Tuesday, September 28, 2010


One does not go far in the world of education today without tripping over the word accountability. In the past four or so years, the word has gone from barely existing on the edges of my known vocabulary to staring me in the face nearly every day. I come across it on the radio, in the news, at staff meetings and committee meetings, in education books and articles, on Facebook, in blogs, at lectures – anyone who is talking or thinking about education is talking and thinking about accountability.

It is a word that is bandied about so commonly, in fact, that its meaning is rarely explored. If I could figure out how to do so politely, I would make it a practice to stop anyone I hear using that word. “What do you mean by ‘accountability?’ I would ask. If they answered with something nondescript, such as, “It means we make sure teachers do their jobs,” I would try to dig deeper. What does it look like? What do you want to see? How would we be able to tell if we had achieved “accountability?”

I think a lot about this word, and wish I could interrupt everyone from Arne Duncan to my colleagues when they use it, because I am unconvinced of its helpfulness. Its value seems questionable firstly because of its unspecified and imprecise meaning, and secondly because it is generally used with a vague (or at times quite pointed) sense of blaming teachers for… you name it: the achievement gap, poor attendance, low test scores, bullying in schools – I could go on and on.

Disclaimer: I am not opposed to having high expectations for teachers. I think creating, developing, and retaining good teachers is the most important thing we can do for education, and I think we ought to “find bad teachers another line of work” (as John McCain once wisely said). I also think most of our policies, rhetoric, and money are not invested in teacher development, and it is often easier to decry bad teachers than it is to start fixing problems.

The dictionary definition of accountable is “responsible to somebody else or to others, or responsible for something.” This doesn’t sound too bad; teachers, and all of us, are accountable for our work. A list of synonyms, however, includes words like “answerable,” “liable,” “held responsible,” and “blamed.” It is a word that, if placed on a continuum that stretched from negative to positive connotations, would certainly lean toward disapproving.

What is it that people want when they talk about accountability? They don’t usually explain. But the feeling I often get is that they want to punish teachers (or to fire us). They want to catch us not doing a good job, or saying we’ll do one thing and then doing another. They want to prove we are purposefully hiding our deficits. They want to ferret out all those happy-go-lucky teachers who leave school at 2 pm to plan their summer vacations, and make them pay. A sense of culpability and negligence haunts the word.

If I had my way, I would temporarily banish the word so that we could talk about what we really want. Once we came up with an effective, useful definition, I might start to bring accountability back into the conversation, under the guise of a new meaning. But not until then.

What do I think we might, in a better world, mean by accountability? I think we might mean that we want to be able to connect good teaching to good learning: to figure out the best ways to teach all kinds of students, to share those practices, and to see more learning as a result.

If we are talking about responsibility, a nicer way to say it might be that we want teachers to honor their commitments. (This is how I like to word it when proposing norms to a group I am leading: We will honor our commitments to the group by coming on time, prepared for the task ahead.) This seems somewhat like common sense; in all careers, in all lines of work, people are asked to do what they say they will do. And in most arenas, when people are doing something very complicated or very hard, they get help. Experienced practitioners mentor them; supervisors guide them; peers collaborate and puzzle and struggle with them. If what we want when we talk about accountability is for teachers to do good work, then perhaps we need more of these kinds of partnerships.

The ability to improve teaching and learning lies in the hands of teachers. The pundits, politicians, and policy-makers who speak of “accountability" are wise to acknowledge our expertise and capacity. There are many, many barriers that stand between us and higher achievement. And there are countless specific ways for us to begin to break down those barriers, starting with a spirit of collaboration and collegiality. The time for rhetoric and placing blame has passed. Let’s hold each other accountable for moving forward.

Coming next week: Musings on the word “data”

1 comment:

  1. I think you *should* ask people what they mean when they say "accountability." This post was interesting to me because I am usually thinking about "accountability" for BPS management, not the teachers! When I think of accountability for them, I think, "Did you start doing the things you said you would do last year? How's that going? Did you spend money in a way that lines up with your highest priorities? What did it get you? How are you setting right past mistakes? How are you building trust?"