An earlier version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons 84,4 (Summer 2006) pp. 214 - 221

Accountability: some misgivings

by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.
Berry College

edited 5/25/12

I’ve never known a good teacher who was bored; the kids provide endless hours of entertainment. I especially love student bloopers, which are occasionally far more illuminating than the best-prepared teacher’s lesson. My all-time favorite came from an earnest young teacher ed student who, in a term paper on sex education, solemnly informed me that “every day thousands of lonely teenage girls have sex with a boy.” Somehow, I don’t think the student really appreciated my red-inked “Lucky fellow!” in the margin.

In the past few weeks, three more such malapropisms have crossed my desk that struck me as remarkably revealing of the current state of America’s schools. The first was from a student teacher’s daily journal. In preparing her kids for the end-of-the-year standardized tests, she “learned that teaching test-taking skills is just as important as teaching the curriculum.”

“No, —— it!” I raged to myself. “Teaching test-taking skills is not as important as teaching the curriculum!!! It may be as necessary, given our current misconception [abortion?] of accountability, but it is not as important. Or if it is, it’s time for both of us to start looking for honest jobs.”

No, come to think of it. Given what I’m seeing out there, maybe the kid was right and I am wrong. Sorry, Grace. Early this February, I’m told, a nearby school announced that from that day on, the rest of the year would be devoted to test preparation. I’m hearing reports of similar practices across the country. The curriculum, teaching, and learning are no longer the point, if they ever were: the tests have become the curriculum.

Sad. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming the administrators, much less the teachers. They know that if they don’t bring those scores up and meet AYP within three years, they’ll be selling vacuum cleaners within four. But it’s still shameful, a waste of our children’s young lives, our teachers’ adult lives, and our taxpayers’ money. Classically, Socrates quipped that the surest sign of rottenness in a city’s education is the presence of lots of doctors and lawyers. As surely as America has flunked that test, our schools have also bombed another, from last week’s newspapers: the Department of Defense estimates that 75 percent of America’s young people are too fat, stoned, or stupid to join the U.S. Army.1

So allow me now to propose Carpenter’s Law, a maxim that, if it’s ever taken seriously, is almost as radical to growing our children as “Give me liberty or give me death” was to governing our nation, and “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” was to guiding our lives (and alas, will probably be no more successful!):

If something isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing well.

Take a moment to think of all the things you and I are knocking ourselves out to do well that aren’t really worth doing at all. Referring to my own former discipline, a colleague in Early Childhood Education recently remarked: “History is social studies done badly.” Somewhat irritably, I shot back,“Yeah, and social studies is the fluff of history.” As they are both generally taught, of course, we were both right. But it’s not just a methods problem or a personnel problem; it’s also a curriculum problem. If a teacher is supposed to teach 120 to 150 students the history of the human species coherently, a process delineated in most state curricula for 180 hours (minus intercom time, so let’s say 150 hours), the teacher will use lecture more than even the most traditional scholar would like and rely on the textbook more than even the authors would like.

And yes,under those circumstances, Joe the Jock really is as adequate a teacher as the finest history scholar or the most inventive social studies talent. Then we wonder why only one in four Americans can name more than one First Amendment freedom, but more than half could name at least two members of the Homer Simpson family, and 12 percent of us think that Joan of Arc was married to Noah!2 As it is, if I were asked to list all the things in this world that I don’t care a rat’s bottom about, my best single reference source would be my state’s curriculum guidelines.3

The education of children’s teachers is often as poorly prioritized as is the children’s curriculum. Georgia’s Professional Standards Commission (PSC) and the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) are fine agencies that want to improve teacher education. But those institutions’ requirements and procedures have proved extraordinarily labor intensive, pedantic, trivia obsessed, officious, intrusive, and increasingly, obstructive of worthwhile education. I daresay that if my colleagues and I had devoted as much time over the past few years to preparing teachers as we spent preparing reports for NCATE and the PSC, Georgia’s children would, within a very few more years, lead the nation. Hence I also offer Carpenter’s Corollary:

It is not enough to do a good job in a bad job.

Which brings us to the second insightful typo-goof of recent months: “Much in American education has been designed to promote mediocracy.” Even after reading the rest of the paper I’m still not sure whether the student meant “meritocracy” or “mediocrity” -- but what a wonderfully useful spoonerism! It really does kinda sum things up, doesn’t it? In reviewing a manuscript for another publisher over the past few days, I made the following comments about some Pollyanna-ish descriptions of "fully-included" classrooms:

It used to be that the slower and the minority kids were disengaged in the regular classes (the disabled, of course, not even being there). Now I am seeing the “smart” students disengaged in almost every regular class I observe. If they are not in A.P., they are S.O.L. With the requirements of NCLB and parallel state demands, the teachers are principally concerned nowadays with bringing the “bubble kids” up to passing level and are not concerning themselves with the rest. We’ve gone from one indecent extreme to the other, it appears.

