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Preservice Elementary Teachers’ Understandings of Competing Notions of Academic Achievement Coexisting in Post-NCLB Public Schools


by Keffrelyn D. Brown & Lisa S. Goldstein — 2013

Background/Context: Since the 2002 implementation of No Child Left Behind , teaching in public school contexts has become more complex and challenging. Today, public school teachers at all grade levels are accountable for maintaining a steady focus on their students’ academic achievement. However, many teachers have found themselves wrestling with two conflicting understandings of academic achievement. These two conflicting understandings reflect two existing discourses used to frame students’ acquisition of school-centered knowledge and skills: academic progress and academic success.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of the Study: In this article, we focus on the coexisting discourses of academic achievement circulating within in our participants’ teaching credential preparation experience. We present the data, drawn from the first two sets of interviews completed for our larger study of preservice teachers’ understandings of the relationship between sociocultural factors and academic achievement, that document our participants’ confusion and uncertainty about the meaning of “academic achievement.” We draw from the notion of discourse, as theorized by Michel Foucault, to foreground the need to establish specific terminology—namely, academic progress and academic success—to clarify the various aspects of academic achievement and to facilitate discussion of this critically important construct.

Research Design: The study draws from a basic or generic qualitative methodology in which the aim is to understand a situation by exploring, analyzing, and interpreting the perspectives and understandings of individuals within that situation. The findings come from data generated across two interviews conducted with preservice teachers at the beginning and conclusion of their first semester in the professional development sequence of their elementary (pk–4) teacher education program.

Setting: The study takes place at a large urban university teacher education program in the U.S. South.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Participants are a racially and ethnically diverse set of 12 preservice teacher candidates. Ten were pursuing a elementary generalist teaching credential, and 2 were pursuing a elementary generalist-bilingual teaching credential.

Since the 2002 implementation of No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), teaching in public school contexts has become more complex and challenging (Hatch, 2002). Today, public school teachers at all grade levels are accountable for maintaining a steady focus on their students’ academic achievement. However, many teachers have found themselves wrestling with two conflicting understandings of academic achievement. These two conflicting understandings reflect two existing discourses used to frame students’ acquisition of school-centered knowledge and skills.


On one hand, teachers may wish to draw on the student-centered, developmentally oriented discourse typically associated with excellent teaching. In this perspective, which we call “academic progress,” a demonstrated increase in knowledge and skill is considered evidence of student achievement (Bredekamp, 1986; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). From this perspective, we use the term progress because it refers to development, advancement, and improvement. On the other hand, public school teachers must work with standards-based, NCLB-driven state policies in which students are expected to master content standards set for their grade level within an academic year. Aligned with the accountability discourse embedded in this perspective, we use the term academic success to reference the assertion that only mastery of the predetermined, mandated content standards is considered legitimate evidence of student achievement (U. S. Department of Education, 2002). Here, we use the term success because it embodies the idea of attaining a goal or set of expectations.


During the earliest stages of data gathering for a longitudinal study examining preservice teachers’ understandings of the relationship between academic achievement and sociocultural factors, we encountered an unexpected roadblock. The presence of two contradictory but coexisting discourses on student academic achievement was causing significant confusion for our participants. These preservice elementary teachers had difficulty making sense of the competing discourses and articulating their thoughts about students’ academic achievement.


In this article, we focus on the coexisting discourses of academic achievement circulating within in our participants’ teaching credential preparation experience. We present the data, drawn from the first two sets of interviews completed for our larger study of preservice teachers’ understandings of the relationship between sociocultural factors and academic achievement, that document our participants’ confusion and uncertainty about meaning of “academic achievement,” and we foreground the need to establish specific terminology—namely, academic progress and academic success—to clarify the various aspects of academic achievement and to facilitate discussion of this critically important construct. We contend that using such clarifying language when talking about the conflicting learning goals found in public school notions of achievement will enable preservice teachers to recognize, understand the differences between, and think critically about the assumptions embedded within the discourses of academic achievement. This careful consideration of the practical implications of educational policy will prepare preservice teachers to recognize and respond to the complexities and challenges that accompany teaching in today’s educational climate.


REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE


Since the early years of the 20th century, a developmentalist view of human learning (Bloch, 1987) has influenced teachers’ decisions about the most effective means for supporting students’ growth in classroom settings. Familiar practices such as grouping students into grade levels according to their chronological age, providing each grade level with an age-appropriate curriculum, teaching that curriculum using age-appropriate instructional materials and strategies, and providing differentiation that customizes instruction to meet the particular needs of the specific students are examples of schools’ regular and ongoing use of knowledge informed by principles of developmental psychology. This perspective, presently referred to as developmentally appropriate practices (DAPs; Bredekamp, 1986; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Copple & Bredekamp, 2009), impacts the practices of teachers in prekindergarten through Grade 12 (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 2008).


Firmly grounded in established research in psychology and regularly updated to reflect current scholarship on cognition and learning (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Copple & Bredekamp, 2009), DAP requires teachers to understand that “development proceeds at varying rates from child to child as well as unevenly within different areas of each child’s functioning” (Copple & Bredekamp, p. 11). Copple and Bredekamp noted, “Given this normal range of variation, decisions about curriculum, teaching, and interactions with children should be as individualized as possible. Rigid expectations of group norms do not reflect what is known about real differences in development and learning” (p. 12).


From the perspective of DAP, an effective teacher would not expect all students to learn the same skills at the same time, nor learn new skills at the same pace. Rather, an effective teacher would “recognize individual variation in learners and allow for differences in styles and rates of learning” (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997, p. 21) and would focus on supporting all students’ “progress toward important learning and developmental goals” (p. 21). Implicit in this discourse is the assumption that students should be expected neither to start nor to end a school year with mastery of the exact same body of knowledge and skills. Developmentally appropriate teaching acknowledges and moves from the perspective that individual students progress in their learning at their own rate and that academic progress is evidence of academic achievement. Presumably, students are more likely to receive a quality educational experience when teachers approach them as unique, capable learners whose intellectual development unfolds in individual ways.


The 2002 implementation of No Child Left Behind added a new set of mandated expectations for teachers working in public school contexts. In addition to identifying and responding to students’ individual learning needs as they have always done, teachers were newly required to guide their students to mastery of the predetermined knowledge and skills mandated for their grade level and/or content area (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). This approach moves from the perspective that developing a common body of age-appropriate academic content standards for each grade level and content area and ensuring that every student masters those standards is necessary for all students to receive a high-quality educational experience. In this perspective, mastery of specific, predetermined academic content is evidence of academic achievement.


When states operationalized their NCLB-driven accountability systems, teachers’ existing beliefs and practices were blanketed beneath a standards-based conception of learning and academic achievement. Not surprisingly, educators and scholars who value the developmental perspective questioned the feasibility of moving any group of students to mastery of a set of uniform, predetermined learning goals (Geist & Baum, 2005; Gerwin, 2004; Hatch, 2002; McDaniel, Isaac, Brooks, & Hatch, 2005). The research literature also documents many K–12 teachers expressing serious concerns about the negative impact of NCLB on their ability to teach effectively; on their students’ learning; on the content of their curriculum and the depth in which it could be studied; and on the nature and quality of the teaching–learning interactions in their classrooms (Assaf, 2008; DeVault, 2003; Dever, Falconer, & Kessenich, 2003; Egertson, 2004; Goldstein, 2007; Grant, 2006; Margolis, 2006; McDaniel et al.; Segall, 2003; Valli & Buese, 2007; Wien, 2004).


