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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.

In response to state-level test-based accountability and the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, 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. High-stakes standardized testing is seen as moving public education away from teacher professionalism and toward the adoption of standardized practices that undermine or eliminate teacher authority over curriculum development and instructional decisions.

In this article, we present a case study that suggests an alternative outcome to test-based accountability. Rather than a movement from professionalism toward standardization, we document the emergence of a new type of professionalism, constrained professionalism, at an elementary school where administrators explicitly rejected standardization as a response to test-based accountability. Viewing the need to raise student achievement on annual state examinations as a collaborative effort among teachers and administrators, administrators relied on teachers expertise and judgment to improve student learning and supported teachers continued authority over curriculum and instruction. Nevertheless, in this high-stakes testing environment, institutional and teaching dilemmas significantly constrained curricular and instructional decisions, circumscribing teachers autonomy and control over their practice. We refer to this situation as constrained professionalism, not because teachers previously practiced without constraints but to underscore the consequences of test-based accountability even in a school where the principal supported teacher autonomy. We examine an experienced elementary teachers instructional practice in a subject area not included in state testing but one that presented specific teaching dilemmas in the face of test-based accountability. In our analysis of the curriculum in use, we aim to understand how this teachers management of these teaching dilemmas influenced her curricular and instructional decisions. We conclude with our concern that test-based accountability may produce pressures and time demands that circumscribe teachers decisions and devalue their professional judgment.


In recent years, states across the nation have developed test-based accountability systems meant to measure teacher quality and student learning. At the federal level, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act added to this reform movement, establishing a mechanism to determine if schools, districts, and states were making adequate progress in providing an equitable education for all children in K12 public schools. The NCLB Act pledges that students in every classroom will be taught by highly qualified teachers. This pledge is based on the recognition that teachers make a critical difference in students achievement. The nation appears to have reached a consensus that well-prepared teachers are the most valuable resource a community can provide to its young people (National Commission on Teaching and Americas Future [NCTAF], 2003, p. 4). Consequently, education reform efforts increasingly focus on improving teacher effectiveness as a means of improving student performance. However, consensus about the need for teacher quality has not led to agreement about how to promote effective teaching. Instead, two opposing approaches have emerged: professionalization and standardization.


In keeping with traits that characterize professions, the professionalization approach emphasizes teacher expertise and professional judgment. Defining characteristics of professions include, for example, knowledge based on theory, mastery of knowledge base through extended specialized training, a high degree of autonomy in performing tasks, and a code of ethics that guides behavior (Leicht & Fennell, 2001). Professionals draw on their specialized expertise in making independent decisions about their work. Expertise, considered to be applied formal knowledge (Brint, 1994), is a key factor because professionals often deal with unique, problematic situations that preclude formulaic solutions (National Board for Professional Teaching Standards [NBPTS], 1996). Similarly, freedom of judgment or discretion in performing work is an intrinsic component of professionalism (Friedson, 2001). Once licensed or credentialed, individual professionals exercise control over how their work is to be accomplished rather than being directed by managers (Brint). This autonomy and freedom of action allows professionals to adapt their service to particular client needs and circumstances. Applied to school settings, professional autonomy enables teachers to make curricular and instructional decisions to meet the diverse needs of students in their classrooms.

The professionalization approach is supported by research identifying teacher expertise as the most important factor in determining student achievement (Darling-Hammond, 2000; NCTAF, 1996) and concluding that teachers have a greater impact than program on student performance (Hawley & Rosenholtz, 1985). The basic premise is that teaching involves complex, changing situations; therefore, teachers must act as autonomous decision makers. In dealing with these complex situations and often competing demands, proficient teachers employ their professional knowledge of what makes for sound practice and ground their decisions in established theory and reasoned judgment (NBPTS, 1999, p. 28).

As professionals, teachers draw on a specialized knowledge base in making decisions about what and how to teach. This base extends beyond subject matter knowledge to include, for example, knowledge of educational aims, learners, curriculum, general pedagogy, and subject-specific pedagogy (Munby, Russell, & Martin, 2001; Shulman, 1987). When teaching is viewed as more than the simple transmission of facts and ideas, teachers must make reasoned judgments in determining how to make content and ideas more accessible to students. Through a process of pedagogical reasoning (Shulman), teachers scrutinize the material to be covered, deciding what is worth teaching, looking for errors, and organizing and segmenting the text to make it more suitable for teaching. In addition, they think about different ways of explaining the material and using alternative modes of representation. After considering student characteristics, they tailor and adapt materials to correspond with students conceptions of the subject matter, their abilities, or their motivational characteristics. The choices that teachers make are inextricably linked to the specific content and the particular students being taught. Teachers judgments are also essential in formally and informally checking for student understanding and misunderstanding during instruction.

Throughout the teaching process, teachers must use their professional judgment to determine how to meet the particular needs of the students in their classrooms. The variability of the context, combined with the complexity of teaching, supports the view of the teacher as a thinking, decision-making, reflective, and autonomous professional (Richardson & Placier, 2001). As key decision makers, teachers must have a strong knowledge base and be guided by accepted theory and professional standards. Professional autonomy does not negate the need for standards for teachers. Professionalism demands thoughtful, grounded actions under complex and uncertain conditions that are nevertheless guided by, rooted in, and framed by clear professional standards (Shulman, 1999, p. xiii). In the professionalization approach, standards frame and guide teachers work but dont constrain it.

From this perspective, the improvement of American education depends on developing highly qualified teachers with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to foster learning in all students (Sykes, 1999). The way to promote effective teaching is to enhance the professional learning and expertise of teachers throughout their careers and to provide supportive work environments that promote teacher decision making. An effective teacher needs opportunities not only to enhance her knowledge base but also to apply it. Teaching settings that recognize teachers expertise and allow them to exercise their professional judgment are an important element of this approach.


The standardization approach emphasizes the technical core of teaching. Although frequently confused, standards and standardization are not the same. Whereas academic standards specify the knowledge or skills that students should demonstrate, standardization aims for uniformity of goals, curriculum, teaching methods, and assessment. In response to the uneven nature of student achievement and teacher quality, the approach places renewed focus on the central activities of education: curriculum and instruction. Based on the desire to improve and equalize educational opportunities for all students, the approach aims to address the disparities that exist across classrooms and schools, even within the same district. The central premise is that uniformity offers the most straightforward way of providing equality of educational opportunity. To improve student learning across the board, all students must be held to the same set of high academic expectations, accompanied by a uniform system of testing that allows comparisons across schools and districts. These academic expectations specify the knowledge and skills that students must demonstrate and thereby guide the development and implementation of curriculum and instruction. With this approach, uniformity extends across four key elements: academic goals, curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Rather than a system based on decision making at the classroom level, this approach aims to centralize efforts to improve curriculum and instruction. The responsibility for developing and interpreting curriculum shifts from individual teachers to the district or state level and often relies on outside experts and curriculum designers. Districts focus extensively on aligning curricular objectives, content standards, textbooks and instructional materials, instructional strategies, local student assessments, and state tests. This alignment helps to ensure that content being taught in individual classrooms matches the substance of local and state tests.

As a part of this alignment, districts often define a set curriculum for each grade level that must be covered over the academic year. In some cases, the curriculum is accompanied by specified requirements regarding the amount of instructional time to be allocated to particular subject areas. The requirements may indicate the number of minutes per day or week that teachers should spend on a given subject or may specify the particular time period of the day in which a subject must be taught. Pacing guides offer a strategy for monitoring the scope and sequence of curriculum over the course of a semester or academic year. For example, the guides may indicate the particular skills, content standards, or pages of the selected textbook that should be taught during each week of the year. The idea is that the pacing guides will promote continuity in instruction throughout a district and ensure that teachers are able to complete the entire curriculum by the end of the year. The guides also guarantee that students who move from one school to another within a district will be taught the same content over the year.

With a set curriculum and specified time allocations, the standardization approach tends to emphasize transmission of information. In a transmission perspective, knowledge is considered to be a fixed body of information that is transferred from the teacher or text to the student (Good & Brophy, 1994). The role of the teacher is to manage students learning by providing information, facts, and ideas. Classroom activity tends to be teacher centered and may be more didactic than interactive. Instructional strategies focused on transmission of information provide a means for teachers to cover the required content in a given amount of time.

In keeping with a transmission perspective, scripted lessons offer a strategy for achieving uniformity in scope, sequence, and pedagogical approaches. School districts often opt to develop or purchase scripted lessons to be implemented by teachers, particularly in core subject areas such as reading and mathematics. As a form of direct instruction or systematic teaching, scripted lessons tend to include the following instructional functions: (1) review, check homework, and reteach as needed, (2) present new content or skills, (3) guide student practice, (4) provide feedback and corrections, (5) monitor students independent practice, and (6) conduct periodic reviews of previously learned material (Rosenshine & Stevens, 1986). The level of detail in scripted lessons varies. Fully scripted lessons include explicit procedures, comprehensive materials, and specific dialogue. With scripted lessons, differences in the knowledge and experience of individual teachers become less important. The centralized system ensures that beginning and experienced teachers across district schools cover the same content and employ the same instructional approaches.

With a standardization approach, professional development also tends to be centralized and focused on the technical core of teaching. The primary emphasis is preparing all teachers in a school or district to implement specific programs or instructional strategies. Workshops, often led by outside experts, introduce teachers to the selected programs and offer training in using the particular techniques and materials. In some cases, districts adopt a trainer-of-trainers approach in which a core group of teachers complete the initial training and then become the instructors for the remaining teachers. After the workshops, observers may visit classrooms to provide follow-up coaching or assistance in using the program. Classroom observers also offer a means of monitoring implementation.


Given the differing nature of these two approaches, efforts to enhance teaching effectiveness often can create institutional dilemmas. According to Rosenholtz (1987), attempts to reform teaching lead to dilemmas of standardization and autonomy, management by hierarchical control or facilitation of professionalism, and mandatory versus voluntary change (p. 535). Efforts to implement standardized approaches inherently undermine teacher authority and autonomy. Similarly, administrators cannot promote teacher professionalism and expertise while adhering to a system of hierarchical control and mandated changes. Richardson and Placier (2001) noted that some reforms attempt to motivate teachers to change through incentives, whereas others require them to change through controls (p. 929).

