The Next Accountability Part 1: What We Want

Accountability begins with the question: What do we want from schools?

Education should help people grow into their potential as human beings, and education reform should fix our system so schools do that better.

That means accountability needs to start with an understanding of how we help people grow into their human potential. The lack of such a vision explains the present crisis of accountability.


Our Divided Visions of Education

The education reform movement as we have known it was built around a shared commitment to “accountability.” However, it never developed a shared understanding—not with any serious level of specificity—of what education is for. We took it too much for granted that we all meant the same thing when we said we wanted kids to have “a better education.”

That’s why, as we are now discovering, we don’t agree on what accountability means.

While the political success of education reform dates from the 1990s, the diverse moral narratives that animate education reformers are older. Some have roots in the Civil Rights movement, turning to school reform as a way of repairing the damage done by centuries of wicked racial and ethnic oppression in the name of justice and equality. Others have roots in the Cold War fight against totalitarianism, turning to school reform to fight the rising tide of government control and centralization in the name of freedom and opportunity.

The movement was well served in many ways by its various edifying impulses: to “close the achievement gap,” to “put parents in charge,” etc. But it has been haunted for decades by a growing awareness that these moral impulses do not always cohere easily.

The question, “What do we do if putting parents in charge doesn’t, by itself, close the achievement gap?” has been debated at every education reform conference I’ve attended. Such debates were lively and interesting intellectual exercises, so long as not much hung on them.

However, as the movement has begun to enjoy unprecedented success and momentum, the stakes in these debates over what we mean by “accountability” have risen considerably. The debates have reached a crisis moment in which former allies are no longer sure whether they really have shared goals.


What Do We Want? A New Vision of Education for a Pluralistic Society

The time has come to take a step back from existing impulses—“Close the achievement gap!” “Put parents in charge!”—and reframe accountability in light of a more comprehensive view of what we want from schools.

Before we ask, “How should we hold schools accountable?” we need to ask, “What is a good education?” Prior to that comes the question, “What does it mean for people to grow into their human potential?” If we ask what comes before that, we get to the really fundamental questions: “What is good? What is true? What is beautiful?”

That’s why, historically, great educational changes have not come from people with a vision about schools. They have come from people with a vision of the good, the true and the beautiful—and of human potential to achieve and appreciate those things—that had implications for schools.

Plato and Aristotle founded the classical academy not because they wanted good schools, but because they wanted to devote their lives to contemplating truth. The medieval scholastics founded the university not because they wanted schools, but because they wanted God. The progressive and pragmatist movements, which shaped today’s educational models, were also not about schools, but about a new understanding of what it means to be human.

Today, we live in a pluralistic society where we are free to disagree about what is good, true and beautiful. This freedom, as good and precious as it is, is the reason we have no consensus about educational accountability.

Our freedom to disagree about transcendent things does not mean that public policy can escape the responsibility to ask what is good, true and beautiful. In fact, the very assertion that it is good to have the freedom to disagree about transcendent things is itself an assertion about what is good, i.e. about transcendent things.

Any education policy embodies, and to a degree imposes, some moral view—even if it is only the view that the freedom to disagree is good. Indeed, it is in education where our public policy must have the strongest moral commitment to freedom and diversity if we want to sustain a society characterized by freedom and diversity.

The challenge of pluralism is also an opportunity for us to discover a fresh vision of human potential that embraces the freedom to disagree about the highest things.

School accountability should be grounded in an understanding of human potential aimed at building up free communities, open to pluralism under the rule of law and respect for human rights, where people achieve and appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful in the midst of their differences over those very things.

That’s very abstract. Over the rest of this series of articles, I will unpack it and flesh it out more concretely. Let’s start with a basic question: What, specifically, does it mean to “achieve and appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful?”


What Is an Educated Person? Heads, Hands and Hearts

A very old way of thinking about education invites us to consider the formation of the human person in terms of head, hands and heart. What do we want our children to know, do and desire?

Our children’s heads need the knowledge that allows them to live a good life.

To live a good life requires knowledge from all the foundational liberal arts disciplines; an at least somewhat educated experience of the fine arts; and much else. Most people agree that religious knowledge is also needed, although only some families want such knowledge taught in their children’s schools.