In our well-intended efforts to leave no child behind,we may end up finding that the “full inclusion” of this generation may be like the “colorblind” education of mine -- a good idea that just didn’t work.4 Maybe we shouldn’t pretend that a regular classroom can be all things to all people. Although I don’t want to bash teachers, and I will assert against all comers that many, perhaps most, teachers are doing heroic work to fight these dismal trends, the fact is that as of right now we are losing. Although I’ll gladly admit we are leaving fewer children behind, anyone who thinks that America’s children are getting “an adequate public education” either has never been in one of our schools or has never been anywhere else. After reading a Panglossian statement about expecting high school students to lead “independent lives” too soon, I growled:

I see very little evidence that anybody who counts in American school policy and practice has any such expectation or desire. Instead, I see us being channeled in a thousand ways toward production of “information workers.” That’s the nice term. “Bureaucrats” is the not-so-nice term. Independence is no more a priority in “information age” schooling than it was in “industrial age” schooling.5

And in a grumpy response to some cloying psychobabble about “teacher efficacy,” I wrote:

Great stuff. However, my state is explicitly and energetically working to “reduce the variability in the quality of instruction.” If that meant working to make all teachers confident in their knowledge and skills, we could predict a happy outcome. Unfortunately, most of the state’s efforts are approaching it from the other direction: “teacher-proofing” the curriculum so the dumbest teacher can’t screw things up too badly. It appears that they have more or less given up on attracting and retaining any thing more than a bare core of “efficacious” teachers. Given that the state expects and wants lots of untrained short-timers “giving teaching a try,” I hope they do teacher-proof, for the kids’ sake.6

Although some of us (including me) “gave teaching a try” and were ambushed into loving it as a calling, to count on “drive-by teachers” as a matter of state and national policy is not acceptable, now or ever.

And I’m afraid we in teacher education are sometimes just as guilty of dumbing down our curriculum.7 One practice increasingly illustrates both the “dumbing down” and the “bureaucratization” themes: our current obsession with portfolios. What was intended to be a richer and more valid alternative to pedestrian tests and occasional checklists seems now to be tending toward an anal-retentive culture of banal rubrics and endless checklists.8 One student-teacher portfolio rubric I’ve seen (from a college I do not wish to name) awards precisely the same number of points for the “personal philosophy statement” that it awards for having all the cover sheets inserted into clear plastic sleeves! I have to confess that I am equally guilty: I have succumbed so contemptibly to externally imposed curricular demands that what should be at least a three-day exploration of the students’ “philosophy of education” has become a cursory glance at “philosophy of education in Georgia.” Needless to say, that doesn’t take very long.

That brings us to the last of the recent student neologisms:“Teachers should always strive to be exemplative people.” As I thought about this charming hybrid of “exemplary” and “expletive,” the best definition I could come up with was “n. or adj. referring to or descriptive of the kid down the street to whom your mother always compared you, unfavorably.”9

Well, once again, perhaps my student was right and I was wrong. If teachers become the kind of procedure-fixated bureaucrats our contemporary teacher training is preparing us to be, we will become truly exemplative. A good exemplative -- er, example -- might be the very nice,bright young man whose job application I reviewed the other day. Warning lights went off when I read his claim to be a “self-starter.” Alarmed, I explained that many principals might be uneasy about hiring a potential “loose cannon.”Think about it:if you were a principal with 2,200 screaming barbarians (and their children) on your hands, which would you rather employ, a maverick genius or a conventional mediocrity? Darned right you would. So after a few moments of creative thinking, we replaced the offending term with what may be the best selling point I’ve ever seen on a teacher’s résumé: he is now “a low-maintenance team player.” Believe me, that kid’s career is assured, if he lives up to it . . . or down to it, as the case may be.

Administrators nowadays prefer technical competence as much as politicians prefer subject-matter mastery. Neither, I would argue, is adequate. Teaching is not hard, once you’ve gotten the hang of it. Being a teacher, however, is one of the greatest challenges you can undertake. The character, breadth, and depth of the teacher count more than the liberal or the technical.10 (In fairness to the state superintendent mentioned above, I should note that some of her wishes for teacher attributes were as admirable as her plans for teacher recruitment were arguable. I hope she finds a way to get the best of both.)

So what can we in the trenches do about the exemplative mediocracy of a test-driven curriculum, given that we cannot fight the powers-that-be, and should not fight the “information age”?11 Let’s consider Carpenter’s Axiom:

Never stand up unsuccessfully for what you believe in when you can successfully sneak around for what you believe in.

They want us to be accountable, right? Okay, so count. Count the teacher hours squandered accumulating useless reports whose real purpose is simply to make politicians look good. Count the kid-hours wasted on unimportant trivia. Count the number of days spent teaching bright kids to hate learning in stupefying test-prep classes. Good teachers may never be bored, but far too many good kids are, and their parents should know about it. For example, an e-mail home might read, “This week/month/quarter/semester [circle one] we are preparing all of our students for the end-of-course tests.”

