Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

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

by Jamy Stillman - 2011

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

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

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

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

Research Design: The research design is qualitative case study.

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

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

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

This article highlights themes from case studies of three equity-minded teachers who responded to tightly monitored, standards-driven language arts (LA) reforms in ways that privileged the authentic needs of their English learner (EL) students over high-stakes accountability demands. Drawing on the literature on equity-minded teachers and school change, the article first describes teachers’ technical, normative, and political responses to reforms they believed would academically disadvantage their students. Next, a more nuanced look at these cases draws on social learning and activity theories to explore variations in teachers’ responses and professional learning experiences in underperforming schools. Findings reveal that contextual factors—especially local leadership—played an important role in how teachers responded to standards-driven LA reforms. In particular, when principals provided teachers with opportunities to grapple with reforms they found objectionable and to apply innovations to their classroom practice, teachers experienced a productive tension that contributed to professional learning and instructional improvement. This paper adds to the literature on equity-minded teacher agency and teacher learning, and to the research on the role of local leadership in school change.


Over the last several decades, researchers have paid considerable attention to the preparation of teachers who work with historically underserved students. This literature commonly describes knowledge, skills and dispositions that equity-minded teachers need to raise achievement in high-needs, and oftentimes, urban classrooms (e.g., Gay & Howard, 2001; Hollins & Guzman, 2005; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Nieto, 1999). Some scholars agree that these teachers must act as agents of change, striving for social justice in public schools alongside students and communities (e.g., Cochran-Smith, 2004; Oakes & Lipton, 1999).

With the installation of No Child Left Behind (Bush, 2002), however, teachers, particularly those serving diverse students, have increasingly been told what and how to teach (Gutiérrez, Asato, Zavala, Pacheco, & Olson, 2003). As a result, scholars have begun to explore how teachers—especially those prepared to “teach against the grain” (Cochran-Smith, 1991)—cope with the pressures of high-stakes accountability. Valli and Chambliss (2007) note a specific dilemma for good teachers: how to teach in ways that promote authentic learning, while preparing students for tests that can impact their academic trajectories powerfully. Sleeter (2005) similarly questions how teachers who support multiculturalism in teaching wrestle with accountability demands, especially curriculum standardization.

Considering teacher agency from a policy perspective, Oakes’ 1992 examination of de-tracking reforms offers insights about the barriers that accountability demands might create for equity-minded teachers. Oakes found that when tracking opponents challenged its technical dimensions (e.g., curriculum, instruction, assessment), their efforts were impeded by tracking’s underlying norms (e.g., conceptions of ability, purposes of schooling) and “the political interests that are shaped by these norms” (e.g., relationships within and between schools and their constituents; 19). This suggests that looking at change processes through three lenses—technical, normative, and political—can shed greater light on the experiences of equity-minded teachers in underperforming schools where the demands of high-stakes accountability have technical, normative, and political dimensions, and require technical, normative, and political responses. Policy literature also suggests that contextual factors (i.e., the role of local administrators, relationships between school, district and state entities) impact teachers’ instantiations of policies (Cohen & Hill, 2001; Hargreaves, Earl, Moore, & Manning, 2001; Spillane, 2002). Thus, it is worth considering how contextual factors mediate equity-minded teachers’ responses to the technical, normative, and political dimensions of accountability reforms.

Reports on teachers’ actual capacities to respond to accountability-driven reforms are varied. Some argue that increased pressure to “teach to the test” can lead even the most well-intentioned educators to employ a test-centered instructional approach (Au, 2007), which could be “counterproductive and even narrow measures of achievement” (Valli & Chambliss, 2007, 73). Similarly, others contend that control-oriented policies such as accountability reforms uniformly deprofessionalize teachers, limiting their autonomy and their capacity to respond to classroom complexities—an issue of particular concern for teachers who work with diverse students (Crosland & Gutierrez, 2003; McNeil, 2000; Valli & Buese, 2007).

There is also some indication that, when teachers act as “engaged mediators between [standards-based] policy and practice” (Cohen & Hill, 2001, p. 70), their beliefs and actions shape policy implementation (Grant, 2001; Olsen & Kirtman, 2002). Specific reports on teachers’ responses to top-down reforms demonstrate that with sufficient knowledge, experience and will, teachers can and do act as agents of change within the tightly monitored, even coercive, environments generated by high-stakes accountability demands (Sleeter, 2005; Sleeter & Stillman, 2007; Stillman, forthcoming;).

Together, the literature outlined above suggests that teachers can respond to accountability-driven reforms in equity-minded ways, despite complex challenges. That said, there is a dearth of research about the factors that support and the barriers that might hinder equity-minded teachers from serving historically marginalized students in an era of accountability, and the contextual factors that might mediate teachers’ responses to accountability pressures. This is important to consider in the interest of developing a contextualized notion of equity-minded teacher agency in an age of high-stakes accountability.


Research that highlights teachers’ learning processes in the context of school change offers a useful perspective. One approach—which does not consider teacher resistance as a possible response—conceives of teacher learning in behaviorist terms, or as a means of increasing teachers’ “successful” implementation of reforms. Darling-Hammond (1998) and Lieberman (1995) have demonstrated that providing teachers with reform-specific professional development increases teachers’ capacities to change their practices, consequently increasing their successful implementation of reforms. Similarly, Cohen and Hill (2001) maintain that when policymakers build a professional learning component into the policies they promote, teachers are more likely to name learning aims that mirror those set forth by policymakers.

An alternate approach reflects the experiences of teachers whose instructional practices change as they actively challenge and respond to reforms they question or oppose. This more situative account of teacher learning frames it as a product of teachers’ work with reform efforts rather than an extra requirement from policymakers interested in literal implementation (Randi & Corno, 1997; Spillane, 2002). Findings from a study of Canadian teachers using new academic content standards demonstrated that because changing one’s own instructional practices is “complex and demanding,” teachers require extended opportunities to “learn to plan around the standards, … work effectively with colleagues, develop complex assessment strategies, and create integrated curriculum materials” (Hargreaves et al., 2001, p. 182). Here, teacher learning is conceptualized as an outcome of teachers’ engagement with new and different material and ideological practices and their efforts to resolve instructional tensions.

Because study participants’ knowledge and beliefs about teaching underserved students conflicted with the strictly monitored accountability-driven reforms they were expected to implement, previous research suggests that these teachers might have opportunities to engage in demanding intellectual work. Thus, it makes sense to look at study participants’ engagement in the change process from a situative perspective, drawing on social learning and activity theories.


In their description of human nature, cultural-historical activity theorists Cole and Levitin (2000) explore the “tripartite” dimensions of human mental processes, positing that the fundamental structure of consciousness includes the natural relation of a subject to an object, which is then culturally mediated. Cole and Levitin represent this with a triangular model (Figure 1), replacing the triangle’s right-most point, where the “natural” and “cultural” lines intersect, with a gap. This gap reflects the inclusion of time and the notion that “the subject must actively engage in a process of constant reconciliation of discordant information. …” According to the authors, “consciousness, in this view, is that process of reconciliation, occurring over time in the course of human action” (p. 66). This conceptualization of consciousness is a valuable starting point for exploring equity-minded teachers’ learning in the context of standards-driven reform. In particular, the idea that learning hinges on subjects’ attempts “to resolve the uncertainties that arise from the discoordinations that are a necessary part of all human experiences,” suggests that equity-minded teachers can learn from efforts to resolve discontinuities between standards-driven language arts (LA) reforms and teachers’ established LA theories and practices (p. 79).

Figure 1. Mediational teacher learning model


Building on these ideas, Engeström (1991) addresses the need to overcome “the encapsulation of school learning”: the discontinuity between school learning and learning and knowledge outside of school. In doing so, he offers a situative lens for exploring teachers’ professional learning processes. Engeström argues that overcoming the encapsulation of school learning has two purposes: to increase the likelihood that school knowledge will contribute to performance outside of school, and to use knowledge acquired outside of school to support learning in school. To diminish existing discontinuity, Engeström poses three possible approaches, which provide a useful lens for unpacking equity-minded teachers’ learning in the context of their responses to California’s standards-driven LA reforms.

In the first approach, Engeström explores Davydov’s contention that learning occurs when students are pushed to “ascend from the abstract to the concrete.” According to this theory, the encapsulation of schooling results from teachers’ tendencies to “inertly” convey knowledge to students, potentially denying students the opportunity to discover knowledge for themselves. This is attributed to the notion that traditional school settings rarely encourage students to “deduce, explain, predict, and master practically concrete phenomena and problems in their environment” (p. 250). Engeström explains that Davydov’s solution to encapsulation is “to push school knowledge out into the world by making it dynamic and theoretically powerful in facing practical problems” (p. 251). Thus, the context of discovery is the object of learning. Applying this lens to teacher learning in the context of policy change suggests that when teachers bring their expertise to bear on standards-driven LA reforms, they might have opportunities to ascend from the abstract to the concrete, discovering how to apply familiar theories of literacy and learning to practical tensions surrounding instruction.

Engeström, considers Lave and Wenger’s ideas about “legitimate peripheral participation” and “communities of practice” a second approach to overcoming the encapsulation of school learning. In this approach, learning occurs through participation in communities of practice and is not dependent on explicit teaching. According to Engeström, “learning in communities of practice is particularly effective … when there is abundant horizontal interaction between participants, mediated especially by stories of problematic situations and their solutions” (p. 252). This idea has been applied in numerous studies that explore teachers’ attempts to solve problems of practice through participation in teacher communities (Gallucci, 2003; Hargreaves, 2003; Printy, 2008.). Research about professional development also suggests that when teachers collectively examine their own practices, they stand to deepen their learning and to improve instruction (Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Lieberman & Grolnick, 1997; Sykes, 1999).

In Engeström’s own approach, “learning by expanding,” individuals need opportunities to “analyze critically and systemically their current activity and its inner contradictions,” which he calls participating in the context of criticism (p. 254). This lens applies particularly to the experiences of teachers who critically consider accountability-driven teaching practices in light of established theories and practices concerning robust LA instruction for ELs.

Together, these concepts—borrowed from school change literature and learning theory—are central to this article’s analysis. Each concept informs discussion of how study participants responded to and instantiated California’s standards-driven LA reforms, as well as how various contextual factors mediated those responses and instantiations. Further explanation of how learning theory guided data analysis will be included in the Methods section.


As context matters a great deal in this study, this section addresses the study’s broader context, general background, and constituent methods.


California provides an especially relevant context for studying equity-minded teachers’ responses to accountability-driven LA reforms. California’s current accountability system is more rigorous than in other states: In addition to the federal Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) scale, California added its own scale in 1999, the Academic Performance Index (API), as part of the Public School Accountability Act (PSAA; California Department of Education, 1999a). The API measures fluctuations in state-standardized test scores, and ranks public schools. California schools receive an annual numerical score from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest). At the time of this study, schools with an API from 1 to 3 were considered “underperforming.” The PSAA’s Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program (II/USP) aims to help such schools raise scores by employing external consultants and instructional mandates; the state is authorized to reconstitute any school that fails to show sufficient improvement. These evaluation, monitoring, and intervention systems impose acute pressure on students, teachers, and administrators.

