Sunday, March 6, 2011

Accountability and Higher Education

An open letter to the Massachusetts Department of Education, regarding its "Vision Project" for higher education.

An attorney friend of mine used to work in real estate law, which she found unpleasant and unproductive because she had to account for every six minutes of her eight hour workday in such a way that it could be billed to one of the firm's accounts. This was accountability gone mad, since it made her work intensely stressful and time-conscious, and in so doing undermined both efficiency and creativity -- not to mention making her life miserable. She quit that hellish job many years ago to work for the EPA, helping to hold polluters accountable for their violations. Though the salary was exactly half of her old one, she was good at it, effective in research, legal writing, and litigation, and got considerable satisfaction from helping make the country a cleaner and safer place by enforcing the law.

The principal difference between those two jobs was the nature of her accountability. In the first, the mindless, mechanical notion of accountability that was operative systematically undermined both the quality of her work and her quality of her life. In the second, she was a member of a legal team that held itself internally accountable through its working relationships, and was effectively and respectfully overseen by professional administrators with well articulated expectations and a clearly shared purpose with the team.

'Accountability' is the buzzword of the hour in education, and it has the dangerous quality of being connotatively positive -- no one can be against it, any more than one can oppose 'improvement' or 'health.' As my lawyer friend's story demonstrates, however, not all regimes of accountability are healthy or improving. In particular, external oversight by those disconnected from the complex process of learning and teaching, especially when such oversight demands quantitative evidence of inherently qualitative pedagogical relationships, is a sure recipe for a destructive, unhealthy sort of accountability. We are witnessing such destructiveness in the demands for high-stakes testing in primary and secondary education, and I very much hope that the Vision Project envisions something radically distinct from that. If it does, it needs to articulate clearly and precisely in what its proposed regime of accountability consists.

Teaching/learning is not mechanical but organic, involving multiple complex interactive systems, and concretely respecting that fact is the first task of any organization concerned with education. Mechanical, reductively quantitative assessment might be appropriate for a machine, but it would be a very bad physician indeed who ignored the qualitative fact of a human patient's life and consciousness. I would humbly suggest that the orientation needs to be not "show us that you are doing a good job," but "help us understand what you are doing, and how we can support you in doing it better."