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

In this series we have been looking at some uncomfortable truths about education policy. In this installment we’re going to look at how the education reform movement has avoided confronting these truths, and how that has contributed to its current impasse over accountability. It’s understandable that we aren’t eager to face these challenging issues, but we can’t build the new accountability we need if we don’t.

The main challenge to building better accountability for schools is that we lack consensus about what is a good education. The underlying purpose of education, the reason we teach children literacy and numeracy and life skills and all the many things we teach them, is to help children develop capacities to achieve and appreciate things that are good, true and beautiful. But we are a free and pluralistic society where people disagree about what is good, true and beautiful. Nonetheless, education somehow manages to go on in our diverse society, as teachers strive to be wise professionals, and school leaders strive to build schools that are free communities.

We may not agree about what we want from schools, but many people in the education reform movement agree on one thing: we don’t want schools to force our society to build public consensus on these uncomfortable, potentially divisive questions about what is good, true and beautiful!

But that’s really the same as saying we don’t want schools to educate. If education isn’t about helping children attain the capacity to achieve and appreciate the things that make life worth living—the things that make us human—then what is it about? Trying to make education policy without building some level of public consensus on such questions is like trying to make dinner without deciding what kind of food you want to eat.

The challenge of pluralistic education must be met head-on, not avoided. Educational leaders must not abdicate our responsibility to articulate a vision of the good to guide education.


Technocracy’s Root: Wanting Everyone to Be the Same

However, the majority of education reformers have gravitated toward an approach that carefully avoids the challenge of pluralism. That is 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. A technocratic spirit lies behind Common Core, obviously, but it also lay behind some earlier reform efforts such as graduation exams, merit pay for test score increases, and the 100 percent proficiency requirement in No Child Left Behind. This is clearer to me now than it was 10 years ago.

Technocracy is not about empiricism and experimentation—trying a lot of different things and using quantitative metrics to see which ones work. That is the opposite of technocracy. It requires educational diversity and choice, so many different things can be tried; protection of teachers’ and schools’ autonomy, so they can be free to try many different things; and above all, insulating the design of the metrics themselves from political control and constantly re-evaluating whether the metrics we’re using are the right ones. By contrast, the hallmark of every technocratic reform, whether Common Core, NCLB or other, is strict political control of metrics and the centralization of power (reducing diversity, choice and autonomy) this control implies.

Technocratic accountability is an attempt to create an educational “floor,” a level of quality beneath which schools will not be permitted to sink. However, as we will see, the centralized systems of power necessary to impose “floors” always impose “ceilings” as well—limitations on education that do more harm than good.

The logic of technocracy is simple: Let’s forget about the things that we strongly disagree about, and focus on the things that everyone ought to be able to reach agreement about pretty easily. As a result, technocracy effectively narrows down the agenda for the head to reading and math scores, keeps the agenda for the hands hopelessly vague (“critical thinking”) and keeps silent about the heart. What makes this so tempting is the illusion that we can avoid uncomfortable, potentially divisive questions about what is good and right.

Note the emphasis on the value of sameness and standardization in the Common Core initiative’s official answer to the question “Why Are the Common Core State Standards Important?”

“High standards that are consistent across states provide teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live. These standards are aligned to the expectations of colleges, workforce training programs, and employers. The standards promote equity by ensuring all students are well prepared to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad.”

This passage asserts:

  • Everyone agrees on what skills and knowledge are “necessary” to a good education.
  • “All students” need exactly the same skills and knowledge to succeed. In particular, “where they live,” i.e. their community and its way of life, doesn’t matter.
  • All colleges and employers are looking for exactly the same set of skills and knowledge. Chick-fil-A, Costco, Koch Industries and Starbucks all have the same philosophy of business and want the same character traits, commitments and capacities from their employees.
  • The primary challenge to “equity” (i.e. justice) is that some students are not educated in this generic, one-size-fits-all set of skills and knowledge.