Second, California is at the center of instructional-policy debates, particularly about LA. Though disagreements about the most “scientific” way to teach literacy have drawn national interest (Bush, 2002; National Research Council, 1998; Pearson, 2004; U.S. Dept. of Education, 2006), these debates are particularly contentious in California, where the LA standards and framework1 are extensive and challenging, relative to other states (Wixson & Dutro, 1999). The standards emphasize discrete skill and phonics-based instruction, shifting away from previously endorsed literature-based approaches (Sleeter & Stillman, 2005). Since the two state-endorsed prescriptive reading programs (SRA McGraw Hill’s Open Court and Houghton Mifflin’s California Reading), and the state’s two major standardized tests (the California Standards Test (CST) and the California Achievement Test (CAT 6)) are aligned with the LA standards, accountability demands apply particularly to LA instruction, and raise complex questions about curriculum standardization and teacher professionalism.

Finally, in California, where one in four K-12 public-school students are ELs, immigration politics and public discourse about accountability and literacy instruction are especially controversial (Gándara, Rumberger, Maxwell-Jolly, & Callahan, 2003). Evidence suggests that prescriptive literacy policies and programs are more prevalent in California schools that serve historically marginalized students (Achinstein, Ogawa, & Speiglman, 2004), and tend to be more tightly monitored than in schools serving white, native-English speaking, more affluent students (Gutierrez et al., 2003). This creates a rich context for exploring equity issues in an era of accountability.


From September 2003 to December 2004, three qualitative case studies captured equity-minded teachers’ contextualized sense-making and responses to control-oriented LA reforms in underperforming schools, largely comprised of Spanish-speaking ELs (Yin, 1994). Multiple-case design helped reveal patterns in teachers’ understanding and use of LA standards and the impact of local school contexts and the state’s sociopolitical climate on teacher practice and agency (Maxwell, 1998; Merriam, 1998).

Employing purposive sampling (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993), three upper elementary teachers who qualify as highly-qualified and equity-minded were selected: Each possessed a Bilingual Cross-Cultural, Language, and Academic Development credential, California’s highest certification to serve ELs (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 2006). Each also possessed a Master’s Degree earned through specialized university-based teacher education programs (TEPs). Though each teacher attended a different TEP, each of the three programs claimed to focus primarily on the preparation of teachers to meet the needs of diverse learners, and named equity in education as a central goal. Each teacher’s TEP required coursework in serving racially, economically, and linguistically diverse students and placed its student teachers in high-needs schools with large populations of historically underserved students. All teachers had at least three years of teaching experience in schools and classrooms predominantly comprised of Spanish-speaking ELs (>75%). In addition, each had engaged in extensive professional development and advocacy related to ELs.

Individual and school-based factors differentiated the teachers. Xitlali had an exceptionally sophisticated technical grasp of literacy instruction for ELs, drawing on profound theoretical understandings to solve problems of practice. Jorge had more general knowledge about serving diverse students; he was more articulate about “empower[ing]” marginalized youth than about his approach for teaching language and literacy to ELs. Other factors were contextual. For instance, the term “high-stakes context” includes several sources of pressure on teachers to comply with accountability-driven demands, including federal and state performance rankings and how long their school had been labeled underperforming. (See Table 1 for selected case-study characteristics, and Findings for biographical and contextual information on the teachers.)

Prior to the study, I mentored Xitlali and Isabel as practicing teachers and Jorge as a pre-service teacher—each for about two years—observing their qualifications to teach ELs. When formal commitments ended, I continued to visit their classrooms several times a year to discuss teaching LA in high-needs schools. Informally, each teacher revealed a struggle to draw on her or his knowledge and expertise when reforms pressed her or him to raise test scores through fidelity to mandated LA curricula. This was a common experience, and so they were approached to participate in the study. Because of their genuine interest in both working through these struggles and reflecting formally on their experiences, all three eagerly agreed to participate.

Table 1. Individual and Contextual Characteristics of Case Teachers


Individual Characteristics

Contextual Characteristics

Race/ Ethnicity

Years Teaching

Literacy Expertise for ELs

Demographic Information

High-Stakes Context





rural Northern CA

75% English Learners

71% free/reduced lunch

API: 2/3 (2–3 years)

AYP: Low performing

Moderate district pressure





suburban Central CA

76% English Learners

80% free/reduced lunch

API: 1 (3–4 years)

AYP: Low performing

Strong district pressure





urban Southern CA

75% English Learners

93 % free/reduced lunch

API: 1 (3–4 years)

AYP: Low performing

District pressure increasing from weak to moderate

Data collection consisted of classroom observations and two in-depth interviews (75 to 150 min) with each teacher. In preliminary interviews, the teachers described how they developed their knowledge and beliefs about literacy, LA instruction, and teaching ELs; their knowledge of California’s E/LA Standards and what role standards played in their LA instruction; how the standards aligned with their views about LA instruction for ELs; and barriers to and supports for robust LA instruction in each low-performing school. After the first round of classroom visits and preliminary analysis, follow-up interviews probed more deeply into the relationship between LA standards, mandated curriculum, high-stakes tests, and actual instruction, plus the development and use of individual strategies for working with and against these reforms. (See Appendix A for all interview protocols.)

To triangulate these self-reported data, two weeklong observations, approximately 25 hours each, in each teacher’s classroom were documented in extensive field notes (Merriam, 1998). Observations were bounded by a weeklong “cycle of learning” (Greene, 1994), focusing on the structure, content, and language of LA instruction; the ways that mandated programs, test preparation, principal and district mandates, and other resources influenced lessons and units, including the selection of instructional materials. It also focused on the relationship between teachers’ knowledge, interests, and beliefs and on their perceptions of state, district, and principal expectations. Field notes also guided semi-structured, after-school conversations with teachers.

Reflecting feminist methodologies (e.g., Harding, 1987), I also acted as a participant-observer (Bogden & Biklen, 1998); after taking field notes during LA instruction, I offered assistance to the teacher, mainly by working with small groups of students during mathematics and social studies periods. Extended time in each classroom and candid discussions with the teachers expanded my sense of the teachers’ technical practices, their navigation of the norms and politics of reform, and their struggles and successes in tightly monitored school contexts. Finally, member checks included sharing transcripts, memos, and hypotheses with the participants and incorporating feedback in revised findings (Miles & Huberman, 1994).

Semi-structured interviews with principals and focus groups with additional teachers provided a more comprehensive sense of each school site. Interviews prompted principals to share their viewpoints on literacy, LA instruction, teaching ELs, and the case teacher’s capacity to serve ELs in LA. Some questions pushed principals to speak explicitly about relationships between the school, district, and state, and about their own role in supporting and/or pressuring teachers, particularly in light of their schools’ low-performing status. Focus groups of four to eight teachers from each school site focused on similar issues and topics.

At several faculty meetings, district administrators and external test preparation consultants presented goals and future actions for increasing standardized test scores. These were described in memos, as were subsequent teacher conversations. Any available, relevant documents (school and district report cards, state instructional and accountability policies) were analyzed for messages about literacy instruction and teacher autonomy.

Using the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), data analysis was ongoing. First, teachers’ experiences with various accountability-related pressures in the area of LA were coded using Oakes’ (1992) framework: technical, normative, and political. This initial coding led to a set of shared beliefs and strategies that teachers drew on as they navigated accountability-driven LA reforms. Dividing these broad themes into more discrete groupings, or derived codes, illuminated variations in equity-minded teachers’ understandings and uses of the LA standards with ELs in underperforming schools. Although the teachers described similar concerns about and responses to the standards, interview, and observation data showed differences among the teachers’ response processes and their propensities to actually alter instruction. The first gloss of analysis indicated that the three teachers believed the technical aspects of the standards, particularly the emphasis on discrete skill instruction, clashed with their established LA approaches (“They are skills-based and don’t focus on meaning” (Isabel)). All three teachers addressed this problem by integrating their own knowledge of LA instruction with the skills and approaches that standards advocated (“I take the content that they need to do and then do it in a way that’s more authentic, that’s more engaging, … that’s student centered” (Xitlali)). However, subsequent analyses with derived codes that identified tendencies in actual classroom practice (e.g., demonstration, guided practice, situated skill instruction, discrete skill instruction) revealed that Xitlali’s modifications to the standards were much more likely to manifest themselves in practice than Isabel’s were. Codes identifying the political dimensions of accountability reforms (e.g., perceptions of instructional autonomy, actual instructional autonomy) showed that Jorge felt less pressure (e.g., “the tests mean nothing to me”; “My principal said the scores are misleading”) and spent far less time modifying the standards “on paper” or in practice.

Though I hoped to gain a contextualized sense of teachers’ responses, I did not explicitly set out to investigate teacher learning or the mediating role of principals. When these emerged as prominent themes in the data, literature on school change and learning theory guided subsequent observations, interviews, and analysis. Findings reported below reflect this approach: first identifying teachers’ technical, normative, and political responses to accountability-related pressures, then using social learning and activity theories to analyze factors that mediated these responses, thereby promoting and/or impeding teacher learning.



In the first interviews, Xitlali, Jorge, and Isabel claimed that despite the pressures and conflicts they had experienced in relation to their LA instruction, they also found the standards to be a useful tool. Xitlali explained:

[Before the standards] I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be teaching. … I wasn’t sure … what do these kids really need for sixth and seventh grade? What are their needs for college? And so now at least with [the standards], it’s kind of clear. (May 2004)

Teachers also maintained that the standards helped them to offer more-explicit instruction and to articulate their expectations to students. For example, each teacher frequently introduced LA lessons with a clear description of the concepts and skills addressed—using the language of the standards to do so—and an explanation of the purposes for learning them.

The teachers articulated reservations about technical, normative, and political dimensions of standards-driven LA reform. Technically speaking, they agreed that there were “too many standards,” and criticized the standards’ privileging of discrete skill instruction over thematic and contextualized teaching, approaches they argued would support ELs to make meaning. They also claimed that the standards were not “culturally relevant,” and required extensive modification.

In normative terms, all three teachers found fault with the standards’ failure to value native language knowledge or encourage native language instruction. As Jorge said,

That the whole standards are focused on English is divergent from what I believe in. … If I could be liberated from having to focus on one language, then I [could] provide language arts instruction that would empower students to be the most literate that they could be. (May 2004)

Teachers also criticized their schools’ singular focus on raising scores on the English LA sections of the CST and CAT 6, claiming that this emphasis interfered with their authentic goals: teaching students to be curious, providing students with the tools to become engaged members of a democratic society, preparing students to access high-status knowledge, and higher education.

The teachers also expressed political concerns, citing in particular the strict enforcement of the standards-based LA curriculum—Houghton Mifflin’s Reading California—that their districts adopted in their efforts to raise test scores. According to Xitlali, “If you were to follow a canned program in the way that [Houghton Mifflin] expects you to deliver it, then there’s no leeway” (May 2004). Jorge agreed, criticizing the standards’ links to standardized tests and “test prep” programs that treated the standards “rules” instead of “guidelines.” He argued:

[The standards were not] intended to define practices. … I think that they were intended to define skills that we would like students to achieve. … Teachers realize, after they’ve taught somebody how to read, that not everybody learned it the same way. (December 2004)

Xitlali referred to Reading California as “ditto-driven” and “drive-by teaching”; Isabel called it “pedagogically shallow.” In other words, teachers located the “problem” in the “seamless web” (Sleeter, 2003) of reforms that systemically enforce the LA standards, in effect, standardizing the LA curriculum. The scrutiny of the curriculum, a considerable political barrier, heightened the teachers’ struggle against the technical and normative roadblocks described above.

