The Next Accountability – Failure of Technocracy

September 28, 2016


(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!


Parent Power Gives Teachers Freedom to Teach

September 20, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s latest Perspective carries my article reviewing evidence suggesting that, where parents are in charge of education, teachers are free to teach. The data come from a study of federal teacher surveys that I did with Christian D’Andrea in 2009, but they are of fresh interest in light of the recent crisis over accountability in education reform.

Government power over schooling harms teachers in many ways. It takes away their control over what and how they teach:

On accountability, we found private school teachers were much more likely to say they have a great deal of influence on performance standards for students (40 percent versus 18 percent), curriculum (47 percent versus 22 percent), and discipline policy (25 percent versus 13 percent). They were also more likely to have a great deal of control over selection of textbooks and instructional materials (53 percent versus 32 percent) and content, topics, and skills to be taught (60 percent versus 36 percent).

It also saddles teachers with a legal and regulatory environment that prevents them from keeping order:

Shockingly, we found public school teachers were four times more likely than private school teachers to say student violence was a problem on at least a monthly basis (48 percent versus 12 percent). That means about half of public school teachers are being asked to work in an environment where violence is a regular problem. Nearly one in five public school teachers had been physically threatened by a student, compared to only one in 20 private school teachers (18 percent versus 5 percent). Nearly one in 10 public school teachers had been physically attacked by a student, three times the rate in private schools (9 percent versus 3 percent).

Where student violence is a problem on some days, student disorder is a problem every day. Sure enough, we found public school teachers were much more likely to report that student misbehavior (37 percent versus 21 percent) or tardiness and class cutting (33 percent versus 17 percent) disrupt their classes. One in eight public school teachers reported that physical conflicts among students occurred every day; only one in 50 private school teachers said the same (12 percent versus 2 percent). How are teachers supposed to teach?

The institutional environment is undermined by government control in other ways, too, undercutting teachers’ relationships with peers and school leaders:

Where parents are in charge, the school is free to be itself, and that cultivates a strong spirit. Private school teachers were much more likely to strongly agree that there is a great deal of cooperation between staff members (60 percent versus 41 percent), that their colleagues shared their values and understanding of the core mission of the school (63 percent versus 38 percent), and that their fellow teachers consistently enforced school rules (42 percent versus 29 percent).

These intangible factors affect how schools manage their more material affairs. Private schools almost always have smaller budgets than public schools. Yet somehow private school teachers were more likely to strongly agree they had all the textbooks and supplies they needed (67 percent versus 41 percent). They were also more likely to strongly agree they got all the support they needed to teach special needs students (72 percent versus 64 percent). And although their class sizes were only moderately smaller, private school teachers were much more likely to strongly agree that they were satisfied with their class sizes (61 percent versus 34 percent).

Sure enough, teachers who are accountable to parents are a lot happier than teachers who are accountable to government. Check it out and let me know what you think!

The Next Accountability – Teachers and Schools

August 25, 2016


EdChoice has posted Part 2 of my new series on The Next Accountability. In Part 1 I outlined what we most want from a good education; now I outline the most important qualities teachers and schools should have to deliver these results:

All this can be summed up by saying that teachers need to be wise and professional. Wisdom means teachers possess themselves the capacities of head, hands and heart that we want students to develop. Professionalism means that teachers’ primary motivation is not to check boxes on a curricular chart or maximize formal outcomes such as test scores, or even to please parents, but to help students develop those capacities of head, hands and heart that the teachers possess and the students need.

The great challenge we face is that in our society, where we are free to disagree about what is good, true and beautiful, we lack consensus about what constitutes a good education. Good schools are therefore those that manage to overcome legal and bureaucratic obstacles to operate as free communities, with a shared commitment both to freedom of disagreement about the highest things and also to bonds of interdependence and reciprocity:

Freedom and community tend to lose their meaning when separated from one another. Real community means people freely choose to be in community. And real freedom can only be protected by a community that loves freedom and institutionalizes it as a shared, public moral commitment.

Next, in Part 3: how the two great camps in the debate over accountability – advocates of technocracy and choice – are, in different ways, trying unsuccessfully to sidestep the core problem of building consensus in a pluralistic society.

Stay tuned! Your thoughts are very welcome as always.

The Next Accountability: What Do We Want from Schools?