Teachers struggled to meet demands and goals that seemed incompatible: One kindergarten teacher described herself as “torn between what she knew children needed and the principal’s mandates” (Da Ros-Voseles, Danyi, & Aurillo, 2003, p. 36). The top-down, nonnegotiable implementation of changes to policy, procedure, and practice driven by NCLB, along with the incredible speed at which the changes occurred, made it difficult for teachers to consider the new goals and demands carefully and to integrate them into their thinking and their practices in meaningful ways (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003; Marks & Louis, 1997; Mathison & Freeman, 2003; McNeil, 1988; Ogawa, Sandholtz, Martinez-Flores, & Scribner, 2003; Segall, 2003).


In addition, school-based practitioners at all grade levels expressed frustration and concern over the ways that NCLB’s singular focus on mastery minimizes the accomplishments of students who make remarkable academic progress but are perceived as failures because of poor performance on a state-mandated high-stakes test (Booher-Jennings, 2005). This concern draws attention to the presence of two distinct views of academic achievement currently circulating in public school settings and impacting teachers’ work.


In the student-centered developmentalist view—the perspective of the concerned teachers cited in the research literature—evidence of increased academic capability is considered academic achievement. In this article, we refer to this developmental perspective on student achievement as “academic progress.” In the standards-based view—the perspective of NCLB and, therefore, the perspective of school administrators held accountable for student performance on high-stakes standardized tests—only mastery of state-mandated content standards is considered academic achievement. In this article, we refer to the standards-based perspective on student achievement as “academic success.” Both academic progress and academic success are legitimate forms of academic achievement. However, when both perspectives are placed within the context of public education policy in the United States, the distinction between them has deep significance: Only academic success is taken into consideration in calculations of adequate yearly progress (AYP).


 In response to concern that students who have made tremendous academic progress might nevertheless be positioned as unsuccessful, Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. Secretary of Education responsible for the initial implementation of NCLB, allowed selected states to implement a more flexible measure of student achievement called a growth model (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). In this approach, individual student learning was to be tracked each year, and demonstration of growth—in addition to the attainment of the grade-level standard—would contribute to the definition of success. Spellings indicated that the Department of Education is


open to new ideas, but we’re not taking our eye off the ball. There are many different routes for states to take. . . . And they all must lead to closing the achievement gap and every student reaching grade level by 2014. This is good policy for all students, and we must stick with it. (U.S. Department of Education, 2005)


However, Spellings stated clearly that academic growth would never be considered a substitute for attaining grade-level proficiency: “Growth models have to be within what I call the bright-line principles of the law, which is grade-level proficiency by 2014. Moving the goalposts is not what we are talking about” (Spellings, cited in Wallis & Steptoe, 2007).


In Spellings’s ambiguous endorsement of both growth models and grade-level proficiency—and in prekindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms across the United States—two different understandings of academic achievement clash and coexist. That experienced teachers are struggling to manage this double bind (Booher-Jennings, 2005) suggests that preservice teachers should be aware of and ready to manage this tension when they enter the profession as novices. If this is the case, how do preservice teachers understand and navigate the double bind of meeting both of these teaching goals?


Scholars have long observed that teachers working in diverse content/subject areas and in teacher education programs manage double binds, dilemmas, and contradictions in their teaching work (D. L. Ball, 1993; Booher-Jennings, 2005; Cuban, 1992; Geddis & Wood, 1997; Lampert, 1985). In this article, we expand on and add to this body of scholarship by illustrating how preservice teacher candidates preparing to teach in a high-stakes testing era make sense of and manage the double bind of contradictory expectations for student achievement. The need to understand how preservice teacher candidates make sense of and attempt to navigate these contradictions becomes amplified in the context of high-stakes accountability whereby teachers face increasing demands and continually changing professional responsibilities (Valli & Buese, 2007). Evidence exists that these demands impact teacher expectations for student learning, teacher pedagogical decision-making, and the quality of instruction offered to students (Diamond, Randolph, & Spillane, 2004; Diamond & Spillane, 2004; Valli & Chambliss, 2007). If this is the case, the contradiction we call attention to is clearly troublesome for teacher education programs that struggle to prepare teachers, especially those focused on the early elementary years, to teach well and to provide all their students a quality and equitable educational experience (Banks et al., 2005; Sleeter, 2008).


THEORETICAL CONSIDERATIONS


One approach to understanding this troublesome double-bind situation in which both practicing and prospective teachers find themselves is through the notion of discourse. Discourse plays a vital role in the work of teachers and is of particular importance when preparing teachers to teach in effective and equitable ways. Teachers’ understanding of and approach to concerns with learning and achievement operate in the context of discourse. By discourse, we draw from the ideas of philosopher/historian Michel Foucault. Foucault (1972) referred to discourse as “the group of statements that belong to a single system of formation,” of which he identified as examples “clinical discourse, economic discourse, the discourse of natural history, [and] psychiatric discourse” (pp. 108–109). Discourses shape both knowledge and social practices and, in so doing, provide a frame to think about and act on oneself and others in the social world. Drawing from a Foucauldian perspective on discourse, Kaplan (2006) noted that discourse is “a culturally and historically contingent domain of knowledge and practice that establishes truth claims about self, other, and the world” (p. 21). Discourse, then, is understood as a deciphering tool to make sense of the world.


When discourses coalesce around specific temporal and spatial arrangements and relations, they can become powerful, deeply entrenched ways of knowing (Foucault, 1972). However, the problem with discourse is that it provides boundaries that limit what and how one can make sense of the self, others, and the social world. For example Foucault acknowledged the limits of discourse, specifically the way it closes off possibilities for seeing and approaching the social world in a different or novel way. Foucault stated,


The conditions necessary for the appearance of an object of discourse . . . are many and imposing. One cannot speak of anything at any time; it is not easy to say something new; it is not enough for us to open our eyes, to pay attention, or to be aware, for new objects to suddenly light up and emerge out of the ground. (pp. 44–45)


This suggests that discourse by default operates in, and creates boundaries and limits for, thought and action.


From this, it is easy to see how discourse operates in limit-setting ways. However, this acknowledgment does not mean to suggest that contestation does not arise around the deployment and use of discourse. Weedon (1987) argued that over time, discourses can take on dominant positions such that they have a “firm institutional basis” (p. 109) in the governing and organizational practices of society. Though powerful, these arrangements do not preclude contestation and challenge. One example of this can be found in the multiple and competing discourses that constitute the theories, frameworks, and approaches employed in early childhood education (prekindergarten through Grade 4).


In the field of early childhood, various bodies of discourse offer competing approaches to teaching and learning (Cannella, 1997) and very often contradict one another (Marsh, 2003). One case in particular is found among discourses on teaching in early childhood classrooms. Marsh noted two predominant discourses appropriated in early childhood, including a child-centered perspective to teaching and a sociocultural approach to teaching. Whereas the former focuses on the child as a unique learner who moves at her or his own pace through linear stages of development, the latter stresses the impact of social experience and context on individual learner development. When teachers orient themselves to either one of these competing discourses, they gain access to a roadmap that helps them understand how to act. Yet, at the same time, the adherence to a discourse also creates blinders, making it difficult for teachers to recognize the limitations of or alternatives to that discourse.


Applying the notion of discourse to the double-bind that teachers find themselves in around student achievement issues highlights the two dominant discourses that contemporary teachers must negotiate in their work. The developmental discourse and accountability-based discourse present different and contradictory ways of understanding and dealing with student learning. How do inexperienced preservice teacher candidates understand and approach the daunting task of meeting the expectations housed in not one but both of these contradictory discourses? In this article, we examine preservice teachers’ understandings of academic achievement, a first step in helping teacher educators determine how best to support their teacher candidates in confronting and unpacking this double-bind during their professional preparation.