Though not the same, issues of academic standards and standardization often become confused (McLaughlin, 1991; McNeil, 2000). In an era of standards-based reforms, administrators increasingly view centralized curriculum and prescribed instructional strategies as the most direct means of increasing student performance and ensuring that students meet academic standards. Responding to the heightened focus on test-based accountability, administrators appear less comfortable relinquishing authority to individual teachers. If decisions about content and pedagogy are made at a school or district level, administrators anticipate greater consistency across classrooms. Moreover, connections between curriculum and standardized tests can be strengthened. Given the pressure for improved student performance on mandated tests, administrators tend to lean toward the side of standardization, hierarchical control, and mandatory change, and thereby diminish teachers authority and autonomy over curriculum and instruction.

In this article, we examine the classroom instruction of a teacher in an elementary school where standardization was rejected as an appropriate response to state-mandated testing in language arts and mathematics. As state-mandated testing was instituted, administrative support of teacher autonomy continued, but constraints on this teachers decisions emerged, even in subject areas not tested by the state, such as social studies. The teacher continued to make significant decisions at the classroom level regarding the curriculum and appropriate instructional methods in social studies. However, her decisions were constrained, not by pressures for standardization from school or district administrators but by the simple lack of time for social studies given the increased time and resources devoted to language arts and mathematics instruction. Ultimately, her curricular and instructional decisions in social studies were a product of state-level testing demands and not due to a move toward standardization.


This case study focuses on social studies instruction in Mrs. Knights fifth-grade classroom at Dusty Valley Elementary, a rural, Title I school in southern California. Dusty Valley serves approximately 1,000 students, including many recent arrivals to the United States or first-generation U.S. citizens. The student population is approximately 75% Latino, 12% White, 12% African American, and 1% Other. Eighty percent of the students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches, and just over 50% are English language learners (ELLs). We selected Dusty Valley as a research site 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. Mrs. Knights classroom provided a setting where social studies instruction occurred on a regular basis. A 20-year veteran teacher, Mrs. Knight had worked at Dusty Valley for 6 years.

Data collection extended over a 10-month period and included observation and videotaping of lessons, interviews, and documents. Observation and videotaping covered virtually all social studies lessons during the 20022003 school year, a total of 66 lessons. Field notes focused primarily on teacher-student interactions, classroom discourse, especially in regard to the representation and narration of people and events in U.S. history, and the use of material cultural forms such as textbooks, historical fiction, or documentary films to represent historical figures and events. Two formal interviews with Mrs. Knight, conducted in October and May, focused on her goals and objectives in social studies, her curriculum development and instructional choices, and her views of the school, its students, and the surrounding community. Regular, informal conversations about what was being observed in the classroom supplemented the interviews. A formal interview of the principal conducted in May focused on the schools response to state testing, his administrative role, his relationship with teachers, the history of Dusty Valley under his tenure, and curriculum and instruction in social studies. Additional informal conversations with the principal provided an opportunity for follow-up questions. Relevant documents included a wide variety of curricular materials, including the social studies and language arts textbooks, supplementary materials from the social studies textbook publisher, historical fiction used in the classroom, and documentary films viewed by Mrs. Knights students.

Data analysis focused extensively on classroom events and centered on case study analytic techniques, including pattern matching and explanation building (Yin, 1994). We looked across data sources in the process of identifying patterns and explanations. We particularly aimed to document typical and atypical practices in Mrs. Knights classroom and to understand the contextual influences and specific teaching dilemmas (Rosenholtz, 1987, 1989; VanSledright & Grant, 1994) that shaped Mrs. Knights instructional decisions. Data analysis involved three phases of investigation. First, we analyzed and coded field notes and videotapes to determine typical and atypical practices in Mrs. Knights social studies instruction. This analysis demonstrated the consistency of Mrs. Knights instructional method over the course of the school year but also identified instances in which Mrs. Knight departed from typical practice. Second, we examined the data to ascertain the reasoning behind Mrs. Knights curricular and instructional decisions. Analyzing her decisions illuminated the specific teaching dilemmas that she faced in social studies and how she responded. Third, we analyzed her rationales, in combination with her teaching practices, to identify the primary factors influencing her decisions. Throughout our analysis, we aimed to understand how contextual influences produced specific teaching dilemmas and how these dilemmas affected Mrs. Knights professional practice in social studies.


In 1999, California instituted a state-level accountability system that uses student performance on a number of annual tests and a high school exit examination to measure the quality of the education provided by individual schools and districts. In elementary schools, student performance on annual state examinations in language arts and mathematics became crucial in determining a schools Academic Performance Index (API). Using a scale of 2001,000, California set a state target API score of 800 for all schools. Annual targets for improvement, equal to 5% of the difference between a schools most recent API score and 800, were established for all schools and for specific groups of students identified as low income, minority, or ELLs. Schools deemed successful had to meet or exceed annual state targets for improvement for the entire school and for specific subgroups of students. Schools that showed improvement were eligible for cash rewards. Schools failing to meet their annual target had to demonstrate sufficient improvement in subsequent years or face sanctions and, in some cases, possible closure. In addition, the state provided an annual ranking of individual schools, on a scale of 110, that allowed parents to compare their childs school with schools with similar demographics, such as student race and ethnicity, parent education, ELL population, low-income families, and percentage of teachers with credentials.

High-stakes test-based accountability can lead to the implementation of standardized approaches to teaching, a reform that can undermine teacher authority over curriculum and instruction. When the California Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999 was instituted, Dusty Valley was identified as a low-performing school because its API score was nearly 400 points below the 800-point target score. Although a schools API score was based on various measures, the most important measure for elementary schools became students scores on annual state examinations in language arts and mathematics. Teachers and administrators preoccupation with the need to demonstrate annual improvement in test scores was evident in the privileging of language arts and mathematics over other subject areas in the curriculum, and the focusing of time and resources on these two subject areas.

The principal, Mr. Mendez, likened the problem Dusty Valley faced as a low-performing school in the states new accountability system to that faced by a doctor treating a trauma patient. Bleeding in all kinds of ways, teachers and administrators realized that trying to stop every wound was impossible, so they agreed to focus on treating the major wounds first: reading, writing, and mathematics. Social studies, science, music, art, and physical education took a back seat to language arts and mathematics. The first 2 hours of every day were declared sacred time devoted specifically to language arts instruction, followed by at least 1 hour of mathematics instruction, although many teachers spent an additional 2030 minutes on mathematics each day. In practice, teachers devoted the entire morning to language arts and mathematics. In the afternoon, teachers had approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes in which to teach social studies, science, physical education, music, art, and more language arts.1 On Wednesdays, a minimum day to allow for afternoon staff meetings, teachers focused only on language arts and mathematics. Whenever disruptions to this schedule occurred, whether due to field trips, schools assemblies, or other unforeseen occurrences, teachers preserved instruction in language arts and mathematics and thus reduced or eliminated instructional time for social studies, science, or physical education. Language arts and mathematics always trumped other subject areas. In March, because of students poor performance on a mathematics and language arts benchmark test aimed at measuring readiness for state examinations, most teachers eliminated all social studies and science instruction until state testing concluded in late April.

Resisting standardization while preserving teacher professionalism was a constant tension, and Mr. Mendez worked hard to provide resources to help teachers support student learning in their classrooms without undermining their authority. For example, teachers participated in a constant stream of workshops, programs, and other professional development opportunities throughout the year, all directed at improving teaching and learning in language arts and mathematics. These opportunities included workshops from the publishers of the language arts and mathematics textbooks used at Dusty Valley, and teacher training in using Step Up To Writing, a program aimed at improving student writing, Specifically Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE) strategies for ELL students, and Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD), a model of professional development intended to promote academic language and literacy achievement in multilingual classrooms. Professional development used a trainer-of-trainers approach and sought the implementation of specific programs and instructional strategies. However, teachers met as grade-level teams to discuss the appropriate implementation of new strategies for supporting student learning, and the details of this implementation often varied across classrooms based on an individual teachers assessment of what was best for his or her students. Although Mr. Mendez wanted to see Step Up To Writing, SDAIE, GLAD, and other strategies being used in all classrooms, he ultimately relied on teachers, individually and in grade-level teams, to determine how best to integrate these new programs into their existing curriculum and instruction to support student learning.

The possibility that the delivery of these resources would displace teachers individual judgment was real. Though Mr. Mendez supported teacher autonomy, he also advocated a degree of standardization of the curriculum, if not instruction. For example, although not instituting pacing guides to monitor the scope and sequence of curriculum over the academic year, Mr. Mendez expressed his desire that all teachers at a grade level teach the same topic at the same time. However, he did not closely monitor or enforce this expectation. Two important factors kept Mr. Mendez from moving to standardization. First, he regarded the teachers as professionals, and second, he and the teachers collectively pursued the same educational goals and purposes for students. Ultimately, Mr. Mendez relied on teachers to make decisions about proper curriculum and appropriate instruction for their students, including exactly how to use the strategies learned in professional development activities to promote student learning.

Mr. Mendez regularly analyzed data from annual state examinations and other language arts and mathematics assessments, tracking student performance for each grade and individual classrooms. He even examined specific test items for individual students. Although students test scores were improving yearly, and Dusty Valley Elementary was recognized as a successful, improving school, it was still a low-performing school as measured against the API target of 800 for all California schools. Mr. Mendez was concerned that the focus on state testing and the ongoing pressure to meet the annual targets might undermine curriculum and instruction and lead to teaching to the test. He had avoided that situation through faculty discussions that led to an agreement that all teachers would develop curriculum based on state content standards in all subject areas and that this approach, rather than teaching to the test, would ensure student success on annual state examinations.

Throughout the year, staff meetings focused on discussions of test data, but teachers and administrators used these discussions to figure out what they could do, together, to support student learning in all classrooms at Dusty Valley. Supporting student learning, and thereby raising test scores, was not a problem for individual teachers but a shared problem for the entire school. Instead of declaring changes in practice that he believed would lead to improved student learning and demanding that they be implemented in classrooms, Mr. Mendez worked with the teachers, relying on their expertise, knowledge, and experience to develop specific plans for supporting the achievement of all students.

