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

In our society we are free to disagree about what is good, true and beautiful, and as a result we lack consensus about what is a good education. Since education policy cannot avoid saying something about what is good, we need to develop an approach to school accountability that points toward a free community where people achieve and appreciate good things in the midst of their disagreements about what is good.

It is striking that our society has practiced exactly this kind of pluralistic education for a very long time even though we have few publicly discussed ideas about what pluralistic education is or how it works. This should make us humble about the importance of theory. We’ve all heard plenty of funny anecdotes where the joke is that some cockamamie scheme “works in theory.” A friend of mine reports that in college, he actually heard a classmate exclaim, with heartfelt sincerity: “Dammit, communism works in theory!”

However, with the urgency of developing new accountability systems, the time for practicing pluralistic education without a theory is coming to a close. A good place to look as we begin to build an understanding of pluralistic education is at schools themselves and those who teach and lead in them. The status quo is far from ideal, but to the extent that education in a pluralistic environment presently does take place successfully, how does such success happen? That will help us know what kind of accountability systems are needed to help more of it happen.


Teachers: Wise Professionals

Let’s start at the ground level, with teachers. In Part 1 we reviewed the head, the hands and the heart as a classic way of breaking down what it means to educate. In each of these three areas, we saw that pluralism raises significant challenges. So how do teachers educate the head, hands and heart in the face of these obstacles?


As we saw, the hardest part about educating the head in a pluralistic society is coherence. It’s hard enough to teach students the information they need from the various domains of knowledge. But it’s even harder to help them integrate information across those disciplines, so that students can see what the information means instead of merely possessing a lot of disconnected data.

The primary teacher qualification for passing this integrative capacity on to students is to possess it oneself. To help students see coherent meaning across disciplines, teachers must themselves see such meaning. Where teachers are people who see the coherence of information, education will naturally tend to pass that integrative capacity on to students.

This is not some separate subject that would have its own units in the curriculum, distinct from other subjects like reading and math. The whole educational experience will tend to cultivate intellectual coherence to the extent, and only to the extent, that teachers possess such coherence.


The hardest part about educating the hands in a pluralistic society, as we saw, is selecting the right set of skills and competencies to teach. We all want schools to teach people the things they need to know how to do to participate in our shared way of life—make a presentation in a meeting, talk to a boss or a customer, know what to do if you’re arrested. But which skills are part of this set and which not?

The whole difference between the head and the hands is precisely that we cannot map out these “hands” competencies in an abstract, intellectual way. The American way of life is a lived reality, not a set of ideas we can dissect in a seminar.

The primary teacher qualification here, then, is not only to possess the skills oneself (that, of course) but also to be a highly conscious participant in the community’s shared way of life. A teacher must be active in the local community in a variety of ways, so he or she will know—not with abstract knowledge but with lived knowledge, “inside” knowledge—what skills and competencies are required to be a good and highly functioning member of the relevant communities (local and national). This is needed not only to select the right skills and competencies, but to define outcomes and set priorities when teaching them.

This is why Teach for America expects teacher candidates to have shown leadership “in a variety of settings” and boasts about the recruits it draws from non-teaching careers. America’s most competitive colleges look for applicants who not only have straight As but also organize neighborhood cleanups and run the chess club. Why shouldn’t teacher selection work the same way?

Unfortunately, TFA is unusual in this regard. The National Council on Teacher Quality is more representative of teacher quality reform movements; it evaluates teacher selection solely on GPAs and SAT/ACT scores. Here as elsewhere, TFA leads the movement by living in the real world, where numbers aren’t the only thing that matter.


The hardest part about teaching the heart is making the virtues (diligence, honesty, self-control, generosity, etc.) really stick inside the student. Hectoring students that they should be good is easy. Actually changing their behavior and getting them to internalize the virtues, embracing them inwardly rather than merely conforming to outward rules set by authority figures, is hard.

The primary teacher qualification, simple as it sounds, is to be a good person. This includes, along with much else, a genuine concern for the student’s well-being (or the student will resist moral instruction) and a genuine conviction that the virtues being taught really are objectively right (or students will not get virtues, but only conformity to rules and authority figures).

It’s amazing how far being a good person goes in moral education. This is because the teacher’s credibility is so central. Children are very good at detecting hypocrisy in adults—far better, usually, than we are at detecting it in them—and are always looking for signs that moral instruction is really no more than a cover for indoctrination that is useful to the teacher or society for their own reasons.

All this can be summed up by saying that teachers need to be wise and professional. Wisdom means teachers possess themselves the capacities of head, hands and heart that we want students to develop. Professionalism means that teachers’ primary motivation is not to check boxes on a curricular chart or maximize formal outcomes such as test scores, or even to please parents, but to help students develop those capacities of head, hands and heart that the teachers possess and the students need.

To the extent that our teachers already have these qualities, it is because in spite of all obstacles—barriers to entry and occupational incentives that encourage mere careerism—people are attracted to the teaching profession because they want to pass on wisdom to the next generation. Our need for new accountability systems, and the broader education reform agenda implied by that need, occurs because the perverse incentives to mere careerism have slowly but surely weakened the professional ethic of education.


