Keywords for the Age of Austerity 8: Accountability

Accountability, n; accountable, adj.

Like most of these austerity keywords, “accountability” is a term that has exploded in popularity in the last 3 decades after lying relatively dormant for centuries. “Innovation,” “entrepreneurship,” and “nimble” all frame acquisitiveness and sacrifice as art and virtue. With its combination of moral responsibility and the task-based “counting” embedded in the word itself, accountability goes further, and captures the popular fantasy of quantifying virtue.


Count the potential Keywords for the Age of Austerity in the preamble to the No Child Left Behind Act, above

 “Accountability” is popular as a term of art on both the left and the right, in calls for “corporate accountability” and “government accountability.” Its greatest influence, however, has come in the field of U.S. public education, especially since the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. An unsatisfying explanation of the term appears on the website of the Department of Education:

Under the act’s accountability provisions, states must describe how they will close the achievement gap and make sure all students, including those who are disadvantaged, achieve academic proficiency. They must produce annual state and school district report cards that inform parents and communities about state and school progress. Schools that do not make progress must provide supplemental services, such as free tutoring or after-school assistance; take corrective actions; and, if still not making adequate yearly progress after five years, make dramatic changes to the way the school is run.

This is an unsatisfying and very nearly tautological definition, since it defines “accountability” by means of the mechanisms for being “held accountable.”  

“Accountability” is popular, as well, in the management literature where “leaders” justify themselves to each other. What, for example, do the sages at the Harvard Business Review see as the biggest fault among “leaders” today? “No matter how tough a game they may talk about performance,” they write, “when it comes to holding people’s feet to the fire, leaders step back from the heat.” In other words: not blaming other people for enough things. Indeed, “accountability” is a word that, unlike its relative “responsibility,” assumes retribution. That is, while one can generally be responsible—for your friends, relatives, students, goldfish, etc.—you are only held accountable, by someone else, when you have failed. (Of course, Forbes Magazine says accountability is “not about punishment,” which sounds suspiciously like “this is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you.”)

It is also a concept that, like stakeholder, aids a firm’s public projection of responsibility: don’t regulate us, the term announces, we’re holding ourselves accountable just fine. See, for example, AccountAbility. a consulting firm to the “Financial Services, Pharmaceutical, and Energy and Extractives” industries—are there any  more irresponsible industries than these three?—which identifies its goal as helping clients “embed ethical, environmental, social, and governance accountability into their organisational DNA.”

The term’s popularity represents a shift in official political discourse in (at least) the post-Reagan era, as the “taxpayer” has replaced the “citizen” as the subject of democratic politics. Take this description of the NCLB’s “accountability mechanisms” in an education journalTechnology and Engineering Teacher, which makes free public education sound like a commercial transaction between taxpayers and teachers. The mechanisms are intended, the authors write, to “[hold] educators accountable to public taxpayers for the learning occurring in their classrooms.” (The vagueness of the antecedent of “their” is telling.) And in another sign of the times, the General Accounting Office, founded in 1921 under the Harding administration, changed its name in 2004 to the Government Accountability Office. The GAO’s original mission was to seek “greater economy or efficiency in public expenditures.” Now, however, “the GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars,” a subtle shift that underscores a basic hostility to the “public expenditures” taken for granted in the original.


Catechism on the Doctrines, Usages, and Holy Days of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1879)

Education scholars and journalists often describe the present moment in education policy as “the Age of Accountability,” an unintentional but ominous reference to the term’s last burst of popularity in the middle of the 19th century. Then, “accountability” was used to assess children, but in an explicitly theological sense. Protestant theologians debated the salvation of children who died before the “age of accountability,” a Calvinist concept taken up later in evangelical Protestantism that identifies an age at which a person’s own agency is subject to God’s judgment. Jacobus Arminius, a 16th-century Dutch theologian, argued that if children die before reaching the age when they could knowingly receive Christ, they go to heaven. Afterwards—tough luck. Accountability is a personal, moral category, and one’s judge is God, in his infinite wisdom or, if you are a Calvinist, his inscrutable arbitrariness. Teachers these days may recognize the latter type. 

The OED defines “accountable” as

liability to account for and answer for one’s conduct, performance of duties, etc. (in modern use often with regard to parliamentary, corporate, or financial liability to the public, shareholders, etc.); responsibility.

Although the definition identifies “responsibility” as a synonym, it emphasizes  “liability,” a more limited form of financial or legal duty, rather than the moral obligation present in the Calvinist usage and still assumed in the word. Implicit in the idea of educational “accountability,” after all, is that very moral sense of responsibility for the welfare of all children that the No Child Left Behind law’s title announces. Regardless of its pedagogical worth, this is what gives the concept of “accountability” its political force, in education, government, and elsewhere: who would be against it?

Measurement is key in enfocring the notion of accountability in schools, and it is what many critics of NCLB fixate on: the high-stakes testing regimes, teacher evaluations,  school grades, and so on. And yet there is something persistently vague about its usage. In my cursory reading of the text of NCLB, the term is never defined more clearly than it is above, except to specify that it refers to common standards and enforcement provisions. The law at times also seems to conflate the sanctions for failure—that is, being “held accountable,” or punished—with meeting the standard itself, or “being accountable,” a big difference.

Perhaps it is not explicitly defined because it is taken for common sense. Regardless of the sticks attached to school accountability, which vary by state—whether a school is closed or a teacher dismissed—accountability takes knowledge quantification as a fundamental, underlying principle, as NCLB critic Anthony Cody points out in a clever reading of a Common Core promotional video (image below)


 As the video’s voice-over says:

Like it or not, life is full of measuring sticks: How smart we are, how fast we are, how we can, you know, compete. But up until now, it’s been pretty hard to tell how well kids are competing in school, and how well they’re going to do when they get out of school. We like to think that our education system does that. But when it comes to learning what they really need to be successful after graduation, is a girl in your neighborhood being taught as much as her friend over in the next one? Is a graduating senior in, say, St. Louis, as prepared to get a job as a graduate in Shanghai? Well, it turns out the answer to both of these questions is “no.”

As Cody argues, there is something distressing about the assumptions here—that life is a sequence of measuring sticks, and that a child’s education must be thought of as one part of a ruthless international competition. We will see more on this when, in our next keyword, we examine the use and abuse of content in education.

Accountability is distressing not because it calls for measurement and standardization—these are not bad in and of themselves, even in education, defined as it is in the U.S. by gross disparities in local school funding and teacher training. Rather, as many others have already said in its educational usage, it is the assumption that the logic of the hierarchical marketplace—measuring sticks, competition, “success,” victory over the Chinese—is not only fair but the natural order of things. (Also, my own sense as an “educator” is that administrators only begin counting things when they want to get rid of them). When it combines the moral sense of duty with the bureaucratic zeal for quantification, accountability encodes the fiction that moral obligations can be measured, calculated, and, of course, valued financially.


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