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Home arrow Education arrow American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability


Defining Responsibility

In this section, I want to move beyond colloquial uses of the terms “accountability” and “responsibility” often employed in debates about current crises in education, to develop a more sophisticated portrait of each. The definitions

I offer introduce burdens of obligation moving in both directions between citizens and schools. I will then employ these refined notions to shift the focus of the current accountability crisis, introducing obligations on the part of citizens and potentially opening new pathways for citizens to become more involved in the polis in the face of limitations on citizenship and a struggling civil society that I describe elsewhere in this book.

“Accountability,” as I outlined earlier, is a term that is often used when there is a problem and someone or some institution serving the public must give an account for the failing or must be answerable to the expectations of the public. As Gert Biesta explains, the most significant relationship within accountability is between the state and the school, and it is often guided by the logic of economics and business.17 Accountability is about ensuring that someone or some institution fulfills its obligations to the public or individual publics that make up the nation-state. In the case of schools, citizens are sometimes frustrated with the performance, practices, and costs of schools and demand an explanation for perceived failures and a demonstration of improvement.

“Responsibility,” while sometimes connected to issues of accountability in everyday conversations about the current state of education, differs from accountability in key aspects. Whereas accountability resides in institutions and individuals serving the public (including schools and teachers), responsibility resides in action that one should take. While such action can be individual, I propose that in the case of our responsibilities to public schools, those actions should most often be collectively performed with other citizens. Some parents and community members, debating the shortcomings of schools, raise issues of teachers’ responsibilities to our students and their success. But very few of us consider that we may actually bear responsibility in the situation as well. In the current accountability environment, we are quick to blame and point our fingers at schools and teachers, but seldom turn our attention toward ourselves.

Responsibility entails a sense of obligation and a concern for the consequences of one’s actions. Although this sense and concern may go unrecognized, as a normative assessment, responsibility is still rightly attributable to an individual or group. In other words, we can still say that someone has a responsibility even if he or she doesn’t experience the sense of obligation or recognize the concern for consequences himself or herself. We can still say that someone should be responsible, even if he doesn’t feel the obligation or concern himself.

Philosopher of education Michael Gunzenhauser, drawing on the work of Biesta and Noddings, has offered one of the few articulations of a better connection between accountability and responsibility. He does so in the context of teachers’ professional ethics.18 He makes the interesting point that accountability has become “a distortion of responsibility”19 where the primary caring relationship between teachers and students (responsibility) has been supplanted by an economic relationship between the teacher or school and the state (accountability). In this context he tries to reground the responsibilities of teachers in relation to themselves, their students, and the public.20 His depiction of the central relationships in responsibility employs ethics as care for children and political life as a public struggle over power.

Not only should we avoid distorting responsibility and accountability, we should clarify the focus of responsibility. Nel Noddings discusses the focus of responsibility for teachers:

Responsibility is a much deeper, wider ranging concept than accountability. Typically, a worker or teacher is accountable to some higher authority, and accountability can often be satisfied by conformity, compliance with the letter of the law. In contrast, responsibility points downward in the hierarchy. As teachers, we are responsible for those below us—those for whom we serve as authorities. Teachers may be accountable to administrators for certain outcomes, but they are responsible to their students for a host of outcomes.21

When responsibility focuses downward, it must attend to an array of needs raised by citizens, or in the case of schools in particular, children. We shouldn’t merely attend to predetermined and sometimes narrow goals, as is often the case in the current accountability era.22 Rather, we should reflectively consider the well-being and needs of those citizens or children and arrive at an understanding of the responsible actions we should take through mutuality, deliberation, and care for others.23

Here, I further extend the discussion of responsibility into new waters by describing the requisite responsibilities of citizens, which point downward and sideways: toward those with less power, such as children, as well as toward other citizens in a democracy. This maneuver supplants the relationship of accountability between the state and the school with primary relationships between citizens and other citizens, especially children as developing citizens. Responsibility grows out of our positions relative to one another as citizens, for as Strike explains, “To give one’s consent to some regime because it is just and democratic is to assent not only because of how one is treated, but also because of how others are treated. Hence, it requires not only a commitment to a set of principles, but some form of appropriate attachment to one’s fellow citizens"24 Our individual relationships with others precede our political institutional affiliations with them via democracy. But democratic values and a commitment to justice shape our relationships in fruitful ways. While our focus should be on our relationships with others, institutions and practices of democracy can help those relationships flourish.

Some responsibilities arise by virtue of being citizens in a democracy. In other words, certain obligations and concerns for consequences result from the nature of being a citizen bound to others in economic, political, social, and normative relationships or through shared experiences and problems. We are not merely obliged to look out for ourselves, but rather we have a responsibility to ensure our collective well-being as citizens of democracy, understood as shared social living.

