School is an institution for drilling children [and teachers] in cultural orientations. Educationists have attempted to free the school from drill, but have failed because they have gotten lost among a multitude of phantasms—always choosing the most obvious "enemy" to attack. Furthermore, with every enemy destroyed, new ones are installed among the old fortifications – the enduring contradictory maze of the culture. Educators think that when they have made arithmetic or spelling into a game; made it unnecessary for children to "sit up straight"; defined the relations between teacher and children as democratic; and introduced plants, fish, and hamsters into classrooms, they have settled the problem of drill. They are mistaken.

Jules Henry, Culture Against Man

Accountability and assessment— the idea of holding schools, educators and students responsible for measurable learning—is a pervasive 'cultural orientation' of schools and educational institutions. It underlies achievement based teaching, where success is valued and failure is feared or stigmatized. It motivates our efforts for what we assume is an indispensable need for evaluation in the teaching-learning process and the life of our schools. On school boards, in parent organizations and at faculty meetings around the world the same questions are asked: How do we know that learning is going on? How much of this learning is valuable? How do we know that our teachers and students are skilful and excellent? How do we ensure the quality of education in our schools? Are our tests and assessment rubrics valid and reliable? Such questions and worries are predicated on an implicit and unexamined drive for accountability and assessment.

We tend to associate these issues with conventional educational systems that teach to state standards, administer high-stakes standardized tests and require annual improvement in school and teacher performance. In light of Henry's caution and critique, the authors of this paper would like to reiterate and extend the relevance of concerns about accountability and assessment to charter, private, socalled 'progressive schools', Krishnamurti schools and to educational contexts in general. The following is an invitation for all of us to grapple with these issues in whatever settings we find ourselves.

One root of accountability and assessment lies in what Alfred North Whitehead called the 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness' (Whitehead, 1925, p. 51). There is a sense that learning and teaching are made available and apparent only by their evaluation according to some measurable criteria. But why do we need to make learning, teaching, thinking, observations, skills and questioning accessible and visible? Well … so that there can be more learning, teaching and thinking; so we can occasion more of this for each other. You need to make visible your learning, teaching and thinking, and I need to do the same—so that we can learn from each other, make sense of things together. However, converting this to a requirement for measurable evidence or proof involves an ethical and pedagogical sleight of hand. The injunction 'show me what you are learning and thinking—so I can learn' is substantively different from 'prove to me that you are learning and thinking, and I will evaluate its quality and soundness'. Those requiring accountability and assessment get to decide what counts as good teaching and learning, and those required to demonstrate the achievement of these criteria need to win the approval of those in power in order to perpetuate this system. Visibility allows for mutual learning and growth; accountability, however, sets in motion a system of education in which the assessor directs and evaluates learning and teaching according to predetermined and measurable content, skill and performance standards.

Because it is often the assessors— teachers, administrators, school board members, and legislators—who determine a school's standards, they are based primarily on the needs of the assessors, particularly as they relate to college entrance and employment. Progress towards meeting these standards is measured by various forms of evaluation, and conformity is imposed through a mechanical structure of curriculum and teaching methods—conventional or progressive. Superimposed on this accountability and assessment structure, and energized by it, is the culturally induced illusion that conforming to these structures demonstrates personal responsibility and achievement. New teaching methods and assessment techniques may be substituted to reinvigorate this illusion, but in so doing schools persist in drilling students in cultural orientations.

In the accountability and assessment driven system, progress is measured along predetermined cultural orientations, rather than reflecting what the students and teachers are actually learning about themselves and the world in real time as learning unfolds. When we start with objectified procedures and criteria, however enlightened or progressive our methods and frameworks may be, our vision gets so occluded we only see human beings as deficient and always falling short of some measure. In short, we are blindsided by our own obdurate drive towards the achievement of distal criteria.

When one follows a method … the children [and teachers] are important only as they fit into it. One measures and classifies the child [and teacher], and then proceeds to educate him according to some chart. This process of education may be convenient for the teacher [school boards and administrators], but neither the practice of a system nor the tyranny of opinion … can bring about an integrated human being.

J Krishnamurti, Education and the Significance of Life, 1953

Our challenge is to respond to students and teachers as three-dimensional living beings in our care and purview. Methods and frameworks for accountability force us to see teachers and students with regard to criteria of excellence and achievement and trajectories of development. Such 'seeing with regard to' drives us to 'see as'; to label people as gifted, average or learning disabled; but in all such instances we fail to 'see'. As Wittgenstein points out, 'seeing as is not part of perception, and for this reason it is like seeing and then again not like' (1953, part II, xi). Thus, when we see human beings with regard to criteria and according to the labels generated by this process, we are involved in activities that have the semblance of perception but not perception itself.

