Joint and Several Accountability

by Robert Pondiscio
May 19th, 2010

On a Wednesday afternoon in May, Mr. Jones is walking down a city sidewalk, minding his own business.  At the end of the block, Mr. Smith, an uninsured motorist, sees the light turn yellow as he approaches an intersection.  To beat the light he floors it, just as an indigent man named Mr. Baker steps into the crosswalk. Smith swerves, hits a pothole and loses control, careening onto the sidewalk where he hits Mr. Jones, who is seriously injured.

Who does Mr. Jones sue?   The driver who hit him?  The jaywalker who caused Mr. Smith to swerve?  The answer is probably both – and the city, since they are responsible for maintaining the street and the sidewalk.   At trial, Mr. Baker is held 50% responsible for Mr. Jones’ injuries.  He was crossing the street ignoring the ”Don’t Walk” signal.  Mr. Smith is 45% responsible.  He had the right of way, but was reckless in speeding up as he approached the intersection.  The city is deemed 5% responsible. Jones’s lawyer persuaded the jury that if it weren’t for that pothole, Mr. Smith would not have lost control of his vehicle.

The jury awards Mr. Jones $30 million.  Mr. Smith has no insurance and few recoverable assets.  Mr. Baker has no property whatsoever.  The city can pay, but they’re only responsible for 5% of the damages, right?


Under the principal of “joint and several liability,” some form of which is allowed in nearly every U.S. state, the city is responsible for all the damages. Unfair? Perhaps, but Mr. Jones’ injuries were not his fault, so he who can pay does pay so that Jones can be made whole.

In education, we are moving ever closer to a similar system.  Call it joint and several accountability.  A child may fail in school for any number of reasons—uninvolved parents, poor attendance, lack of motivation, poverty, hunger, or an unstable home life.  That child is surely as damaged as Mr. Jones.   However, since we have no means to hold parents, peers or poverty accountable, the full weight of accountability falls on the teacher.   Like the deep-pocketed municipality in an accident, she is the only one within reach, even if she is only partially responsible.  

“The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that places virtually all the burden for learning on the shoulders of teachers,” notes veteran teacher Walt Gardner, at EdWeek’s Reality Check blog. “This notion is alien to teachers in most countries that are our competitors in the new global economy. Yet it gets scant attention from reformers,” he notes. 

Indeed, even if you believe that accountability as a “theory of action” can address the problem of ineffective teachers, it doesn’t solve  the larger imbalance of responsibility for learning.  It will no more guarantee success for all students that the threat of punitive damages will guarantee accident-free streets.  Personal accountability and intrinsic motivation will always matter more.  After all bad teachers are identified and fired, Gardner concludes, “the problem of balancing responsibility for learning won’t go away. It’s largely an American phenomenon.”


  1. Political correctness aside, states need to develop a parental rubric to keep a running record of the parent/guardian involvement/performance from K-12. Variables for said rubric could be developed state by state but this parental record should be permanently attached to each student’s cumulative folder.

    Oh, the resistance will be enormous, led by such groups as the ACLU, etc. Tough! It’s time parents started being held formally accountable for the actions of their children, not just teachers and schools.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — May 19, 2010 @ 11:04 am

  2. The full weight of accountability falls on the teacher?


    I thought every existing and proposed accountability system

    1) only examines GROWTH in student performance, so no teachers are every accountable for the ABSOLUTE performance of students, which of course is partly a function of parenting et al?


    2) compares each teacher’s growth to that of other teachers with similar kids, so that even to the degree that GROWTH is affected by parenting et al, it’s accounted for.

    Comment by MG — May 19, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

  3. I’m a little skeptical that you can control quite that closely. Are the similar kids getting the same curriculum? Same class size? Live in the same neighborhood? Are the teachers getting the same support and training? Graduating from the same ed schools? (one could list a thousand variables that are not precisely the same). And it doesn’t strike me as hyperbolic to suggest the full weight of accountabilty falls on the teacher. Unless you’re aware of a push to improve curriculum quality, principal quality, ed school quality, classroom/peer effect quality, parenting quality, etc. — with consequences and sanctions — that has eluded me.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 19, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  4. My kids in public school spend close to sixty hours a week away from home. They’re kindergarteners. They sleep another 72 hours, and have 3.5 hours of homework. That leaves just under 35 hours to feed them, clothe them, and give them the little bit of influence we can.

    We’re told that this is intentional – that, in fact, the reason that public school is so important is that our kids cannot grow up successfully without it. Some of the other countries that you celebrate consider it a violation of human rights not to send your children to public school.

    I find your example infuriating. You make an analogy of the teacher to a passive participant, only responsible for a small portion of the problem, and there only by luck of a litigious society. If, in fact, teachers have so little influence on our young, why do we need them?

    Comment by gawaine — May 19, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

  5. I’m not suggesting that the teacher has only a small amount of influence on our children. I’m merely suggesting that the teacher has something less than 100% of the influence, yet (in struggling schools) is asked to shoulder 100% of the accountability.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 19, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  6. That doesn’t seem quite right. Whatever happened to peer influence? TV, internet and other pop-culture influences? I don’t think teachers should be held totally accountable for students like that. There are simply too many other influences. Teachers are a part of that, but only a part.

    On the other hand, I, as a home-schooling mother, am held 100% accountable for my daughter’s education. If she’s “behind” or below grade-level on anything, it is automatically assumed it is because of homeschooling. No one bothers to ask where she was, level-wise, after 4 1/2 years of regular school. If she’s the least bit shy in any situation, it is because she isn’t properly “socialized.” It all begins to get old after a while.

    For the record, she was struggling in several subjects when I pulled her out of school. Now she is on grade level in almost everything and even ahead in a couple subjects.

