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Teaching to and Beyond the Test: The Influence of Mandated Accountability Testing in One Social Studies Teacher’s Classroom

by Jacob Neumann - 2013

Background/Context: The nature of the impact of state-mandated accountability testing on teachers’ classroom practices remains contested. While many researchers argue that teachers change their teaching in response to mandated testing, others contend that the nature and degree of the impact of testing on teaching remains unclear. The research on the relationship between testing and teaching in social studies follows this pattern. For example, some researchers argue that mandated testing fosters a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to teaching social studies. Others, however, contend that factors such as teachers’ personal beliefs about social studies and about what learners need to know are equally, if not more, determinative influences on teaching as are testing pressures.

Focus of Study: This article presents an extended and fine-grained analysis of the influence of state-mandated accountability testing on one social studies teacher’s classroom practice.

Research Design: Grounded in the narrative inquiry tradition, this case study spans approximately two and a half years of fieldwork, including approximately 110 days of observations of one eighth-grade U.S. history classroom.

Conclusions: The findings from this study shed light on the problems and frustrations that one teacher faces when confronted with a testing apparatus that limits her instructional time with students and an accountability exam that emphasizes a “bare bones” approach to content. While no generalizable conclusions are intended to be drawn from this study, the data presented in this article nonetheless add support to the viewpoint that while state-mandated accountability testing does influence classroom teaching, teachers’ beliefs about subject matter and their goals for students play an equal, if not larger, role in shaping their classroom practices.

After decades of research, the nature of the impact of state-mandated accountability testing on teachers’ classroom practices remains contested. Many researchers argue that teachers change their teaching in response to mandated testing (e.g. Barksdale-Ladd & Thomas, 2000; McNeil, 2000; Smith, 1991; Vogler, 2002, 2008). Yet, other researchers contend that the nature and degree of the impact of testing on teaching remains unclear (e.g. Cimbricz, 2002; Firestone et al., 2002; Grant, 2001, 2003). Some researchers maintain that teachers’ views on subject matter and on learners, as well as local schooling contexts, play a role in shaping teaching practices that might be as or more powerful than testing influences (e.g. Cimbricz, 2002; Grant, 2001; Jones, Jones, & Hargrove, 2003). Most researchers, however, claim a deleterious impact of testing on classroom teaching (e.g. Barksdale-Ladd & Thomas, 2000; Gaylor, 2005; Jones et al., 1999; Smith, 1991; van Hover & Pierce, 2006; Vogler, 2005, 2008).    

The research on the relationship between testing and teaching in social studies follows this pattern. For example, Vogler and Virtue (2007) argue that mandated testing fosters a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to teaching social studies. Grant (2001), on the other hand, contends that factors such as teachers’ personal beliefs about social studies and about what learners need to know are equally, if not more, determinative influences on teaching as are testing pressures.  

In this article, I present an extended and fine-grained analysis of the influence of state-mandated accountability testing on one social studies teacher’s classroom practice and thinking about curriculum. A number of research questions frame this study: How did mandated accountability testing influence this teacher’s teaching practice and thinking about curriculum? What was the primary influence that shaped her teaching? From my previous experience as a classroom teacher and a field experience supervisor for teacher education students, I knew that mandated testing in Texas had a popular notoriety for encouraging simplified teaching. Would this be true in this particular classroom, or would the teacher teach for depth and critical understanding?

While important research has been conducted on the relationship between teaching and testing, much of that research was published 5, 10, or even 20 years ago. Given the continued growth of mandated accountability testing, it seems necessary to take a current look at the impact of testing on teaching. Most studies of the relationship between teaching and testing in social studies utilize either wide-scale survey data (e.g. Vogler, 2002, 2008), exclusively interview data (e.g. Segall, 2003), or observational and interview data covering a single instructional unit (e.g. Grant, 2001). This article, by contrast, examines one specific context and draws from over two years of weekly observational data as well as extensive interview data.

Two main findings are presented in this article. First, this study sheds light on the problems and frustrations that one teacher faces when confronted with a testing apparatus that limits her instructional time with students and an accountability exam that emphasizes a “bare bones” approach to content. Second, while no generalizable conclusions are intended to be drawn from this study, the data presented in this article nonetheless add support to the viewpoint that while state-mandated accountability testing does influence classroom teaching, teachers’ beliefs about subject matter and their goals for students play an equal, if not larger role, in shaping their classroom practice (e.g. Cimbricz, 2002; Grant, 2001).  

In constructing this narrative inquiry of one teacher’s classroom, I first introduce the participating teacher and the school context in which she works. Second, I describe the research methodology, both in terms of its theoretical framework and its on-the-ground mechanics. Third, I outline the school accountability context in Texas and its position within the teacher’s classroom. Fourth, I present readers with a longitudinal view of Margaret’s teaching from which to begin to analyze the relationship between testing and teaching in her classroom. Lastly, I analyze that relationship in light of themes that emerge from examining the relevant data and discuss conclusions about the relationship between teaching and testing within this one classroom.


I entered Connors Middle School¹ in Fall 2009 as a new assistant professor interested in studying teacher knowledge within social studies contexts. I was particularly drawn to eighth-grade U.S. history because I was interested in studying teacher knowledge in relation to mandated accountability testing (eighth grade is the only middle school year for which Texas mandates a standardized social studies exam). Connors was recommended by my college dean because of its reputation for academic quality and its inviting faculty and administration. Connors is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school with approximately 1,000 students in grades six through eight. Connors is located in a mid-sized city in the southern part of Texas, near the United States’s border with Mexico. During the timeframe of this study, Connors was 88% Hispanic, 8% White, 3% Asian, and 1% Black. While many students speak Spanish as their first language, most students are proficient in English within the school context. But because of the school’s proximity to Mexico, and because of the cross-border interconnectivity of the region, it is not uncommon for teachers to have students newly arrived from Mexico who have zero background knowledge of U.S. history and who possess only a rudimentary (if that) knowledge of English.  

Nonetheless, Connors actively stresses high student achievement. At the time of this study, Texas divided accountability ratings for schools (based on passing rates of the state-mandated exam) into four categories: failing, acceptable, recognized, and exemplary. Connors advertises its school-wide rating as being “recognized” since at least 2007 (the earliest year the school lists). The school also advertises a number of academic awards and recognitions on its website. For example, Connors lists itself as being on the 2008 Texas Business and Education Coalition Honor Roll. In 2007, it was named by Texas Monthly magazine as a “top performing public school in Texas for two years in a row.”  

