District schools, charter schools and private schools, and the teachers who educate within them, need accountability if they’re going to perform their best.
The technocratic paradigm of accountability—testing-driven centralization of control—can’t deliver the educational outcomes that matter most. Because technocracy doesn’t build on the things we have in common as human beings and fellow Americans, it doesn’t align with how teachers and schools need to work to deliver those outcomes.
Holding Wise Professionals and Free Communities Accountable
The next accountability needs to treat teachers as wise professionals. Teachers must possess the competencies of head, hands and heart involved in achieving and appreciating true, good and beautiful things if they are going to teach those competencies to students.
The education reform movement already knows that teachers should be hired, fired and paid like professionals rather than factory line workers. But it lacks an adequate appreciation of the reason: because the core job qualification for being a teacher is to be a wise person, someone who exemplifies the best of what it means to be a good person, a good American and a good citizen of the school’s local community.
The education reform movement also lacks an adequate appreciation of what it means to treat teachers like professionals. Professionals are held responsible not simply for immediate job performance (that, too, of course) but for fidelity to the higher purpose and calling of the profession. That is what we do with doctors and lawyers; that is what makes doctors and lawyers professionals.
The hiring, firing and paying of teachers must attract and retain wise professionals with a commitment to nurturing children’s ability to achieve and appreciate the true, good and beautiful. It should not place a high priority on more utilitarian metrics like small fluctuations in test scores.
Holding teachers accountable requires us to hold schools accountable. Schools need to have strong institutional culture. School leadership must instill shared moral commitments pointing to the higher purpose of education, and defining the rules of acceptable behavior for educators and students implied by that higher purpose.
The big challenge for school accountability is that these moral commitments cannot be simply imposed by force. The school must be a free community in which students genuinely internalize the transcendent goals of education rather than merely conforming reluctantly to the grown-ups’ demands. This means accountability systems must have strong moral and social connections to schools. That way educators and students will accept their decisions not as a hostile outside force but as part of, and supporting, the free moral community of the school itself.
To accomplish all this, we should build the next accountability on three foundations:
- Empowering parents through school choice and local information systems
- Devolving polity so principals and local districts govern schools close to communities
- Reforming our movement’s principles to describe education the right way
These foundations will give us what we need to hold teachers and schools accountable to the real goal of education: nurturing individuals who achieve and appreciate things that are true, good and beautiful as faithful citizens of a free and diverse community committed to living in harmony and respecting each other’s rights in spite of our disagreements about what is true, good and beautiful.
That’s admittedly a tall order. But remember, while pluralistic education doesn’t work in theory, it already works in practice. This is not an agenda for building a utopia that we just made up. It’s an agenda for aligning our accountability systems with the way education already works in practice when it’s working well.
Accountability from Parents, Supported by the Community
Education begins in the family; teachers and schools simply pick up the job and extend it. This is why education reform will continue to be frustrated until it makes universal school choice a top priority. Universal school choice means every child eligible, funding sufficient to attract educational entrepreneurs to create new school systems to serve choice students, and no limits on participating private schools beyond the regulations all private schools are required to obey anyway; examples include health and safety codes, and prohibitions (on the books, in some form, in all 50 states—a fact I discovered while editing the data for this report) against teaching disrespect for the laws and the public peace.
The most important argument for letting parents hold schools accountable (through choice) is that parents are allowed to know what is true, good and beautiful. The whole point of education is to cultivate the power to achieve and appreciate these transcendent things. The whole challenge of education in a pluralistic environment is that we disagree about them, so there are major limits to government’s ability to act upon them. Empowering parents does not by itself make the whole problem of pluralism go away, but it must be at the center of any viable solution.
School choice programs would provide better conditions for schools to have strong institutional culture and free community. Schools whose students are not there by choice can’t have strong, coherent views about what is good; that would be violating people’s freedom. This undermines the solidarity and moral norms necessary for strong institutional culture.
