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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Public Accountability Missing in Education

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
-- John F. Kennedy

My philosophy toward authority generally centers around one word: Accountability. In my view, there are two main kinds of accountability: small “a” accountability and capital “A” accountability. In public education, there is a great deal of one and almost none of the other.

Small “a” accountability is accountability to the system. There are statistics, reports, numbers, factoids and figures. These numbers bounce around the organization, heading farther up the chain and occasionally shooting out to the public in the form of headlines. It’s possible that change takes place because of these numbers, but the public usually isn’t involved. The numbers are often supportive and positive about the overall effectiveness of the system.

Capital “A” Accountability is accountability to the public. Administrators speak the truth, even if it feels nasty to hear it or to say it. If things aren’t working, they say so. Employees are encouraged to speak freely and aren’t forced into silence nor bullied into compliance. People are held responsible for their actions and their performance. Records are made public. Pertinent information is welcomed. Administrators acknowledge their mistakes and learn from others. As long as the public remains engaged in capital “A” Accountability, then small “a” accountability is likely to follow.

Public education is a bureaucracy, however, and on the whole, bureaucracies tend to be impermeable and self-serving. In public education, the “public” has been purposefully blocked from the process. The establishment spends billions of dollars each year studying students, teachers, schools and families – dutifully reporting its picked-over version of reality and probably cutting down an entire rain forest of trees to publish the results. All the while, it fails to tell the public it’s in a dark place where high-school students drop out or require extensive remedial help before moving forward with their lives.

Capital “A” Accountability helps maintain corruption-free environments. Articulate, well-reasoned debate keeps the nation strong. I’m willing to fight for that.

In January 2007, I went to a Spokane Public Schools board meeting to ask about test scores. I was told politely that board meetings are business meetings and no discussion would take place. My name was passed to the superintendent, and the meeting went on without me. Later that month, I was invited to meet privately with the superintendent and curriculum director. There, I was told that everything was great – going so well that other states look to Washington for guidance.

In an October 2007 PTA meeting, I asked a Spokane school board member and the acting superintendent (Dr. Nancy Stowell) how parents have two-way conversations with the entire school board in a public forum. It can’t be done, PTA members were told, but we were invited to attend board meetings or to call board members at home. (But there is usually no discussion at Spokane school board meetings, and calling board members at home isn’t in public nor is it the entire board.)

I’ve asked several people if the public can ever have two-way conversations with the entire school board in a public setting, and the consistent answer is, “No.” Consider that the school board manages the budget, approves school policy and procedure, and engages in “community relations” (“Policies,” 1983). If “community relations” doesn’t mean “relating with the community,” then what does it mean?

In a February 2008 interview, Dr. Stowell acknowledged that students and parents don’t have many ways to be “engaged’ in the process.

In March 2008, in a rare display of “glasnost,” the school board invited the public to two forums regarding finalists for the position of district superintendent. One candidate was Dr. Stowell. The candidates had to answer questions publicly (although no follow-up questions were allowed). My question was: How do we get more public forums?

Dr. Stowell laughed a bit when she said, “Well, we aren’t doing this again!” Then she said she supported the concept of better communication between the district and the parents. She asked the group for ideas.

Here’s my idea (which I’ve technically passed on to her three times – four if she reads this blog). Have more forums. Listen to questions, answer the questions, listen to follow-up questions and answer those. Administrators should do it because it’s respectful. Mostly, they should do it because it’s their role in providing capital “A” Accountability.

I wish I could tell you how board members answered public questions at those two forums, but none did. They milled around the edges of the group, talking privately with individuals.

In a September 2008 “online chat,” I asked Dr. Stowell again about “creating opportunities” for the public to communicate with administrators and the school board. Board meetings are insufficient, I said, since discussions usually don’t take place, and private meetings are insufficient since they aren’t in public.

Dr. Stowell repeated that I could attend school board meetings. She added that board members sometimes go into the public “to solicit input” on topics such as bond projects and the budget.

In October, public meetings were held to discuss bond issues. The format was a presentation followed by small-group discussions. I asked the district’s director of communications and community relations if I could go to the forums and ask questions that are unrelated to bond issues. She said the forums were just for bond issues, but that I could take my questions to a school board meeting or I could make an appointment with an administrator.

And there you have it. Over 22 months, I have come full circle, and I have gotten nowhere at all.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (October, 2008). "Public accountability missing in education." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site:

This article has also been posted on at

1 comment:

Susan Darst Williams said...

Great article! I'm redacting it, with full credit, on my website, It'll be under "Government and Politics," found at lower left, in the category, "Accountability."

We are kindred spirits! I would like to put a standing link to your blog if you'll do the same for me.

I have one website with info for parents:

and a blog for Nebraska education issues:

I also have a website with enrichment ideas for kids that I'm just getting started, to raise money for neat out-of-school workshops and experiences for disadvantaged kids:

If you would be willing to link to any of those, I would be delighted, and please let me know if I can link to your blog -- see the bottom left-hand corner of

Thanks much, and keep up the great work! I need to order your book, and will, in the near future.