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Educational accountability, also referred to as "standards based education" or "outcome based education", is the movement to have educational institutions, at different levels, be more strictly controlled in how and what they teach. It is very hard to give a neutral, complete description of the movement and its causes and outcomes, so instead I will present my cursory, biased view of the history of the movement.

Up until the time of World War II, a high school diploma was a passport into a middle class life. College or University was mostly reserved for people who would be very professional (such as doctors and lawyers), or else as a finishing school for the cultural elite. Most of the job skills for the first 150 years of our nations history could be done with an eighth grade education. After World War II, the level of technological sophistication in the United States became much greater, and many workers needed more and better skills. Luckily, because of the GI Bill and general postwar prosperity, the educational system in the United States, from elementary up to the graduate level, was ramped up and could easily produce the workers that the economy needed. The economy fed the educational system, and the educational system fed the economy, and both prospered. Not that there wasn't some controversy in education, with such things as the launch of Sputnik and the subsequent National Defense Education Act, meant to increase science and math training so that the United States could maintain competitiveness with the Soviet Union. But on the whole, the era between about 1945 and 1975 was one of almost unbroken economic growth. The educational needs of society went up, but schools seemed to be able to keep apace.

The 1970s were a decade of economic slowdown in the United States, and also an era of general social pessimism. The economy was in a state of stagflation, and many experts wondered what to do to get the economy back on track. As part of Ronald Reagan's general plan to accomplish this, he put together a committee that released what is the beginning of the modern educational accountability movement: A Nation at Risk, which claimed that American primary and secondary students were falling behind in education, compared to both previous generations, and to other industrialized nations. The call for more accountability never really stopped after that, and would wax and wane based on economic conditions (for a time, comparison with the Japanese educational system would be the largest problem), The educational accountability movement would have its largest success under the No Child Left Behind act, which put more federal control over education in the United States than had ever previously existed.

If there is one major point from this cursory glance, it is that the educational accountability movement had its genesis in an economic slowdown, and that is still the most immediate reason that people support it.

The second point about this has to do with Saturday Night Live, and what I refer to as Saturday Night Live Syndrome. Since its inception, Saturday Night Live has managed to decline sharply in quality for 34 straight seasons. Complaints about how poor it is compared to how it used to be are conversation starters along the lines of talking about the local sports team. Quite a few things are like this, but I think that many Americans also feel this type of unquestioned nostalgia for the educational system. I am not meaning to simplify things by stating that educational accountability is mostly supported by people who believe e-Mail forwards about how the biggest problem in American high schools in the 1950s was students chewing gum, but I think that this does play a big role. And there are a lot of misplaced figures that can support these people. One of the largest is SAT scores over time. Before the post-war era, the SAT was taken by a very small amount of students, since most students didn't continue on to college. As more students took the test, the average score did go down, but that was only because higher education was open to people that it wasn't open to before. But when facts and nostalgia (even contrived nostalgia) fight, facts usually lose.

So one side of the support for educational accountability comes from nostalgia, sometimes of the culturally conservative variety. The other strain is mostly based around business, and the desire of corporations to have a better educated (or at least better trained workforce. The best way to boost real economic production is through a more productive workforce, and the best way to make a workforce more productive is to educate them. I think for lower levels of education, this relation is fairly non-controversial, but I do believe that as workers become more educated, a point of diminishing returns is reached. I do not know how honestly the business community believed in educational accountability. I think that perhaps they believe in it because the alternative is to look more deeply into the structure of the United States economy, something that they are both unwilling and unable to do. For some business leaders, especially if they have a culturally conservative background, it is easy enough to blame their failure to increase both worker livelihood and industrial production not on lack of good management or social factors, but on deficits in the educational system, especially cultural deficits. The thinking is something like this: "the workers would be working harder if only their teacher hadn't been increasing their self-esteem, but instead had them drilling math problems, over and over!"

The next place that the educational accountability movement will reach could be into the world of higher education, my own field of study. This would be an unusual thing in the United States, for reasons that my European readers may be surprised to learn. In the United States, colleges and universities are not run by the central government, but instead are either private or run by the individual states. The institutions then join together into different accreditation bodies, that then make sure that they maintain their standards. If this seems like a circular way of doing things, you would be right; but for the most part it seems to work and no one university or college ever manages to game the system. There is talk now that the federal government would take a more direct hand in making sure that universities and colleges hold to certain standards--which will probably be sold under the name of "competitiveness". There may even be talk that the United States would not be in our current economic difficulties if all those universities hadn't wasted time teaching their students self-esteem, but had instead had them drilling calculus, over and over! The problem with this, much like the problem with educational accountability in primary and secondary schools, is one of assessment. The standardized tests that are used in lower levels of education, while still having many problems, are at least made to measure fairly straight-forward skills. Either you know how to multiply fractions or you don't. As the tasks become more complicated, assessing how well a student knows them becomes harder and harder. EVen setting aside issues of learning for its own sake, and civic participation, and all the other things that higher education is meant to do, assessing how well a student has learned skills to make them productive is hard to test for in a standardized way. The more autonomous and creative a field is, the harder it is to assess. But even in a basic field, such as training people use of computer technology, assessment would be difficult. You may be able to test to see how well a student can use a single program or technology, but how would you be able to assess how well a student can adapt and change to a new program, or new technology? This is, after all, one of the most important skills in the workplace, but it is very hard to know how to develop it in a student, and to tell when it is fully developed.

For these reasons, and many others, the educational accountability movement will hopefully not spread further, and will recess as people think of some real ways to deal with problems.

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