Tag Archives: Gert Biesta

Accountability and the Erasure of Democracy

We hear a lot about the need for “accountability” in education, but I’m not sure anyone knows what this word means in practice, or what an authentic means of being accountable might look like.  If this word is going to be thrown around so much, then it’s time for those throwing it to think deeply about how it functions.

And in thinking deeply about the role of accountability in education, we need to recognize the increasing, and mostly unconscious creep of economic utilitarianism beyond the bounds of economics and into all aspects of life. Essentially, this spread is represented by the ideology of market fundamentalism, which says that all value is reduced to the single value of economics. That is, all is commodified, has a price, and can thus be measured in terms of its efficiency, which is translated into its ability to reduce costs, to add monetary value as the ultimate value that can then be measured as profit.  As an example of this, see this recent editorial in the Detroit Free Press, which fundamentally uses the ideology of the free market to ask the question, ““Is a College Degree a Lost Cause These Days?” Within the article as part of its set up, the author quotes President Obama, and develops from there.

“Even President Barack Obama has poked fun at the humanities, observing in a 2014 speech that ‘folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.’

Obama later insisted his ‘glib’ comment wasn’t meant to throw shade on liberal arts majors. But it reflected an emerging consensus that U.S. colleges and universities are failing to provide many students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-Century workplace.”

The underlying assumption of this thinking is that the purpose of a college degree is reduced to its value on the market, its ability to translate into a job for the holder of the degree, and its ability to propel the economy.  I don’t want to go too far into a richer vision of college of higher education here, other than to note the hidden assumptions of this kind of language. (And to be fair,thankfully the author of the article does go on to, at least,  gently critique these assumptions, first of all within the parameters of economic utilitarianism, and then by suggesting, almost as an afterthought, that education may have an impact on a democratic citizenry.)

The language of accountability is language which unconsciously and uncritically propels these assumptions. And because it does so in a way that is unconscious, it serves to continue to hide these assumptions.  It presents the world of economic utilitarianism as an unquestioned given.

And it is well past time to question.

conditionsecosystem for market fundamentalism

Thankfully, in Education, Accountability, and the Ethical Demand: Can the Democratic Potential of Accountability be Saved?, Gert Biesta has done a lot of this questioning and should be trusted as a guide. (See the link below to the full article.)

Biesta starts with a paragraph that shows that the current mode of accountability has reconfigured the relationship between the state and its citizens from a political relationship to an economic relationship, that is, “..state as provider and the taxpayer as consumer of public services.”

This seems subtle, but nonetheless, this shift is crucial to understand.  A political relationship is one where citizens work together in a mutual relationship. A consumer relationship, one determined by economics, is one in which a consumer is recipient of services, and therefore to be served in ways that are measurable so that consumer choices can be made clear.  It thus becomes necessary for the provider of those services (the state in the case of education) to quantify its services in order to provide information to the consumer so that proper choices can be made.  A political relationship, on the other hand, is one that suggests accountability and responsibility are mutual.  A teacher has accountability in this relationship to a context of mutual relationships- the students, the parents, the community and the ways that the community is served by the education of its members. In an economic relationship, the consumer is a passive recipient, and one imagined as outside of the bounds of community. The single consumer is to be served, and the values of this service are inherently economic values. That is, the consumer is a recipient of the state’s services, one with the need for “choice of” state services, and whose “vote” and democratic responsibility is reduced to his/her choices. The implication is that as a recipient of services, the consumer is not engaged as a member of the state, and determines the values of these services within the context of the value of how he/she will economically benefit from these services.  The connection between the consumer and the broader community is obscured, and the value of the education to the broader community is wiped clean. Along with this, because of the importance of the availability of consumer information in a market of choice, the value of an education must be quantifiable. As a result, the “accountability” of education to its consumers is reduced to the single, but easily measurable, dimension of test scores. Why do students want to “do well” in school? In order to receive the grades and test results to that will allow them into a “good” college so that they can earn a marketable degree.

Pure economics.

Pure individualism.

Biesta writes, “Crucially, the language used is an economic language that positions the government as provider and the citizen as consumer. Choice has become the key word in this discourse. Yet ‘choice’ is about the behavior of consumers in a market where their aim is to satisfy their needs; it should not be conflated with democracy which is about public deliberation and contestation regarding the common good.”

It is important to recognize that in this shift from citizen to consumer is the fact that the purpose of education is completely obscured and uncontested. There is little room, if any, for the conversation of outcome. Why should someone be educated? In ways does the broader context of relationships benefit, not just the relationship between consumer and the state, but the relationships of a community? These questions disappear because outcomes are assumed and the focus thus becomes on the process of acquiring these easily quantifiable outcomes of economic value.

