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.

Image retrieved from on August 26, 2007

8 thoughts on “Responsibility v. Accountability

  1. Miami Air Conditioning

    i think that the ONLY responsable is the kid, because, the parents give him money, and a chance to go to school… but the kid is the only one who has to study, noy even the school, because the school gives all the opportunity.

  2. david mcclellan

    Since public schooling is mandatory, the government bears the full responsibility, 100%, for student’s learning. If schooling was voluntary, students would bear the entire responsibility. Ideally, in either case, students should bear the entire responsibility since they are able to choose whether or not they want to learn. You can drive or lead a horse to water…
    In a school that is provided for voluntary use, the only responsibility that a teacher owes to students is to introduce them to what parents want their children to be taught along with what the teacher believes is important; to point to way. Parents bear the responsibility of inspiring their children to want to learn what parents want them to learn and teachers may help with this but cannot ethically be held accountable for a student not being interested.
    The current day effort to place virtually all responsibility on teachers not only is unethical but does not make good sense.
    Authentic education lies with student desire to learn and with parents to help their children see the importance so that they are inspired to learn. This is the way to develop an intrinsic desire to learn no matter if one has a teacher or not and that can only be stopped by death.

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  4. Donny

    Lost in this debate is an assumption that all school accountability and responsibility rest on the teacher. Government holds school administrators fully accountable for their schools’ results, but administrators pass on that accountability fully on to the teachers. Teachers are held 100% responsible for the success of the students placed in their classes, with no regard for whether the students are properly placed in the class (have they mastered any of the prerequisite knowledge?) or whether there are adequate resources including counseling (or are teachers required to be psychiatrists, guidance counselors, and drug counselors, too?). We’ve blurred this line between administrative and teacher accountability so long that it has become acceptable for administrators to place all blame on teachers and thereby release any burden from themselves and their support services staff.

  5. Bob

    Kudos, Marsha! Clearly stated, and you make sense. It’s a traditional midwestern view. You have asserted a position I grew up with (so did most families, regardless of SES, etc.), used with my own family, tried to use while teaching, and encouraged parents of students in my classes to use also. My wife used to tell our children, and now tells our grandchildren that we will help you learn our ways. We’ll help you go to school to learn what others know and their ways. We found our children learned most with teachers who understood this position. Thankfully, a few of our grandchildren’s teachers also understand it. In these ways our family all know how to learn independently and cooperatively while giving priority to academics available in and out of school. Does anyone do anything differently, really?

  6. Marsha

    Bill, I just had to weigh in on this one. I think mostly because I feel like I speak out of both sides of my mouth.
    As a mom and a single parent, I never thought it was the school’s responsibility to ensure my children’s education. That’s my domain and no one is going to take it away…and I set the standards I believed were important for my kids. All of them were public school kids and we were fortunate to have many, many great teachers along the way…which made my job very easy. But when we had a not-so-good teacher, I made sure that they learned what they should have learned that year. Sometimes that meant I had to work an extra job so I could get a chemistry tutor for my kids or that I had to teach them about editing their writing…sometimes it was as simple as making sure they had their flashcards all memorized or that they practiced their 15 minutes a night on the instrument. Sometimes it was as simple as making them take coursework in high school that “no one else’s mom is making them take” or getting them to the multitude of rehearsals, practices, debate tournaments, and shows.
    But, as a teacher, I think I’m responsible for the student learning in my classroom. I consider each student “on loan” to me for that year from their folks and that I am heavily burdened by that responsibility. I hope and work towards a partnership with each child’s homebase, if they have one, because clearly it pays off the biggest dividends. If nothing is forthcoming from home, I take them from right there and work to find ways to compensate. Maybe it’s before school tutoring or Wednesday night Homework Club or Lunch Bunch….but all things are possible.
    Accountability. I feel like I am THE ONE that is accountable for my children’s upbringing and education. I had lots of help from my schools, the churches, and the community…but ultimately it comes to rest on my doorstep. And I feel the same way about my students. I am accountable for what they did or didn’t learn.
    I know you can’t believe that both are responsible and accountable….but I do. Just in different ways.