Schools: Free Communities

If the above account is correct, what does it suggest about good schools? What kinds of schools should principals try to maintain and educational entrepreneurs try to create?

To provide an environment for education that is integrative (head), concrete (hands) and formative (heart), the school must be a free community. Obviously “freedom” and “community” are abstract and contested terms.

Teachers’ unions invoke “community” as a basis for their demand that parents must send their children to schools assigned by ZIP Code regardless of which school is best for each child, and taxpayers must keep shoveling more money into the system whether it raises outcomes or not. Thus they undermine the bonds of trust and reciprocity that define real community. You can’t build community at gunpoint.

Some libertarians invoke “freedom” as a justification for denying any role of shared public moral commitments in education. I’m very grateful to libertarians for working to draw attention to how a government school monopoly has an oppressive effect on minority viewpoints, but they sometimes seem to suggest that if we just give people freedom, education policy will be fully neutral between all possible views of the good. This implicitly removes any public basis for understanding how or why freedom and school choice themselves are good.

Freedom and community tend to lose their meaning when separated from one another. Real community means people freely choose to be in community. And real freedom can only be protected by a community that loves freedom and institutionalizes it as a shared, public moral commitment.

Students and teachers must be free in the sense of having a right to belong to, and defend to one another, different commitments about transcendent things. This is necessary not only for pluralism—so the Jewish or Christian or atheist will not be excluded or mistreated—but also for education. Freedom of thought and speech is needed for teachers to really show, and for students to really discover for themselves, the coherence of knowledge, the reality of a shared American way of life and the basic virtues and decency that are common to human nature.

Only those who are free to teach and learn for themselves, following the truth wherever it may lead, will ever truly show or discover these realities in the midst of pluralism. Try to force wisdom and truth upon people and they may conform or rebel, but they will not believe. Belief requires freedom.

But pluralism and education also require community—a sharing of identities that comes from shared membership in a body of people, with publicly established mutual responsibilities among members. This is necessary for pluralism because pluralism permits differences that create conflicts, and the conflicts threaten to destroy the mutual tolerance on which pluralism is based. Only a sense of shared identity and mutual responsibility can keep people committed to respecting one another’s freedoms.

Community is also required for good education. It creates the environment needed for trust between teacher and student. The student must trust that the teacher is really a wise professional whose goal is to educate for the student’s benefit, and the bonds of community make this plausible. Moreover, schools can’t have a lasting effect on students if they don’t somehow interact with their sense of identity and deepest motivations. The sharing of identity in community permits this.

As with teachers, so with schools—to the extent schools are run as free communities now, it is because principals and other school leaders overcome perverse incentives to mere bureaucratic legalism and institutional self-perpetuation. People go into school leadership because they want to run schools that pass on wisdom, just as people go into teaching to pass on wisdom. Our need for new accountability and reform arises because stifling legal/political environments and perverse incentives to institutional self-perpetuation are crowding out the organizational ethic and culture good schools need.


Pluralistic Education: It Works in Practice

The fact that education is taking place in a pluralistic society is revealing. We are not as divided as we think. Our differences do not go all the way down. Our sense of absolute difference from one another, our sense of being locked in perpetual religious and moral wars with one another, is why pluralistic education “doesn’t work in theory.” Yet it works, however imperfectly, in practice. We are not as different as we may think, and our schools prove it.

Tolerance and consensus tend to emerge in local community. Nationally, we are divided. On talk shows and Twitter, we are divided. But we are more able to find common ground in the midst of our differences if we are dealing with people whom we know and who live in the same environment we do.

It may not feel that way. It is very hard to live with difference, much harder than we want to believe—a fact brilliantly explored in the recent movie Zootopia. We often get into conflict with each other. Deficiencies of goodwill are exposed. But this is what the process of building tolerance and consensus involves. These frictions are not signs that the process is not happening; they are the process itself. Experiencing social conflict over our differences is not the first step toward killing each other over them; it is the alternative to doing so.

Different local communities develop a variety of ways of living with difference, but this does not mean they have nothing in common. New York does not want to be like Oklahoma, and the feeling is very mutual. However, in their different ways, New York and Oklahoma are committed to being free communities in which people disagree about transcendent things and nonetheless depend on one another’s contributions in a shared way of life with shared public institutions.

Similarly, different schools have found different ways of educating in a pluralistic environment. If we focus on questions like Christmas decorations or teaching human sexuality, we will find only bewildering multiplicity. What is shared across them all, however, is the aspiration to help all children grow into their human potential—to achieve and appreciate what is good, true and beautiful—in the midst of difference.


The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

We have to trust that the challenge of pluralism can be met and the problem of consensus about the goal of education in a pluralistic education is solvable. John Inazu calls this Confident Pluralism. He is right that our society cannot overcome polarization and hostility until we regain our confidence that pluralism in a free community is possible.

Though it might not seem that way, I think one of the main causes of the emerging conflict over educational accountability is a lack of confidence that the challenge of building consensus in a pluralistic society can be met. In Part 3, we will examine how the two major sides—proponents of accountability based on quantitative metrics and those of accountability based on parental choice—have in different ways avoided fully confronting the challenges of pluralism.


For more from this series, visit:

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

Part 1: “The Next Accountability Part 1: 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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