This kind of universalizing, standardizing rhetoric has become dominant in the education reform movement. But it represents a flight from a pluralistic reality in which:

  • We are a free and diverse society where we disagree about what a good education should provide because we disagree about what is good, true and beautiful.
  • We are a free and diverse society where the particular needs of both students and their communities vary almost infinitely.
  • We are a free and diverse society where colleges and employers seek a wide variety of different skills and knowledge – and character traits, qualities of the heart – from students and employees.
  • The primary challenge to justice is that the overwhelming majority of students – middle class as well as poor, across all ethnic groups – are held back by a self-serving monopoly system from accessing the diverse array of educational opportunities that could be provided, but currently cannot be provided, to serve their diverse needs.

Technocracy is always an attempt to avoid the really divisive questions, namely questions about the good, the true and the beautiful. It’s the same in economics and politics as well as education and everywhere else.

If you doubt it, ask yourself why this kind of standardizing technocracy didn’t exist before the rise of the modern world with its freedom and pluralism. Disagreement about transcendent things was unthinkable in older, tradition-bound societies. They did not need to worry, as we do, about what might happen if we admit that we don’t agree about the things that matter to us most.

This is also why the temptation to embrace technocracy never goes away, no matter how many times we try these kinds of systems and find they don’t work. Once we claim our freedom to think for ourselves, we are always tempted to flee from our responsibility to think for ourselves.

Debating what is good, true and beautiful is hard. Giving power to a class of technocrats who promise us we won’t have to settle such uncomfortable questions is much easier…while it lasts.


Nothing Is Good Unless Everyone Agrees It Is

The professional class of experts does not and cannot possess sufficient knowledge or objectivity to rule the education of millions of diverse students. No one could. More importantly, people want more out of life, and hence more out of education, than the reductive minimum offered by technocracy.

The whole point of educational accountability is to promote good education. Despite appearances, technocratic accountability systems are guided by a vision of what is good as much as any others.

All accountability systems impose a vision of the good. That’s what the word “accountability” means. And, as education politics has shown in recent years, technocracy’s vision of the good is in fact a deeply controversial and divisive one.

Whatever its intentions or motives, technocracy in practice imposes a vision of the good for education that includes everything that is widely agreed to be good, and effectively excludes—treats as not essential to good education—everything that is subject to serious disagreement.

The higher things, while valuable, create division. So accountability becomes focused on the lower things that everyone wants.

Everyone wants schools to make kids literate and numerate, and train them in generalized capacities like critical thinking. So let schools do what everyone wants them to do, and leave all the controversial, higher stuff for families, religious institutions and others to deal with. Technocracy appears, to its supporters, to involve no controversial questions about the good.

However, the attempt to impose technocracy in practice raises heated opposition. Technocrats, who think that there ought to be nothing controversial about their agenda, are manifestly baffled by this and often seem to be unable to explain it as anything other than mere stupidity or evil. How can anyone object to requiring literacy, numeracy and critical thinking? Hence Arne Duncan’s famous snarl about “white suburban moms” and the short-lived effort, funded by the Gates Foundation, to whip up public anger against Common Core opponents by portraying them as enemies of good education.

What opponents of technocracy are objecting to is the implicit narrowing down of the definition of success in education to the goals that everyone agrees on and nothing else, and the centralization of power that inevitably results from this kind of narrowing. They see, as the technocrats do not see, that technocracy’s “floor” of minimum technical competence is also a “ceiling,” and hands control over education to unaccountable experts and bureaucrats. And they are right to be angry that the technocrats promised technocracy would not result in educational narrowing, would not centralize power, and the promises turned out to be empty.


Technocracy’s Fruit: Teachers as Cogs, Schools as Machines

Intentionally or unintentionally, technocratic accountability creates systems that hinder teachers from being wise professionals and schools from being free communities, which they need to be to help children develop the higher capacities of head, hands and heart that are at the very center of a good education.

