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In support of Ravitch’s Crusade… (#dianeravitch)

Now that I am between semesters, time for some thoughts related to readings I have encountered over the past several months.

First, some comments on the state of K-12 education reflecting a reading of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education — as well as some of her speeches and twitter posts over the few weeks that take aim at the movement for reform highlighted in Waiting for Superman….

There is much to be said for performance evaluation as a management tool — but not much to support its use as a tool of public policy.

People often forget that policy and management are not the same, and in a world where there is an obsession with the idea that any problem or issue can be “managed” (at least to the point of containment, if not solution) the confusion is magnified.

Take the current “policies” being pursued to improve or enhance American education. Here we find near perfect examples of how policy goals or objectives — in this case, dedicated to the education of our children — gets lost in translation as the means to achieve that objective develop into — and displace — the ends. This would not be a terrible thing if we knew that there existed a clear and positive association between the general goal and the means, but in the case of education that has never been the case.

The history of education policy in the US is filled with cases of means-transformed-into-ends. Pedagogical approaches emerging from the innovative efforts of classroom-level educators have often been elevated to the level of curriculum policy and effectively overwhelm or push aside questions of content. Once teaching methods become “policy” ends in themselves, the question of what is to be taught is answered by shaping curriculum to fit the pedagogical scheme. With rare exceptions, the Dickensian classroom of Mr. Gridgrind is hardly conducive to teaching creative arts or fostering critical thinking in other subject areas. (Although I must say that I can still recall my multiplication tables — to a point — indicating that it was an effective means to bit of education…)

The latest version of this is found in the adoption of high-stakes performance measures (i.e., student performance) as a policy standard in the education field. Measures of student performance on standardized exams are (in and of themselves) quite useful as a means for assessing educational instruction, including the curriculum, different pedagogical approaches, the learning environment (among other factors) and the teacher. But what has happened is that this means has been extended to a policy that (1) not only eliminates consideration of all other assessment standards, but also (2) places the entire burden for performance outcomes on the “teacher” factor alone. Curriculum is standardized to those things which can be measured; pedagogy is dictated to assure the reliability of the assessment (via a logic of ceteris paribus); and environmental and other extraneous factors that can impact on student performance are discounted, assumed away and/or completely ignored. We then establish high-stakes performance assessment policies based on this formalized creation of an artificial (and unsubstantiated) causal relationship. The end results involved not only an injustice to the teaching profession, but a tragic distortion of the educational process.

Ravitch is on a crusade to point out the destructive nature of this development, and she does so with considerable energy based on a moral purpose that is uncompromising. I am very sympathetic, but I tend to see what is happening in the education policy area as merely the most visible manifestation of a broader development that pervades almost every sector of our society. I have written elsewhere about the obsession with accountability and the false promise of performance (see here and here; contact me for password if required), and I am convinced that defeating the pernicious effects of this obsession is a worthy goal in general. That said, I am please that someone of Ravitch’s intellect and stature is tackling the problem in one very significant sector where the consequences of high-stakes performance assessment poses a threat to our future as we turn-off great teachers and create generations of test-taking intellectual zombies….

December 24th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke, education, education reform, pedagogy | no comments

A comment on “moral status” and so-called “reform”…

(Warning: Entering high density zone!!!)

This morning I read, with considerable interest, a New York Times analysis of Justice Ginsburg’s “time bomb” planted in an otherwise innocuous sentence of a recent decision. My interest was piqued by the focus on the concept of “status” in the legal realm. Put briefly, issues related to the status of an individual or group shapes and defines how that individual or group will be treated within the legal realm. To have status is to have standing when it comes to protections (i.e., rights) established in law. What is happening in the US courts at the moment related to gay rights, etc., is a reflection of efforts to establish the status of that group within the current protections of constitutional law. Once that status is established, all laws and actions by law enforcement personnel would be measured against those protections. As the article points out, it is status that is central to the quiet legal revolution now taking place in federal courts.