RESEARCH METHODS


The data presented in this article were collected as part of a larger longitudinal project that examines how early childhood/elementary (prekindergarten to Grade 4) preservice teachers’ understandings of the relationship between academic achievement and sociocultural influences change over the course of their teacher education program. The research question guiding the larger longitudinal study is: What understandings of the relationship between sociocultural factors and students’ academic achievement do prospective early childhood/elementary teachers hold at the start of a university-based teacher education program, and how do their understandings change as they engage in the three-semester sequence of coursework and field experiences associated with the program?


Our efforts to assess participants’ baseline understandings in Interview 1 (beginning of Semester 1) and to track any changes that might have occurred during the first field placement experience in Interview 2 (end of Semester 1) drew our attention to a significant issue—participants’ discomfort with and concern about managing the competing discourses of academic achievement they encountered in their earliest PDS experiences—that warranted deeper analysis. The data from those two rounds of interviews (January 2007 and May 2007) are the focus of this article.


RESEARCH DESIGN


The larger study from which these data were drawn uses what Merriam (1997), “for lack of a better label” (p. 11), called a basic or generic qualitative methodology. This research design, “probably the most common form of qualitative research in education” (p. 11), is appropriate for studies—like this one—in which researchers aim to understand a situation by exploring, analyzing, and interpreting the perspectives and understandings of individuals within that situation.


Participants. Participants in this study were undergraduate students enrolled in an elementary (prekindergarten to Grade 4) teacher education program at an urban university in the Southern United States. The first author invited all the undergraduates who (1) completed their Sociocultural Influences on Schooling course in fall 2006 and (2) intended to enter the elementary generalist or elementary generalist-bilingual professional development sequence (PDS) in spring 2007 to participate in this study.


Twelve individuals volunteered and were accepted as participants. The participants were females in their early 20s. Participants came from a diverse racial and ethnic background: 7 White students, 2 Latina students, 1 African American student, 1 Asian American student, and 1 biracial student of White and Latina background. Of the 12 participants, 10 were pursuing the state’s elementary generalist teaching credential, and 2 were pursuing the elementary generalist-bilingual teaching credential (see Table 1).


Table 1. Selected Characteristics of the Participants

Participant Pseudonym

Self-Identified Racial Identification

Geographic Background

Initial Certification Sought

Future Teaching Plans

Laura

Hispanic, Mexican American

Large urban city

EC-4 (Bilingual)

Large urban

Amy

Taiwanese

Suburb of a large urban city

EC-4

Suburban

Jessica

White

Small city

EC-4

Small city

Chloe

White

Suburb of a large urban city

EC-4

International, the Middle East

Karen

Biracial: White and Hispanic, Mexican

Suburb of a large urban city

EC-4

Large urban

Sara

Mexican American

Large urban city

EC-4 (Bilingual)

Large urban

Tiffany

White

Suburb of large urban city

EC-4

Large urban or suburban

Mollie

Biracial: Korean and White

Suburb of a large urban city

EC-4

Large urban

Mindy

White

Suburb of a large urban city

EC-4

Large urban

Brittany

White

Large urban city

EC-4

Large urban

Liz

White

Large urban city/suburb of a large urban city

EC-4

Suburban

Natasha

African American

Large urban city

EC-4

Large urban


Virtually all the participants wanted to teach in a public school somewhere in the state in which they were completing their teacher education program; in most cases, the students wanted to go back to their home city to teach. With the exception of 1 participant who came from a small city, all the participants were from metropolitan areas in which they identified both large urban or suburban-urban fringe districts as the ideal location to teach.


Setting and context. At the university where this study was conducted, elementary generalist and elementary generalist-bilingual teaching credential candidates generally take prerequisite education courses in their sophomore and junior years and begin their PDS in the second semester of their junior year. The PDS comprises a three-semester sequence of university coursework and supervised field placements in urban public elementary schools serving children from linguistically and culturally diverse communities. Because the teacher education program at the university is very large, graduating approximately 300 credentialed elementary teachers each year, credential candidates enrolled in the PDS are grouped into cohorts of 20–25 individuals, each of which is directed by a faculty member or adjunct instructor. When our study participants began their PDS in spring 2007, the university’s teacher education program was running one elementary generalist-bilingual cohort and five elementary generalist cohorts simultaneously.


The members of each cohort take their credential courses together, do their field placements at a limited number of school sites—typically in a large prekindergarten–12 public school district serving the midsized city in which the university is located—and are supervised in the field by the same individuals. For the most part, the credential candidates in the elementary generalist program take the same courses and complete the same field placement requirements in a predetermined sequence common across the program. However, candidates in the elementary generalist bilingual program take all their courses at the same elementary school site. Field components related to methods courses occur in classrooms at the same elementary school site, however, candidates’ field placement experiences take place in schools across a local urban school district.


In the first semester of the PDS, elementary generalist credential candidates take courses in teaching young children, applied learning and development, and teaching reading and social studies. During this semester, candidates for the elementary generalist bilingual credential replace the social studies methods course with an English as a second language methods course. Candidates for both credentials also spend 12 hours per week as prestudent teaching interns in a prekindergarten or kindergarten field placement. In the second semester of the PDS, generalist and generalist-bilingual teacher candidates take courses in classroom management, teaching science, teaching mathematics, and addressing reading difficulties. The bilingual teacher candidates also take social studies methods. Additionally, both groups spend 16 hours per week as prestudent teaching interns in a Grade 1, 2, 3, or 4 field placement. In the final semester of the PDS, teacher candidates take a course in teaching language arts and engage in 13 weeks of full-time student teaching in a prekindergarten, kindergarten, or Grade 1, 2, 3, or 4 classroom.


In accordance with NCLB’s regulations, the State Accountability System1 governs the participants’ placement school district policies regarding curriculum, instruction, and assessment of student learning. In this system, a set of content standards identifies what students should know and be able to do at every grade level and in every course in the required curriculum, which includes reading/English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, health, physical education, fine arts, economics, career and technology education, technology applications, and, to the degree possible, languages other than English for kindergarten through Grade 12.2


Beginning in third grade, students’ mastery of the standards at their grade level in certain subject areas is assessed by the State Assessment Program (SAP) standardized achievement tests. Scores on these high-stakes tests are linked to academic promotion for individual students at particular grades and are also used as a measure of school quality for comparing schools and school districts across the state.


To improve elementary students’ scores on the SAP tests and to support teachers in their efforts to guide their students to mastery of the standards, the participants’ placement district developed a set of elementary instructional planning and curriculum guidelines (IPCGs) aligned with the state standards for each grade in reading/English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. The IPCGs organize the standards into a curriculum designed to be completed within a school year and provide detailed daily plans that indicate the appropriate instructional materials to use to teach the specified standards in each core subject area.


Data collection. Interviews are the primary data source for the longitudinal study from which these data were drawn.3 The data collection plan for the study involved interviewing each participant at the outset of the PDS and at the end of each of the three PDS semesters, resulting in a total of four interviews per participant over the course of the study: January 2007, May 2007, December 2007, and May 2008. Our intent in these interviews was to track the participants’ thinking across the duration of their PDS.


The data presented in this article come from the participants’ first interview, done at the start of their PDS in January 2007, and their second interview, done at the end of their first semester in the PDS (May/June 2007). In the first interview, participants were asked an introductory set of questions to document their baseline opinions regarding the core themes and concerns of the study. These questions addressed issues related to the knowledge, perspectives, and beliefs the participants held about academic achievement and the role that sociocultural factors played in the learning process. Our analysis of the transcripts of the participants’ first interviews revealed a strong bias toward academic progress in their definitions of academic achievement and some underlying negativity regarding the need to calibrate academic achievement against benchmarks and standards.


