Accountability vs. responsibility in education

Jose-

Recently, one of the teachers I supervise did not live up to her responsibility to her students. I found myself faced with developing a plan to make sure that her students received the services they deserved. I had to do this because I am accountable for her actions and her students’ progress. The problem is, she is not the only teacher in the room. There are two co-teachers. I had to decide if I should develop a plan for both teachers or just the one who had not fulfilled her obligations to her students. I decided that even though the co-teacher was not responsible for her her co-worker’s actions she was accountable to the students assigned to that classroom. They both needed to be involved in the plan to serve the students.

Thankfully this decision seemed to be the right one.  The students have been served appropriately. If this hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have felt comfortable writing this post. I am writing this because I learned some important lessons from this experience.

I have been reading up on the subject in preparation for this post and there seem to be several perspectives on the two terms.

Lets consider the two terms from an etymological standpoint. From http://www.etymonline.com/

Accountable = “answerable,” lit. “liable to be called to account,” c.1400 (mid-14c. in Anglo-French); see account (v.) + -able. Related: Accountably.

Responsible = 1590s, “answerable (to another, for something),” from French responsible, from Latin responsus, pp. of respondere “to respond” (see respond). Meaning “morally accountable for one’s actions” is attested from 1836. Retains the sense of “obligation” in the Latin root word.

I think one of the issues we face in education is messiness in the application of these terms in our policies and our practice. Teachers are responsible to thier students but are held acountable for their actions. Leadership in turn may see a teacher faultering in accountability as not taking responsibility (i.e. accepting moral accountability for one’s actions). I don’t necessarily think this is the case. Some teachers don’t feel a sense of “moral accountability” for their students’ test scores. They feel a sense of “moral accountability” for their students lives. Being held “morally accountable” is not the same as being “answerable” for student test scores. This perspective would mean a teacher would be able to explain why students living in poverty are not at the same benchmark level on common core assessments as other more affluent students.

There is also a sense that people can be accountable for situations where they have influence but are responsible  when outcomes are result of one’s actions. As happened with my situation one teacher was accountable and responsible while the other was merely accountable and could influence the situation through teamwork and support for the teacher who struggled with the obligation.

As I think we have seen in recent events, teachers know they are responsible for the students they teach. They will and have laid down their lives for their students. Most of the teachers I know would make that ultimate sacrifice if a situation demanded it. This type of responsibility pales in comparison to the calls for accountability we have heard for so many years. As we create a new accountability system to determine progress on the common core it is a great time to consider where respnsibility and accountability really apply. Who is “morally accountable” for student progress? Mostly it comes down to teachers, parents, and students. But, when we ask who should be accountable is it the teacher, the principal, the school system, the funding proces, or a society for allowing persistent poverty. Who should have to answer for this?

Image: http://leadinganswers.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/2007/12/13/team_responsibility_2.jpg

Related categories: