The Next Accountability: Getting What We Want from Schools – Without Technocracy

For decades, the word “accountability” brought education reformers together. Today, it’s driving us apart.

Our forefathers built the education reform movement on a foundation that all reformers shared: We need to hold schools accountable, so they’ll give kids the education we want them to get. Now we’re discovering cracks in the foundation. It turns out we don’t agree on what we want, or on how we get schools to deliver it.

The recent debate over an article by Robert Pondiscio has brought this conflict further out into the open. So has Jeb Bush’s latest attempt to cast a vision for education reform, in which he dramatically reverses his earlier commitment to rigid, top-down systems of “accountability” in favor of radical disruption, diversity and parent choice.

Jay Greene is right that this is not really a debate about Left v. Right but a debate about technocracy—rigid and centralized systems of control, using narrow and reductive quantitative metrics, that give enormous power to a special class of education experts on the theory that we can trust them to be all-knowing, benevolent and apolitical. There are plenty of technocrats on the Right, and plenty of anti-technocrats on the Left.

“Accountability,” long established as the foundation of education reform, has come to mean technocratic accountability. Big new bureaucracies have been built, and millions spent, to grind out and analyze countless billions of data points whose connection to children’s real educational success is tenuous at best. The byzantine world of congressional sausagemaking, with its shadowy dealmaking and its forest of esoteric acronyms stretching as far as the eye can see, has become the center of the educational universe.

For those of us who reject technocracy, the fate of education reform now hinges on whether we can find a new vision of what accountability is.

Offering up such a new vision may well split the education reform movement, dividing us from old allies, but it may also attract powerful new allies from the anti-technocratic Left. And the response to Pondiscio and Greene shows that the technocrats aren’t listening to us and don’t care about our concerns anyway. We’re not leaving them; they have already left us.

“Markets” and “Competition” Are Not Enough

Most people who call themselves education reformers have embraced rigid, technocratic, highly systematized and numbers-driven approaches to accountability. The great benefit claimed for this system is that it is outcomes-based rather than inputs-based.

A few of us, however, think that all this technocracy is precisely what we have been fighting against all along. It is essentially an extension of the old regime’s philosophy: We’re the education experts, and we know best! It’s just as impersonal and unresponsive to the real needs of real people as the blob. It’s as if we defeated the Soviet Union, and then celebrated our victory by imposing communism on Western Europe and North America.

However, those of us who resist technocracy have not done an adequate job of casting a vision of what we think real accountability would look like. Talking points and canned rhetoric about “markets” and “competition” are woefully inadequate to the needs of the present moment.

It’s not that the things we’re saying are wrong. We just aren’t getting to the heart of the matter because we are not challenging our nation to re-ask itself the big questions about education: What is the purpose of education? Who has final responsibility for it and why?

America needs to rethink what we really want from schools. Whether of the old or new variety, technocratic systems fail not only because they can be manipulated by greedy and incompetent people or because they lack sufficient information about client preferences (although these things are also worth remembering)—technocracy fails more importantly because it is based on a wrong understanding of what education is for.

Knowing what we want requires us to reawaken to who we are. All the great thinkers who have cast big visions for education, from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Locke to Rousseau and Dewey, agreed that knowing something about what it means to educate children ultimately requires us to know something about what it means to be human. If opponents of technocracy can’t say something about that, all our rhetoric about markets and competition is chaff in the wind.

Education is by and for people, people whose purposes in life can’t be standardized or captured in numbers and technocratic systems. People who are all embedded in a bewildering variety of relationships and communities that shape who they are and what their lives mean. People who cannot be the one-size-fits-all interchangeable cogs that our technocratic accountability systems need them to be to function.

Who We Are and What We Want

This article kicks off a new series on “The Next Accountability.” I’ll be offering provocative statements about what I think accountability ought to mean for education reform as we move forward.

In the next in this series of articles, I’ll be looking at What We Want—the purpose of education and why technocracy fails to achieve it. I’ll argue that our children’s heads need the knowledge that allows them to live a good life, not just knowledge that happens to be easy for technocratic bureaucrats to measure. Their hands need practical skills and competencies for a good life, which also may not align with technocracy’s data-driven needs. Most profoundly, their hearts need deep moral formation for good character, and technocracy prevents schools from being and doing what they need to be and do to provide this.