Schools of choice are allowed to know what they believe, and can therefore have both freedom and community. This is why federal data show private schools already outperform public schools dramatically across a wide variety of measures of school culture, including cooperation among staff, shared understanding of school mission, consistent enforcement of rules, administrative support of teachers, lower ethnic tension and satisfaction with working conditions.
School choice permits education to align with religion, but this strengthens freedom and diversity rather than threatening it. By connecting education to explicitly transcendent sources of moral formation, choice strengthens respect for the rights of others—including those of other religions. It also strengthens other important non-cognitive, character-related outcomes.
We cannot say that we agree on nothing at all about what is good; if we did, we couldn’t share a community. One thing we do agree on is that the freedom to disagree about what is good is good. And as it turns out, allowing highly particular views of the good to shape education reinforces rather than undermines public commitment to that freedom and diversity.
Establishing a strong connection between parents and schools is another key benefit. This is probably a major factor in a notable fact that researchers struggle to explain: School choice produces very impressive increases in important outcomes that are non-cognitive and character-related—like high school graduation rates—even as test score improvements, while consistent, are more moderate. In one of the most important educational books of our generation, sociologist James Davison Hunter shows how the formation of the child is critically hindered when children perceive a disconnect between key authority figures in their education—especially parents and teachers. We should not assume that they only perceive this disconnect in the cases where it is so extreme that outsiders notice it. Children typically are very close observers of the adults who exercise such complete control over their lives.
And, of course—as anyone who cares to know already knows—choice also consistently improves public schools because the schools can no longer take their students for granted. Parents who aren’t getting good services can finally say to schools, as they can say to every other service provider in their lives, “I’ll take my business elsewhere.” While we do need to move away from making “competition” and “markets” the central themes of choice-based reform (more on that below) everything that we have said about them remains true.
However, parental choice programs need to be strengthened by the cultivation of non-governmental and—this is imperative—non-test-score-obsessed sources of school evaluation to serve parents. School choice has an information problem: Parents need better systems for finding out which schools are good at what. Community organizations could develop that competence. Making that happen would be labor- and capital-intensive, but much less so than the effort we currently waste on technocratic accountability systems. And it would be well worth the price, as it would greatly strengthen parental decision-making.
Accountability from Local Governance
Localism is another principle that must be at the center of any solution to the educational challenge of pluralism. Like parent power, localism does not make the whole problem go away by itself. However, like parent power, localism is essential to any viable solution.
New York City does not want to be Oklahoma City, and the feeling is very mutual. Within New York, Harlem doesn’t want to be Midtown; within Midtown, Hell’s Kitchen doesn’t want to be Chelsea. Differences over transcendent things are far less polarizing at the local level than they are nationally. And the more local you go the less polarizing they get.
One aspect of educational localism would be maximizing principals’ building-level authority. Principals’ hands are tied by regulations and union contract requirements. Demanding high performance from schools without giving principals the power to do what high performance requires is not a winning formula.
These restraints could be dramatically relaxed if the education reform movement prioritized such relaxation. Where political conditions are favorable, principals could be given a very high degree of autonomy to hire and fire teachers, set pay, structure the school’s systems and resolve disputes. Even under less favorable conditions, relatively limited approaches like allowing principals one “free” (i.e. procedurally streamlined) teacher or staff removal per year could yield disproportionate results.
It’s also worth addressing the informal, but very strong, norms in the culture of the system that restrain principals’ legitimate use of the power they actually do have. The dominant narrative in most places is that principals are not supposed to rock the boat. Smart symbolic actions by key leaders—like giving principals “one free fire” and then building up good publicity around principals who use it to weed out bad apples—could set a new narrative.
Another aspect of educational localism would be reforming district structures. Principals can’t do everything. The same advantages of localism that point toward maximizing principals’ power also suggest that local school districts should be the second locus of accountability.
