Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I've become wholly and entirely disenfranchised from the term accountability. I believe the term as we know it has become both intellectually objectionable and morally bankrupt.

When I first thought of writing this post, I thought perhaps the reason I am so disenchanted with the idea of accountability was because I don't know what it means anymore - but I realized that, in fact, it's quite the opposite - I know exactly what accountability means today.

Accountability has become a synonym for punish.

I'm no longer willing to play the Accountability Game. There are other ways to ensure schools provide good learning opportunities. For this, I look to Finland's Pasi Sahlberg:

The North American educational system abounds with buzzwords like accountability. As Sahlberg explained, the concept of accountability came into education in the 1970s. “Previously,” he said, “accountability was used solely in a business context, but governments increasingly began applying it to education, and the result was the rise of standardized tests and other measures that held education accountable. Accountability is about making information public—ranking schools or provinces or teachers.” And it is based on the belief “that competition is the answer to any problems in schools.” Imposing a national curriculum is another common way to respond to concerns about student performance. Interestingly, the success of Finnish students notwithstanding, there is no word in Finnish for accountability in an educational context.

When I tell others that I don't believe in accountability, I get some awfully peculiar looks. But if Finland can offer real learning opportunities to their children, and they don't even have the word accountability in their language, surely we can be imaginative and open-minded enough to see that we don't need accountability either.
Here's more on Finland's paradoxes.


  1. I use the word accountability in my class, but I define it as "mutual trust." We keep each other accountable by giving an account of what we're learning - conferences, portfolios, informal meetings.

    Accountability should mean that when you wander off too far, there is a group of people calling you back and saying, "Look, you belong here. You are important to us."

    When I think of authentic accountability, it is the sense of transparency and honesty and trust that bonds relationships. Does my wife keep me accountable? Yep, by asking me about life and engaging in conversation and spurring thought, but not by punishing me. Do my friends keep me accountable? Yep, for the same reasons.

    I'm not ready to ditch the term altogether. I do, however, want to to define it in a non-behaviorist way.

  2. John, that is the best defintion of accountability I have ever heard. I am now adopting it as my own definition. I'll be sure to footnote you.


  3. The only time I use the word accountable is to suggest another perspective. If you look up a dictionary accountable is defined as subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable , we are talking about control and a lack of trust. Here people are treated as 'objects' where 'doing to' in the form of punishments , paying the price ,merit pay is the mode of control. it is a sign that people are not to be trusted. When people are self determined they are only answerable to themselves , a higher calling , God etc. When expectations are unmet , they themselves in an autonomous way engage in the act of restitution , try to make amends and most important come up with a better plan for the future. Accountability is a part of one's character , it comes from the inside , we can't make people accountable by punishing or controlling , only by supporting their autonomy , interdependence and trust.
    I prefer words like being responsible , caring, dedicated, altruistic , trusting rather than accountable.

  4. Here is a quote from Ross Greene author of Lost at school - a collaborative problem solving approach

    He needs to be held accountable:

    'For many adults, this expression simply means that they intend to add more pain to a kid’s life. My sense is that behaviorally challenging kids have experienced more “added pain” than most of us experience in a lifetime…if pain was going to get the job done, it would have worked a long time ago.

  5. Thanks for the post Joe. When I did my master's program we had a great discussion and it started by the prof asking the question: "at what point did educator's stop being accountable?". The prof was obviously being cynical but it put things in perspective of how ridiculous this whole 'accountability' idea is. In BC they actually used to have districts and schools complete "accountability contracts".... They have ended this and now we "achievement plans"... And we all know the problems with viewing education as achievement; it is not muchh different than using accountability - all based on results. What ever happened to the idea of focusing on learning? Poor John Dewey spent his life focusing on this but it seems it landed on deaf ears with the beaurocrats.

  6. I’ve just come across your wonderful blog. I teach in Scotland. In June I wrote: “We must now learn in system terms. Measures must be locally-owned to local purpose. If this is not grasped, we cannot enable an insight model of education, for staff or pupils. Accountability must become “account able” – and yes, mind the gap between the words… A system which is “account able” is one ABLE to give an account of itself, at any level.” It seems similar forces and similar ideas are flowing in different countries. Keep it up!


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