A Moral Panic Over Real Accountability?

The late conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famous for declaring “there is no alternative” as she executed her laissez-faire economic policies of austerity and privatization, redistributing wealth and helping to concentrate power into the hands of that nation’s rich and powerful. The notion that current ideas and policies are inescapable, that there can be no feasible or desirable alternatives, became a staple of apologies for the status quo long before Thatcher’s declaration. Unfortunately, it has also become a common trope in discussions of U.S. education policy in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

A few weeks ago, noted education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond and AFT President Randi Weingarten[i] appeared in the pages of the Huffington Post with an essay declaring that the current accountability regime in American education was badly broken, and that there was indeed an alternative, a system of real accountability, that should be adopted in its stead. What is needed, they reasoned, is nothing less than a paradigm shift from the current fixation on “test and punish” to a “support and improve” model.

Darling-Hammond and Weingarten argued that, after more than a decade of proliferating standardized exams, our curricula had narrowed and too many of our schools had been transformed into ‘test prep’ factories. The linking of these tests to high-stakes decisions about the future of students, educators and schools has created a culture of fear and anxiety that saps student and teacher morale, drains the joy out of teaching and learning and diminishes the quality of education. The mass closure of schools has negatively impacted communities that can least afford to lose their very few public institutions, without meaningfully improving the education of students living in poverty, students of color and immigrant students.

American schools need richer, more robust assessments that capture critical thinking and problem solving skills and ask students to apply their knowledge, they argued. High-stakes decisions about the future of students, educators and schools must to be delinked from these assessments. And the supports and resources necessary to improve schools and enhance teaching and learning must be provided. Indeed, they explained, real accountability requires a new social compact in which all stakeholders in American education are responsible for their contribution to the educational process, and government is accountable for the allocation of resources.

We know this alternative system of real accountability is possible, Darling-Hammond and Weingarten said, because even within the restrictions of No Child Left Behind, California has begun this paradigm shift, and there have been significant improvements in the quality of education in California as a result. By contrast, New York has vigorously enforced the “test and punish” regime, putting the Common Core in that state in peril as a result.

This coming Wednesday, June 11, Darling-Hammond and Weingarten will speak at a national conference on how to bring this alternative model of accountability to American education. In attendance will be representatives of state education departments, school districts, national education organizations, business and civil rights organizations, together with education scholars. The registration for the meeting is already oversubscribed, signaling a real thirst for an alternative to the current accountability regime.

In the days since the publication of the Darling-Hammond and Weingarten essay, there has been a seemingly coordinated response from defenders of the accountability status quo. Andy Jacob of The New Teacher Project, Patricia Levesque of Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, Kati Haycock of Education Trust and former Assistant Secretary in the Duncan Department of Education Russlynn Ali have all rushed to the barricades, proclaiming that there is no alternative to current notions of accountability. (See here, here, and here.) Short on logical argument or actual evidence, these responses seem to reflect what might best be described as a kind of ‘moral panic’ over the idea that education accountability might be organized around something other than fear, sanctions and punishment. Particularly remarkable to me is the common use of the language of the Puritanism ethos in these essays – its distant and unforgiving deity, its reliance upon fear as the motivating passion, and its definition of righteousness as an austere discipline that eschews simple pleasures as sinful. These themes provide a fitting analogue to the accountability status quo. Particularly telling was the suggestion, offensive in so many ways, that teachers tell their students “pobrecito” (you poor baby) and hug them instead of educating them. What does it say about the current notions of accountability that expressions of caring for and about students is juxtaposed as the antithesis of educating them? Decades of teaching in New York City schools taught me that students of color and poor students did their best when their teachers believed in them and cared for them. Love is a much more powerful passion than fear.

While the defenders of the accountability status quo may not appreciate it, an honest conversation has begun about what accountability in American education is, should be and should do. I am not alone in believing that this is all for the good.

[i] Full disclosure: Both serve on the board of the Albert Shanker Institute.


You nailed it


Scare and punish as a tactic for better results hardly ever works. Most kids don't learn in fear. Adults don't perform better in fear either, especially with such a complex task as teaching. We're not making widgets.


We all know as educators that the "test and punish" system is not effective with students in the classroom. Without need to explain, the current system in the U.S needs to do a complete 180 in developing a "support and improve" system of accountability. That model will foster positive, long term results.