August 3, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today the newly renamed EdChoice launches Part 1 of my series of articles on The Next Accoutability, previewed with an introduction a few weeks ago.

I argue that the education reform coalition is coming apart because we don’t agree about what we want from schools:

The movement was well served in many ways by its various edifying impulses: to “close the achievement gap,” to “put parents in charge,” etc. But it has been haunted for decades by a growing awareness that these moral impulses do not always cohere easily.

The question, “What do we do if putting parents in charge doesn’t, by itself, close the achievement gap?” has been debated at every education reform conference I’ve attended. Such debates were lively and interesting intellectual exercises, so long as not much hung on them.

We lack consensus on what we want from schools because in a pluralistic society with religious freedom, we want to respect diverse opinions about the highest questions in life. But this leaves us with an incoherent education policy:

Our freedom to disagree about transcendent things does not mean that public policy can escape the responsibility to ask what is good, true and beautiful. In fact, the very assertion that it is good to have the freedom to disagree about transcendent things is itself an assertion about what is good, i.e. about transcendent things.

The challenge of pluralism is also an opportunity for us to discover a fresh vision of human potential that embraces the freedom to disagree about the highest things:

School accountability should be grounded in an understanding of human potential aimed at building up free communities, open to pluralism under the rule of law and respect for human rights, where people achieve and appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful in the midst of their differences over those very things.

I outline how we can understand educational goals for the head, the hands and the heart in ways that point toward the possibility of coherence in a pluralistic society.

Coming in two weeks: Part 2, looking at how teachers and schools actually carry out the task of educating students in the midst of our uncertainty about the highest goals of education. It is here, I will contend, that we will find clues to how we can hold schools accountable more effectively. Stay tuned!

As always, your comments and feedback are greatly appreciated.


Expert Ratings- A Cautionary Tale

July 15, 2016

GB Screenshot

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few months ago, I was on a panel discussing the incorporation of user reviews into the K-12 space for things like digital courses and ESAs. One of my fellow panelists expressed skepticism about the entire project until I noted that Rotten Tomatoes allows both “expert” and “user” reviews of movies. With this, he expressed contentment so long as the experts got their own ratings for separate consideration.

It has long been my experience using Rotten Tomatoes however that the user ratings tended to be much more reliable than the critic reviews. Last night I got a double barrel reminder of this when I allowed a 74% fresh critic rating convince me to go see Ghostbusters before the audience score came in (the studio released the film yesterday).

The 44% rating of the audience is incredibly generous. The 74% critic rating reveals some sort of deep divorce from reality. This movie is about as terrible as:

Star Trek V

Apparently 2o+% of people are just unwilling to admit that they paid to see a bad movie. What more proof? The critics nailed this one:

Highlander 2

Sometimes both the critics and the audience gets it wrong, but the critics get it more wrong. This would be the case with Ghostbusters 2016 and:

Jones Sometimes the critics and audience agree on a stinker:


So in the end, I’m happy to have “expert” reviews included, but if 74% of them thought that the hot mess I saw last night was a good movie, it says something important about relying solely on experts. Like everything else in life “experts” are not to be trusted.

Bending Spoons with Andy Smarick

July 11, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Following up on Greg’s post on Andy Smarick’s great post on accountability and how our current systems are based upon premises on their way to being out of date. It brings to mind this scene in the Matrix:


You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged, and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

Andy took the red pill- welcome aboard the Nebuchadnezzar!

“Public” Is Not “Government”

July 8, 2016


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Andy Smarick is starting to have the most important realization about accountability – that the government school monopoly has corrupted not only our systems of accountability but even our conception of what accountability is. There is no need for a single, uniform accountability system in each geographic zone, and there is no need for accountability to be government-controlled.

Go read his post. Then remember that you read it here first. Not only the idea of families holding schools accountable but the idea that many other kinds of social organizations (think tanks, churches, civic groups, etc.) could help them do so by building family-driven structures of accountability.

My only complaint is that the title on his post reinforces the same error he is awakening from. The title is “Public Accountability vs. Consumer Accountability.” Since none of the language in the post itself reflects the extreme myopia we see in that title, I’m betting the title was composed by the smug technocrats at Fordham.

Welcome aboard, Andy! Soon enough you’ll realize these insights aren’t going to find an easy home at Fordham, but we’ll be here to welcome you as you pursue them.

Update: Ironically, I mispelled “error”!