Accountability Essay

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The word accountability exploded onto the educational scene in the early 1980s following the publication of the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s A Nation at Risk report. The language of accountability has been ubiquitous ever since. Almost all popular writers on education today use the term. They do so, however, without careful definition of what they mean when they use the language of accountability.

Accountability language may be used as a substitute for serious discussion of the purpose of American education. Early in the twentieth century, the language of “efficiency” and “social efficiency” sometimes served this same role. During the age of industrialization, efficiency became an end in and of itself rather than a means to a greater ideal for American education. This same phenomenon may be happening today, when accountability becomes an end in itself instead of a means to a higher end. This entry describes three main uses of accountability and then seeks to identify the common elements in these three popular uses of the term.

Economic Accountability

Economists use the term accountability in strictly financial terms. They apply the language and concepts of banking and the stock market to critiquing schools for not producing what they believe schools should produce. The purpose of education to economists, who by definition focus exclusively on the production and consumption of goods, is to produce skilled workers for businesses. In the eyes of economists, schools should be held accountable for producing the workers that businesspeople want.

The best “bottom line” that economists can determine for schools is test score production. To these thinkers, schools exist to produce test scores, which they have seized upon as a means to the production of skilled workers. Economic-minded thinkers then focus on producing elaborate accountability systems that they believe will determine who is to blame for not producing the workers that corporate executives want.

Political Accountability

Accountability in a more strictly political context is more difficult to define. The common theme in accountability language, however, is blame. To “hold someone accountable” is to blame that person for not fixing a problem when he or she has been labeled as the person responsible for fixing the problem. In this simplistic approach to teaching and learning, education is stripped of its moral dimension in the rush by public leaders to find someone to blame for the fact that all of our society’s problems have not been fixed.

This view of politics stretches back to the beginning of the modern era in the West, to thinkers such as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and John Locke (1632–1704). The current emphasis on accountability stems from the realization that the modern project that began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has not produced the perfect society its adherents, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1788), Denis Diderot (1713–1784), and others, promised. In the wake of what some people believe is the failure of this modern project, someone must be blamed for the imperfect human nature that has been with us all along. The political game of blaming one group or another for what is a natural problem takes place under the guise of accountability driven political rhetoric.

Moral Accountability

Other people who use the language of accountability, however, focus almost exclusively on its moral element. People who use accountability in a moral sense are concerned about moral decline in American society. Accountability, to these individuals, takes on the urgency of a crusade to eradicate immoral behavior through education. The purpose of accountability to morally driven reformers is to root out what they believe are social problems, such as voter apathy, sexual immorality, and drug use. These reformers believe that bad education has given rise to a culture in which people are no longer accountable for their actions. Accountability and responsibility are closely related concepts to these reformers, but using accountability provides them with more leverage than using responsibility, because it allows them to identify and blame the people they wish to hold accountable for returning America to a perceived age when citizens were more responsible. They believe that accountability is the means by which principles such as respect for elders, love of country, and individual responsibility can be reinstilled in American youth.

In the language that surrounds modern discussions of education, these three meanings of accountability are intertwined. They are quite difficult to separate in the language of popular educational reformers. These three themes of economic, political, and moral accountability, however, always can be found in the public language of educational advocacy. The most popular accountability driven reformers manage to deliver speeches that integrate all three of these different conceptions of accountability, despite the fact that they are fundamentally at odds with one another. Public audiences are left with a vague sense that accountability is a good thing, but without any substantive meaning of what accountability is about.

Accountability driven reformers also tend to agree that “student achievement” is an idea that corresponds closely with accountability. Much like accountability, however, student achievement is a term that can be interpreted to correspond with economic, political, and moral purposes for schools. Questions such as “To what end should we hold people accountable?” and “To what end should we increase student achievement?” are rarely asked in the heated world of educational rhetoric. The unquestioned and too-often hollow rhetoric of accountability ultimately avoids the real question of purpose, which alone could give meaning to accountability as well as American education in general.


  1. Null, J. W. (2003). Education and knowledge, not “standards and accountability”: A critique of popular reform rhetoric based on the work of Dewey, Bagley, and Schwab. Educational Studies, 34, 397–413.
  2. Null, J. W. (2004). Social efficiency splintered: Multiple meanings instead of the hegemony of one. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 19, 99–124.

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