Friday, August 1, 2014

Accountability vs. Responsibility

Folks keep demanding accountability in education. I'm pretty sure what we want is responsibility. We often use the terms as if they're interchangeable, but they aren't.

Accountability is about giving an accounting, reporting, proving to someone that you have done what they require of you, and proving it in the manner of their choosing. Responsibility is about having a duty, a personal requirement to deal with something.

When I take responsibility, it's a choice I make, and I answer first and foremost to myself. When I am held accountable, I'm held by someone else, and I answer first and foremost to them.

When I am responsible for something, it is my problem. I own it. When I am accountable, I am taking care of somebody else's problem. They own it.

When I am responsible, I need to get things right. I define my success. When I am accountable, I need to present the proper appearance to match someone else's idea of success.

When I am responsible, I can make whatever adjustments and decisions I need to as the need arises. When I am accountable, I'm only safe when I run all changes, revisions, and adjustments past the person who really owns the task-- the person to whom I'm accountable.

I honor my responsibilities because they matter to me. I meet my responsibilities because I don't want to let people down, because I want to look myself in the mirror, because I want to think of myself as someone who does what's right. I meet my accountability requirements because if I don't, someone will punish me (and the greater the accountability, the more that punishment will hurt me).

Responsibility comes with power (and vice versa). Accountability comes with little power.

Responsibility is personal. Accountability is impersonal.

Responsibility requires you to call upon, nurture, exercise, and grow your own best personal qualities. Accountability requires you to repress anything that's not approved by those to whom you are accountable. Responsibility helps you become the best version of yourself. Accountability stunts and twists that growth.

The foundation of responsibility is relationships. I don't want to let people down because I have a relationship with them. I want to be able to look myself in the mirror because knowing who I am, and being okay with it, is fundamental to my relationship with everyone else. Accountability is anathema to relationship. When you hurt me, in order to "hold me accountable," that breaks the bridges between us. It's easier for both of us if we don't have any kind of relationship.

Because responsibility is built on relationship, it takes time to create and nourish it. Responsibility grows best in an atmosphere of respect and trust and support. Accountability is quick and simple. I don't even have to meet you to "hold you accountable." It's faster and easier and more readily scalable if you don't.

Accountability is what you impose when you don't have the time or patience to develop responsibility.

Responsibility is about doing the right thing. Accountability is about following orders correctly, going through the approved motions.

We know all this. Teachers and parents wrestle with this distinction all the time. We have our times when we are pushed into the accountability corner ("Just DO it-- or else!") and it never feels good. It feels like failure. It feels desperation. It feels like we've already lost.

We know that a student who is doing good work out of pride and joy of accomplishment is doing far better than one who's going through the motions because we threatened him with the punishment of losing points or losing recess. We know that there have to be consequences, but if we're all about consequences, our students are lost to us and we are down to a Hail Mary of quick fix desperation.

Accountability is just a fancy word for "These yahoos won't do anything right unless we threaten them with serious punishment for screwing up." If we hear a fellow teacher or administrator say that, we would not think, "Boy, that's the professional I want to be! That sounds like the road to success."

You don't have to be a teacher to know these things. Hell, there's actual science that says the same thing in fancier words. But we repeatedly hear calls for accountability. Yes, the tests aren't perfect, but how else will we hold states/schools/teachers accountable? Tenure is bad because it keeps us from holding teachers accountable. A quick, dirty google turns up 650K hits for "accountability in education."

Look, there are certainly things for which teachers and schools should be held accountable. But if we make accountability the be-all and end-all of the system, we will build a brutal, punishing system that crushes all the character traits we say we want. I like a little pepper on my hamburger, but that doesn't make it a good idea to craft an entire patty out of solid pepper. We can't throw out all accountability in education, but we cannot make it the foundation of the system, either. It will not bring out the best in our teachers, our schools, or our students.

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