Who’s Accountable?

Since July, 2004, when Public Law 108-271 changed the name of the General Accounting Office to the Government Accountability Office, “accountability” has dominated discourse in our political arena.

When a disaster hits, whether it’s a construction crane collapse, a gas line explosion, an oil platform disaster, a municipal budget shortfall, or the perceived failure of the nation’s educational system, editorial writers, politicians, and pundits pile on, demanding “accountability.”

It’s a cheap shot. Assigning blame — essentially, what most people mean by “accountability” — is an easy way for elected officials and editors to distance themselves from responsibility and divert attention from their failure to offer constructive prescriptions for change.

In the current debate about school reform, almost everyone involved, from the President on down, assigns the lion’s share of accountability to teachers and principals, while giving a broad pass to mayors, schools chancellors and superintendents, and, remarkably, to children and parents.

Ironically, in New York City “accountability” was Mike Bloomberg’s primary rationale for demanding mayoral control of the schools. Only recently have journalists such as Jennifer Medina of the New York Times held Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein accountable for using inflated exam scores to portray their educational practices as successful.

According to Medina, one consequence of the inflation was that “Eighth graders who scored at least a 3 on the state math exam had only a 50 percent chance of graduating from high school four years later with a Regents diploma….”

The public’s silence has been deafening.

Accountability — the ability to affix blame — usually doesn’t help to correct things unless voters, elected officials and opinion shapers can convince government leaders to change faulty policies. This becomes difficult when a leader doesn’t have any partners in decision-making, as with mayoral control, or when he enjoys broad support among media owners who can influence editorial policy to shift blame elsewhere.

In the private sector, the ability to measure progress against the bottom line makes accountability meaningful. But in government, where goals are diffuse and voter memories short, accountability is more a tool for shifting blame than for solving problems. From its first recorded use in 1794 to now, accountability’s primary value in the public sector has not been to improve how government works, but to enable voters, politicians, and pundits to position themselves as critics instead of participants. It is a political bludgeon, not a management tool.

The next time a newspaper editorial demands that we hold teachers and principals accountable for school failures, think about our own complicity: We balk at paying for smaller class sizes, we ignore the social conditions that make school attendance and learning difficult, we undermine public school student and teacher morale by telling them that “charter schools are better,” and we accept a power structure that immunizes mayors from even the broadest critical consensus.

After two centuries of accountability, perhaps it’s time for us to accept some responsibility.

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