Biesta again: “To put this point differently, according to the logic of the market, the relationship between the state and its citizens is no longer a substantial relationship but has turned into a strictly  formal relationship. This reconfiguration is closely connected to the rise of the culture of quality assurance, the corollary of accountability….Quality assurance is about efficiency and effectiveness of the process itself, not about what the process is supposed to bring about. In this light, it is easy to see why the …government’s constant emphasis on ‘raising standards’ is ultimately vacuous: it lacks proper (democratic) discussion regarding which standards or ‘outcomes’ are most desirable. The same problem underlies much of the research of the ‘school effectiveness and improvement industry.’ These studies mainly focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of processes, without addressing the far more difficult normative and political question regard what these process ought to bring about.” (Emphasis added)

So we have a situation where consumer “choice” is “driving the market” of education. At the same time, this current shift allows no place for the most important question of purpose. There is no discussion of what we hope to bring about with an education, and, because of the unquestioned assumptions and constraints driven by an “accountability” system which can only measure efficiency and limits the purpose of education to the attainment of test scores, we have created an education that has as its purpose the creation of consumers.

Is this what we want?

And just as importantly, is democracy being lost as a result?

Biesta suggests that democracy is being lost. (And the evidence of current zeitgeist would certainly do the same.)

“The role of parents and students in the ‘accountability loop’ is indirect: they can ultimately hold the government accountable for the ‘quality’ of the public services it delivers. But this relationship is itself apolitical in that it positions citizens as consumers who can ‘vote’ about the quality of the services delivered by the government but who do not have democratic say in the overall direction of content of what is being delivered (if delivery is an appropriate concept in the first place).” (Emphasis added)

So there is input through “choice’ that parents have in the processes of education, and the efficiency and quality of these processes. (However, I would go further in saying that the processes of education, that is the pedagogy, is also obscured when the information used to determine such choices is reduced to the dimension of easily quantifiable test scores.) Importantly, though, what is lost in the shift from citizen to consumers, is the choice of purpose, what is the direction we want to education to go? For what purpose do we want our children to be educated? This question is no longer available for contestation.

“The core problem is that while many would want the culture of accountability to emphasize accountability to the public, it actually creates a system focused on accountability to the regulators and the like, thereby removing the real stakeholders from the accountability loop.’ In this respect, the current technical-managerial approach to accountability actually produces economic relationships between people and makes democratic relationships difficult if not impossible to establish.”

What does this look like? What’s the end game of the language of accountability? It creates a system that conflates economics and democracy, and, in doing so, privileges economics at the expense of democracy. It allows democracy to be sacrificed to the god of “economic efficiency” with the allowance of little to no contestation of such shifts. It allows, for instance, the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education to be completely marginalized and replaced by an Emergency Manager. In a very real way, the voice of the people is eliminated and replaced with the voice of consumers and profiteers who are alienated from the context of political community.

According to an analysis featured by Diane Ravitch, this is ultimately what this shift to accountability looks like in Detroit:

“While falling enrollment is often cited as a reason for “right-sizing” the district, the loss of students is the inevitable outcome of starving the schools of funding and relentless attacks on teachers’ jobs and conditions by the Democratic-run city. In the past three years alone, the district cut over a half billion dollars in operating costs, including increasing health care premiums, cutting per-student funding, freezing pay steps for teachers and closing schools. This is not enough, however, and Snyder and his Democratic Party accomplices aim to fully convert the new district into a system of charter schools, which remain outside of public oversight and are a lucrative source of income for politically connected business hucksters.”

Unless we all quickly take responsibility for democratic spaces that are disappearing under the illusion of accountability, this will also be what your local school district looks like.

Please take the time to read all of Biesta’s piece here:

Click to access Biesta_-_Accountability.pdf

For a richer alternative view of the purpose of higher education, see William Dereshiewicz’s Excellent Sheep.

Photo from here

What We Talk About When We Talk About Learning

What do we mean when we talk about learning?

And how often do schools talk about what we mean when we talk about learning?

My sense is, we’re not clear on what we mean, and we don’t talk about it.

Learning is one of those words that becomes the air we breathe- we don’t see it so we’re not fully conscious of its presence or how it works on us.  And though learning is ostensibly the fundamental purpose of schools, we really don’t know what we really mean when we speak of it.

