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When the Achievement Gap Becomes High Stakes for Special Education Teachers: Facing a Dilemma with Integrity

by Heinrich Mintrop & Robin Zane - 2017

Context: A fundamental assumption behind a high stakes accountability system is that standardized testing, proficiency goal setting for demographic student subgroups, and sanctions would motivate teachers to focus on students whose performance had heretofore lagged. Students with disabilities became one such subgroup under the No Child Left Behind system. Special education teachers faced a novel pressure: to radically narrow the achievement gap between their students with disabilities towards proficiency or incur sanctions and corrective action for their schools and districts.

Purpose: The study uses the concept of “integrity” to analyze public service workers’ agency in situations of strain or crisis. Integrity consists of four overlapping domains of judgment: obligations of office, personal integrity, client needs, and prudence.

Research Design: The study is an in-depth multiple case study of seven teachers; 21 structured interviews, and 17 observations, augmented by a number of informal contact that included invitations to observe teacher meetings and conversations with school administrators.

Findings: The study found that the special education teachers faced a true dilemma. Teachers adopted contradictory solutions -- some embraced the new demands, some rejected them. Both seemed equally untenable. The study reveals salient dimensions of this dilemma: how teachers related to the external moral obligation to equalize, what they chose to ‘see’ when they viewed the achievement gap; how they explained, or explained away, their agency in narrowing the gap; how they strategized and muddled through with instructional maneuvers to make the gap go away; and what they regarded, and guarded, as fields of professional responsibility and autonomous decision making.

Implications: What kind of accountability system would enable a collective dialogue among special education teachers in which high expectations, keen diagnosis, instructional expertise, internal responsibility for individualized learning gains, openness to external challenge, and attention to results would be the poles of the discussion? At the core, such an accountability system would validate the professionalism of the most expert teachers and avoid activating their defensiveness and demoralization. It would guard against middling expectations by making the performance of a wide spectrum of high and low performing schools or special education departments transparent. It would stay away from high pressure attached to unrealistic goals in order to discourage teachers from developing blind spots about their students, or acting with mere compliance and expediency. It would motivate a dynamic of student-centered continuous improvement in reference to a common standard, but also to low-stakes metrics that may guide iterative improvement.

The replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) by the U.S. Congress in 2015 was accompanied by an intense debate among advocates for Special Education students about the wisdom of lifting some of the federal oversight over school accountability for students with disabilities that the NCLB act of 2001 had established. Under NCLB, all students—even those who had been previously excluded—were required to participate in large-scale assessments, and schools were required to include the results in annual state accountability reports (Commission on No Child Left Behind, 2007, p. 14). Students with disabilities were not only included in district-wide standardized testing that public schools administered annually, but for the first time, schools could be sanctioned if this subgroup did not meet established annual criteria for progress, as defined by a numerical target, called Annual Yearly Progress (AYP).

Prior to the passage of NCLB, the academic achievement of students in special education was measured almost exclusively by progress on the goals and objectives prescribed in students’ Individual Education Programs or IEP (Gartin & Murdick, 2005; McLaughlin & Rhim, 2007)1. Some special education students did participate in statewide testing prior to NCLB, but participation in large-scale assessments was a decision made by the student’s IEP team, and participation rates were low (Koretz & Barton, 2004). Special education teachers considered themselves successful and competent when their students met their IEP goals, but there was a great deal of subjectivity and forgiveness in the measurement of outcomes, and norms of privacy meant reporting of student progress was limited, with achievement information considered the business of the IEP team (Defur, 2002). With NCLB, all but the most severely disabled students were expected to participate in large-scale, standardized assessments, demonstrate measurable progress, and eventually reach grade level norms. A participation rate of at least 95 percent of students with disabilities was mandated (Vannest, Mahadevan, Mason, & Temple-Harvey, 2008), and with the NCLB sanctions regime assessment results of the “children with disabilities” subgroup could now affect the standing of the entire school.

Under ESSA, many of the accountability measures mandated by NCLB are still in place. All students are still expected to meet standards, and, similarly to NCLB, only a very small percentage of students are permitted to be assessed with alternative assessments. But states now have greater flexibility in how they intend to enforce standards. At this point, it is not clear how states will respond. Much is still in flux, but the federal pressure of producing adequate yearly progress for all subgroups has been lifted. Some advocates for students with disabilities argue that with the new regulations, particularly the return of accountability to the states, districts will again be allowed to ignore special learning needs of a traditionally marginalized subgroup. Others contend that we have learned from the experience with NCLB that a one-size-fits-all accountability system did not serve the needs of special education students well and that the new, local control emphasis of ESSA will afford parents a stronger voice in improving educational opportunities for students with disabilities and allow schools to tailor special education programs, services, and interventions to fit students’ needs2. In some sense, this debate repeats arguments that were already advanced at the time NCLB was passed. At that time, some argued that NCLB’s sweeping requirements would result in students with disabilities benefitting from high standards and access to the general education curriculum (Thurlow & Johnson, 2000). Others feared that the high standards were inappropriate and the consequences unfair, and that undifferentiated and narrowly defined educational outcomes would do a disservice to student populations traditionally disenfranchised (Defur, 2002).

