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Examining Mandated Testing, Teachers’ Milieu, and Teachers’ Knowledge and Beliefs: Gaining a Fuller Understanding of the Web of Influence on Teachers’ Classroom Practices


by Jacob W. Neumann

Background: Much research has been done on the factors that influence teachers’ work. Yet, the nature and scope of those factors, and their impact on teachers, remain unclear. Indeed, different literature bases on teachers’ work present different and often contradictory conclusions. For example, some researchers claim that mandated accountability testing exerts the greatest impact on teachers’ work. Yet, other researchers claim that teachers’ knowledge and beliefs have an equally strong impact on their work as does mandated testing. These contradictory findings in the research seem to happen at least in part because most research into teachers’ work only looks at one or two influences on that work and ignores how multiple factors work together to influence teachers’ work.

Purpose: Recognizing this background, this study examines three factors that influence teachers’ work: mandated accountability testing, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and teachers’ milieu. The article examines each factor, both individually and collectively, for their combined influence on teachers’ work.

Setting: This study was conducted at a public middle school in south Texas.

Population: Four social studies teachers participated in this study: 2 eighth-grade U.S.

history teachers, 1 seventh-grade Texas history teacher, and 1 sixth-grade world cultures teacher.

Research Design: The study encompasses 5 years of weekly interactions with social studies teachers at the school. I logged approximately 450 hours of nonparticipant observations, made field notes and audio recordings of regular classroom activities, conducted 13 semistructured interviews and had numerous informal conversations with the teachers, and attended teachers’ department meetings. Open coding was used to closely analyze research texts.

Findings: The analysis finds that these three factors do not influence teachers’ work in isolation. Instead, they combine to form a complex “web of influence” on teachers’ work. The article crafts a narrative of these teachers’ experiences with these different factors and illustrates how the factors combine to impact their work.

Conclusion: This article holds implications for school leaders, policy makers, and teacher educators. In short, it offers evidence about the unintended consequences of not taking a holistic approach to school leadership, educational policy, and teacher education.

There is an ongoing effort by researchers to better understand the influences on teachers’ work. Teachers’ work can be shaped by a range of factors, such as teacher education programs, the types of students one teaches, teachers’ milieu, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and mandated accountability testing. Researchers have studied teachers’ work in a variety of ways, for example, in terms of teachers’ roles (Valli & Buese, 2007), teachers’ workload (Easthope & Easthope, 2000), teachers’ teaching practices (Wills, 2007; Wills & Sandholtz, 2009), and teachers’ knowledge (Craig, 2004, 2013).


However, lines of inquiry into these influences usually focus on only one and occasionally two factors at a time. For example, large bodies of empirical literature separately study the influence of mandated accountability testing on teachers’ teaching, the influence of teachers’ milieu on their teaching, and the influence of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs on their teaching. These bodies of literature usually represent discrete and distinct research agendas; most of the literature within one of these areas is delineated from literature in the other areas. Sometimes overlap exists between areas, but seldom are multiple areas examined for their combined influence on teachers’ work. This is a problem, because focusing on just one (or even two) factor and excluding consideration of others can give researchers an incomplete picture of the influences on teachers’ work.


In the current study, I take a more holistic approach and examine three factors that influence teachers’ work: mandated accountability testing, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and teachers’ milieu. In this study, teachers’ work refers to teachers’ teaching practices, teachers’ knowledge, and teachers’ roles and workload, as well as teachers’ experience of their work. The research question guiding my analysis is: How do these three factors individually and collectively influence the teachers’ work at this particular school site? My goal is not to compare these three factors and rank their influence. Instead, my goal is quite the opposite: to show how these three factors combine to influence teachers’ work in one school setting. Any one factor may have more or less influence over teachers’ work depending on particular conditions or circumstances. But all three of these factors exert a combined influence on teachers’ work that is too often overlooked in educational research. My contention is that by simultaneously analyzing multiple factors, researchers can begin to generate more complex understandings of the relationships among those factors and of how they collectively influence teachers’ work.


I construct the argument in this article in several steps. First, I review the relevant literature regarding each area of influence and then highlight inconsistencies within those bodies of research. Second, I make a case for why I focus on mandated testing, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and teachers’ milieu. Third, I describe the research context, including the school, the teachers, the accountability context, my theoretical framework, and the research methodology. Fourth, I individually examine different ways that each area influences these teachers’ work. My intent in this section is not to try to account for how each factor influences each teacher; elements within each area of influence, of course, have different effects on different teachers. Instead, I look across the teachers’ experiences and briefly illustrate a range of ways that each factor operates as an influence on their work. Fifth, I discuss how these areas combine to form a web of influence on the teachers’ work. There I examine ways that effects of different factors compound each other or operate against each other to variously influence the teachers’ work. Sixth, I end by discussing implications this web of influence has for school administration, teacher education, school change efforts, and students.


REVIEW OF THE RELEVANT LITERATURE


In the following sections, I examine the relevant literature regarding the influences of mandated accountability testing, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and teachers’ milieu on teachers’ work. These literature bases imply a range of sometimes conflicting conclusions about the influences of these three factors on teachers’ work. I briefly discuss these inconsistencies at the end of this section.


THE INFLUENCE OF MANDATED ACCOUNTABILITY TESTING ON TEACHERS’ WORK


Much of the literature on mandated accountability testing holds that mandated testing not only has a deleterious effect on teaching but also is the primary influence on teaching (Barksdale-Ladd & Thomas, 2000; Gaylor, 2005; Jones et al., 1999; Smith, 1991; van Hover & Pierce, 2006; Vogler, 2005, 2008). This line of research argues that mandated testing narrows teachers’ pedagogical options, compelling “teacher-centered” practices in the classroom. Au (2011) contended that mandated testing acts as a form of labor control over teachers’ work. According to Smith (1991), “because multiple-choice testing leads to multiple-choice teaching, the methods that teachers have in their arsenal become reduced, and teaching work is deskilled” (p. 10). Vogler and Virtue (2007) called this effect a “just the facts, ma’am” influence on teaching. A number of studies provide evidence that support this pedagogical narrowing effect of mandated testing (e.g., Au, 2007; Vogler, 2005, 2008). For example, Faulkner and Cook (2006) found that middle school teachers in Kentucky “felt strongly that the [mandated] assessment weighed heavily on their minds” (p. 7) and “resorted to ‘coverage’ over in-depth study of instructional topics” (p. 8).


However, a number of researchers offer a different view of the effects of mandated testing and present evidence of teachers teaching in meaningful and productive ways despite mandated accountability testing. For example, some researchers illustrate how teachers find ways to develop constructivist classrooms even within high-stakes testing environments (e.g., Williamson, Bondy, Langley, & Mayne, 2005). Other studies show how teachers are able to generate “thoughtfulness” (Newmann, 1990) in the classroom, even if time for such thinking is squeezed by mandated testing (Wills, 2007; Wills & Sandholtz, 2009). And in previous research, I offered evidence of a social studies teacher generating opportunities for inquiry and deep thinking for her students while still preparing them for mandated testing (Neumann, 2013).


Further, much research into the effects of mandated testing compares those effects against the influence of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs. Many of those studies argue that teachers’ knowledge and beliefs have an equal and possibly greater influence on teaching than does mandated testing (e.g., Cimbricz, 2002; Firestone et al., 2002; Grant, 2001, 2003; Jones, Jones, & Hargrove, 2003; Neumann, 2013; Salinas, 2006).


THE INFLUENCE OF TEACHERS’ KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEFS ON THEIR WORK


The influence of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs is studied in a variety of ways, apart from comparisons with mandated testing. It is well established that teachers’ knowledge and beliefs influence their work (Ashton & Webb, 1986; Gibson & Dembo, 1984; Grossman, Wilson, & Shulman, 1989; Feiker Hollenbeck, 2013; Kagan, 1992; Kagan & Smith, 1988; Richardson, Anders, Tidwell, & Loyd, 1991; Scharlach, 2008). The literature on teachers’ beliefs is broad—so broad indeed that Kagan (1992) suggested that “one way to get a handle on the literature of teacher belief is to recognize it as a cluster of separate research agendas” (p. 67). This literature ranges from the influence on self-efficacy (Ashton & Webb, 1986; Gibson & Dembo, 1984), to convictions about teaching methods (Calderhead, 1990; Hollon, Anderson, & Roth, 1991; Litt & Turk, 1985), to subject matter (Peterson & Comeaux, 1989; Stein, Baxter, & Leinhardt, 1988; Wilson & Wineburg, 1988), to teaching struggling readers (Maxson, 1996; Scharlach, 2008; Soodak & Podell, 1994).


Jean Clandinin and Michael Connelly situated teachers’ knowledge in multiple levels: as “personal practical knowledge” (Clandinin, 1986) that operates within and is shaped by a “professional knowledge landscape” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1995, 1996). Personal practical knowledge “is knowledge that reflects the individual’s prior knowledge and acknowledges the contextual nature of a teacher’s knowledge. It is a kind of knowledge carved out of, and shaped by, situations” (Clandinin, 1992, p. 125). Teachers’ personal practical knowledge is lived within professional knowledge landscapes that shape what counts as “effective teaching, what teachers know, what knowledge is seen as essential for teaching and who is warranted to produce knowledge about teaching” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1996, p. 24).


Teachers’ knowledge and beliefs influence the way they teach. Kagan (1992) claimed that “researchers have found that a teacher’s beliefs usually reflect the actual nature of the instruction the teacher provides to students” (p. 73). For example, in previous research (Neumann, 2013), I found that one middle school social studies teacher extensively used drama in her teaching, what she called “Act it Outs,” because she felt that such participatory and experiential activities helped her students gain more in-depth understanding of historical events. Teachers’ beliefs about teaching are difficult to change. For example, Britzman (1986) argued that teacher education programs typically reinforce teacher candidates’ already existing beliefs about teaching rather than help candidates to develop new ones. Once they begin work as teachers of record, “teachers continue to solve instructional problems largely by relying on their own beliefs and experiences” rather than “by reading and applying the findings of educational research” (Kagan, 1992, p. 75).


Two other areas of teachers’ beliefs also influence their work: what Newmann (1988) called the American “addiction to coverage” and the widespread belief in what Metz (1989) called “Real School.” These beliefs are linked to classroom teaching through societal values regarding the structure of knowledge and the institution of schools. These dominant schooling patterns hold broad institutional significance (Reid, 2003) and resist easy alteration in the public mind. According to Newmann (1988), the addiction to content coverage is a fundamental reason that teachers employ teacher-centered practices that rush through the formal curriculum. Newmann claimed that a variety of negative consequences result from this focus on coverage: content that is quickly learned and even more quickly forgotten; a reinforced habit of mindlessness; conditioning students to not ask thoughtful questions; and, of course, a brief survey rather than in-depth focus on content.