The education reform movement has long hated school districts; both school choice and test-driven centralization are attempts to take power away from them. Districts have been colonized by teacher and staff unions, and other heavily invested opponents of reform. That has happened because of the principle of concentrated interest, also known as regulatory capture—those more intensely interested in a policy will invest more in influencing that policy. This is why car companies have more influence over traffic regulation than drivers and pedestrians.
But concentrated interest is a tendency, not a law. When concentrated interests exercise too much power over their own policy area, the harm done to the community at large can get so bad that large-scale opposition is mobilized and the concentrated interests are dislodged. This is what happened, for example, in the large-scale deregulation and tax-reform movements of the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s also the reason education reform has been a recurring political force for two generations and counting. The analysis of this whole blog series suggests we need to stop writing off school districts and start working to reclaim them.
Reformers should break up school districts; we used to have over 100,000 and now we have fewer than 15,000. The guardians of the status quo love school district consolidation, because it creates big, bloated bureaucracies that disperse responsibility and thus insulate everyone in the system from accountability. Shrinking school districts is already known to improve educational performance. This is partly because of the competitive effects of Tiebout choice but also because local communities are less polarized and have more consensus about the goals of education, making accountability possible.
School districts should also become seriously accountable to voters, which they usually are not at present. School boards and other local education officials are typically elected in odd years, in the spring—any time when only the unions will show up to vote. Their elections should be moved so they take place simultaneously with presidential elections, when turnout is high and voters’ attention is more easily engaged.
These two ideas are ambitious reforms that will only be possible where political conditions are highly favorable, at least at first. Other places can experiment with less sweeping reforms. Improving transparency—especially in school finances—should be a no-brainer. Helping the public understand exactly what their local schools are spending on what would go a long way toward mobilizing local demand for reform.
Principles to Legitimize Accountability
Systems are important, but they’re not enough. The way a system functions is greatly affected by what norms and narratives are widely accepted within it. These informal conditions determine what actions are viewed as reasonable and legitimate, and thus shape the real-world functioning of the system.
One of the most striking illustrations of this is major test-cheating scandals. Atlanta’s may be the best-known (though it is far from the only instance). Teachers didn’t just cheat, they held “cheating parties” at which they sat around changing test answers en masse. Some teachers cooperated out of fear, because support for the underground cheating system was so strong and widespread that those who didn’t participate were subject to reprisals.
That kind of thing doesn’t just happen. One or two people cheating is ordinary human corruption. A huge, organized and enforced social system requires moral norms and narratives. Teachers viewed standardized tests as illegitimate and a threat to good education, so they responded accordingly.
It matters what values the movement appeals to and what story we tell. Choice and localism won’t work any better than testing worked in Atlanta if we don’t win hearts and minds.
Markets and competition as drivers of efficiency and performance are important. But they do not provide the moral norms and narratives needed to inform the next accountability. The best case for universal school choice does not center on them. These should be secondary, not primary themes.
We should develop ways of articulating these principles as the basis of the next accountability:
- The purpose of education is to help children develop the knowledge, skills and virtues they need to live a good life—achieving and appreciating the true, good and beautiful—and to live as good citizens of a community where we disagree about what is good.
- To cultivate these, we need teachers who are wise professionals (possessing the qualities they seek to instill, and guided by an independent professional ethic) and schools that are free communities (where shared purpose, not the arbitrary dictates of distant authorities, shape a shared life).
- Teachers and schools can educate the individual student for free pursuit of the good life as he or she sees it, and also for good citizenship and respect for others’ rights in a diverse community, because of what we share in common as human beings and as fellow Americans.
- Teachers and schools should be held accountable to do this by parents and local communities—the more local the better—because they are in the closest moral and social connection to schools, and can therefore hold them accountable in ways that support their social fabric rather than disrupting it.
Is this too much to ask of a highly polarized education reform movement, strongly committed to moral narratives that center on either markets or test scores? I’m looking forward to finding out.
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*Opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of EdChoice.