Technical, Normative, and Political Responses: Engaging in a Critical Professional Practice

Using Oakes’ tripartite model as a starting point, data analysis indicated that equity-minded teachers’ responses to these challenges include three major elements: the technical practice of knowledge integration and the political practice of strategic negotiation, both of which were guided by a sense of authentic purpose. Together, I refer to these three elements as a critical professional practice (CP): a collection of strategies and a stance towards one’s work that highly qualified, equity-minded teachers can use to adapt standards-based policies to be consistent with their equity-minded preparation and professional knowledge.

Knowledge integration refers to the meshing of teachers’ knowledge about the accountability-driven LA reforms, which they largely opposed and were pressured to implement, with their knowledge about language and literacy instruction that they had developed through pre-service and in-service teacher education and professional experience. Data suggests that by bringing these divergent sets of knowledge into conversation with one another, teachers could modify standards-driven reforms to include at least some aspects of what they considered to be robust literacy practices for ELs. In one example of knowledge integration, Xitlali drew on Reading California’s approach to teaching various strategies that “good readers use.” The curriculum developers recommended that teachers create posters of six strategies—predict/infer, decode, monitor/clarify, question, evaluate, and summarize—which students could use as resources while reading. Relying on her conviction that “Literacy is so much more than just being able to read text; it’s being able to engage with the text and connect it to your life,” Xitlali decided that she could make the recommended strategies more relevant and student-centered. Instead of teacher-created posters, as Houghton Mifflin suggested, students made their own posters, where they recorded their reading strategies. The final posters, which Xitlali promptly hung on the wall, reflected and valued students’ own literacy practices. Integrating the program’s suggestions with Xitlali’s prior knowledge shows how teachers’ instruction can become more robust when contrasting instructional approaches inform—rather than negate—one another.

Strategic negotiation refers to teachers’ navigation of their schools and districts’ political climates in order to sustain the literacy practices they believed would serve their students best. This included, though was not limited to, using the rhetoric of accountability-driven reforms to articulate the teachers’ established LA practices to district officials. Isabel engaged in strategic negotiation when she sought official permission to continue using the existing LA curriculum. In formal documents to the district office, Isabel and her grade-level team described their long-established LA curriculum, using the terminology provided by the standards and Reading California. The teachers’ logic, according to Isabel, was that if district officials saw an articulation of the approaches they had already endorsed, they might allow the teachers to proceed with their own curriculum. In anticipation of surprise district visitors, Isabel, Jorge, and Xitlali each used the jargon of the standards and Reading California to highlight particular skills in posted student work and to draw attention to activities on their daily agendas, even when they were actively resisting the standards-driven curriculum. Again, the logic behind this strategy was that if district officials visited, they would be led to believe that the teachers adhered to mandated curricula, which teachers hoped would diminish future scrutiny. In each example, teachers could not simply “close their classroom doors” to teach as they wished, but negotiating their schools’ politics could make it possible to engage in the technical work of knowledge integration.

Finally, teachers were guided by a sense of authentic purpose, both in their beliefs about literacy and their work with marginalized students. Each believed that “literacy practices [were] purposeful and embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices” (Barton & Hamilton, 1998, p. 7), and that “the students are the bottom line,” a statement Isabel made when rejecting test preparation consultants’ suggestion to “teach only to the students in middle” rather than all students. These norms served as a touchstone for teachers as they made important technical and political decisions.

These patterns of practice help explain how equity-minded teachers navigate accountability pressures, particularly in underperforming schools. Nonetheless, case teachers did not respond to pressures uniformly; contextual factors played a prominent role in the degree of urgency, frequency, and sophistication with which they engaged in knowledge integration and strategic negotiation. Their notions of authentic purpose also varied.

Importantly, the quality of teachers’ instruction could not be attributed unitarily to the amount of professional latitude each teacher possessed or to the degree of pressure imposed upon teachers by administrators or outside officials. Jorge, for example, experienced the least pressure to comply with accountability demands, yet did not appear to offer more-robust LA instruction than did Xitlali or Isabel. Rather, all three teachers’ proclivity to design and deliver literacy instruction substantiated in research was tied to the intersection between the depth of their struggle with the dissonance between the standards and their established LA programs, and how much they could apply their modifications of standards-driven reform to their teaching. The data suggest that principals mediated the intensity of these intersecting factors, thereby influencing the emergence of a “productive tension”—a condition that ostensibly led some teachers to analyze their instructional practices, engage in professional learning, and in one particular case, improve the quality of instruction.

The next section elaborates on teachers’ interpretations of the standards, the degrees to which they were able to engage in and enact a critical professional practice (CPP), and how individual principals mediated this work. Xitlali’s experiences provide the clearest example of how one principal’s mediation of teacher learning and agency engendered a productive tension that had some positive implications for Xitlali’s LA instruction. Discussions of Isabel and Jorge’s cases highlight how the unproductive tension surrounding Isabel’s work and the lack of tension in Jorge’s work limited the degree to which they could engage in and/or enact a CPP, that is, to develop and deliver instruction that both drew on their expertise and also attended to the gatekeepers (e.g., standardized tests) that EL students face in high-stakes accountability climates.



The School and Language Arts Instructional Context

Situated in a suburban community surrounded by farm fields and factories, Xitlali’s school predominantly serves Mexican-descent EL students. With a longstanding bilingual program for non-native and native Spanish-speakers, and a principal who supports the program, nearby universities regularly place their bilingual candidates here. Many of these students, including Xitlali at one time, eventually take jobs there.

At the initiation of this study, Xitlali’s school had an API of 3. Several years prior, however, the school had fluctuated between scores of 1 and 2, which had led to a school-wide effort to raise CAT 6 and CST scores. After some coaxing from the principal and several vocal teachers, including Xitlali, the district excused the school from participating in II/USP and permitted the staff to define their own improvement program—provided that they demonstrated how it would lead to test-score increases, particularly among ELs. In addition, the school had to provide evidence of test score improvement to an outside evaluator, who also would judge the program through interactions with faculty and parents. They hired a consultant and applied for several grants to support LA instructional improvement in Spanish and English, which required more than 40 hours of LA professional development for teachers. Xitlali’s school showed significant test score improvements from the time they received the grants until the initiation of this study, jumping from a 1 to a 3 on the API. In the midst of the study, however, teachers learned that their API had dropped for the first time in three years. With a new API of 2, district pressure again increased.

In fall 2003, Xitlali began her sixth year as a bilingual fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. A Mexican immigrant and second-language learner, she was the first person in her family to attend college and earn a graduate degree. Her convictions about the transformative power of education for students who have been historically marginalized by the public school system inspired Xitlali to become a teacher. She explained:

I was very aware of what was happening in the educational system … for some children and what’s not happening for others. I decided that that was the place where I needed to be … to empower the students to give them the skills they need to succeed, and to use those skills to empower the community. I decided to be a teacher, ‘cause I thought where could I be of most help to my people? And when I say my people I’m talking about the Chicano/Chicana community. … That’s why I’m here and I continue to stay. (May 2004)

Xitlali’s notion that academic failure in her community is attributable to structural problems, not individual students, fueled her efforts to challenge deficit representations of ELs and Mexican-descent students. In her opinion, the onus for achievement should be placed on teachers:

Teachers need to have high expectations for all children. You need to modify your teaching and your expectations for certain children if they have learning issues or language issues. But I do not believe in saying that because a child is Special Ed, or … ELL that they can’t learn. … It might be difficult to find a way that they can participate … but that is your responsibility as a teacher. (May 2004)

These convictions surfaced in Xitlali’s established approaches to LA instruction, most prominently by her reliance on a set of 12 learning conditions—essentially a heuristic for socio-cultural learning theory—that she learned through her TEP and the professional development project that employed her (Ruíz, García, & Figueroa, 1996).3 Xitlali’s fluency in and flexibility with these conditions helped her to ground her instructional decisions theoretically and to mediate students’ learning by valuing and building upon students’ cultural and linguistic resources.

Although Xitlali’s school had shown improvement on both the API and AYP, had been labeled underperforming for only two years, and had defined its own improvement program, its teachers still experienced district pressure to raise test scores. Specifically, the district expected teachers to increase scores through use of the LA standards and Reading California. Xitlali’s principal played a central role in enforcing these mandates.

Xitlali’s Principal

With fluctuating API and AYP scores, Xitlali’s principal understood the stakes attached to standardized tests. She regularly communicated to teachers—in individual conversations and faculty meetings, through memos and newsletters and on staffroom bulletin boards—that she expected them to follow district mandates. To ensure compliance, the principal frequently conducted formal and informal classroom visits, looking for evidence of students’ mastery of the standards and teachers’ implementation of the mandated curriculum. Focus group data and interview data from Xitlali and her principal underscore the principal’s unremitting emphasis on the standards and Reading California as the foundation of the school’s LA instructional program.

Despite this seemingly singular focus, however, Xitlali’s principal advocated teacher professionalism, claiming that she’d rather “lead” than “manage” teachers, by “dialoging with [them] about their classroom instruction.” She continued:

It’s a fine line that I have to walk. … When I say the standards are the curriculum, I don’t expect people to be on page whatever of their Houghton Mifflin series. … But I do think that researchers that have designed this series, probably overall can do a better job at scope and sequence … of all of the grade level standards in a year than an individual teacher can do flying by the seat of their pants. And so I think that those lesson structures are really important to understand. You know what I’m asking people to be, is really professional … to teach those in probably the way the publishers suggest, but replacing things with other things that are … deeper and more meaningful. (May 2004)

Xitlali’s principal also tried to shelter teachers from direct district surveillance. According to Xitlali and other teachers, the district viewed the principal as a “competent” leader who had previously upheld district directives, thus earning their trust to manage her own faculty. This made it easier for her to set the parameters of the district-school relationship, shielding teachers from district officials in the context of accountability demands. Having space to lead also allowed the principal to offer teachers varying degrees of professional discretion. The data indicate that this was especially beneficial for Xitlali.

On several occasions, the principal indicated that she trusted Xitlali to decide what and how she would teach. In an interview she explained, “I can count on Xitlali to be professional, to understand a year’s context, and to understand the skills her students have to learn” (May 2004). The principal so thoroughly approved of Xitlali’s tendency to integrate her own knowledge and preparation with the demands set forth by standards-based LA reforms that she considered it a characteristic of effective teachers:

I think that teachers need to be content experts to start with: know the standards well enough to be able to … translate them. Then they need to know their students equally well. … So it requires both a lot of content knowledge and pedagogy; knowing the students … being able to find student interests and connect to something the students already know. (May 2004)

The principal’s steady confidence in Xitlali—though certainly a reflection of Xitlali’s credentials and role as a school and district leader—might have also been attributable to the test score improvement Xitlali showed over several consecutive years.

In many respects, this principal’s balanced perspective on standards-based reform and school improvement made it possible for Xitlali to draw on her beliefs, knowledge, and expertise about LA instruction for ELs, and to do so in the face of reductive LA reforms. As the next section illustrates, Xitlali was able to consistently engage in a CPP as she responded to pressures surrounding high-stakes accountability.

Xitlali’s Participation in the Reform Process

To manage her opposition to what she considered the skill-driven approach advocated by the standards and mandated curriculum, Xitlali reported that she “made the standards my own” by drawing on the “way I was trained.” She also claimed to “make the standards authentic” by “connecting them to something that’s real to kids.”