Because these initial interviews were completed in the weeks just before or shortly after the participants began the first placement experience of the PDS, we assumed that the participants’ strong bias was probably due to their lack of hands-on experience in public school contexts and/or exposure to current conversations about student achievement and accountability. Therefore, we determined that the second interview, completed at the end of their first semester of field experience, would be a time to probe more deeply into the participants’ understandings of the relationship between progress and mastery in the consideration of academic achievement. (See Appendixes A and B for a copy of the interview protocols used to generate the data in this article.)


At the time the second interview was held, the participants had completed approximately 150 hours of apprentice teaching in a prekindergarten or kindergarten classroom in a large urban school district serving a linguistically and culturally diverse population. All participants had also completed courses in reading methods and applied human learning and development, and a practicum course linked to their field placement experience. Participants in the generalist program had also taken social studies methods, and participants in the bilingual program had taken an English as a second language methods course.


A total of 12 participants sat for the first interview. However, 3 participants did not begin the PDS in spring 2007 and therefore were no longer eligible to participate in the study. In addition, 1 participant withdrew from the study. Thus, total of 8 participants sat for the second interview. (See Table 2 for an overview of the participants whose interview data were included in the findings outlined in this article.)


Table 2. Participants Interviewed

Interview 1 (prospective teacher education candidates/participants who planned on beginning the PDS program spring 2007)

Interview 2 (teacher education candidates/participants who began the PDS program spring 2007)


Laura

Laura


Amy

Amy


Jessica

Jessica


Chloe

Chloe


Karen

Karen


Sara

Sara


Tiffany

Tiffany


Mollie

Mollie


Mindy (did not begin PDS spring 2007; began fall 2007)



Brittany (did not begin PDS spring 2007; began spring 2008)



Liz (discontinued participation in the study)



Natasha (did not begin PDS spring 2007; did not complete the teacher education program)




Data analysis. Each participant’s transcript was analyzed using a three-phase design grounded in the constant comparative method (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Before the interviews were transcribed, we established analytic categories based on the interview protocol and the major themes associated with the larger study: participants’ perspectives and knowledge about academic achievement, sociocultural influences on learning, and the role and responsibility that various factors played in student learning. After the interviews were transcribed, we worked independently to code each participant’s interview responses into the protocol-based categories. Our interrater reliability for this protocol-based coding was very high; the few instances of disagreement were easily clarified by going back to the transcripts and discussing each problematic statement or passage in relationship to the larger conversation in which it occurred.


We moved to the second phase of data analysis by separately and individually reviewing each participant’s transcript to identify additional categories distinct from those emerging from the protocol. Not surprisingly, our interrater reliability for this phase was lower than for the phase during which we worked with preestablished categories based in the interview protocol. When our coding differed during this second phase of analysis, we arrived at agreement through a hermeneutic process of deliberation and discussion (Moss, 1994) and then recoded the data accordingly. The role that development played in student learning and achievement (Bredekamp, 1986; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Copple & Bredekamp, 2009) and the tensions that participants faced when trying to balance their own philosophies of student learning with those embedded in the standards-based discourse (U.S. Department of Education, 2002) circulating in their placement schools and school district were the predominant themes that emerged during the second read of the transcripts.


The third phase of analysis involved identifying disconfirming evidence that contradicted statements already coded, discerning and negotiating the most appropriate ways to resolve the contradiction, and making adjustments accordingly.


Trustworthiness. After the three-phase analysis process was completed, we engaged in cross-case analysis of participants’ responses (Yin, 1994) to identify similarities and differences in the participants’ understandings and to seek meaningful patterns and connections across the data. This process of triangulation contributed to the trustworthiness of our interpretation of the data: We found that the themes related to perspectives on academic achievement emerged across the majority of the participants.


Member checking was a second strategy for establishing the trustworthiness of our analysis and interpretation. The first author initiated the process of member checking during her interviews with each participant by asking them to restate or clarify their perspectives and views on questions aligned with the major themes of the study. The process continued with a first-level member check, allowing participants to read their interview transcripts and offer clarification and/or elaboration, and a second-level member check in which participants were given the opportunity to review our emerging interpretations of the data. None of the participants chose to provide us with any feedback on the transcripts or the emerging interpretations.


To portray fully the consistency and complexities of the data and to add richness and specificity to the data gathered through the participant interviews, we provide thick description of the contexts—including the state, the district, and the teacher education program—in which our participants were learning to be elementary teachers (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2000; Geertz, 1973; Graue & Walsh, 1998). Finally, both authors used analytic memos (Emerson, Fretz & Shaw, 1995) to record and reflect on the thoughts, feelings, and insights that emerged during data analysis. Each of us documented our own strong opinions and theoretical explanations regarding the participants’ statements about students’ academic achievement and the relationship between academic achievement and sociocultural features. Further, we also reflected on our own assumptions and preconceptions about the preservice teachers in our credential programs, the master teachers hosting our preservice teachers, and the policies in the participants’ placement district and in our state.


Analysis of the transcripts from the participants’ first and second interviews foregrounded the presence of both certainty and confusion in participants’ working understandings of what “academic achievement” meant for young learners. These understandings are the focus of this article.


FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION


In the first interview, we posed two questions focused on working definitions and practical applications: (1) How do you define academic achievement? and (2) How do you determine if a child has achieved academically? The participants’ responses indicated the presence of two very different discourses of academic achievement. The first notion—which we call “academic progress”—reflects a developmental viewpoint. In this perspective, students are understood to have experienced academic achievement when they demonstrate levels of skill and knowledge more advanced than they held previously. Academic progress is an understanding of achievement that honors individual growth and accomplishment and acknowledges the wide range of developments across students at a given grade level.


The second notion—which we call “academic success”—reflects a mastery orientation. In this perspective, students are understood to be achieving academically when they master the knowledge and skills designated for their grade level at an appropriate pace. Academic success, an understanding of achievement grounded in a standards-based approach to education, presumes the importance of preparing all students for continued success with the curriculum at subsequent grade levels.


Overwhelmingly, the participants’ personal definitions of academic achievement reflected the academic progress perspective. Although there were distinctions in the participants’ twists on this developmental discourse—some emphasized the individual nature of learning, for example, whereas others emphasized the process of growth and development—the commitment to celebrating growth and effort was universal. At the same time, however, the participants also expressed concern and confusion about the relationship between their academic progress view of academic achievement and the academic success view of academic achievement they expected to encounter as practicing teachers contending with NCLB-driven policy mandates.


In the discussion that follows, we begin by presenting our findings regarding the participants’ tendency to define academic achievement in terms of individual growth and progress. This viewpoint was asserted frequently, effortlessly, and with certainty, as if the participants felt they were stating an obvious and well-known fact. We continue by foregrounding the participants’ struggles to accommodate the presence of a second definition of academic achievement—academic success—that seemed at odds with the first definition. This understanding of academic achievement raised concerns for participants, who worried about how best to manage this tension in their future teaching careers. Although we present evidence of the participants’ certainty and their confusion separately in this article, the participants’ expressions of certainty and confusion were neither linear nor predictable. In Interview 1 and Interview 2, each participant expressed both certainty about their personal beliefs regarding academic growth, and confusion in their considerations of the complex relationship between academic growth and academic success in contemporary classrooms.4


DEFINING ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT AS INDIVIDUAL PROGRESS


The participants shared a strong belief that individual growth is the defining feature of academic achievement. See Table 3 for an overview of the participants’ perspectives on and definitions of academic achievement.