Just because people are doing the same thing doesn’t mean they’re doing it well. And the narrow, quantitative metrics available to technocratic accountability systems can’t measure the coherence of meaning that is needed for the head, the particularized competencies of a concrete way of life that is needed for the hands or the deep attachment to virtue that is needed for the heart.

Only wise professionals teaching in free communities can cultivate excellence in those areas. And that is exactly what technocracy takes away.

Consider this recent quote from a report celebrating the advent of Common Core:

For the first time in our nation’s history, there is a high level of consistency regarding what’s taught in American elementary and middle school math classrooms. Fewer teachers appear to be closing their classroom doors and doing their own thing.

The motto appears to be “Celebrate Conformity.”

Teaching is not a technical process, like operating a drill press or setting a broken bone, for which highly specific procedures can be standardized and mandated. Teaching is oriented toward human discovery of the good, the true and the beautiful—a process that can’t be mapped out like stereo instructions.

Supposing for a moment, against the evidence, that this system of “consistency” is not overthrown by disgruntled parents and teachers. What will be the long-term effects on schools if we standardize them in this way?

To standardize education is to take control of teachers and force them to educate in a certain way. This means that all components of a good education that require teachers to have freedom to teach – to operate as wise professionals rather than as cogs in an educational machine – must be sacrificed in technocratic systems.

Freedom and community require a lot of space for diversity – for people and groups “doing their own thing.” But technocracy sees teachers “doing their own thing” as a barbaric remnant of the old, bad system. Teachers’ freedom is the enemy.


Standardizing Away the Head, Hands and Heart

For the head, technocracy promises to deliver literate and numerate students – and no more. Its vision of what it means to educate the head is necessarily limited to what can be quantitatively measured and then rewarded or punished, namely standardized test scores.

Thus technocratic accountability tends to push wide-ranging knowledge and wisdom out of education, strongly disincentivizing integrative and meaning-formative approaches. This is represented, for example, by the Common Core debate over attention to literature versus informational documents.

Even reading and math scores aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Recent research shows that when their own children’s educations are at stake, standardized test scores are among the least important factors for parents. It’s only for other people’s children that we tend to idolize test scores.

And it should be alarming that empirical research is increasingly calling into question the relationship between test scores and life outcomes, even as the relationship between, for example, high school graduation and life outcomes remains solid. This is a potentially paradigm-breaking development in our field. It points to the shallowness of the assumptions on which technocratic accountability is built.

Of course, basic literacy and numeracy are essential to living a good life. But they are only a starting point. The old adage about how to help people eat for a lifetime rather than just for a day says “teach a man to fish.” It doesn’t say to teach him how to thread the hook and then leave him to figure out the rest by himself!

For the hands, technocracy offers such competencies as “critical thinking,” “communications skills” and “citizenship skills.” These seem attractive as a complement to the harsh quantitative limits of reading and math scores.

However, the supposedly “hands on,” “pragmatic” technocratic skills agenda is perpetually vague and ephemeral, hopelessly abstract and ill-defined. It always must be, for the same reason technocratic education of the head tends to collapse into test scores. We are a pluralistic society and we lack a national, politically solid consensus on what skills and competencies are needed for a good life.

The concrete specificity needed to really educate the hands – to teach students how to talk to a boss or a customer, make a presentation in a meeting, defend their constitutional rights when arrested, etc. – requires teachers and schools to take a clear stand on what is good. Such clarity would conflict with the whole technocratic strategy of sticking only to what is universally agreed on and easily reduced to quantitative metrics.

At the national level, in the glare of the political spotlight, our pluralistic society doesn’t seem to be able to talk about hands competencies without dissolving into polarization and culture war. Locally, wise professionals teaching in free community are able to get on with the job.

Most profoundly, technocrats fail at the head and the hands because they fail at the heart. Their standardized, quantitative view of education requires them to remain silent on the virtues—honesty, diligence, self-control, generosity and the higher purposes, the good, the true and the beautiful—that define a good life at its core.

