The trouble with Accountability

(I originally sat down to write a post about the hockey playoff game I went to last night, but somehow got distracted looking for my pen, found some old notes, and opened up this can of worms…)

I was at a conference recently, where a doctoral candidate defined accountability as a spectrum with blame at one end and empathy at the other.  Then she quickly moved on to something else.  But it had struck me.  I drew it in my notepad.  It was simple, and yet paradigmatic. I was totally into it.

IMG_0242I came across those notes just now and couldn’t make the pieces fit, so I really started thinking about accountability.  Maybe that spectrum was too simplistic for what I was trying to work out.  Accountability has been a word that, in regards to education, has been championed by some and abhorred by others; three words and a line on a piece of paper wasn’t really cutting it for me (or maybe I had just taken horrible notes…). In any case, I was glad it prompted this inquiry.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines it as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”  The more I thought about it, I kept getting hung up on the difference between being accountable for someone or something and being accountable to someone or something.  Even the dictionary definition has two sides to it –taking responsibility and having to account for, seem to be two very different things to me.

The former, to me, implies an obligation towards someone or something; in the case of my profession, towards my students and their learning.  Whereas the latter implies proving that what I am doing is working, which is also important in my classroom.  But here’s the thing: it is important to me so that I can ensure that my students are learning, adjust my teaching when necessary and give timely feedback so that my students can see their progress and reflect on their growth.  But what I see happening is it being used to measure both me and my students in a way that not only narrows what we are doing and learning, but is creating an atmosphere that devalues innovation and creates a culture of competition and even fear.

I came across a Kettering Foundation study by Jean Johnson focusing on the gaps between how leaders define accountability and how parents define it.  Parents seem to define accountability more along the lines of responsibility –holding parents, students, surrounding communities and schools equally responsible for what is happening in schools.  Leaders, on the other hand, have a more pragmatic definition –focused more acutely on the schools, their employees, and their outcomes.

So then I started thinking, do these varying definitions and perceptions of what accountability means become an enabling factor for entities to claim that they are using accountability to show effectiveness, when in actuality their goal is to point out ineffectiveness?

That might not be such a problem, if I, like so many others, weren’t so convinced that there has been an attempt to skew public perception of the American education system in a negative direction…but who could blame me (or anyone else) when the same Kettering Foundation study cited this gallup poll, which states that “nearly 8 in 10 [Americans] say they are “extremely” or “very concerned” about the number of students who don’t graduate from high school,” which is up from less than half who said the same in the seventies.  This is despite the fact that the other day I read this article from the Washington Post stating that the high school graduation rate is the highest it has been since the seventies… Did 30% of the American public become that much more cynical, or are there some hidden forces that are at least partially behind this sway in public opinion?

Then there is the whole other side of the accountability coin.  It has to do with who the people making the decisions are accountable to.  I would love to think that politicians are only accountable to the public, but we all know that is not one hundred percent true, otherwise there would be no such thing as lobbying.  So then you add the fact of the blurring divisions between public education and private entities, who are founded by and beholden to their own set of stakeholders, and this question arises: Are those institutions accountable to their investors and shareholders, or the students they are claiming to serve?  Also, if they are driving some of the educational reform, who is that accountable to –the private companies or the public?

Some fodder for further research I guess. In the meantime, I tried to redraw it, but only got to this and then wished I had just stuck to the hockey post…there’s always tomorrow.

IMG_0245In the meantime, I’d welcome comments to further my thinking on this.


About christine mccartney

I am a teacher, a wife, a proud aunt, a dog rescuer, a person who has been rescued by my rescued dogs, a hiker, a four time (phew!) cancer survivor, a runner, a tattoo addict, a vegetarian, an advocate, a friend and a happy traveller. Enjoy!
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7 Responses to The trouble with Accountability

  1. Mary Sawyer says:

    Your post made me think of Peter Johnston’s book, Knowing Literacy: Constructive Literacy Assessment. In this book he makes a distinction between teachers “being held accountable” vs “being responsible.” When teachers are agents, the discourse is that they “are responsible.” A teacher who is responsible is more likely to react with empathy to a student and work to uncover and make sense of a student’s performance. A teacher who is “held accountable” is more likely to react with defensiveness and blame. In an article called “Principles for literacy Assessment” Johnston and Costello write that “assessment discourses distribute and sustain power relationships” and that the “normative discourse of testing provides a powerful tool for asserting symbolic domination and intimidation of students, teachers, and parents.” I recommend this article!

  2. Barb Laird says:

    Perhaps it will help to think of your line as balancing on a pivot, like a see-saw. The pivot may slide from one end to the other, depending on the bulk of responsibilty of the person who is “accountable.” People with greater responsibilty will have the pivot point closer to one end than the other. Our young students will push the pivot closer to the opposite end. I am just stuck as to which end is which.

  3. Camille says:

    Truly you are a researcher at heart. You pose some interesting questions. Perhaps true accountability is driven by desire rather than by force. The same is true with students.

  4. William Riepe says:

    Hello Christine: I really enjoy your emails, especially the way you tell the stories. You have a knack for making things more exciting than they actually may be. Your account of the visit to the rock museum made it seem like “romancing the stone”, so you have a talent in that direction. Maybe you may explore writing novels or,at least, write a brochure for the rock museum. Love, Uncle Bill

  5. Richard DiNardo says:

    Accountability is an interesting issue, and how it is defined can depend upon the level at which you teach. As someone who teaches military professionals (the majors I teach on average have over a decade of service under their belts), I am accountable to them in the sense that if I and my colleagues do our jobs poorly, they will not leave the college as the kind of officers the services need as staff planners or commanders. That can result in people losing their lives; thus we take our responsibilities very seriously. I am also accountable to the Director of the College for my performance, in that I work on renewable contract. The college as a whole is accountable to the Joint Staff, which sets the parameters by which our curriculum is developed. Finally, the students are accounatble to the faculty for their assignments and other work. Accounability works best when it applies in more than one direction.

    • Katie says:

      Richard, I think you are spot on about working best when applied in more than one direction! I hadn’t thought about it quite like that before…

  6. Liz Brocker says:

    I totally agree with you regarding the dilemma in the definition. I know, my students know, probably their parents know that I, or most teachers, am/are accountable for what and how I/ they teach each and every one of them. Politicians now demand that I, and other teachers, account for every bit of data collected and effort made in being accountable for what I teach. I feel that there are not enough hours in the day to provide the data that may reveal that I can, or should, be accountable for whether students have mastered the skills needed to proceed to the next grade. And what if they are not ready? On whom does that reflect? Me. Why then would I indicate failure in regards to my teaching skills? Did anyone truly reflect on whether students were ‘ready’ for the demands of 9th grade? Do I set my colleagues up to fail if I ‘pass’ students who aren’t ready for 10th grade? Yes, I do and I won’t.

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