Disclaimer: The tentative conclusions found herein are not what I initially intended, hence tentative. As I wrote, my ruminations took me in an unexpected direction. I hope readers will add sense to what may be nonsense, after all.
Whatever happened to the word “responsibility”, a respectable and honorable word IMHO? How did it get lost and morph into “accountability”, the word du jour of Rhee-formers and their ilk?
At a recent meeting of teachers and teacher educators, I decided to embark on a personal campaign to revive this word because I haven’t heard many people use it lately, including myself. And, when I first started using it again I felt like I was swearing. Don’t ask me how or why but it’s one of those subtle things we learn as a member of society – some words are OK to use in public and some are not. Kids learn this early on and sometimes confuse inappropriate, hurtful words with swear words, such as “stupid”. Whenever I read this word in a read aloud the oohs and ahs are plaintive and audible.
But, I digress…back to responsibility…this noble word is being replaced by “accountability”, as in, “the classroom teacher is accountable for her students’ achievement”, and it is mostly “her”, which is another interesting phenomenon that demands further exploration in the contemporary discourse to de-value teachers’ work and lives.
According to dictionary.com, accountable means 1. subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable, and 2. capable of being explained; explicable; explainable. Uggh! “Subject to…obligation to report“. Need I say more? Isn’t this what is happening in schools and classrooms all across the world? Teachers are being obligated (to be forced to do something never results in anything positive) to explain student progress and are subjected to public humiliation by the media through the publication of student scores, rankings, and the new popular technique of blaming all of the world’s problems on teachers. Recently, I read that teachers and public education are a “threat to national security“.
What prompted me to write this post is the high stakes climate surrounding accountability. I have no problems with “reporting” and “justifying” to those to whom this matters most: families and students. I am morally accountable to my students and their families to describe and explain a child’s learning. This responsibility needs to be shared with parents and students, as well. I want my students to be able to describe and explain their own learning because of their insights about what matters; how they see themselves as learners in my classroom is important data. I also want my students’ families to have a voice in these conversations. When we talk about accountability in this way, I have no problems with using this word and living it every day in my classroom; I already do. However, that is not what is currently in vogue in pseudo-educational circles. Instead, there is the sense that teachers need to be put into straight jackets in order to be held accountable. If someone isn’t watching and monitoring what we’re doing day in and day out, then we won’t do our job. It is a matter of trust or the lack of it. What people who espouse this view don’t get is that for many teachers, what we do is not a “job” but a calling. Teaching is our life’s work. Teaching is what defines us in and out of the classroom. I am a teacher in every aspect of my life, and not only on my neighbourhood playground. It is this noble characteristic of the teaching profession that I want to reclaim for myself and other educators.
I am not a technician. I am a professional. I refuse any attempt to define me as less than this. Unfortunately, the current micro managing that is rampant in many schools rejects seeing me as a professional and a human being. But, it’s time we took back our classrooms, our schools, and our profession. Even though I currently live in Canada, I am not immune to the negative (global) perception of teachers’ work.
Now, on to “responsible”. Responsible is defined as 1. answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control, or management (often followed by to or for ): He is responsible to the president for his decisions; 2. involving accountability or responsibility: a responsible position; 3. chargeable with being the author, cause, or occasion of something (usually followed by for ): Termites were responsible for the damage; 4. having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action: The defendant is not responsible for his actions; 5. able to discharge obligations or pay debts.
So, there is a subtle difference in tone between the two words but it’s really a matter of semantics because when we dig deeper we realize that it is a good thing to be both accountable and responsible and that both complement each other well. So, it is the mis-use of these terms that has the teaching profession standing on its head trying to do something that it was never meant to do, if we consider that teaching and learning are about human beings and not automatons: quantify learning, i.e. achievement, as the ultimate measure of anyone’s worth.
Yet and still, accountability has become a dirty word for me. It didn’t used to be. I like being accountable. I like knowing that others depend on me to follow through on my commitments or promises. I like feeling responsible and knowing that I am having an impact, that what I do matters. Responsibility is a big deal. It’s not to be taken lightly. It’s what I feel every day that I’m with my students, and even when I’m not. But, I think it’s time we reclaimed accountability and responsibility as two words worthy of our profession by using them appropriately (remember stupid?) and in the context of the important work we do as educators.
What do you think?
Posted to the weekly Slice of Life challenge at Two Writing Teachers.
7 thoughts on “Accountability vs. Responsibility”
I understand what you say. It makes sense. For me a lot of it comes down to the question of trust. Would teachers stop caring and teaching and informing if there was no heavy testing and thorough reporting?
Wow Elisa. Your thoughts helped me sort through many of the things I've been thinking about recently. I appreciate the way you think about accountability and responsibility as a pair. And, yes, I like be accountable, too…yet it has become a dirty word. I appreciate your reflective nature and your willingness to share your thinking with us.
I agree with much of what you said. I see our “society” definitely moving away from people taking responsibility for actions…heck look at our politicians! Some very good words/ideas to ponder..thanks
Exactly! Obviously, the answer to your question is no.
And that's one of the reasons why it's so important to include teachers as full-fledged participants in any conversation that impacts what happens in the classroom. In fact, teachers should be leading these conversations and doing the inviting. Who would you invite if you to a conversation about how to improve public education?
Thanks for your comments, Ruth. I didn't think my post would end up where it did. I just goes to show you that many of us are on the same page.
Yes, it is about everyone taking “responsibility” and doing something about it. Without that we would constantly be blaming everyone else and few problems would get resolved.
I can relate to a lot of what you are saying. It's sad when high-stakes testing puts pressure on teachers to speak and act a particular way (ahem, scripted lessons) for fear of being reprimanded or losing their jobs. I've recently heard of a lot of educators who are quitting because they can no longer teach the way they want to or know to be in the best interest of the kids.