No One Has a Patent on Defining ‘Accountability’

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To the Editor:

In response to "Critics of NCLB Ask Congress to Overhaul It" (Feb. 28, 2007):

The members of the Forum on Educational Accountability have it right on the best ways to assess schools and improve student learning; Michael J. Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation is wrong in contradicting their ideas. No one has a patent on defining the word “accountability.”

Democracy was invented a long time ago as a way of holding those who govern accountable to the governed. In “accounting” to the people, one needs to provide a much richer and deeper look than the No Child Left Behind Act now provides us. Then, what is needed are processes that allow the people to speak up and “vote the rascals out.”

Decisions made farther and farther away from the very people who know each school best make it harder and harder to democratically intervene. The more centralized the decisionmaking is, the more shallow the evidence used for making decisions is and the more standardized the solutions become. This is hardly unique to K-12 schooling; it’s the excuse, after all, for why large universities rely so heavily on SAT and ACT scores. They know that’s an inaccurate and unreliable method, but it’s a cheap and quick way to sort a lot of data. That’s a rough metaphor for what we’ve turned K-12 schooling into: a shallow data-collection course.

Bravo for the many organizations that have gotten together to offer us another way to look at what accountability can mean. As John Merrow puts it in his recent Commentary, “It’s painful to note that the No Child Left Behind Act has been responsible for increasing the ‘soft bigotry’ that the bipartisan coalition [that passed it] hoped the law would eliminate” ("A ‘Surge’ Strategy for No Child Left Behind?" Feb. 14, 2007). The fault, Mr. Merrow reminds us, lies largely with “our miserly, backward-thinking approach to testing and assessment.”

It’s time to move forward. It’s all about making democracy work—above all, in the one institution designed (we would hope) to educate on behalf of democracy.

Deborah Meier
Senior Scholar
Steinhardt School of Education
New York University
New York, N.Y.

Vol. 26, Issue 27, Page 36

Published in Print: March 14, 2007, as No One Has a Patent on Defining ‘Accountability’
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