So we’re left with a vague conception of learning that generally means something like ‘acquiring knowledge,’ and this is a vague conception that can thus be measured by high stakes, standardized testing.  The vacuum left by our lack of clarity is filled with those (including, too often, us educators) who unthinkingly behave in accordance with these unspoken assumptions, and we’re left with a culture that determines the end purpose of learning to be an individualistic climb up the ladder of status, confuses  ‘achievement’ with learning, allows test scores and grades to serve  as evidence of  ‘learning,’ and abuses kids who are left harried, bored and robbed of their own personal engagement in the intellectual life.

In contrast to this, Gert Biesta has contributed a phrase that beautifully describes the task of education as a process of ‘coming into presence.’  I submit that this is what we truly want for our students:

While learning as acquisition is only about getting more and more, learning as responding is about showing who you are and where you stand.  It is about what I have called elsewhere a process of ‘coming into presence.’  Coming into presence is not something that individuals can do alone and by themselves.  To come into presence means to come into presence in a social and intersubjective world, a world we share with others who are not like us.  Coming into presence also isn’t something that we should understand as the act and the decision of pre-social individual. This is first of all because it can be argued that the very structure of our subjectivity, the very structure of who we are is thoroughly social…But it is also, and more importantly, because what makes us into a unique, singular being- me, and not you- is precisely to found in the way in which we respond to the other, to the question of the other, to the other as question.”   (Emphasis mine)

Learning is not some abstraction that can be acquired, regurgitated and easily measured.  It is a process that is concrete and completely dependent upon the minute by minute judgement of living humans who are far from working in accordance with a script.  And the intention of such an education is to ‘call into presence’ the power and uniqueness of our own personhood.

Biesta continues,

If education is indeed concerned with subjectivity and agency, then we should think of education as the situation or process which provides opportunity for individuals to come into presence, that is, to show who they are where they stand.  What does it mean to provide such opportunities? It first of all requires a situation in which students, learners, are indeed able to respond, are indeed able to show who they are and where they stand.  This not only means that there must be something that can respond to, that there is a situation in which learning is not confined to acquisition and copying.  It also requires that educators and educational institutions care about what their students think and feel and where they are allowed to express their thoughts and feelings.”  (Emphasis mine)

The interior lives of students matters if our concern involves the students’ subjectivity and agency.  If we care about authentic learning, then we must necessarily care about students’ subjectivity and agency.  (And if that is not our concern, our current approach of learning as regurgitation and testing is working fine.  Let’s just be honest about it.)  And let’s be clear about what we mean by learning.

Please read the rest of Biesta’s article here– it is rich with insight and well worth your time.

For more on Biesta’s work on ‘learnification,’ see Learnification Part 1: Making Bank Off the Banking Concept and The Importance of the Teacher: Learnification Part 2

Who Is Protecting the Status Quo?

When an educator questions the dominance of testing as a tool for school reform, you will often see that educator criticized for ‘protecting the status quo.’ As an example of this accusation, here is a link to a recent opinion piece in the Detroit News. The article supports the new Michigan Educational Achievement Authority, which is designed to be a turnaround program for the lowest 5% (as measured by test results) of the schools in that state. The headline reads, “Let’s Stop Protecting the Status Quo.” (Read the whole article for a flavor of the way test scores become the sole determinant of what constitutes a ‘failing’ school.)

The problem with this accusation is that actually, any attempt to improve schools through means that relies on its measurement of success via test data simply works to replicate social inequality. Thus, this accusation of ‘protecting the status quo’ is actually a Orwellian attempt to protect the status quo.

In Good Education in an Age of Measurement, Gert Biesta criticizes what he calls a “common sense view of what education is for,” a view that exists in the void of any broader frame of the “aims and ends of education.”

He writes,
The prime example of such a ‘common sense’ view about the purpose of education is the idea that what matters most in education is academic achievement in a small number of curricular domains, particularly language, science and mathematics. It is this view that has given credibility to such studies as TIMMS, PIRLS and PISA. Whether academic knowledge is indeed of more value than, for example, vocational skills all depends on the access that such knowledge gives to particular positions in society. This, as the sociological analysis of education has abundantly shown, is precisely how the reproduction of social inequality through education works. It is, therefore, first of all in the interest of those who benefit from the status quo to keep things as they are rather than to open up discussion about what education might be and become.” (emphasis mine)

Achievement data privileges those with the most access to the knowledge being measured through the test. In other words, the most privileged are those most likely to achieve, while those least privileged are least likely to achieve, thus replicating social inequality. In addition, in spite of the rhetoric, any reform attempt that uses testing data as the sole measurement of its success functions to reinforce educational achievement as the frame through which we see, a frame which insures education as it is rather than imagining “what education might be and become.”