Mr. Mendezs support of teacher autonomy mirrored his relationship with district administrators. When he was involuntarily transferred to become principal of Dusty Valley, based on his strong performance as a principal, district administrators planned that it would be a 2-year assignment, but Mr. Mendez asked to stay for at least 5 years.

I asked them, well please leave me here at least five years. Thats all I ask. If Im gonna come, and I dont want to. . . , then leave me to establish something. So they did. And there was also a lot of autonomy from the district to get it done. There were standards. There were things to do, but Hector, how you do it well leave it up to you.

That there were things to do but how you do it well leave it up to you is an accurate description of Mr. Mendezs relationship with teachers; he respected teachers as professionals and provided them with professional development opportunities that he believed would give them new knowledge and skills to support student learning, but he ultimately left it up to the teachers to decide how they would revise curriculum and instruction.

In response to state-mandated testing, administrators and teachers decided to focus on specific subject areas included in state testsreading, writing, and mathematicswhile trying to preserve instruction in subject areas not tested, such as social studies, science, music, and art. What this meant in practice was that most of the time and resources at Dusty Valley were directed at language arts and mathematics, with teachers being encouraged to include other subject areas in whatever time was left over. Mr. Mendez expected teachers to continue teaching social studies and science (music and art were another matter), and he left it up to them to decide exactly how to do so. Consequently, there was significant variation in the teaching of social studies and science across classrooms, as individual teachers decided how much time to devote to these subjects, the content of the curriculum, and the instructional methods to use.

The rejection of standardized approaches in language arts and mathematics further reduced the amount of time available for other subject areas. Teachers focused on learning rather than test preparation, opting against standardized approaches that often reduce teaching and learning to the efficient transmission of a body of knowledge. Teachers did not adopt scripted lessons in language arts and mathematics, and the focus of lessons was not on student preparation for state examinations. Some test preparation occurred in classrooms, such as teaching students how to properly bubble in test answers or how to eliminate wrong answers when unsure of the correct answer. However, the main focus of lessons was student learning, and teachers responded to their students specific needs in designing curriculum and making instructional decisions. Retaining this type of approach can be more time consuming than using standardized methods. The overall amount of time being spent on instruction in language arts and mathematics left little time for other subjects in the curriculum. This shift in instructional time, which reduces time for social studies, science, and other subject areas not tested by state or federal systems of test-based accountability, has been noted in reports on state accountability systems (Taylor, Shepard, Kinner, & Rosenthal, 2003; VanFossen, 2005), the consequences of NCLB (Von Zastrow & Janc, 2004), and district reform efforts (Sandholtz, Ogawa, & Scribner, 2004).   

Inadequate time for social studies instruction (and science, physical education, music, and art) created teaching dilemmas of content coverage and instructional method that individual teachers managed in various ways. Within this context of high-stakes test-based accountability and reduced time for social studies instruction, teaching dilemmas and a new form of professional practice, constrained professionalism, emerged. In the following section, we analyze Mrs. Knights classroom practice in social studies and demonstrate how her decisions were intended to support her students knowledge and understanding of U.S. history.


Like the other teachers at Dusty Valley, Mrs. Knight taught to the state content standards in all subject areas. In social studies, this meant providing her students with a history of the United States that began tens of thousands of years ago, with the first people settling in the Americas, and ended with the Civil War. She designed her year plan so that students would read all but the final two chapters of the textbook, America Will Be (Armento, Nash, Salter, & Wixson, 1991), taking them through the Civil War. Having her students learn a specific body of knowledge of U.S. history was important not simply because of the state content standards, but because Mrs. Knight wanted to prepare students for academic success in middle school.

The kids are more interested in content, they have been reading booked to death. They dont know anything about history; they dont know anything about geography; they dont know anything about science. And when theyre reading those books, theyre reading them. So now its just a matter of getting them to think about it. They get into the reading book and they get ideas aboutI just dont see it as being effective in fifth grade. They need to have some content and this [social studies] gives them a new avenue to do that. Plus, if they go next door [the middle school] without any history, without any science, weve done them an injustice. So I think if they can teach them to, how to read, do math, and think, up through third grade, we ought to be able to take em from there and say, okay, now lets get some content into you.

Most important to Mrs. Knight was that her students understand U.S. history, not simply know it. As Wiggins and McTighe (1998) noted, students may know without understanding (p. 25), and Mrs. Knight ultimately wanted to develop her students understanding of this historical period.

I want them to say at the end, and I hear some of them saying now, I like social studies. I didnt like it in the beginning, but now I do. I guess thats what I want is for them not to go over there [the middle school] with a fear of what social studies or history is or, oh this is a boring subject, but, I like this, I can understand these people even though this happened a long time ago. I can understand whats going on.

Mrs. Knight also aimed to increase the relevance of history to her students and the world they lived in, a challenge given the limited time for social studies.

Mrs. Knights efforts to support students knowledge and understanding of U.S. history were evident in her instructional decisions and teaching practice. She consistently used metaphor and analogy to develop students understanding of people and events in history. In addition, her instructional method made space for student questions and comments, which she used to judge student understanding and misunderstanding and to revise her instruction accordingly. Mrs. Knights primary instructional method in social studies, recorded day after day in classroom observations, was methodical outlining (Wills, 2006), a two-part participation structure for learning that provided specific roles for Mrs. Knight and her students in the knowledge production process. The first part of methodical outlining involved students reading chapters from the textbook aloud while Mrs. Knight generated an outline of main points on the front board and students copied the outline in their notes. The second part involved discussion and elaboration of people, events, and important ideas in U.S. history, an effort to develop students understanding and their knowledge of history. During these discussions, Mrs. Knight relied on students comments and questions to help her see, and respond to, their initial misunderstanding or lack of understanding. Together, she and her students sought to create meaningful accounts and understandings of U.S. history. In the next section, we analyze part of a lesson on the Trail of Tears that illustrates methodical outlining and demonstrates how Mrs. Knight used her professional judgment to support her students knowledge and understanding.


This lesson occurred in early March and involved reading about and discussing the removal of Native Americans from tribal lands, the Trail of Tears, and the slaughter of the Sauk in the Black Hawk War. We selected excerpts to illustrate central features of methodical outlining as an instructional method and to highlight key aspects of Mrs. Knights professional practice, such as the importance of students questions in shaping the curriculum in use and the knowledge produced in social studies. The following excerpts illustrate the typical role played by students in social studies lessons, that of active questioners, and underscore Mrs. Knights efforts to make history understandable to her students, first by elaborating on the information in the textbook and then by pursuing students questions to address gaps in their understanding.

[1] Mrs. Knight: Alright Heather go ahead.

[2] Heather: By 1830 the government was no longer asking Indians to move away from their ancient tribal lands. It was ordering them. Making the Indians move west was now official government policy.

[3] Mrs. Knight: Keep going.

[4] Heather: Removal treaties demanded that many Indians in the southeast move to Indian reservations in what is now Oklahoma. States were eager to take control of Indian lands. The Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw moved reckluckly.

[5] Mrs. Knight: Reluctantly. Meaning they did not want to go.

[6] Heather: The Cherokee however decided to stay. They fought the treaties in the courts. One case went to the Supreme Court. It ruled that the government had no right to order the Indians off their lands. President Andrew Jackson said he, this decision was ridiculous and ignored the Supreme Court and ordered the American army to remove the Cherokee by force. [Mrs. Knight is now busy writing outline points on the front board, and students are copying them down in their notes.] The soldiers with guns marched more than eighteen thousand Cherokee from their homes in the Southeast. Almost one-fourth of the Indians died of starvation, disease, and harsh treatment along the way. The route the Cherokee followed to Oklahoma became known as the Trail of Tears. Look back at the map on page 361. Trace the route of the Trail of Tears. What present-day states did the Cherokee pass through on their journey to Oklahoma?

[7] Mrs. Knight: Okay. It says here that by the 1830s the government was no longer making treaties and saying uh, we would like to trade your land for money or wed like to take your land thank you very much and well pay you for it. Instead, they were just taking the land. So instead of uh making treaties that they were going to break they started with new treaties which were, that youre land is our land and well move you to new land. This particularly affected the Indians in the [southeast]. That would be Georgia, the Carolinas, um Florida.

[8] Billy: New York?

[9] Mrs. Knight: No, its the southeast. And they were moving the Indians if you, you know you remember the United States sort of sits like this [quickly draws a rough outline of the United States on the board, then indicates where Oklahoma is and where the Indians were]. And then Texas is here. Oklahoma sits right above Texas. And theyre moving, mostly the Indians in this area here.

[10] Linda: Florida.

[11] Mrs. Knight: Theyre walking them across.

[12] Nathaniel: To to uh Georgia?

[13] Mrs. Knight: To Oklahoma.

[14] Nathaniel: Wheres Georgia all the way over there, no?

[15] Mrs. Knight: This would be like Florida, Georgia. Uh South Carolina North Carolina [filling these in on the map shes drawn].

[16] Nathaniel: How didtheyre like right next to each other in the north and south.

[17] Mrs. Knight: This is a very long walk and theyre going to walk//

[18] Thomas: Isnt that a river?

[19] Mrs. Knight: whetherno [not where she was pointing on the map she drew].

[20] Linda: Dont they cross the Mississippi River?

[21] Mrs. Knight: Mississippi. Right about there. Cause wed have Louisiana in here [pointing at map, then two students asking questions at the same time]. Wait please, I cant have two people talking.

[22] Linda: So they go on the river and across to Texas?

[23] Mrs. Knight: Across the Mississippi. And on actually above Texas. Now, the bad thing about this, at this time in particular this was a very, its a very dry rocky area. Oklahoma. And most of these people, most of the Indians in the southwest were used to a warm climate. And its still sort of warm in Oklahoma. Though I do think they get snow. And they were used to a lot of rain, a lot of water. And theyre moving to the desert. Lots of grass lots of trees lots of vegetation. Lots of dirt lots of rocks lots of boulders. Okay? So theyre, things are changing big time. And theyre moving, momyou know mothers with babies.

