We Must Require a Definition of “Accountability”

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Earlier today, I mentioned Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s recent appearance on WPRI’s Newsmakers program and his heavy reliance on buzz phrases and jargon.  One such term — which needn’t be jargon, but can be used that way — was “accountability.”

Wagner’s use of the word came to mind when I read an excerpt on National Review Online of a book by Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City Councilwoman and charter school founder:

While I was already convinced that the district schools weren’t in good shape, preparing for the contract hearings was nonetheless an eye-opener for me. Interviewing principals, superintendents, and teachers helped me understand just how impossible it was for them to succeed given the labor contracts, and how job protections created a vicious cycle. Teachers felt they’ve been dealt an impossible hand: their principal was incompetent or their students were already woefully behind or their textbooks hadn’t arrived or all of the above. They didn’t feel they should be held accountable for failing to do the impossible so they understandably wanted job protections. However, since these job protections made success even harder for principals who were already struggling with other aspects of the system’s dysfunctionality to achieve, they too wanted job protections. Nobody wanted to be held accountable in a dysfunctional system, but the system couldn’t be cured of its dysfunction until everyone was held accountable.

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In that context, the question is unavoidable:  What does “accountability” mean?  It must have clear and predictable consequences, or it’s worthless.  As Wagner used the term, “accountability,” one couldn’t be sure what it entailed, suspecting that the idea might rely on the assumption that teachers and administrators would feel guilty about bad results and consider themselves as having been held accountable.  Or maybe the consequence would be a written-more-in-sadness-than-anger letter of disappointment from Department of Education.

Accountability should mean that people lose their jobs or that entire schools are threatened with going out of business because students are going elsewhere.  Unfortunately, that necessity goes against the sine qua non of government employment, which is job security.

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  • BasicCaruso

    “What does ‘accountability’ mean? It must have clear and predictable consequences, or it’s worthless.”

    Well, you’re half right. Accountability is worthless if the goal is improvement. What Justin recommends is a recipe for disaster, long established in private sector process improvement practice.

    “Evaluation of performance, merit rating, or annual review… The idea of a merit rating is alluring. the sound of the words captivates the imagination: pay for what you get; get what you pay for; motivate people to do their best, for their own good. The effect is exactly the opposite of what the words promise.”

    W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis

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