I say, ‘Okay, kids need to know this, how am I going to teach it to them in a way that’s meaningful, humane, they’re going to understand it, that includes all the other strategies that I believe work with my students?’ … There is some interpretation in there. … It’s that negotiation piece … going back and trying to figure out. … How am I going to do it in a way that’s lively and engaging and that works for ELs? (November 2004)

For example, Xitlali designed a lesson about root words, base words, prefixes, and suffixes. Several fifth-grade vocabulary and concept development standards require that students learn to structurally analyze words.4 Xitlali chose to focus on these standards “because it’s a weakness I see in my students. … They have vocabulary, but it’s just not progressing in terms of like academic vocabulary” (November 2004). Xitlali decided to teach these skills through a “word sort,” an activity in which students organize a set of word cards according to descriptive categories (e.g., “all words have prefixes,” “all words begin with a consonant”).

In this lesson, Xitlali used words that were included in the Houghton Mifflin spelling program, which, like most traditional spelling curricula, emphasized memorization and minimized meaning-based, process-oriented approaches to language learning. Xitlali preferred engaging students in a word-sort rather than using the program’s spelling worksheets because “The research I’ve read suggests … that ELs need ample time to interact with and be exposed to language, direct instruction accompanied by guided practice, and language practice that is interactive and engaging.” Before the lesson, Xitlali shared her goals:

To continue to expose students to the concepts of prefix and suffix,

To deconstruct words in order to figure out their meaning,

If there is time, to do a word hunt in books in order to demonstrate that words with prefixes and suffixes show up in our authentic reading.

These goals, with their focus on meaning and the authentic function of word analysis skills, echo Xitlali’s fundamental reason for teaching structural word analysis: to augment students’ academic vocabulary by offering them strategies for contextually deciphering unknown words.

In another example, Xitlali modified a Houghton Mifflin unit that asked students to read and write book reports about biographies of famous individuals. Believing in the importance of standards related to expository reading and writing, Xitlali created a student-centered, culturally relevant series of lessons in which students read biographies of their choice, identified the major elements they encountered while reading (e.g., childhood experiences, major life challenges), and created a template for writing biographies about their peers. After reading biographies—both to comprehend and to deconstruct the components of various expository texts—students created peer-interview questions, which they used to generate data necessary for writing biographies about one another. Xitlali explained her rationale behind this approach:

I try to take the content that they need to do and then do it in a way that’s more authentic, that’s more engaging … that’s student centered. We always talk about biographies and being about special people and well, we’re special too, and we’re going to change the world too. So [students] need to feel like they’re part of the learning … and produce stuff that is centered around them. Even though the standard is, ‘write research projects,’ it doesn’t say in the standards what they need to write research projects on. … Houghton Mifflin has their ideas. But I think that you take that and you … have to adapt it to your students. (May 2004)

Xitlali’s notion of authentic purpose also reflected the multiple standpoints she brought to her work in a standards-based environment; she held tightly to her beliefs and knowledge about teaching ELs, but also recognized the powerful role of standards and standardized tests in the lives of her students. Xitlali viewed it her responsibility to teach her students “everything … they need to succeed in the world.” As she put it:

I tell them what I don’t want is that you don’t have the skills and some racist person is going to tell you that you can’t go to college because you’re a Mexican. … I think it’s important for them to have options and make their own choices. … I tell my students what will happen if they don’t know it. … I don’t feel like I need to hide the realities from them. They need to know what’s on the line and how this information is used against them. (November 2004)

Though she had relied on the 12 learning conditions to guide her LA instruction for several years, the urgency of accountability pressures generated opportunities for Xitlali to draw on them differently, in particular, to resolve instructional tensions between the standards-driven LA reforms and her established instructional approaches. Examples above illustrate that by engaging in this process, Xitlali developed an approach to standards-driven LA instruction that was also rooted in learning theories research has suggested benefit ELs. Xitlali essentially brought theory “out into the world” to solve problems of practice, and in doing so, “ascended from the abstract to concrete,” discovering for herself the utility of the theories with which she already had familiarity (Engeström, 1991). Davydov (cited in Engeström, 1991) contends that engaging in such a process leads to learning. The data bear this out; Xitlali observably translated this learning into meticulously modified standards-based LA instruction.

The combination of Xitlali’s skill and her particular working conditions meant that she was consistently able to situate discrete skill instruction in meaningful content, sustain native language use, and teach thematically. And since Xitlali’s actual instruction regularly reflected her efforts to integrate the demands of the standards with her own expertise in literacy instruction for ELs, her students were given access to a LA curriculum that valued them as learners and also prepared them to succeed on high-stakes accountability measures.


The School and Language Arts Instructional Context

Isabel’s school, on the central coast of California, also serves large numbers of Spanish-speaking, Mexican-descent migrant students. With established ties to a nearby university, the school has a strong history as a professional development school “committed to bridging the equity-gap” and hiring highly qualified, bilingual teachers. At the time of this study, many teachers at the school had worked for almost a decade to develop an LA curriculum that was contextualized in social studies themes, and focused on building an overall school culture that cultivated teachers who are “intellectual workers for social justice” and students who are “academic workers for social justice” (school mission statement, September 2004).

In many respects, Isabel was the type of teacher the school prided itself on attracting. A fluently bilingual, native Spanish-speaker, and Mexican immigrant, she brought to her work a commitment to and a focus on ELs. Like Xitlali, Isabel believed that education can play a transformational role in the lives of students and the Mexican community.

I teach my students about the importance of doing well in school so that they can attend college and become our future leaders. … But, I go beyond the importance of education as a way to improve our economic status. … I attempt to allow students to see for themselves what incredible, valuable human beings they are. We examine the history of our ancestors, of their struggles, and their achievements. I find that students usually don't realize they have a rich history, and when they do, they become very interested in learning. … The purpose for me being there is to give them the best preparation for their future that I can … to help them realize how much wealth they house and to put it into action. (June 2004).

Until 2000, the principal of Isabel’s school was a strong proponent of the school’s equity agenda. A longtime teacher and community member, she carved out opportunities for teachers to engage in professional development congruent with the school’s mission: to build an “empowering school culture,” integrate “multicultural anti-bias perspectives and content,” and employ “equity pedagogy” (school mission statement, September 2004). During this time, bilingual and multicultural education scholars visited the school to help teachers apply research to their practices, and teachers had opportunities to engage in research and professional development with professors at nearby universities. The principal also enabled monthly collaborative meetings among teachers. Facilitated by the school’s Professional Development Coordinator (PDC), a respected veteran bilingual teacher, each grade level team created curriculum, evaluated student learning, and analyzed teaching practices and student work.

During the 2001–2002 school year, Isabel’s school faced major changes. The principal resigned to take a university position, and a second-grade teacher filled her vacancy. The district also hired a new superintendent who was a vehement supporter of NCLB and a vocal opponent of bilingual education. The same year, the school received an API rank of 1 and the label “underperforming.” Almost simultaneously, the federal government instituted the AYP scale, and the district identified Isabel’s school as a Program Improvement School.

As this study was underway, Isabel’s school began its fourth year as an underperforming school by state and federal accounts. Teachers became subject to extremely tight monitoring, especially in LA instruction; regularly warned about state takeover; and according to Isabel, threatened by the superintendent that without an increase in test scores, they “would be erased” and would “fall off the face of the earth” (February, 2004). “District scans” were also common, in which district-appointed teams sought evidence of teachers delivering the standards, implementing Reading California, and preparing students for the CAT 6 and CST.

Isabel’s New Principal

Though an advocate of bilingual education, the new principal was, according to the PDC, “limited in her leadership capacities.” Teachers reported that she feared standing up to the district’s demands that they replace their LA program with Reading California. According to Isabel, “The principal can’t offer the teachers support because she buys into the … accountability schemes. She considers them to be reasonable and good for the kids!” (September 2004). In an early interview, the principal spoke of her maintenance of the school’s bilingual program, despite district pressure to eradicate Spanish language instruction. While her commitment to bilingual education aligned the principal with some teachers, her belief in the sustenance of bilingual classes as a panacea irked many others. Several teachers explained that the principal believed that ELs placed in bilingual classrooms would continue to receive “effective” instruction, despite the weaknesses of the district’s English LA curriculum. Many teachers disagreed with this perspective, since the standards-based reforms endangered their LA program, which depended on quality instruction in both Spanish and English. They said that the principal ignored the more nuanced elements of the school’s historic approach to LA—a commitment to thematic instruction and to instructional strategies that emphasized meaning-making and situated skill instruction in authentic texts and purposes—which considerable research demonstrates are integral to the success of ELs (e.g., Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence, 2002; Luke, 1994; Moll & Greenberg, 1990). Isabel and her colleagues believed that Reading California and test preparation activities threatened these instructional approaches.

During the study, it became evident that the principal’s narrow conception of effective instruction for ELs undermined teachers’ trust in her leadership. Several teachers shared doubts that she would protect them from a “dictatorial” superintendent whom they believed hoped to reconstitute the school. Her enforcing of district policies, regardless of their content, and canceling of grade-level collaborative meetings further eroded teachers’ trust. These experiences convinced teachers that it was their responsibility to uphold their LA program, with or without the principal’s support. To this end, Isabel and her colleagues worked extensively with the standards. Isabel explained, “We are going to show the district how we already do what they are asking us to do, and not only that, we do it better” (September 2004).

Isabel’s Participation in the Reform Process

In contrast to Xitlali, who tended to work alone, Isabel and her colleagues collaboratively engaged in knowledge integration. Frustrated that there were “too many” standards to cover in one year, the teachers decided to focus on “essential” standards that emphasized meaningful tasks (e.g., the development of higher order thinking skills and the improvement of reading comprehension and authentic writing) and standards that teachers believed would help students to access higher education (e.g., those that emphasized expository reading and writing skills). Next, Isabel and her colleagues determined when each skill would be taught, which instructional strategies they would use, and the type of evidence they would gather to demonstrate student mastery. For example, the teachers decided to use a version of Literature Studies to help students improve their reading comprehension and literary analysis skills; according to Isabel, this instructional strategy built upon students’ academic and linguistic heterogeneity and allowed for an engaging infusion of content that would support connections between students’ lives and academic work. In three expository essays, students would tie literature to social science themes, engage in literary analysis, and utilize academic vocabulary in both languages. Students’ literature response journals and expository essays would serve as evidence that students had mastered related standards. Isabel called this process “taking back the standards.” Though this “taking back” was initially motivated by an oppositional stance toward the district’s mandates and was intended to insure the maintenance of their own curriculum, Isabel reported that the process actually improved upon the curriculum they set out to defend. Isabel’s observation makes sense when we look at her experiences through the lenses of social learning and activity theories.

As with Xitlali, the urgency of high-stakes accountability LA demands created instructional dissonance for Isabel. But unlike Xitlali, who tended to work alone, Isabel attempted to resolve this dissonance through her membership in an existing community of practice (Lave and Wenger cited in Engeström, 1991). Within this community, Isabel and her colleagues brought the LA reforms into conversation with their established LA curriculum. In doing so, they developed knowledge about the mandated reforms, which they used in order to reconsider their established curriculum. They also turned a critical lens on the mandated LA reforms, using their established curriculum as a touchstone of thoughtful planning grounded in learning theory and equity pedagogy.