I was interested in forming a research relationship with the teacher in the study, Margaret Rhodes, in part because she is the school’s senior U.S. history teacher but mostly because of her passion for teaching and for history and for the welcoming enthusiasm she expressed for my joining her classroom. Margaret has taught for a total of over 37 years and has taught eighth-grade U. S. history for 22 years. Margaret has taught at Connors for the past 12 years and has served as a mentor to other teachers on the staff. Even with all of her experience, however, Margaret still tries to improve her teaching by learning new history content and new ways to teach. For example, she has spent the past few summers involved in a grant that offers U.S. history teachers workshops with history professors at the local university and takes participating teachers to visit historical places such as Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and Washington, D.C.


In terms of its theoretical framework, this longitudinal case study is grounded in Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin’s work in narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Connelly & Clandinin, 1990). The goal of narrative inquiry is not to abstract people’s experiences for generalization. Instead, narrative inquiry is “concerned with the meanings people construe of their lived experiences in context” and with understanding and representing those meanings in their—as opposed to the researcher’s—terms (Craig, 2009, p. 1039). In this tradition, “story forms both the source of information through storytelling as well as the vehicle for interpretation and reinterpretation of experience” (Craig, 2000, p. 13). Following this emphasis on story, this article takes the form of a narrative reconstruction of Margaret’s teaching as it analyzes the stories she tells within and about her own teaching: stories Margaret and her students live and tell in the classroom, stories Margaret is compelled to live and tell in the broader school context, stories Margaret told to (and sometimes lived with) me, and stories about those stories that I (with Margaret’s help) reconstruct in this article.

This paper also draws from a second narrative conceptualization, that a teacher’s “personal practical knowledge” (Clandinin, 1986) operates within and is shaped by the “professional knowledge landscape” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1995, 1996) where that teacher works. Personal practical knowledge “is knowledge that reflects the individual’s prior knowledge and acknowledges the contextual nature of a teacher’s knowledge. It is a kind of knowledge carved out of, and shaped by, situations” (Clandinin, 1992, p. 125). Teachers’ personal practical knowledge is lived within professional knowledge landscapes that shape what counts as “effective teaching, what teachers know, what knowledge is seen as essential for teaching and who is warranted to produce knowledge about teaching” (Clandinin & Connelly, 1996, p. 24). In this paper, I explore how Margaret’s personal practical knowledge of teaching is influenced by the structures, dictates, and pressures found within the professional knowledge landscape of her school.

Because “narrative explanation derives from the whole,” this paper tries to convey a broad picture of this particular classroom and this particular teacher, while acknowledging the subjectivity of the researcher in interpreting events (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990, p. 7). Throughout this study, I took several steps to hedge against my own subjectivity and help insure the trustworthiness of my representation and analysis. First, following Craig (2004), I tried to move “discretely on the school landscape” to allow Margaret’s knowledge to become revealed in her terms (p. 1230). Further, I drew from Connelly and Clandinin’s (1990) claim that “it is common in collaborative ventures to . . . bring written documents back to participants for final discussion” (p. 11). They argue that through this collaboration, “the two narratives of participant and researcher become, in part, a shared narrative construction and reconstruction through inquiry” (p. 5). Thus, in writing this article, I repeatedly shared drafts of the article with Margaret, both as a member check and to help deepen my analysis. Lastly, I use raw data from interview transcripts throughout this article, offer examples of handouts that Margaret gives to her students, and include an extended transcription of Margaret’s teaching, within an appendix. Including this data illustrates and supports my representations and analysis by allowing readers to see and evaluate examples of raw data for themselves.

In terms of its on-the-ground mechanics, this study spans approximately two and a half years of fieldwork (the 2009–2010, 2010–2011, and part of the 2011–2012 school years) in one eighth-grade U.S. history classroom from a larger, and still ongoing, longitudinal study within this school and this classroom. During that timeframe, I conducted approximately 110 days of observations, visiting one class period one to three days per week. On each day of observation, I had short, five-to-ten-minute, informal conversations with Margaret before and after class. Within classroom observations, I took participant-observer notes and made audio recordings of regular classroom activities. In notetaking, I tried to keep track of the nature and substance of teacher and student discourse, the nature and form of instructional activities and presentations, and influences on Margaret’s teaching, as well as discourse and activities specifically related to mandated testing.  

Additionally, I conducted four semi-structured interviews with Margaret, three lasting approximately 45 minutes and one lasting approximately one and one half hours. Interview questions were not sequentially organized, nor were they created at the outset of the study.  Instead, questions were generated by reflecting upon emergent data from my observations and conversations with Margaret as the study progressed. For example, Margaret would often share a thought, concern, or observation during our conversations before or after class about which I would ask her to expand and elaborate. At other times, I would ask her about specific classroom occurrences, for example, about a comment she or a student made in class or about a specific instructional strategy she used. Still other interview questions would connect to out-of-class events that impacted her teaching.  


Beginning in 1980, Texas has progressed through four versions of mandated statewide accountability exams: the TABS (Texas Assessment of Basic Skills) from 1980–1985, the TEAMS (Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills) from 1986–1989, the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) from 1990–2002, and the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) from 2003–2011. In the 2011–2012 school year, Texas began phasing in a new iteration of mandated exam, the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness). According to the Texas Education Agency (2010), each subsequent exam builds upon its predecessor in terms of scope and complexity. At the time of this study, Texas was in the final two years of its fourth standardized exam, the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills).

Eighth-grade students in Texas take mandated accountability exams in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies. During the timeframe of this study, the reading and mathematics exams were high-stakes, in that students needed to pass both tests to advance to the next grade. The social studies and science exams, however, were not required for eighth graders to advance to ninth grade. Nor did the exams impact students’ course grades. Thus, no high stakes for students were attached to their social studies test scores. According to Margaret, the different stakes create a lopsided school-wide emphasis on reading and math, sometimes to the detriment of science and social studies. Note Margaret’s response when asked about the stakes for students in the history exam.

