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November 24, 2009

accountability: relational and informational

Borrowing an idea from the Kettering Foundation President, David Mathews: Today's policymakers and experts tend to define "accountability" in terms of information. For instance, No Child Left Behind requires schools to collect and disclose reams of data about students' performance, teachers' credentials, etc. The idea is that well-informed parents will be able to apply pressure and make good choices for their kids. Similarly, the Administration has pledged to reveal unprecedented amounts of information about the stimulus spending (and is being beaten up for inaccuracies).

But most people do not think of accountability in informational terms. They think in terms of relationships. For example, in focus groups that Doble Research Associates conducted for the Kettering Foundation (back in 2001), parents were highly resistant to the idea that tests would be useful ways to hold school accountable. For one thing, they wanted to hold other parties accountable for education, starting with parents. A Baltimore woman said, "If kids don't pass the test, is that supposed to mean that teachers are doing a lousy job? That's not right. I mean where does the support come from? You're pointing the finger at them when you should be supporting them." Another (or possibly the same) Baltimore woman explained, "When I think about accountability, I think about parents taking responsibility for supervising their children's learning and staying in touch with teachers." This respondent not only wanted to broaden responsibility but also saw it in terms of communication. Many participants wanted to know whether schools, parents, and students had the right values. They doubted that data would answer that question. And although the report doesn't quite say this, I suspect they envision knowing individuals personally as the best way to assess their values. The focus groups turned to a discussion of relationships:

And so on--the conversation continues in this vein. Note that this is supposed to be a focus group about accountability in education. One Atlanta woman summed it up: "What we've got to do is develop a stronger sense of community between the schools and families in the community."I suspect that she envisions a situation in which school staff and parents know each other, share fundamental values, and commit to support one another. Information is pretty much irrelevant.

I think David Mathews' theory needs more investigation, including national survey data, because we don't know for how many people accountability is relational rather than informational. But let's assume that he's right about most Americans. In that case ...

First, we might discuss whether ordinary people or experts are wiser. There are pros and cons to both sides. Thinking about accountability in relational terms can be misleading. Just because you have known the new principal since you were kids and she wants her students to succeed doesn't mean she is doing a good job. Besides, once we are dealing with state or national policy, you cannot possibly know leaders personally. Thus you may start trying to assess their "character" based on imperfect and often biased sources instead of measuring their performance.

On the other hand, the focus group participants are right that any informational measure, such as a test score, is narrow and simplistic and even trivial. Many of the most important issues are values; over-reliance on information can sideline those issues and drive a wedge between citizens and institutions.

Regardless of who is right, I think this theory has powerful political implications. Especially on the left, leaders (often highly trained and skillful with information) keep hoping that by providing the public with data, they will make people happier. But parents like charter and voucher-funded private schools even when they perform poorly. I am convinced that that's because they feel they have a genuine relationship with those schools. There is a profound lesson here about how to reform education and other sectors.

November 24, 2009 12:24 PM | category: education policy , populism | Comments



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