Lave and Wenger (cited in Engeström, 1991) maintain that this type of reconciliatory participation in a community of practice engenders learning; importantly, Isabel was acutely aware of her own learning in this context. On several occasions, she explained that by integrating their collective knowledge of effective instructional practices for ELs with their knowledge of the standards, she and her colleagues had created a curriculum that was broader in scope, in terms of the skills and strategies it addressed, than their established curriculum. Engaging in knowledge integration helped Isabel set more-rigorous goals for herself and her students; it also pushed her to develop the knowledge necessary for meeting these goals.

Like Xitlali, Isabel’s notion of authentic purpose shifted as she worked with the standards. As a fifth-grade teacher, Isabel spoke often about her concerns for students’ futures, particularly in light of the accountability climate’s impact on the local middle school’s course placement practices. Isabel’s preoccupation with these issues shaped her conception of authentic purpose, in that she not only fought to sustain the LA curriculum she developed with her colleagues, but she also was conscious of how the reform climate might impact her students once they left her classroom. As Isabel engaged in knowledge integration, she weighed these oppositional concerns to make decisions she hoped would benefit her students in the short and long term, and, as she said to students before initiating a lesson on word analysis, also prevent “people who don’t care about our lives from making decisions for our future. We need to make those decisions and control our own destinies” (November 2004).

Based on the previous examples and analysis, we can see that when Isabel and Xitlali engaged in knowledge integration, each reconsidered her established LA curricula critically in light of new demands, and in doing so, experienced professional learning. Isabel and Xitlali’s shifting notions of what it means to teach with authentic purpose suggest that pressure to instantiate new LA mandates also pushed them to critically reconsider their assumptions about the purpose of schooling and their roles as teachers of underserved children. Both grappled with competing definitions of academic success and acknowledged powerful new gatekeepers and their long-term impact on students. By critically analyzing their current value system against the backdrop of what they viewed as a contradictory value system, Isabel and Xitlali participated in what Engeström (1991) calls the “context of criticism.” Both teachers ultimately held onto their core beliefs about teaching and learning, but high-stakes accountability demands generated opportunities for them to recontextualize these beliefs, such that their instructional decision-making became more “expansive”: cognizant of what their prior knowledge and experience would suggest is essential to the effective instruction of ELs, and cognizant of the context in which the instruction ultimately takes place.

Isabel’s engagement in CPPs resembled Xitlali’s, but there were also important differences in the degrees to which instructional innovations were instantiated in practice. As noted earlier, Xitlali received enough principal protection from district pressure and experienced enough autonomy to implement her instructional adaptations of the reforms. This led to significant modifications to her established LA curriculum. The same was not true for Isabel. To reiterate, Isabel’s principal advanced the accountability demands enforced by the district, but unlike Xitlali’s principal, did little to protect teachers from direct confrontations with district officials or to provide them with professional discretion over instruction. Though the principal claimed to support teachers’ visions for an academically rigorous program, she regularly made promises to district officials that contradicted teachers’ curricular decisions. Most vividly, she uncritically supported the district’s enforcement of Reading California—which included strict adherence to a pacing calendar—while simultaneously assuring teachers they could use their own LA program.

To mitigate these obstacles, Isabel and her colleagues engaged in the third component of a CPP: strategic negotiation. When they realized that their internal identification of essential standards was not enough to loosen the district’s grip, the teachers articulated how their own program covered the skills and strategies sponsored by the standards, and provided the district with documentation of teachers’ use and students’ mastery of the standards. Sending official “memos” to the district office and posting language from the standards and Reading California on classroom bulletin boards and daily agendas were two of their strategies.

Despite these efforts, Isabel’s instruction consistently opposed her own beliefs about a quality LA program. She was limited in her capacity to teach thematically, she regularly replaced primary language instruction with English instruction, discrete skill instruction was rarely contextualized in content that would support ELs to make meaning, and the majority of her instruction was executed in a whole class setting, rather than in small groups. During one observation, Isabel’s principal informed teachers that district officials would visit classrooms later in the week. Thus, she wanted each teacher to display student work related to their grade level’s “book of the month,” a text the district had selected to cover particular reading comprehension standards. Meanwhile, Isabel and a colleague had planned a series of lessons on expository essay writing, in which students would be expected to link themes from expository readings about immigration to experiences of the immigrant characters in their literature studies texts. Because of her principal’s enforcement of the district’s mandate, Isabel was forced to relinquish her more rigorous lesson plans for lessons that were disconnected from her ongoing thematic instruction and that disrupted students’ authentic language and literacy learning.

Restrictions on Isabel’s instructional latitude meant that her students rarely experienced or profited from their teacher’s innovations. During a few conversations, Isabel broke down in tears and lamented that she had little power to shelter her students from instructional practices she believed would disadvantage them. In addition, the lack of principal protection meant that Isabel and her colleagues were fully exposed to district officials’ tendencies to ignore teachers’ compliance with district demands. During district visits, some reviewers would write “not evident” on their evaluation forms when the item or practice they were scanning for was present. The district also tended to ignore actual increases in test scores. When, in November 2004, teachers learned that they had met district goals by raising the school’s API by 63 points, the district actually increased their surveillance.5


The School and Language Arts Instructional Context

Jorge’s school is located in an unincorporated section of a large Southern California city, near one of the world’s biggest international airports. Many students’ parents, most of them immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, work blue collar jobs as airport custodians or security personnel. One of the school’s most striking aspects is its strong sense of community—not an easy feat for more than 1,200 K–5 students.

At the beginning of this study, Jorge approached the end of his fourth year as a fourth- and fifth-grade bilingual teacher. Like Isabel and Xitlali, Jorge attributed his decision to become a teacher to broader political motivations. He explained:

I wanted to work in a community that didn’t have wealth on their side because I see class as the biggest indicator of success in our culture. … Language is another layer of disempowerment … this community faces because they don’t speak the dominant language. … Environmentally and geographically, this is an area that is being degraded. … It’s an important place to work as well, because politically this area needs to be uplifted. (June 2004)

When asked to reflect on the standards in light of these convictions, Jorge mentioned their failure to recognize or build upon students’ knowledge of Spanish, which he viewed as a barrier for teachers like himself who teach in bilingual programs. Like Isabel and Xitlali, he also believed there were too many standards to cover in one year, and was critical of their promotion of literacy practices that emphasized discrete skill mastery over meaning-making competencies.

Jorge’s Principal

A consistent API of 1, four years as an II/USP school, and a label of “low-performing” on the AYP scale would reasonably lead a school to show signs of low morale. But this was not the case at Jorge’s school. Many teachers attributed the school’s buoyancy to their principal, an outspoken equity-minded leader with a long career serving racially and linguistically diverse students. During an early interview with Jorge’s principal, she spoke emphatically about the importance of her relationship with the community, claiming to include families in all major school decisions. The principal likewise considered her commitment to primary language instruction representative of her attentiveness to community needs and desires; she and the teachers fought to create and maintain the largest bilingual program in the district in the face of Proposition 227, California’s anti-bilingual education initiative. The principal also retained an enduring partnership with a nearby TEP that aimed to prepare “social justice” urban educators who pay “attention to the moral, cultural, and political dimensions of teaching.” A longtime instructor in the TEP, Jorge’s principal agreed with the TEP’s ideologies and instructional practices, and had supervised many of the school’s teachers, including Jorge, while they participated in TEP coursework or student-taught at her school.

Largely due to her strong convictions and leveraging ability, Jorge’s principal convinced the district that despite the school’s participation in II/USP, she should be able to select an intervention program, as long as she could demonstrate how it would lead to standards mastery and improved test scores. The principal claimed that because of the standards’ “overemphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness,” particularly in the early grades, she sought a program that enabled teachers to focus on “reading comprehension standards to guide LA instruction” and allowed them to teach bilingually—a method that she named as being the “most important” and “effective way of teaching ELs” (June 2004). Thus, Jorge’s school adopted a well-established, standards-inclusive, arts-based program. Around the same time, the district also authorized the school’s use of an assessment tool that focused exclusively on reading comprehension.

According to Jorge’s principal, the arts-based program and the reading comprehension assessment were the school’s central means for drawing on their knowledge and beliefs regarding ELs, while also satisfying district officials. She argued that, while the LA standards remained a “good guide” and played a “very significant” role in determining what was taught, implementing the arts-based program and reading comprehension assessment allowed them to prioritize standards that most aligned with the school’s vision. The program was not prescriptive and only recommended learning structures, instructional strategies, and master artworks with accompanying themes. Thus, teachers were still largely responsible for creating curriculum in accordance with students’ needs and continued to teach in both languages.

Jorge’s Participation in the Reform Process

Given his rationale for becoming a teacher, his beliefs about the standards, and his school’s underperforming status, one might predict that Jorge would have navigated the tensions between the standards and the school’s preferred approach to LA instruction in ways that mirrored Isabel’s and Xitlali’s approaches. It would also make sense to assume that Jorge might have done an even better job of integrating the standards with his established curriculum, since his principal did all she could to prevent the encroachment of test-driven pedagogies.

Jorge’s autonomy did permit him to preserve a relaxed, flexible learning environment, rarely evident in Isabel or Xitlali’s classrooms. In instances, Jorge skillfully practiced knowledge integration. Jorge’s EL students performed mini-plays in which they skillfully used academic language about social studies themes and worked toward all four domains of the LA standards: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. This is a salient example of how Jorge used the school’s arts-based curriculum to teach the standards in meaningful, contextualized ways.

Overwhelmingly, though, Jorge’s experiences were quite different from the other case teachers’. Whereas agency at Isabel’s school was located with various teams of teachers and Xitlali primarily acted alone, Jorge’s principal appeared to be the only individual at his school who actively grappled with the LA reforms. Jorge, whose beliefs about LA instruction reflected those shared by his principal, expressed that he felt “protected” from NCLB demands.

I don’t necessarily feel pressure. And I don’t know if it’s whether or not I’ve just become good at denying that that pressure is there or whether it’s the fact that my principal deflects a lot of that pressure. But I really have had the opportunities to be focusing on my students, and who my students are and what they need. And I’ve worked at another school that was not underperforming, and I don’t feel a tangible difference. (December 2004)

Jorge’s further comments suggest that this lack of pressure was attributable to his principal’s far-reaching protection. When asked repeatedly how he thought his school’s API ranking impacted his instructional practices, each time Jorge said he knew nothing about “the numbers” because his principal “doesn’t want to talk about them since … ‘the scores are misleading’ and ‘we should wait until we have something more concrete’” (November 2004). This might have been the reason that Jorge thought “the tests mean nothing” and why, when asked how his practices would change if there were no standards or reforms to enforce them, he said, “I don’t think they would change because right now they’re not at all informed by standardized tests” (December 2004). This outlook differentiated Jorge from Xitlali and Isabel, who struggled under the direct weight of district and state demands.

Meanwhile, Jorge’s principal made it clear that there were reasons to take seriously the school’s test scores and performance rankings. Without immediate improvement on the CAT 6 and CST, she said, the teachers’ freedom to rely on the arts-based program and students’ reading comprehension scores as the central determinants of their LA instruction would likely disappear. She said, “You have the freedom, as long as you can show growth on standard measures. … I can tell you, the minute we’re not growing, life’s not going to be nice around here” (June 2004).

