The court room presents a powerful narrative focusing on the innocence or guilt of an accused individual. In the U.S. judicial system, the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and this principle is embraced as a foundational commitment to individual freedom.
The George Zimmerman trial, however, prompted for many concerns about the effectiveness and objectivity of that judicial system, including fears that jury trials reflect the biases of the jurors and that the victim, Trayvon Martin, was unfairly put on trial as well. Debates also included a convoluted discussion of the laws themselves surrounding the case, notably the stand your ground laws in Florida. If the laws themselves are flawed or inherently corrupt, how can a trial be just?
The court of public opinion is no less focused on individual innocence or guilt. In the education reform movement, a number of scandals have exposed flawed leaders and dysfunctional systems—Michelle Rhee’s reign as chancellor of DC public schools, Tony Bennett’s role in changing school grades in Indiana, a cheating scandal in Atlanta, and misleading tests scores in New York. Each of these individual people and circumstances lends itself to holding one person or a unique situation accountable, but just as any trial can disproportionately focus blame on an individual, it is careless and ultimately dangerous to ignore the wider accountability era while laying (often justifiable) blame at the feet of Rhee, Bennett, Atlanta public school administrators, or the newest testing process in NY.
Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader confronts readers with the lingering historical horrors of the Holocaust while also weaving an allegory of justice. A central character, Hanna Schmitz, develops a taboo but compelling relationship with a German teen, Michael Berg, many years after she has served as an SS guard at Auschwitz. In the middle section of the novel, Schmitz is on trial for her role at the concentration camp, and the readers of the novel discover that Schmitz’s passion for having Berg read to her grows from her own illiteracy, a key element in how the trial portrays her innocence or guilt.
Readers of Schlink’s novel are likely left torn about Schmitz’s guilt, possibly in ways similar to public opinion about Zimmerman. Schlink, as a lawyer and judge, seems as interested in the larger allegory of justice as he is about the specific horrors of who is culpable for the Holocaust. In fact, the novel suggests that innocence and guilt are not simple, not easily reduced to the acts or decisions of an individual.
Is it possible, the novel asks, that Schmitz is guilty in a nuanced way that is grounded in her illiteracy and the perverse and dehumanizing culture surrounding the Holocaust? Is it then possible that Schmitz is simultaneously guilty but also a victim of forces larger than her?
While I am suggesting no direct comparison between the accountability era and the Holocaust in terms of magnitude, I am compelled to recognize that the allegorical message of The Reader helps inform the potential mistake being layered onto the individual failures represented by Rhee, Bennett, the Atlanta cheating scandal, and the NY test data: Each of these people or circumstances is both an example of individual or situational failures and clear messages about the larger inherently flawed accountability era based on standards, high-stakes testing, and individual accountability (schools, districts, teachers, and students).
Let’s just focus on two recent failures in the accountability era—Bennett and NY test scores. Both, I am convinced, are evidence of specific failures and possibly even unethical behavior by people in power. And I would argue that Bennett and those responsible for testing in NY should all be held accountable for their decisions, actions, and misrepresentations about children, teacher, and schools to the public.
Ultimately, however, that isn’t nearly enough. Assigning grades to schools and all high-stakes testing are the problems; thus, high-stakes testing as a mechanism for labeling, sorting, and ranking schools, teachers, and children is the larger flawed system that Bennett and NY test scores represent.
In the passive voice parlance of avoiding culpability found in the courtroom, it is likely that for Rhee and Bennett “mistakes were made.”
But political, media, and public concern for these individual errors must not end with their individual culpability.
Accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing are dehumanizing, counter to genuine teaching and learning, and corrosive to universal public education, democracy, and individual liberty. With this lesson standing before us, then, it is unconscionable to continue down the road of Common Core and “next generation” national tests.
It is no longer credible to argue about how best to implement Common Core, how best to implement new tests, or how best to analyze that data from those tests. It is time to end an era of misguided accountability.
Even under the weight of forces larger and more powerful than any one of us, we must make a decision to confront and end a failed system, and that system is the accountability era begun thirty years ago, but now has proven itself a failure.