    I remember seeing a funny parody called school-homing or something along those lines – but I can’t remember where it was.

    Comment by Laura — May 19, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  7. Not buying it. Although here in Hawaii there are parents who are not as involved with the school and teachers as they should be, that has not been my experience. If you want the parents to be more involved, they must have more voice and choice in their children’s education. The public school system in Hawaii is so broken and politicized, yet parents and citizens with suggestions for improvements are not heard. I don’t blame the teachers, but I certainly don’t blame the parents either. Great article here:

    Comment by Cindy — May 19, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

  8. Hmm,
    I graduated from school in former Soviet Union. My parents never bothered (unless I directly approached them) to ask what’s for homework, whether it’s done etc. My teachers didn’t re-teach the material, and no reviews in the beginning of the year were done. Now, I was held acoountable for my work, grades. If I missed school – I had to find out myself what was for homework. No such thing as ” Miss, I was absent that day” existed.
    However, there are huge differences between the school systems and expectations:
    a) Programs for each subject and each grade were established and all school in the country followed them.
    b) The textbooks were made to follow the program. so if you missed a day – just do the next lesson in the textbook.
    c) The school day was over for the students by 1pm. 6 periods maximum.
    d)If you wanted to get into a college/university/technical school you had to know everything that was covered in grade school for the majoring subject whether the teachers tought you or not.

    Comment by Exo — May 19, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

  9. I’m not sure what this part actually means:

    “A child may fail in school for any number of reasons—uninvolved parents, poor attendance, lack of motivation, poverty, hunger, or an unstable home life. That child is surely as damaged as Mr. Jones. However, since we have no means to hold parents, peers or poverty accountable, the full weight of accountability falls on the teacher.”

    What does “full weight” mean? I don’t think teachers are being held liable for all the effects of poverty, hunger, parents, etc. In any growth system of accountability, the question would be, “Given that you have a bunch of poor hungry kids with uninvolved parents, are you as a teacher still able to move them forward as much as can reasonably be expected?” That doesn’t amount to holding the teacher accountable for all the other aspects of the child’s life.

    But the argument does make sense when it comes to curriculum and principals, which also affect achievement. I.e., if a growth model takes all of the school factors and attributes them entirely to the teacher, that doesn’t seem right.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — May 19, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

  10. The school-homing parody is from The Onion (where else?0) and is available at:,17159/

    “According to a report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Education, an increasing number of American parents are choosing to have their children raised at school rather than at home.

    “Deputy Education Secretary Anthony W. Miller said that many parents who school-home find U.S. households to be frightening, overwhelming environments for their children, and feel that they are just not conducive to producing well-rounded members of society.”

    I sure teachers recognize the burden of the kids who are being school-homed.

    I don’t think “we” should give up on efforts to encourage parental involvement by whatever means we can. Children whose parents take an interest in their education tend to do well.

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — May 19, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  11. And to piggy-back on Stuart’s comment, let’s also recall that there is no such thing as educational malpractice, at least fro non-special ed students, in the US, so ultimately educators bear no legal risk when they’ve failed to teach adequately.

    Comment by KDeRosa — May 19, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

  12. I think my point is being overlooked, or I simply made it badly (always a present possibility with me). Student success or failure is a function of many factors. Even if the teacher is the prime actor (and I’m not convinced that is always the case) as a practical matter there is nothing in our present conception of accountability that holds anyone or anything accountable other than the teacher. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in it either. Like joint and several liability, as long as we have someone to recovver damages from (or hold accountable) we’re happy. I recognize the visceral appeal of this. I also tend to think it’s not going to get us very far.

    Aside to Ken DeRosa: your series on induction learning is terrific. I’m looking forward to blogging about it after you’re through.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — May 19, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

  13. Excellent education depends on many jobs being done well –parents need to teach manners, assistant superintendents need to buy good curricula, cafeteria workers must serve nourishing food, principals need to enforce rules, ed professors must profess true doctrines, legislators must enact sensible policies, students must evince effort, teachers must learn their subject well, ed researchers must do sound research, ed publications must vet the research they publish, ed journalists must dig deep before they inform public opinion, ed secretaries must be leery of the blandishments of billionaires, etc. –so why not sanction all actors if excellent education does not transpire?

    Comment by Ben F — May 20, 2010 @ 1:38 am

  14. Modest disagreement with the analogy here. I think it does a good job of getting across the visceral sense of unfairness in tagging a single party as “responsible” while the other contributors to the problem get off scot-free. But I don’t think teacher-blame is universal; blaming demography also seems to be another common and just as unfair practice. When I think of intractably broken school systems, the analogy that comes to mind is that of a dysfunctional company with an incompetent CEO whose Management 101 failures are deflected by scapegoating whoever happens to be on the outs in the office politics of the day, or: “s[tuff] flows downhill”.

    Comment by Chan Stroman — May 20, 2010 @ 8:21 am

  15. Robert — I am confused…I thought the purpose of government schools was to raise the children…no I am not kidding but the original purpose was to indoctrinate the children and break the influence of the home and church on them. With this being the premise of government education who else can one blame if the kids do not learn?


    Comment by tim-10-ber — May 20, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

  16. Over here in Oz we have are having similar debates but they are not so sophisticated because we do not have so much history of theoretical disputation. Or else our universities and colleges have no real opposition to post-structuralism yet. Perhaps the beginning can be seen in the revival of history as a secondary school subject. Meanwhile our proposed national curriculum largely equates content with skills expressed aspirations or more likely pious hopes. And in English ‘viewing’ is placed on a par with reading. Our federal minister for education is a fan of Koel Klein. Pity us !

    Comment by John W. Addie — May 25, 2010 @ 1:09 am

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