The belief in Real School also helps to explain some of the consistency found in public schools across the country. By Real School, Metz meant patterns and practices of schooling that are publicly, even if tacitly, considered to be real, authentic, and appropriate. Put differently, “real schools” and, thus, “real teachers,” are publically expected to engage in particular types of behaviors and practices because that is what “real schools and teachers” do. These patterns of schooling are often publically considered to be “just the way schools are” (Reid, 2003). Indeed, Metz (1989) argued that secondary schools seem to follow a “common script.” She claimed that the rituals of Real School are symbols of equity that exert a powerful tug on the American psyche. In the national consciousness, notions of equal opportunity tightly connect to the impulse to provide all students with the same education (even if “the public [also] perceives schools to be in practice very unequal” (p. 85). Thus, “the common script and its enactment with symbols and rituals of Real School . . . gives a skeletal reality to the claim of equity through sameness” (p. 85):


Its enactment assures both participants and outsiders of the equity of public schooling as a whole, while it certifies teachers and students who follow it as legitimate and worthy participants in the academic and social life of the broader society. Participation in the drama it sketches out is participation in a ritual that affirms membership in mainstream American life. (p. 87)


In other words, teachers continue to follow, and thus tacitly endorse, the common script not just in reaction to institutional pressures but also from an emotional desire to fit into mainstream notions about what it means to be a teacher. Thus, while teachers can feel public pressure to comply with expected behaviors of teachers, this belief in “real school” is also very much a value claim on the part of teachers. They follow the range of endorsed behaviors in part because those behaviors represent what it means to be a Real Teacher who teaches in a Real School.


THE INFLUENCE OF TEACHERS’ MILIEU ON THEIR WORK


The relevant research on teachers’ milieu (Schwab, 1973) usually follows one of two lines: either the “intensification” of teachers’ work or the structural and institutional factors that influence teachers’ work. Tellingly, for my thesis here, these two lines of inquiry seldom refer to each other.   


The intensification thesis began in Marxist analysis of education as an attempt to account for the causes and effects of the growing workload teachers have faced over the past several decades (Apple, 1986; Apple & Jungck, 1996; Densmore, 1987; Larson, 1980). Hargreaves (1992) described this line of analysis as follows:


In these accounts, teachers’ work is portrayed as becoming more routinized and deskilled, more and more like the degraded work of manual workers and less and less like that of autonomous professionals trusted to exercise the power and expertise of discretionary judgment with the children. Teachers are depicted as being increasingly controlled by prescribed programs, mandated curricula, and step-by-step methods of instruction. (pp. 87–88)


More recent research into the crowding of teachers’ work moves away from Marxist analysis and focuses on the nature and effect of the increasing numbers of tasks that teachers must deal with in their work that do not involve teaching. Examples of these intensification pressures include school district initiatives regarding student monitoring (Ballet & Kelchtermans, 2009); organized school reform mandates (Craig, 2001, 2012, 2013; Kennedy, 2005); and assessment and administration demands, as well as inclusion of greater numbers of students with increased learning and emotional support needs in mainstream classrooms (Easthope & Easthope, 2000; Hargreaves, 1992; Valli & Buese, 2007). The biggest and most persistent impact of intensification on teachers’ work is a persistent lack of time: time for curriculum planning, time for professional development, and time for personal pursuits outside of work as teachers have to work longer days or take increasing amounts of work home with them (Ballet & Kelchtermans, 2009; Ballet, Kelchtermans, & Loughran, 2006; Bartlett, 2002; Campbell & Neill, 1994; Gitlin, 2001; Hargreaves, 1992, 1994). This line of research holds that the intensification of teachers’ work and its concomitant time crunch lead to a narrowing of teaching practices toward efficiency and basic skills teaching (Ballet & Kelchtermans, 2009; Valli & Buese, 2007).


The other line of research into teachers’ milieu focuses on the structural and institutional factors that influence their work. Some of the research along this line holds that particularities of place within a teacher’s milieu frame what and how teachers come to know (Craig, 1998). These particularities include, but are not limited to, the nature of collegial relationships; the accountability context of a school, subject, or grade level; and the “stories of school” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1996; Craig, 2000) authorized by local school administrators. Craig’s work (e.g., Craig, 2001, 2004, 2012, 2013) in particular clearly demonstrates that teachers’ knowledge and beliefs are influenced by issues such as school reform efforts, collegial (or noncollegial) relationships, effects from mandated testing-related issues, and local administrative decisions. Indeed, she offered rich evidence of milieu-related factors that even cause teachers to question and doubt their own knowledge and beliefs (e.g. Craig, 2004).


Other research, such as Cuban’s work (e.g., 1982, 1986, 1988a, 1988b, 1993), describes how institutional patterns of schooling shape teachers’ work. Cuban argued that “teacher-centered” practices (i.e., lecturing, having students read aloud from the textbook, using worksheets, and entertaining few student questions) in secondary schools, such as the school in which this study took place, commonly result when teachers are compelled to teach too much in too short a time period to too many classes with too many students. Let me quote Cuban (1986) at length:


For example, high school teachers face more than 150 students during a school day that is sliced into periods of less than an hour each; they teach five classes and prepare two or more lessons each day, which leaves them no time to grade papers at school or to meet with colleagues. Not surprisingly, they have little energy or time during or outside of class to explore ideas with students, to permit students to make errors that can then be reassessed, to listen as students try out new thoughts, question the textbook, or question the teacher’s statements. Laboring under such conditions, even the best teachers are driven to make deals with students and to reduce opportunities for thinking in the classroom. (p. 10)


In short, Cuban argued that “teacher-centered” practices are often a coping mechanism that allows teachers to efficiently teach within the structural confines imposed on them. This does not imply, however, that institutional factors make teacher-centered practices operate to the exclusion of more “student-centered” practices. To the contrary, Cuban (2007) found that teachers employed a “hybrid” of teacher-centered and student-centered practices in their classrooms: for example, practices such as lecture, reading aloud from textbooks, and worksheets blended with small group work, projects, and student-selected problems in science or computer labs.


INCONSISTENCIES RAISED BY THIS REVIEW


This brief review generates more questions than it does answers. In reading any one of these literature bases, conclusions about influences on teachers’ work seem quite clear. But juxtaposing the claims made about influences on teachers’ work across all three sections blurs those seemingly clear conclusions. Here are some of these competing and contradictory claims:


Mandated testing compels teachers to use “teacher-centered” methods.

The intensification of teachers’ milieu compels teachers to use “teacher-centered” methods.

Structural and institutional factors compel teachers to use “teacher-centered” methods.

Teachers’ knowledge and beliefs are an equal, if not greater, influence on their teaching as mandated testing.

Teachers’ knowledge and beliefs mediate the effects of intensification.

Teachers’ milieu can impact teachers’ knowledge and beliefs.

Teachers’ knowledge and beliefs influence their teaching and are difficult to change.


How do all these claims fit together? For example, if elements within teachers’ milieu compel teachers to use “teacher-centered” teaching methods, how do teachers’ knowledge and beliefs mediate the effects of the intensification of that milieu? To what degree does teachers’ milieu impact teachers’ knowledge and beliefs if teachers’ knowledge and beliefs are difficult to change? If teachers’ knowledge and beliefs exert equal influence on their teaching methods as does mandated testing, why would mandated testing compel teachers to use “teacher-centered” teaching methods if they did not want to use them?


Given this range of claims, it is difficult to determine what we know about the factors that influence teachers’ work. This is because while each of the preceding claims is supported by evidence when framed and studied in particular ways as a research question, we know little about how these various claims fit together. Viewed as separate parts, each claim makes sense. But viewed more broadly, it’s hard to know how these factors relate to each other. Each claim can be “true,” but each claim cannot be “true” at the same time. Nor can each claim be equally “true.” Thus, to make, say, a claim about the influence of mandated testing versus teachers’ knowledge and beliefs or about the intensification of teachers’ work without also considering other structural factors, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and mandated testing is to make a claim that offers only a partial understanding of the range of influences on teachers’ work.


WHY FOCUS ON THESE THREE FACTORS?


I focus on mandated testing, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and teachers’ milieu for a number of reasons. I did not include the influence of teacher education because its influence is difficult to ascertain. Although most articles in teacher education journals seem to posit belief in the efficacy of teacher education (e.g. Darling-Hammond, 2010), the research on the effectiveness of teacher education is less clear. Evertson, Hawley, and Zlotnik (1985) and Darling-Hammond (2000) contended that regularly certified teachers are more effective than teachers with less formal training. And Grossman and Richert (1988) argued that teacher education coursework and fieldwork offer productive opportunities for learning about teaching. However, other studies question the influence of teacher education. Britzman (1986) claimed that teacher education tends “to reinforce the ideas and images of education that prospective teachers bring to their training” (p. 446). Zeichner and Tabachnick (1981) questioned whether the effects of teacher education were “washed out,” that is, effaced by school experience. And Nye, Konstantopoulos, and Hedges (2004) found only modest influence of teacher education on teachers’ teaching effectiveness.


I did not include the types of students a teacher teaches for two reasons. First, teachers in the United States commonly adjust their teaching to meet the learning needs of individual students in their classes. Although such adjustments can be crucial in successfully teaching individual students, my focus is not on these types of “micro” or individualized adjustments but on teachers’ work with a class as a whole. Second, the students at the school where this study was conducted are relatively homogenous. Differences certainly exist regarding individual learning needs, but from a macro-perspective, as the discussion of the school context will show, students are largely similar regarding their ethnicity, their socioeconomic status, and the language(s) they speak.


Mainly, I focus on these three factors because their effects have been most apparent to me during my research at this school site and because I find that examining these three factors addresses a gap in the literature on teachers’ work. This article is based on 5 years of qualitative research at one middle school in Texas. In 2013, I published an article (Neumann, 2013) that drew on what was then 2.5 years of research at that school. That article focused on only two factors: mandated accountability testing, and teachers’ knowledge and beliefs. In the 2.5 years since I wrote that article, I have learned from my further experiences at the school how my arguments were incomplete. Mandated accountability testing and the teachers’ knowledge and beliefs certainly played an important role in shaping her work, but leaving the influence of the teacher’s milieu out of the analysis distorted clear understanding of the fuller picture. I came to realize, through my continuing classroom observations, my conversations with teachers, and my attendance at department meetings, that a fuller story of the influences on their work needed to be told.


