Cars, License Plates, and Accountability in Education

Around 118 years ago New York became the first state to require vehicles to have license plates. As history tells it, owners had to register with the state and their individual license plates included the initials of the owners. Get this, owners made their own license plates (like got creative, used what they had access to, and made their own license plate). The idea grew (providing access to cars vs. horses and providing additional rights to car owners), when neighboring Massachusetts decided to distribute their own license plates. This action helped regulate speed limits, access to roads, and freedom of choice in the type of travel one chose (car, horse, etc.).

Side note: my grandfather was about ten years old when this all started happening.

By the mid 1920s states required annual registration of cars. While there was no federal mandate, by the 1950s professional trade organizations mediated agreement on a standard size of license plates that was shared through the United States and Canada. Over the last twenty years we stopped producing license plates and started renewing stickers (and a grateful landfill full of old license plates thanks you).

Funds collected from car registrations fund state level agencies, the upkeep of roads, and provide oversight of rules and regulations regarding cars. In essence, a license plate is the state’s way of saying, “You are using our roads, we will hold you accountable for registering your vehicle and keeping up with expectations that are required to achieve registration, and we will continue to provide access to roads.”

But here’s the thing, when the entire idea of license plates came into play it was never about making sure everyone used the same gas, used cars with only certain levels of performance, and it was never about standardizing services to roads. It was about equitable access, it was about connecting user accountability to publicly provided services.

Now let’s think about the license plate and compare that to accountability in education.

Why? Because when accountability started taking shape in education it was supposed to be like a license plate. You use the services, you contribute to the services, and we ensure a certain level of quality.

That doesn’t sound bad, right?

But we have let accountability get a little out of control. In terms of policy and in terms of our response. Instead of thinking about educational accountability as being a license plate (but for schools receiving public funds) we have allowed accountability to become the car, the gas, the license plate, and the road.

The downfall is quite simple: our response to accountability has done little to empower and ensure. Rather, our response has created overly complex, overly standardized, and ultimately ineffective federal and state systems.

We have allowed car ownership to be informed by science. We have allowed flexibility in the marketplace to meet unique needs.

What we have done in education is the exact opposite. We have locked down our systems in such a way that student needs aren’t met. We have inappropriately adapted our systems and expectations to use outcomes that work (at times) against what we know about learning, cognition, and human development.

So think about this. If we make a accountability like the license plate, would we be able to demonstrate access to quality and upkeep and at the same time use the knowledge we have to adapt our educational systems to meet the needs of students? If we try it, it may just work.

Check out our Spark video that gets the basic point across here.