All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


22 August 2011

Accountability and Obligation

This is the sequel to my prior post, Some Thoughts on Accountability and Prepositions. As promised, this post is about what obligations teachers actually have, and whether it is reasonable for them to take those obligations on.

In the last post, I claimed that many people speak vaguely of holding teachers "accountable", but that the only reasonable interpretation of that position is to think that the teachers owe their schools a duty to produce student achievement. Now I want to talk briefly about what sort of obligation that is. (Keep in mind that while I don't think that accountability has anything to do with enforcement of obligations per se, as I said in the last post, I'm assuming, arguendo, that being "held accountable" includes being subject to enforcement measures/punishments that are appropriate to the obligation.)

There's a saying that comes in many forms: "Don't let your ego write checks that your body can't cash", "Don't let your mouth write checks that your soul can't cash", etc. All of these sayings amount to the same thing: a caution not to take on obligations that are beyond you.

Now, "beyond you" can mean many things. If I promise someone that I'm going to run 100m in 9.5 seconds, well, that's just beyond me. It's just not going to happen. It probably wasn't going to happen before my catastrophic car accident, and it sure as hell ain't gonna happen now. However earnest my intentions, I'm simply not capable of that level of performance.

But there's another sense in which things can be "beyond me" -- the sense that something is completely outside my control. I could promise, for instance, that my wife will show up at a banquet. That's dicey business, and the reason that it's dicey business is that I'm promising that someone else will do something.

Now I can physically drag my wife to the banquet over her protests (maybe). I might have to cripple or kill her if she was resisting enough, but it's conceivable that I can deliver on the letter of my promise without my wife's cooperation. That's not really what I promised, though. The spirit of my promise is that my wife would show up and at least pretend to do so voluntarily. That means that I'm going to have to persuade my wife. Maybe I'll have to guilt her into it. Maybe I'll have to bribe her.

But my ability to manipulate her into doing what I want her to is far from unlimited. Certainly because of the nature of our relationship, I can expect a certain amount of influence, and it might even be likely that I can convince her to show up. But there's always the possibility that, for one reason or another, she just won't be moved to attend, and I will have failed to deliver on my promise. My mouth wrote a check that my soul couldn't cash -- in this case because the ultimate outcome wasn't really dependent on me.

Things would have been different if I had simply promised to make my best efforts. Promising best efforts (in good faith) is not promising results, and any promisee accepts a promise for results that aren't 100% in the control of the promisor is either (1) ignorant, (2) filled with faith, or (3) really accepting a promise for best efforts anyway, despite what is said.

You should be able to see where this is going now: in order for teachers to be "accountable" in the way I discussed yesterday, they need to have a duty to produce student achievement. That would be all fine and dandy if the students were beanstalks or 1974 Pontiac engines or some other sort of insentient matter. But the students are autonomous, sentient agents. They get to make their own decisions (in a strong, narrow sense) and their learning is, in great part, up to them. It is not entirely in the teachers' power, any more than my wife's attendance is entirely within my power.

Teachers can manipulate students in various ways -- they can coerce, cajole, coax, conspire, and a whole host of other words that don't begin with "c". Teachers can attempt to make learning easier. They can attempt to demonstrate the worth of their subject. They can try to make it entertaining. They can be the best teachers in the world, but the final decision as to whether there will be any learning of the subject at hand isn't up to the teacher.

So why would we expect a teacher to be "accountable" for student results, or the improvement of student achievement? Why would a teacher promise such a thing, even implicitly, and why on earth would any administrator accept such a promise?

It seems likely to me that most teachers never made any such promise, and don't view themselves as having made that promise. This is why you see so much push-back from teachers on issues of accountability. It's not that they don't want to be good employees and good teachers, or that they are lazy or unmotivated. It's that the promise for which enforcement is being sought in the name of "accountability" isn't one that they think is either realistic or legitimate.

Teachers (and I'm generalizing here) likely see themselves as having made a promise either for "best efforts" or, at the outer limits, for actual results that are within their control: something on the order of "I will deliver objectively interesting and informative classes and will present the curriculum in a manner that, in my best professional judgment, will maximize the return on any attention and effort the student wishes to invest."

The question, then, is whether the position of public school teacher carries with it the more unreasonable obligation of guaranteeing student results, simpliciter. In other words, does a teacher, merely by agreeing to take the position of teacher, assume responsibility for things that are, ultimately, beyond his or her control?

I rather think that a lot of people think that the answer to this question is "yes", and that many of those people think that the answer should be "yes". They think that teachers should be held accountable for student achievement, even though actual student achievement is highly dependent on the student himself. Now if the teachers voluntarily take on this obligation, they are acting wrongly because they are writing checks their souls can't cash. But as I said, I don't think teachers do undertake this obligation, at least not knowingly. And an obligation that is both unrasonable itself and held against someone who is in no position to reasonably make it cannot be a morally legitimate obligation.

All of this, of course, depends on whether or not student achievement really is something that is highly dependent on the student himself. I think that is so obvious that it hardly bears mentioning, but it's conceivable, I suppose, that I am mistaken about this. Nevertheless, I am not going to offer an argument in its defense, at least not here, not today.

I'm not trying to get teachers "off the hook" for their legitimate responsibilities, and I'm not denying that there are a lot of teachers who really don't meet (and some who don't even make a good faith effort to meet) their reasonable, legitimate obligations. I think holding teachers "accountable" for legitimate obligations is perfectly fine, and that it should even be a policy priority. I'm merely arguing that it's unreasonable to hold teachers accountable for things beyond their control. Such attempts ignore what it means to be legitimately "accountable" for something in the first place.

And as we're proceeding under the (false but apparently widely-accepted) notion that being held accountable is the same as being subject to enforcement, you can't legitimately punish teachers for failing to deliver on an obligation that's not morally legitimate. Obviously, you can treat teachers like the Whipping Boys of old and punish them for things they didn't do, but then you really are just bullying. (And I mean real bullying, not just some pattern of ill-defined, nebulous behaviors that some education writers rhetorically call "bullying".)

The bottom line: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. And you can hold your stablehand accountable for leading your horse to water, but only an idiot would hold the stablehand accountable for making the horse drink.


Hube said...

Awesome post, Michael. Thanks for this!

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