Clifford Adelman’s “White Noise of Accountability”

On June 24, Clifford Adelman’s, “White Noise of Accountability” was published in Inside Higher Ed.

This piece offers a good example of countering disinformation in thinking about education. Some highlights include:

“Accountability,” a term that has been with us, late and soon. Its six syllables trip by as the background white noise in the liturgy of higher education…You know what happens with liturgies: after so many repetitions, there is no recompense. We don’t really know what we are saying. In this case, the six-syllable perfect scan, “accountability,” simply floats by as what we assume to be a self-evident reality. Even definitions wind up in circles, e.g., “In education, accountability usually means holding colleges accountable for the learning outcomes produced.” One hopes Burck Smith, whose paper containing this sentence was delivered at an American Enterprise Institute conference last November, held a firm tongue-in-cheek with the core phrase.

The 2005 report of the National Commission on Accountability in Higher Education puts “accountability” in a pinball machine where “goals” become “objectives” become “priorities” become “goals” again. One wins points along the way, but has no idea of what they represent.

In fact, all levels of education are subjected to this confusion: standards are confused with goals such that the desired outcome is confused with the indicators of the outcome, leading to the dehumanizing act of teaching to the test. Instead of teaching being driven by goals — by philosophy and a broad sense of purpose — the indicators become the goals.  This process has now morphed into the mindless repeating of pet phrases of granting agencies and other “decision makers” to show “buy in”.  I suppose it is evidence of the irrationality of marketing “group think” in addition to the decline in rationale public discourse.

Adelman continues:

So what kind of creature is this species called “accountability”? Readers who recall Joseph Burke’s introductory chapter to his Achieving Accountability in Higher Education (Wiley, 2004) will agree that I am hardly the first nearsighted crazy person to ask the question. This essay will come at the word in a different way and from a different tradition than Burke’s political theory.

I am inviting readers to join in thinking about accountability together, with the guidance of some questions that are both metaphysical and practical. Our adventure through these questions is designed as a prodding to all who use the term to tell us what they are talking about before they otherwise simply echo the white noise.

And I hope people join in; as one last excerpt:

If accountability in higher education is a contractual relationship, we’ve got problems. The “goods” or “services” to be rendered by the offeror are usually indeterminate; there is no formal statement of obligations. The institution does not pledge to students that its efforts will produce specified learning, persistence and graduation, productive labor market entry, or a good life. We don’t put low persistence or graduation rates in a folder subject to educational malpractice suits. Nor does the institution pledge to public funding authorities that it will produce X number of graduates, Y dollars of economic benefits, or Z volume of specified community services, or be subject to litigation if it fails to reach these benchmarks.

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