Table 3. Participants’ Perspectives on and Definitions of Academic Achievement

Participant

Perspectives on/Definitions of Academic Achievement


Growth-Oriented Understandings


Sara

“not all children are going to be at the same level but if they were able to move up then I think that’s achievement.”


Chloe

“[a] kind of expanding that occurs as students learn new things.”

Jessica

“not so much the grade, just how hard they’re working and how much they’ve improved.”


Amy

“What students are struggling with on their own and achieving that goal.”


Brittany

“But if students come in at a ridiculously lower level than they should be, even for them to move up a considerable amount that’s still lower than the standard, I still think that’s academic achievement.”


Karen

“academic achievement comes when someone has made progress.”


Individual Development and Progress


Liz

“academic achievement differs from student to student.”


Laura

“Each student should be achieving in his own way.”


Tiffany

“I think everyone achieves in their own way.”


Mindy

“If they come in the first day of school and leave happier, feeling more accomplished and having accomplished a good substantial amount of stuff, then I think that’s achievement.”


Jessica

“not so much the grade, just how hard they’re working and how much they’ve improved.”

Amy

“What students are struggling with on their own and achieving that goal.”


Karen

“academic achievement comes when someone has made progress.”



Here, they draw from a developmental discourse of achievement. Amy, for example, asserted that she can identify academic achievement in her students when she “can see growth in them” (Interview 1). Chloe described academic achievement as a “kind of expanding” that occurs as students learn new things (Interview 1). Participants perceive academic achievement as a natural, organic process, very much like growth in other developmental domains.


For the participants, the types of growth specifically associated with academic achievement are the attainment of new understandings, mastery of new skills, or development of more sophisticated cognitive capabilities. Sara provided the following illustration:


I think academic achievement is just any step up from something they knew before. Like if a child knew that 2 plus 2 is 4. That’s great but now can you learn 2 times 2, and 4 times 4. . . . Not all children are going to be able to be at the same level, but if they were able to move up then I think that’s achievement. (Interview 1)


Sara’s growth-oriented understanding of academic achievement allowed her to consider a student who makes any academic progress whatsoever to be an achiever. Sara is not wrong: Accomplishing new academic tasks and attaining new levels of proficiency certainly are legitimate achievements. However, this definition is very different from the definition of academic achievement held by Sara’s school district and state, and by the standards-based educational approaches mandated by NCLB.


As indicated in the preceding quote, Sara saw students functioning at different academic levels as a fact of classroom life. The participants shared this understanding of academic achievement as a fluid, flexible notion that inevitably varies from one student to another. Echoing Sara, Liz said, “I just think [academic achievement] differs from student to student” (Interview 1). Likewise, Laura noted that academic achievement should be defined differently for each student. She asserted,


I think it’s more on an individual level . . . I don’t see [academic achievement] as a general thing, is what I’m trying to say. Like if one student is rising, rising, rising and the other student starts to grow but the other student kept rising and . . . the second student, grows a little then I would feel okay . . . he’s still achieving in his own way. (Interview 1)


For Laura, academic achievement was measured in individual development and progress: Each student should be “achieving in his own way.” She did not expect her students to know the same academic content, possess similar academic skills, or learn new information at the same rate: “Everybody is different. Everybody shouldn’t be judged the same” (Interview 1).


Tiffany also viewed academic achievement as personal growth accomplished by each individual student. Because students differ, she explained, the definition of academic achievement used for each student should differ. She stated,


I guess for every kid it would be different, so you have to look at each individual child in a different way . . . I think everyone achieves in their own way, so you have to kind of alter what you see as their achievement as you look at them so that you can instill that sense of self-esteem. I think once they have that they’ll maybe achieve at a quicker rate or at a rate that other students around them are achieving at. (Interview 1)


In this statement, Tiffany seemed to recognize the shadowy presence of a competing understanding of academic achievement: the expectation that all students in a given grade should eventually attain common learning outcomes. Her efforts to reconcile her view of the individual nature of academic achievement with the reality of uniform, predetermined learning goals for all students led her to conclude that the increased self-esteem that accompanies the celebration of individual academic achievement will help boost the learning rate of slower students and bring them up to speed with their classmates.


In Tiffany’s view, increased self-esteem will lead students to increased academic learning and accomplishment. The idea that intellectual development and emotional development are intertwined and inseparable emerged in Mindy’s comments as well. She said,


I can see [students’ achievement] in my classroom. A big thing for me is if the child[ren] feel better about themselves when they leave class. I mean, if they come in the first day of school and leave happier, feeling more accomplished, and having accomplished a good substantial amount of stuff, then I think that’s achievement. (Interview 1)


Feeling happy, feeling more accomplished, and completing a substantial amount of academic work blend into a seamless, holistic notion of achievement. Mindy’s perception of her learners as whole people whose social, emotional, and cognitive development occurs in an integrated way has strong roots in developmentalist discourse in general and in DAP in particular.


Jessica factored effort into her definition of academic achievement but resisted linking academic achievement to the attainment of a particular level of proficiency. She stated that achievement is determined by “not so much the grade, just how hard they’re working and how much they’ve improved” (Interview 1). Jessica asserted her commitment to defining academic achievement as growth by emphasizing the process of learning and minimizing the importance of formalized markers of achievement like grades.


Like Jessica, Amy defined academic achievement as progress and drew a clear distinction between her view and any definition involving student mastery of predetermined, standardized objectives. She argued that academic achievement has to “do with a lot of what [the students] are struggling with on their own and achieving that goal. And not so much the benchmark or whatever the state standards are” (Interview 1). Confident in her belief that academic achievement is tied to individual struggle, growth, and increased academic proficiency, Amy minimizes her students’ need to demonstrate mastery of state-mandated learning indicators.


In a similar vein, Brittany recognized that schools view academic achievement in terms of student mastery of learning standards, but she maintained her personal belief that academic achievement differs across students and should be understood in terms of individual progress and growth. Brittany told us,


Academic achievement? Making sure the students have success in your classroom . . . I understand that there is a standard of what students should know about in a certain grade level. But if students come in at a ridiculously lower level than they should be, even for them to move up a considerable amount that’s still lower than the standard, I still think that’s academic achievement. . . . Not everyone progresses at the same pace but you can still have academic achievement without everyone being on the same level as everyone [else]. (Interview 1)


Brittany insisted that academic achievement is an individually based and progressive phenomenon and dismissed the larger expectation that academic achievement requires students to meet a particular set of common learning standards.


Participants’ confidence in a definition of academic achievement that hinges on individual students’ personal growth and development—what we call academic progress—was strong at the outset of their PDS courses and fieldwork. However, why they held this view so strongly at this early point in their career is not entirely clear. All the participants completed the first author’s Sociocultural Influences on Learning course, however, this perspective was neither discussed nor reflected in the course content. In all likelihood, the participants acquired this understanding of academic achievement through societal discourses of growth and progress circulating in U.S. culture (Baker, 1999; Cannella, 1997; Lesko, 2001), from the dominant influence of developmentalist thinking (Burman, 1994) in the prerequisite coursework and community-based field experiences they had prior to beginning their teaching credential professional development course sequence, and/or from their own personal experiences as students learning the cultures of teaching during their prekindergarten to  Grade 12 apprenticeship of observation (Lortie, 1975).


In their second interviews, conducted at the completion of their first semester of PDS coursework and field placements (approximately 15 weeks after the first interview), participants continued to express the belief that teachers should recognize academic achievement in terms of each student’s individual progress and development. For example, Karen said, “Personally I feel that academic achievement comes when someone has made progress” (Interview 2). Jessica concurred, saying, “I don’t know that [teachers] should ever stop defining [academic achievement] as growth” (Interview 2). Here, Jessica suggested that although the political climate requires states to measure academic achievement through the use of standardized tests that assess students’ mastery of state-mandated content standards, teachers should continue to define achievement based on individual progress and development.


