If we don’t think about it much, there’s nothing wrong with being held “accountable” for what we do as music educators. But what happens when we think carefully about the meanings and implications of the word “accountable”?
When music educators have a moment to think about it—while being pressured by Common Core Standards to spend less time teaching music and more time prepping their music students for math and reading tests—they understand clearly that being accountable means being “answerable” for what their students achieve musically, but more and more importantly today, what their students achieve on high-stakes tests. Like all other teachers, they understand that “account-able” is related to “computare,” meaning “calculate.”……. Which brings us to the obvious but frequently overlooked fact that accountability entered the educational lexicon largely by way of business.
Over the last several decades—especially in the US—education has been reconceived as a business, so much so that educational policymakers and administrators today focus on the educational “bottom line(s)” (i.e., Federal, State, and district spending), as determined almost exclusively by simplistic, high-pressure standardized tests. As the eminent education scholar Michael Apple says: “For all too many of the pundits, politicians, corporate leaders, and others, education is a business and should be treated no differently than any other business.” Framed more largely, the notion that education = business is a major element (victim) of the American neoliberal economic and political agenda. Not surprisingly, then, wealthy investors who own shares in (for example) Charter School companies are reaping huge returns, and education publishing corporations (e.g., Pearson Education North America) “earn” billions of dollars a year selling Common Core curriculum and testing hardware and software. Once consequence of education = business is that, just as Wall Street banks and fund managers committed fraud during the years leading up to the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis, Charter School fraud has become more and more frequent and blatant, as (for example) the Ohio State Auditor recently declared…
So when today’s so-called reformers scream about the need to hold teachers accountable, they don’t mean that teachers are “responsible” for enabling students to achieve genuine intellectual, creative, ethical, and artistic growth over time. They mean students’ and teachers’ personal and educational “worth” are reducible to numerical data, to bottom-line test calculations. Today, American “children are tracked, analyzed and evaluated from birth—not only by corporations, but now, by the school system.”
Here’s one more way that words matter. Notice that calling a policy change a “reform” movement effectively hides “a wolf in a sheep’s clothing” and, thereby, dupes the public into thinking that so-called “Common” Core Standards are a good thing for children—”Hey folks, Common Core is just common sense!” As Launce Rake explains, “if you want to take apart the teachers unions and make it easier to fire teachers, don’t say ‘make it easier to fire teachers.'” Call it “education reform.” If you want to make music a serious school subject, “reform” music education—that is, force music teachers to spend more time on academic test prep and less time on music.
But what happens when we change the rhetoric of “market place education” by replacing accountability with “responsibility,” which Nel Noddings, a former Stanford University Dean of Education, urges us to do. When we’re responsible for others, we care about them, we care for them. When we’re being responsible music educators, we do so for our students, and for the numerous values that music and music education can provide—not for corporate concepts of education, and not under pressure to succumb to the Common Core Music Standards published by the National Association of Music Educators (NAfME). When we’re acting responsibly, it’s because we’re teaching our students in relation to thoughtful answers we’ve developed about questions such as “What kind of music educator is it good to be?” “What is best— musically, personally, and ethically—for music students in our democratic music classrooms?”
“Responsibility” has some things in common with “accountability.” Responsibility also asks people to be “answerable,” but in the very different sense of being “reliable and trustworthy.” “Response-ability” is a personal and ethical disposition, it’s a matter of personal and ethical integrity, it’s a quality of mind and heart. As opposed to account-ability—i.e., knowing how to test and calculate students and teachers according to top-down Standards and tests imposed by policymakers and education publishing corporations—responsibility goes to the heart of what teaching and learning are all about: human relationships in situ.
When we’re held accountable, we’re unable to empower our students to achieve the values at the heart of musical participation: communal joy, intersubjective fellowship, collaborative artistic expression, creative musical generation and selection, deep and transformative musical-emotional experiences, and all other dimensions of what Aristotle—who emphasized the necessity of music education—called eudaimonia, or a life well lived. When we’re responsible music teachers, we’re concerned with providing our students with the musical skills and understandings they desire and need for life-long musical particip-action. When we’re responsible music teachers, we aim to foster understanding and respect for others and others’ musics and, thus, mutual respect among the students in our care. When we’re responsible music teachers, we provide instruction that’s intimately tied to the formative assessments we make during, after, and beyond musical instruction.
Let’s end with the words of Wittgenstein—”The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”—and Einstein—”Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”