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Against Accountability

In this week’s parasha, Moses stands out as the epitome of accountability. But as teachers all over the country can attest, sometimes what we need is exactly the opposite.

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Teachers protesting budget cuts in Miami, Florida, yesterday. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Most of the time, we can ask for no better role model of leadership than Moses: In charge of a people so cantankerous that even the Almighty calls them stiff-necked, and caught between God and a hard place, the Israelites’ inimitable shepherd is wise, patient, brave, and inspired. Not this week. In this week’s parasha, Moses, alas, is a bit of a blowhard.

As the story begins, the Tabernacle is completed, and Moses delivers a thorough account of the artisans who toiled on its construction, the fabrics and metals used, the monies paid. At first read, this exhaustive list of men and materials can come off as yet another paean to the great leader’s glory: Having asked the people to sacrifice some of their wealth and most of their precious goods to build the Lord’s dwelling, Moses—responsible and fair and civic-minded—takes the time to inform his charges just what he had done with their resources. In so doing, Moses sets a precedent of transparency, accountability, and other staples of governance on which we moderns living in democratic societies frequently insist.

The story, however, is more complex than that. To understand its intricacies, we must abandon Moses for a moment and look instead at other great yet largely unheralded leaders, our very own teachers.

In recent weeks, the plight of educators made national news from Wisconsin to New York. In the swirl of discussion, one term seemed to hover above controversy: accountability. To best educate our children, goes the logic, we need great teachers, and the only way to identify and incentivize these great teachers is by holding them—and the institutions in which they teach—accountable, rewarding those whose students do well on standardized tests and punishing those whose students falter. This has been a key feature of President Barack Obama’s educational policy, which aggressively promotes the remuneration of successful teachers—one key program, Race to the Top, awards $4.35 billion to schools with demonstrably effective educators—and which heavily depends on hard data, mainly test results, to quantify success.

This may sound very sensible. After all, most of us who work for a living are required, regularly and repeatedly, to undergo professional evaluations. We are rewarded for terrific performance and penalized if we fall short of expectations. But apply the same cool logic to teachers, and disaster is likely to ensue.

Writing last year in the Los Angeles Times, Diane Ravitch, perhaps our sharpest scholar of education history and policy, made this point eloquently. “The Obama education reform plan,” she wrote, “is an aggressive version of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind, under which many schools have narrowed their curriculum to the tested subjects of reading and math. This poor substitute for a well-rounded education, which includes subjects such as the arts, history, geography, civics, science and foreign language, hits low-income children the hardest, since they are the most likely to attend the kind of ‘failing school’ that drills kids relentlessly on the basics. Emphasis on test scores already compels teachers to focus on test preparation. Holding teachers personally and exclusively accountable for test scores—a key feature of Race to the Top—will make this situation even worse. Test scores will determine salary, tenure, bonuses and sanctions, as teachers and schools compete with each other, survival-of-the-fittest style.”

As an assistant professor at New York University, I spend a lot of my time in classrooms, and although education policy is not my field of expertise, Ravitch’s point is one that I deeply feel to be true. If my livelihood depended on metrics, I would most likely concentrate intensely on making sure my students meet the required criteria, which would mean narrowing my scope of interest and theirs to a given set of precise, measurable particulars. Even if that were the case—and I’m extremely fortunate to report that it is not—and even if I were especially adept at my job, I could still fail: As anyone who has ever spent more than a minute or two with a student knows, the tiles that make up each individual’s mind are laid not only by teachers but, primarily, by parents, friends, the media, the environment, and a host of other factors entirely beyond our control. To place the blame for failure—or the laurels of success—on one person isn’t accountability; it’s cruelty.

Unfortunately, even the most progressive-minded among us too often engage in this sort of Manichean thinking. Last February, to name but one prominent example, a school board in Rhode Island voted to fire all the teachers of one struggling high school. Obama hailed the decision. “If a school continues to fail year after year after year and doesn’t show signs of improvement,” he said, “then there has got to be a sense of accountability.”

But as this week’s parasha proves, accountability means accounting, the breaking down of a process to facts and figures. It’s easy to do when one’s business is selling corn, say, or buying land, when all that’s required are bottom lines. But when one’s business is the broadening and bettering of young minds, we need much more. Just what more? For answers, we may turn to those too many nations that surpass ours in comparative international rankings and realize that what Japan, Finland, Holland, and other nations boasting excellent educational systems have in common is not a system revolving around punishments and rewards but rather one devoted to setting clear standards and goals and promoting a well-rounded education focused on the liberal arts and sciences. When fourth-graders in Houston, therefore, stress out about improving their math and reading test scores, their peers in Hong Kong study Picasso’s work and visit a local artist’s studio. One needn’t be an expert on educational policy to guess which method makes for a better education.

And yet we adhere to the ghost dance of accountability, insisting that the world can be broken down to numbers. But it cannot, at least not those slivers of the world that are holy and that still matter. The Good Lord, I suspect, knows it, too. As Moses finishes reading his account, the spirit of God materializes above the Tabernacle. The Creator, of course, could have chosen whatever form he wished, but all that transparency and accountability, all those clear and concrete figures, apparently have given the Almighty the creeps. When he appears above the dwelling the Israelites had built for him, he appears as a cloud.

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JCarpenter says:

The test-score craziness hits private schools as well as public: to justify the big tuition dollars (yet private schoolteachers make considerably less than public counterparts, and private schools typically spend less per student than public districts), administrators must show the parents improved/competitive test scores.
Likewise, budgetary cuts begin first with “periphery” such as foreign language, music, art, elective classes, sports, field trips, and did I mention the expensive older/experienced teachers, working on precarious year-to-year contracts?

Popescu says:

Call me silly, but I suspect the kids in Houston will do better than the ones in Hong Kong. After all, you can’t improve your math and reading scores on a test without actually improving your math and reading skills. Test taking is not trickeration, as its critics would have us believe; it actually involves knowing something. To pretend otherwise will take us down the garden path of even more illiteracy, innumeracy, and general idiocy.

Come on Liel. If this piece is to make any sense, you have got
to tell us what Moses would have said about Obama`s education plans.

amen, liel.

Greg Goldner says:

good article—lived in Cali back when prop 13 started the process of turning the best public system in the country into a shambles.

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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Against Accountability

In this week’s parasha, Moses stands out as the epitome of accountability. But as teachers all over the country can attest, sometimes what we need is exactly the opposite.

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