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Teacher Learning in an Era of High-Stakes Accountability: Productive Tension and Critical Professional Practice


by Jamy Stillman — 2011

Background/Context: With the installation of No Child Left Behind, teachers, particularly those who serve marginalized students, have increasingly been told what and how to teach. Previous research demonstrates that teachers can act as mediators between policy and practice, even within coercive environments such as those generated by high-stakes accountability systems. Yet we know little about how teachers who have been specially prepared to serve marginalized populations respond to accountability demands within tightly controlled contexts, such as those commonly found in “underperforming” schools.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This study draws on social learning and activity theories to examine the specific factors that support equity-minded teachers to navigate accountability-driven language arts reforms, the specific barriers that might hinder teachers from serving marginalized students—particularly English Learners—in an era of accountability, and how particular contextual factors mediate teachers’ responses to accountability pressures.

Setting: The study was conducted in three different “underperforming” schools in California, predominately comprised of Spanish-speaking English Learners.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Three highly qualified, upper-elementary teachers, who earned their bilingual (Spanish/English) teaching credentials and Master’s degrees from three different equity-focused teacher preparation programs.

Research Design: The research design is qualitative case study.

Data collection and Analysis: Data collection took place between September 2003 and December 2004 and consisted of teacher interviews, classroom observations, principal interviews, and focus group interviews. Using the constant comparative method, data analysis was ongoing.

Findings/Results: Initial coding identified patterns in teachers’ technical, normative, and political responses to accountability-related pressures in the area of language arts. Further analyses illuminated variations in teachers’ responses and emphasized how contextual factors, especially that of local leadership, mediated teacher learning and agency in the context of school change. Specifically, when principals provided teachers with opportunities to grapple with reforms they found objectionable and to apply innovations to their classroom practice, a “productive tension” led the teachers towards important professional learning and instructional improvement.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Findings underscore the importance of balanced leadership in an era of high- stakes accountability, particularly as it relates to teacher professionalism, learning, and agency.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 1, 2011, p. 133-180
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15991, Date Accessed: 10/23/2017 1:02:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Jamy Stillman
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    JAMY STILLMAN is an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Her research interests include the preparation of teachers to serve historically marginalized populations and the impact of high-stakes accountability on teachers and teaching in high-needs schools. Her current research focuses on the clinical experiences of pre-service teachers who are preparing to work in high-needs urban schools and on the relationship between pre-service urban teacher preparation and in-service urban teacher practice. Her recent publications include “Taking Back the Standards for English Learners: Equity-Minded Teachers’ Responses to Accountability-Related Instructional Constraints” (The New Educator, forthcoming) and “Navigating Accountability Pressures,” a chapter coauthored with Dr. Christine Sleeter in Sleeter’s edited “Facing Accountability in Education: Democracy and Equity at Risk” (Teachers College Press, 2007).
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