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.”