No principal would find that apparently benign statement objectionable, but sooner or later the intelligent parents will figure it out. Believe me, the intelligent kids already have. So let’s count and report in conversations with friends, e-mails to parents, letters to editors, articles in journals, and, if necessary, leaks to reporters.12 Count and leak, count and leak -- and if that doesn’t work, I guess it’ll be time to vote with our feet. The intelligent parents and the intelligent children will.


1. Republic, 405a;Pauline Jelinek,“Military:Most Young Americans Are Unfit,” Washington Post, March 12, 2006. Available online at <http://www.washingtonpost. com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/12/AR2006031200378.html>.

2. The survey was conducted by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum and reported in Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 1, 2006. Available online at <>. To make things worse, only one in 1,000 respondents could name all five freedoms—speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition—while 22 percent can name all five Simpsons— Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. Bill McKibben made note of this odd couple in “The Christian Paradox,” Harpers Magazine (August 2005). Available at <>.

3. Lest this be written off as “anti-intellectual,” let me say that even a devoted medieval polymath like Hugh of St. Victor took pains to lay out priorities. It is true that he said,“Learn everything;you will see afterwards that nothing is superfluous.” But he also insisted that “[n]othing, however, is good if it eliminates a better thing,” and “the student should take no less care not to expend his effort in useless studies than he should to avoid a lukewarm pursuit of good and useful ones. It is bad to pursue something good negligently; it is worse to spend many labors on a useless thing” (Didascalicon VI, 3; III, 13; and III, 3, trans. Jerome Taylor [New York: Columbia University, 1961/1991]). In short, we may say that all learning is good, or at least can be good, but that doesn’t mean all learning should be attempted in a tenth-grade U.S. history class.

4. As much as has passed under the bridge since then, and as much as I disagree with Christine Sleeter’s subsequent work, to my thinking the best single exposition of why multicultural education supersedes “color-blind” education is her “Multicultural Education: Five Views,” in Multicultural Education 94/95, Annual Editions, ed. Fred Schultz (Guilford, Conn.: Dushkin, 1993), 147–149.

5. See Joel Spring’s Education and the Rise of the Corporate State (Boston: Beacon, 1972) and Raymond Callahan’s Education and the Cult of Efficiency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962/1975) for the classic accounts of the history.

6. Kathy Cox, personal communication at Berry College, March 1, 2006.

7. The historical literature on this, of course, is too voluminous to do justice in a simple footnote in an article with a deadline. But good places to start would be Arthur Bestor’s Educational Wastelands, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985); James B. Conant’s The Education of American Teachers (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963); and James Koerner’s The Miseducation of American Teachers (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963).

8. I’ll leave it to the portfolio advocates and their ilk to worry about whether the term should be hyphenated. Let me just assert that while a little OCD can sometimes be a good thing in a teacher, a lot of OCD is always a pain in the rear to everybody.

9. In the greatest moment of schadenfreude in my entire life, a few years ago I ran across my childhood exemplative, a guy we’ll call Frank (because that was his name). He bummed some coin off me for a cup of coffee. I know I should be ashamed of my glee, but I’m not. Neither are you.

10. The literature advocating a strong liberal and even spiritual education for teachers is also voluminous. See Merle L. Borrowman’s The Liberal and the Technical in Teacher Education (New York:Teachers College Press,1956) for background reading, and my “Jacques Maritain and Some Christian Suggestions for the Education of Teachers,” Educational Horizons 83 (4) (2005): 292–301 for some further thoughts. Other sources include Parker Palmer’s To Know as We Are Known:A Spirituality of Education (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983); The Courage To Teach (San Francisco:Jossey-Bass,1998);and my “Magnanimity,Virtue Ethics,and Teacher Education,” Religion and Education 26 (1) (1999): 58–64.

11. Recently, I commented at some length on the futility of fighting the trend toward teacher-proofing and suggested a likely scenario for its resolution. See my review of Richard Ingersoll’s "Who Controls Teachers’Work?" {educational Horizons 84 (2) (2006): 68–77.}

12. For other good if occasionally dirty teacher-politics tricks of the trade, see Wade A.Carpenter and Jess Laseter,“When Your Principal Is a Wimp,” Kappa Delta Pi Record 35 (3) (1999): 132–135; and “Teachers and the Ever-Present Danger of Reform,” Kappa Delta Pi Record 37 (3) (2001): 116–121. For the most brilliant and splendidly evil exposition of bureaucratic skullduggery in fiction, see Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay, The Complete Yes, Minister (New York: Harper and Row, 1984) and Yes, Prime Minister (Topsfield, Mass.: Salem House, 1988). Many of their tricks can be applied by imaginative teachers. They already are by other bureaucrats in our unfortunate industry.