Nevertheless, Jorge’s teaching reflected his relaxed attitude about accountability demands. Because his principal’s protection shielded him from articulating his LA curriculum to any external governance bodies, Jorge was not pressed to engage in knowledge integration or strategic negotiation with the sense of urgency or degree of specificity displayed by Xitlali or Isabel. Jorge’s LA instruction commonly took place in “social studies centers” without clearly defined LA goals, and where students had little contact with their teacher. In addition, Jorge’s selection of activities and instructional strategies was rather arbitrary, his articulation of practices vague. Several times, Jorge claimed that he based instructional decisions on “what’s good for the community.” When asked what he meant by this, he struggled to elaborate.

Similarly, Jorge’s conviction that all LA instruction must foster reading comprehension and be “relevant to the community” also led him to conclude that the explicit teaching of skills was unnecessary. Jorge claimed that he only taught the discrete skills listed in the standards when a student needed an “intervention.” Observation and interview data revealed that Jorge thought that meaning-making and comprehension were valuable and necessary for all students, but he also believed that students, except for those who needed special support, would develop knowledge about discrete skills without explicit direction from a teacher. Jorge said that his teaching assistant often worked with students who were “having a hard time so that they can go over … within-word patterns and suffixes and prefixes … because they need it.” He later added, “But for those kids who are progressing at a normal pace, and who don’t need to have any sort of intervention, then language develops more naturally” (June, 2004; December, 2004). A lack of pressure appeared to lead Jorge to dismiss standards altogether. Xitlali and Isabel, by contrast, became increasingly more aware of the importance of teaching these skills to all students, but tried to incorporate them in ways that did not violate their own perspectives about how to teach meaningfully and contextually.

Jorge’s level of comfort working in an underperforming school also appeared to impact his notion of authentic purpose. As mentioned, Jorge, like Xitlali and Isabel, maintained a sense of authentic purpose about his literacy practices and his purpose for working in a marginalized community. Unlike Xitlali and Isabel, however, Jorge tended to exclude high-stakes accountability gatekeepers and notions of success when he thought about how instruction might impact students. Despite Jorge’s easygoing attitude about the high-stakes climate, his school’s API and AYP rankings indicated that he and his colleagues faced the possibility of state or district sanctions. In addition, when asked about what low test scores might mean for individual students once they went to middle school, Jorge was unable to answer.

Jorge’s case raises difficult questions about the role of high-stakes accountability reforms in curriculum development and instruction. On the one hand, the lack of urgency surrounding instructional dissonance in Jorge’s school meant that Jorge could preserve the LA program that he and his principal believed served his ELs well. On the other hand, looking through the lens of learning theory suggests that being pressed to engage more urgently in a CPP might have generated opportunities for Jorge to participate in Davydov’s (cited in Engeström, 1991) “context of discovery” or Engeström’s (1991) “context of criticism.” If Xitlali and Isabel’s cases are any indication, this participation might have led Jorge to develop new knowledge about his established LA curriculum and the LA reforms.

This presumption is not intended to suggest that high-stakes accountability demands are in and of themselves a positive force on instruction. An abundance of research demonstrates how accountability-driven reforms often create harmful learning conditions, particularly for historically underserved students, such as ELs (McNeil & Valenzuela, 1999; Menken, 2008; Valli & Chambliss, 2007). Rather, the data indicate that these demands generate the opportunity to critically consider one’s own practices; this appears to engender some potentially positive outcomes. As the ensuing discussion will address, however, these opportunities and outcomes vary by context, suggesting that attempts to resolve instructional tensions are but one aspect of improving instruction in an age of high-stakes accountability.


At the beginning of this article, Cole and Levitin’s (2000) mediational model of learning suggested how specially prepared teachers might experience professional learning as they wrestled with high-stakes accountability demands (see Figure 1). This model accurately represented the experiences of case teachers, in particular Xitlali and Isabel. Specifically, tension generated by accountability-driven instructional dissonance pressed teachers, albeit to different degrees and with different levels of urgency and sophistication, to engage in a reconciliatory process—a critical professional practice—that social learning and activity theorists argue is essential to learning.

In addition to the patterns of practice articulated in the analysis, a case study design—with its focus on context—also helped to reveal important differences in teachers’ responses to accountability reforms. These variations are not necessarily represented in the original mediational model, which does not capture the idea that equity-minded teachers in underperforming schools might experience different amounts of pressure to raise test scores and change their instructional practices. As the cases demonstrate, one factor that mediated teachers’ experiences, especially in relation to the amount of pressure and/or tension each teacher faced, was each principal’s approach to managing accountability demands.

A cultural-historical model of distributed cognition (Cole and Engeström, 1997) begins to account for these types of variations through an expansion of the basic mediation triangle. The expanded model (Figure 2) illustrates that subjects are situated in communities that are governed by their own norms, and where tasks, powers, and responsibilities are distributed among community participants. In other words, the expanded model demonstrates that human activities are collective—as opposed to individual—and suggests that, in addition to being mediated by artifacts, a subject’s activity is mediated by other people and community norms. The model also shows the sources of variation in teachers’ learning, via the different “mediators” at each juncture/point in the triangle, a visual representation of each teacher’s particular activity system. For example, Jorge’s principal and district negotiated rules that encouraged Jorge to focus on the reading comprehension assessment tool, while Isabel and Xitlali were pressed to increase scores on the CAT 6 and CST. These variations had implications for teachers’ LA instructional practices and learning.

Figure 2. Expanded mediational model of teacher learning


Likewise, the division of labor at Isabel’s school among community members (e.g., among teams of teachers and the professional development coordinator) contrasted the division of labor at the other schools: Xitlali mainly worked alone, and Jorge’s principal shielded him from the reforms. This depiction of principal mediation accounts in part for stark differences between Jorge’s learning outcomes compared to Isabel’s and Xitlali’s. Nevertheless, the expanded model fails to capture another form of principal mediation: the mediation of teacher agency. Rather, the model projects that once subjects attain the same object (e.g., teacher learning) they will also realize the same outcome (e.g., improved LA instruction). In reality, principals’ mediation seemed to affect the productivity of tension experienced by teachers (e.g., the extent to which tension led to instructional improvements). This second form of principal mediation was especially relevant for Isabel and Xitlali, who both worked through tensions surrounding LA instruction, in part because their principals did not altogether shield them from district and state mandates.

As the data show, Xitlali and Isabel’s principals’ actions mediated the degree to which their resolutions of dissonance “on paper” could be realized in their actual instruction. Xitlali could apply what she had learned through her engagement in a CPP because her principal trusted and supported her to do so. Isabel’s principal, to the contrary, prevented Isabel from using her CPP insights in her instruction. These variations in actual classroom practice suggest that while engaging in a CPP can be a useful exercise, since it engenders teacher learning, engagement in a CPP does not necessarily lead to improved instruction. This finding indicates that the intersection of principals’ two mediating roles was critical to teacher learning and to teachers’ instantiations of LA reforms, illustrated in Figure 3.

The figure shows that principals influenced how much tension each case teacher experienced and also how productive that tension was, relative to instructional improvement. The diagram’s vertical axis represents the degree to which principals’ sheltering of teachers from district and/or state NCLB demands compelled teachers to resolve actively dissonance between the standards-based reforms and their established programs. As has been discussed at length, when teachers did this type of work, they engaged in processes that learning theorists posit are critical to learning. The horizontal axis represents the notion that teachers’ agency to instantiate a rigorous LA program also hinged upon how much principals sheltered them from NCLB-related surveillance and pressure, freeing teachers to apply their CPP learning to their LA instruction.

Each teacher in this study experienced a unique intersection of these two mediating factors, and so appears in a different quadrant. Jorge (quadrant C) held strong negative opinions about the LA reforms, but his principal’s monopoly on district interactions prevented Jorge from experiencing any real tension, despite his school’s underperforming status. Sheltered from district pressure, Jorge taught according to his own knowledge and values. This bolstered his morale and job satisfaction, which is critical to the retention of qualified teachers in urban schools (Ingersoll, 2003, 2004), and which Xitlali and Isabel did not demonstrate to the same extent. On the downside, Jorge did not seem to have examined or modified his established instruction critically. This is not to suggest that all instructional modifications are positive. Rather, being altogether sheltered from curricular “tension” may have denied Jorge an opportunity to engage in a professional struggle that learning theory suggests could lead to teacher learning and an improved LA program.

Figure 3: Principal mediation of teacher agency and learning


Of the three case teachers, Isabel (quadrant A) observably experienced the most pressure to raise test scores and use the mandated curriculum. She and her colleagues initially met this tension with resistance, leading Isabel to engage in a CPP with her grade-level team. This engagement motivated Isabel to look at her established LA program and the LA reforms with a critical eye and produce formal proposals to the district, a process the data suggest was educative for her. Despite these positive outcomes, the tension that the accountability reforms generated for Isabel was not necessarily productive. Isabel’s principal appeared to give district officials unlimited classroom visiting rights and to accept uncritically their narrow interpretation and monitoring of the reforms, impeding Isabel’s agency to apply what she had learned to her classroom practice. Thus, one could argue that the tension Isabel experienced was overwhelmingly unproductive. Her unsheltered exposure to district surveillance led her to feel increasingly ineffective and demoralized, possibly weakening her established program. The data illustrate that although Isabel’s LA curriculum still maintained remnants of her established program, it increasingly reflected the characteristics of a test-preparation classroom culture (Valli & Chambliss, 2007).

Xitlali’s principal created conditions that both pressed Xitlali (quadrant B) to grapple with standards-based reforms and also sufficiently supported her to adapt and implement them in ways that reflected her CPP learning. This made Xitlali’s instruction observably more rigorous, and deepened her understanding of the high-stakes accountability climate as a gatekeeper for marginalized students. In other words, Xitlali experienced a productive tension: an urgency to advance instruction and student achievement without a narrow emphasis on compliance.

These three unique scenarios suggest that the balanced protection from accountability pressures provided by Xitlali’s principal were essential to her experiencing a productive tension. When Isabel’s principal did not shield her, Isabel was virtually powerless to draw on the professional knowledge she had mined to improve her LA instruction. Yet Jorge’s principal provided him with too much protection, denying Jorge the chance to act as a professional—to think hard about his established instruction and his students’ futures in the context of high-stakes accountability demands. Isabel and Jorge, respectively, seemed deprofessionalized by either a lack of principal protection or principal overprotection. This suggests that Xitlali’s principal’s balanced protection—enough to provide some professional autonomy without inhibiting the dissonance between her established instruction and the accountability demands—was, at least in part, what led Xitlali to experience a tension that was productive for her and her students.


Because this study examined the practices of only three teachers, its findings cannot be widely generalized. Even though each case teacher held the highest credentials to serve ELs, there were some discrepancies in their qualifications. Xitlali had more extensive knowledge than did Isabel or Jorge of research and practice surrounding language arts instruction for ELs (Fillmore & Snow, 2003). Jorge, alternatively, usually struggled to articulate specific instructional approaches for ELs, beyond touting the benefits of bilingual education. In addition, even though all three participants were early-career teachers, Xitlali had the most experience. Given what we know about teacher development along the learning-to-teach continuum (Feiman-Nemser, 2001), this may have affected her readiness to navigate the new challenges generated by accountability demands. As the findings section revealed, case teachers’ responses to accountability demands reflected these discrepancies. Finally, Isabel, Xitlali, and Jorge were better qualified than many teachers who work in underperforming, high-needs schools. This raises questions about if and how the findings from the present study might apply to teachers with less preparation or commitment. Less experienced, less reflective, or less knowledgeable teachers might not have the knowledge or skills needed to engage in a CPP, regardless of their principal’s approach to navigating accountability pressures.