Search Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s page on “citizenship skills” and try to find anything that points to a substantive definition of the “good” in “good citizenship”: freedom, community, justice, rights, law, love of neighbor, love of country, helping the poor – anything that gives a solid purpose to citizenship. The P21 list of “tips and strategies for families” demands that we engage in a huge amount of activity – have fun in your community! participate in elections! talk about current events! set an example of collaboration and compassion! explore the world through maps! – that all seems pointless in the absence of clear purpose, and dangerous in the absence of benchmarks for telling good activity from evil.

This hollow center of technocracy is the deepest reason their education for the head lacks all meaning and their education of the hands all concreteness. Information coheres into meaning only when it is oriented toward virtue and purpose. And all the talk about “communications skills” and “citizenship skills” is vague, abstract and empty because it has no moral ballast.

America’s national crisis of character is a crisis of education at one remove. Navel-gazing gobbledygook about “21st century citizenship” offers nothing solid and strong enough to resist the rising tide of cronyism, materialism and narcissism. Any accountability system that doesn’t move our schools toward the formation of students in virtue and purpose represents a massive dereliction of our duty as educational leaders.


Accountability Needs a Bigger Vision for a Free and Diverse Country

Despite its shortcomings, technocracy is superficially attractive in important ways. It promises to deliver some of the things people want (literacy, numeracy, “critical thinking,” etc.) while providing a way of thinking about education that seems to avoid uncomfortable and divisive questions.

Technocracy can only be countered by a better, truer and more attractive vision of the human good that education can serve. We are a free and diverse country, a community where neighbors live together while disagreeing about what is good, true and beautiful. But that very truth—that we are a free and diverse country, a community where neighbors live together while disagreeing about what is good, true and beautiful—moves us in deep and powerful ways as we contemplate it. Our shared goal for education can be precisely the cultivation of that kind of free community.

This is why, as I emphasized in the introduction to this series, talking points and canned rhetoric about “markets” and “competition” are woefully inadequate to the needs of the present moment. The claims many of us have made about the benefits of markets are true. But we must ground our case in what it means to be human in what the head, the hands and the heart need from education. We need a humane vision of what education is for that is more attractive than the technocratic vision.

We do need freedom to disagree about the highest things. But that freedom itself is a moral imperative (“people ought to be free”) and therefore requires justification that is rooted in some understanding of what is good, true and beautiful. Moreover, this moral commitment to freedom must be public and shared, institutionalized in law and custom, transcending divisions of religion, ethnicity, class, ideology and partisanship.

Markets and competition presuppose the existence of a free community, open to pluralism but with strong shared, public moral commitments to the rule of law and respecting one another’s rights. Because they presuppose this kind of free community, markets and competition do not create such a community – although they do tend to reinforce it where it already exists.

Education is the one place above all where we are not entitled to presuppose the existence of a certain kind of society. Education must produce the kind of society that other social systems presuppose. If we want a society committed to freedom and open to pluralism, we must build an education system that produces such a society.

Choice and decentralization will be absolutely indispensable components of any such system. But we will not get them by talking about markets and competition. We will get them by talking about why a free community, open to pluralism but demanding respect for rights under the rule of law, is the best kind of community for human beings.


Then Who Holds Schools Accountable?

How, then, do we hold schools accountable in ways that allow them to have freedom and community? Would you think I was joking if I said the answer is that we must hold schools accountable?

We cannot get what we want by appointing a technocratic class of experts to build an accountability regime for us – “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” – and then turning our attention back to other things that we find more enjoyable. We, the people, must reclaim our responsibility for holding schools accountable from the technocrats and do it ourselves.

The opposite of the technocratic is the personal. Holding schools accountable is the job of all those who are personally concerned with schools in any way. It is we – as individuals, families and local communities – who are able to hold schools accountable without taking away their freedom or community.

If it is we who must hold schools accountable, the next question is: who are we?


For more from this series, visit:

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

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

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

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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