Ensuring Democracy in an Era of Standards and Accountability: The Scholar-Practitioner's Work

Article excerpt

Entering a new millennium the future of education is at best uncertain. The standards movement now dominates discussions about all aspects of education--teaching and learning, curriculum, and assessment--as well as all aspects of educator preparation. There are also unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions about what it means to educate students and teachers for "the public good" (Cochran-Smith, 2000) in the face of an increasing market economy of American education confounded by an effort to redefine American education through federal policies such as NCLB and the tightly regulated deregulation of education and concomitant narrowing of what stands as learning through a standards-based economy. Whereas accountability has captured the attention of the American public, the ubiquitous nature of standards has permeated all aspects of education, generating public discourse that works to distinguish between, on the one hand, the impact of technical standards such as those emblematized by NCLB and relatedly state level mandated standards, and on the other hand, the need for standards of complexity that work to recognize the complex and contextually bounded nature of education, and work to foster a more democratic system of education for all children and therein foster also a more democratic accountability for education.

The work of scholar-practitioners in schools today is at a critical, historical juncture, a choice between "consumer accountability mediated by a relationship with an educational market, or a democratic accountability mediated by a relationship with the whole community of citizens" (Grace, 1997, p. 314). The work of scholar-practitioners is made increasingly problematic as they face conflicting pressures, at one level, to privilege some groups over others and, on another level, to ensure that disadvantaged groups have a voice in educational decision-making. The work of scholar-practitioners is also made increasingly problematic as they face the conflicting pressures of standards and accountability, on one level, to experience technical standards that define education and the nature of learning through an accountability system based on high stakes testing and, on another level, to ensure that standards of complexity define the quality of learning experience that all children have in the school and classroom, fostering a more democratic accountability system.

Standards of Complexity in a Standards-Based Economy

Recently, the tight coupling of market-based reforms and accountability mechanisms has called attention to the impact of standards on the quality of teaching and learning experienced in today's schools (Cohen-Vogel, 2003, p. 14). Examining the meaning of complexity from a post-formal perspective, Kincheloe (2001a) argues that standards reflective of a technical-rational logic, rarely take into account such issues as value differences, diversity of perspectives, contextualization of teaching nor the importance of context in learning to teach, diversity of cognitive as well as cultural patterns, subjectivity and creativity, irrationality of life in schools, and language. The structures and systemic nature of standards calls into question patterns (epistemological, cultural, political, etc.) and processes (pedagogical, methodological, etc.) as well as the origins of knowledge (i.e., experience-based, socially constructed and indigenous versus government mandated, standardized and narrowly defined), and relatedly the multiple contexts of educator preparation and practice (i.e., social, cultural, etc.). The scholar-practitioner understands that educational systems by their very nature are complex systems of social interaction. The scholar-practitioner also understands that educational systems are made increasingly complex by external forces such as politically and economically motivated and ideologically bounded agendas to reform education; the narrowing of education through a standards-based economy. …