In this excerpt, Mrs. Knight began by elaborating on the change in the U.S. governments treatment of Native Americans, a shift from making treaties or paying Native Americans for their lands to simply taking their lands [line 7]. She then drew a map on the front board to help students picture where Native Americans such as the Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee lived. This map prompted a series of student questions that allowed Mrs. Knight to clarify the specific location of these Native American peoples and where they were being taken, something that students apparently did not grasp from the textbook passages [lines 823]. After clarifying the basic facts, she tried to give her students a sense of the different kind of land and climate these people would find in Oklahoma [line 23]. This excerpt illustrates methodical outlining as a participation structure that provided specified roles for Mrs. Knight and her students in developing students knowledge and understanding. Students assumed the role of active participants who asked questions that Mrs. Knight used to clarify information and to measure and develop students understanding of historical events, the actions of historical actors, and important ideas or concepts.

Mrs. Knight then continued with the outline and began discussing the Cherokee tribe.

[24] Mrs. Knight: Alright. We then have the Cherokee [writes next point on the outline]. Were going to go to a different set of people. And the Cherokee, we talked about them yesterday. It should be in your notes right above Many Tribes. Im reading Nathaniels notes [Nathaniel is sitting in the front of the room], Many tribes tried to live with the settlers. The Cherokee adopted the settlers way of life. The Cherokee are going to try to do things the way that the settlers have shown them will work. They have plantations they were, they were a fairly wealthy tribe. They had converted to Christianity. They had their own alphabet, their own government, their own Constitution. Their own newsletters or newspapers. So, the Cherokee are now being told, new home for you its lovely in Oklahoma.

[25] Linda: Why dont they take em uh, (unintelligible)? Why didnt they take em to other countum, places? [Another student begins to make a comment here, Mrs. Knight tells her to hold on, and Linda repeats her question]. Why couldnt they take em to Texas um, and not to other places?

[26] Mrs. Knight: Why did they go to Oklahoma?

[27] Linda: No Texas.

[28] Mrs. Knight: Why didnt they go to Texas?

[29] Linda: Ya.

[30] Mrs. Knight: Cause Texas I believe at that time belonged to Mexico. So theyd be moving them into a different country. And they moved them out to Oklahoma because nobody in that time

thought Oklahoma would ever be good for anything else. I think thats fair to say that, really they were moving them out there because nobody wanted that dry old area. Imagine their shock when they discovered oil.

[31] Tiffany: Well if they had a house, if they Mrs. Knight if they had a house there they would probably want it huh?

[32] Mrs. Knight: Who?

[33] Tiffany: Um, you know how the settlers thought that no one wanted that area? If they had a house they might have wanted it.

[34] Linda: No the settlers//

[35] Mrs. Knight: Perhaps.

[36] Linda: the settlers want the, places where theres lots of vegetation so they could farm on it.

[37] Mrs. Knight: They most of them wanted to be able to farm yes. So they were looking for places that they could farm. The Cherokee decided to fight in court [writes this point on the outline on the front board].

The exchange between Linda and Mrs. Knight (lines 2530) may seem to be of little significance, yet it demonstrates an important aspect of Mrs. Knights professional practice and methodical outlining as an instructional method. Mrs. Knight was concerned with her students knowledge and understanding of history, and she used their comments and questions to help her decipher what was clear and unclear to them. In this instance, she stopped and restated what she thought Linda was asking until Linda confirmed that Mrs. Knight was accurately hearing her question. Through these small exchanges, Mrs. Knight is constantly gauging the extent of understanding among her students and using their questions as a guide that directs her account of history.

In addition, students meaningful participation in the production of knowledge is validated in these exchanges. Students questions and comments matter to Mrs. Knight, and they also matter because they shape the knowledge produced in lessons. In this brief exchange, the joint production of knowledge by Mrs. Knight and her students led Linda to an important insight [13]: The settlers want the land the Cherokee are on because it is land they can farm. Class discussions, the narration of history during the second part of methodical outlining, encourage interpretive complexity (Nystrand, 1997, p. 77) and support the development of more complex and sophisticated understandings of history. The removal of the Cherokee and other Native Americans from the land because it was rich land for farming is an important point, all the more powerful because it was formulated by Linda and then validated by Mrs. Knight.

On a daily basis, Mrs. Knight relied on methodical outlining as an instructional method that allowed her to move efficiently through the content in the textbook (Wills, 2006). As a structure for learning, methodical outlining enabled Mrs. Knight to convey the history of the United States specified in state content standards, supporting her students acquisition of historical knowledge and providing some time to develop her students understanding of history. Two instances in which she departed from this approach illustrate the teaching dilemmas that Mrs. Knight constantly faced in teaching social studies and highlight the constraints on her professional practice.


Teaching dilemmasissues such as time management, curricular design and content, classroom authority, and the demands of district or state policiesoften come into conflict in classrooms, requiring teachers to manage or negotiate these competing demands as they make curricular and instructional decisions (Cuban, 1992; Jackson, 1986; Rosenholtz, 1987, 1989; VanSledright & Grant, 1994). State testing in language arts and mathematics produced teaching dilemmas for teachers in social studies by squeezing the time available in the school day, week, and year. As a result, individual teachers developed specific strategies for managing these dilemmas of time, instructional method, and content coverage (Wills, 2007).

Mrs. Knight believed that preparing her students for academic success in middle school meant providing them with requisite content knowledge in social studies, in addition to developing their literacy skills. Consequently, she felt obligated to teach a complete history of the United States as specified by state content standards and presented in students textbooks. Working with another fifth-grade teacher, she designed a year plan for social studies that presented a survey of U.S. history beginning in 2000 BC and ending with the Civil War. This was a significant body of knowledge to address over the school year, particularly with reduced instructional time for subjects other than language arts and mathematics. Mrs. Knight made time for social studies by adopting a strategy that other teachers at Dusty Valley rejected; she eliminated physical education, another subject area required by the state, for the entire school year. Although she recognized the problems with eliminating physical education, she believed that the time gained for social studies40 minutes per day, 4 days per weekwas worth this sacrifice.2 Mrs. Knight also justified spending 40 minutes per day on social studies by noting that instruction involved reading and therefore strengthened students language arts skills in addition to providing content knowledge of U.S. history.

Having made time for social studies, Mrs. Knight still faced teaching dilemmas regarding curriculum content and instructional method. Methodical outlining, an efficient but flexible instructional method, allowed Mrs. Knight to manage the sometimes competing demands of supporting students knowledge of history and developing their understanding of history by shifting the emphasis of instruction in response to time constraints. When significantly short on time, she reduced methodical outlining to the quick and efficient transmission of knowledge and gave little or no effort to developing students understanding of history. On these days, Mrs. Knight often would read from the textbook herself and outline the main points on the board as students listened, copied the outline, and asked questions about their accurate transcription of the information (Wills, 2006). However, when there was more time than usual, Mrs. Knight expanded the discussion of historical figures, events, and ideas during methodical outlining, and on rare occasions, she included information not contained in the textbook. The next section describes the only instance in the entire year when Mrs. Knight abandoned methodical outlining entirely and used an alternative instructional method that she determined would best support student learning and would be worth the time lost in covering the textbook content.


Observing Mrs. Knights classroom day after day, one might conclude that she chose methodical outlining not only because of time constraints but also because she was most comfortable and skilled at using this instructional method. However, in a lesson on efforts to form a new government after the American Revolution, Mrs. Knight demonstrated her breadth of skills and underscored how time issues constrained her professional practice in social studies.

By late January, Mrs. Knight and her students had read and discussed the first 11 chapters in their textbook, America Will Be (1991), which began with lessons on the geography and different regions of the Americas and concluded with the colonists prevailing in the Revolutionary War. On this day, they were beginning a new chapter that dealt with efforts to form a national government, the writing of the Constitution, and the creation of an American identity. However, as Mrs. Knight and her students transitioned from language arts to social studies, she didnt ask students to pass out the social studies textbooks. In fact, the lesson ended without a single student opening a textbook, a significant departure from normal practice. On this day, Mrs. Knight had something else in mind. As she related after the lesson, past students had found this textbook chapter to be boring, mainly because it was difficult to understand the issues and problems the colonists faced in forming a national government after defeating the British in the Revolutionary War. In response, Mrs. Knight decided to depart from their routine and begin by engaging her students in a discussion before reading the first lesson in this new chapter. She hoped this approach would help her students better understand the new situation of the colonists and provide some background for what they were about to read, rendering the material more engaging and understandable.

Mrs. Knight began the discussion by asking her students what the end of the Revolutionary War brought and what it accomplished. Students responded that it brought freedom in different forms, such as independence and freedom from taxation by the king. It also brought freedom to certain groups of people, including, as Martin noted, African American people. Martin also suggested that the colonists did not necessarily want African Americans to gain their freedom; the colonists only wanted African Americans to

help them win the war against the British. Mrs. Knight facilitated the discussion by calling on students, probing to clarify their responses when necessary and writing their comments on the front board. While students participated easily and even enthusiastically, comments from Nathaniel and Thomas indicated how significantly this method departed from normal practice. As Martin was proposing that the colonists did not necessarily want African Americans to gain their freedom as a result of the war, Nathaniel asked a question about the information that Mrs. Knight was writing on the board.

[12] Mrs. Knight: Okay. Im gonna come back to yours [Martins comment], okay? [Points to Linda, who has her hand up]

[13] Linda: Freedom for America?

[14] Mrs. Knight: In particular who? [She moves to the front board.] So far we have two possibilities or some possibilities. We have freedom, theres an agreement there [writes Freedom on the front board]. One was for all Americans [writes on the board under Freedom]. Lets just say freedom for all. And uh Martin said for African Americans [writes on the board under For All Americans].

[15] Martin: Dont all Americans and some Americans think that African Americans want their freedom, they uh could but the uh Americans just wanted more people, they didnt want African Americans to get freedom. They just wanted them to//

[16] Nathaniel: Is this an outline?

[17] Martin: They just wanted them to help them out.

[18] Mrs. Knight: This is not an outline.

[19] Nathaniel: Do we have to write it down?

[20] Martin: They just wanted the African Americans to help them in the war [Mrs. Knight is looking at Chris, nodding her head up and down as he finishes].

[21] Mrs. Knight: And were gonna, like I said were gonna come back to that one, alright?

[22] Thomas: Are we gonna have to write that?

[23] Mrs. Knight: No. Right now youre thinking.