So by reinforcing the measurement of schools via a one-dimensional testing approach, and criticizing those who question such an approach as ‘protecting the status quo,’ corporate education reformers are able to shift attention away from themselves and their interests, shut down any discussions about education as it relates to purpose, protect the class interests inherent in the status quo, all while creating a profit margin for those companies able to take advantage of the privatization of public education.

I must say, it is brilliant.

The Importance of the Teacher: Learnification Part 2

I continue to think about the role of teachers in this new age of content availability. If content is available to anyone at any time, in any place, what is the role of the teacher? If we think of the role of teachers as providers of content via instruction, then clearly this role becomes obsolete. We need to imagine teaching in a much broader way.

Gert Biesta is one of those who is helping me think through this issue. He has written an important piece called Giving Teaching Back to Education: Responding to the Disappearance of the Teacher. Biesta criticizes ‘learnification,’ and carefully analyzes the important role of teachers. Biesta shows that, despite the increasing availability of content, the role of the teacher necessarily remains central to education. (For a recent example of learnification on steroids, see Sugatra Mitra’s Ted Talk. I don’t want to discount all that Mitra says, but clearly learnification is at work when teachers are so irrelevant that they can be replaced by British grannies. Be sure to read this excellent analysis of Mitra’s talk by Audrey Watters.) Biesta writes, “The quickest way to express what is at stake here is to say that the point of education is never that children or students learn, but that they learn something, that they learn this for particular purposes, and that learn this from someone. The problem with the language of learning and with the wider ‘learnification’ of educational discourse is that it makes it far more difficult, if not impossible, to ask the crucial educational questions about content, purpose and relationships.” In other words, the language of ‘learning’ allows for the assumption that the relationships between learner and content, learner and purpose, and learner and teacher are irrelevant. Parker Palmer puts it another way in Good Teaching: “‘Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.’ Good teaching, whatever its form, will help more and more people learn to speak and listen in the community of truth, to understand that truth is not in the conclusions so much as in the process of conversation itself, that you want to be ‘in truth’ you must be in the conversation.” Purpose here is assumed in ‘things that matter.’ Content is organized around a ‘truth.’ And relationship occurs all over- between the learner and teacher in community, and between the community and its search for truth. The learner here is not an individual unmoored from purpose or community, as many of our current corporate reformers would have it, but a student deeply embedded in purpose and relationship with others.

The language of learnification obscures these relationships. It privileges learning as a process without recognition of the context it necessarily must occur within, the nexus of relationships that connect us to each other, and to ‘truth.’ The danger of this is that this language makes teachers disposable. Because the language of learnification obscures these relationships, it creates a void that allows for the ‘extractivist’ mindset. Because the questions around purpose, content and relationship are hidden, we are left with only seeing the ‘learner’ from the embedded neo-liberal paradagim- that is, the market as the only measure of value. (Please see this wonderful article which deconstructs extractivism, Dancing the World Into Being.)

Biesta continues in addressing the core task of the teacher, that is of helping a student work through his/her resistance to the ‘other.’ Biesta writes, “Teaching ‘works’ with something that is strange from the perspective of the student, not because what is given/received s necessarily incomprehensible, but because it is something that is not a projection of the student’s own mind, but something that is radically and fundamentally other. The encounter with something that is other and strange- that is not of one’s own making- is an encounter with something that offers resistance (and we could even say that it is an encounter with the very experience of resistance).” Left to his/her own accord, the learner will likely resist this encounter with the other, will not grow through this encounter, will not widen perspective enough (or learn) to let the other (object) become incorporated (subjectfied). The teacher’s task is to help the student work through this resistance. This task is complex, it can’t be done merely via technical means. Technical answers (i.e., teacher ‘skills’) are always enacted by living people, and as Bill O’Brien has said in a quote that I love, “The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.” Who the teacher is matters- there is no way around this if we imagine learning as anything more than the regurgitation of content. And this is the core issue that education reform avoids. Most education reform is simply a misapplication of technical answers to a very complex, difficult human issue. (And note that I did not use the word ‘problem’ at the end of that last sentence.)