Mollie also took a derisive stance toward NCLB-driven expectations for achievement when she said, “Personally, I wouldn’t necessarily define academic achievement ever by what the official state definition is.” However, Mollie acknowledged teachers’ obligation to align their practices with state and federal mandates. Although she claimed not to have any personal investment in the state’s beliefs about academic achievement, Mollie admitted to considering the state standards when thinking about her learning goals for students, explaining, “You just kind of have to do it because you have to” (Interview 2). Mollie, aware that public school teachers must comply with state policy and district mandates, accepted the obligation to attend to the standards when making instructional plans. However, her circular reasoning—that “you have to do it because you have to”—suggests that she has only just begun the process of negotiating the complexity caused by the coexistence of competing discourses of academic achievement in her student teaching placement experience.


The participants’ belief in the importance of academic progress as a measure of achievement was still strong after completing their first semester of PDS coursework and 120 hours of field placements in public school prekindergarten and kindergarten classrooms. This is not surprising. The practicum course that accompanies the early childhood field placement, a class developed by the second author, strongly reflects the developmentalist discourse of growth that has permeated the culture of early childhood education for more than a century. Further, it is likely that the understandings and beliefs expressed by the participants’ cooperating teachers and field supervisors also reflected this orientation toward individual growth. It seems that the participants’ incoming beliefs regarding individual academic progress as their learning goal for students were shared, affirmed, and reinforced by their course content and by the views and values of their practicum instructors, field supervisors, and cooperating teachers. Nevertheless, despite this alignment, it was impossible to ignore the state’s expectations and regulations for timely mastery of the academic content standards.


DIFFICULTY RECONCILING ACADEMIC PROGRESS AND ACADEMIC SUCCESS


The participants envisioned their ideal future clearly: They would be teaching a class of diverse students functioning at varying academic levels, each of whom would have the opportunity to engage in challenging but achievable work and to learn new skills and knowledge. Their understanding of academic achievement in terms of individual progress was robust and enduring. However, when their developmental beliefs were positioned in direct relation to the reality of teachers’ work within NCLB-driven standards-based accountability systems, the participants expressed doubts and concerns. Their difficulty stemmed from what appeared to be the impossibility of meeting district and state expectations regarding student mastery of a standard set of learning outcomes while maintaining a classroom grounded in their established understanding of learning and achievement. Table 4 provides an outline of the perspectives that participants’ held on reconciling academic progress and academic success.


Table 4. Participants’ Perspectives on Reconciling Academic Progress and Academic Success

Participant

Reconciling Academic Progress and Academic Success


Confusion


Chloe

“How do you as a teacher, you know, keep your job by making sure that you’re addressing all the [standards] and your kids are doing well on [mandated standardized achievement tests] but at the same time connecting to the students?” (Interview 1)


Mindy

“I mean, some people focus fully on the [state-mandated standardized test] now. [As a kid] I cared less about the state exams. I cared more about what my teacher gave me in class . . . I think once I’m hired and the school’s kind of said what I need, I think this [her perspective on academic achievement] will change drastically. . . ” (Interview 1)


Natasha

“I don’t know how I would measure it [students’ academic achievement] because all the students you’re teaching are not on the same level . . . I don’t know . . . I don’t think tests are the right thing to measure it because some people don’t do good on tests.” (Interview 1)


Laura

“I had a teacher of the year [as my cooperating teacher] but I can see where she’s feeling the pressure of [standardized testing] because of the school district or the state itself. And it’s just making me realize how am I going to have to deal with this? Am I going to have to say [to a student], ‘You know what, I hope you don’t come tomorrow [on test day]?’” (Interview 2)


Sara

“I really, I really don’t know. That’s a really that’s a hard one for me only because I know it’s important to have [students] reach [standardized curricular expectations] but I don’t know when to actually do it. I mean, I don’t think teachers should ever stop working on personal growth.” (Interview 2)


Attempt to Integrate Standards Into a Growth-Centered Approach


Sara

“I don’t think teachers should ever stop working on personal growth. I mean, maybe, if anything, just [add] a little more and more with making sure they reach this and making sure they reach that [standard]. Which is kind of a shame because you’re doing it simply for the test and simply for state requirements. But, I mean, kind of, at that point what can you do?”


Address Standards at a Specific Point and Time


Jessica

“When it’s time for testing or when [classroom teachers] have to get their kids to a certain level.” (Interview 2)

Amy

“So then, maybe they have to focus on the [standards and] really make sure that their kids are learning what is laid out in those standards. And that happens around third, fourth grade.” (Interview 2)


Although typically very articulate, these preservice teachers found themselves at a loss for words when they tried to discuss their concerns. For example, Chloe stated,


How do you as a teacher, you know, keep your job by making sure that you’re addressing all the [standards] and your kids are doing well on [mandated standardized achievement tests] but at the same time connecting to the students. And I think that, I think that, I guess, you hope that, I mean, obviously, students are going to come to you at different levels. Depending on the schooling that they’ve had in the past; the teachers and their priorities they’ve had in the past. They’re going to come to you at a different level. But I’m not sure. I don’t know. I don’t know. (Interview 2)


Chloe knew that students would enter her classroom with widely varying academic capabilities, and she understood clearly that contemporary public school teachers must teach the standards and prepare their students for success on standardized tests. Her uncertainty, reiterated three times at the end of this quote, lay in identifying how teachers could possibly hope to reconcile these coexisting but competing perspectives.


We found it interesting that Chloe juxtaposed teaching to meet NCLB-driven expectations not with teaching to support individual students’ development, but with “connecting to the students.” After spending a semester-long field placement in a prekindergarten classroom, Chloe made a significant realization: Contemporary educational policy demands require teachers to focus on academic content and learning outcomes rather than focusing on and connecting with their students.


Like Chloe, Mindy also valued the teacher–student connection above other educational priorities. Recalling her own personal experience as a youngster in public school, she described the important role that personal feedback from teachers played in her perceptions of her own academic success:


I like being well commented on and things like that. That [a teacher compliment] is how I know I’ve, or how I feel like I, really achieve in a class. I think that some people may be completely different. I mean, some people focus fully on the [state-mandated standardized test] now. [As a kid] I cared less about the state exams. I cared more about what [feedback] my teacher gave me in class. (Interview 1)


Mindy went on to discuss the tensions she feels between her personally held perspectives about how academic achievement should be determined and her sense of how public school districts will expect her to determine academic achievement when she secures employment. She expects her beliefs will be different from, or even stand in conflict with, how she will be expected to approach her students once she becomes a teacher. Mindy continued, “I think once I am hired and the school’s kind of said what I need [to do], I think this [her perspective on academic achievement] will change drastically, just because I’ll have to go more on grades and on test scores and things like that” (Interview 1).


Mindy painted a bleak picture of her professional future. She accepted as inevitable that her own beliefs and perspectives would be subordinated to those held by school districts and that she would be required to take on different understandings and work within undesirable parameters. Mindy might have considered compromise, negotiation, or a both/and approach, but she did not mention these more hopeful possibilities.