[24] Nathaniel and Thomas: Oh.

[25] Mrs. Knight: Before I even give you your books, I want you to think about what, what this is, what the purpose of this war was and what came as a result of it. Thomas?

[26] Thomas: Independence.

[27] Mrs. Knight: For whom?

It was not clear to Nathaniel and Thomas, and surely to other students as well, exactly what they were supposed to be doing [lines 16, 19, 22, 24]. However, once Mrs. Knight clarified the situation, they had no problem contributing to this atypical social studies discussion [line 26], especially because students actively questioned and commented in textually grounded discussions as part of methodical outlining. This discussion about the Revolutionary War continued a bit longer, until Mrs. Knight pointed at everything shed written on the board, noted that whoever this freedom is for, were looking at freedom, and then posed a new question: Were all the colonies the same? So began the next section of the discussion, with Mrs. Knight helping her students recall what they knew about the social, cultural, and economic differences between the colonies. She concluded this part of their discussion by repeating that these colonies are different. She then asked students what the colonists might need after the Revolutionary War. After students briefly talked about the colonists need for new land, which meant going into Indian territory, Andy suggested they needed a king. Another student called out government, leading Andy to say a leader. Mrs. Knight summed up at this point, noting they were no longer colonies and that the colonists would need to look at Indian territories for new land and consider forming a new government.

One aspect of Mrs. Knights practice that reflected her constant focus on student understanding was her consistent use of metaphor and analogy in class discussions. These metaphors were often ad hoc, brief, and to the point, as when Mrs. Knight declared, during a lesson on the movement of White settlers westward, that covered wagons were the SUVs of their time. At other times, their application was more developed. For example, when her students had difficulty understanding how King Philip II of Spain ruled his colonies in America from afar, Mrs. Knight proposed an analogy involving the principal, Mr. Mendez, and one of the students in her classroom, Ernesto. After deciding to remain in another community for some time, Mr. Mendez decided to make Ernesto the governor of Mrs. Knights classroom in his absence. Mr. Mendez would continue to be principal of Dusty Valley, and Ernesto would not come up with his own rules. Instead, he would talk to Mr. Mendez to find out what he wanted to happen, analogous to the relationship between King Philip II and the governors whom he appointed to rule his colonies. This analogy made the idea of ruling settlements from afar understandable to the students and led to further discussion about communication between the King and his governors, including that the telegraph system had yet to be invented and that it took 6 months for information to travel by ship.

Up to this point, the discussion had been more effective in helping students recall the historical information in the textbook than in developing their understanding of the unique situation the colonists faced. Recognizing this situation, Mrs. Knight declared were gonna change gears for just a minute, and she presented an analogy to help her students understand the issues and problems facing the colonists in forming a national government.

[177] Mrs. Knight: If we in this classroom were to, or we the fifth grade were to be similar to whats happened here, then we would say that instead of being a part of Dusty Valley, we fought, we won, Mr. Mendez is no longer in charge or Dr. Xavier [superintendent] is no longer in charge of//

[178] Thomas: Whos Dr. Xavier?

[179] Rodney: At the district.

[180] Mrs. Knight: of the fifth-grade wing.

[181] Nathaniel: Were not?

[182] Mrs. Knight: Were separate. This is made up, cause I want you to think, okay? We no longer have any direction okay? Were all separate. Mrs. Matthewss class, this class, Mrs. Nortons class, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Peterson, Mrs. Nelson.

[183] Brian: Mrs. Matthews?

[184] Mrs. Knight: Mrs. Matthews and Mrs. Nelson. Were going, were going to form our own//

[185] Thomas: Nation.

[186] Mrs. Knight: Um, nation yes. What do we need to do?

[187] Linda: A leader?

[188] Mrs. Knight: Okay, we need to pick a leader [she writes this on the front board]. And,

[189] Rodney: Vote Nelson.

[190] Andy: Norton.

[191] Tiffany: No Mrs. Matthews.

[192] Mrs. Knight. Shh. So far weve already had three blurted out. Nelson, Matthews, and


Nathaniel at first seemed to have some trouble grasping the new thrust of their conversation [line 181], but Thomas and Linda quickly followed Mrs. Knights lead [lines 186 and 188]. Other students readily called out their preferences of a new leader from the fifth-grade teachers [lines 189, 190, and 191]. Subsequently they talked about the need for a government to help the leader and the kind of leader one would wantfor example, one who doesnt boss us around and one who doesnt tax us. Although students provided good comments, which Mrs. Knight added to the front board, she wanted them to think more about wants and needs related to the classroom.

[216] Mrs. Knight: Okay, think about your classroom. What do you want?

[217] Jim: No homework.

[218] Mrs. Knight: Okay, no homework [adds to the board].

[219] Tina: No homework! [smiling, apparently happy about this. Another student says no punishment and Mrs. Knight adds this to the board].

[220] Mrs. Knight: No punishment [points to Tiffany].

[221] Tiffany: A responsible um, leader? Like, if there was something that would really help you um, just to find it or, like maybe something else [Mrs. Knight writes responsible on the board as Tiffany is speaking, although she is speaking very softly.]

[222] Mrs. Knight: What?

[223] Tiffany: Um a responsible one to life if, so if we didnt have a responsible leader everybody wouldnt be um, like, um, um doing the rules like, if theyre if theyre fighting and thats not like thats sort of not being responsible [Mrs. Knight adds rules to the board].

[224] Mrs. Knight: Okay.

[225] Linda: Need to understand our needs [Mrs. Knight adds understand needs to the board].

[226] Mrs. Knight: And what Im hearing, what Ive heard just in listening is in understanding your ruleor your needs. I heard over here no rules, I heard over here we need rules. So it sounds like possibly different people are thinking that.

[227] Male student: Different opinions.

[228] Mrs. Knight: Rules should be different or our needs are different [Mrs. Knight points to each of the groups of colonies written on the board as she says this, linking the conversation about the classroom back to the problem facing the colonies].

[229] Thomas: [shouts out] Whos our government? [Mrs. Knight smiles at Thomas, but then calls on Martin, who had his hand up.]

[230] Mrs. Knight: Okay Martin?

[231] Martin: We need a person that helps the people that, we should have like the governors should help the people what theyre doing that, that they should have rights not to do stuff. Because if they do the wrong thing they wouldnt know.

[232] Mrs. Knight: So youre talking about rules, and understanding needs. Okay. [Mrs. Knight adds help people have rights to the board.]

[233] Martin: And that he should help more with the, he should help the city but um, he should he should help them with problems, and lights and everything.

[234] Mrs. Knight. Okay, um.

[235] Martin: Like lights, water.

[236] Mrs. Knight: Okay I understand what youre saying so, how would we put that down?

[237] Heather: Help the people.

[238] Roberta: Help with supplies.

[239] Mrs. Knight: Okay help with supplies [adds this to the board]. So that people have what they need.

[240] Martin: And that he should, that if they have like any money if some people were homeless they would give it to them so they would get something to eat or something.

[241] Mrs. Knight: Okay so youre talking about money, and youre also talking about the uh welfare of people. How people should be taken care of [adds money and welfare to the board].

Given this new focus, students delineated their wants and desires (no homework [line 217], no punishment [line 219]) and what characteristics they would like in a leader (a responsible one [line 221], someone who understands our needs [line 225]). Mrs. Knight noted the various comments and suggested that their responses might reflect different needs and ideas concerning appropriate rules to be adopted, exactly the analogous situation faced by the colonists that Mrs. Knight was trying to help her students understand [lines 226 and 228]. In the final part of this exchange, one can see how students were helping each other figure out their collective thinking. Martins comments [233, 235], although understandable to Mrs. Knight, were not phrased in a way that could be summarized easily on the front board, but with assistance from Heather [237], Roberta [238], and Martin [240], Mrs. Knight was able to add Martins ideas to the information on the front board.

Following this discussion, Mrs. Knight and her students briefly talked about the right to vote, including who should have this right and whether all votes should be equal. Students raised their hands to indicate their positions on these issues. Then she posed a new question:

[259] Mrs. Knight: Okay. Now, um, who in here thinks that its easy to come up with a government? [Jim, Tiffany, Enrique, Martin, Ernesto, Rodney, have their hands up, Denniss hand is halfway up.] Okay Enrique, you come up with a government right now. If I was to say, Enrique I want you to spend the next one week, okay, coming up with, with all the rules. Could you come up with,

[260] Male student: No.

[261] Mrs. Knight: with the rules or with a government, not just for this class but for Mrs. Matthews, and Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Nelson, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Peterson? Or would you need longer?

[262] Enrique: Longer [smiles. Some other students agree].

[263] Mrs. Knight: Okay. Why would you need longer? What would you need to do? [Martin raises

his hand and starts to speak.] Hold on please I wanna know what he would do. [Thirteen seconds pass while Enrique thinks, the room is silent. Then Martin, who is still standing up with his hand up, begins to comment, and Mrs. Knight immediately tells him to hold on.] What would you need to do? [Ten more seconds pass in silence, then Enrique speaks.]

[264] Enrique: Um, Id have to um, go to each class and like, review them and think what they need.

[265] Mrs. Knight: Okay. In order for him to come up with a government that wasis good for everybody he would need to go in and talk to everybody in all the classes. If you were, picked to be the president, of this brand new country, would it be possible for you to go to every single colony and find out what they need? [A couple of students say yes, one student says no. Martin is still standing behind his desk, hand raised, the only student in the room with his hand up.] Enriques job, in interviewing everybody in the, in all these classes would be a huge job. It would take him a long time. But it would be possible. Not comfortable, but it would be possible. What would make it easier for you? [Ernestos hand shoots up, but then goes down as Mrs. Knight looks at Enrique.]

[266] Enrique: If I hired people to do it.

[267] Mrs. Knight: Okay if you had people whod go forth, which would be um, Tiffany said a representative chosen by the leader. What would be another possibility? [Ernestos hand shoots up again, then down again as Mrs. Knight looks at Enrique. Martin sits down at this point, but he keeps his hand upin fact, he has his other hand behind his head, grasping the arm he has up at the elbow for support.]

[268] Enrique: Think about um, what they all need.