My interest in this question of status goes beyond the specifics of gay rights discussed in the article. It extends as well to an idea I’ve been working on when studying accountability. For the past several years I have been arguing that accountability requires the establishment of a moral community within which the accountable individual operates. Without such a community in place, accountability is merely mechanical and legalistic without any real substance. My criticism of the recently passed banking reforms (see previous post) is that they are merely regulatory and lack any substance; in other words, there is no sense of what bankers are “accountable for”. Being a banker under the proposed reforms is a morally meaningless role–it is a position subject to oversight and control rather than a status that requires responsible behavior.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel (1995, p. 85) made the point much better than I can in his discussion of moral status and relationship to personal rights:

I believe it is most accurate to think of rights as aspects of status–part of what is involved in being a member of the moral community. The idea of rights expresses a particular conception of the kind of place that should be occupied by individuals in a moral system–how their lives, actions, and interests should be recognized by the system of justification and authorization that constitutes a morality. Moral status, has conferred by moral rights, is formally analogous to legal status, as conferred by legal rights, except that it is not contingent on social practices. It is a universal normative condition, consisting of what is permitted to be done to persons, what persons are permitted to do, what sorts of justifications are required for preventing them from doing what they want, and so forth.

“The existence of moral rights does not depend on their political recognition or enforcement,” states Nagel, “but rather on the moral question whether there is a decisive justification for including these forms of inviolability in the status of every member of the moral community.” Within a moral community, status confers not merely protections and rights but also expectations and obligations. Assuming that the legal system mirrors society’s moral system, legal status will also reflect moral status. In our system of “negative liberties,” the translation of moral status into legal status typically takes the form of protections under law rather than a positive expression of role expectations.

While the the negative liberties approach is relevant as a means of dealing with potentially discriminatory actions, the approach has its limits when (1) addressing the need to prevent behaviors that the community regards as inappropriate or (2) seeking to foster what that community regards as morally appropriate behavior. In such cases, the law must provide a more positive assertion of expectations–something which our political system finds extremely difficult to do under current conditions. Until we are able to overcome our collective reluctance to articulate what it means to assume the moral status of a role. e.g. what it means to be a banker, we will have to settle for the vacuous types of reforms that Obama will sign into law this week. What passes for accountability is in fact a superficial and thin variation of what accountability ought to be….

July 20th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Half-baked reform….

There are a number of ways to view the passage of banking refom legislation. For the Obama Administration and members of Congress, it is another “victory” — a hard earned trophy to put on the mantle and which can be displayed with some pride as the midterm election parade begins to take shape this fall. For the banks, it is not so much a defeat as a setback that merely changed some of the rules of “the game” that they had mastered before — and will master again.

But for the American economy and the American people, what just passed through Congress and will be signed into law next week by President Obama was hardly more than a collection of half-baked measures that failed to deal with the core problems of accountability in the financial markets.

In fact, what we have before us is “regulatory reform,” not banking reform.

The legislation adds a couple of chairs on the Titanic’s deck, and it even repairs a couple of the old ones. But these reforms do nothing to change the ship’s course, or the fundmamental practices of the vessel’s crew.

Looking back at the rhetoric surrounding the calls for reform early in the Obama Administration, one finds lots of references to enhancing the “accountability” of Wall Street and those actors in the global financial markets whose decisions and actions brought our economy to a virtual stand still. What that rhetoric reflected was a sense of indignation at the callous indifference and irresponsible behavior of Gekko-like characters whose moral bearings were more appropriate for a casino than a financial market. From this rhetoric one would conclude that the purpose of reform was to provide the appropriate setting for more responsible behavior by those bankers and their agents. But when it came to translating the rhetoric into policy proposals, we were left with reforms aimed more at the community of regulators than the banking community itself.

The problem is, in part, the result of our ambiguous understanding of what it means to be accountable. We have lost sight of the fact that accountability means more than being subject to regulatory oversight. It also means behaving responsibly.