Knowledge for a good life also requires coherence. The disciplines of learning cannot be separated into isolated chambers. People educated in that way don’t know how to relate one thing to another, so all their knowledge tends to collapse into so much meaningless data. Nor do we get much help from gimmicks that ham-handedly cram elements of diverse disciplines together without integrating them – like having students read science texts in English class. Educating the head with coherence requires a broad-based ability to connect knowledge across domains in a coherent pattern of meaning.

Of course, the question of what patterns of meaning we ought to see is controversial in a pluralistic society, a fact we will return to in later posts in this series. But if accountability systems only require schools to teach children discrete data packets of knowledge, and do not require them to help students develop the wisdom to see coherent meaning across all those data, we simply will not produce educated heads.

Our children’s hands need practical skills and competencies for a good life.

In a complex society with a modern, entrepreneurial economy, skills for specific jobs should not be a priority at the K–12 level. At any time, any given line of work may go offshore, or be taken over by robots, or be rendered obsolete by other changes. Nonetheless, education requires concrete, highly specific, culturally embodied practices for the hands—the skills and competencies that are common to our American way of life.

Students need to know the appropriate way to speak to a boss or customer in the workplace and how to make a presentation in a meeting. They need to know what is in the Constitution and what their rights are if, for example, they are accused of a crime—or, for that matter, put on a terrorist watch list without even the formality of an accusation.

Of course, the selection of any particular list of skills that is needed will be controversial. The right solution for which, again, we will return to. But if schools do not, in fact, specify what particular skills are needed, we simply will not produce educated hands.

Our children’s hearts need deep moral formation for a good life.

What I’ve said above about the head and the hands points straight to our most profound need, the heart. To integrate knowledge across domains into a coherent whole, or to teach concrete, culturally embodied practices involves having a vision of what is good, true and beautiful.

Such visions are not a matter of mere head knowledge; they go to the heart of who we are. “Heart” in this context does not mean emotional experience as opposed to cold, dispassionate reason, like Dr. McCoy trading one-liners with Mr. Spock (the head-heart-hands trio being rounded out, I suppose, with the famously “hands on” Captain Kirk). Heart traditionally meant the will—the desiring part of the soul, as opposed to the conscious part. Emotions arise from desires, so it is the desires that most need to be educated.

Good character requires formation in virtues like honesty, self-control, diligence and generosity as well as internalizing a sense of life purpose and lawfulness. The suggestion that schools should teach moral virtues is not at all radical. District schools as well as charter and private schools spend a cumulative total of hundreds of millions of dollars per year on character programs. These are not, as some might suspect, aimed primarily at politically fashionable causes like recycling, but at the traditional virtues (honesty, self-control, diligence, generosity, etc.). Moral character is in decline not because schools don’t make efforts to teach it but because those efforts do not achieve high levels of success, for reasons we will examine later in this series.

In fact, an examination of existing character programs in schools reveals that this is probably the area where we disagree least. Ask if schools should teach students to understand the meaning of life, or which skills they need to learn to be ready for life, and we find instant disagreement. Ask if students should be taught to be honest, self-controlled, diligent, etc. and there appears to be little controversy.

Yet moral virtues are almost entirely absent from the accountability discussion. To the extent that they appear at all, they have been reinterpreted as value-neutral “skills” (e.g. “citizenship skills” or “civic literacy”). We seem to think that we cannot hold schools accountable for forming students in virtue, purpose and lawfulness. And that, as we will see, is related to why our schools do not produce educated hearts.


The Key to What We Want Is Where We Get It

If schools need to know something about the higher things, then we need to build education in such a way that it isn’t undermined by our disagreement about those things. At bottom, the main thing we currently don’t want from schools is for them to raise these uncomfortable, potentially divisive questions. But that’s really the same as saying we don’t want schools to educate.

How, then, do we get what we want? To answer that question we’ll have to turn to where we get it—to teachers, schools, principals and educational entrepreneurs. While we have our abstract debates about how education should be delivered, they’ve been busy educating millions of students. How do they do it in spite of all the obstacles? What does good education look like now, to the extent that we already have it in some schools, and what kind of accountability systems support or undermine it? That will be the subject of the next several articles in this series.


For more from this series, visit:

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

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


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