This story can also help to address a gap in the research literature. As the preceding literature review showed, influences on teachers’ work have been examined from a range of perspectives. A number of studies comparatively examine two areas of influence at a time, for example, with mandated testing and teachers’ knowledge and beliefs (e.g., Cimbricz, 2002; Grant, 2001; Salinas, 2006) and with mandated testing and teachers’ milieu (e.g., Crocco & Costigan, 2006, 2007; VanSledright & Grant, 1994; Wills, 2007). Studies comparing the influence of mandated testing with that of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs show the tenuous and uncertain relationship between the two (discussed earlier). Studies of mandated testing and teachers’ milieu describe how mandated testing often narrows teachers’ pedagogical options by compelling them to teach a huge amount of content within a compressed amount of time, resulting in what several researchers have called “teaching dilemmas” for teachers (Cuban, 1992; VanSledright & Grant, 1994; Wills, 2007; Wills & Sandholtz, 2009). As Valli and Buese (2007) claimed in their study, “Because the curriculum moved at such a fast pace and because the topics were organized in such an unfamiliar way, teachers felt as though they were racing through it. Several teachers referred to the deterioration of their pedagogies into what they called ‘hit or miss’ and ‘drive-by’ teaching” (p. 545). This pacing problem is compounded by the fact that social studies teachers often have to “deal with a mandated curriculum that is notoriously ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’” (Crocco & Costigan, 2006, p. 2). Wills (2007) and Wills and Sandholtz (2009) argued that the pacing rush causes teachers to employ teacher-centered methods in their classrooms. Two studies more specifically address influences that I witnessed at my school site.

Ballet and Kelchtermans (2009) addressed two important complicating issues in assessing the influence of intensification on teachers’ work: other mediating factors within teachers’ milieu, such as collegial relationships and school-based political dynamics, and the mediating influence of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs. And Valli and Buese (2007) highlighted which specific intensifying factors can “crowd” teachers’ time and thereby their teaching. For the teachers in that study, the factors included AYP (federal average yearly progress requirements under No Child Left Behind), ESOL instruction, tutoring, curriculum pacing and alignment, and data-related tasks.


However, even with all the varied research attention paid to the influences on teachers’ work, I could find no studies that fully examine all three areas (mandated accountability testing, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and teachers’ milieu) for their combined influence on teachers’ work. This article seeks to address this gap.


THE RESEARCH CONTEXT

THE SCHOOL


This study was conducted at Connors Middle School, which is located within a midsize city in south Texas (the names of the school and the teachers have been changed to protect participants’ privacy). I originally entered Connors back in fall 2009 as a new assistant professor interested in studying social studies teachers’ “professional knowledge landscapes” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1996). I was new to the area, and I chose to research at Connors because the dean of my college recommended the school given its overall excellence in teaching.


Connors is highly regarded, both within its school district and across the state; it has been repeatedly named as a “top performing public school” by Texas Monthly magazine and has been listed on the Texas Business and Education Coalition “Honor Roll.” Connors is an International Baccalaureate (IB), Middle Years Program, school that enrolls approximately 1,200 students in Grades 6–8. IB is an educational nonprofit program, based in Switzerland, that emphasizes a holistic and intercultural approach to teaching and learning. IB curriculum is intended to be rigorous and multidisciplinary.


During the time frame of this study, students at Connors were approximately 88% Hispanic, 8% White, 3% Asian, and 1% Black; approximately 40% economically disadvantaged; and approximately 12% limited English proficient. The numbers of economically disadvantaged and limited English proficient students at Connors are well below the state averages in Texas: approximately 59% economically disadvantaged and 17% limited English proficient (Texas Education Agency, 2011).


THE TEACHERS


Four social studies teachers participated in this study (out of nine social studies teachers in this school). These teachers were selected for several reasons: they have substantial teaching experience; they exhibit enthusiasm for teaching and learning; they were praised by the school administration for their teaching quality; and they warmly invited me into their classrooms. These teachers have almost 100 years of combined teaching experience. Most of these teachers have taught at Connors since it opened 13 years ago. Orlando Gaines is in his 18th year of teaching, 13 at Connors and 5 at a different school in the district. During the years of this study, Orlando taught both eighth-grade U.S. history and seventh-grade Texas history. Margaret Rhodes taught for 38 years, the last 21 in eighth-grade U.S. history. She was recently named Secondary Teacher of the Year for the school district. Bill Trammell is in his 12th year of teaching eighth-grade U.S. history. Bill has previously been named Teacher of the Year at Connors. And Mary Watson has taught for 27 years, the last 13 in sixth-grade world cultures.


THE ACCOUNTABILITY CONTEXT


Because part of this study involves mandated accountability testing, it is important to briefly describe the accountability context in Texas. Beginning in 1980, Texas has progressed through five versions of mandated statewide accountability exams: the TABS (Texas Assessment of Basic Skills) from 1980 to 1985; the TEAMS (Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills) from 1986 to 1989; the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) from 1990 to 2002; the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) from 2003 to 2011; and the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness), which were implemented in the 2011–2012 school year. According to the Texas Education Agency (2010a), each subsequent exam builds on its predecessor in terms of scope, complexity, and rigor. This study spans the final two years of TAKS and the first three years of STAAR.


According to TEA, the Texas Education Agency (2010b), the STAAR represents a marked increase in scope, complexity, and rigor from the previous test (the TAKS). Following are a few claims made by TEA (Texas Education Agency, 2010a) about the new test:


“STAAR will represent a more unified, comprehensive assessment program that will incorporate more rigorous college and career readiness standards.”

“Performance standards will be set so that they require a higher level of student performance than is required on the current TAKS assessments.”

“Assessments will increase in length at most grade levels and subjects, and overall test difficulty will be increased by including more rigorous [test] items.”

“The rigor of the [test] items will be increased by assessing skills at a greater depth and level of cognitive complexity.”


Eighth-grade students in Texas take mandated accountability exams in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies. During the time frame of this study, students needed to pass the reading and mathematics exams to advance to the next grade. The social studies and science exams, however, were not required for eighth graders to advance to ninth grade. Some researchers have noted, however, that teachers can feel pressure from standardized testing, not from just consequences and rewards, but simply because that testing is mandated (Grant, 2006; Vogler & Virtue, 2007). Additionally, of course, many teachers across the country are pressured by school administrators regarding accountability scores. Because of No Child Left Behind-related concerns over meeting AYP, Connors administrators are pressured by district-level administrators to maintain high test scores. As in many schools across the country, these pressures are passed down the line to teachers.


THE THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK


The theoretical framework for this analysis is drawn from Foucault’s notion of power. Foucault held that “power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere” (Foucault, 1990, p. 92). Power does not emanate from central points of origin in hierarchical or linear fashion. Instead, power “is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another” (p. 93). Thus, power acts in multiple directions within relationships: “economic processes, knowledge relations, sexual relationships,” etc. (p. 94). Foucault held that “there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations” (p. 94). Foucault created the image of a web of power relations passing through relationships, apparatuses, and institutions (p. 96).


The various factors that influence teachers’ work can be said to exert power on their work. Because, following Foucault, power operates simultaneously in multiple directions, each factor creates a cross-pull and tug of power/influence on the others. In my analysis, for example, mandated accountability testing exerts power/influence on teachers’ work, as do factors within teachers’ milieu. Teachers’ knowledge and beliefs also exert power/influence on their work. Yet, these factors also work on each other, sometimes mitigating, other times exacerbating, the effects of the others. Thus, even though the practical effect might feel or appear to be otherwise, it is not a matter of, say, mandated testing exerting power in domination of the other two areas. Instead, just as Foucault crafted the notion of a network of power relations (Foucault, 1990, p. 96), we can create an image of a network or web of influence on teachers’ work impacted simultaneously by mandated testing, teachers’ milieu, and teachers’ knowledge and beliefs. Each factor within the web of power/influence pulls on the others, creating ever-shifting power relationships.


THE RESEARCH METHODOLOGY


This study is grounded in the narrative inquiry tradition (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Connelly & Clandinin, 1990; Craig, 1999). Narrative inquiry is “concerned with the meanings people construe of their lived experiences in context” and with understanding and representing those meanings in their—as opposed to the researcher’s—terms (Craig, 2009, p. 1039). Narrative inquiry “occurs within relationships among researchers and participants” (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990, p. 4). The task of narrative researchers is not to impose external guidelines or conditions on a research project but to work with research participants to elicit what “teacher[s] know and [are finding] in professional practice” (Clandinin, 2000, p. 29). Thus, this method “is a collaboration between a researcher and participants, over time, in a place or series of places, and in social interaction with milieus” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 20).


The notions of story and storytelling are essential both to narrative inquiry and to this article. In narrative inquiry, “story forms both the source of information through storytelling as well as the vehicle for interpretation and reinterpretation of experience” (Craig, 2000, p. 13). In this study, data were collected through the living and telling of stories, which was then used to create a narrative about those experiences. According to Connelly and Clandinin (1990), “people are both living their stories in an ongoing experiential text and telling their stories in words as they reflect upon life and explain themselves to others” (p. 4). The teachers in this study told me stories about their work, as they continuously lived stories in their classrooms, many of which I lived with them during my observations. I used the research texts to tell a story about the stories they lived and told with me. In telling this story, my use of some of the research texts, especially the interview transcripts, is obvious. The specific use of other research texts, such as field notes, email correspondence, and policy documents, is less visible. The point of narrative inquiry, however, is not necessarily to account for each piece of data but rather to use data to create a trustworthy story/narrative that conveys both data and analysis.

The Mechanics of the Study


This study encompasses 5 years of weekly interactions with teachers in the social studies department at Connors, from fall 2009 through the spring of 2014. I use the word study cautiously, however, because study often signals an isolated investigation that has been completed. This project does not report on such an inquiry and thus is not completed in the usual sense because I continue to research with these teachers. Rather, this article reports on data and analysis taken within a delineated period of time during an ongoing longitudinal research project.


Over the course of this time, I made approximately 450 hours of nonparticipant classroom observations in the teachers’ classrooms. In these observations, I took field notes and made audio recordings of regular classroom activities. In my field notes, I recorded the types of teaching and learning activities each teacher facilitated, teachers’ language that signaled their knowledge and beliefs, and the participation of students in the classroom. In addition, from the third year on, I attended weekly department meetings. I talked informally with the teachers during these department meetings, as well as before and after each classroom observation.


The classroom observations occurred between one and three times per week, for one class period each. In the first year, I observed two of the teachers, Margaret and Bill. In the second and third years, I focused just on Margaret’s classroom. In the fourth year, I observed both Margaret’s and Bill’s classrooms again. And in the fifth year, I observed Bill’s, Orlando’s, and Mary’s classrooms (see Table 1 for a breakdown of these observations). The depth and breadth of these observations provide me with a strong knowledge of these teachers’ classrooms.


Table 1. The Observation Distribution Among the Teachers

School year

Teacher(s)

# Hours of observation

2009–2010

Margaret Rhodes

30

Bill Trammell

30

2010–2011

Margaret Rhodes

75

2011–2012

Margaret Rhodes

75

2012–2013

Margaret Rhodes

60

Bill Trammell

60

2013–2014

Bill Trammell

40

Orlando Gaines

40

Mary Watson

40

  

Total hours = 450


I conducted a total of 13 semi-structured individual interviews with all 4 teachers: four each with Margaret Rhodes and Bill Trammell, three with Jeanine Sousa, and two with Orlando Gaines. These interviews averaged approximately 45 minutes each in length. Most interview questions were generated (1) in response to emergent data collected during classroom observations and department meetings and (2) as follow-up from my conversations with the teachers during observation days and department meetings. Although there were no standardized interview questions, many of the interviews shared common characteristics. For example, I wanted to know about the pressures the teachers felt on their teaching and inside their classrooms; how they felt their milieu influenced their work; why they used particular teaching methods or organized their curriculum in particular ways; and how they thought mandated testing impacted their work. Examples of interview questions and topics can be found throughout the results section.


The field notes I took during each classroom observation, during each department meeting, and after each informal conversation; the transcriptions I made of each interview I conducted and each classroom activity I recorded; email correspondence with the teachers; and various documents I gathered from the teachers, such as classroom handouts for students and policy documents for teachers combine to form my research texts. Because my analysis for this article involved identifying and examining factors that influenced these teachers’ work lives, I used open coding methods (Corbin & Strauss, 2008) when analyzing my research texts. Most of the teachers made these factors explicit to me in my conversations and interviews with them; the factors were often persistent themes in our talks. The open coding simply allowed me to highlight and make more nuanced connections among the influences each teacher experienced. I used two levels of coding. First, I coded my research texts for what I saw as the primary area of influence on the teachers’ work. I then coded for secondary influence(s) by looking for overlap between and among the three areas of influence.


The Trustworthiness of the Analysis


Craig (2013) claimed that ultimately “it is readers . . . who determine the trustworthiness of [a] research endeavor” (p. 30). I took several steps to ensure the trustworthiness of this analysis. First, I moved “discreetly on the school landscape” (Craig, 2004) to allow the teachers’ knowledge, interpretations, and experiences to be revealed in their terms. I do not impose my own beliefs, but try to convey these teachers’ experiences as they expressed them to me. Second, I tried to create lifelike representations of these teachers’ experiences, what Mishler (1990) called “lifelikeness.” I include raw data from interview transcripts throughout the article so that readers can see for themselves the teachers’ own words in response to my questions. These raw data support and illustrate the interpretations and conclusions I draw in my analysis. Third, Connelly and Clandinin (1990) argued that “the two narratives of participant and researcher become, in part, a shared narrative construction and reconstruction through inquiry” (p. 5). To facilitate this shared reconstruction, I involved all the teachers in member-checks so that they could clarify, correct, and/or extend my interpretations of their experiences.


RESULTS: INFLUENCES ON TEACHERS’ WORK


This section is divided into three main subsections: one on the influence of mandated accountability testing, one on the influence of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and one on the influence of the teachers’ milieu. Each section presents a detailed analysis of how each of these factors influences these teachers’ work.


INFLUENCE OF MANDATED ACCOUNTABILITY TESTING


I divide my analysis of the influence of mandated accountability testing into several sections. First, I consider federal average yearly progress (AYP) requirements. I divide this analysis into two subsections: one on “the pacing problem” and another on what I call “the testing apparatus.” I then examine the influence that the structure of the mandated exam has on these teachers’ work.


AYP


AYP influences teachers’ work at Connors in a variety of ways. One teacher, Bill Trammell, claimed at the end of the 2012–2013 school year that


this year is mostly different because of AYP. That has had the biggest effect on our campus, and because the district is going through its issues with AYP, it all rolls downhill to schools. We did not make AYP last year. So things have changed on a global scale, because our district is having these issues and they’re having to implement new things and new ideas. (Interview, May 2013)


One productive way to conceptualize the changes wrought by the school’s failure to meet AYP for the 2011–2012 school year is through Clandinin and Connelly’s (1996) and Craig’s (2000) notions of “stories of school” and “teacher stories.”


“Stories of school” are stories told about a school by people such as school board members, school administrators, parents and community members, and even teachers. These stories are (sometimes “authorized”) accounts that portray the school in a particular light, with certain known qualities, often qualities that invested parties try hard to maintain. “Teacher stories,” on the other hand, are stories that teachers live and tell about their teaching work. At times, these different stories coexist seamlessly and even support each other. But when a story of school is changed or threatened, the tension within and around the challenged story of school can profoundly influence the teacher stories that its teachers live and tell about their work.


The story of Connors had been one of enviable success since its opening in 2000. Serving an affluent area of the city and school district, the school earned numerous academic, athletic, musical, and other extracurricular awards. It had even been recognized by various business organizations and statewide publishing organizations for its academic achievement. But in the 2011–2012 school year, two things happened that threatened Connors’s story of itself: (1) the State of Texas changed its mandated accountability exam from the TAKS to the STAAR (as mentioned earlier ) and (2) the AYP requirements were raised to 87% passing on the English/language arts (ELA) exam and to 83% passing on the mathematics exam. Connors failed to meet the new standards in both ELA and mathematics. This failure, along with the well-known but now threatened story of school that Connors enjoyed in the local community, caused a wave of ripples that influenced multiple aspects of its teachers’ work. In this section, I discuss two factors that were aggravated by AYP: the “pacing problem” and the “testing apparatus.”


The pacing problem. Perhaps the most visceral influence of AYP for these social studies teachers is the perennial “pacing” problem. Numerous studies recount how the pacing of curriculum (and the concomitant problem of curriculum alignment) can strongly influence teachers’ work (Valli & Buese, 2007; Wills, 2007; Wills & Sandholtz, 2009). The pacing problem at Connors is compounded by its status as an IB school. Here the teachers are ruled by two masters. One master, the school district curriculum plan for each grade level (which is no longer created by CSCOPE but which the teachers still call “CSCOPE”) plots a curriculum sprint for teachers and students. Back in 2010, Bill Trammell recounted to me one of the effects of the TAKS (the mandated accountability exam in effect at the time): “I have to do the mile wide and inch deep type approach, because I’m given all these criteria and all these objectives, and it’s such a sprint from the first day of school all the way to the TAKS test” (Interview, May 2010). Since failing to meet AYP, teachers feel this pressure even more strongly.


The other master, the school’s IB guidelines, stresses what the teachers refer to as “depth and complexity.” A tenet of the IB Middle Years Program is sustained inquiry which, according to the International Baccalaureate website (2013), helps “students become creative, critical, and reflective thinkers.” This curriculum promotes prolonged, reflective engagement with issues and ideas.


The competing pulls by these two forces—one toward coverage, the other toward sustained inquiry—creates constant tension for the teachers. Thus, when teachers discuss pacing pressures, those pressures are always accompanied by IB pressures. For example, according to Mary Watson,


On the one hand, we want to make our curriculum work for the kids, and then CSCOPE pacing wants us to rush through every two weeks to something different. And at the same time we keep in mind our IB curriculum. So we we’ve got to work with the state TEKS [the state-mandated curriculum, called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills], work with CSCOPE that’s supposed to be aligned to the TEKS, the pacing that doesn’t necessarily agree with how we think works for the kids. The scope and sequence is crazy; two weeks on every subject and then move on. (Interview, May 2012)


The pacing problem directly and continuously influences these teachers’ work. In 2010, before AYP pressures exacerbated the pacing problem, Margaret Rhodes told me that the pacing problem sometimes caused her to “teach like an auctioneer. And so a lot of it is teacher-directed.” Since AYP, Margaret lamented to me that even more of her teaching was limited to more teacher-directed methods.


Margaret: The problem is CSCOPE follows the YAG, year at a glance. To me, they want depth and complexity, but if you follow the year at a glance, and you try to get to Jackson by Christmas, how can you do any depth? How can you do “the government, one week” [snaps her fingers]?

[Author]: You get to Jackson, when, February?

Margaret: I get there January-ish. I sped up this year. I didn’t do Washington crossing the Delaware; I didn’t do the debate with Madison.

[Author]: You didn’t have them make the boat?

Margaret: No, I didn’t do any of it. I had to chop it up, because these district assessments, if you show up short, “What’s going on on your campus?” (Interview, May 2013)


Margaret is well known and respected for creatively utilizing drama in her classroom to help students wrestle with a range of complex historical events and ideas. When she taught the English Civil War, for example, she even dressed up in costume as a queen and used characters and props (complete with a balloon shaped axe) to engage students in this period of history. Yet, because of the pacing problem, she was forced to eliminate many of the dramatic structures she knew to be effective and engaging for students.


The testing apparatus. Compounding the pacing problem is the influence of the “testing apparatus” (Neumann, 2013). The testing apparatus combines with the pacing problem to further restrict teachers’ instructional time with students, time needed to generate the depth and complexity called for by IB and by these teachers’ beliefs about teaching. The testing apparatus is the battery of exams, both practice and real, affiliated with mandated testing, that the state and school district give to students each year. In Connors’s school district, this battery of exams can consume several weeks of instructional time each year. Combined with the fact that mandated testing in social studies in Texas happens in April, the testing apparatus leaves social studies teachers approximately two thirds of the school year to prepare students for the exam.   


Margaret Rhodes spoke extensively about the influence of the testing apparatus. She claimed, “[The testing apparatus] doesn’t impact what I teach, but it does impact how I teach it. I have a wealth of training and materials and I’ll sometimes think, can’t do that this year, not enough time. You have to pick the activities you think will give the most value” (Interview, May 2010). Margaret’s argument is not against accountability. She claimed that she “firmly believes” in holding teachers accountable for their students’ learning. But she voiced consistent exasperation at the testing apparatus that robs her of valuable instructional time. In the following excerpt from an interview taken during the 2010–2011 school year, I quote Margaret at length as she discusses these frustrations.


[Author]: You once said, “I’m a fan of accountability, but I think we can do it in better ways.”

Margaret: Exactly. I firmly believe in accountability. You have to have accountability. What you can’t have is . . . my biggest concern with TAKS is that you lose so much instructional time preparing for the tests. It’s a function of the test. The way we are doing it eats up too much instructional time. It’s kind of like you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. What could I do with those two or three weeks with these kids? So here’s the funny part. They call you in. They say you need to do this. We know that. Our question is, when? How would we fit that in? It’s not that we don’t get that. It’s just, when you’re blocking off days for testing, that’s instructional time that could be used for that very thing. And it used to be worse! The district . . . the benchmarks, my god, you know? You’d get started on something. . . . The district has cut back on that, because teachers were just saying, if we’re working on testing for three weeks, that’s half a six weeks! Percentage-wise, that’s a big chunk of the year. (Interview, May 2011)


Teachers always need to make selective choices about how to allocate their instructional time with students (e.g., Darling-Hammond & Wise, 1985; McNeil, 2000). By further limiting their instructional time with students, the testing apparatus exaggerates this demand on teachers. When asked about things they would like to do with students if they had more time, Margaret claimed, “I would like to do more debates. I would like to give them more time to talk. Time to kinda let it settle in. But because we move so fast, there’s no time to do that in class.” Bill Trammell offered a different focus, but one that also required time to “dig in” to subject matter:


Well, building a government would be something I would love to get into more detail about. To have students try to build their own government and to go through all the pitfalls to see what they would come up with, to see how similar or dissimilar it turns out to be with what happened with the colonists and later with the Constitutional Convention. (Interview, May 2010)


This combination of the pacing problem and the testing apparatus causes serious professional and emotional discomfort among the teachers. Mary Watson and Margaret Rhodes expressed similar frustrations. Here is Mary Watson:


It’s exhausting. The State tests students to death, and the district doubles and triples what the State’s going to do to be ready for the state test! I think that we could use our time better; if we’re constantly measuring them, when do we help students grow between the measures? (Interview, May 2014)


Margaret explained her frustration as follows:


So there was this pressure every six weeks to be here, and I was never quite up there. So that creates friction problems. And then it comes down to how many days of teaching [for testing] are we giving up now? And I can’t . . . it’s like I feel like I’m . . . these kids trust me to teach it well, and I feel like I’m forced . . . and I could be wrong. See, that’s the thing; I’m not the boss. I really feel like they think this is the answer. But from my perspective, from the way I teach, it doesn’t work for me. (Interview, May 2013)


When Margaret referred to “district assessments,” “benchmarks,” and the “pressure every six weeks to be here,” she was referring to district-made assessments administered to students each grading period (in this case, every six weeks). According to Margaret,


The emphasis is no longer about learning; it’s about the testing and passing. And because of AYP, it’s been kicked into high gear. Now there’s this move towards lockstep teaching, everybody on the same page, the creativity’s kind of . . . they want us to be creative, but the reality of it is, you really can’t. I personally don’t have the stamina to teach the way it needs to be taught. I feel so strongly about my teaching methods that I don’t think I can see myself teaching another way. (Interview, May 2013)


This is an example of the school district using assessment to monitor teachers’ compliance with district policy regarding pacing (e.g., Apple, 1986). The lack of trust that Margaret mentioned arguably applies to the school district’s relationship to its teachers. After being imposed with strict pacing demands, often enforced by benchmark tests and six-weeks assessments, the teachers are also expected to be


aligned to the direction the superintendent wants to go in terms of everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s following roughly the same outline in their classes. That is very different than [in] previous years. Because there were differences in the schools when it came to how closely they followed the curriculum that is recommended. They were all doing TEKS [the state curriculum], but they were doing it their own way. Now with CSCOPE you have an outline you can build from, but you’re expected to hit certain marks by certain times. (Bill Trammel; interview, May 2014)


Thus, as Wills (2007) and Wills and Sandholtz (2009) illustrated, the breadth of social studies curriculum can be challenging enough to teach and learn in one school year. The testing apparatus makes this problem even more difficult by compressing teachers’ time for teaching this broad swath of content into an even shorter time frame.


The Structure of the Two State-Mandated Accountability Exams in Effect During the Study


The structure of the two mandated exams in effect during this study created different influences on the teachers’ work. In Texas, only eighth-grade students take a mandated exam for social studies (U.S. history), so only eighth-grade teachers are directly influenced by the exam. Sixth- and seventh-grade teachers, however, feel indirect influences due to test-related spillover: In the name of consistency, school administrators assign sixth- and seventh-grade teachers and students similar testing benchmarks.


According to the teachers, the TAKS (the mandated exam in effect during the first two years of the study) put much emphasis on factual recall and recognition, what Margaret Rhodes called “the bare bones.” For example, Margaret claimed that the structure of the TAKS influenced how she tried to reach her students:


The testing forces you to teach to the bottom. When you have bright kids, you know they are going to pass. They read the book; they answer the questions. So you’re really just forced to go to those bubble kids, the kids who could go either way. And the lower ones. The ones at the bottom, you just hope they pass. (Interview, May 2010)


To help the “bubble kids,” those students who sit on the pass/fail edge, and those “at the bottom,” Margaret began her teaching with “stripped down” content, what she called the “bare bones.” Margaret argued that because the exam tests students’ ability to remember such a wide range of random and isolated facts, she must organize course content into simplified chunks that are (relatively) easy for her students to digest and remember. In the interview excerpt that follows, Margaret and I interpreted the effect of the structure of the exam on history content in her class. Here I am specifically referring to handouts that she gave to students, an example of which is found in Figure 1, which provides a vivid illustration of this common practice Margaret used to condense information for students.


Figure 1. An example of an illustrated student handout: The Age of Reform

[39_18230.htm_g/00001.jpg]



(Author): In looking at the handouts that you give to the students, especially the cartoons and the charts, if we cut out the boxes [that divide and organize information on the handout], it kind of looks like currency. Kind of like historical currency.

Margaret: Yeah, it kind of does.

(Author): And if we were to only look at this stuff, it looks like a gloss, just a sheen. . .

Margaret: Snap-shots.

(Author): Boiled-down information.

Margaret: Bare-bones. TAKS is the bare bones.

(Author): There’s a connection there?

Margaret: ummhmm.

(Author): So it’s fair to say there’s a connection between TAKS and boiling down concepts for students to help them understand . . . Marbury v. Madison, two lines. . .

Margaret: Done.

(Author): You’ll go into depth in other ways; you make lots of connections. But in terms of presenting information in graphic organizers. . .

Margaret: You have to condense it to the important points. Then you can get out into debate, the activities. But they have to have that skeleton. That has to be there, just so that they can have a frame of reference, the dates, the order of events, that kind of thing. So I start with graphic organizers. (Interview, May 2011)


Another example of the TAKS compelling teachers to pare down content to the “bare bones” is found when Margaret taught the Civil War. Before TAKS, Margaret spent five days, one for each year of the war, covering basic information. For each day/year, Margaret lectured over material she thought to be essential, which was listed on handouts she gave the students (see Figure 2). For example, for 1863, the handout shows cartoon-style drawings of the first U.S. Red Cross, Clara Barton, the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and the Gettysburg Address.


Figure 2. An example of an illustrated student handout: The Civil War

[39_18230.htm_g/00002.jpg]


After TAKS, however, Margaret had her students examine the war in more depth. For example, students performed a play on Lincoln’s assassination; she lingered in longer class discussions over connections between the Civil War and Reconstruction; and she assigned students a “museum project” over the Civil War, in which students worked in groups to make a museum exhibit about an aspect of their choice about the war (students select a range of topics, from women spies to specific battles to Civil War-era fashion). She spent an equal length of class time on the two halves, but each part took a drastically different approach to content and to learning.


The influence of the new STAAR exam (the mandated exam in effect during the last three years of the study), on the other hand, is more difficult to gauge. The feeling among the teachers was that the test will compel teachers to rethink their teaching. As Bill Trammell put it, “The thing is, with the new test, it’s going to have to change.” But teachers have not had access to released exams, so they only have incomplete information about the test. This particularly provokes criticism from eighth-grade teachers. Eighth-grade students take a district-made “six-weeks test,” a summative exam at the end of each grading period. According to Bill,


I can understand why they’re trying to make it STAAR-based, but the tests aren’t STAAR-based. We don’t have a released test, so it’s a guess. So when they want to bring . . . a lot of teachers and a lot of test-makers don’t understand the difference between a rigorous test and a complicated test. And they’re just trying to make it up as they go along, and I can understand that. It’s so new, this whole STAAR test idea of everything. (Interview, May 2013)


In fact, the State of Texas only released the 2013 eighth-grade social studies STAAR on January 9, 2014 (Texas Education Agency, 2014), well after most of these interviews were conducted. In examining the released exam, I found many similarities with the TAKS. As I indicated in my 2013 article, 85% of the questions on the TAKS test measured factual recognition. Similarly, I found that 83% of the questions on the newly released STAAR measure factual recognition. The remaining questions require students to use inferential and analytical skills. The random nature of the content tested is also similar. For example, on the 2008 TAKS (the last year for which the State of Texas released an exam), question 22 asks students to identify the reason Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense. Question 23 then asks students to identify the direct result of the Battle of Vicksburg. And question 24 tests students’ knowledge of various treaties pertaining to the United States’ westward expansion. On the 2013 STAAR exam, question 22 asks students to identify one major effect of the opening of the Erie Canal; question 23 asks students to identify the primary aim of the American Temperance Society; and question 24 asks students to identify the reason Patrick Henry opposed ratifying the U.S. Constitution.


The main differences between the TAKS and STAAR seem to involve the format of the new exam and the nature of the exam’s reading passages. The questions on the STAAR often require students to complete charts or other graphic organizers, more difficult distractors are used, and the new exam requires students to read difficult (especially in terms of reading level) excerpts from primary source documents. Even though teachers expect that their teaching will need to change to meet the demands of this new exam, it is too early to make any educated inferences about the exam’s influence on teachers’ work.


THE INFLUENCE OF THE TEACHERS’ KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEFS ABOUT TEACHING, STUDENTS, AND SUBJECT MATTER


Teachers’ knowledge and beliefs are another powerful, but often tacit, influence on their work. In this section, I briefly illustrate three examples of how these teachers’ knowledge and beliefs influenced their teaching. In the first example, Margaret Rhodes revealed how her goals for students and her beliefs about history content shape her teaching. Early in the study, Margaret made it clear to me that she would teach much of the information she had to teach as dictated by the state accountability exam even if no exam existed:


(Author): Would you leave things out if you could, in terms of coverage?

Margaret: Yeah . . . probably . . . There’s a couple of things on there (the state history curriculum) that I wouldn’t stress as much . . . (but) most of it I would keep. As a matter of fact, I met with someone when I went up to the Humanities Texas, I met people who were very much involved with the Texas Legislature, and we were telling them that we don’t have enough time. And one of them asked us what we would leave out, and I wrote back saying, honestly, probably none of it, except for a few minor things, like the Albany Plan of Union probably wouldn’t get so much . . . the Monroe Doctrine is a big deal, but is it really? Yeah, make your point and move on; there are things I would spend more time on. Overall, you’re asking a history teacher to leave out part of history. One thing connects to another. What are you going to leave out?

(Author): So maybe some small things you would leave out

Margaret: Maybe some small things, but overall no, everything that is in there is pretty critical that they need to know it. (Interview, May 2010)


This belief informs Margaret’s emphasis on both facts and what she calls “why” questions. Margaret believes that knowledge of historical facts is an essential component in learning history:


Students still have to recall data. And that’s not necessarily bad. There’s a lot of talk in education, especially in social studies, about “you don’t need to memorize facts, data. It’s stupid. It’s irrelevant.” No, it’s not. Because you have to have all these dates and ideas in your head so that when you come to the higher-level thinking, you can organize and know, well, that came before this, so . . . and your brain can think it through. (Interview, May 2011)


She also believes that “why” questions sit at the core of her teaching. For Margaret, “why” questions help students generate critical thinking and give historical knowledge its fundamental meaning:


To me, it comes back to if your curriculum is really sound and if you’re getting kids to understand the “whys.” It’s like when I had the kids do the difference in the fighting styles and they understand that and the “why” behind it, then so much of it is, “oh, I get it.” The triangular trade route too. Once they get that basic, fundamental difference . . . the people in New England, they’re not keeping [slaves], but they’re sure making money off of them, and the South is, you know, “well they need them.” Once you go into it, because it’s a very complicated issue, when you try to make them understand it . . . to me it’s always been about the “why.” (Interview, May 2011)


The second example illustrates how teachers alter prescribed curriculum guidelines based on their understanding of content and of students’ needs. In this example, Mary Watson revised both the scope and the sequence of the introductory components of her sixth-grade world cultures class. The district curriculum plan prescribed separate two-week units on North America and government, followed by a week on Central America and two more weeks on South America, with a focus on current issues and little historical background. Mary feels strongly that this approach does not benefit students’ learning:


All of that, can you imagine, for sixth graders? Going from North America and they barely remember that we have 50 states, maybe some of them the three branches of government—you saw today how much they remember about the three branches, and that was supposed to be last year’s social studies. So I’m supposed to go from that and please have them compare at a higher level of thinking [softly laughs] our government with other forms of government. (Interview, May 2014)


In response, Mary combined the North America and government units into one larger unit and the separate Central and South America units into a unit she called “Latin America.” In each of the units, she changed the scope of the content to first create a historical context through which students can examine current conditions. For instance, in the unit on Latin America, Mary began with a survey of Mayan, Incan, and Aztec history; examined the impact of Spanish colonization; and then focused specifically on 20th-century Cuba. Even this revised plan moved too quickly for Mary, but it helped her to better establish deep thinking with her students. She stated that the district curriculum plan was giving teachers


a million two-week units. Just down the road, click, click, click [makes a snapping noise with her hand] and please do them. And the order didn’t even make sense at first. It wasn’t geographical. All we could figure out was that we’re moving from continent to continent, and please hurry through them in that order as fast as you can. But it’s not a way to teach kids in any depth that’s going to stick if they’re just flying through the products and the forms of government; please move on to the next country. Students want stories; they want to hear shocking things and strange things and have some feeling, some emotion for how the citizens would have felt after, you know, 50 years of dictatorships in Cuba and the casinos and the nightclubs and whatever the Americans were building. (Interview, May 2014)


This is just one of many instances of Mary altering her prescribed curriculum scope and sequence to best serve her students. Here we see a clear example of Mary’s knowledge and beliefs influencing her teaching. According to Mary, “I just want them to try to step in people’s shoes, from wherever we’re talking about, what would be reasonable and alternative ways of thinking about events. I’ve had to just make it fit my own way. So, I’m behind and I’m not ashamed [laughs]” (Interview, May, 2013).


The third example demonstrates how teachers can change their teaching methods to better help their students learn. Bill Trammell had always incorporated “student-centered” elements such as interactive projects and cooperative learning structures into his teaching. But more “teacher-centered” structures, such as lecture and having students read the textbook in class and complete review questions, comprised most of his teaching. In the third year of the study, Bill began the process of shifting his teaching away from those “teacher-centered” elements and toward more “student-centered” methods. Bill explained his efforts as working toward a move away from memorization and more toward teaching that required a deeper level of thinking and inquiry from students:


Everybody working a job today can have the ability of accessing the Internet on their smartphones in a matter of seconds. Nobody finds it necessary to know the date of July 4, 1776, because all people have to do is know “when’s the birth date of America”; they need to know keywords. That minimum level is being done at the schools. That’s fine. So, how do we get to that . . . to memorize something is not as important, and doing the chapter by chapter, that’s more of a memorization thing. Now, I know I’ll get arguments about saying “we still have to have a minimum.” That’s true, but how we accomplish that minimum doesn’t necessarily have to be chapter by chapter. (Interview, May 2013)


These changes ranged from how Bill planned his instruction to the types of learning activities he created for his students. Ironically, perhaps, some of these changes were moves toward the district curriculum guidelines:


I tried changing up some things the previous year, but I still did my own year-at-a-glance, this is what I’ve always covered at this time . . . I tried changing around the way I presented material and the way the students interacted with it. But this year, I did total just year-at-a-glance. And that’s the feedback, the pushback you get from colleagues that, the people you mentioned, it’s that they’ve had their system in place for so long that it’s hard to change. (Interview, May 2013)


Because Bill had previously organized his content differently from the prescribed curriculum guidelines, following the new guidelines demanded that he rethink his established practices. He explained how his planning changed in the fourth year of the study:


I didn’t do CSCOPE [the district curriculum guidelines] in the sense of using every exemplar lesson. All I did with CSCOPE was, I looked at their exemplary lessons, I looked at their year at a glance, and said these are the objectives I need to teach this six weeks, I’ll do that but I’ll do it my own way. I wrote all new lesson plans for this year. I wrote all new objectives. Every day I’d have a language objective and a content objective. So they were all new this year because they had to be aligned with the year at a glance. (Interview, May 2013)


Bill also made significant changes to his teaching practices. By the fifth year of the study, for example, Bill had moved away from having students routinely read the textbook aloud in class and answer review questions. Instead, he taught his students to use Thinking Maps® to organize information. After much guided practice in creating and applying various concept maps, Bill was able to eventually task students with creating a thinking map that fit the content of an assigned reading. Sometimes Bill would provide the template and have students fill in relevant information, but other times he would have the students decide which map to use. Either way, students learned to take responsibility for making sense of the content. Additionally, during those moments when he did lecture, he stopped specifying for students how to make notes on content. Instead, he helped students learn how to actively listen and take their own notes. During these exchanges, Bill also incorporated more Socratic-type questioning into his teaching, so that he was not merely telling information to students but engaging them in meaning making.


THE INFLUENCE OF THE TEACHERS’ MILIEU


Similar to the teachers described by Valli and Buese (2007), the teachers in this study have experienced a marked increase in the tasks they are expected to perform, thereby crowding or “intensifying” their teaching milieu. These tasks cause a tremendous amount of stress among the teachers. Bill Trammell put it like this: “When they add something new, it should be a zero-sum game, meaning something should be taken away. And that’s when you start to feel the stress.” Some of the tasks influence their work by impacting how the teachers teach, while other tasks influence their work by taking up time that the teachers could spend in professional pursuits such as creating new lessons or developing their knowledge base. Many of these tasks result from the school not meeting AYP, but others seem to be simply a result of the increasing bureaucratic control of schooling (Apple, 1986).


Bill Trammell linked the teachers’ intensified milieu to one surprise I experienced at Connors. In 2002–2003, I worked as a K–12 teacher when the previous change in mandated exam occurred in Texas, that time from TAAS to TAKS, and I remembered many colleagues openly worrying about that change in test. So, I expected these teachers to evince at least some amount of similar anxiety. To my great surprise, however, none of these teachers expressed the slightest sign of emotion regarding the change from TAKS to STAAR. Bill explained the nonreaction to me like this:


All the other things that [school administrators] keep adding here and there, from keeping up with TELPAS, keeping up with your special populations, things like that, just one more thing, [teachers are] not going to be . . . they’re so inured to all this coming at them that “Oh, a new test? Ok.” (Interview, May 2012)


This intensified milieu can be traced to district- and school-level initiatives that influence teachers’ work lives. These initiatives involve activities such as data collection and analysis, teaching methods, and student monitoring. And, of course, these initiatives all require teachers to do documentation paperwork. I will briefly describe a number of initiatives that these teachers have experienced over the course of this study.


Homework Initiative


The school’s “homework initiative” was designed to monitor students who consistently do not turn in homework and thus are at risk of failure. Teachers have to create a form that keeps track of students’ missed homework. Each time a student fails to turn in homework, that student completes the appropriate part of the form, which the teacher must then monitor. After a certain number of missed assignments, teachers must call parents and possibly give some sort of penalty, such as “on campus suspension.” Yet, once students reach this level, the paper trail starts over at the beginning.


Monitoring Special Populations of Students


Tasks related to monitoring special populations of students come in several forms. Teachers, of course, monitor students who have labels such as 504 and need special accommodations. Students who have limited English proficiency also require special attention. For example, the teachers are tasked with creating tutoring groups to deliver basic phonics instruction to these students. Another example is TELPAS, Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System. It “is designed to assess the progress that limited English proficient students make in learning the English language” (Texas Education Agency, 2013). At Connors, this applies to approximately 7% of the student population. Teachers are only required to collect writing samples from select students, but to reduce pressure on those students, the teachers take class time to collect writing samples from all students. After those samples have been collected, they must verify that the samples meet the requirements set by the state to show language acquisition. Those samples are verified and then analyzed by a team of teachers who rate each student. Teachers are required to be certified each year to conduct this process.


