The emotional violence of the accountability regime: part two

You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?-   Talking Heads

In the lead up to NCATE at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I was given the job of helping to figure out how the various assessments could be fitted to the structures of the web-based data management system we had purchased. As well, when it came time to teach students, teachers and faculty how to use the system, I was one of the people charged with this work. I was both horrified and compliant. More than compliant, I was good at the job.

In telling the story of the assault on education, it matters to tell the story of our compliance as much as the story of our resistance. It is in the story of our compliance that we understand the violence of the accountability and standards regime, from which we might access our outrage and our voices.

The violence that is at the center of the accountability and standards regime has many manifestations. We see it in the relentless testing that marks k12 schools in high poverty areas. Testing to prepare for testing. Testing that refuses to see the child in all of her beautiful and fragile humanness, but narrows her to her ability to stand at a fixed point for measurement. We see the violence of school closings as they disrupt neighborhoods, segregate children, and isolate families. And there is the violence of the vitriol aimed at teachers either in the unadulterated virulence of Michelle Rhee or the bleak coldness of value added measures. Two forms of violence do not get enough attention. In one form, accountability regimes support and encourage micro-aggressions of threats and silencing from administrators. In the other, our compliance within these systems implicates us within our own shame and tears at our souls.

I tire of the words and phrases of so called reformers, especially as those who would purport to be defending public education pick them up. Accountability is one of those words we often hear accepted as a given. “Of course we need to be accountable,” say the defenders, already giving a ground I want to protect. Biesta (2004) helped me most with this issue, as she examines the counting that is accountability as opposed the human relationship that is responsibility. This is no small semantic difference but is a lived difference that impacts how we know ourselves, others, and each other in relationship. It is the difference of the ‘to.’ Who or what are you accountable to? Who or what are you responsible to? In my compliance with the demands of the NCATE assessments, rubrics and scoring, I found myself at a moral and ethical crossroads. Would I respond to the demands of the centralized authority and be accountable to the standards or would I respond to the students in front of me and be responsive/able to their humanity?

Maybe I need to explore what I mean by violence.  Before teaching, I was a psychotherapist. I learned in my studies and practice of what it means to listen well, to be attentive, to acknowledge my screens of personal and social experience and still to reach to ‘see’ the person who sat across from me. I learned how crucial it is that infants, and adults, come to know themselves as ‘held’, as capable, as rich with possibility.

I often talk with the pre-service teachers with whom I work about how critical it is that they ‘see’ their students; that the students experience themselves as seen, as known, as loved. This is not easy, as our seeing exists within personal experiences and social identities, systems and discourses that complicate and muddy our vision. The violence comes in the not seeing. It comes in the refusal to address, as ourselves human and flawed, the students with whom we work, as human, flawed and beautiful.  We refuse the human in the other; we dehumanize them; we erase their humanity. And when we refuse the human in the other, we refuse it in ourselves. This is a profound violence. And it is the violence that accountability and standards regimes both visit on us and demand of us.

I first came to understand this violence when I was invited to participate in it. Sitting in a class trying to talk my way through and around the fact that I was asking students to participate in an exercise—completing the NCATE assessments—that I believed to be absurd and harmful. Feeling myself say, in my actions, “ even though you are here as people, I am responding to an edict that is not here, that is a centralized authority.” The students were confused, spoke back to me, refused me a space of ‘tension’ and wanted to know who I was in that moment. Their refusal demanded that I know myself as compliant, maybe as complicit.

This knowledge of myself, this tearing at my soul became the center of my self-study. When I looked inside I could see the places from which joy had been banished, from which not knowing was absent, from which seeing the other was obscured. This was a place of shame, the shame my acquiescence. And, as I knew and struggled with my own experience of shame, with the challenge to my soul and values, I began to see how this same shame distorted others.

I state that a colleague is being harassed, told to ‘just get the job done’ in meeting accountability demands, yelled at. Colleagues almost literally turn their heads away. Their eyes blank. Their words trapped at the top of their throats.

“Well, we do have to get this done.” “The train has left the station.”

I say this not to blame one place or some people, but to accuse the whole machine of accountability of perpetuating the denial of each other, of allowing us to excuse ourselves our actions in the name of a larger force over which we have no control.

“There isn’t anything we can do about it. “ “It isn’t helpful to be negative. We need to learn to work with it.”

Emails arrive with regularity. Professional. Curt. Lists of items to be attended to, reports to be written, numbers to be counted. Meetings are about standards, outcome measures, and include disparaging asides about those who are non-compliant or who raise their voices to question.

I am told I am to be ‘calibrated.’ This will allow me to rid myself of bias and reliably and consistently report that I see what I am supposed to see when I look at video of student teachers. When I balk that I am being positioned as a machine there is a flurry of words I do not understand reminding me of the requirement for accountability, for standards. Some shrug. “Nothing we can do about it.”

In my courses we take time to know each other. We begin each class with stretches and a meditation. We wonder about what brought us to this work and how it feels to be in it when the discourses and practices are so alien to our souls and those of our students. We consider the deep troubles of poverty, racism and injustice.  We wonder about our human capacity to keep loving and striving.

In my specialized professional association (SPA) yearly update report for NCATE, I suggest that the numbers assigned to the rubrics of the assessments the students have completed do not in fact tells us anything very interesting about the students or their development as teachers. I reach into my knowledge of the actual students who completed this work and consider how we can make social justice more central to their self-knowledge and to their practice. I am reprimanded. They don’t let me write the final report.

In considering the problems with the edTPA, a colleague from another institution speaks of the indignity of it for teacher educators. It erases us. It erases our work. We are not being seen, just as we are invited to not see our students.

When purveyors of the edTPA respond to articles about my non-renewal, the grievance and the struggle for my job, they assert that the edTPA is a wonderful, fair and objective measure. Not a one has ever publically asked: she lost her job? for objecting to the edTPA? How could we let a person lose her job for speaking out?

But that is the thing about accountability, about our demand for standards, about this whole dehumanizing discourse: it allows us to not see the other. Indeed, it punishes us for seeing the other, for the human reaching for empathy, for uncertainty, for knowing that this lived experience cannot be measured, can barely be told; and that the telling we do is always tentative, fragile and, therefore, must be loving, must be toward ‘seeing.’

Biesta, G. (2004). Education, accountability and the ethical demand: Can the democratic potential of accountability be regained?  Educational Theory, 54(3), 233-250.


  1. Wow. Powerful. Bookmarked.

  2. Brilliant last paragraph.


  1. […] and Conflict” at Bridging Differences (Education Week) and Barbara Madeloni’s brilliant “The emotional violence of the accountability regime: part two” here @ the chalk face, as well as my own blog posting, “Lessons from the Zombie […]

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