Jacob: What were the stakes for students in history for the last two years? Was there anything?

Margaret: No. And here’s the other thing. So [students] come in and say, “We were told it doesn’t count . . . ” I actually had a kid fail it who said, “They told me not to worry about it. It doesn’t count.” So, how do you counteract that? In a sense, you don’t, because it’s the reading and the math that determine whether or not they go to the next grade level. So, it’s skewing things.

Some researchers have noted that teachers can feel pressure from standardized testing, not due to consequences and rewards, but simply because that testing is mandated (Grant, 2006; Vogler & Virtue, 2007). Additionally, of course, many teachers across the country are pressured by school administrators regarding accountability scores. Because of No-Child-Left-Behind-related concerns over meeting “adequate yearly progress,” Connors administrators are pressured by district-level administrators to maintain high test scores, especially concerning what are called “sub-group” scores and the numbers of “commended” scores. As in many schools across the country, these pressures are passed down the line to teachers.

In this case, Margaret feels pressed on two sides: the emphasis the school places on the mathematics and reading exams causes some students to neglect the social studies exam, sometimes even justifying that neglect by claiming that “it doesn’t count.” Yet, social studies teachers are still pressured by local administrators to maintain high test scores because all subject scores count towards the school’s state accountability rating. In the interview excerpt below, Margaret describes an example of pressure from school administrators during the first year of the study regarding her students’ TAKS scores. This excerpt illustrates some of the pressure Margaret feels from school administrators and her frustration with a system that limits her instructional time with students (which will be discussed in depth later in this article).

Jacob: What kinds of pressure do you personally feel?

Margaret: I think they come in . . . for example, Dr. Martinez [the principal] . . . they want each subgroup [of students] to have at least 70% passing. We missed it by two kids, one subgroup. So he came in and said, “What’s this? Why did you not get that?” And I told him, because we’re not able to pull those kids in anymore. The focus is all on English and math, especially math. And I just said, we do the best we can with what we have. We certainly want to improve it. But, yeah, they’ll call you to task with it. They say, what’s up with that?


Before examining the relationship between teaching and testing in Margaret’s classroom, I offer a longitudinal outline of Margaret’s teaching in the hopes of providing readers a fuller sense of the structure of her classroom. This section describes teaching structures and practices that commonly fill her classroom and that I repeatedly observed in the two and a half years I spent there for this article. The descriptions that follow are recreated using field notes of classroom observations and the many informal conversations I had with her before and after each observed class period.

Perhaps like most veteran teachers, a consistency inhabits Margaret’s classroom practices. While she does not follow a fixed daily routine, regular patterns nonetheless frame her teaching. Approximately 70% of her instructional time with students is “teacher-centered” in nature and is primarily allocated for conveying to students the large amount of information that is contained in the state history curriculum and will be covered on the state accountability exam. During a typical class period, regardless of the specific content, Margaret begins the class by orally reviewing and querying students about the material from the previous day. She then selects a student to read aloud from the textbook and, while that student reads, periodically interrupts the reading to expand upon particular points. When finished reading, the student (or sometimes Margaret) then selects another student to continue reading, and so on. The pattern of students reading the textbook aloud with periodic interruptions by Margaret lasts for perhaps 20 minutes. (An appendix is included at the end of this article that provides excerpts of one of these lecturing/textbook reading sessions.)

Margaret incorporates this reading into her broader lecture, which might be more aptly described as a wandering story about the content at hand. That is, Margaret does not so much give students a formal lecture as tells extended stories about the content they are studying. Here Margaret expands and deepens the material just read. The textbook is not the arbiter of depth in the classroom; she is. Margaret uses the textbook only to present basic information to students, information that she then stretches and expands through the stories she tells about that material. Her focus here is on causal relationships and relevance. She wants students to understand history as a chain of action and reaction and wants students to make meaningful connections to the material being studied. While lecturing/storytelling, Margaret always displays to students pertinent pictures, documents, and other relevant artifacts. She believes that these visuals can help students to better grasp the historical reality of the material discussed.

Immediately after the textbook reading and lecture, students record notes—usually in the form of either a graphic organizer or a list of study/review questions—into a spiral notebook. Spirals, as they are called, are an integral part of the class. Besides containing graphic organizers and review questions, students use their spirals for almost every aspect of the class, from pasting relevant pictures to writing personal observations to reporting extra-credit investigations. Not a day in class passes that students do not use their spirals.

Margaret’s testing and review procedures follow this fact-based approach. All of the regular course tests in her classes use objective questions: matching, multiple-choice, and the occasional fill-in-the-blank. The content in these questions directly reflect the content that Margaret believes will be on the end-of-year accountability exam. Before tests, Margaret usually conducts students through review games that reinforce the facts previously covered. One commonly played game is the “looping game.” The looping game simply consists of index cards containing one question and one answer, which are distributed to students (one per student). One student begins by reading the question on her card, to which another student with the correct answer printed on her or his card will call out that answer and then quickly read the question listed on the other side of the card. Students proceed through this question and answer pattern until all cards have been read. This review game is played for time, which is then written on the whiteboard for all classes to see.

Approximately one week before TAKS, Margaret begins a six-day-long review session. Margaret rarely mentions TAKS during the rest of the school year, but these six days are devoted exclusively to preparing for the exam. While Margaret organizes this review around a number of activities, the most important purposes are to help students remember the information covered during the school year and to help students learn how to think about the exam. A major component of the review is revisiting themes that were studied earlier in the year and grouping seemingly disconnected facts into larger thematic categories.

In addition to these more “teacher-centered” practices, a host of other “student-centered” activities supplement Margaret’s teaching. Because of her emphasis on relevance and connection, Margaret uses a wide variety of more open-ended, divergent structures and practices that help her students to relate to the material being studied. I will discuss several of these in turn.

