The Next Accountability – Failure of Technocracy


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

EdChoice just posted Part 3 of my series on The Next Accountability. Having discussed what we want from education and how schools best deliver it, I now turn to why technocratic accountability systems get in the way – and, by their nature, always must:

The logic of technocracy is simple: Let’s forget about the things that we strongly disagree about, and focus on the things that everyone ought to be able to reach agreement about pretty easily. As a result, technocracy effectively narrows down the agenda for the head to reading and math scores, keeps the agenda for the hands hopelessly vague (“critical thinking”) and keeps silent about the heart. What makes this so tempting is the illusion that we can avoid uncomfortable, potentially divisive questions about what is good and right…

Whatever its intentions or motives, technocracy in practice imposes a vision of the good for education that includes everything that is widely agreed to be good, and effectively excludes—treats as not essential to good education—everything that is subject to serious disagreement.

I also have a word (as I often do) for my friends in the school choice business:

Technocracy can only be countered by a better, truer and more attractive vision of the human good that education can serve. We are a free and diverse country, a community where neighbors live together while disagreeing about what is good, true and beautiful. But that very truth—that we are a free and diverse country, a community where neighbors live together while disagreeing about what is good, true and beautiful—moves us in deep and powerful ways as we contemplate it. Our shared goal for education can be precisely the cultivation of that kind of free community.

This is why, as I emphasized in the introduction to this series, talking points and canned rhetoric about “markets” and “competition” are woefully inadequate to the needs of the present moment. The claims many of us have made about the benefits of markets are true. But we must ground our case in what it means to be human in what the head, the hands and the heart need from education. We need a humane vision of what education is for that is more attractive than the technocratic vision.

Your thoughts, questions, comments and rotten vegetables are (as always) appreciated!

4 Responses to The Next Accountability – Failure of Technocracy

  1. matthewladner says:

    I am grokking this so far. Anxious to see how you stick the landing.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Uh oh, pressure’s on! You’re supposed to like my work just enough to praise it in public but not so much that you raise expectations of future excellence.

      But thanks for your kind words!

  2. “Accountability” either means that failing institutions experience a reduction in the resources under their control or it means “fraud’. The most effective accountability mechanism that humans have yet devised is a policy that empowers unhappy customers to take their business elsewhere.
    Markets and federalism institutionalize humility on the part of State actors. If a policy difference turns on a matter of taste, competitive markets and federalism leave room for the expression of varied tastes, while the contest for control over a State-monopoly provider of goods and services must inevitably create unhappy losers (who may comprise the vast majority; imagine the outcome of a nationwide vote on the one size and style of shoes we all must wear). If a policy difference turns on a matter of fact, where “what works?” is an empirical question, competitive markets and numerous local policy regimes will generate more information than will a State-monopoly provider of goods and services. A State0monopoly enterprise is like an experiment with one treatment and no controls: a retarded experimental design.
    The State (government, generally) cannot compel attendance at school or operate schools without definitions of “attendance” and “school”, The State cannot enforce educational neglect statutes or subsidize education without a definition of “education”. The State cannot employ teachers without a definition of “teacher”. Students, parents, real classroom teachers, prospective teachers, and taxpayers are then bound by the State’s definitions.
    Becker (__Human Capital__) defines “school” as an institution whose primary product is education. Many of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel’s “schools” are not schools by this definition. Many non-school institutions produce more education than many of the cartel’s “schools”.
    If shop class qualifies as education then on-the-job training qualifies as education. Minimum wage laws, child labor laws, and compulsory school attendance laws put on-the-job training off limits to most US children.

  3. harriettubmanagenda says:

    I see two ways to resolve the tension between the goal of teacher freedom to determine best practice in the classroom, the goal of parent freedom to match curricula and methods of instruction to their individual children’s interests and abilities, and the taxpayers’ goals of financial and performance accountability.
    1. Low performance requirements on a limited set of subjects (e.g., Reading vocabulary and Math fluency at or above, say, the 25h percentile for the age-group) such that most schools can accomplish this with an hour or so of instructional time each day of the school year. Teachers and parents would be free to supplement the required minimum.
    2. High standards on so many curricular choices that no students can satisfy more than a small fraction of the course offerings and most students can excel at enough to meet the requirements for graduation.
    Or, repeal compulsory school attendance laws, minimum wage laws, and child labor laws and let parents determine for their own children how those children will spend the time between birth and age 18.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: