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Education in the Media, Philosophical Meanderings

Accountability vs. Responsibility

The following post has been cross posted from my teacher blog, A Teacher’s Ruminations.

Disclaimer:  The tentative conclusions found herein are not what I initially intended, hence tentative.  As I wrote, my ruminations took me in an unexpected direction.  I hope readers will add sense to what may be nonsense, after all.

Whatever happened to the word “responsibility”, a respectable and honorable word IMHO?  How did it get lost and morph into “accountability”, the word du jour of Rhee-formers and their ilk?

At a recent meeting of teachers and teacher educators, I decided to embark on a personal campaign to revive this word because I haven’t heard many people use it lately, including myself.  And, when I first started using it again I felt like I was swearing.  Don’t ask me how or why but it’s one of those subtle things we learn as a member of society – some words are OK to use in public and some are not.  Kids learn this early on and sometimes confuse inappropriate, hurtful words with swear words, such as “stupid”.  Whenever I read this word in a read aloud the oohs and ahs are plaintive and audible.

But, I digress…back to responsibility…this noble word is being replaced by “accountability”, as in, “the classroom teacher is accountable for her students’ achievement”, and it is mostly “her”, which is another interesting phenomenon that demands further exploration in the contemporary discourse to de-value teachers’ work and lives.

According to, accountable means 1. subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable, and 2. capable of being explained; explicable; explainable.  Uggh!  “Subject to…obligation to report“.  Need I say more?  Isn’t this what is happening in schools and classrooms all across the world?  Teachers are being obligated (to be forced to do something never results in anything positive) to explain student progress and are subjected to public humiliation by the media through the publication of student scores, rankings, and the new popular technique of blaming all of the world’s problems on teachers.  Recently, I read that teachers and public education are a “threat to national security“.

What prompted me to write this post is the high stakes climate surrounding accountability.  I have no problems with “reporting” and “justifying” to those to whom this matters most:  families and students.  I am morally accountable to my students and their families to describe and explain a child’s learning.  This responsibility needs to be shared with parents and students, as well.  I want my students to be able to describe and explain their own learning because of their insights about what matters; how they see themselves as learners in my classroom is important data.  I also want my students’ families to have a voice in these conversations.  When we talk about accountability in this way, I have no problems with using this word and living it every day in my classroom; I already do.  However, that is not what is currently in vogue in pseudo-educational circles.  Instead, there is the sense that teachers need to be put into straight jackets in order to be held accountable.  If someone isn’t watching and monitoring what we’re doing day in and day out, then we won’t do our job.  It is a matter of trust or the lack of it.  What people who espouse this view don’t get is that for many teachers, what we do is not a “job” but a calling.  Teaching is our life’s work.  Teaching is what defines us in and out of the classroom.  I am a teacher in every aspect of my life, and not only on my neighbourhood playground.   It is this noble characteristic of the teaching profession that I want to reclaim for myself and other educators.

I am not a technician.  I am a professional.  I refuse any attempt to define me as less than this.  Unfortunately, the current micro managing that is rampant in many schools rejects seeing me as a professional and a human being.  But, it’s time we took back our classrooms, our schools, and our profession.  Even though I currently live in Canada, I am not immune to the negative (global) perception of teachers’ work.

Now, on to “responsible”.  Responsible is defined as 1. answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control, or management (often followed by to  or for ): He is responsible to the president for his decisions; 2. involving accountability or responsibility: a responsible position; 3. chargeable with being the author, cause, or occasion of something (usually followed by for ): Termites were responsible for the damage; 4. having a capacity for moral decisions and therefore accountable; capable of rational thought or action: The defendant is not responsible for his actions; 5. able to discharge obligations or pay debts.

So, there is a subtle difference in tone between the two words but it’s really a matter of semantics because when we dig deeper we realize that it is a good thing to be both accountable and responsible and that both complement each other well.  So, it is the mis-use of these terms that has the teaching profession standing on its head trying to do something that it was never meant to do, if we consider that teaching and learning are about human beings and not automatons: quantify learning, i.e. achievement, as the ultimate measure of anyone’s worth.

Yet and still, accountability has become a dirty word for me.  It didn’t used to be.  I like being accountable.  I like knowing that others depend on me to follow through on my commitments or promises.  I like feeling responsible and knowing that I am having an impact, that what I do matters.       Responsibility is a big deal.  It’s not to be taken lightly.  It’s what I feel every day that I’m with my students, and even when I’m not.  But, I think it’s time we reclaimed accountability and responsibility as two words worthy of our profession by using them appropriately (remember stupid?) and in the context of the important work we do as educators.

What do you think?


Also posted to the weekly Slice of Life challenge at Two Writing Teachers.

About Elisa Waingort

I am currently a grade 5 teacher in the Spanish bilingual program in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I have been teaching for more than 30 years in South and North America. I love working with kids and adults. I am a teacher who reads voraciously. I love adult, YA, MG and picture books equally. I am a proud teacher writer. Every day I look forward to the challenge of learning to be a better teacher and a better human. Join me.


16 thoughts on “Accountability vs. Responsibility

  1. For what? and To whom? are big questions.

    Primarily, I think we are accountable to – and responsible for – ourselves in making decisions and taking actions that align with our convictions about teaching and learning.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 1, 2012, 8:36 am
  2. Hi Chad,
    Yes, you’re right. The fact is that we are primarily accountable to ourselves. Until we recognize this we will be missing a critical piece of the puzzle. It is what keeps us honest and focused on what matters most. Thank you for that reminder.

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | May 1, 2012, 8:47 am
  3. Accountability is all about hierarchy, responsibility is something shared among equals. Nice post! Trust those instincts!

    Posted by Tim Kubik | May 1, 2012, 8:47 am
  4. I too like the considerations of subtle differences – even with the links between both within each definition.

    I would suggest it was / is the politicians that, perceiving / suggesting that educators were not RESPONSIBLE led to their demanding that educators be ACCOUNTABLE – in the interpretation you so nicely laid out in your commentary. Perception or fact is irrelevant in this case.

    I agree with Chad’s thought: Everyone should care most about being both responsible and accountable to ourself!

    Posted by John Bennett | May 1, 2012, 10:09 am
    • Hi John,
      Yes, and the politicians went beyond suggesting to affirming that educators were not responsible, thereby not to be trusted to do our job/calling, and therefore we needed to be held accountable through tests and other rankings. It has made a mockery of our profession but I think it is also causing people to wake up to this sham. At least, I hope so.

      Posted by Elisa Waingort | May 1, 2012, 1:59 pm
  5. I appreciate the comments you made about who you are morally responsible and accountable to, the families and students. It is great to hear someone else express that sentiment.
    Others who indicated this responsibility and accountability begin with us as individuals are equally accurate. The moral stance of accountability and responsibility to others does truly begin with us.
    Great words

    Posted by ivonprefontaine | May 1, 2012, 8:43 pm
  6. The posting and responses resonate. We are first accountable and responsible to our self and following this we become accountable and responsible to the families and students we serve. I really appreciated reading this posting. Thank you.

    Posted by ivonprefontaine | May 1, 2012, 8:46 pm
  7. Hello Elisa, I love the sense of this post, and it expresses a lot of where I am going around the work too: what are our fundamental moral commitments in this enterprise we call education, and in which it is nominally housed…in schools? (Although I think school is increasingly less a site of the educational enterprise.) When I am in classrooms, your fundamental precept:

    “I am morally accountable to my students and their families to describe and explain a child’s learning.”

    Is exactly what I think of, too. As a grown up, as an adult, if kids are impelled to come to this place called school, and to be in my presence, what is my responsibility to them as learners? Am I living that responsibility every day in a way I find morally credible?