One practice Margaret frequently uses is what she calls an “Act it Out” (Neumann, 2011). An “Act it Out” is a short play or skit that dramatizes some historical practice, concept, or event. These plays/skits might simply be five-minute, on-the-fly demonstrations of the different fighting styles of British soldiers and American Indians during the French and Indian War, or they might take the form of longer productions that, for example, dramatize the major events of the 1642 English Civil War to help students understand its impact on colonial development. Often these “Act it Outs” utilize costumes, props, and a variety of speaking parts for students. Margaret typically uses “Act it Outs” as a type of Socratic exercise in which she directs the action and engages students in discussion. Other “Act it Outs” I witnessed in Margaret’s classroom have included such topics as Lincoln’s assassination, the Triangular Trade Route (about the origins and mechanism of the Atlantic slave trade), the Constitutional Convention, Marbury v. Madison, Tudor history, and taxation without representation.

Margaret also incorporates debates into her teaching to help students understand particularly difficult concepts. These debates are not brief asides during lecture but are large productions that can take an entire class period. One debate, what Margaret calls “Freeland v. Leaderland,” and which she employs when teaching about the Constitutional Convention, compels students to wrestle with the reasoning behind forming a government. In this activity, Margaret presents students with a choice between two environments, signified by two different sides of the classroom. On one side lies “Freeland,” a “state of nature” in which students are beholden to no laws at all, nor any responsibilities towards others. On the other side of the classroom sits “Leaderland,” where students’ safety and well-being is not threatened, but also where the students have no freedom of dissent against the rulers. Students must decide which side of the room to go to (to Freeland or to Leaderland) and then try to verbally coax students on the other side of the room (in the other domain) to join their side. In trying to convince their classmates to join their domain, students must argue to each other what they see as the merits, and the faults, of the two paradigms.

Aside from debates and “Act it Outs,” Margaret routinely creates other activities that allow students in-class, hands-on exploration. Two of these activities are what she calls an “artifact shuffle” and an activity that contrasts the cottage industry with the factory system. In the artifact shuffle, Margaret distributes four bags of assorted items to four groups of students. Each bag contains replicas of items (i.e., playing cards, tools, whistles) that different types of people (soldiers, doctors, etc) might have carried with them during the mid 18th century. It is students’ task to infer what type of person would have used and carried those items. In the cottage industry/factory system activity, however, students do not infer anything but rather experience a hint of how those different manufacturing systems operated and the nature of the goods each produced. In this activity, Margaret divides the classroom in half, with the cottage industry on one side and the factory system on the other. Both systems make “stargliders” out of straws and paper plates, but they approach the task quite differently. Students in the cottage industry sit down to work and carefully build entire stargliders one at a time. Students in the factory system, on the other hand, must stand up to work and make only one part of the process, all the while being told to hurry up by Margaret as she paces around them, pressing them to work faster. After the activity, the students examine the quality of the stargliders produced by both sides and debrief both what they experienced and what insights they gained about the contrast between the two systems.

A final important construct within Margaret’s classroom is individual and group projects, which she assigns throughout the year to allow for in-depth exploration of given concepts, such as liberty, independence, and political parties. Early in the school year, students individually make pieces of a “liberty quilt,” which Margaret stitches together and hangs on a wall in the hallway outside the classroom. Here, students elaborate what freedoms are most important to them. In the project about independence, students individually create their own declarations of independence. Students create their own documents, often using quill and ink and aging the paper to look antique, that declare their independence from the problem of their choice (violence, discrimination, homework, dress code, etc). Students articulate their positions while also incorporating elements of Jefferson’s original document. In the political parties project, students collaborate in groups to form their own political parties. Each group must name their party and articulate a specific platform. Students present these parties and platforms to the rest of the class.


Like most social studies teachers, Margaret faces multiple demands inside her classroom. Foremost, she must ensure her students have a broad factual understanding of U.S. history and are well prepared for the state accountability exam. Yet, she also wants to create opportunities for depth, critical thinking, and choice for her students. Craig (2004) refers to this tension as the effort to feed two dragons: the pressures of mandated accountability exams and the desire to incorporate more authentic teaching and learning in the classroom. According to Margaret, “it’s kind of become, and I go back to this a lot, it’s about doing what they want you to do, the state, the local, but also protecting the integrity of the classroom.”

In analyzing interview transcripts and observation fieldnotes, I combined narrative inquiry with open coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) to identify three major influences on Margaret’s teaching that emerged from the data. These influences are what I call the “testing apparatus,” the format of the accountability exam, and Margaret’s personal beliefs about students and about the subject matter. Each of these influences plays an essential role in shaping Margaret’s personal practical knowledge of and approach to teaching. The following sections discuss each of these influences in turn.

The Testing Apparatus

A common practice among school districts, at least school districts in Texas, is to create and administer to students an assortment of practice exams in the effort to help prepare them for the actual state accountability exam. These practice exams are often called “benchmark” exams. In the accountability context in the school district in which Margaret teaches, students are given multiple benchmark exams each year. By the time the actual accountability exams come around, the eighth-grade students Margaret teaches have taken at least two benchmark exams for each of the four tested content areas (reading, mathematics, science, and social studies).  

I call this battery of exams, both practice and real, the “testing apparatus.” When combined with the fact that the mandated U.S. history exam her students take is administered in mid April, the two to three weeks of instructional time that Margaret loses due to the testing apparatus leaves her approximately two-thirds of the school year to prepare her students. This all occurs in 45–54 minute daily class periods (the time increased during the second year of the study) that are periodically interrupted for the usual school functions, such as assemblies, fundraisers, and class pictures.

Alluded to above in the section on the accountability context in Texas, this testing apparatus exerts considerable influence on Margaret’s teaching by compressing the instructional time she has available and limiting her range of instructional options when working with her students. Indeed, at the beginning of the second and third years of the study, Margaret repeatedly expressed to me her struggle to decide which and how many in-depth activities to incorporate into her teaching: she wants to provide opportunities to meaningfully engage in ideas but feels constantly pressed for time. As she puts it, the testing apparatus “doesn’t impact what I teach, but it does impact how I teach it. I have a wealth of training and materials and I’ll sometimes think, can’t do that this year, not enough time. You have to pick the activities you think will give the most value.” Because of this time pressure, Margaret feels forced to spend less instructional time on activities that she thinks allow students in-depth exposure and analysis of important concepts and events and more instructional time making sure course content is adequately covered. Margaret claims that “I would like to do more debates. I would like to give them more time to talk. Time to kinda let it settle in. But because we move so fast, there’s no time to do that in class.”

This time pressure causes Margaret to worry frequently about covering all of the required content. Indeed, one of her biggest fears for her students is that they will be tested on material that she did not cover in class.