Historically, accountability was a means of establishing a sense of responsiblity in those being held to account. You were granted a royal or (later) corporate charter with the stipulaiton that your were expected to conduct business in a responsbile and accountable manner. That meant living up to the standards of the license (or franchise) to engage in business. Accountable behavior — conducting business in accordnace with the standards under which the charter was given — was an unquestioned expectation. In a sense, to engage in business was a moral activity for it demanded that you operate within the confines on the what was acceptable and appropriate behavior in the marketplace. It is little wonder that the individual credited as the founder of capitalism, Adam Smith, regarded himself as first and foremost a moral philosopher.

Today, we have forgotten about the “responsbile for” notion of accountability. Accountaiblity means little more than being answerable — answerable to shareholders, to regulators for following rules, and (in cases of malfeasance and fraudulent behavior) to the legal system. The package of reforms heading to the White House reflects our obsession with making bankers “answerable to,” but fails to make them morally “responsible for” something with their actions.

Which begs the unaddressed question underlying the entire reform effort: having enhanced the government’s capacity to make financial markets more answerable, what exactly are they answerable for?

There is nothing of substance in the current legislation to highlight the fact that we want a banking community that deals with more than maximizing quarterly profits. What was needed was basic banking charter reform effort — or at the least something in the order of the reforms advocated by Paul Volker. Only when we confront the challenge of delineating what it means to be a banking enterprise — one that serves the transacitonal needs of the communities within which it operates — will we have true reform.

My own bias is toward a view of banks as public utilities. The now defunct Glass-Stegall Act (as well as many pre-deregulation state laws) came close to reflecting this view by severely restricting the capacity of commercial banks to engage in high risk endeavors, and the result was a stable (if rather dull) banking sector. Real reform would not necessarily bring back Glass-Stegall, but it would certainly do more than merely patch up the regulatory infrastructure of financial markets.

July 16th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Hammering at the margins….

When I get deeply into the argument of a book, two things happen: a second “close reading” and a complete immersion of thought.

And both have consequences.

My close reading turns me into an obsessive “marginalian”, scribbling lots of notes in the margins of the pages even though I will probably never recall what most of those marks mean if I refer back to them in a month or so. The immersion bit transforms me into that two-year old Abraham Kaplan famously used in his “law of the instrument”: give a two-year old a hammer and everything becomes a nail (see here).

This is the effect Scanlon’s book, Moral Dimensions, is having on me at the moment. Having openly struggled with the argumentation on wrongness and meaning, I hit chapter 4 on morality based on blame-based relationship and began to see applications everywhere — and I mean everywhere, from episodes of Dexter to the latest turmoil on Wall Street (think of the “impaired relations” among those who trusted Madoff!!!).

For my purposes, however, what is most interesting (and exciting) about Scanlon’s treatment is the clarity it provides as I return to my decade-plus intellectual flailings about the role of blameworthiness in shaping accountability and governance. Having immersed myself in that topic in the mid-90s without much background in the “literature”, I found there really wasn’t that much that helped me move my thinking about accountability and blameworthiness along. There have been some works in psychology and sociology that often bordered on New age babble, but none of that seemed to relate to the fundamental (and positive) role of blame and blameworthiness in civil and civic relationships. Over those ten years or so I have also stumbled across some really interesting work (of surprisingly recent vintage) by philosophers Judith Butler, Stephen Darwall, Jay Wallace, Marion Smiley, and others that have helped me along. But with Scanlon’s latest work I think it now becomes possible to move the logic of my thinking forward….

This is not to say I think Scanlon’s latest provides a firm foundation for my thinking on blameworthiness and accountability — and their role in governance. In fact, my excitement about his argument is based on what I regard a two “flaws” in the blame-relations argument that need adjustment to be useful for my purposes.

First is Scanlon’s premise that blame and blameworthiness is best understood as a relationship among equals. I assume this assumption is made “for argument’s sake” — as indicated by his exploration of the role of blame in unequal relations (e.g., parent-child). And it is in his effective presentation of blame-relations-among-equals that I understood that governance relationships are necessarily — by their very nature — based on presumed inequalities (sort of a “duh!” moment when I realized that simple point — and its major implications).

