Not long ago, Peter Ewell documented the history of what he called the age of accountability. It is the story of an era in education that is marked by an insatiable quest for empirical evidence of learning. Politically, the journey to improve U.S. education regularly gets new names such as A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core. Socially, the undercurrents are a complex mix of themes such as consumer protection and institutional obligations for building career readiness. Further, there does not appear to be any indication that a new age is dawning. Rather, academic leaders seem steadfast in the quest for accountability despite the now-mounting evidence that the approach is a wee bit misplaced.
For instance, the nation was aghast to learn that U.S. students slipped in the math and science rankings of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). But why be shocked? PISA was first administered in 2000 and has been conducted every three years since then. U.S. performance in math literacy was lower than the average performance of most other OECD countries back in 2003. Ten years of more accountability haven’t helped, so this latest score should not be a surprise.
Even at the local level the accountability picture is starting to look silly. The data coming from the state of Oklahoma, for instance, tells an interesting story. The Sooner State got a D in student achievement on its report card from Education Week. In that measure the students, especially eighth graders, scored poorly in reading and math, and they lacked the opportunity to succeed. Yet Oklahoma got an A in standards, assessment, and accountability. Could this suggest that there is a disconnect between accountability measures and actual learning? Nope. In the age of accountability, underperformers just need a new set of assessments and higher standards.
It is time for academic leaders to start bringing some balance into the age of accountability. The truth is that teaching and learning are far more dynamic than simply checking boxes on the way from kindergarten to a career. Emmanuel Kant certainly understood that. He thought that the goal of education was to help students find the courage and determination to think for themselves.
So too, John Dewey claimed that “Acquisition of skill, possession of knowledge, attainment of culture are not ends: they are marks of growth and means to its continuing.”
Even the education reformer Abraham Flexner once wrote that “The University must shelter and develop thinkers, experimenters, inventors, teachers, and students who, without responsibility for action, will explore the phenomena of social life and endeavor to understand them.” Flexner’s ideas ultimately gave rise to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, which might explain why the faculty there (e.g., Einstein, Gödel, and Oppenheimer) tended to focus on intellectual inquiry rather than on job training.
The truth is that nobody really wants to accept the assembly-line view of education that the current climate of accountability suggests. Although we may be loath to admit it, education is much more than a nerdy form of quality control with the aim of reducing defects before moving students to market. To be concrete, when CNN played off the findings of UNC researcher Mary Willingham, they found that 7 to 18 percent of basketball and football student-athletes had poor reading skills. The statistic evokes scandal. The public schools failed the students and the universities willfully ignored, in some cases abetted, the shortcoming. If the goal of a university is to prepare people for careers, however, then the indignation about literacy is disingenuous. Large universities are excellent producers of professional athletes. The dissatisfaction must be about something other than picking the wrong outcome. The obvious choices are the lucrative sports industry usurping academics and corruption in the classroom.
These are serious issues, but there is another, deeper, concern. American society may be losing its ability to value education without a determinate end. That is a real problem for academic leaders, and the solution is to avoid feeding the obsession for outcomes and greater productivity at the expense of the ineffable spirit of inquiry that is the root cause of all learning.
J.A. Sheppard is academic vice president at Southwestern College.