Jacob: You talk about being concerned with coverage.

Margaret: Yeah, because . . .

Jacob: . . . because I have all this stuff to get through . . .

Margaret: . . . otherwise students will be tested over material that they were never taught.

Margaret admits that this concern with time and coverage causes her to sometimes, as I once heard her put it in class to her students, “teach like an auctioneer.” As she explains it, “A lot of it is teacher-directed. Because it’s all new material and I have from here to here to get it done, I end up having to be the disseminator of information.” This concern is apparent in her reflections about the 20% increase in class period length from the first year of the study to the second (the number of class periods in the school day was reduced so that the length of each class period could be increased from 45 to 54 minutes).

Margaret: Last year I wasn’t used to the time change. But having last year under my belt, I’m going to be able to do more. I was so trained for that 45 minutes and worrying if I was going to make it there or not.

Jacob: That 20% increase in time is big.

Margaret: It is. There are so many things that I look at and I do and I wish I could do differently. But I’ve gotten better at letting [students] explore and putting them into groups and stuff like that. So now that I’m more comfortable with the timeframe, I feel like I can be more confident about—you know, there’s that fear that you’re not going to cover, I hate that word, but otherwise they’re going to be tested on something they haven’t been taught.

This is not an argument against accountability, for Margaret repeatedly expresses support for accountability. She claims that she “firmly believes” in holding teachers accountable for their students’ learning. But she voices consistent exasperation at the testing apparatus that robs her of valuable instructional time. In the excerpt below from an interview taken during the 2010–2011 school year, I quote Margaret at length as she discusses these frustrations.

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

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

It should be noted here that in the final member-check interview in the Spring of 2012, Margaret informed me that since that 2010–2011 interview was conducted, she is back to losing almost three weeks of instructional time.

The Format of the Exam

The format of the exam is another important influence on Margaret’s teaching. The eighth-grade U.S. history TAKS, the state-mandated assessment in effect for most of this study, consists of 48 multiple-choice questions. This exam covers the broad range of information (from early exploration to the Civil War) included in the state-mandated U.S. history curriculum for eighth grade, what are known as the TEKS, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. In analyzing the 2008 exam (at the time of this writing, the most recently released version available for teachers to review), I found that a small percentage, only 15%, of the test questions do not necessarily test content knowledge but can be answered by using various reading skills. The bulk of the exam, however, approximately 41 of the 48 questions, requires students to employ specific content knowledge about a wide range of information. For example, question 22 asks students to identify the reason Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense. Question 23 then asks students to identify the direct result of the Battle of Vicksburg. And question 24 tests students’ knowledge of various treaties pertaining to the United States’s westward expansion. The rest of the content-based questions follow this pattern of assessing students’ knowledge of random, isolated, and decontextualized facts.

According to Margaret, the format of the exam influences her thinking about how she structures her teaching to reach her students. Here Margaret divides students into three loosely defined categories: students whom she knows will pass, “bubble kids” who “could go either way,” and students “at the bottom” whom she just hopes pass.

The testing forces you to teach to the bottom. When you have bright kids, you

know that they are going to pass. They read the book; they answer the questions. So, you’re really just forced to go to those bubble kids, the kids who could go either way. And the lower ones. The ones at the bottom, you just hope they pass.

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

Figure 1


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

Margaret: Yeah, it kind of does.

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

Margaret: Snap-shots.

Jacob: Boiled-down information.

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

Jacob: There’s a connection there?

Margaret: Ummhmm.

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

Margaret: Done.

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

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

Another example of this paring down of content is found when Margaret teaches the Civil War. She splits her teaching of the war into two parts. Before TAKS, Margaret spends five days covering the five years of the war (counting 1861 and 1865 as complete years). For each day/year, she lectures to students over a handout listing what she sees as essential information. For 1863, for example, the handout lists cartoon-style drawings and representations of the first U.S. Red Cross, Clara Barton, the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and the Gettysburg Address (see Figure 2). In class that day, Margaret lectures on this information and shows numerous pictures from an assortment of books. She also has students read aloud from the textbook about selected information listed on the handout. Later, she shows students Lincoln’s copy of the Gettysburg Address and plays an audio recording of the speech.

Figure 2.


This stark emphasis on basic facts contrasts greatly with her approach to the Civil War immediately after the TAKS is administered. After the exam, she has her students study the war in more depth. For example, students perform a play on Lincoln’s assassination; she lingers over longer class discussions about connections between the Civil War and Reconstruction; and she assigns students a “museum project” about the Civil War, in which students work in groups to make a museum exhibit about an aspect of their subject of choice about the war (students select a range of topics, from women spies to specific battles to Civil-War-era fashion). She spends an equal length of class time on the two halves, but each part takes a drastically different approach to content and to learning.

This emphasis on “bare bones” content is also apparent in the regular course tests she gives to her students throughout the school year. These tests reflect the form of the questions asked on TAKS in both content and structure.

Jacob: The tests are where all the factual information comes in.

Margaret: Ummhmm, just facts: matching, multiple-choice, occasionally fill-in-the-blank. I give up to 30, 35 . . . their final exam was 50 questions. Their eyes get really big. I get hammered a little bit for it, because I’ll make flashcards for about half the test, because those are things that I want them to remember. We’ll play a little game out of it. And somebody said, “You’re giving them the test.” And I said, in a sense I am, because these are facts I want them to remember.

Margaret’s personal beliefs about history and about students’ learning

The third major influence on Margaret’s teaching are her personal beliefs about history and about students’ learning. Margaret certainly cares about her students’ scores on the state accountability exam, and she does all she can to help them be successful on it. She even claimed during our first interview that “because the students take their test results with them, I put that first.” But this claim needs parsing, because when I later asked Margaret to list her top three goals for her teaching, she listed TAKS results third, behind 1) having “a classroom where the kids come in and feel comfortable, secure, and accepted” and 2) wanting students “to come out with an understanding of the importance of history, where they fit in history, the context of history.” Only after those other two priorities did Margaret list a measured emphasis on TAKS scores, stating, “I want [students] to be successful, because the bottom line is that’s how they are graded for this year and whether I agree with it or not, the state puts so much pressure on that.” Note how Margaret tempers this emphasis even more when she further comments that

Yes, the test scores are nice and all, but, basically, at the end of the day, did that kid leave your room better off for having been in there? I want [students] to come out to be compassionate people. I want them to use history to help them figure out where their place is and other people’s places are in reference to them. And to become good people, good citizens.  