Like Mindy, Natasha also drew from her own personal experiences as a learner when trying to decide how to determine whether a student had achieved academically. Although she was unsure and confused about how to manage this dilemma, Natasha was certain that achievement should not be recognized only through performance on standardized tests. She asserted,


I don’t know how I would measure it [students’ academic achievement] because all the students you’re teaching are not on the same level . . . I don’t know . . . I don’t think tests are the right thing to measure it because some people don’t do [well] on tests. . . Like I’m not a good test taker. [It] doesn’t mean I’m dumb. I can know the information but I’m just not good at taking tests. I don’t know how I would measure [students’ academic achievement]. (Interview 1)


Natasha’s response provides insight about the quandary she felt she would have to manage as a teacher. Her trepidation about using standardized tests to determine academic achievement was based on what she viewed as a limitation of the very measures themselves. What framed her objection, and formed the basis of her confusion around this issue, was the assumption that as a teacher, she would inevitably have to rely on achievement measures that could fail to recognize both students and their unique differences (i.e., those who are not good at taking tests) as well as the actual learning that has taken place in the classroom.


Laura also felt confusion about how to balance her personally held perspectives about achievement with those found in the larger district, state, and federal contexts. She said,


I was in a third-grade classroom. The students were just learning how to take these tests, so it’s just really hard. I can see how well they do [on their class assignments]. . . I can see the progress in the students. [Students] were giving me thank you cards . . . native Spanish speakers, and they were writing [notes] in English! I could see the improvement that they’ve made. (Interview 2)


Laura had seen achievement in the progress she observed in her daily interactions with the students, and she felt frustrated by the knowledge that their remarkable progress would not be recognized or acknowledged if they failed to demonstrate the levels of achievement expected for their grade on the standardized tests. Laura also alluded to the extreme measures that some veteran teachers might employ to prevent students who have made notable academic progress from being classified as failures based on their scores on high-stakes test—encouraging those particular students to stay home on testing days, for example—and wondered how she would cope were she to find herself in that difficult situation in the future. She said,


I had a teacher of the year [as my cooperating teacher] but I can see where she’s feeling the pressure of [standardized testing] because of the school district or the state itself. And it’s just making me realize (pause) how am I going to have to deal with this? Am I going to have to say [to a student], “you know what, I hope you don’t come tomorrow?” That’s really sad because I want all the students to feel they have an equal opportunity of learning. I can see how it isn’t that way. Ideally I want it to be that way but, realistically, it isn’t that way. (Interview 2)


Similarly, Sara, who also viewed achievement as growth and progress, expressed confusion about how to balance her own ideals with the professional expectations she envisioned herself facing as a teacher:


I really, I really don’t know. That’s a really (pause) that’s a hard one for me only because I know it’s important to have [students] reach [standardized curricular expectations] but I don’t know when to actually do it. I mean, I don’t think teachers should ever stop working on personal growth. (pause) I mean, maybe, if anything, just [add] a little more and more with making sure they reach this and making sure they reach that [standard]. Which is kind of a shame because you’re doing it simply for the test and simply for state requirements, but, I mean, kind of, at that point what can you do? (Interview 2)


Here, Sara attempted to bring together what she viewed as contradictory and competing goals for achievement and teaching. She believed that teachers would move away from a focus on students’ personal growth as the primary indicator of achievement to a focus on performance on a standardized assessment as evidence of achievement only to satisfy state policy mandates. Sara’s view of teaching, though still firmly rooted in developmentalist thinking, reflected a resigned acceptance of the fact that teachers must compromise to satisfy external demands and expectations.


In a few instances, participants attempt to balance the tension between their personal philosophy and the expectations set by federal and state policy by determining a specific time period or grade level in which teachers would be justified in preparing students for standardized testing. Yet even in these cases, preservice teachers expressed confusion about the apparent disconnection between what they viewed as the correct, ideal understanding of student achievement—academic progress—and the professional expectations they were held accountable for meeting—academic success.


Jessica’s attempt to reconcile these incompatible priorities involved setting a predetermined point at which teachers should begin to teach to the standards. After reiterating her belief that a teacher should never stop defining achievement in terms of growth, Jessica acknowledged that “when it’s time for testing or when [classroom teachers] have to get their kids at a certain level, then that’s when [teachers] have to focus on those terms” (Interview 2).


Like Jessica, Amy accepted that the standards needed to be taken seriously once students were engaged in the high-stakes testing mandated by the State Accountability System. She stated,


I believe in progress. So I think [when it comes down to] having to deal with looking at progress or looking at the [standards], I really think teachers look at progress. And [standards] are important too, but I think, just, you know, having kids progress is a big achievement or accomplishment. . . . Sadly, probably when the [high-stakes standardized achievement] test comes around, because that’s when the students, if they don’t pass, they don’t get to go to the next grade kind of thing. So then, maybe they have to focus on the [standards and] really make sure that their kids are learning what is laid out in those standards. And that happens around third, fourth grade. (Interview 2)


At the conclusion of their first semester of professional development courses and supervised classroom field placements, the participants maintained their growth-centered beliefs about academic achievement. However, the experience of coming face-to-face with state curricular mandates, district instructional expectations, accountability pressures, and veteran teachers’ struggles and worries during their field placements in public school settings certainly had an impact on their thinking. In the second set of interviews, the participants recognized a gap between their belief in the importance of academic progress and the nonnegotiable, NCLB-driven emphasis on academic success they saw bearing down on their cooperating teachers and the upper-grade teachers at their placement schools.


The preservice teachers were beginning to grapple with the double bind of contemporary teaching: honoring and valuing students’ academic progress while nevertheless pushing students to master the state standards. Many were frustrated and confused by the presence of divergent and incompatible goals within the notion of academic achievement and were just beginning to manage the disequilibrium caused by this tension. At this early point in their professional development experience, however, our participants’ commitment to enacting a developmental view of academic achievement remained strong.


The hegemony of developmentalist discourse is most evident in the overwhelming value these teacher candidates placed on acknowledging individual students’ progress in learning. However, the findings of this study also illustrate the powerful hold that the discourse of growth and progress has on these preservice teachers’ conception of the nature of teachers’ work. Many of our participants believe that teachers must celebrate any evidence of academic advancement, no matter how small the growth or how slow the progress, to show their appreciation of and respect for students’ individual differences. Reflecting a readiness-oriented, maturationist (Gesell, Ilg, Ames, & Bullis, 1977) perspective, our participants seemed to perceive teachers as playing a passive role, providing support and encouragement to students as they developed new skills at a pace dictated by their own natural, immutable inner timetables. At this point in their professional preparation, none of the participants appeared to recognize the active role that teachers play in facilitating students’ learning or paused to consider teachers’ professional accountability for their students’ academic accomplishments.


The dominance of developmentalist discourse about student learning also blinded participants to alternative interpretations of their academic achievement dilemma (Foucault, 1972). For example, the preservice teachers expressed serious concerns about the tension they perceived between the NCLB-driven emphasis on academic success and their preferred goal of academic progress. In considering this paradox, they ably critiqued the expectation that students master state-mandated academic standards. However, none of the participants questioned the ways in which the familiar discourse of academic progress might also be contributing to this double bind. For example, these preservice teachers did not consider that teachers might fall prey to “the soft bigotry of low expectations” (Bush for President, 2000, p. 17) by accepting a small amount of academic progress from certain students rather than providing them with the instructional support necessary to reach the standards.


CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS


NCLB makes this clear: The academic achievement of all students must be the highest professional priority of U.S. public school teachers. Yet our participants’ comments revealed confusion about the meaning of “academic achievement.” Typically considered a clear, concrete, and useful term, academic achievement is actually a broad and general construct that inadvertently obscures a critically significant distinction of great relevance to public schooling’s current expectations and mandates.