Biesta puts it this way, “…the research that sees teaching as an intervention working towards the perfect production of certain pre-specified outcomes seriously misses the point of what I have suggested teaching is about. The problem with these lines of thought is that they miss what I have suggested to be at the very heart of teaching, which is the need for concrete situated judgments about what is educationally desirable, both with regard to the aims of education and with regard to its means…and while certain competencies may constitute a necessary condition for good teaching, they can never be a sufficient condition as there is always a need for judgement about which competencies should be utilized in each particular and unique educational situation.” (Emphasis added)

This need for judgement is tied to the need for wisdom, “…a quality of or ‘excellence’ that permeates and characterizes the whole person.”

That is something that increased test scores, more virtual learning, or a charter school just can’t address

Learnification Part 1: Making Bank Off the Banking Concept

I first read the term ‘learnification’ when reading Corey Steeve’s paper, (De/Re)-Constructing Teachers and Their Work. Steeves quotes Gert Biesta in defining the concept: “Biesta described the discourse of learnification as ‘the translation of everything there is to say about education in terms of learning and leaners.'” ‘Learnification’ occurs whenever discourse reduces all of the complexities of ‘education’ down to the simplicity of ‘learning.’ And doesn’t this seem fairly harmless? At first, I rebelled against ‘learnification’ as a negative concept. Who can be against learning or learners? For instance, I have spent much of my time arguing that we educators need to design experiences that allow students to own their learning. Now all of a sudden that’s a bad thing?

On deeper thought, though, it is clear that the discourse of learnification is a huge problem, mainly because the assumptions it hides are very dangerous. Steeves continues, “Biesta argued that learning is an ‘individualistic concept.’ Whereas the concept of education ‘always implies a relationship: someone educating someone else and the person educating thus having a certain sense of the what the purpose of his or her activities is.'”

So Steeves (and Biesta) points out the differences in the discourse between ‘learning’ and ‘education.’ Learning is individualistic and abstracted from the context of purpose. Education is communal and situated in connection to a purpose.

Now, you may be asking yourself, so what? What is the purpose of making these angels of theory dance on the pin heads of educational reality? Why? Because it makes a political difference, meaning a difference in our lives together. Stay with me now.

Traditional teaching is simplistically and conventionally imagined as the transmission of content. (A la Freire’s banking concept.) Teachers instruct students in such a way that students have an understanding of the content being transmitted. Back in the pre-tech olden days, teachers were the main, or only, source of this content. We all know that content now is available ‘anytime, anywhere.’ So if a teacher’s job is to serve as the source of content, then teachers are becoming obsolete. ‘Learnification’ works under this assumption, while, at the same time, hiding it: Teachers are the delivers of content+ content is available anytime, anywhere= teachers are obsolete. Under this formula, the learner and his/her learning are abstracted from the context of both relationship and purpose. So the question of ‘learning for what purpose?’ becomes irrelevant. Will Richardson’s question of ‘why school?’ becomes irrelevant. And teachers, those whose task, I would tentatively argue, is to master the skills of relationship and continually help students to situate content within context, become irrelevant. The discourse of learnification allows humans to be replaced with any of the variety of on-line content delivery systems that operate much more ‘efficiently’ (i.e., cheaper) than your average teacher, and they don’t require health care or retirement benefits. The idea of ‘common good,’ of learning for citizenship, ( for that matter, of learning for any greater purpose other than of the economic benefit of a self) in such an individualistic conception of learning becomes irrelevant.

The problem with learnification is not in allowing students to direct their own learning. It is in allowing students to direct their own learning in a vacuum– and we all know that a vacuum is a space asking to be filled. In the case of learnification, the vacuum is filled by corporate entities, the free market of neo-liberalism, that has its own agenda. That agenda is the making of money. Students then become a source of income, and this income is unquestioned through the process of learnification, and the mantra of ‘any time, anywhere’ which reifies content abstracted from context, has room to grow like cancer. (Please take some time to read up on the scary way how this concept of ‘anytime, anywhere’ is being translated politically in Michigan here.)

Just as importantly, learnification allows for the assumption (allows because it assumes no assumptions) that the purpose of schooling is for the benefit of our economic system. Alternative ways of imagining education- the development of the whole person, including the social and emotional aspects of being human, the development of the dispositions needed in a civil democratic society, and the ability to critically analyze a topic along with the context in which it appears- simply disappear. Such visions aren’t necessary when the goal is simple stamping that will certify a student for participation in our economic society. (And, because economic health is the ultimate value abstracted from all other contexts, there is no need to ask the question of, for instance, economic health for what/whose purpose?) Again, this way of imagining education fails to understand context- that economics, culture and the overall social good are all connected.

Yes, the discourse of learnification matters. It’s not by accident that it literalizes the banking concept.