  7. Mike

    Dear Parry and Bill:
    “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,” saith Parry.
    I agree that schools/teachers and parents/children have their own burdens of responsibility and accountability. My primary concern regarding this issue is with educrats, bureaucrats, legislators, pundits, even teachers who so blithly state or imply (even by omission) that total responsibility for individual student “outcomes”–learning for those of us who prefer English to eduspeak–rests with the schools/teachers. The logical extension of that way of thinking is destructive in many ways.
    It is destructive in terms of curriculum because if the only variable in “outcome” and accountability is the schools, which essentially means teachers, then part of the solution to whatever problem one thinks might exist is to strictly regulate and monitor teachers and the curriculum, preferably on the highest level of government possible. Why the highest level of government possible? Those sharing this mindset see local schools and governments as inherently untrustworthy and incompetent, and surely not nearly as enlightened as those espousing such high minded ideals. What was it the Beltway elite said about airport screening personnel? The only way to professionalize is to federalize? Right. How’s that been working so far?
    The primary curriculum tool, and the ultimate focus of any curriculum, of course, must be mandatory, high stakes testing. These tests produce substantial data, and allow comparisons, though that data, from school to school and state to state. An important consideration if you’re an inside the Beltway type. The data even allow us to judge the effectiveness of teachers, as long as we care primarily, perhaps even only, about those test scores.
    This is so because this line of thinking and all that flows from it has as its ultimate purpose the solution of political, not educational problems. When Mrs. Smith is able to increase Johnny’s reading level from 4th grade to 8th grade in one year it is a substantial accomplishment for Johnny, his parents, his teacher and his community, but has no impact whatever in the federal Department of Education. It means little more to the state DOE. Test scores will eventually go up in most places, the natural consequence of focusing much of your educational effort on passing the tests, thus alllowing the politicians to posture, lauding their great vision and success in foisting their policies on the public in the first place and demonstrating the great wisdom of continuing, even expanding their policies and the bureaucracies that implement and oversee them.
    We see few or no demands for student acheivement and parental involvement in education from politicians (except that it be accomplished by teachers), and certainly nothing in NCLB and similar legislation, nor should we expect to see it. These people and laws are political animals and as such, are concerned with power, control, the establish of bureaucracies and the growth and maintenance of those bureaucracies. Johnny figures not at all in their thinking or planning except in the abstract. It is easy, and bears little or no political cost, to demand that teachers accomplish the impossible. Demand the same of parents and their offspring and there would be immediate and severe political consequences for no other reason than the number of teachers is small while the numbers of students and parents is vast across all demographic groups.
    Think I’m exaggerating? Impose two laws: (1) Teacher’s whose classes do not score at least 75% on mandatory tests may be fired. (2) Parents whose children fail three or more classes in a given year may be fined. Which would have the greatest chance of staying on the books? Which would be embraced by politicians?
    That said, it is clearly the responsibility, the obligation, of any teacher to provide the best educational opportunity their circumstances allow. More experienced teachers will do better than first year teachers, talented teachers will do better than those without talent and teachers as a whole will do better in schools who are more concerned with supplying classroom teachers than the varsity football team. Utimately, teachers may be reasonably and morally held accountable for their dedication and success in providing that educational opportunity. This is best judged by competent professionals in that teacher’s school.
    Parents/students are responsible for taking full and consistent advantage of the educational opportunity provided for them. If Johnny chooses to do only 25% of his assignments, misses 1/3 of the school year, or merely chooses not to live up to his potential despite the encouragement of his teachers and others in his school, who is accountable? Those who had the responsibility and who were in a position to exercise that responsibility? That is certainly not Johnny’s teachers.
    If Johnny fails, if he doesn’t pass the high stakes test, do we assume the teacher is at fault? Do we sanction that teacher? That might be a reasonable assumption by Beltway standards, but in the real world, where there is real, daily accountability, the fact that a dedicated teacher improved Johnny’s reading level dramatically in a single year means a great deal. To those who buy into the idea that everything is the teacher’s responsibility and fault, it would never be known and it means nothing at all, for there is no political benefit in it.
    So while I agree with Parry, what remains essentially unaddressed, here and elsewhere, is the demand that parents act like parents, and that students do their part to learn. Learning, after all cannot be downloaded, but acheived only through consistent, dedicated effort and practice. Teachers can provide that opportunity and guidance, they cannot do the learning for the students, nor can they act as the student’s parent.
    Schools do indeed exist to produce student learning as an outcome, but the public understands human nature well enough to know that learning cannot be imposed. The opportunity can be provided, and it is up to each student and their parents to ensure that the opportunity is seized. The “outcome” depends at least as much on how much effort the student is willing to expend as how much effort is expended by the teacher. I remain amazed that so many are unwilling to recognize or acknowledge this simple fact.

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