communities) led to the creation of additional school positions tasked with ensuring compliance. Interestingly, while those positions were initially viewed as integral to achieving better and more just schooling, some of these very positions are now seen as roadblocks to achieving the efficiency desired in schools as part of the calls for accountability issued by some citizens and education reformers today.

As these changes took hold, teachers learned to accommodate their mandates, while also taking their own professional accountability very seriously throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Many citizens also upheld this model as they placed considerable trust in teachers as professionals, believing they had specialized knowledge of teaching, child development, and community contexts. As professionals, teachers were largely entrusted to develop their own codes of ethics and performance standards. For the most part, teachers upheld professionalism as an internal, central element of their work, as opposed to the current use of accountability, which is largely seen as externally imposed.18 With growing international economic competition, the dire pronouncement of educational failures articulated in A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report of President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, and the early influences of neoconservativism and neoliberalism (particularly in regard to school choice), external pressures increased and began to reshape accountability.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, many citizens exercised a form of political accountability wherein they sought to keep government institutions in check by keeping politicians accountable to their constituents through elections and citizen referendums. Unlike accountability in the business world, where the market provides the feedback to evaluate a product, this political accountability was seen as central to maintaining the important political relationship between citizen and state and therefore to the legitimacy of institutions as arms of the state populated by citizens. When it came to schools, there was tension among this form of political accountability, the increasing use of business models of economic accountability, and the existing approach of professional accountability because the first two relied on externally defined criteria for measuring success, rather than the internal standards teachers had grown accustomed to determining for themselves.19

If the accountability approach swings too far one way or another, the enterprise can be distorted. For example, if it swings too far toward the professional, it can result in the loss of public support, as was the case with “the New Math” in the early 1960s, or it can be used by teachers to cover one another’s mistakes, as evidenced in some of the more recent teacher cheating scandals, such as the large Atlanta scandal settled in 2015, where more than 100 teachers in dozens of schools corrected students’ test answers.20 If it swings too far in the direction of unspecialized political accountability among the public, it destroys the very nuanced and specialized understanding that allows for specific and detailed judgment about the needs of particular cases or children that teachers can provide. If it swings too far toward business market models, criteria of performance become dictated by a market, which is largely oblivious to the complexities of the classroom known to teachers.21 Increasingly, over time, more citizens acted in terms of a consum- erist model. They began to expect demonstrable returns on their tax investments in schools and, perhaps reflecting a larger societal shift toward the celebration of the free market, parents—especially those from middle and upper classes—started to behave as shoppers, looking for schools that fulfilled their private desires for their children.22

This transformation was exacerbated at the turn of the century with NCLB and its numerical accounting of educational success. Accountability changed in its definition and its relationship to stakeholders. Teachers and schools were no longer directly accountable to their professional colleagues and standards, nor to the children and communities they served; rather, they became accountable to data collectors and numerical tallies. Accountability became technical or managerial, based on the expectation to produce auditable accounts of children’s learning.23 Auditing allowed for the detection of dishonesty and demanded compliance, moving away from the implicitly trusting model of previous decades and the nuanced decision making teachers used relative to their unique classroom situations.

Under this new form of accountability, political relationships and checks and balances were pushed aside. And teachers’ local knowledge of factors and practices impacting their students and achievement were largely overlooked. Similarly, conversations about the goals and purposes of education were largely foreclosed by assumptions that achievement could be demonstrated on tests in specific subject areas and in the statistical narrowing of the achievement gap (as stated in NCLB and RTTT). Under these assumptions, the aims of schools and the particular practices of teachers engaging with children were no longer up for debate. This shifted citizens’ focus toward the measurement of quality, and away from the methods of achieving or the intended outcomes of this quality. Philosopher of education Gert Biesta rightly notes that this shift gave rise to concerns with efficiency and effectiveness as aspects of quality—terms that now dominate accountability discourse.24

The relationship between the state and the citizen also changed, especially limiting local contextual knowledge and discussions about schools. Biesta convincingly argues that the substantial political relationship between the state and the citizen, based on deliberation about public goods and social expectations of schools, morphed into a merely formal economic relationship, where the state is viewed as the provider of services whose quality is assessed by auditors and then used by citizens to shape their educational choices.25 Blacker similarly laments the foreclosing of public conversations about the goals and practices of schools, as the emphases on test performance and efficiency reign unquestioned.26 We also relinquish some discussions of contextual factors, such as poverty, which may be beyond the control of schools and yet significantly influence performance measures as well as the daily experiences of teachers and children in schools.

Contextual factors are downplayed or excluded in policies focused on 100% success rates, as is the case in NCLB, and practices of “no excuses," a common theme in some of today’s leading charter schools. Accountability is now less democratic, not only because it is not essentially a political relationship, but also because its terms and goals are something we succumb to rather than shape or control and because fewer voices—from teachers with specialized knowledge to public discussions of the aims of schooling—are being heard.