Instructional Rounds


“Instructional rounds” is a school-based initiative that requires teachers to observe their colleagues teaching and submit reports on the observation. Created as a professional development mechanism, its implementation turned it into a form of teacher monitoring. I’ll let Orlando Gaines describe the process and his reactions to it:


Instructional rounds are a pain in the ass. Number one, they stress teachers out. It’s stressful because you’re turning into an administrator, which puts you in an odd position. But the time problem is my biggest complaint. You have to fill out paperwork as you do your 15-minute walk-through. After you do your walk-through, you have to sit and record on three pieces of paper what you saw, and it kind of tells you what to do. We’re supposed to do two every six weeks. It takes away one conference period, either your conference period or your period with your team. In other words, it’s just something else to fill out and to do. Now, is it constructive? I don’t know. I think it is constructive for new teachers to be seeing other classrooms. I do like going into other classes and seeing what people do; I get ideas. So that’s not a bad thing. But being forced to do it? (Interview, May 2013)


Mary Watson echoed Orlando’s concerns:


I just feel stretched and pulled. That and then to go evaluate my peers? Sometimes it’s been, “Oh, what a great way you’ve questioned them.” Sometimes there’s . . . I work with great people and I see some neat teaching techniques that have been nice to watch. But then to do the paperwork on that too and turn it in? I feel like all of our technology and all of our new ideas are not time-saving, and I don’t know how much they’re improving my instruction for the kids. (Interview, May 2014)


At Connors, instructional rounds are compounded by administrative walk-throughs of groups of principals and superintendents, up to 12 at a time observing teachers’ classrooms. As Valli and Buese (2007) noted, district-imposed walk-throughs “height[en] anxiety levels as teachers anticipat[e] a team of individuals coming into their classrooms to make sure they [are] implementing school district expectations” (p. 544). Orlando voiced similar reactions of stress:


What it was originally supposed to be . . . the instructional rounds, two years ago, when the superintendent came in, it started with principals doing this. You talk about stress! When three or four teachers come into your room, to me that’s not stress. High stress is when you have a superintendent and 12 principals walking in. (Interview, May 2013)


Teaching-Related Initiatives


Several initiatives directly relate to classroom teaching. For example, in an email correspondence, Mary Watson informed me that teachers at Connors had recently been told to incorporate H.E.A.T.—“Higher order thinking, engagement, application to the real world, and technological proficiency”—into their lessons and that administrators would be looking for evidence of this and expect students to be able to explain it as well; to frequently remind students about the “four Cs”—communication, cooperation, creativity, and critical thinking—so that teachers recognize and can articulate how they incorporate them into their lessons; to directly teach “priority academic vocabulary”—five words per week that administrators expect to see during walk-throughs; and to use the “question wheel,” which is simply an adaptation of Bloom’s taxonomy that was purchased by administrators to help teachers identify and generate higher order questions in class activities.


Other initiatives focus on mandatory professional development. For example, Connors’s principal recently secured a subscription to PD 360, a web-based service through which teachers watch selections of online videos with questions to be answered, trackable by the administration, and are assigned various topics to be viewed and reflected on by specified deadlines. Another initiative, what I am calling the “questioning initiative” and intended to possibly supplant instructional rounds, requires teachers to use their conference periods to observe each other teach and note the language that teachers use in posing questions to their students. Teachers write the phrasing of the questions they hear on Post-It notes and then place those Post-Its on a large chart affixed to a wall in the teachers’ lounge and organized according to Bloom’s taxonomy. The teachers are then supposed to collaborate in determining how to change the phrasing of their questions to generate higher order thinking.


“One iPad per Child” Initiative


During the fourth year of the study, 2012–2013, the school district that Connors is in began implementing a massive initiative informally called “one iPad per child.” Through this initiative, each student in the school district, some 25,000 students, was given a new iPad for the school year. Students were instructed to bring these devices to school, and teachers were expected to incorporate them into their teaching. However, little to no formal, substantive training was given to students on how to use the iPads or to teachers on how to teach with them. This initiative has created immense challenges for the teachers. Here is an interview excerpt in which Bill Trammell explained some of these challenges to me:


Bill: iPads have changed everything. When it comes to a lot of day-to-day things . . . if you’ve been a teacher for a long time, you’re used to certain teaching modes, and now you’re having to deal with things that you never had to deal with before, on the distraction level, on the discipline level. Just the fact that these kids don’t know how to use them effectively. Some teachers are banning iPads from their classrooms, some aren’t using it effectively, and some are having real discipline issues. Other teachers, I can speak for myself, I’m constantly redirecting when I didn’t have to before. The kids, it’s so new to them that it’s a huge disruption. It’s a huge disruption.

[Author]: It hasn’t become a teaching tool yet, campuswide?

Bill: Not yet. It can be. There are huge possibilities, but it requires a lot of teachers to change their ideas about things and the way they run things. And a lot of teachers don’t want to do that. I can understand why, because if you’ve been doing it a certain way and you’ve always had success that way, then why change? (Interview, May 2014)


The school district encouraged teachers to use the iPads in their teaching but neglected to offer substantive training on how to do so. As Orlando put it, “The iPads are not a bad thing. But just throwing them at students and teachers is not a great thing.” Mary Watson shared some of her concerns about using the iPads:


I’m kind of at a loss, thinking what the iPad can do and do I really want students emailing me with homework? I like having something where students can show what they’ve learned, where they can study, where I can say “turn to this section and page so that we’re ready for the exam.” I’m wanting to connect the two. Maybe I’m the dinosaur here. (Interview, May 2014)


Here Mary contemplates the tension between her tried-and-tested paper-and-pencil approach to note-taking and teaching, and the as-of-yet-unknown possibilities of this new tool.


The teachers also found that the iPads ironically, at least in these early stages, seemed to reduce the quality and depth of thought in students’ research, which complicates how teachers frame and guide research projects. Mary Watson explained this phenomenon:


I’m frustrated about reading. Kids don’t read today. They will have a lot of discussion about the pictures that they see, but they won’t read the captions or articles that go with it. Having the images at the fingertips of the kids fascinates me. But the effort put into the research is rather low quality in most cases. (Interview, May 2013)


The teachers found that instead of reading, summarizing, and analyzing information, students simply copy-and-paste, so they learn little. This presents another challenge to their teaching because teachers are forced to rethink how they conceptualize research to promote learning.


International Baccalaureate


The school district’s IB program can be considered a long-term initiative. In the 2008–2009 school year, the district began implementing IB in select middle and elementary schools, later expanding it to all elementary and middle schools. The “sacred story” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1995) of the IB program, the story told by officials with the school district that teachers challenge at their peril, is that IB increases the rigor and quality of learning for all students. But the secret “teacher stories” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1995), the stories that teachers tell among likeminded colleagues, these teachers tell reveal a more complicated relationship with IB. For these teachers, IB reflected pedagogical approaches that they already took in their classroom.


For example, Orlando Gaines claimed, “I love the school. I love teaching. I just don’t love IB. The IB stuff we were doing anyway. We were doing all the higher level, worldly things without having the paperwork.” For these teachers, the main influence of IB is the paperwork and external oversight. Orlando claimed, “I think if you talk to any teacher, it’s insane the amount of paperwork for IB.” According to Orlando,


IB has been a major wrench. And now it’s not four units for us; it’s going to be six. Which means every six weeks [grading period the teachers must implement an IB unit with their students]. One problem with our planning is that you think you have a good IB unit, and we have one of our visits from one of the consultants, we have a consultant come in and she looks at your unit and she shoots it down. Some of our units could be changed, but do you have the energy to spend all this time working on the unit? (Interview, May 2013)


In the following interview excerpt, Mary Watson and I also discuss the IB paperwork burden.


[Author]: It sounds like the biggest pressure, the biggest influence is the pacing issue.

Mary: That’s mine.

[Author]: Yeah, that’s what it sounds like. And it’s compounded with IB requirements and paperwork requirements. Maybe it’s not . . . is it the paperwork involved?

Mary: That’s the worst part of the IB.

[Author]: The paperwork?

Mary: Yes

[Author]: I’ve been in a couple of meetings where y’all were going through the checklists, and I’ve talked with Margaret about rubrics for rubrics.

Mary: Yes

[Author]: That’s an interesting phrase: a rubric for a rubric.

Mary: We need to evaluate our rubrics so we can see if it is an appropriate rubric to evaluate their work, yes [laughing softly]. (Interview, May 2013)


Beyond paperwork, IB complicates teachers’ grading systems, their conceptualizations of rigor, and their instructional planning. Let me quote at length an interview excerpt with Bill Trammell as he explained the influence of the IB grading system.


Bill: When they add something new, it should be a zero-sum game, meaning something should be taken away. And that’s, when you start to feel the stress, when you start to feel the, like to give you an example with the IB, and this is something that I have a real issue with, because it is a conversion process and that adds another level of work. IB has a totally separate assessment system, and they have a certain scale that you have to grade on, and they’re changing this, they’re changing this to an 8-point scale for humanities. Before, what we did this year, three of them had an 8-point scale . . . no, one of them had an 8-point scale; the three others had a 1- to 10-point scale. The thing is that a 10-point scale does not directly equate 1 is a 10, 2 is a 20, it doesn’t, to the point of we have to figure out . . . it’s kind of like serving two masters. We keep a separate IB assessment criteria, and then we have to convert that to a district grade which is on the 0- to 100- point scale.

[Author]: So the 8-point scale to 100…

Bill: Right. Or the 10-point scale to 100, and you would think, “Oh, well, 1 would be a 10, 10 would be a 100.” No, it doesn’t work like that. If you read the criteria, so of the stuff that we would assign in a 0- to 100-point scale, a 4 could be a 75…or a 3, even. So, we have to figure these kinds of things out when we grade and it converts, we want to make sure that if a kid shows some effort, it’s not going to be a 40 or a 10 or a 20. . . . That’s just one example of how we have to take this grading scale and make this square fit into a circle. And that just adds another level of time and effort. Then when we actually grade, we go through the IB side and then we say, ok, how do we convert it in a fair manner?

[Author]: You have to think of both things at the same time.

Bill: Exactly. And it’s unfair to say, ok . . . to be truly IB you need to have this framework in your mind when you’re grading, and then in the back of our minds we’re going, “Yeah, but this is a test grade. This is something that we worked on for so long, so I’m going to have to put this in my gradebook and have that fit into all the other grades that we do for the regular district grade.” So that just right there is an example of how we added the IB component but we really didn’t take anything away. (Interview, May 2013)


DISCUSSION


A WEB OF INFLUENCE


Each area examined in the preceding sections individually impacts the teachers. But they also combine to create a complex web of influence on these teachers’ work. Like a spider web, each area—mandated testing, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and teachers’ milieu—is connected to and influenced by all the others, with effects reverberating within and across the different parts of the web. This does not mean that every decision teachers make or every factor that influences teachers’ work is always equally represented within each area. Rather, effects in one area have direct and indirect influence on the other areas as all three combine to influence teachers’ work. A statement Bill Trammel made at the end of the 2012–2013 school year reflects this argument. Bill claimed, “When a lot of my colleagues say ‘things have changed,’ it’s because all these things hit at once.” Here, Bill was referring to increasing pacing problem time constraints, a further loss of teaching time due to the testing apparatus, the change in mandated accountability exam, an intensified milieu, the introduction of iPads, and increased requirements in the IB program.


Thus, the effects of the web of influence often render claims about the impact of any one factor incomplete. It is insufficient, say, to make claims such as “multiple-choice testing leads to multiple-choice teaching” (Smith, 1991) or that mandated testing encourages a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to teaching (Vogler & Virtue, 2007). This is because mandated testing alone does not lead to or by itself encourage “multiple-choice” teaching. Mandated testing certainly exerts a powerful influence on teachers’ work, but it does so only through a combination with other factors. Similar arguments can be made about the intensification of the teachers’ milieu and the effects of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs. In the following sections, I illustrate a number of these combined effects.