[269] Mrs. Knight: Okay. [Ernesto, Martin, and Linda have their hands up.] What youre thinking about and what they need and youre sitting here, you could send somebody out to ask, to do the interviews for you. Since you had more time to write, more time to think. What else could you do? [calls on Linda]

[270] Linda: Can I make it simple?

[271] Mrs. Knight: Yes.

[272] Linda: You know how the Iroquois nation um that each of them sent, each of the separate tribes would send and um, the people to ask them their vote and then tell the leader of em what the people think that they should do? And each nation had a representative and they sent that person to tell the leader. [Martin is actually waving his hand in the air while Linda is speaking.]

[273] Mrs. Knight: Okay, so what shes talking about is another possibility. And Tiffany mentioned this too, which is that each class would decide what their needs were and they would send representatives to talk to Enrique, to talk to the leader. So it wouldnt be him going out to each one. It would be they would be coming to him.

[274] Martin: But dont he has to write down stuff and the person goes out and back to the class and stuff? [Mrs. Knight did not call on Martin, and he keeps his hand up the entire time he is speaking. Nathaniel and Andy also have their hands up.]

[275] Mrs. Knight: Uh huh. So either the class could sent people to him or he could send people out to talk to them and then come back to him. Those are both possibilities.

[276] Martin: Well can I say something please?

[277] Mrs. Knight: Now you may.

[278] Martin: What about if that, in most of the classes and everybody asks like the same thing, what if they ask another school for money? What would (unintelligible).

[279] Mrs. Knight: Thats a good question.

[280] Martin: They might say ya and help.

[281] Mrs. Knight: They might. They might say ya and then they would have to decide//

[282] Martin: What if like you said it just like the fifth grade, you could help us out, but what if the whole school wanted uh three months out with no school? What would they say? Because the whole, every kid in the whole school said they want uh off school and some smart kids says that they wont cause they want o learn more. But that doesnt.

[283] Mrs. Knight: Okay. So hes talking about what if a majority [writes on the front board] wants something and a minority [writes on the front board] doesnt? Majority is, most of the kids want, but maybe some dont. Will they listen to the majority,

[284] Martin: Its like//

[285] Mrs. Knight: or will they listen to the minority? Or would the leader say this is what I want you to do cause I say so?

After asking who thinks it is easy to come up with a government, Mrs. Knight called on Enrique, a student who raised his hand but had not yet participated. This action reflects another aspect of Mrs. Knights professional practice, trying to include as many students in the discussion as possible. What is most evident in the ensuing exchange between Mrs. Knight and Enrique [lines 261269] is how long she waited for Enrique to formulate an answer to her questions. Mrs. Knight assumed that Enrique had something of value to add, so she was willing to wait patiently until he responded. The fact that Enrique did not give up or declare I dont know, but actively thought about and formulated his response [line 264] suggests that this is a typical event in Mrs. Knights classroom. In addition, students silently waited for Enriques response, with the exception of Martin, who attempted to gain the floor a number of times but was prevented from doing so by Mrs. Knight [line 263]. This discussion continued for another 10 minutes before Mrs. Knight brought the lesson to a close by noting all the conflicting or competing ideas on the front board and pointing out that the colonists faced a similar situation in forming a government after the Revolutionary War. The colonists were a diverse group of people with varying needs, and the only thing that most of them agreed on was that they did not want a king. They faced many problems in forming a new government, just as her students would face many problems if they were suddenly responsible for running their own classroom or school and for coming up with a plan for their own education.

Why did Mrs. Knight depart from methodical outlining for this lesson? One reason, articulated by Mrs. Knight after the lesson, was that past students had found it difficult to understand the situation the colonists faced at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War based solely on the textbook information. Given her past experience, she believed that helping students comprehend the situation prior to reading the textbook would make the next chapter understandable. In this instance, she led a discussion that supported students in developing more complex and sophisticated understandings of history, demonstrating a facility and skill with a more dialogic method of instruction (Nystrand, 1997) that was not apparent in her typical practice, methodical outlining. Another reason, at least as important in this decision, was that Mrs. Knight had time to depart from methodical outlining, in a sense sacrificing one day of content coverage to support her students understanding of this significant moment in U.S. history. At this point in the year, Mrs. Knight was well positioned to meet her year plan in social studies. With approximately 15 weeks left in the school year (minus 1 week for spring break, time spent on state and district testing, and special events for the graduating fifth graders), she had only seven chapters left  to cover. Mrs. Knight had been averaging one textbook chapter every 2 weeks (or less), so she had time to depart from normal practice to pursue an alternative instructional method that she thought best for her students learning.3

Issues of time shaped social studies instruction in Mrs. Knights classroom. She adopted methodical outlining as a sensible, efficient, and flexible instructional method that allowed her to balance competing demands of time, content coverage, and instruction on a daily basis. On the exceedingly rare occasions when she determined there was sufficient time to depart from methodical outlining and when she decided that her students learning would benefit from an alternative instructional method, Mrs. Knight became a very different kind of teacher and demonstrated skills that she rarely used in social studies. Similarly, there were instances when sufficient time did not lead her to abandon methodical outlining but did allow for the expansion of curricular content and the introduction or pursuit of historical knowledge that went beyond the boundaries of the knowledge presented in students textbooks.


Mrs. Knight rarely deviated from methodical outlining in social studies; the discussion about the formation of a new government following the Revolutionary War was an aberration. Similarly, Mrs. Knights instruction degenerated into the simple transmission of knowledge only when there was scant time for social studies, such as when an unexpected assembly interrupted the day. Although Mrs. Knight and her students consistently engaged in discussion, it was inevitably confined to the history presented in students textbooks, rarely expanding beyond the boundaries of that knowledge. Mrs. Knight deviated from this norm only once, during the lesson on the Trail of Tears, portions of which have been presented. This lesson illustrates how Mrs. Knights practice in social studies, although drawing on her professional knowledge and judgment to make curricular and instructional decisions in support of her students learning, was nevertheless a form of constrained professional practice. As described, the Trail of Tears lesson began as a typical lesson. Mrs. Knight used methodical outlining to balance competing demands of content coverage, the transmission of a body of knowledge through reading and outlining the textbook lesson, and the development of her students understanding of history through discussion of historical figures and events. Later in the lesson, she departed from the normal routine, a significant departure that revealed the possibilities of Mrs. Knights practice in social studies and highlighted time as a dilemma that shaped and constrained her decisions.

The discussion of the removal of Native Americans excerpted previously continued, with Mrs. Knight clarifying that the Supreme Court dealt with cases that raised constitutional issues and using segregation as an example: When segregation came up to the courts they said, it is not correct, our Constitution does not say its okay to have separate schools. Then students asked questions about what a court looks like, and after Mrs. Knight added Unconstitutional to take Indians lands to the outline on the front board, they asked questions about what the term unconstitutional meant. Mrs. Knight continued, focusing on President Jacksons response to the Supreme Court decision.

[90] Mrs. Knight: So according to this, the President should have done what? He should have said what?

[91]: Rodney: The Indians have the right// [other students start talking all at once, obscuring the rest of Rodneys comment]

[92] Mrs. Knight: The Indians have a right, to their own laws, their own nations, on the land thats been theirs. Yes?

[93] Rodney: What about the settlers takin over their land and, why didnt they just make their law that no settlers could take their land ever?

[94] Um, they may have made those laws, but President Jackson, who was in charge of the country, was the President of the country, ignored what the Supreme Court said.

[95]: Rodney: How? The Supreme Court is more big, is more big than the government.

[96] Mrs. Knight: No, its part of it.

[97]: Heather: He didnt want to because he wanted he ignored it because, he wanted to have the Indians lands.

[98] Mrs. Knight: Okay so President Jackson ignored the Supreme Courts ruling.

[99] Heather: Did he go to jail for that?

[100] Mrs. Knight: No. And he moved his army to their land.

[101] Rodney: What happened to him, what happened to him when the Supreme Court found out?

[102] Mrs. Knight: I dont know.

[103] Rodney: Can we look in the encyclopedia and find it out? [Heather repeats Rodneys request.]

[104] Mrs. Knight [to Heather]: You wanna get one from next door?

[105] Heather [nods]: What letter? [After considering this for a moment, Mrs. Knight sends Heather out to get volume T for Trail of Tears].

[106] Mrs. Knight: Shes gonna look this up in the encyclopedia. Okay. And shes looking it up because Rodney wants to know what did the Supreme Court do, after they were ignored. And I dont know, it [the textbook] doesnt say. And Ive never had anybody ask [smiles to the class, shrugs her shoulders, chuckles lightly, and then returns to the outline on the front board].

The first part of this exchange illustrates the important role that students play in the knowledge production process. Like a real conversation (Nystrand, 1997), the exchange between Rodney and Mrs. Knight [lines 9096] built an understanding of Jacksons possible motives that Heather articulated: President Jackson ignored the ruling of the Supreme Court because he wanted the Indians lands [97]. This episode underscores again the value of methodical outlining as an instructional method and indicates Mrs. Knights professional judgment. Rather than simply telling students what they need to know and understand about U.S. history, methodical outlining provides a supportive environment that enables students to ascertain the significance of actions and events in history and to critically engage and question history. Put simply, it provides support for students to put the story together their way, something Mrs. Knight valued and supported in her instruction (Wills, 2006). Pursuing students questions helped them develop a more in-depth understanding of history. Mrs. Knight also believed that students questions might spark other interests in other students and increased the likelihood that students would remember the material.   