Then I’ll look at Where We Get It—the effect technocracy has on education at the ground level. Rethinking the purpose of education should lead us to rethink its delivery in light of that purpose. I’ll argue that teachers should be free and responsible professionals, but technocracy treats them like factory line workers. Schools need strong institutional culture, which technocracy undermines. And strong school leaders, innovative principals and educational entrepreneurs, are squeezed out by technocratic accountability.

That takes us to the deepest point we have to consider: Who We Are. If technocrats can’t hold schools accountable in a way that empowers them to educate children for a good life, who can? As human beings, we are individuals, and each of us is important as a person who can learn and act on our own initiative. But we are also families, equipped for a life of knowing and doing through the process of nurture and discipline that is childrearing. And we are communities. None of us is autarchic or self-reliant; we provide for our needs by providing for one another’s needs, exchanging our gifts with one another and respecting a shared justice in the rule of law and a common history. We must determine how schools fit into this tapestry instead of leaving them to operate in isolation, autonomous and disconnected.

The big finish: How We Get What We Want. How can we hold district schools, charter schools and private schools in choice programs accountable in a way that aligns with Who We Are and What We Want? We need to empower parents because in the long run only parental power can ensure teachers and schools are free to ground each child’s education in a coherent understanding of what a good human life would be for that individual child. We also need to restore polity, reforming school board elections, promoting autonomy within school districts and fixing other closed systems so that local communities who know what’s happening on the ground can have effective oversight of district schools instead of giving that authority to distant, data-driven bureaucracies. To accomplish these two things, we need new principles—we need to publicly challenge the deep system of narratives and claims of fact that keeps technocrats in power.

What’s at Stake

This conflict over accountability is scary, but exciting.

It’s scary because a conflict over what we mean by accountability is a conflict with very big stakes. We now have huge reform efforts invested in differing visions of accountability—from Common Core and the debate over ESSA renewal to the nation’s first universal school choice program, an education savings account in Nevada that limits government oversight of schools to matters like health and safety. The first negative academic research finding for voucher participants, which just happened to arrive in Louisiana’s heavily regulated, test-score-technocracy program, only raises the stakes further. The breakup of the old education reform coalition will scramble the situation on all sides.

It’s exciting because it promises to clarify the big questions. For decades, the war over education policy was a Manichean battle of good versus evil. It used to be reformers, who cared about kids and the future of the country, against teacher and staff unions, who cared about teacher and staff unions.

Now, while the guardians of the gravy train still have a lot of power, they have been publicly discredited. Education reform is ascendant, even as many fights with the old guard still go on. That means we can now have the fight that matters even more: We get to fight about justice. With each passing year, we will fight less about whether we will do what’s right and more about what’s right to do.

It is only through that kind of conflict that really historic progress gets made. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not interested in renegotiating the terms of segregation. He came not to reform it but to exterminate it. We too must fight not for a renegotiation of terms with the technocratic beast, but for its end.


A final note: I am excited to kick off this series in tandem with the Friedman Foundation’s final celebration of Friedman Legacy Day, which culminates on Jul. 29. On that day, the Foundation will announce changes to its name and work as we move forward in the school choice movement. The second post in The Next Accountability series will be published the following week on Aug. 3.

I invite our readers to weigh in over the next month, and I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing your thoughts about this. I’ll be responding in real time to social-media and other feedback—because I’m against technocratic arrogance! If education involves the big questions of what it means to be human, all of us had better have our ears open to what the whole human community has to say. Let us know what you think!


For more from this series, visit:

Part I: “The Next Accountability Part 1: What We Want

Part 2: “The Next Accountability Part 2: Where We Get What We Want

Part 3: “The Next Accountability Part 3: What We Don’t Want from Schools

Part 4: “The Next Accountability Part 4: Who We Are

Part 5: “The Next Accountability Part 5: How We Get What We Want

*Opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of EdChoice.