As indicated by these comments, Margaret’s beliefs about the value of history are a strong influence on her teaching. In fact, Margaret made clear to me that she would teach much of the information she has to teach as dictated by the state accountability exam even if no accountability exam existed. For example, even though Margaret feels compelled by the exam to strip down historical information to the “bare bones,” this does not mean that she does not believe in the value of learning basic facts. Indeed, as she indicates in the interview excerpt below, Margaret believes that knowledge of historical facts is an essential component in learning history.

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

Nor would Margaret choose to leave out much of the information that she currently teaches. During one of our interviews, Margaret explained to me why, if given the choice, she would continue to teach the majority of the historical content that is covered by the accountability exam.

Jacob: Would you leave things out if you could, in terms of coverage?

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

Jacob: So, maybe some small things you would leave out.

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

Margaret’s beliefs about student learning involve connecting this factual information to what she repeatedly calls “why questions.” In the following interview excerpt, Margaret connects a question I asked about depth in her teaching to helping students become invested in “why questions.”

Margaret: Where do I see the depth?

Jacob: Yes.

Margaret: I see the depth, where, like when we did Freeland v. Leaderland, when we did the Valley Forge “would you have stayed, would you have gone?” It’s when we did, like the boardroom, where [students] had to debate, “Should we take the job or not?” When they write reflections in their spirals. Things like that. When we did the starglider activity, that really, they were able to see what it was like to work in the mills and how that differed from the South and why people moved. You get that, “why was the North . . . ?” Well, if you get into the “whys,” it stays with you. If you can make it emotional, if they invest in it emotionally, and they understand the “why” of something, that’s half of it right there.

This emphasis on “why questions” sits at the core of Margaret’s beliefs about teaching. For Margaret, “why questions” don’t only help students generate critical thinking and nuanced historical understanding; they help give historical knowledge its fundamental meaning. Margaret further explains this core belief in the following interview excerpt.

To me, it comes back to if your curriculum is really sound and if you’re getting kids to understand the “whys.” It’s like when I had the kids do the difference in the fighting styles and they understand that and the “why” behind it, then so much of it is, “Oh, I get it.” The triangular trade route too. Once they get that basic, fundamental difference . . . the people in New England, they’re not keeping [slaves], but they’re sure making money off of them, and the South is, you know, “well they need them.” Once you go into it, because it’s a very complicated issue, when you try to make them understand it . . . really, a lot of Southerners were very good to their slaves and a lot of Northerners were jerks towards Blacks. That’s a mature concept to try to get across to eighth-graders. So, if you start off from that and build from that, then they understand the “why.” And to me it’s always been the “why.”


As the previous sections illustrate, mandated accountability testing clearly influences Margaret’s classroom. Because the testing apparatus significantly reduces Margaret’s available instructional time with students, she feels compelled to move more quickly than she would prefer through course content, reducing the number of opportunities for promoting depth and critical thinking in the classroom. And because the format of the exam emphasizes factual recognition of a wide range of decontextualized information, Margaret emphasizes a “bare bones” approach to presenting historical information to her students.  

Yet, Margaret claims that mandated testing also helped produce an unexpected benefit in making her teaching more focused and efficient. While teaching at a school serving a low-income population before coming to Connors, Margaret searched for strategies to help her successfully play the accountability game and satisfy her desire to deepen her students’ learning. Through this search, Margaret discovered a tool that she claims completely remade her teaching and allowed her to satisfy both of these goals. This simple tool is the spiral that is briefly discussed in the “Longitudinal view of Margaret’s teaching.” The spiral helps Margaret to better meet the accountability demands by serving as a focal point for organizing course content. Once she could more efficiently meet the accountability demands, Margaret could develop the time and structures in her teaching to help satisfy her other more complex learning goals for her students. As Margaret explains it,

TAKS isn’t all bad. I think it forced me to look at the curriculum that I first started off with, which was read the book, answer the questions, read the book, answer the questions. And I remember thinking, there has to be a better way to do this. This is not good enough. And when the spiral was introduced to me, I was thinking, ok, lottery time. And it was partly a function of TAKS.

Margaret clarified for me in our final member-check discussion that her reference here to TAKS refers not to this specific iteration of the state accountability exam, but is instead used as a symbol of accountability exams in general, as she has experienced them.

Thus, while mandated accountability testing has clearly had a multifaceted influence on Margaret’s teaching, what is less clear is the degree to which testing shapes the structure and content of her teaching and her personal practical knowledge about teaching in comparison to her personal beliefs about students and subject matter. As we have seen, Margaret would largely teach the same way as she currently does even without accountability pressure. Of the many practices and structures within Margaret’s classroom, only the form of the tests she regularly gives to students and the pre-TAKS review directly connect to the state accountability exam; indeed, except for the pre-TAKS review, Margaret rarely mentions TAKS at all in class with her students. Because of TAKS, Margaret does feel compelled to condense her teaching and emphasize “bare bones” facts. But Margaret already valued covering the bulk of the information on the state history curriculum, and she already stressed the importance of establishing a broad factual foundation from which to scaffold more complex thinking by her students. As Margaret puts it, instead of letting the accountability exam restrict her teaching,

I have found a way to do the things that I really love in spite of the test. I couldn’t just sit there and read . . . You can’t just read it and answer questions. Certainly, I do that, because [students] need to be able to do that . . . it’s about balance. I really think, more than anything, it’s about balance.

While the “teacher-driven,” factual push consumes most of her instructional time with students, Margaret tries to create balance by engaging students in a number of hands-on, thought-provoking learning activities, such as the “Act it Outs,” the debates, the hands-on activities, and the projects she assigns to students. Each of these activities allows students the time, experience, and flexibility to deeply engage with the ideas at hand. Even though I estimate that these activities take up perhaps only 30% of her instructional time, and not nearly as high a percentage as Margaret would like, they are not afterthoughts. Instead, these activities serve as pedagogical highlights, so to speak, that extend and complicate the factual foundation that Margaret establishes with her students.

