Intelligent Accountability: Re-Thinking the Concept of "Accountability" in the Popular Discourse of Education Policy

Article excerpt

I believe that the quality of our education system says as much about the long-term health of our economy as the stock market, the unemployment rate and the size of the gross domestic product. That's because the quality of our work force and the intellectual breadth and depth of future leaders is directly related to the quality of education we provide today. So I begin ... by recognizing America's common agenda to promote economic security through education. (U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan)

In prepared remarks before the United States Chamber of Commerce's "Education and Workforce Summit" in November of 2009, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressed a sentiment now dominant in the popular discourse of education reform in the United States linking the economic fortunes of the U.S.A. in the global economy to the human capital produced by its education sector. (1) This perspective envisions economic success as emerging from an educational system that produces new generations of technological and scientific innovators and high-skill workers to drive an economic sector geared toward providing high value-added goods and services on a global marketplace. (2) For K-12 schooling, the challenge would appear to be to produce students possessing the foundational knowledge and skills of literacy, mathematics, and critical thinking required for university and technical training.

To that end, Duncan offers straightforward proposals for educational reform that require states to set rigorous, easily-measured academic standards, create assessments linked to those standards, use data generated by those assessments to raise academic achievement, and, finally, to hold educational stakeholders [administrators, teachers, and students] accountable for failure. Most commonly subsumed under the conceptual rubric of 'accountability,' this model of education reform has become the default policy position of both political parties in the U.S. and has become the commonsensical position in popular debates over education reform. It is a policy position built on the assumption that it is possible to dramatically raise academic achievement in public education by re-organizing its incentive structures. However, critics of these reform policies charge that placing an undue emphasis on easily defined academic standards tied to standardized assessments and accountability regimes will lead to a narrowing of school curriculum to the easily assessed, the regimentation of schooling, the re-enforcement of teacher-centric pedagogies that provide little opportunity for student discovery and critical thinking, and an over-reliance on rote learning. It is from this indeterminate situation in debates over education policy that this inquiry finds its impetus.

The task of this article is to unpack the concept of accountability in order to clarify and critique the logic of this educational and political concept. To accomplish this task, I will employ a synthetic method of analysis that will, first, situate accountability within the larger framework of standards-based education reforms of which it is an integral element. From there, the second step is to examine the research literature in order to interrogate standards-based policy reforms at each point in its logical chain so as to unpack the unquestioned assumptions and problematics inherent to the concept of accountability that are often obscured by contemporary educational discourse. The results of this study suggest that critics of accountability policies are well justified in their concerns.

A Synthetic Method of Inquiry

The methodology for this inquiry is grounded in an ontological observation into the internal contradictions between the conceptual norms with which modern societies take their general orientations and the concrete realities generated by those conceptual understandings. This methodology is itself rooted in a long tradition of praxis philosophy tracing its lineage to the works of Hegel. …