Given these limitations, findings from this study do not offer specific ideas for practice, but do raise a number of important issues and questions.

Perhaps the main topic of further research is that of balanced leadership. The existing body of literature on this topic posits that in the context of school change, principals are most effective when they strike a balance between pressuring teachers to implement unilateral top-down reforms and relinquishing their decision-making power to teachers. Several studies emphasize that the key to successful reform implementation is the creation, by principals, of collaborative professional communities in which various members exercise leadership responsibilities (e.g., Elmore, 2000; Murphy & Datnow, 2003; Spillane et al., 2001). Others have argued that, in an era of accountability, it is especially critical that principals balance their demand for accountability with “responsibility” (Gross and Shapiro, 2002), focusing on quality teaching and learning, regardless of accountability pressures (Skrla, 2003). Sergiovanni (2000) agrees that, to create a “healthy” school, a principal must sustain its “lifeworld,” or balance reform demands with the values and purposes of the school community.

Recent studies build on this balanced perspective of principal conduct. In two studies conducted in high-stakes environments in California, teachers reported that principals significantly limited or enhanced their capacity to draw on their professional knowledge in standards-driven contexts (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006; Sleeter & Stillman, 2007). In Hargreaves and his colleagues’ (2001) study of standards-based reform in a middle-school setting, the principal had the strongest impact on the intellectual, cultural, and emotional aspects of the change process and on how standards were put into practice. These studies’ authors urge principals in low-performing schools to resist narrowly enforcing test-driven pedagogies and instead to cultivate school climates where teachers can draw on their professional knowledge (Achinstein & Ogawa, 2006; Hargreaves et al., 2001; Sleeter & Stillman, 2007).

The experiences of the three teachers in this study corroborate these perspectives and recommendations, highlighting some of the possible benefits of balanced leadership for equity-minded teachers in contexts constrained by high-stakes accountability. Findings also expand upon perspectives articulated in the literature, offering insights about why the balance between accountability and responsibility may be so critical. Xitlali—the case teacher who seemed to profit most from her principal’s leadership approach—was pressed to reconcile tension surrounding LA instruction when her principal emphasized accountability. When her principal balanced this emphasis on accountability with an emphasis on responsibility, Xitlali was afforded sufficient autonomy to modify her instruction. This suggests that a balanced leadership approach can positively impact teachers’ learning experiences (how they think about and understand their instruction) and teachers’ agency (how they act upon their instruction). This notion of balance underscores the importance of principals treating teachers, especially those who are highly qualified, as professionals—shielding them from the whim of every policy without isolating them from the profession’s real struggles.

Still, there are questions about what this balance might look like in different contexts or with different actors. Although learning theory suggests that all teachers benefit from working through instructional tensions, different amounts of tension and protection would be more or less productive, depending on the teacher. This raises questions about how a principal determines and then calibrates the “right” balance between accountability and responsibility for individual teachers. What particular balance might lead a new teacher to experience a productive tension? How much shelter might a veteran teacher need? What about a resistant teacher? Answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this study, but findings suggest that to balance accountability with responsibility, it is profitable for principals to understand how teachers learn and develop as professionals over time. Guided by knowledge of teacher development, principals could tie decisions about how much shelter or autonomy to provide to teachers’ specific developmental needs, potentially increasing the likelihood that any tension that is generated for teachers is indeed a productive one.

Findings also have implications for teachers. As the data indicate, principals appear to have considerable discretion over how policies are instantiated at the local level, even within a system of high-stakes accountability and within the most tightly constrained school contexts. This suggests that as teachers decide where to teach, they would benefit from a better understanding of the tremendous impact that school leaders can have over their work. Given this reality, equity-minded teacher preparation programs should assist their candidates in making prudent employment choices, particularly among schools with underperforming status.

Findings also highlight the potential value of teachers seeking colleagues with whom to engage in a community of professional practice. Isabel and her colleagues struggled to apply their instructional modifications, but their impressive efforts raise questions about the (potentially lesser) degree to which each alone might have challenged test-driven instruction. Findings also indicate that engaging in a community of practice presents opportunities for professional learning, which teachers might draw on in and for various contexts and purposes.

Finally, findings underscore how important it is for teachers to engage in the broader (high-stakes accountability) context in which they are situated. Jorge’s case in particular, raises questions about how a teacher’s lack of engagement might further disadvantage historically marginalized students and one’s own professional development. That being said, it is unrealistic to expect all teachers to engage in a critical professional practice instinctively. Those who organize opportunities for teacher learning—teacher educators, principals, and instructional coaches—must support teachers explicitly in the navigation of underperforming schools. This study suggests the need to develop thoughtful, context-specific approaches for supporting teacher learning at both pre-service and in-service levels.


This research was supported by a grant from the University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute (UC LMRI) under the UC LMRI Grants Program. Opinions reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the grant agency. I thank two anonymous reviewers and Lauren M. Anderson for their helpful suggestions in preparing this article.


1. These include: 1) the English-Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools (California Department of Education, 1997); 2) the Reading/Language Arts Framework for California Public Schools (California Department of Education, 1999c); and 3) the English Language Development Standards (California Department of Education, 1999b).

2. Names of people and research sites are pseudonyms.

3. The 12 OLE Conditions are Student Choice, Student-Centered, Whole-Part-Whole Approach, Active Participation, Meaning First-Followed by Form, Authentic Purpose, Approximations, Immersion in Language and Print, Demonstrations, Response, Community of Learners, and High Expectations (Ruíz, García, & Figueroa, 1996).

4. For example, Fifth Grade Standards 1.2 and 1.4, which say students must “Use word origins to determine the meaning of unknown words,” and “Know abstract derived roots and affixes from Greek and Latin and use this knowledge to analyze the meaning of complex words.”

5. One of the reasons the district was able to justify its continued scrutiny of the school is a discrepancy between state and federal scales for identifying low-performing schools. Despite the 63–point gain on California’s API, Isabel’s school still did not meet the goals imposed by the federal government’s AYP scale. To make matters even more complicated, at its inception the AYP allowed individual states to determine what levels of test performance the AYP should consider “below basic,” “basic,” and “proficient.” Since California set a higher “proficiency” cutoff than other states, many California students who score at the “below basic” or “basic” levels would be considered proficient elsewhere. Isabel and her colleagues were aware of this inconsistency, which contributed to their sense of futility in meeting external expectations.


Achinstein, B., & Ogawa, R. T. (2006). (In)fidelity: What the resistance of new teachers reveals about professional principles and prescriptive educational policies. Harvard Educational Review, 76(1).

Achinstein, B., Ogawa, R. T, & Speiglman, A. (2004). Are we creating separate and unequal tracks of teachers? The impact of state policy, local conditions, and teacher characteristics on new teacher socialization. American Educational Research Journal, 41, 557–603.

Au, W. (2007). High-stakes testing and curricular control: A qualitative metasynthesis. Educational Researcher 36(5), 258–267.

Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literacies: Reading and writing in one community. London, UK: Routledge.

Bogden, R., & Biklen, S. K. (1998). Qualitative research for education: An introduction to theory and methods. Boston, MA: Allyn, & Bacon.

Bush, G. W. (2002). No Child Left Behind. Available: http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov/.

California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (2006). Bilingual, crosscultural, language, and academic development (BCLAD). Available from: http://www.ctc.ca.gov/credentials/

California public schools. Available from: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/

California Department of Education, (1999a). Accountability progress reporting. Available from: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/ac/ar/index.asp

California Department of Education. (1999b). English language development standards. Available from: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/

California Department of Education. (1999c). Reading/language arts framework for California public schools. Available from: http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/

Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence (CREDE). (2002). Research evidence: Five standards for effective pedagogy and student outcomes. (Technical Report No. G1). Available from: http://crede.ucsc.edu/pdf/evidence_g1.pdf

Cochran-Smith, M. (1991). Learning to teach against the grain. Harvard Educational Review, 61(3), 279–310.

Cochran-Smith, M. (2004). Walking the road: Race, diversity and social justice in teacher education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Cohen, D. K., & Hill, H. C. (2001) Learning policy: When state education reform works. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Cole, M., & Engeström, Y. (1997). A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 1–46). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, M., & Levitin, K. (2000). A cultural-historical view of human nature. In N. Roughley (Ed.), Being humans: Anthropological universality and particularity in transdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 64–80). New York, NY: deGruyter.

Crosland, K., & Gutiérrez, K. (2003). Standardizing teaching, standardizing teachers: Educational reform and the deprofessionalization of teachers in an English-only era. Educators for Urban Minorities, 2(2).

Darling-Hammond, L. (1998). Teacher learning that supports student learning. Educational Leadership, 55(5).

Elmore, R. (2000). Building a new structure for school leadership. Washington, DC: The Albert Shanker Institute. Available from: http://www.shankerinstitute.org/education.html

Engeström, Y. (1991). Toward overcoming the encapsulation of school learning. Learning and Instruction (Vol. 1, pp. 243–259).

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2001). From preparation to practice: Designing a continuum to strengthen and sustain teaching. Teachers College Record, 103(6).

Fillmore, L. W., & Snow, C. E. (2002). What teachers need to know about language. In C. T. Adger, C. E. Snow, & Christian, D. (Eds.), What teachers need to know about language (pp. 7–53). Delta Systems Co, Inc.

Gallucci, C. (2003). Communities of practice and the mediation of teachers’ responses to standards-based reform. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(35).

Gándara, P., Rumberger, R., Maxwell-Jolly, J., & Callahan, R. (2003). English learners in California schools: Unequal resources, unequal outcomes. Education Policy Analysis Archives (11)36.

Gay, G., & Howard, T. C. (2001). Multicultural teacher education for the 21st century. The Teacher Educator. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Grant, S. G. (2001). An uncertain lever: Exploring the influence of state-level testing in New York state on teaching social studies. Teachers College Record, 103(3), 398–426.

Greene, J. C. (1994). Qualitative program evaluation: Practice and promise. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 530–544). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Gross, S. J., & Shapiro, J. P. (2002). Toward ethically responsible leadership. In G. Perreault & F. C. Lunenburg (Eds.), The changing world of school administration (pp. 256–66). Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.

Gutiérrez, K., Asato, J., Zavala, M., Pacheco, M., & Olson, K. (2003). The effects of educational reforms on English Learners. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.

Gutiérrez, K., Baquedano-Lopez, P., & Asato, J. (2000). “English for the Children”: The new literacy of the old world order: Language policy and educational reform. Bilingual Research Journal, 24(1 & 2), 87–112.

Harding, S. (1987). Conclusion: Epistemological questions. In S. Harding (Ed.), Feminism, & Methodology (pp. 181–190). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Hargreaves, A. (2003). Education epidemic: Transforming secondary schools through innovation networks. London, UK: DEMOS.

Hargreaves, A., Earl, L., Moore, S., & Manning, S. (2001). Learning to change: Teaching beyond subjects and standards. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hollins, E., & Guzman, M. T. (2005). Research on preparing teachers for diverse populations. In M. Cochran-Smith & K. M. Zeichner (Eds.), Studying teacher education: The report of the AERA panel on research and teacher education (pp. 477–548). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2003). Is there really a teacher shortage? Seattle: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal (32)3, 465–491.

