Accountability Double-Standards

Double standard: a rule, principle, judgement, etc., viewed as applying more strictly to one group of people, set of circumstances, etc., than to another.

In reviewing a front page item from Education Week (“Unions Set Sights on High-Profile Charter-Network Schools”), I’m reminded of how frustrated I have become the by vague and self-serving language of “accountability” that appears in news reports and speeches. Witness the law of diminishing accountability as one climbs the social hierarchy.

In discussing the “culture clash” of unions with philanthropy-backed academic sweatshops, Stephen Sawchuk writes: “Charter school advocates say unionization has historically carried a set of policies—such as seniority provisions and lengthy appeals processes for dismissed teachers—that discourage accountability and the recognition of differences in performance.”

But as Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, points out: “Collaboration [the buzzword of corporate charters used in the article] without having some balance of power is not collaboration, if a teacher knows that he or she can be fired for any reason at all.”

So what is the actual problem? The problem is not “accountability” but different standards of accountability for different people holding different offices. When administrators fire teachers for “no reason at all” they are rendered as masters of innovation, serving the public good as “no excuses” educators who have, finally, rescued poor, minority children from the grips of uncaring, lazy teachers.

How can setting up an arrangement where management cannot be challenged be described as somehow more accountable than collectively agreed upon contractual arrangements that stipulate rights and responsibilities of both parties? While much in the media aims to discredit collective bargaining, especially seniority and the right to challenge management, as the root of all that is wrong with public schools, I caution pause. The problem is not peoples right to collectively organize themselves in their own interests.

The notion of accountability is fundamentally relational, and refers both to the party who must give account, and to whom they must account. But also implicit in this notion is the idea of checks and balances. The present landscape of discussion about education is littered with conceptions of accountability rendered as a one way street, with those screaming the loudest about accountability simultaneously the most unaccountable. Has KIPP been held to account for its infractions against students, and the public? Has the growing list of corporate charter school fraud caused pause for those pushing expansion of the very charter school models that are associated with the fraud?

While democratic renewal is required in unions as in other spheres, attacking the right to collectively bargain the conditions of work and procedures for challenging decisions will not contribute to improving education.

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