NCLB and the state accountability systems that followed in its footsteps were largely intended to be accountability systems that would bring about improvement in student achievement. As Richard Elmore explains, “Improvement-based systems assume that accomplishing the principal’s ends requires a change in the knowledge, skill, and capacity of the agent in order to meet the principal’s ends"27 But in order to be improvement oriented, the accountability system must articulate a theory of improved teaching so that teachers can learn how to improve their craft to achieve better results among their students. In addition to the lack of and foreclosed conversations about the ends of schooling relative to NCLB, the system also lacked a clear discussion and orientation toward a model of improved teaching, instead offering only vague requirements for teachers to use research- based best practices.

Without a clear vision of improved teaching, the accountability system slid into a system of compliance. Again, Elmore explains: “Compliance-based systems assume that the individual or organization that is being held accountable has the knowledge, skill, and capacity to do what the principal requires, and the essential problem is how to direct the agent’s resources toward the principal’s ends"28 As a result, a system of managerial accountability settled in and pedagogy dropped away from citizens’ concerns.29 We began to focus only on outcomes, with citizens giving little attention to the training and approaches of teachers or the availability of equitable opportunities for students to learn in our schools.30

This move toward a compliance-based system put increased pressure on teachers to demonstrate improvement without being equipped with specific new skills or teaching approaches to help them achieve those goals. This prompted some schools, lacking a specific approach to improved teaching to guide them, to cycle through purchased curricula and professional development, seeking quick ways to produce testing results. Other teachers, especially those within charter networks and organizations like Teach for America and Match Teacher Residency, resorted to decontextualized teaching techniques put forward by Doug Lemov (an author celebrated for his focus on small tricks of the teaching trade) and others that guaranteed demonstrable testing success without first establishing that those techniques were indeed supported by research and the communities being served.

As accountability has increasingly become concerned with accounting, numbers and measurements have taken on considerable power. Accountability is now often tied to rewards and punishments that signify whether accountability as a numerical value has or has not been met. In the case of schools, these occur in many ways, including through public report cards, closing down of failing schools, firing underperforming teachers, or offering financial incentives for improved performance. Some schools and teachers working in this high-pressure environment engage in behaviors intended to earn numbers that will appease inspectors, even if their professional judgment suggests they should do otherwise.31 This may mean foregoing some of the student- focused curriculum and pedagogies of care that they value, or it may mean more substantial breaches of ethics such as the cheating scandals we’ve witnessed in Atlanta and elsewhere.32 The current climate of accountability, with its heightened lack of trust and heightened stakes, demands acquiescence from school administrators and teachers and sometimes leads teachers to compromise their professional judgment.

NCLB, the most significant piece of legislation to impact the accountability climate recently, was able to earn bipartisan support because it married concerns traditionally held by each major political party. Republicans, historically focused on promoting excellence initiatives in schools and largely influenced by political and economic concerns with the declining position of America at the end of the twentieth century, took heart in the high expectations for demonstrating academic performance that NCLB demanded.33 Democrats, historically focused on equity initiatives in schools and deeply troubled by the achievement gap, took heart in the close attention to equal educational success across demographic categories and in provisions for more equitable opportunity through the requirement that all teachers be highly qualified.

These initial responses to NCLB have lingered and transformed in the last decade. Education reformers with a republican bent have increasingly responded to the current state of education as one of crisis and have raised their demands for accountability and efficiency. These amplified demands may reflect the more significant alignment of growing neoliberal values with those of the Republican Party in terms of their focus on reduced federal oversight and increased individual liberties, including school choice and exit options when public schools appear to be failing.

Education reformers with a democratic bent have largely split into two groups based on how educational equality is defined. One group supports equal educational opportunity and believes we need to do much more outside of schools to ensure that all children come to school on a level playing field by addressing issues of health, wealth, and the like. This group, largely composed of educational researchers and teacher educators, tends to downplay aspects of accountability, focusing instead on calls for increased funding and programs to help address issues external to schools.

The second group argues that we should provide equally good schools to all children and believes that by doing so we will overcome differences children face outside of school. This group, largely composed of political leaders (including some mayors leading large urban districts), civil rights groups, and prominent charter school and education reformers, wants to employ testing and accounting measures to make sure that all schools are of good quality. The first group looks at schools and accountability today and sees a crisis of poverty and racism; the second sees the schools themselves as in crisis.34

Later in this book, I hope to redirect these shortsighted views held by Republicans and Democrats toward the significant crisis of political legitimacy and citizen responsibility we currently face. I aim to use principles arising from participatory and deliberative democracy to appeal to concerns held on both ends of the political spectrum in hopes of igniting new conversations and subsequent action. For now, let us carry forward this history of accountability as we turn to consider the public that undergirds accountability, including how it forms, influences schools, and ultimately shapes the demands of accountability.

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