Catch-22 and the Paradox of Teaching in the Age of Accountability

  • Christopher Leahey Syracuse University (adjunct)
Keywords: Standards-Based Education Reform, Education Reform, Market-Based Initiatives, Performativity, Neoliberalism, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Teacher Evaluation, Bureaucracy, Catch-22, Accountability


Drawing upon Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, this paper explores the logic of standards-based education reform and the myriad ways in which accountability systems, performance standards, and market-based reform initiatives have degraded teaching and learning in public schools.  In this critical analysis of essential elements of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top fund, the author explores three dominant themes woven throughout Heller’s work: (1) the reliance on symbolic indicators of progress, (2) the irrational nature and deadening effect of bureaucratic rules and procedures, and (3) the dangers of unchecked capitalism.  The author suggests that these reform efforts are not only counterproductive, but eroding the democratic foundations of our public school systems.  The author concludes that to maintain their autonomy and professionalism, teachers will have to find alternative ways of organizing and produce a counter narrative that not only exposes the failings of standards-based reform but also offers meaningful alternatives.