• Getting to Green

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

Title

True accountability

"Accountability" is one of those lightning-rod words in the educational community. Far too often, it means teaching only those things (easily memorized) that can readily be tested. After all, if you can't measure educational success, how can you know that you're achieving it?

June 29, 2009
 
 

"Accountability" is one of those lightning-rod words in the educational community. Far too often, it means teaching only those things (easily memorized) that can readily be tested. After all, if you can't measure educational success, how can you know that you're achieving it?

The logic of the common demand for accountability is, of course, as flawed as it is superficially attractive. "You can't manage what you can't measure" is a maxim commonly (but incorrectly) attributed to W. Edwards Deming. Somehow, nobody thinks to combine that with the military axiom that "resources you can manage, people you have to lead." Since the main product of education is embedded in people, what makes anyone think that a simplistic application of "management" is appropriate? Despotic regimes might reasonably demand education systems which produce easily "managed" citizens, but how is that appropriate for a representative democracy?

Which is not to say that an education system can't and shouldn't be held accountable, if only by itself. And, on those terms, I'm not exactly proud of how the US system has performed in the past few decades.

Exhibit A is the recent debate on the floor of Congress over Waxman-Markey. If the purpose of liberal education is to create critical thinkers, informed citizens, responsible leaders, literate discussion or knowledgeable voters, it's pretty obvious that we've failed. Not because of the wording of the bill, or the proportion of votes for or against, or the fact that some oppose it from the left while many oppose it from the right. Our failure is evident in the level of the rhetoric used in opposition, much of which reminds me of things heard on an elementary school playground. And much of which gives no evidence of rationality.

If that statement sounds a bit extreme, it doesn't go nearly as far as does Paul Krugman's op-ed piece yesterday. Krugman understandably accuses the most rabid cap-and-trade opponents of betraying all of us. Indeed, betraying the planet. Check it out, it's worth the read.

My own personal reaction, though, is on a somewhat smaller scale. I can't help wondering what percentage of the least erudite, least rational opponents of GHG legislation are graduates of the US education system. And what percentage of the voters who put them there.

If higher ed is, as a sector of society, going to lead the way towards anything resembling sustainability, we've got some explaining to do. And some reforming.

And that doesn't mean more standardized tests.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top