The second “flaw” is his focus actions taken which challenge or actual impair human relations. From his perspective, blame and blameworthiness are reactions to actions that damage (or threaten to damage) expectations. Scanlon’s explicit highlighting of expectations is a key factor — I have long regarded accountability, in functional terms , to be the “management of expectations”. But I think his focus on action-triggered impairments overlooks (probably again, for argument’s sake) the role that expectations play in the “pre-establishment” of blameworthiness that goes on in society, and especially in the development and institutionalization of governance relationships. Blameworthiness, I have argued, is a precondition for governance — one that is subject to cultural determination and variation. 

The implications of this modification of Scanlon’s argument can prove significant for our understanding of governance relationships, for it puts accountability and account-giving mechanisms right at the core of governance. 

Point: If governance is based on the presumption of impaired relations between those involved, then the development of accountability mechanisms and the norms of accountability can be seen as at the heart of governance, rather than as merely reforms to attempt to “repair” government operations.

Back to my “marginalizations” and hammering….

December 18th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Indignation and politics — Obama’s tone….

Maureen Dowd‘s column this AM is an interesting dialogue in which she (with assist from Aaron Sorokin) is able to give advice via a rant by fictional “The West Wing” President Josiah Bartlet. I think they have it half right — what Obama needs to do, they imply, is to ratchet up the current, more angry tone of his campaign rhetoric. But I think they are misreading that tone….

In recent weeks Obama has shifted from inspirational orator to a classroom lecturer and, most recently, to a lecturer with the capacity to toss in some good one-liners that are certainly designed for the sound-bite hungry mass media. The “tonal” nature of these presentations is not (as Dowd/Sorokin think) anger, but rather indignation — a much more suitable approach for a person who cannot afford to be seen as angry if he is to succeed in this campaign.

The line between anger and indignation is often a very thin one. (Wikipedia, in fact, treats the two as synonymous.) McCain crossed that line to (I think) good effect for his campaign in his “I’d fire him” (in reference to SEC chair Cox) speech this past week. This is the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” approach made famous in Paddy Chayefsky‘s “Network” (listen here), and it is a real crowd pleaser when coming from McCain.

But Obama can’t really cross that line without seeming to fall off the perch he constructed that differentiated him from the widely held image of the “Raised Fist” angry black American (thanks to friend Domonic for highlighting that image…). Nor can he become too steeped in the image of the stand-up comic who can deliver a zinger and get a laugh — another image that knocks him off the elevated platform as the “leader (change) we need” that he has been able to construct over the months. Rather, he has to maintain a tone of serious indignation about what’s being said about him (something he is doing well at the moment with the well crafted one-liners) as well as what is happening in the country (“enough is enough” seems to have done the trick there).

The power of indignation and similar “reactive attitudes” is of serious consequence in our social and political lives — a view implied in 18th century Scottish Enlightenment examination of “moral sentiments” [David Hume (see here)Adam Smith (see here) and all that) and articulated most effectively by 20th century British philosopher PF Strawson (read here). It is central to our sense of being accountable — and drives the central role of accountability in politics, governance and all sorts of others social endeavors. For present purposes, it can be used to sharpen a campaign that needs to keep moving forward….

September 21st, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Choosing accountability….

I have been so focused on various papers recently that blogging is something I have not even considered a third level priority. But the most challenging of my recent efforts is now over — and I am pretty comfortable with the next two or three projects. So I will at least give some thought to blogging intermittently.

The recent paper started as one thing and ended up another. The task was to explore the use of accountability mechanisms in response to global financial problems (of which there are plenty); but the task quickly turned into a paper on why accountability tends to emerge as the reform-of-choice in almost every policy choice situation. Having become convinced that the concept of accountability is today more a rhetorical (rather than functional) policy artifact — more an icon designed to generate acquiescence than to bring about some useful ends — I started to wonder why it is the first (almost knee-jerk) option mentioned whenever someone discusses a governance problem to be solved. It just makes no sense — at least if you assume we are rational animals (which, of course, I do not).

