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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 06/21/2012

The real meaning of ‘accountability’ and ‘trust’ in education

This is an abridged version of a speech that Michael J. Feuer, dean of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, recently gave at a conference in Jerusalem about trust and accountability in education.

By Michael Feuer

The topic of this conference brings back fond memories of my undergraduate years at Queens College (CUNY), where lessons of accountability and trust were a central part of the informal curriculum. The president when I was there, 1969-1973, was a remarkable young man named Joseph Murphy. Joe had come to Queens after writing his PhD under Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis University, drafting speeches for the Kennedys, and directing the Peace Corps in Ethiopia – all by the time he was 38. The name Murphy sounds Irish, but there was more to it.

Joe was raised in a tenement in New Jersey with his maternal grandparents, Eastern European Jews who spoke only Yiddish at home. A Jew by rules of matrilineal descent, Joe was nonetheless raised a Roman Catholic, which led to complicated dual loyalties and I suspect a good deal of time on the couch. He always said his intellectual and cultural forebears were Marx, Freud and Einstein, and he loved to use his Yiddish. On a visit to Israel in 1972 he gleefully explained to a group of rabbis, who had surrounded his car as he drove through their neighborhood on the Sabbath, that “ich bin nischt a yid…ich bin a goy!” The rabbis marveled at this Yiddish speaker denying his Jewishness --maybe there was something “new under the sun” after all — so they let him go.

Joe applied this charismatic charm and his passion for social justice to the management of an extraordinary institution. At Queens, founded on the proposition that affordable higher education was a wise public investment, the majority of students were children of immigrants and first-time college goers. Just think of Emma Lazarus’s “huddled masses” and you’ll have a pretty good image of me and my friends on campus.

CUNY stood for broad access and high standards — it was free except for a trivial student fee until the mid 1970s — and the fact that these values were never viewed as incompatible is an example of what the great historian of American education, Lawrence Cremin, meant by our “grand experiment.” Building a “working class Harvard” was no trivial task; but somehow it worked.

Nobel Laureates Robert Aumann, Kenneth Arrow, and Leon Lederman, along with Jonas Salk, Colin Powell (another Yiddish speaker), Andrew Grove, Ruby Dee, Paul Simon, Jerry Seinfeld, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Herman Badillo, and Felix Frankfurter had all been students at one or another branch of CUNY.

Like most colleges in the late 1960s, Queens was mired in the struggles of the day, and long before the word became fashionable, “accountability” was a dominant theme. I don’t recall hearing the word in those days, but in thinking back to how we students, faculty, and staff organized ourselves — de Tocqueville would have been proud of our teach-ins and sit-ins and caravans to the Capital — we were, in fact, trying to hold our government accountable: for stagnation in the expansion of economic opportunities for black Americans, other minorities, and women, and for the disastrous error of our intervention in the Vietnamese civil war. Our grievances found voice on campus thanks to the culture of free academic expression.

Murphy looked out his office window high above the campus and observed, somewhat ruefully but with the fascination of an astute political theorist, an unfortunate result of all that academic freedom: the proliferation of graffiti that may have seemed poetic to some but was in fact a blight. Queens was suffering a tragedy of its commons, which in retrospect I believe was a problem of accountability — or the lack thereof. Public monies funded the construction of handsome new classroom buildings, theaters, and libraries.

Then, without any enforceable accountability, with no formal mechanism to encourage or curb the behavior, individuals exercised undisciplined artistic license using the simple and cheap technology of pressurized paint sprayers purchased from local hardware stores. As anyone who had been a passenger on the Mew York City subway knew, enforcing anti-graffiti ordinances was impractical if not impossible. So if Joe was serious about curbing the over-grazing by amateur artists, he would have to come up with something better.

And he did. He declared the side of a large campus building open territory and invited students to paint on that wall to their hearts’ content. This was an innovation that would have thrilled our best behavioral economists: just as we now know why competitive firms tend to locate near one another (think of intersections in most cities where there are three or four competing gas stations), Joe’s insight was that individuals seeking to maximize the power of their message might find it beneficial to co-locate, so to speak, rather than to isolate themselves in random sites across the campus.

Amid the mural’s many colorful and clever exhortations to “burn pot, not people,” “support our boys — bring them home,” “black is beautiful,” and “abolish required courses NOW!” — there appeared one day an even simpler edict scrawled in a large calligraphic diagonal: “CHALLENGE AUTHORITY.”