Analysis and interpretation of our participants’ transcripts revealed the presence of two separate, distinct—and possibly contradictory—discourses, both of which shared the name academic achievement. The absence of specific, uniform, widely accepted terminology for discussing the important distinctions within the notion of academic achievement certainly contributed to the participants’ confusion. When analyzing and interpreting the data from this study, we found it helpful to establish two distinct terms to clarify and distinguish the competing learning discourses held for the students in our participants’ field placement classes. Our decision to use academic progress to describe the goal of students achieving increases in their knowledge and skill levels over time, and academic success to describe students’ attainment of mastery of the state-mandated content standards enabled us to fine-tune our thinking about the tensions teachers are presently facing. Although we chose to use these particular terms because they align with and emerge from existing scholarship, policy, and the findings of this study, they are meant to serve as a clarifying heuristic. We do, however, believe that using these terms would also allow preservice teachers to acknowledge the competing discourses of academic achievement found in today’s schools and to interrogate and clarify their own beliefs.


Teacher educators must ensure that our programs address the demands that our teacher candidates will face when they enter the profession. The findings of this study suggest that all preservice teachers need carefully guided opportunities to examine their assumptions and beliefs, to explore the competing notions of academic progress and academic success coexisting within the term academic achievement, and to examine the ways in which these key distinctions should be taken into consideration in their practical decision-making. Recognizing the literature that highlights the relationship between teacher sociocultural identity and orientations to teaching (A. Ball, 2006; Gay, 2000; Sleeter, 2008), in this study, we did not find a difference between the racial or ethnic positionality of the participants and their overwhelming preference for developmentalist models of achievement. Although it is beyond the scope of this study to make a judgment about why all the participants overwhelmingly espoused a developmental discourse, in line with existing scholarship and what we noted previously, this is likely associated with its wide circulation in U.S. and global Western schools and society (Baker, 1999; Cannella, 1997; Lesko, 2001), its dominance in intellectual discourse (Burman, 1994), and what participants’ encountered in previous coursework and/or during their apprenticeship of observation as K–12 learners in schools (Lortie, 1975).


Identifying and naming the conflicting learning goals circulating in pre-K–4 classrooms is an important step toward providing more relevant and powerful teacher education experiences. The findings of this study suggest that preservice teachers require both the opportunity and the encouragement to consider the contradictory goals of teaching found in contemporary school environments. Further, in making the distinctions between academic progress and academic success, teacher educators create a space to interrogate the assumptions and implications for teaching that are embedded in each of these approaches to achievement. This would include recognizing the limitations that might emerge when drawing solely from any discourse (Brown, 2010) and, in this particular case, an academic progress or academic success perspective on achievement. Rather than falling into either-or thinking (Dewey, 1938) about academic achievement, novice teachers would benefit from opportunities to examine the conflicting demands posed by today’s policy context.


For example, case studies documenting teachers’ strategies for balancing academic progress and academic success in their classrooms could be used as a springboard for critical discussions of the complexity of teaching. This is particularly relevant during a time when large numbers of students of color, those from low-income backgrounds, and those for whom English is a second language experience consistently lower levels of academic achievement than their White middle-class counterparts. Indeed, teacher education has a responsibility to help teachers consider the extent to which holding solely to a discourse that only values growth and development might inhibit teachers’ ability to meet the learning needs of all their students effectively. We propose, then, that by helping teacher candidates to make sense of and talk about the competing discourses of achievement they may encounter in their teaching lives, they will be better equipped to negotiate expectations that stand in opposition to one another and that may restrict student learning.


Finally, we believe that using clear and distinct language to talk about the two different discourses of achievement found in contemporary policy and school discourses would clarify and simplify conversations about achievement. In this article, we propose using the terms academic progress to describe the growth model discourse on achievement represented in the DAP guidelines and academic success to describe the standards mastery discourse represented in NCLB-driven state policies across all educational contexts— in the policy arena, in academia, across the hierarchies of school administration, and on school campuses and in classrooms. Indeed, shared understandings might lead to the development of a more equitable, coherent, unified, and achievable vision of our national learning goals for 2014.


Notes


1. All names, including the names of the participants and the teaching credentials they are pursuing; the state, university, and field placement school district; all elements of the statewide assessment system; and the district’s implementation of the statewide assessment system have been omitted or altered to protect confidentiality and privacy.

2. The district offers prekindergarten classes for students who are English language learners or who come from low-income families. However, the state did not have mandated academic content standards for prekindergarten at the time this study was conducted.

3. Additional data sources include documents and program materials from the university’s teacher education program, documents provided by the participants’ field placement school district, and material relating to the State Accountability System, the state’s academic content standards, and the SAP tests published by the state’s department of education.

4. Please note that although the authors have lightly edited the transcript data to increase readability, care was taken to maintain the integrity and meaning that participants sought to convey.


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Appendix A. First Interview Protocol


1.

What cohort are you in? (e.g., number, coordinator)


2.

Describe your educational history/background (e.g., where from; schools attended; demographics of the student, teaching, and administrative population; experiences in school and as a student).


3.

How do you identify yourself? (e.g., race, gender, class, etc.)


4.

Why did you want to become a teacher?


5.

What grade do you think you want to teach? Why?


6.

Where and in what kind of school do you want to teach? Why?


7.

What role and responsibility do you think teachers should hold in helping students achieve academically?


8.

How do you define academic achievement? How would you determine if a student has or has not achieved academically?


9.

Why do you think some students achieve academically? Why do you think some students fail to achieve academically?


10.

From where did your knowledge about academic achievement come?


11.

Do you think sociocultural influences play a role in academic achievement? If so, how?


12.

How do you define sociocultural influences in learning?


13.

Should a teacher be aware of sociocultural factors when teaching? If so, why?


14.

What did you know about sociocultural influences before taking ALD 327? Did your understanding about sociocultural influences change after taking ALD 327? How?


15.

Is there any knowledge you gained in ALD 327 that stands out to you?


16.

What courses are you currently taking? What is the focus area of the course(s)? What are some of the key ideas/concepts that you cover in the course(s)?


17.

Why are you participating in this study?



Appendix B. Second Interview Protocol


1. What were the most important things you learned this semester? What surprised you?


2. What factors influenced the academic achievement of the students in your placement class? What did you see that makes you think this?


3. How did sociocultural factors influence achievement of your students?


4. Based on your experiences this semester, what do you think is the role of _______ in students’ academic achievement?


Child


Parents


Race/culture/ethnicity


School


School district


State


Teacher


Principal


Peers, peer culture


Popular culture


Curriculum


Expectations


School organization issues (e.g., class size, schedule, etc.)


5. Are there other factors that influence students’ academic achievement that I didn’t mention?


6. I’d like your thoughts on a puzzling question. A lot of the students who are participating in this study described academic achievement in terms of each child’s personal growth and learning: Academic achievement involves each child learning new information and making progress from where he or she was at the beginning of the year. But in Texas, students are expected to learn all the knowledge and skills spelled out in the TEKS for their grade level—that’s the official definition of academic achievement. How should teachers handle this? When should teachers stop defining academic achievement as growth and learning and start defining it as reaching certain outcomes required by the state?




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 1, 2013, p. 1-37
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16739, Date Accessed: 8/27/2014 12:54:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Keffrelyn Brown
    University of Texas at Austin
    KEFFRELYN D. BROWN is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and affiliated faculty with the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests focus on understanding how teachers acquire, understand, and use sociocultural knowledge in their classroom practice and examining school-based and societal discourses circulated about African Americans.
  • Lisa Goldstein
    Santa Clara University
    E-mail Author
    LISA S. GOLDSTEIN is a professor and the director of teacher education at Santa Clara University. Her recent research examines the impact of state accountability systems on the curricular and instructional decision-making of practicing and preservice elementary teachers.
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