The same sleight of hand that has transformed visibility to accountability reduces learning to a mechanical, conditioned process that configures learning as linear and makes student 'progress' easier to assess and quantify along a predetermined trajectory. Questions have answers, and problems have solutions. What we know is important; what we don't know is a matter of concern or even shame. Understanding the source of a problem or discovering a question is less critical than finding a solution that satisfies the cultural orientations of the school—be it progressive or conventional.

Many alternative, progressive and experimental schools try to solve these problems by reducing class size, humanizing the curriculum, eliminating grades and adopting alternative assessment procedures. While these innovations and reformations may provide some reprieve within the prevailing educational paradigm, the foundational cultural orientation that learning and teaching are made visible by accountability and assessment remains active and intact.

Some progressive schools have turned to smaller classes, but small is not necessarily beautiful: while some things might improve with a change from big classes to small classes, the core conception of teaching and learning and its everyday enactment may remain impoverished if the locus of our concern still revolves around accountability and assessment. Even in small classrooms we hear the same complaints that we find in big classrooms: lazy students, incompetent teachers, disparity in levels of competence, ability and achievement.

Other schools have adopted new terminologies, but the name is not the thing. A mere shift in educational terminology and discourse is inadequate unless there is a change in the daily enactment of teaching and learning. Authentic assessment, active learning, caring community, project-based learning and inquiry-based learning: all these become shibboleths and proxies for a more radical re-envisioning of education as it unfolds in daily practice. We can envisage the danger of an inquiry-based curriculum where the criteria for what counts as inquiry are not themselves the subject of or open to our questioning.

The impulse to humanize education by replacing standardized testing with other forms of assessment that continue to sort students and teachers into ability heaps is as pernicious as a standardized metric. We may call it formative assessment (usually nothing more than a series of summative assessments along a preordained trajectory of learning), authentic assessment or even self-assessment. We might arrange people into small project based learning groups, but grade human and humanizing activities like participation, cooperation, inquiry, and soon even kindness! Such misguided humanism is often worse than standardized testing because it brings even human qualities, dispositions and virtues into the bay of the measurable.

Teacher education programmes are no less susceptible to drilling in cultural orientations. Supervision, and even mentorship, conceived of as the modelling of good teaching practices by experts and experienced teachers for novices to emulate or adapt, elicits conformity rather than the creative development of unique teaching approaches and styles—drawn from attention to human beings rather than to predetermined criteria. Progressive educational methods that prescribe a learner-centred teacher training programme hold teachers 'accountable' to a criterion of 'learner-centredness' without themselves being fully responsive to the circumstances and challenges of the teacher as a learner herself. To be 'learning-centred' rather than 'learner-centred', teacher education must provide a mutually educative environment for both mentor and mentee (teacher and student).

As Bill Ayers puts it, 'a major obstacle on the pathway to teaching is the notion that teaching is essentially technical, that it is easily learned, simply assessed and quickly remediated' (2001, p. 10). This notion arises from our persistent orientation towards accountability and assessment, which reduces education to quantifiable knowledge and correct answers. If the correct answer is 'C' and a student writes 'A', how hard can it be to recondition the child to pick 'C' instead? Yet, the world is so much more complicated than this … and so is teaching.

Teaching is at once intellectual and caring. Students make sense of subject matter in myriad ways, and the teacher has to be concerned, alert and responsive to all of this without merely insisting on delivering inert content in the way that she or others may have amassed it. Thus, the challenge for teaching is not merely to find out which student has got it but rather to get at learners' diverse understandings— which are only sometimes synonymous with getting it. In this project both the teacher and the student are engaged in a shared journey of discovery and learning. In fact the original meaning of 'assessment' is to 'sit down beside', derived from the Latin as sedere. The turn towards assessment as the measurement of learning reconfigures the educational encounter away from a mutuality of commitments and engagements.

In sum, our worry and contention is that, unless we closely examine our conceptions of teaching and learning and how this gets enacted every day, in every moment, reform may provide some reprieve, but not a foundational reframing of teaching-learning and a repurposing of schools for the values that we all really care about. We would like to end here with some further questions: What would it look like for learning, and not the measurement of learning, to be at the core of every educational interaction? Is there an excellence without measurement—and what would teaching look like in this context? What would learning look like? What would happen to motivation? What would school look like?


  1. Ayers, W. (2001). To Teach, 2nd edn. New York: Teachers College Press.
  2. Ayers, R., & Ayers, W. (2011). Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom (pp. 93-96). New York: Teachers College Press.
  3. Henry, J. (1965). Golden Rule Days: American Schoolrooms. In Culture Against Man (pp. 281-321). New York: Vintage Books.
  4. Krishnamurti, J. (1953). Education and the Significance of Life, 1981 edn. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers.
  5. Whitehead, A.N. (1925). Science and the Modern World, 1997 edn. United Kingdom: Free Press (Simon & Schuster).
  6. Wittgenstein, L. (2009). Philosophical investigations. In P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte (eds. and trans.), 4th edn. First Published 1953, Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.