Now, this was not exactly a new idea, and for alert readers it was as good an abbreviation of the Declaration of Independence as one could hope for with a spray can. (If Rabbi Hillel had been asked to explain American democracy while standing on one leg, he might very well have said “challenge authority – all the rest is commentary…”) And I believe the phrase is relevant to our topic, mainly because of the meaning of the word “challenge.” Or better yet because of what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean “overthrow,” but rather expresses allegiance to a core principle of democracy. To challenge authority is, in essence, to hold authority accountable. Challenging the authorities requires them to present evidence that what they are doing is legitimate; and it assumes they will be allowed to rise to the challenge and prove their case.

There is more. The word connotes a contest — think “challenge match” in professional sports — and therefore it also connotes adherence to rules that govern the process of the contest. If the authorities lose the contest, then perhaps they will have to leave office, although that too would take place in an orderly fashion governed by trusted norms of conduct and rules codified in law. We may not trust our leaders as we would our closest friends and family, but we trust our system enough to believe that by holding leaders accountable we can effect change. For their part, those in power must also trust that the rules of accountability will be fair. By contrast, in societies where governance is corrupt and opaque, there is no trust and no basis for orderly change. Students of the Arab spring — and the American Revolution — understand.

Sequence is significant. Ex ante we entrust our leaders with authority – to allocate our resources, send our children to war, educate our citizens, keep our air and water clean, protect us from external threats, and even, God willing, some day provide us with a decent system of health insurance. Ex post, we want evidence that they are performing as expected, and we need to trust the information upon which to make that determination. Prior trust in good intentions and behavior — usually granted on condition of meeting professional requirements codified in licensure and certification rules — evolves into trust that there will be reliable and accessible evidence of performance.

If accountability is an intuitively obvious concept, in modern democracies at least, it is devilishly complex to implement. We spend considerable intellectual and financial resources on the design, use, and interpretation of measures to assess whether authority is legitimately and effectively exercised; and we are never quite satisfied with the quality of the data or with the ways the data are used. I will say more about the measurement problem. But let me digress for a moment and return to Murphy’s mural, because my memory of it evokes yet another connection to accountability in American education.

The day after someone had painted “CHALLENGE AUTHORITY,” there appeared an especially witty rejoinder: some world-wise undergraduate had come along and added “SAYS WHO?” This charmingly playful dialog serves as a poignant metaphor of what is great — and also frustrating — about American education. Our system reflects an allergy to central authority, a penchant for practicality, skepticism even about the authoritativeness of science, and a belief in the virtues of local community — not coincidentally, founding norms of the new republic. As anyone who has worked in education policy will attest, a problem with our preference for decentralized decision-making is not the lack of expertise but rather its oversupply. For every proposed reform, whether in curriculum or pedagogy or school management, there arise critics whose first question is essentially: “Says who?”

I was reminded of this example of American exceptionalism when a French minister of education, the scientist Claude Allegre, visited the National Academy of Sciences in the mid-1990s. He reported that the decision had been made to adopt a “hands-on” science curriculum — and that by the following week all schools in France had begun to implement it. The Americans in the room, a group of high-level policy savants, salivated with envy. Allegre added, though, with an air of anxious prescience, that when power is concentrated so is opposition. He was onto something: six months later he had been ousted by a well-organized campaign among teachers who resented his suggestion that more time in the holy days of summer should be devoted to professional development (le moi d’Aout? Pas possible!).

Because of this peculiarly American tension between our pluribus and our unum, it took roughly 214 years for the United States to adopt a set of national educational goals. The debate then, which continues today, pitted visionaries who worried that our national standing in the world would be eroded if children in Montana and children in Florida learned differently, against other visionaries who exalted the agilities of local communities over slow-moving central bureaucracies. Former Harvard President James Conant once remarked that we don’t really have an education system — we have a “hodge-podge” — and we seem to like it that way. But another Harvard scholar, the political scientist Richard Elmore, has argued that our persistent and vexing inequality of educational outcomes is due in part to our “fetish for local control.” The possibility that truth lies somewhere in the middle doesn’t make for good headlines or campaign oratory.

These tensions remain abundantly manifest in today’s reform zeitgeist. The accountability movement rests in part on the proposition that teachers have substantial authority — in their classrooms — and that having entrusted them with the education of our children we are entitled to evidence that they are performing according to expectations. Anxiety about the condition of education and its effects on economic productivity and competitiveness has been translated into particularly rigorous — and to many observers unfair and ineffective — efforts to measure teacher quality. But this is not really new. We have always been demanding of our teachers, at least since the days of Horace Mann and the common school reforms in the early 19th century.

What’s different today is the increased federal role. But even this shift — remember that our constitution specifies that education is not a federal responsibility — fits our political culture. To the extent that elected officials are supposed to represent society’s aggregated preferences, balancing the role of teachers — or any powerful group — is a reason we have government in the first place. Moreover, supporters of the federal role have history on their side: memories of the era when local control meant states’ rights applied to the denial of civil rights are still fresh and raw.

On the other hand, critics of the new accountability movement, who rightly worry about the effects of all this pressure on the morale of working teachers, often argue that if we only trusted our teachers more they would do a better job. This sounds nice, but misses the point: accountability in American democracy is, in fact, all about trust — subject to checks and balances.

We want to trust that teachers will work hard on behalf of our kids. But we maintain the right to evaluate their performance, just as we trust police officers to handle crime while we hold them accountable for process and results. We try to balance teachers’ professional norms, i.e., their rights to work with at least limited autonomy in their classrooms, against our rights as citizens to know how the kids are doing. No profession grants automatic or complete autonomy to its members or exempts them from external evaluation and accountability; the challenge is finding the right balance between blind trust at one extreme and stifling control at the other.

Choice of metrics, therefore, and how they are used and understood, is the central problem of accountability. Americans like numbers (just open the sports section of any newspaper), so it’s not surprising that test scores have long been the darling of reform. Although it is easy to demonize the testing industry, the history is more complex. Their flaws notwithstanding, tests used properly can provide at least a crude approximation of the performance of students and the effects of teachers.

The good news is that a century of investment in the science of measurement has resulted in significant progress in the validity and fairness of inferences derived from test scores. Still, test scores are always estimates, based on statistical sampling of complex domains, and as any respectable psychometrician will attest, the estimates come with nontrivial error terms.

Which leads to the bad news: over time, and despite the periodic outcry of the professional measurement community itself, policymakers have tended to ignore the error term. They have developed exaggerated notions of the precision of the measures, and have come to rely on tests for too many purposes. And by attaching so-called “high stakes” consequences to test results, reformers with even good intentions have unwittingly created incentives for gaming the system and distracting students from mastering the relevant material. So the approximations get cruder, to the point where we no longer have confidence in the validity of the information. Remember, the basic question — how are our kids doing? — is a legitimate expression of our accountability rights. If the answer is blurred and misleading — untrustworthy — we feel cheated, or at least uncomfortable.

And the plot thickens. For not only does excessive use of tests lead to public confusion, it saps the morale and effectiveness of the very professionals in whom we have entrusted the education of our children. According to recent polling data, morale of teachers in the United States has hit an all-time low, in part because of an accountability system that seems to have run amok. Maybe the eminent social scientist, James March, was right when he warned that “the demand for accountability is a sign of pathology in the social system.” If he were a graffiti artist, I suspect he would sarcastically evoke president Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union and summarize our current attitude to teachers with “trust” in small letters and “VERIFY” in huge bold strokes.

Is it any wonder that we have been hearing calls to hold the accountability system … accountable? As I write, petitions are circulating for an end to testing. The accountability-trust pendulum is swinging again, perhaps more wildly than in the past. Our political leaders (in both parties) might want to have a chat with Monsieur Allegre.

I will close on a note of cautious optimism. Jim March’s wisdom aside, I believe that demand for accountability is not always a sign of pathology but rather can be a sign of robust democracy in action. Imperfect as our current system may be, simplistic and rhetorically immodest alternatives — turning everything over to the miracles of the market or appointing an education czar to dictate benevolently from Washington — will only make things worse. The fact is that no accountability system will ever be perfect; but that should not deter us from continuing to experiment with innovations, from investing in the restoration of public trust in our teachers, and from building public trust in the data we use to figure out how we are doing. The problems of public education, accountability, and trust don’t lend themselves to optimal solutions, and anyone proposing a quick fix should anticipate new graffiti on the Queens College wall. It will say “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” — and no written rebuttal will be needed.

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