Commentary

Just Another Buzzword

By Casey J. Lartigue Jr.
January 29, 1999

It’s been a buzzword in the educational establishment for months, but in his State of the Union Message, President Clinton enshrined it as the new federal education mantra: accountability.

Having seen many buzzwords come and go, we should be skeptical of an idea embraced so quickly by politicians and educators. The recent “Education Week” study, “Quality Counts ‘99,” says accountability “has become the order of the day.” The U.S. Department of Education lists accountability among its seven priorities for this year. Newly elected Gov. Gray Davis of California also cites accountability as the key to reform, saying that it “must not be just another buzzword.”

Judging from the recent history of education, it will be just that — another buzzword. Like so many previous educational buzzwords and fads — team teaching and restructuring in the 1950s, whole language and new math in the 1960s and 1970s, teacher empowerment and school-based management in the 1980s — accountability will fade away as another good idea that just needed more time (but no deadlines, please) and support (read, more taxpayer money). As long as the public school system maintains its monopoly over education, buzzword reforms like accountability will amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Make no mistake about it, making accountability a part of education policy is a good idea. In fact, it’s a great idea. For far too long educators have denied being responsible for the declining schools they’ve been in charge of. If educators are truly agreeing to put their own feet to the fire, we should check to see if Clinton was handing out fireproof boots after his State of the Union Address. Accountability in a protected monopoly means making everyone and no one responsible.


As long as the public school system maintains its monopoly over education, buzzword reforms like accountability will amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.


And that’s why it is perfect for politicians. “Quality Counts ‘99” reports that the threat of sanctions is causing educators to focus more clearly than ever before on achievement. Count on that focus lasting until the next millennium or until educators focus on a new buzzword — whichever comes first. To thunderous applause President Clinton said that “states and school districts must turn around their worst-performing schools — or shut them down.” The handful of states that have already made themselves accountable often back away from imposing the toughest sanctions on failing schools, as they did in Michigan last year. States are even more likely to fight reforms if they are ordered from Washington.

Various forms of accountability have been floating around as educators try to explain away declining test scores and results. Back in 1981 Bill Honing, former superintendent of California’s schools, went around asking the nation to give public education “one more chance.” Educators promised to redouble their efforts after “A Nation at Risk” was released in 1983. At the 1989 education summit, President Bush and the nation’s governors set a number of goals for improving American education. “Education Week” recently reported that the chances of reaching those goals by next year is “practically nil.” No one — including “Education President” Bush; the governors, including an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton; and educators who are still in power — is being held responsible for that. And yet Clinton, who is scheduled to be in office until January 2001, wants us to believe that he will make educators accountable.

In private enterprise, heads roll when the chance of reaching a goal becomes “practically nil.” Enterprises that want to remain in business find a new product or adapt. When the education establishment produces mediocre results, the solution is to find a fancier sounding buzzword. Or to advocate passing buzzword legislation mandating results. Passing such legislation sounds tailor-made for President Clinton.

Educators are appropriating words and phrases from the business world to make themselves appear accountable. The superintendent of Chicago’s public schools, Paul Vallas, is now said to be a “CEO.” As long as educators don’t truly put themselves at risk — freeing the customers and going bankrupt if they don’t come back — they are just playing word games.

President Clinton has shown in other contexts that he is quite skilled at playing word games. He promised to “send to Congress a plan that, for the first time, holds states and school districts accountable for progress and rewards them for results.” In other words, although the “era of big government” supposedly ended after his 1996 State of the Union speech, the government will be picking winners and losers, deciding which policies are appropriate for the estimated 53 million children in thousands of school districts across the nation. Instead of abandoning the one-best-system model for education, President Clinton wants to federalize it.

Ending the public schools’ monopoly is the truly effective way to make educators accountable for their policies. A better buzzword for the public school system might be perestrokia, communism’s last buzzword. Perhaps accountability will be remembered as the education establishment’s last-gasp try at saving itself.

Casey J. Lartigue is a staff writer at the Cato Institute.