LeCompte, M. D., & Preissle, J., with Tesch, R. (1993). Ethnography and qualitative design in educational research (2nd ed.). Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press.

Lieberman, A. (1995). Practices that support teacher development: Transforming conceptions of professional learning. Phi Delta Kappan 76(8), 591–596.

Lieberman, A., & Grolnick, M. (1997). Networks, reform and the professional development of teachers. In A. Hargreaves (Ed.), Rethinking educational change with heart and mind: 1997 ASCD Yearbook (pp. 192–215). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Luke, A. (1994). The social construction of literacy in the primary school. South Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan Education Australia Pty Ltd.

Maxwell, J. A. (1998). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McNeil, L. (2000) Contradictions of school reform: Educational costs of standardized testing. New York, NY: Routledge.

McNeil, L., & Valenzuela, A. (1999). The harmful impact of the TAAS system of testing in Texas: Beneath the accountability rhetoric. Houston, TX: Rice University, Department of Education.

Menken, K. (2008). English Learners left behind: Standardized testing as language policy. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education (Revised and expanded from case study research in education). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Moll, L., & Greenberg, J. B. (1990). Creating zones of possibilities: Combining social contexts for instruction. In L. C. Moll (Ed.), Vygotsky and education: Instructional implications of sociohistorical psychology (pp. 319–348). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Murphy, J. and Datnow, A. (2003). Leadership lessons from comprehensive school reform designs. In J. Murphy & A. Datnow (Eds.). Leadership lessons from comprehensive school reforms (pp. 263–278). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

National Research Council. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Nieto, S. (1999). The light in their eyes. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Oakes, J. (1992). Can tracking research inform practice? Technical, normative, and political considerations. Educational Researcher 21(4), 12–21.

Oakes, J., & Lipton, M. (1999). Teaching to change the world. Boston: McGraw-Hill College.

Olsen, B., & Kirtman, L. (2002). Teacher as mediator of school reform: An examination of teacher practice in 36 California restructuring schools. Teachers College Record 104(2), 301–324.

Pearson, P. D. (2004). The reading wars. Educational Policy, 18, 216–252.

Printy, S. M. (2008). Leadership for teacher learning: A community of practice perspective. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(2), 187–226.

Randi, J., & Corno, L. (1997). Teachers as innovators. In B. Biddle, T. Good, & I. Goodson (Eds.), The international handbook of teachers and teaching (Vol. 1, pp. 1163–1221). New York, NY: Kluwer.

Ruíz, N., García, E., & Figueroa, R. A. (1996). The OLE Curriculum Guide: Creating optimal learning environments for students from diverse backgrounds in special and general education. California Department of Education, Specialized Programs Branch.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (2000). The lifeworld of leadership: Creating culture, community, and personal meaning in our schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Skrla, L. (2003). Productive campus leadership responses to accountability: Principals as policy mediators. In W. Hoy & C. Miskel (Eds.), Theory and research in educational administration (pp. 27–50). Greenwich, CN: JAI Press.

Sleeter, C. E. (2003). Reform and Control: An analysis of SB 2042. Teacher Education Quarterly 30(1), 19–30.

Sleeter, C. E. (2005). Un-standardizing curriculum: Multicultural teaching in the standards-based classroom. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Sleeter, C. E., & Stillman, J. (2005). Standardizing knowledge in a multicultural society, Curriculum Inquiry, 35(1).

Sleeter, C. E., & Stillman, J. (2007). Navigating accountability pressures, In C. E. Sleeter (Ed.), Facing accountability in education: Democracy and equity at risk (pp.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Stillman, J. (forthcoming). Taking back the standards for English learners: Equity-minded teachers’ responses to accountability-related instructional constraints. The New Educator.

Spillane, J. (2002). Local theories of teacher change: The pedagogy of district policies and programs. Teachers College Record, 104(3), 377–420.

Spillane, J., Halverson, R., & Diamond, J. B. (2001). Investigating school leadership practice: A distributed perspective. Educational Researcher 30(3), 23–28.

Sykes, G. (1999). Introduction: Teaching as learning profession. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession (pp. xv-xxi). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

U.S. Department of Education. (2006). Proven Methods: Reading. Available from: http://www.ed.gov/nclb/methods/reading/edpicks.jhtml?src=ln

Valli, L. and Buese, D. (2007). The changing roles of teachers in an era of high-stakes accountability. American Educational Research Journal 44(3), 519–558.

Valli, L. and Chambliss, M. (2007). Creating classroom cultures: One teacher, two lessons and a high-stakes test. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 38(1), 57–75.

Wixson, K. K. and Dutro, E. (1999). Standards for primary-grade reading: An analysis of state frameworks. The Elementary School Journal 100(2), 89–100.

Yin, R. K. (1994). Case study research: Design and methods, (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Interview Protocols

Teacher Preliminary Interview Protocol

Background information and Teacher Preparation


Tell me about your teaching background.


Where did you earn your teaching credential?


How many years have you been teaching?


Have you participated in additional training/professional development? If so, when, where and what type?


What grades and subjects have you taught?


Where have you taught?


How would you describe the student population of your class? Of prior classes?


Describe your school and classroom’s language program(s) (e.g., Bilingual, Structured English Immersion, etc.).


How much time, and in what contexts do you deliver language arts instruction?


What made you want to become a teacher? A teacher who serves English Learners?


How would you describe your philosophy of teaching? What do you believe “works?”


Describe your teacher education program’s approach to preparing teachers to work with culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

Language Arts and Literacy


How do you define “literacy”?


How do you think students become literate?


What do you take as evidence that students are becoming literate?


What are the best or most effective ways of teaching English to second-language learners?


Do you rely on any [theoretical] guiding principles in your language arts planning? If so, what are they?


How do you assess your students’ progress in language arts?

The Language Arts Standards


Tell me what you know about the language arts standards. How did you learn this?


What role do the standards play as you design and deliver your language arts instruction?


Do you view the standards as congruent with or divergent from what you have learned about language acquisition through teacher education and professional development?


In what ways are they congruent? Divergent?


If the standards are divergent from your convictions about language acquisition/literacy development, do you still use the standards to guide your language arts instruction? If so, why? In what capacity do you use them?

Teacher’s attitudes/beliefs/values about ELs


How do you think teaching the students in your class differs from teaching white, native English-speaking students in middle-class communities?


What are your hopes for your English Learners this year? In the future?


How do your expectations for and beliefs about your English Learners influence how you use the language arts standards with them?

Teaching Language Arts to ELs in a Political Context


If you could wave a magic wand to create your ideal language arts program, what would it look like? What pieces of your ideal program are currently in place? What’s stopping you from creating the other aspects of your ideal language arts program now?


Do you feel supported in your literacy efforts? If so, by whom and how?


What would you say is the most difficult part of your job right now?

Teacher Follow-up Interview Protocol


In your last interview, you expressed frustration with the number of standards you are supposed to cover in a single school year. If I remember correctly, you told me that you don’t have enough time in the day to cover all of them. What do you do to deal with the fact that there are “too many standards?”


Based on our previous conversations about the standards:


Am I right to deduce that beyond their extreme length, you don’t view the standards as problematic?


At the same time, you’ve talked a lot about the external pressures you experience, particularly in the area of language arts. If the standards aren’t the problem, what would you say is?


If, beginning tomorrow, students in California were no longer:


Expected to meet academic standards, would your language arts program or approach to literacy instruction change?


Assessed with standardized tests, would your language arts program or approach to literacy instruction change?


If your school had never been labeled “underperforming,” how do you imagine your language arts instruction would be different?


I’ve noticed that when you describe how you plan instruction, you often talk about analyzing the curriculum you’ve been asked to teach, and then modifying it by applying your own knowledge about effective teaching for your students.


Have you always planned in this way? If so, why? If not, why have your planning practices changed? Have you received particular training that supports you to plan in this way?


Is there something beyond your formal training that supports you to plan so strategically?


I’ve also noticed that your teaching is very explicit. For example, you regularly tell your students why you are teaching a particular lesson and emphasize the lesson’s (or skill’s) authentic purpose.


Have you always incorporated a rationale and the authentic purpose into your lesson delivery? If so, why?


If not, why have you now begun to incorporate this practice into your instruction?


Does the explicit delivery of your instruction reflect your approach to instructional planning? Please explain.


During my last visit, we talked about your struggles to meet the needs of the EL 1s and 2s in your class.


Has this been a consistent struggle for you?


Has the educational reform climate had any impact on your capacity to serve these students?


How would you define or describe “academic excellence” or “advancing student achievement”? How do you define “success” for your students?


You have described a number of challenges involved in teaching.

a. Given those challenges, why do you choose to keep teaching?

b. Why do you remain at this school site?


Do you think your teacher preparation adequately prepared you to teach in this educational/political climate?


If so, how? What did they provide that supports you to teach in this climate now?


Given your experience working with ELs in this climate, what recommendations would you make to teacher education programs that prepare teachers to work with culturally and linguistically diverse students?

Principal Interview Protocol


How would you describe your philosophy of teaching? What do you believe “works?”


How would you define “literacy”? How do you think students become literate?


What are your goals for students’ literacy development? How do you determine these goals?


Are there any [theoretical] principles that guide your views about language arts instruction and language acquisition? If so, what are they?


What is the best or most effective way of teaching English to second-language learners, in your professional judgment?


Describe a language arts lesson (that you have observed) that you considered excellent. Why do you believe this lesson was exceptional?


Describe a language arts lesson that you found fault with. What were the shortcomings of this lesson?


How do you think teachers should assess EL students’ progress in language arts?


How do you think teachers should use the information gathered from students’ assessments?


Tell me what you know about California’s language arts standards.


What role do the language arts standards play in your school?


Do you view the standards as congruent with or divergent from what you know about language learning and literacy? (If they are divergent, do you still encourage the teachers in your school to use the standards in their language arts instruction? If so why?)


Describe the relationship between your school and the district office, your school and the state.


How do you view the role you play in these relationships?


Do you feel supported by the district and/or state? Why or why not?


Describe your relationship between you and your teachers.


How do you think teaching students at your school differs from teaching white, native English-speaking students in middle-class communities?

Focus Group Interview Protocol


Tell me what you know about California’s language arts standards.


What role do the standards play as you design and deliver your language arts instruction?


How do you feel about using the standards? Do they help you? Hinder you?


Do you view the standards as congruent with or divergent from what you have learned about language acquisition through teacher education and professional development?


If they are divergent, do you still use the standards to guide your language arts instruction? If so, why? In what capacity do you use them?


If they hinder you, how does this make you feel about your students? Yourself as a teacher? Yourself as a professional?


From conversations I’ve had with other teachers, I am beginning to think that the standards aren’t the problem. Rather it appears to be the specific type of enforcement of them by the tests that are creating difficulty. Would you consider that to be a true statement?


Do you feel supported in your efforts to teach language and literacy? If so, by whom? How?


How do you handle the possible mismatch between what you want to teach and what the state/district/school wants you to teach?


If you could wave a magic wand to create your ideal language arts program, what would it look like? What’s stopping you from creating your ideal language arts program now?


If you could revamp teacher education so that teachers would be better prepared to work with English Learners in a standardized context, what recommendations would you make? What would you say is the hardest part of your job right now?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 1, 2011, p. 133-180
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15991, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 10:30:31 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools

Related Media

Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

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