January 12, 2009

Two Meanings of Accountability

About a month ago, I was discussing accountability with a group of fellow teachers. Tonight, I was discussing accountability with a group of business leaders. I discovered that the word "accountability" has two completely opposite meanings.

Accountability according to educators

Our job as professional educators is to make sure every child is succeeding in our classes. We are supposed to give them every chance in the world to be successful. Leave no child behind.

Obviously, this is difficult for several reasons. Some students are smarter than others; some don't speak English; and some just don't care. If we give a student an assignment, and he just doesn't care, and he doesn't do the assignment, what should we as teachers do? Since our job is to make sure every student succeeds, the argument goes, we need to work with him until he does finish the assignment. We need to find out why he's not doing the assignment, and try to convince him to do it, with sticks and carrots if necessary. We should stand over his shoulder and make sure he's on task. If he fails to turn in an assignment by the required deadline, we should give him another chance.

This is accountability. Teachers are responsible for making sure their students learn. It would be easy for us to ignore this responsibility and put the responsibility for learning on the student, but according to my teacher-mentor (and I quote), "we are held to a higher standard. It is our job to make sure EVERYONE is learning."

Accountability according to business leaders

Today, I attended a consortium of Career and Technical Educators and business leaders. The business representatives had a chance to look at our curricula and give us feedback. We learned what skills employers are most looking for from new graduates. Accountability was a skill that kept coming up.

Employees need to have a sense of accountability, they said. They need to show up on time, work productively, take responsibility for their own actions, stay current in their industry knowledge, and manage their own careers. If they fail to do these things, they get fired. It's the employee's own responsibility to make sure she is successful. It's not the employer's responsibility to make sure that the employee is successful. If the employee isn't meeting her responsibilities, she won't have a job for very long.

The business leaders said that the new graduates they hire do not have a very strong sense of accountability. They are quick to make excuses and expect their employer to look out for them.

What about your own teaching?

My sense of accountability aligns more closely with the second definition than with the first. I am not the type of teacher who is always harping on students to stay on task, but I am the type of teacher who will easily fail a student on an assignment if she decides not to do it. I follow the logical consequences school of classroom management.

This approach works great for me. You may prefer a different style. But we should all be deliberate about what we mean by "accountability". Of course the teacher is responsible for making sure students learn. But that should not absolve students from their own responsibilities. As with so many things, there is no clear black-and-white solution to this, just one big grey area.

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