Mandated Testing


The school’s failure to meet AYP exacerbated other elements within mandated testing, particularly the pacing problem and the testing apparatus, as the school district altered testing and curriculum decisions with the goal of meeting AYP in the future. Perhaps ironically, these teachers found that the new pacing and testing guidelines limit the amount and quality of deep and meaningful inquiry they can engage in with their students. The failure to meet AYP intensified the teachers’ milieu as local administrators instituted a number of initiatives presumably designed to improve test scores. These initiatives, however, consumed much of the teachers’ time that they could otherwise use to develop their teaching based on their knowledge and beliefs.


Teachers’ Knowledge and Beliefs


The teachers’ knowledge and beliefs influence their teaching decisions. The data illustrate how Margaret would largely teach the same content, even without a mandated exam, and how Mary and Bill altered elements of their teaching based on their knowledge and beliefs. Margaret, Mary, and Bill all value what Margaret called “why” questions, and they structure their teaching in ways to reach those goals. Yet, mandated testing, through the pacing problem and the testing apparatus, challenges the teachers’ knowledge and beliefs by compelling them to move much more quickly through their curriculum than they think is pedagogically appropriate for their students. The structure of the mandated exam also influences how the teachers teach. For example, in Margaret’s class, the TAKS compelled her to teach to “the bubble kids,” the students who were on the edge of passing. Mandated testing, specifically through the pacing problem, also limits the teachers’ capacity for changing, and sometimes even maintaining, their teaching practices. For instance, in the second year of the study (2010–2011), Margaret stated, “I have found a way to do the things that I really love in spite of the test.” Here she was referring to all the drama, what she called “act it outs,” that she used in her teaching. By the fourth year of the study, however, Margaret felt forced to eliminate many of those activities from her teaching because she felt that the pacing of the curriculum did not allow her enough time to engage in those activities.


Teachers’ Milieu


Elements within the teachers’ milieu, particularly the iPads and the IB program, conflicted with mandated testing and the teachers’ knowledge and beliefs to create considerable stress for the teachers. Many teachers have developed teaching methods they feel to be “tried and true”: They trust them and have experienced success with them with their students. Through the iPad initiative, the school district is forcing at least some teachers to alter their knowledge and beliefs by integrating this new technology into their teaching. Additionally, teachers had to learn how to use the iPads largely on their own; no substantive training was offered for how to use them. This was problematic on multiple levels. Many teachers had little experience with iPads, so even learning basic functions posed difficulties, let alone more advanced pedagogical uses with students. Further, the teachers’ intensified milieu reduced the amount of time and energy they had to learn to use the iPads.


The IB program also causes a range of conflicts. Teachers feel pulled in two directions: by the speed required by the district curriculum plan and testing schedule and by the depth of study required by the IB program. Teachers feel this tension throughout the year as they try to navigate the limitations presented by the pacing problem and the testing apparatus while also fulfilling the spirit and requirements of the IB program. The teachers are still learning how to equitably satisfy these two competing demands. Plus, the planning and paperwork demands of the IB program compete for teachers’ time with elements within the teachers’ milieu, such as instructional rounds, the homework initiative, and teaching-related initiatives. Thus, while the IB program consumes considerable amounts of teachers’ time and energy, teachers might have more time to devote to IB if they were not also pressed by all the other demands within their milieu.


AFFECTIVE CONSEQUENCES OF THE WEB OF INFLUENCE


The data in this study also illustrate some of the affective consequences this web of influence has on these teachers. All the teachers expressed worry that they are shortchanging their students. They worry that the emphasis on efficiency and narrow measures of learning reduces students’ opportunities for meaningful learning. As Margaret Rhodes put it, “The emphasis is no longer about learning; it’s about the testing and passing.” Discourse from the teachers also reveals a general sense of them wearing down, becoming physically and professionally tired from coping with all the various factors that influence their work. Speaking about the combined influences of mandated testing and milieu-related school initiatives, Mary Watson claimed that she felt “pressed on both sides.” Orlando Gaines explained how these combined factors have changed his thinking about his work: “I used to be driving to school and I’d be thinking about curriculum. I’d be thinking about history. I’d be thinking about what I’m doing that day. Now I drive to school and think what have I not turned in? What are we behind in? It’s always about that” (Interview, May 2013).


This web of influence generates unfortunate “teacher stories” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1996) among the teachers. For example, at the news that the State of Texas almost exempted eighth-grade U.S. history from STAAR testing, Bill Trammell told me, “[Author], I could almost say that I love teaching again.” The pacing problem in particular caused Mary Watson to express doubts about her teaching, even after 27 years of experience: “Maybe I’m the broken one. That’s my big nightmare. I’ve been doing it so long—it is me? Is it letting go with my cold, dead fingers of things that seem so important to helping students have an understanding, maybe?” (Interview, May 2012). Perhaps most sadly, a combination of factors caused Margaret Rhodes to tell what Craig (2013) called a “story to leave by”:


I mean I’m just so frustrated with what they’re doing to public schools, that I almost feel dishonest to be a part of it. I think they see problems, all the way from the federal to the local, and they think the more they throw at it, the more it’s going to help. But everybody’s spread too thin. The kids are spread too thin. We can’t do any of it really well. I can’t. Maybe somebody else can who is better than I am. It’s a system that I am no longer cut out for. (Interview, May 2013)


Margaret told this story to me as she retired at the end of the 2012–2013 school year. What is especially revealing is that she was named the Secondary Teacher of the Year for the school district only a couple of years prior.


IMPLICATIONS OF THE WEB OF INFLUENCE


In my 2013 article (Neumann, 2013), I argued that teachers’ knowledge and beliefs are an equal, if not greater, influence on teachers’ work than is mandated testing. Through this current study, however, I have come to see the question of influence differently. I now believe that it matters little if teachers’ knowledge and beliefs influence their teaching slightly more than mandated testing does because I now better understand how multiple factors combine to shape teachers’ work.


For example, if researchers only examine the teachers’ milieu at Connors, they might reach the conclusion that the milieu was intensified, but find no connection to mandated testing, which is largely responsible for that intensification, or to teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, which are affected by the intensified milieu. They might also miss the tension between the influence of the IB program and the pacing problem. If researchers only focused on the teachers’ knowledge and beliefs and mandated testing, as I did in the 2013 article, they might miss the fact that elements within the teachers’ milieu exert influence on the teachers’ work that interacts with the effects of the other two areas. In each of these cases, understanding of the forces that influence teachers’ work would be incomplete. Thus, these areas of influence need to be considered simultaneously if researchers are to begin to form clearer understandings of the forces that influence teachers’ work.


At this point, let me briefly address some limitations of this study. This narrative inquiry is illustrative and not necessarily generalizable to teachers in other contexts. However, because of the similarities in schools across the United States and because of the evidence found in the research literature regarding the influences on teachers’ work, I believe that these teachers’ stories and experiences suggest that teachers’ work in other settings will also be influenced by a similar range of factors.


An important question arises, of course: which factors? The research literature clearly shows that mandated accountability testing, teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, and teachers’ milieu influence their work. Plus, this article makes a compelling case that these three factors combine to collectively influence teachers’ work. Thus, I believe that these three factors should at a minimum be examined as comprising a “web of influence.” The particulars of a given research project will determine if other factors should be included, such as the types of students a teacher teaches and teachers’ professional training and development. The difficulty lies in making those effects apparent and in linking them to other elements. Further empirical research is needed to help examine this question.


This notion of a web of influence has immense practical importance for school administration, for teacher education, for parties interested in educational change, and for students. In terms of school administration, decisions made by policy makers and school administrators can have unintended adverse effects on teachers and students. The administrators at Connors, for example, presumably implemented the school-based and teaching initiatives to help teachers improve their teaching. Similarly, the district-level administrators presumably created the iPad and IB initiatives to enrich learning for students, just as they presumably created district-mandated curriculum pacing guidelines and testing procedures to help students be better prepared for the mandated accountability exam. The combined effect, however, at least for these teachers, is to leave them exhausted, with less class time to teach their students, and in constant tension with their own knowledge and beliefs about teaching.


This web of influence complicates teacher education. Teacher educators often focus on developing teacher candidates’ knowledge and beliefs, spending much time on tangible practical concerns, such as classroom management, assessment, and differentiated learning. But how do teacher educators prepare teacher candidates to negotiate the influence on their work of school-based initiatives, paperwork, or dictates from administrators? How do teacher educators help students learn to navigate the limitations presented by the pacing problem and the testing apparatus? This web of influence puts practical problems teachers face into specific and new relief and asks teacher educators to reexamine often taken-for-granted priorities about what it means to prepare teachers to work in schools.


The web of influence holds implications for educators, policy makers, and other parties interested in educational change. Because the pull of factors across the web limits the potential for teachers to change their teaching practices, change initiatives must take into account the broader context of teachers’ work. Also, this web can have serious and sometimes negative affective influences on teachers. In this study, readers saw the stress and doubt generated among many of these teachers. Instead of strengthening these teachers’ ability and enthusiasm for teaching, this web of influence too frequently wore them down. All these consequences need to be considered in school change efforts. Large bodies of literature examine the limitations presented to school change by individual factors such as public perceptions of schooling and by the institutional nature of schooling. Consideration of the larger web of influence on teachers’ work can help both to make that literature more robust and to better focus efforts in school change toward more realistic and productive possibilities.


Finally, all these implications can have important ripple effects on students’ learning. Actors within the institution of schooling often focus on and tinker with their individual component of the institution in the name of improving education for students: Administrators focus on teacher behaviors; teacher educators focus on teacher candidates’ knowledge and beliefs; and policy makers focus on resources and programs. Students, however, occupy the space where each of these focuses collide. The danger in individual actors constantly tinkering with their own institutional space without considering how their actions combine with the actions of others is that all that tinkering might actually reduce the quality of students’ learning instead of improve it.


CONCLUSION


Research into the specific factors that impact teachers’ work has generated important insights. The time has come, however, for more researchers to expand their focus to the wider web of influence on that work. Because teachers work within a web of influencing factors, focus on only one or two factors can tell an incomplete story and can lead to policies and procedures that might not best serve both teachers and students. Through this broader research focus, scholars, teachers, administrators, and policy makers might better learn how to develop and advocate policies and practices in schools that strengthen teachers and expand students’ learning opportunities, while avoiding “spreading everyone too thin.”


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 2, 2016, p. 1-50
http://www.tcrecord.org/library ID Number: 18230, Date Accessed: 8/16/2018 9:39:36 PM

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