Following Heathers conclusion about President Jacksons motives in ignoring the ruling of the Supreme Court, both Heather and Rodney wanted to know what happened to President Jackson because of his decision [lines 99 and 101]. Mrs. Knight did not know the answer to these questions, nor did the textbook provide any information regarding the ramifications of Jacksons decision. Mrs. Knight agreed to Heather and Rodneys request to search the encyclopedia for an answer, and she sent Heather to the room next door to secure volume T, for the Trail of Tears. Heather returned with the encyclopedia and began searching for the information. Mrs. Knight continued their discussion of the textbook material on the Trail of Tears until Heather came forward and presented the opened encyclopedia. Mrs. Knight read the passage to herself, then declared aloud, Well this is like, not helpful, and sent Heather out again to secure volumes O (for Oklahoma) and I (for Indian Lands). While Heather was gone, they discussed the deaths of almost one fourth of the Indians from starvation, disease, and harsh treatment, and they noted that children and the elderly were most likely to die on the journey. Upon Heathers return, Mrs. Knight stopped and looked at Volume O, then read aloud from Volume I, which offered no new information, and then sent Heather for Volume A, for American Indian, suggested by Volume I. After Heather arrived with Volume A, students waited patiently and quietly as Mrs. Knight examined it. She noted that this section was incredibly long, and then she read passages aloud, but it simply repeated information they had read in their textbooks on previous days. Finally, Mrs. Knight reluctantly ended their quest for an answer to what happened to President Jackson when the Supreme Court found out he ignored their ruling. With a smile on her face and a chuckle, she stated, Its gotta be here somewhere but, we have no access to it at this time. She handed the volume to Heather and instructed her to return the encyclopedias. Then she returned to the task of methodically outlining the remainder of the lesson, which included finishing their discussion of the Trail of Tears before reading about and discussing the Black Hawk War.

A significant aspect of the Trail of Tears lesson is Mrs. Knights rationale for deciding to pursue Heather and Rodneys questions. Her reasons highlight the subtle ways in which state-mandated testing in language arts and mathematics affected social studies practice and the production of knowledge in her classroom. As Mrs. Knight told her studentsand as she underscored in a subsequent interviewthe question of what happened to President Jackson after he ignored the ruling of the Supreme Court was a very good question, and one that had never been asked by a student before. However, students consistently asked good questions in social studies, but never before in that school year (and never again) had Mrs. Knight gone to such great lengths to answer a students question. Mrs. Knight also noted her students interest in the material, which she thought reflected the general interest of fifth graders in things that are unfair. But her students had raised issues of unfairness before without receiving such an extended response from Mrs. Knight. When asked why she tried to find an answer to Heather and Rodneys question, Mrs. Knight provided a simple and straightforward answer: We had time today, because we only had that small section of the final lesson to cover. In a school where teachers struggled to find time to teach social studies and where the vast majority of each school day was dedicated to language arts and mathematics instruction, time concerns always shaped curricular and instructional decisions. Although time for social studies was scarce, on this day, there was ample time for several reasons. First, it was a Friday, and they only had two pages left to read and discuss in the chapter, and 40 minutes to accomplish this task before recess. Second, there was no pressure to begin the next chapter because the following week there would be no social studies because of benchmark examinations in language arts and mathematics. The week following the benchmark examinations was spring break, so it made little sense to begin the next chapter that day. Moreover, at this point, Mrs. Knight was still on target with her year plan for social studies. Given these factors, there was no pressure to get through the material that day. As a result, Mrs. Knight was unexpectedly freed from competing demands of time and content coverage, enabling her to pursue an important question that was of interest to her students and that she judged worth pursuing for the sake of her students education.

Other lessons and conversations with Mrs. Knight demonstrated that the boundaries of U.S. history evident in the curriculum-in-use resulted from her management of teaching dilemmas, specifically variations in time. The circumscription of historical knowledge was not a conscious decision to restrict social studies content to the history contained in students textbooks but rather a product of Mrs. Knights management of teaching dilemmas. She valued her students and consistently did her best to answer their questions, questions that often raised issues or concerns going beyond the textbook material. At times, she herself introduced additional knowledge not found in students textbooks. However, whether introduced by Mrs. Knight or raised by students questions, these conversations were typically brief and always constrained by the need to continue moving through the textbook.

Early in the year, Mrs. Knight was on schedule according to her year plan for social studies, so on a few occasions, she included additional information that she deemed valuable and of particular interest to her students. For example, in early November, Mrs. Knight and her students studied slavery in the Southern colonies, and Mrs. Knight took the time to include information about slave castles along the coast of Africa, where captured Africans were held before being transported to the Americas. Mrs. Knight had visited some of these slave castles while living in Africa for 6 years, and after discussing what she had seen and learned, Mrs. Knight brought in some of her pictures at the students request. The lesson began with Enrique reading the three introductory paragraphs in the textbook lesson on slavery in the Southern colonies. Seven students raised their hands, but instead of calling on them, Mrs. Knight began telling about slave castles along the coast of West Africa. She discussed the conflicts between different African tribes and the conditions that captured Africans experienced in the slave castles as they waited to be transported to the Americas.

[12] Mrs. Knight: When the cave was full and they knew that because they were pushing people in. When there was no more give, when people could not be pushed in any further then this door was sealed. It was actually sealed anyway. But, they had a door on the other side, and that door was actually up in the ceiling. They would drop a ladder down, and it would allow people to come out and across a ramp and into the ships. And that was it. They would go up a ladder and there were people who decided, just like people decided here, that they could not get into that ship. That they could not cross that bridge into the ship and they would commit suicide and dive off the, you know just fall off the cliff.

[13] Thomas: Why would they die?

[14] Mrs. Knight: Because they couldnt bear the idea of being squished first from here and then into a ship. The ships would pack people in just as tightly as they were packed in here they would be packed into the ship. People were packed in as though they were um, sardines. Okay? So people are being put in, squished and squished and squished and squished and squished. Youll see a picture, it is just a picture but a picture nevertheless of the bottom of a slave ship on page one seventy two. And you can see theyve got people laying side by side, filling every available space.

Why did Mrs. Knight take the time to discuss slave castles and the experiences of captured Africans, information that was not present in students textbooks?

And Im telling you things that arent in the book because I had the good fortune of being able to see them. Some day, when youre big, you need to go and see them for yourself . . . theyre big and theyre scary but theyre an important part of our history and worth seeing . . . just as we are connected to their [African] history to that history they are also connected to our history.

Mrs. Knight believed this information was valuable for students, and therefore worth taking the time to discuss. After 14 minutes, Mrs. Knight was ready to continue reading from the textbook, but half a dozen students had their hands up. After confirming that the questions related to what they had been discussing, Mrs. Knight agreed to answer them, which took another 13 minutes. Students had numerous questions as they struggled to understand the conditions that Africans were forced to endure. Finally, with 11 minutes left, Mrs. Knight ended the discussion and returned to the students textbook, reading and discussing one more section of the lesson before ending for recess. Early in the year, comfortably keeping pace with her year plan for social studies, Mrs. Knight was willing to take time to provide a more expansive view of U.S. history. Many students demonstrated quite an interest in this topic as they read about and discussed slavery for 3 days. Their interest was apparent to Mrs. Knight, who also noted the increased participation of Rodney, one of the few African American students in her class.

In addition to prompting Mrs. Knight to expand the content of U.S. history on a few occasions, student questions often raised issues going beyond the content of the textbook. Time constraints, rather than Mrs. Knights judgment of the significance or value of a topic, determined the extent to which she examined issues raised by her students. The following exchange between Mrs. Knight and a student further highlights how time constraints influenced her decisions. After reading about checks and balances and the ratification of the Constitution, Mrs. Knight had 10 minutes left in class before recess and decided they would read the final section on the Bill of Rights. The section included a small box that contained the text of the First Amendment, which Mrs. Knight read and then discussed. In the final exchange before recess, Martin, who is African American, raised the issue of driving while Black.

[234] Mrs. Knight: And finally it says note that this amendment protects personal liberties such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, which means that the newspapers can say as they like. You also have a guarantee that people cannot be arrested without a good reason and that they need a fair trial by jury.

[235] Martin: Mrs. Knight why do some people get arrested for no reason then they have to have to go to court?

[236] Mrs. Knight: Well theyre supposed to be addresstheyre supposed to be arrested with a good reason.

[237] Martin: Ya but//

[238] Mrs. Knight: And granted that doesnt always happen, but,

[239] Martin: That (unintelligible)

[240] Mrs. Knight: But people have a right to only be arrested with a good reason [a few students, including Thomas and Martin, are fighting for the floor].

[241] Martin: What about the cops//

[242] Mrs. Knight: And they also have a right not to get shot on, on sight but actually go to trial.

[243] Martin: What is, what if a um, what if a cop um pulled them over for no reason? And then he um, like um, just because he didjust because they driving in a White neighborhood?

[244] Mrs. Knight: Well//

[245] Martin: And he says and he says, he says you been um, driving speed, you been driving over the speed.

[246] Mrs. Knight: Hes going to say that that is the good reason. And he has to be able to prove that that is the reason that he stopped him. That he didnt just stop him because he felt like it.

[247] Martin: No but when, well when a Black persons in a White//

[248] Mrs. Knight: Im not saying it doesnt happen Martin I know it does happen. But they still have to say this is my reason and they have to be able to prove that there was a reason for it. It isnt always true, you know because with all things we can whawhat has been put down to protect you, sometimes um its abused.

One might conclude that this exchange is simply an example of defensive teaching (McNeil, 1986), in which Mrs. Knight exerted control over her classroom by controlling knowledge, especially in light of the controversial issue Martin is raising. However, Mrs. Knights tone was not dismissive or defensive, and, before ending the lesson and excusing her students for recess, she validated Martins point by acknowledging that she knows being pulled over for driving while Black does happen [line 248]. Mrs. Knight contained the discussion of the issue not because she wished to avoid controversy or refused to recognize the significance of the issue Martin is raising but rather because of time. Asked about this exchange, Mrs. Knight noted that Martin had raised a good question, that she basically agreed with everything he said, and that her ex-husband, who was African, had gotten pulled over many times. She then recounted a story about her ex-husband who was stopped repeatedly when delivering newspapers each morning in White neighborhoods in Boston. She subsequently proposed that the racism she experienced in Boston was not as bad as what she and her two biracial children had experienced in California, where it is subtle but stronger. Finally, she briefly described some activities she would have done in the class given enough time, such as having her students ask their parents about their experiences with discrimination and using their responses to continue discussing the issue Martin raised. However, they did not have the time, and in fact recess served as an important marker for the end of social studies in Mrs. Knights classroom. Without physical education in the schedule, recess was extremely important, not only because her fifth graders needed to go outside and run around after working all morning but also because it was the only break Mrs. Knight had all morning. When they began social studies, one student would set the timer for recess, and when the timer went off, social studies was over (there was no school bell indicating the beginning of recess for fifth grade). This strategy helped in containing social studies, an important subject in Mrs. Knights view. Although Mrs. Knight recognized the value of the issue raised by Martin, for both professional and personal reasons, there simply was not enough time available for social studies to pursue this issue any further.

