Responsibility v. accountability

My original plan for this week’s writing (before wrestling with a proposal to deny spouses of teachers the right to vote) was to respond to Mike–a regular reader who recently asked:

What responsibility, specifically, do you believe an individual student, and by extension, their parents, have for that student’s learning outcomes? We agree that teachers bear a substantial burden here, but what’s the burden of the consumer of learning? What’s the burden of their parents? I know your style is to ask questions and let respondents hash it out, but I’d like to see a bit less of the Socratic method from you on this one as a number of your recent posts involve this and similar issues.

My response got sidetracked, Mike—but I’ll post one sometime in the next week.  In the meantime, I thought the delineation that Parry made between responsibility versus accountability to be really thoughtful—and indicative of many of my central beliefs about who is responsible for student learning.

Here’s what he wrote:

When I think in terms of the level of “responsibility” that a school has for student learning, I sometimes think in terms of a zero-sum game between school and parents, but maybe that’s too simplistic a formulation.

For example, let’s say that Child A fails most of his classes for the year—who’s responsible? One way to calculate the responsibility is to say that, well, Child A lived with a single parent, he never worked very hard, he missed a lot of days over the course of the year, his parent never helped him with his homework, and he never took advantage of after-school tutoring opportunities, so his failure is 75% his and his parent’s responsibility. On the other hand, his failure is only 25% the responsibility of his teacher and school, because they offered the opportunity for a good education; Child A just didn’t take advantage of that opportunity.

But I’m not sure a 100% partitioned, zero-sum conception of responsibility is either accurate or helpful. I also think that there is a difference between “responsibility” and “accountability”. Parents, communities, teachers, schools, and (to a certain extent, increasing with age) children are responsible for student learning, both in the sense that there is an obligation on the part of all of those parties to student learning, and in the sense that those parties all contribute to some extent to student learning (so “responsible” both as an obligation and as a contributing factor). But the school system (teachers, administrators, etc.) is accountable for student learning, in the sense that public school systems are created and publicly funded to produce student learning as a specific outcome.

I would say that parents are responsible (but not accountable) for helping their children learn, especially prior to Kindergarten and during off hours (after school, the weekend, holidays, summer, etc.). Once a child enters the public school system, schools are both responsible and accountable for student learning, and I think that this responsibility and accountability can be described irrespective of parents’ responsibility. Take Child A above: did his school do everything possible to head off his failure? Were early intervention systems in place to support him academically, was a guidance counselor or social worker brought in to address attendance issues, was transportation made available so that he could stay after school for tutoring, was a formative assessment system in place in the classroom to specifically identify areas of academic weakness, was the need for special education ruled out, etc.?

And, when a child fails and a school can honestly say to itself “We did everything we could for that student, and he failed despite all of our best efforts”, then the school has a further responsibility: to figure out, if an identical student were to attend the school the next year, what new systems, interventions, personnel, etc. could be put in place so that the same type of student would be successful the next time around. That is, schools and school personnel are responsible for continually learning and improving.

So, to be honest, I am not sure that a school’s level of responsibility or accountability depends upon students’ or parents’ level of responsibility. We are responsible and accountable for doing everything we possibly can to ensure student learning and, when failure occurs, to learn from that failure so that it does not occur again.