• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

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Connotation and quality

It's just dawned on me that we shouldn't be talking about "accountability" in the educational system. The current connotation of "accountability" is that somewhere there's a responsibility to identifiable individuals, and that's the wrong way to look at any particular system of delivering education. Educational system quality is certainly a topic for attention, but "accountability" isn't a useful construct.

July 1, 2009
 

It's just dawned on me that we shouldn't be talking about "accountability" in the educational system. The current connotation of "accountability" is that somewhere there's a responsibility to identifiable individuals, and that's the wrong way to look at any particular system of delivering education. Educational system quality is certainly a topic for attention, but "accountability" isn't a useful construct.

Think about other complex systems on which our society depends. Do we talk about the lack of "accountability" in our transportation infrastructure? In medical care? In military operations (defensive or offensive)?

For some reason, when we're talking about education it's acceptable to get all invested in the idea that no child will get left behind, and then to really expect that to happen. Why is NCLB any less ridiculous a slogan than "no car stuck in traffic" or "no patient dies except from age-induced total organ failure" or "no deaths of innocent civilians or from friendly fire"? In each of those cases, a certain number of suboptimal outcomes are expected, because they're seen as unavoidable.

Part of the difference, I think, is based in how we conceive the benefits derived from each system. When the primary benefit is seen as being of a public nature, a certain amount of individual inconvenience (up to and including death) is deemed acceptable. Military operations are seen as providing a purely public good (preservation of liberty or society) so, while many serious mistakes are made, individual accountability (certainly at the command level) is deemphasized. The transportation system provides a mainly public good in facilitating the conduct of commercial and social activities; drivers might grumble about summer construction season or mis-timed traffic controls, but we don't hold anyone accountable. And medical care is seen as having a significant public benefit, even if each individual service is rendered to an individual patient; the entire medical malpractice insurance field is designed (and operates, in my state) to protect doctors from accountability.

But somehow, in recent decades, education beyond middle school has come to be treated as if the benefit it delivers were almost entirely private. High schools brag about their graduates that go on to college, and private high schools sell themselves largely on the basis of getting their kids into more colleges, better colleges. Universities emphasize academic programs that maximize starting salaries, and business schools (for example) are ranked in part on the starting salaries actually achieved. Articles are written about how a Masters is the new BA, just as 25 years ago a BA was the new high school diploma -- the minimum credential you needed to get a "decent" job. But the only unit of measurement of any importance is the dollar, and the dollars being discussed are those to be earned by graduates after schooling.

Part of the reason for the emphasis on private benefit is that, as any economist will tell you, to the extent that a portion of the benefit derived goes to the public, the efficient way to pay for that portion is with public funds. A lot (not all) of the folks who emphasize "accountability" for educational systems also seem disposed to the idea that public funding should pay for as little as possible; an exclusive emphasis on private benefit thus coincides with their preferences and prejudices. Unfortunately, once the common vocabulary gets shaped and promulgated, getting back to truly open-minded discussion is an uphill battle.

As the comments on my last post imply, a truly open-minded discussion is what we need. The US system of universal education was created for the benefit of society, not of individuals. More informed citizens, better employees, increased economic development, higher morals, lower crime -- all of these were arguments in favor of educating all the kids, not just the rich ones. And those objectives are still important, even if no one seems to focus on evaluating how well they're being achieved. The fact that a highly educated member of Congress can seriously accuse the notoriously diverse and rambunctious scientific community of successful conspiracy to perpetrate a worldwide hoax over a period of decades and not get laughed out of DC says that we not only don't focus on them, we don't really expect their achievement.

So, we need an open dialogue. And as part of that, the leading voices in higher ed need to be clear about how society benefits from what we do (even when we do it imperfectly). Higher ed -- especially the private colleges and universities -- needs to take a leadership position on this, since so much of the rest of the education system consists of public employees who may have difficulty making statements on politically sensitive topics.

We need to complement society's understanding of the private benefits we create with an appreciation of the public benefit that also results. The criteria by which the quality we achieve can best be analyzed must address both. Much benefit (public as well as private) can be quantified, though certainly not all. But the way to measure public benefit can't be through standardized testing in 4th, 8th and 12th grades; it has to involve key characteristics of the society we and our graduates create and maintain. We need to be more careful about what we measure, because that's what we're likely to get more of.

(And yes, I'd hope that a commitment to sustainable behavior at all levels of society would be one of those key characteristics. Sustainability is certainly a good, and it's not achievable at an individual level.)

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