John Mahar's Blog

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013


How is accountability established? We can imagine that a teacher in some way is responsible for and accountable to her students. Some voters like to talk about holding politicians accountable. Politicians hold teachers accountable. It seems like a circle of blame. But there's something interesting about situations where people talk about accountability--the speaker almost always shifts attention from her own accountability.

Think about the last time you were blamed for something. Did the person blaming you have nothing to do with the poor outcome? One common occurrence in my house involves me forgetting to take out the trash or recycling bin. My wife will say something about me forgetting to do it. I, in turn, ask her why she didn't remind me. "It takes two to forget taking out the garbage," I sometimes say. Needless to mention, she finds this aggravating (as anyone would).

 In Edwards and Potter's classic book Discursive Psychology (1992), they present findings from research that show that, when people are giving accounts about accountability, what the speaker says almost always works to reduce her blame. An example may clarify this point. Edwards and Potter share a conversation between two nurses. One nurse, A, is trying to convince the other, B, to take a particular patient.
 B: And uh isn't she quite a young woman? Only in her fifties?
A: Yes, uh-huh.
B: Oh, how sad. And what went wrong?
A: Well, uh
B: That surgery, I mean.
A: I don't...
B: Isn't she the one who- I think I heard about it- the daughter in law told me-wasn't she playing golf at the Valley Club?
A: Yes that's the one
B: and had an aneurysm.
A: Yes
B: -suddenly
A: mm hm
B: They thought at first she was hit with a gold ball or bat or something, but it wasn't that.
 A: uh huh
B: It was a a ruptured aneurysm, and uh th-they didn't want Dr. L. at M. They took her to UCLA.
 A: Uh huh
B: And it-- and it left her quite permanently damaged I suppose.
A: Apparently. Uh he is still hopeful.

 Nurse B is resisting A's request, and tells the "facts" of the patient in such a way that blames the family for the delay in the patient receiving care. This way of telling the story works to help the nurse refuse taking responsibility for the patient. If it is the family's fault that the patient is in such dire straights, nurse B will feel no obligation for caring for her.

 Teachers do the same kind of thing with students. To avoid accountability, teachers often blame parents, administrators, society, video games, etc. On the other side, parents blame school systems and teachers. I would argue that we are all, to some degree or another, responsible for each other, but whether or not people are accountable is not necessarily a relevant question. What is a relevant question is who gets the most people to believe their story about who is accountable.

At this point, politicians and media are much more successful in convincing the public that teachers are the ones to be held accountable for the problem with the education system. This works to keep parent and public eyes off the politicians and others who have a stake in public education. It can distract people from the possibility that the system needs more money, better infrastructure, more teacher training and support, and more community involvement.


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