It is difficult, then, to isolate any one or two factors as clearly most influential over Margaret’s teaching. As Grant (2001) notes, a wide assortment of factors external to testing pressures and teachers’ views of subject matter and learners, such as personal biography, local organizational structures, and the school district policy climate, can all contribute to the content and instructional decisions teachers make. Even within the factors identified and analyzed in this paper, no one factor clearly stands out as more important and influential than the others. Instead, each factor links to the others to form a complex web of influence helping to guide and shape Margaret’s teaching.


Two main conclusions can be drawn from this narrative reconstruction and analysis of Margaret’s teaching. First, while they are illustrative rather than generalizable, the findings of this study run counter to much of the literature on teaching and testing, which presents mandated accountability testing as completely detrimental to rich, meaningful teaching and learning. For example, Smith (1991) holds that “because multiple-choice testing leads to multiple-choice teaching, the methods that teachers have in their arsenal become reduced, and teaching work is deskilled” (p. 10). Vogler (2005) cites a U.S. History teacher who claims that

I use the entire academic year preparing my students for the United States history subject area exam. My choice of instructional delivery and materials is completely dependent on preparation for this test. While I agree with the principle of student/teacher/administrator accountability, by making the goal of my United States history course the ability to pass the state test, I’m afraid that all meaningfulness and relevancy to history is being lost on my students (p. 19).

Van Hover and Pierce (2006) ask if deep coverage of key historical issues and the development of historical thinking can be reconciled with mandated accountability exams that test superficial factual knowledge of a range of topics (p. 47).

During my two and a half years in Margaret’s classroom, however, I have consistently observed a skilled teacher work to meet the accountability demands imposed on her by the state and the local school district, as well as her own learning goals for students. Like the teachers in Grant’s (2001) study, Margaret also pushes past a “just the facts, ma’am” (Vogler & Virtue, 2007) approach to teaching. But, as is common among teachers, she still feels the need to make selective choices about how to allocate her instructional time with students (e.g. Brown, 1992; Darling-Hammond & Wise, 1985; McNeil, 2000). This study, then, illustrates how the goals of teaching to and beyond a mandated accountability exam can be reconciled and do not necessarily represent inherently conflicting interests but rather compete for time in the classroom, as policymakers create conditions that squeeze teachers’ instructional options.  

Second, this study makes clear that although mandated accountability testing has an important and complex influence on Margaret’s teaching, it is by no means the principal influence. Instead, Margaret’s teaching seems to be equally, if not more, guided by her belief that students need a rich understanding of history as well as a broad factual foundation from which to develop higher-level thinking. Thus, this study offers support for the argument that the influence state-mandated testing has on classroom teaching depends on how teachers interpret state testing and let it guide their actions (e.g. Cimbricz, 2002; Grant, 2001; Segall, 2003). Even though mandated accountability exams can cause teachers to feel pressured by test-related time and coverage concerns, they are not necessarily limited to “multiple-choice” teaching. Perhaps ironically, if teachers are to engage their students in deep and meaningful learning, to teach beyond the test, rather than becoming deskilled, they will need to use all of their skills to negotiate the hurdles that mandated testing can erect in the path of those learning goals.


1. The names of the school, the teacher, the students, and the school’s principal are pseudonyms.


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Appendix: Transcript excerpts of a typical classroom session of Margaret’s lecture combined with students reading from the textbook.

The following transcript excerpts from January 18, 2012 are selected from a 20 minute session of lecture combined with students reading aloud from the textbook. This raw transcript data is intended to offer readers a nuanced picture of this component of Margaret’s teaching and to help readers “hear” her voice inside the classroom. This transcript begins a few seconds after Margaret introduces the topic. The purpose of this lecture is to introduce the concept of judicial review and the court case Marbury v. Madison.   

Margaret: All of the cases would have to go through the lower courts and the appellate courts, and the Supreme Court gets to decide what they want to hear. Now, there’s a bunch of things coming up, and I’m going to bring up the Wikipedia thing. There’s two bills. I believe they’re in the Senate. One of them is called SOPA and the other is called PIPA. Basically they are bills to stop online piracy. The people who are against this, for example, Wikipedia, say that they don’t believe it’s going to fight online piracy and it’s going to shut them down. This is a first amendment issue, so we’re going to be talking about that later. And then somebody has to decide, does that follow the first amendment or not? People have to interpret the Constitution. The Constitution was written a long time ago, right? So they have to read that and decide, what did they really mean by that? Because did any of this stuff exist?

Choral response from several students: No,

Margaret: Emily, did any of this stuff exist back then? No. So think of all the laws they’ve had to write dealing with things that weren’t even a thought, weren’t even a thought back then. So the problem is who makes sure that the laws that are passed follow the Constitution? The federal laws. And that was done in a case called Marbury v. Madison. So I want to get started on that today, so that tomorrow we can do a play. So go to page 89. This is an old book and these pictures are outdated [referring to pictures of Supreme Court justices which she shows to the students]. Many of these people have either died or retired. And they’re all kind of old, aren’t they?  

Here Margaret begins by connecting the topics under consideration to issues currently in the news about which students might be (and in this case are) familiar. Margaret’s lectures take the form of storytelling that often drifts into stories that at first seem only loosely related to the main topic. In the next excerpt, Margaret picks up the thread of a story about the court case Plessy v. Ferguson that she began a few moments earlier.

Margaret: A Supreme Court decision is called an opinion. But it’s not like the flavor of the month. An opinion is a law. Once they pass an opinion on something, that’s the law. So when they decided that it was OK to separate people because of their race, Plessy lost his case. And for another 60, 70 years, they practiced segregation. Because the Supreme Court is the highest court.

Student: What year was it that he lost his case?

Margaret: It’s in the book. I believe it’s . . . 1890 . . . 6?

Same student: What was his punishment?