Sumner Twiss25 distinguished the type of responsibility that is attached to our role as citizens from other key types of responsibility and their respective criteria in this way:

“For descriptive responsibility, the primary criterion is whether there is a causal relationship between an action and its outcome. For normative responsibility, the criterion is based on adherence to a normative standard (e.g., a moral standard). For role responsibility, which is closely related to norm responsibility, the criterion is fulfillment of duties attached to some social role and social relations such as employer-employee, parent-child, and teacher-student."26

When the role is that of citizen, fulfilling the obligations attached to being a citizen entails doing things that secure and protect our rights and position as a citizen, which also includes recognizing the rights and well-being of fellow citizens. Most obviously, these actions may include providing military service or jury duty or following the law.

But our role responsibilities do not arise merely by virtue of our citizenship status; rather they arise out of the ways in which we live our lives as citizens, bound to others in relations and participating in social systems that support the well-being of others.27 We participate together in interdependent activities and institutions and we are responsible for ensuring that they are just and democratic. We share our role responsibilities with other citizens, each of us partially responsible and often working together to fulfill our responsibility. In many cases those actions take public form and intervene into struggles over power, distribution, and recognition—thereby they become political.

Citizens must also uphold the normative standards of good citizenship by working to sustain the democracy that gives rise to our citizenship benefits and those of others, for we cannot assume that such benefits will continue without our efforts to protect and preserve them.28 Said differently, as democratic citizens, we have a role responsibility to ensure that the practices, institutions, and ways of life that sustain democracy are preserved and nurtured for our own future well-being and for that of our fellow citizens, including the maturing citizens in our schools. Certainly, this is a demanding standard that requires considerable time, resources, and effort to fulfill. While challenging, it is one we face together, providing direction for our actions as we work together to meet this standard.

In some regards, role responsibilities are like the associative political obligations described by philosopher Ronald Dworkin, where, by virtue of our membership as citizens of the nation-state, we should comply with the values shared therein and work to uphold them. The shared values help to develop a sense of identity with which we are aligned as citizens. Associative political obligations are not fully voluntary, because we are largely born into our role as citizens, but neither are they involuntary, because we learn to understand and give our consent to their values and laws, all the while having the ability to work toward changing those we consider unjust, or to leave the nation altogether, in most cases, if we so choose.29

Another important element of distinguishing accountability and responsibility is their temporal foci. While not a hard-and-fast distinction, accountability tends to be assigned or sought after the fact, once an action is completed—such as determining whether a teacher has taught well after her student test scores are released. In the case of schools and other public institutions, we certainly rely upon them at any given moment for services and they are striving at any given moment to achieve them, but it is typically only when the service has been rendered that we stop to assess whether the institution has fulfilled its promises or upheld the goals of the public. The situation is even more pronounced in voucher and charter schools, which have less regulation and government oversight, where poor education or outright harm to children can more easily occur unchecked, rendering accountability only after the fact. This sort of retrospective accountability is built into the market model, where, as Wayne Au argues, “in the charter school, small business, free market model, the ‘bad’ schools close after they lose market shares, making this after-the-fact accountability a fundamental feature of how charters operate"30

Accountability, in this regard, tends to be backward looking. Working retrospectively, accountability has a tendency to place blame, which often provokes defensiveness, rather than being focused on future improvement or the cooperativeness that supports such action. Fault finding stalls action and can debilitate actors. It can strain relationships and divide individuals due to mistrust and fear.

On the other hand, responsibility is something we bring to and carry through a situation or event. It often produces or motivates action, rather than describing it or forcing it after the fact. Citizen responsibilities, then, are future- directed obligations that spur activities—either in the present or still to come— that seek to ensure a just and democratic future. We can, however, at some point in the future look back and determine that a person has failed to shoulder his or her responsibility, showing that responsibility is not only a forward-driven moral enterprise. But as long as one is a citizen, one always bears this forward- focused commitment to democracy and those living within it. Distinguishing accountability, a backward-l ooking justification of fulfilling public demands, from responsibility, a forward-moving commitment, shifts our focus from the accountability obligations of schools to the responsibility obligations of citi- zens.31 This shift is significant within the current educational crisis of accountability and, as I will later describe, crisis of legitimacy, because it regrounds education as a fundamental concern of citizens and suggests actions that may follow from positioning schools and our responsibilities to them in this way.

This may reestablish our contributions to public schools and our active presence within them, surrounding them, and in conversations about them.

In conclusion, responsibility is always in some sense that of an individual, because the individual is the locus of ethical responsibility. But in the case of the role responsibilities of citizens, we are necessarily tied to other citizens in our identity, our common goods, our interest in democracy, and our shared fate. We are in relationship with and have obligations to other citizens. It follows that our fulfillment of our responsibilities should not be narrowly conceived as an individual or atomistic act, but rather as a social endeavor. Role responsibility is normative in that it tells us that we ought to act, but it’s social and relational in that it tells us we ought to act alongside and in coordination with our fellow citizens to form, enact, and protect public goods related to democracy. Insofar as I intend to disrupt the current focus on accountability by re-directing our attention to the burdens of action born by citizens, I’m making a call for agency. But my emphasis is not on the agency of individuals, but rather on how agency and its impact are strengthened through public work with other citizens who are connected in relationality.

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