From schools to security, a reluctance to fix blame

Accountability is a popular concept, but a poll finds Americans hesitant to punish schools for poor results.

Americans expect public schools to be more accountable for student progress, but oppose concrete steps in a new federal law to punish or even identify schools that fail to meet that goal.

That's the unlikely conclusion of the 36th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the public's attitudes toward public schools, released Tuesday.

While critics say that some of the questions are leading and biased, the results fit a larger pattern in American politics and culture: a reluctance to assign blame or hold people accountable for bad results.

The pattern shows up in another election-year anomaly: While only about half of American voters approve of the job Congress is doing, most incumbents face no difficulty getting reelected, according to Congress watchers at the Cook Political Report.

From the 9/11 attacks to the botched Florida vote count in 2000, Americans often like the idea of accountability but shrink from making it personal.

"The US does not have a long tradition of government officials resigning as a result of problems that might have occurred on their watch, as opposed to European countries," says Robert Schmuhl, director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.

That's due, at least in part, to a growing tendency in American culture in the 1980s and '90s to frame issues in terms of victims - buffeted by larger forces around them - rather than individual responsibility, he says. "We talk a great deal about accountability, but we never seem to find the people who are directly responsible."

There are obvious exceptions, generally when an issue can't be avoided. Recent prosecutions of corporate malfeasance and of prisoner-abuse in Iraq are examples.

But public views of education offer a good window on the nation's ambivalence on the issue of accountability. President Bush pulled together a bipartisan coalition to pass the "No Child Left Behind Act," which penalizes schools that have sub-par test results.

While large majorities of Americans say that public schools nationally need improvement, most assign their own local school much higher grades. An example from the Phi Delta Kappan poll: 47 percent grade their own public schools an A or B, while only 26 percent give such high marks to public schools nationally.

This conclusion fits a report by the Education Testing Service last month that concludes that American parents offer fairly upbeat assessments of their children's own schools, but say that public schools overall must improve.

Moreover, the public is not in favor of measures that appear to punish schools for poor performance, according to this poll and 10 years of surveys by the Public Agenda, a nonpartisan polling group. Such measures in the new federal law include: allowing students to exit low-performing schools and the shift of public funds from local schools to parents to purchase supplementary educational services for their children.

On one level, this reflects specific concerns about how "No Child Left Behind" is designed - whether it will harm school districts rather than help them. But it reflects also society's wider ambivalence about the idea of accountability.

The mixed feelings have been on display, prominently, in the 9/11 investigation. Nearly three years after the worst attack ever on US territory, no one has resigned or accepted responsibility for errors that allowed attacks to occur. The 9/11 commission describes missed opportunities, but scrupulously avoids assigning blame to particular administrations or individuals.

Again, in one sense that's not surprising. President Bush - who came into office with an MBA and determination to run government based on measured outcomes - has said the person to blame for the attacks is Osama bin Laden.

But if the reluctance to probe the wounds of 9/11 is understandable, it has also stirred controversy. Last week a senior CIA officer who led the agency's effort to track Osama bin Laden criticized the 9/11 commission for failing to hold anyone directly accountable for failure to stop the 9/11 attacks. "The report seems to deliberately ignore those who were clearly culpable of negligence or dereliction," says the officer in a reported e-mail to the commission. That, he argues, will allow such failures to persist.

Before 9/11, there was the Florida recount. But Theresa LePore, the elections supervisor in Palm Beach County who approved the 2000 butterfly ballot, is still in office. On Sunday she unveiled a new ballot that critics say is even more confusing.

The issue of personal accountability runs from education and politics through recent the corporate accountability scandals. "I'm concerned that in very broad segments of our society there has been a decline in the willingness to accept responsibility for action," says Robert Pfaltzgraff, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. "It comes down to a feeling that if something goes wrong, I am the victim of forces in society that operate against me, instead of the consequences of decisions I have taken for better or worse," he adds.

Last fall's anti-Islamic remarks by a senior military leader, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, stirred controversy. But the Pentagon investigation into the matter settled on issues of procedure (Did he clear the speeches with proper Pentagon authorities? Did he "preface his remarks with a disclaimer?" Did he report travel reimbursement exceeding $260 on his financial disclosure forms?), not whether he must resign.

"There is a growing, very pernicious sense in the United States that has been around for several decades and is still growing: the overemphasis on the individual which carries with it the notion that I am not responsible for what I do. If my conduct is wrong, it's not really my fault," says Robert Barker, a law professor at Duquesne University.

Yet no notion is more current in Washington than accountability. Last month, the General Accounting Office, the 83-year-old investigative arm of Congress, changed its name to the Government Accountability Office. The move signals an intent to make federal agencies more accountable, said GAO head David Walker.

"As a strong advocate for truth and transparency in government operations, GAO is committed to ensuring that recent accountability failures, such as Enron and WorldCom, are not repeated in the public sector," he added.

Yet there have been no conspicuous firings or cutting of programs as a result of the new focus, say GAO spokesmen.

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