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Constrained Professionalism: Dilemmas of Teaching in the Face of Test-Based Accountability

by John S. Wills & Judith Haymore Sandholtz - 2009

Background/Context: In response to state-level test-based accountability and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school administrators increasingly view centralized curriculum and prescribed instructional strategies as the most direct means of increasing student performance. This movement toward standardization reduces teachers’ autonomy and control over their classroom practices. The consequences of test-based accountability on teacher practice are often conceptualized as a tension between teacher professionalism and standardization.

Focus of Study: This case study investigates the classroom instruction of an experienced teacher in an elementary school where the principal supported teachers’ autonomy and authority over curriculum and instruction. Examining her instructional practice in social studies, a subject not included in state testing, we demonstrate how specific teaching dilemmas that arose in response to state testing led to a new type of professionalism that we call constrained professionalism.

Setting: This qualitative case study focuses on social studies instruction in a fifth-grade classroom at a rural elementary school in southern California serving a low-income, diverse student population with a large percentage of English language learners. The school was selected for two reasons: (1) as a low-performing but improving elementary school as measured by state testing, the school was under pressure to continue to raise student test scores, and (2) social studies continued to be part of the elementary curriculum.

Data Collection/Analysis: Data collection extended over a 10-month period and included observation and videotaping of social studies lessons, interviews with the teacher and principal, and document collection. Observation and videotaping covered virtually all the social lessons during the school year in the teacher’s classroom, a total of 66 lessons.

Findings/Results: As state-mandated testing was instituted, administrative support of teacher autonomy continued, but constraints on this teacher’s decisions emerged as instructional time and resources shifted to language arts and mathematics. Although able to make independent decisions, this qualified teacher did not teach social studies in the way she believed would best serve her students’ needs and interests.

Conclusions: This case study demonstrates how teachers’ professional discretion is being minimized in subtle yet consequential ways amid high-stakes testing, even in subject areas not tested by the state. Constrained professionalism represents a new situation in which teachers retain autonomy in classroom practices, but their decisions are significantly circumscribed by contextual pressures and time demands that devalue their professional experience, judgment, and expertise.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 4, 2009, p. 1065-1114
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15231, Date Accessed: 4/20/2021 1:24:41 AM

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About the Author
  • John S. Wills
    University of California, Riverside
    E-mail Author
    JOHN S. WILLS is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. His research focuses on history-social studies education, multicultural curriculum reform, the politics of school knowledge, and schooling and collective memory. Recent publications include “Putting the Squeeze on Social Studies: Managing Teaching Dilemmas in Subject Areas Excluded From State Testing” in Teachers College Record and “Authority, Culture, Context: Controlling the Production of Historical Knowledge in Elementary Classrooms” in Classroom Authority: Theory, Research, and Practice, edited by J. L. Pace and A. Hemmings.
  • Judith Haymore Sandholtz
    University of California, Riverside
    JUDITH HAYMORE SANDHOLTZ is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on teacher professional development, teacher education, school-university partnerships, and technology in education. Recent publications include “The Paradox of Administrative Control in Fostering Teacher Professional Development” in and “Standards Gaps: Unintended Consequences of Local Standards-Based Reform” in Teachers College Record.
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