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Fri Feb 15, 2013, 06:11 AM


The emotional violence of the accountability regime

When I came to education later in life, I had two pictures of the work in mind. One was of conversations with students about literature—poetry, novels, stories, essays and treatises. Works I selected. Works they selected. Our own writing. I had some sense of the web of interactions and interpretations that would connect and challenge us. The other thought was that these conversations would grow for each of us and us together a possibility for community, for action, for democracy...

I recall one of my first faculty meetings when the superintendent projected a graph of student test scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (the high stakes test for Massachusetts, taken in the 10th grade) with the measures of improvement we would need to make annual yearly progress toward 100% passing in 2014. I asked a question about how the test had been validated and was met with a shrug, and a mantra that would come to be all too familiar, ‘This is what we have to do.”

The gulf between what the tests purported to measure and what I valued in my classroom was always very clear to me...My bemusement eventually yielded to fear. All around me, no matter what was said in the lunchroom, in the back row of the faculty meeting, or over drinks on Friday about the clear meaninglessness of the tests, shoulders were shrugged and the mantra spoken, “This is what we have to do.”

I feel foolish as I write this, but I thought teacher education would be different. I thought the protections of the academy and the legacy of public universities as places of discord and disruption would allow for an articulate resistance to the accountability regimes that were suffocating the life out of k12 schools. And for a time this seemed possible, until the words “NCATE” started to appear on department agendas. The accreditation process for the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education was deep in the discourse of data, outcomes and rubrics...

Like playing ‘pretend,’ hours were spent designing assessments, refining word choices, determining scoring rubrics as if-as if- we could measure the things that we said we were measuring, never mind asking if the things we were measuring were the things that mattered. Never mind asking why we would want to reduce our work to a number. Funny (as in absurd), when it wasn’t so scary (as in dominating and silencing.) The word reductionist lost its abstract connotations and became a visceral reality. Ideas, affect, complexity, relationships, unknowns, contestation: all reduced not to an essence, but to nothingness, to shadows of words, steam dissipating, hot air. Disappeared.


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...

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...” 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...”

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.’


I've been there; as I get older I am only beginning to realize how assimilating the diktat of an 'unseen authority' has so often rendered me blind to what was in front of my face, to my actual lived experience.

Similarly, the experience of turning away, in embarrassment a/o shame, when a colleague was being persecuted; i've been there, as both persecutor, persecuted, and embarrassed bystander.

And in all these experiences there has always been an underlying uneasiness that I only came to understand later in life. When I was younger, I didn't trust myself; everyone around me seemed to accept these things and indeed defend them.

Reading from a Marxist POV helped me analyze these experiences and come to see them as oppressive unseen power exercised from a distance: "the needs of the machine, and not our own."

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Reply The emotional violence of the accountability regime (Original post)
HiPointDem Feb 2013 OP
Euphoria Feb 2013 #1
HiPointDem Feb 2013 #2

Response to HiPointDem (Original post)

Fri Feb 15, 2013, 10:23 AM

1. This is one of the most cogent, spot-on

writings on what is happening under our current and now increasingly prevalent punishment system of "accountability". I use quotes because let's face it, this "accountability" is a code word crafted to promote/sell and obfuscate the true objective of these education-for-profit reformers. Their goal is to create compliant and emotionally disconnected educators AND students.

Somewhere between the fear of losing a job or the fear or not being able to succeed, both educators and students are now NOT involved in the process of education.

Thank you, HiPointDem for posting this and leading me to an awesome site addressing what's really going on in "accountability"-"reform"-corporate attack on education.

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Response to Euphoria (Reply #1)

Fri Feb 15, 2013, 10:26 AM

2. "Somewhere between the fear of losing a job or the fear or not being able to succeed, both


educators and students are now NOT involved in the process of education."

= speaking of 'cogent,' that's a good summing up.

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