July 24th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Scratching the itch…. (warning: pretty dull stuff)

I have to admit to having this “itch” to get to the bottom of accountability — not merely as mechanisms of governance (which is the focus of anything I might publish on the subject), but also as a ethical and psychological concept that drives that part of human behavior related to governance. And the more I scratch that itch, the more it becomes an obsession….

Last week as I did my intermittent wandering through the bookstores in Harvard Square (something Randi and I do every so often — this time with friend Justin), I stumbled across Stephen Darwall’s “The Second-Person Standpoint.” I have come across this title before, but the $49.95 price tag ($10 bucks cheaper on Amazon) kept me from even opening the book out of curiosity. (My urge to scratch that itch has its limits — obviously economic in nature).

June 1st, 2008 Posted by | account giving, accountability, accountabilitybloke, accountable governance | no comments

Scenes of contrition and political accountability in China….

Our collective attention turns increasingly toward China these days, and one can stumble across some pretty interesting media coverage. Some of the coverage is, of course, linked to the unexpected earthquake (see especially NPR’s coverage) — but most of the in-depth documentaries now (re)surfacing have been scheduled to coincide with the Olympics.

Case in point: “Morning Sun,” a PBS/Global Voices documentary originally aired several years ago that is now popping up on some channels (in the Boston area we are blessed with several WGBH channels, including WGBH World which is a constant source of current and quality replays of PBS news shows and documentaries). It is a history of the Cultural Revolution, and provides some fascinating insight into the politics that drives China today.

For example, it helps make sense of the front page story in yesterday’s New York Times that featured a picture of a local Communist Party official literally begging on hands and knees in response to shouting protesters/mourners. The caption states that the official is begging them to stop their protests, but the pose is strikingly similar to some pictures of the public humiliation of Party officials during the height of the Cultural Revolution.

There are all sorts of interesting questions about China’s political regime and political culture raised by both the documentary and the stories of current protests. Since I am obsessed with things “accountable”, I view this process of public contrition as a formidable accountability mechanism in a political culture in which (supposedly) other forms are suppressed. There are similar forms of accountability (e.g., truth and reconciliation forums, for example) that beg for comparison and analysis….

And then there is the story of the shoddy construction of those schools that so quickly collapsed during the earthquake — which is worth its own separate post….

May 29th, 2008 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments

Translation and stirring the grey matter….

I am back to tracking down the historical roots of accountability, and this venture in Foucaultian archeology is leading me far afield (mine being political science). The launching point this time is Paul Ricoeur‘s observations about the roots of “responsibility” in The Just, and particularly the role that “imputability” played in the development of that concept. His passing reference to the connection between imputability and the English term of accountability (I am perhaps reading more into it than he intended) has encouraged me to return to the site of my “historical dig” in the Norman rule of England. Yes, for most it will seem that I am obsessed with this exercise in uncovering of etymological obscurities; but the explorations are paying dividends in exposing me to all sorts of interesting work that I might not otherwise have read….

Case in point, the study of “translation”. Yes, I was aware there was an important debate about acts of translation among linguists and literary scholars (after all, at home I am surrounded by two folks with PhDs in literature and one musician-poet; language matters around here!). And my interest in Lawrence Lessig’s work on constitutional interpretation has put the concept of “translation” on my radar screen as a student of American government. But it took a comment in Ricoeur’s work that has me reading George Steiner’s After Babel (first published in the mid 1970s), and now I find myself being drawn down a path that is sparking a renewed interest in the historical development of the concept of accountability. Of course, there is no direct and obvious reference to accountability or related term in Steiner, but his framing of the process of translation as an everyday act of interpretation and reinterpretation has stirred the grey matter….

More later….

May 14th, 2008 Posted by | accountability, accountabilitybloke | no comments