Opportunities to go beyond the content of students textbooks occurred throughout the school year as students raised questions about the history they were reading in their textbooks. The amount of time devoted to these questions, questions that Mrs. Knight always acknowledged and validated, depended on her ability to negotiate competing demands of time and content coverage. In most cases, these departures from the textbook boundaries of history were brief. Although Mrs. Knight aimed to support her students knowledge and understanding of U.S. history, time issues ultimately influenced her decisions about content. Mrs. Knight retained autonomy and authority over curriculum and instruction and drew upon her expertise and judgment in making choices, but her management of specific teaching dilemmas in social studies constrained her decisions. Her constrained professional practice resulted not from the adoption of standardization at her school, but rather reduced instructional time for subject areas not tested by the state.


Autonomy is a central characteristic of professions. Freedom of judgment or discretion in performing work is an intrinsic component of professionalism (Friedson, 2001). Given that the nature of their occupational tasks is not amenable to predetermined methods (Friedson), professionals draw on their expert judgment and make independent decisions in carrying out their responsibilities. Rather than being under administrative control, individual professionals exercise self-control in determining how to accomplish their work (Brint, 1994). In education, teachers typically have exercised the most control in their individual classrooms, employing professional judgment to determine what and how to teach a particular group of students. However, in a climate of test-based accountability, administrators increasingly are shifting toward standardized approaches that increase hierarchical control and lessen teachers authority over curriculum and instruction in their classrooms. These types of conflicts between professional discretion and standardized approaches are becoming more common across professions. Describing an assault on professionalism, Friedson (2001) predicts that employing organizations likely will increase efforts to standardize the work of professionals not only to reduce costs but also to control and supervise them. He foresees that professionals may be slowly transformed into privileged technical workers who exercise independence but only within boundaries and goals established by employers. A key consequence of such changes would be that the quality of service to individual clients will change due to the minimization (though certainly not the elimination) of discretion in everyday disciplinary work (p. 212). Clients individual problems or needs will be forced into standardized administrative and epidemiological molds to be dealt with by predetermined methods (p. 212). Consequently, standardization may degrade the service to some individuals and fail to serve those who fall outside the norm.

In keeping with Friedsons prediction, teachers discretion in their work is being minimized, which potentially affects learning opportunities for students. Administrators, who once allowed teachers considerable independence in their individual classrooms, are adopting prescribed methods as a means of ensuring that the content being taught in each classroom matches the content on local and state tests. However, standardized practice may prevent teachers from using alternative strategies that may be more appropriate to their students specific needs. Flexibility in deciding how to teach allows teachers to adapt to the particular content and students being taught. Prescribed methods leave little room for exploration, inquiry, or critical thinking, and they sacrifice the teachable moment to externally determined goals and activities (Darling-Hammond, 1985). To exercise the subtle quality of judgment in a complex craft (Sizer, 1985), teachers must have autonomy to adapt their instruction.

Mrs. Knights case highlights two key issues related to teachers autonomy in classroom instruction: (1) the way in which the broader context constrains teachers professional judgments, and (2) the implications for meeting ones professional obligation to students.


In contrast to the situation at other schools, Mrs. Knight retained authority over curriculum and instruction in her classroom at Dusty Valley Elementary. The principal rejected the standardization approach and continued to support teacher professionalism. However, individual teachers faced curricular and instructional dilemmas in social studies as they tried to balance the competing demands of time, content coverage, and instructional method. The states test-based accountability system exacerbated time demands in three interrelated ways. First, the need to improve students scores on annual state examinations in language arts and mathematics each year led the school to adopt a schedule that increased instructional time in those two subjects, thus decreasing available time for other subjects. Second, results of the benchmark examinations led teachers to question if even more time needed to be allocated to language arts and mathematics to prepare students for the annual exams. Third, the reduced instructional time for social studies and other subjects made it challenging for teachers to cover the body of knowledge specified in the state content standards.

Several decisions made by Mrs. Knight illustrate the curricular dilemmas related to time demands. First, to include social studies in the curriculum, Mrs. Knight had to eliminate another subject area to make time. Her decision to eliminate physical education for her students set her apart from other teachers at the school. Second, after her students poor performance on benchmark tests in the spring, she decided to abandon social studies instruction for 6 weeks. Despite the value she placed on including social studies in the curriculum, she opted to expand instruction in language arts and mathematics in preparation for year-end state tests. Third, Mrs. Knight often decided to eliminate, or sharply reduce, discussions about social and moral issues that she deemed compelling and meaningful for her students. She made decisions about the scope of historical knowledge in lessons according to the amount of time available during a particular day or week rather than what she judged important to include in the curriculum.

In terms of instructional dilemmas, Mrs. Knight struggled with how to develop students understanding of history while also efficiently conveying a body of historical knowledge. Her solution was to develop and rely on an instructional method in social studies that was efficient and flexible. The methodical outlining approach allowed her to support her students knowledge of U.S. history but produced a history that was typically circumscribed and confined to that present in the textbook. Moreover, when there was insufficient time for social studies instruction on a given day, she abandoned this approach and reduced her social studies instruction to transmission of historical knowledge. Although Mrs. Knights instructional practice in social studies generally provided a supportive learning environment, it failed to make use of her many skills that would enrich students understanding of U.S. history and that were evident in the class discussion of efforts to form a new government. Her few departures from normal practice over the school year indicate how much more Mrs. Knight was capable of and interested in doing, if only she had the time. Although Mrs. Knight retained authority over curricular and instructional decisions, the larger context constrained her professional practice in subtle yet significant ways.

Teachers have always faced teaching dilemmas such as the need to balance competing demands as they make curricular and instructional decisions in support of their students learning. In particular, time has been, and will continue to be, a primary teaching dilemma facing teachers. However, the dilemma of time is fundamentally different in this context of high-stakes test-based accountability. In the past, teachers had more latitude in negotiating time demands because all subjects were equally negotiable, making it possible to extend social studies or science for a period of time while reducing mathematics, all in the interest of student learning. At schools like Dusty Valley Elementary, the amount of time dedicated to language arts and mathematics is not only a significant part of the school day, but it is also nonnegotiable. Consequently, time for other subjects is reduced and absolute, in effect a nonnegotiable, unmanageable constraint on professional practice in subjects such as social studies.


In connection with autonomy, professionals operate within a code of ethics and are obligated and motivated to serve the welfare of their clients (Leicht & Fennell, 2001). Using their professional discretion and specialized knowledge, they determine how best to meet their clients interests, needs, and personal circumstances. In education, teachers determine how to make content and ideas more accessible to students, often adapting materials and methods according to student interests, characteristics, and abilities. Throughout the teaching process, teachers use their judgment in checking for and promoting student understanding. To foster student learning, their decisions are linked to the specific content being taught and the particular needs of the students in their classrooms.

Although able to make independent decisions, Mrs. Knight faced conflicts in terms of meeting her professional obligation to students and doing what she believed would most benefit their learning. For example, she recognized the value of a broad curriculum to students, but at Dusty Valley and in her classroom, the curriculum had been narrowed to focus primarily on mathematics and language arts. To teach social studies, Mrs. Knight opted to eliminate a subject not only that she deemed important to her students education but also that is required by the state. Including social studies in the curriculum offered benefits but also incurred costs to her students overall education. In addition, the way in which Mrs. Knight taught social studies was effective but not as beneficial as it could have been. Mrs. Knight provided instruction that went beyond content coverage and transmission of knowledge, but the curriculum was confined to the content in the textbook. The methodical outlining approach helped develop her students understanding of history, but it didnt allow her to pursue rich discussions about relevant issues that would help her students build a more sophisticated understanding of the past and its implications for the present and future. A knowledgeable and qualified teacher, Mrs. Knight did not teach social studies in the way she believed would best serve her students needs and interests.

Mrs. Knights case demonstrates how teachers professional discretion is being minimized in subtle yet consequential ways. Although she was allowed to exercise authority over curriculum and instruction in her classroom, the broader context influenced her decisions and constrained her professional judgment. The constraints on her judgment subsequently influenced her ability to meet her professional obligation to students. 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 and fail to use fully their professional experience, judgment, and expertise. Even in schools like Dusty Valley, where administrators reject standardization and seek to preserve and support teacher professionalism, a constrained professionalism may be all that is achievable in the context of high-stakes test-based accountability. Ultimately, our concern is that constrained professionalism may become the norm for what is achievable in schools, transforming what counts as professionalism in this testing environment in ways that circumscribe learning opportunities for students in spite of teachers professional expertise and judgment.


1. Music instruction occurred for a half hour every other week, taught by a roving music teacher, unless supplemented by individual teachers. Art instruction continued only as part of the after-school program (again, unless supplemented by individual teachers), except in the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade GATE classes, where it was taught for 12 hours each week from October through February by a visiting artists, the result of a county grant secured by Dusty Valley. Some teachers included additional time for language arts in the afternoon (e.g., 20 minutes of silent reading in two fifth-grade classrooms observed by the first author).

2. This decision yielded 160 minutes of social studies instruction per week, although in practice, social studies was taught on fewer than 4 days per week on many weeks or occurred for less than 40 minutes per day because of holidays, field trips, assemblies, and other occurrences. Studies of instructional time devoted to social studies in intermediate grades (Goodlad, 1984; Thornton & Houser, 1996; VanFossen, 2005) indicate that teachers spend anywhere from 150 minutes to close to 230 minutes per week on social studies, placing Mrs. Knight on the lower end of instructional time in an ideal week.

3. In late March, Mrs. Knight explained that she would no longer be teaching social studies until state testing was completed in late April. Because of students poor performance on two tests meant to measure their readiness for state testing in language arts and mathematics, most teachers at Dusty Valley eliminated social studies and science instruction to concentrate entirely on language arts and mathematics. Mrs. Knight returned to social studies in May, picking up where they had left off in March and finishing the Year 1 chapter short of where she had hoped to end the year.


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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: 10/23/2021 3:09:34 PM

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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 <,/i> and “Standards Gaps: Unintended Consequences of Local Standards-Based Reform” in Teachers College Record.
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