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educationAfter more than a decade of “No Child Left Behind”* (NCLB)—the 2001 Act of Congress that was supposed “to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice”—it has clearly failed. Congress is busily engaged in efforts to reform** the bill, whose reauthorization remains doubtful.

In his recent article for, Paul Thomas writes about the reasons for the failure. He begins by noting the dependence of lawmakers on tales about local educational reforms that supposedly worked “miracles.” He cites the “Texas Miracle,” the “Harlem Miracle,” and the “Chicago Miracle,” all of which were claimed to skyrocket the learning of disadvantaged students by increasing accountability, especially in the form of high-stakes testing. Such miracles have proved to be illusory. (See this article by Diane Ravitch, and this website maintained by Gary Rubinstein and Noel Hammatt.)

The core of NCLB was high-stakes testing. In theory, everyone in the system was supposed to be held “accountable” by test scores. If students did not do well enough on the tests, then teachers or school systems were not doing their job properly. The results of the tests could be used to apply correctives, sanctions, or punishments to schools and school systems in an effort to enhance “accountability.”

In practice, however, things didn’t quite turn out that way. As early as 2007, Sharon Nichols and David Berliner showed that high-stakes testing resulted in cheating and corruption in the testing regime, narrowed curricula in order to teach to the tests, and undermined teaching practices. Now, fourteen years after the passage of the bill that was supposed to make all our students proficient, they remain far from it.

No wonder reauthorization of the bill remains doubtful.

As I have said elsewhere, “accountability” is a notion that does not apply to non-consumer relationships. And the relation between teacher and student is most certainly not a consumer relationship, but one of mutual responsibility. Teachers are responsible for providing optimal conditions for learning; students are responsible for trying their best to learn.

Moreover, the motivation for being accountable is inferior to the motivation for being responsible. Accountability is imposed from the outside; it is a kind of external force. Responsibility comes from within; it is a kind of personal choice. Clearly we want teachers to be responsible, not merely accountable—at the very least so that their sense of responsibility may be transmitted to students by example.

Educational reforms in this country will not succeed until they peel away nearly a century’s worth of unexamined notions that conceive of education as a commodity. The way to get more responsible teachers and students is to stop treating them like vendors and consumers, and start treating them like integral human beings who are members of a community of learning.

That means smaller classes, together with smaller schools and more of them, so that the individuals involved can know one another well enough to develop mutually responsible relationships. The current factory-like conditions of many elementary and secondary schools—and even colleges—makes it extremely difficult to develop such relationships.

This will take massive investment. But this investment at least has the potential of producing responsible, independent adults—something that will never be the result of investments in high-stakes testing and enhanced “accountability.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared on St. John’s College Sign Posts for Liberal Education (March 2015) and is republished by permission.

*No Child Left Behind
** Reform the bill.

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Published: Apr 23, 2015
Christopher Nelson
Christopher B. Nelson is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He is president of St. John's College in Annapolis. St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an independent, four-year college that is devoted to liberal education. Students and faculty engage directly -- not through textbooks and lectures but through study and discussion -- with original texts and ideas that are the foundation of Western thought.
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2 replies to this post
  1. It takes more than that. It also takes involved parents who put importance on education. My siblings and I were all expected to do well in school, and we did, and not because we were getting paid $$ for every A we received. Our parents placed importance on learning. If we did poorly on a test or assignment, it wasn’t assumed the teacher was bad, either. First our work was looked at to see what our answers were, then we were questioned. Then the teacher was contacted for a calm discussion. We weren’t pushed into dozens of after school activities, and we actually had a lot of freedoms that other kids didn’t have – because we were good students. We also were reading before we started kindergarten and could write our names and address/phone number at that time, because we were interested and encouraged to learn, not pushed into it by overly aggressive parents. I feel quite lucky with the educational upbringing I had.

  2. The real reform in education is being done by homeschoolers. We participate in Classical Conversations, which operates on the small group model you laid out. Students meet once a week with their group and trained tutor to demonstrate and discuss the work they did at home. This is where critical thinking and communication skills are honed. They also learn about each other’s strengths, and use them to work collaboratively to learn difficult subjects like Latin and logic. An added benefit is that home schooling redeems the parent’s educational shortcomings as well. My husband and I both have advanced degrees, but we’re learning right along with the kids and loving the experience.

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