Margaret: I don’t know what his punishment was. He did break the law; he might have had to pay a fine. He might not have gotten jail time, because it wasn’t a serious offense . . . but it was still . . . it’s like when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. That was illegal; that was against the law. We’re going to be talking about all of that at the end of the year. I can’t find the date for Homer, but we’ll look for that. This judge right here, Thurgood Marshall, it was challenged in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education. A 7-year-old girl, she was black, wanted to go to a white school two blocks from her house, and because of segregation, she was forced to go to a school a mile or two away. So they took the case, and this time the judges ruled for the little girl and her family. They ruled that schools could no longer segregate children based on their race or their color. And boy, was that, that was something. We’re going to be learning about that later. So, he was a pivotal lawyer, was pivotal in getting that done, and that changed everything. These people make big decisions, and they’re not the decisions that maybe affect your day-to-day life: how many days of school you have, how old you have to be to drive. But they take on the big issues: freedom of expression, religion, all of that. Now, Hanna, would you read the purpose of the lesson for me, please.

Hanna: [Reading from the book, We the People.]

Margaret: I’ve already done this with y’all, but I get kind of tickled when I’ll say, how many of you have heard of George Washington? Hands go up. Ben Franklin? Hands go up. Thomas Jefferson? Hands go up. John Marshall? Who? Yeah . . . who is that? I hope we have time to watch a cute cartoon about him. He was called the Babe Ruth of the Supreme Court.  

In the above excerpt, Plessy leads Margaret to Brown, which leads her back to John Marshall. While seemingly disconnected, Margaret uses each of these stories to illustrate to students the power of Supreme Court decisions and the importance of the Court throughout American history. In the final excerpt below, Margaret pulls the lecture/storytelling back to the initial topics of judicial review and Marbury v. Madison. Also note Margaret’s comments immediately after Pablo and Evon read from the textbook. In both comments, Margaret is expanding upon material each student read.

Margaret: Now, Emily, will you read about judicial review for us?

Emily: [Reading from the book]

Margaret: So if you got a check for a million dollars, you’d be excited, right? But what if it had null and void stamped on there?

Students: [Sounds of complaining. One student says, “I’d white it out.”]

Margaret: Yeah, that wouldn’t be so cool. But the Supreme Court has the power to stamp null and void on laws passed by state governments, very clearly stated. Yes . . .

A different student reads from the book: [Reading]

Margaret: So, Article VI clearly says states cannot violate federal law. But what about Congress and the president? Pablo, would you read “Judicial review over acts of Congress?” It doesn’t say that in the Constitution, so they gave that to themselves.


Pablo: [Reads from book]

Margaret: It was over a job. Some of the most important things happen over something kind of random. See this guy right here? This is Marbury. So, let’s see, Evon, would you read please?

Evon: [Reading from book]

Margaret: It would be like if the last day in office, Barack Obama made several important appointments for the Democratic Party and left them on his desk and said, “Deliver these appointments,” and it never happened. And if it was Mitt Romney who beat him, and he came in, would he fill those appointments?

Students: No.

Margaret: No, he’s going to give it to his own party, right? He’s going to say, you snooze you lose. So, what happened was, Jefferson walks in, sees the papers, and says, “I’m not giving it to this guy.” He’s a Federalist. So, he sued. And he goes directly . . . he looks at the Judiciary Act and he found a loophole in the Judiciary Act that allowed him to go directly to the Supreme Court. Now, does his case follow either one of these guidelines that we’ve been talking about?

Students: No.

Margaret: No. So the part of the Judiciary Act that allowed him to skip right over here, was that legal?

Students: No.

Margaret: No. According to the Constitution, these are the only two kinds of cases that can go directly to the Supreme Court. His was not that kind of case. But when Congress wrote the Judiciary Act, they made a mistake. They allowed some of these cases besides these to go directly to the Court. And so now there’s going to be a good news, bad news kind of thing. Yes . . .

Student: What does that say, the two cases where limited?

Margaret: Where limited to original jurisdiction? Remember when we talked about diplomats, foreign diplomats, that kind of thing? If it involves a foreign country, usually it’ll go straight to the Court, because we don’t want an incident turning into a bigger incident. And then, highest state supreme courts. For example, when a court said keep counting the votes in the 2000 election and the Supreme Court said, Don’t, stop. So, Marbury’s case really didn’t follow these guidelines. There wasn’t much in the Constitution about the Judicial Branch, but it was very clear about that. So, John Marshall is Jefferson’s cousin, and he is the exact opposite, except for he dresses a lot like Jefferson . . . and I read a story . . . he’s chief justice of the Supreme Court, and every time a state or Jefferson tried to give powers to the states, the case would get to the Supreme Court and John Marshall would give it right back to the federal government. Every time a state challenged the federal government, John Marshall would take it away and give it back to the national government. So for about 30 years, he actually formed the powers of our national government, and it drove his cousin crazy. Because the president, you’re only president for four years, he went two terms, eight years, but in the Court, you’re there for life, right? So his own cousin is trying to pass laws giving the states more power and the Supreme Court shoots it down every time. So what do you think? Is Marbury going to get his job?

Students: [Most say no; a few say yes.]

Margaret: So, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is he tells Marbury, and there’s John Marshall [pointing to a picture], you got your job. The part of the Judiciary Act that allowed you to go to the Supreme Court is illegal. And his opinion declared it null and void.

A student: The job?

Margaret: Not the job, the part of the Judiciary Act. The Judiciary Act was passed by who? This is tricky. [A moment of silence.] Well, doesn’t Congress write laws?

Students: Yeah.

Margaret: And signed by the president at the time. But they made a mistake in that they allowed certain kinds of cases to go to the Supreme Court, when in the Constitution it says very clearly which kinds of cases go. [Here the bell rings to end the class]. Tomorrow we’re going to do a play. I think that’s going to help you a lot and help you answer the last question.

In explaining the specifics of the case, Margaret makes comparisons to this current election year, using President Obama and Mitt Romney as examples. This is another example of Margaret’s efforts to use explanatory examples that are familiar to students while explaining complex topics. At the very end of the excerpt, Margaret alludes to a play, written by another teacher at Connors, that students will perform in class that will further help to clarify this topic.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 6, 2013, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16974, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 3:12:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Jacob Neumann
    University of Texas-Pan American
    E-mail Author
    JACOB W. NEUMANN is an assistant professor in the Curriculum and Instruction Department at The University of Texas – Pan American. His current research interests are in teacher knowledge, education foundations, and critical pedagogy. His most recent work has been published or accepted for publication in Educational Theory, The Educational Forum, and Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue.
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