    Where this gets complicated is that mostly we as a sector, as a profession, don’t talk about our work in moral terms. We have allowed ourselves to be co-opted by accountability, as opposed to seeing ourselves as responsible, thoughtful moral actors. Mostly moral questions are off the table, as your post points out. Are we frightened of the moral questions that surround our work? Why aren’t these discussions ever-present, at work in us and in meetings and conceptions of transformation?

    How could we bring these discussions to the center?

    With respect,


    PS I also love that you are willing to move away from “what you intended” to “where you ended up” in this post.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 2, 2012, 8:34 am
  8. Hi Kirsten,
    Isn’t it interesting that we perceive the work of educators to be morally and ethically directed, inclined and motivated? It is definitely what guides what I do and how I respond to challenging situations in the classroom. Your question about how we can move these discussions to front and center is critical. I think we need to bring them up whenever the opportunity presents itself even if it makes us vulnerable. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do – our students’ lives depend on it. Maybe this should be a thread on the Coop? We can invite guest bloggers to post on this issue or even set up a twitter campaign around it? What do you think?

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | May 2, 2012, 8:47 am
  9. Elisa, Kirsten, and all –

    I expect that there are many of us (yes, I put myself in the group) who are accountable to ourselves, feeling a strong responsibility to our students AND our profession. Really have to wonder whether it was the few “bad apples” that led to the current sorry state OR simply power-hungry politicians, lobbyists, or venture philanthropists grabbing all they can …

    But there appears there most likely is some good news. No one that I’ve asked or no article I’ve read that identify any mandate to teach to the test. So while the pressure associated with the use of standardardized test results is acknowledged, we in “the choir” need to stand together and grow the group dedicated to effective learning, comfortable that our students will do well on those standardized tests – which we will likely never get to disappear.

    Posted by John Bennett | May 2, 2012, 10:50 am
  10. Elisa, Great post! I’ve been thinking the same thing for some time. Back in January I was reading a review of a new book by Henry Giroux called, “Education and the Crisis of Public Values: Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students, and Public Education.”

    I’ve read Giroux before, and know his preaching of Critical Pedagogy as one of the more approachable brands of Postmodern philosophy. But this review, which you’ll find on the Teachers College Record website, was revealing in its description of Giroux’s work and the charge he issues to teachers, which seems more like what I thought I was supposed to do as a teacher than what seems to pass for teaching these days: “Public intellectual,” “Citizen Scholar”… Damn straight!!!! Otherwise what kind of a role model am I? Just a pencil pusher, desk straightener, paper grader, inanimate conduit for lessons with “relevant” purposes so that I can be held accountable to someone other than myself whose motivations I truly do not know. Shakespeare harkens…Oh, Polonious! “To thine own self be true.” Truthfully, there is only one person to whom we ought to be accountable, and that is ourselves. Kristin rightfully points that out in her post. We wouldn’t need external accountability for teachers if we all believed in ourselves, our abilities, and our task so deeply that we would never sell ourselves or our students short in the name of a test, a paycheck, or the end of a day.

    Posted by Garreth Heidt | May 6, 2012, 7:32 pm
    • And, of course, I forgot to mention that Chad had also mentioned the need to hold ourselves accountable.

      Posted by Garreth Heidt | May 6, 2012, 7:33 pm
    • Yes, it’s about trusting others to do what they’re supposed to do. It seems like that has gotten lost somewhere along the line. Since I am the only one that can account for my actions, I am responsible for making sure that those actions “first, do no harm” – this should be a an oath teachers should be required to take before they step into the classroom.

      Posted by Elisa Waingort | May 8, 2012, 12:28 am
  11. “Accountability” has an implicity meaning beyond “responsibility”. When people say “someone should be held accountable” they usually mean someone should be fired. They don’t say “someone should take responsibility” anymore, which is too bad, because many people are happy to take responsibility for accomplishing things that involve risk or are beyond their normal job description, but holding them accountable for something they didn’t have to do in the first place will discourage them from doing that.

    Posted by Robert Heuman | May 7, 2012, 1:14 pm

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