The logic behind NCLB and the mandate to include students with disabilities3 was that higher teacher expectations would lead to “increased access to the curriculum, increased participation in the state assessment system, and higher individual student achievement levels” (Defur, 2002, p. 204). The literature on educational accountability, however, tells a vastly different story. Already in 2009, six years prior to the repeal of NCLB, one of the authors of this article copublished an article with Gail Sunderman in which they argued that the failure of NCLB, with its heavy emphasis on sanctions-driven accountability, was a predictable failure (Mintrop & Sunderman, 2009). For a detailed review of the accumulated research evidence we refer the reader to this article. Here we briefly summarize the main patterns.

NCLB-type accountability was a failed approach because it lacked effectiveness, legitimacy, and practicality. As to effectiveness, contrary to expectations, achievement gaps, as measured by low-stakes assessments, did not narrow in substantial ways. As to legitimacy, there can be no question that schools and districts under pressure responded forcefully. They emphasized test-related curricular content, focused on students at the statistical cut-off points (bubble kids), and in many instances adopted prescriptive programs that teachers were expected to implement with fidelity. The result was that indeed scores on high stakes tests rose, but there is no indication that the quality of instruction or students’ classroom experience rose in tandem. If anything, curriculum became more constricted and pedagogy more controlling (Au, 2007). In the eyes of the profession, legitimacy of the system remained low, though its equity goals seemed to have been widely accepted as an aspiration. NCLB-type state systems, at least as long as they maintained high performance expectations through rigorous assessments, turned out to be highly impractical. A telltale sign of dysfunctionalities was the high number of schools and districts in corrective action, many of them missing their targets for special education students (Eckes & Swandow, 2009; Mintrop & Trujillo, 2006) a number that by far outpaced the states’ intervention or improvement capacity.

It is too soon to tell if the less-stringent ESSA regulations that largely return the enforcement of accountability goals back to the states will avoid NCLB’s dysfunctionalities. What is, however, clear is that accountability systems that operate with standardized tests, performance targets, and the high pressure of sanctions, as NCLB-type systems did, inherently create tensions between standardization and differentiation, especially for schools and teachers whose job it is to educate students “below standard,” that is, all those students for whom the system’s proficiency targets are a great stretch. Strains are compounded for teachers in special education, a field in which the gaps between system expectations and actual student performance can be especially wide (McLaughlin, 2000) and in which occupational traditions of differentiation rub uneasily against the system’s push for standard and equal treatment. The case of NCLB-type accountability is instructive as this system accentuates these strains. The purpose of the study is to explore this strain through in-depth case studies of a number of special education teachers working in varied organizational contexts. Looking at special education teachers during this period throws into sharp relief the quandary special education teachers find themselves in when they face standardizing performance demands attached to high stakes.


While there is a small but growing body of literature on the intended and unintended consequences of NCLB’s high-stakes assessment and accountability measures on students with disabilities (Koretz, 2001; Koretz & Barton, 2004; Koretz & Hamilton, 2000; Langenfield, Thurow, & Scott, 1997; McLaughlin, 2000; McLaughlin & Rhim, 2007), there is a paucity research on the effects of these systems on their teachers. In an early, pre-NCLB, longitudinal study looking at the impact of state accountability on students with disabilities in inclusive classroom settings, McLaughlin found that the new performance standards “created a sense of urgency and various degrees of frustration among teachers about how to approach this difficult task” (McLaughlin, 2000, p. 25). The Educational Policy Reform Research Institute (EPRRI) explored the impact of mandating districts to include students with disabilities in their AYP. The results of their five-year mixed-methods study investigating the perceptions of district personnel in four states and eight school districts reveals a complex picture. Responses were both positive and negative, ranging from the belief that opportunities to learn and academic performance of students with disabilities had improved, but also that students would not be able to meet the standards despite the efforts of schools and teachers, the implication being that schools with high numbers of students with disabilities would risk identification as “failing schools” (Nagle & Yunker, 2006).  

The literature on general education teachers, working in low-SES schools and encountering accountability pressures, documents a similar disagreement. We have accounts of positive turn-around and negative distortions (e.g., Anagnostopoulos, 2006; Au, 2007; Booher-Jennings, 2005; McNeil, 2000; Mintrop, 2004; Reyes, Scribner, & Scribner, 1999; Skrla & Scheurich, 2003). Given this wide spectrum of responses across studies, it stands to reason that teachers’ beliefs and commitments substantially influence whether the accountability system produces educationally desirable effects, or distortions are avoided. High stakes accountability systems of the NCLB type, designed with the expressed purpose of equalizing outcomes, may make accountability systems irrefutable for schools and school districts, but competing beliefs, convictions, and professional traditions and the encompassing struggle to engage students in learning, regardless of official goals and preferences, simply do not go away. Quite the opposite, resistant realities of children’s cognitive and emotional needs, enduring value traditions, and claims to professional autonomy and agency may create dissonances between accountability obligations, teachers’ professional values, and student needs.  

How these dissonances are conceived will largely depend on the occupational culture in which teachers, and especially special education teachers, carry out their work. The literature on special education as a distinct work place is sparse. Artiles (2003) points out that in order to become a teacher in special education, a candidate must enroll in a graduate level teacher-training program that specializes in teaching children with disabilities. Many state approved teacher credentialing programs require two full years of graduate studies that include a period of student teaching apprenticeship, although in recent years, there have been efforts to streamline the requirements needed to become a special education teacher by reducing course work and increasing students’ hands-on, classroom experience under the auspices of a district assigned teacher-mentor. The common work place structure and extensive training of special education teachers lay the groundwork for the occupational culture of special education. Shared cognitions, attitudes, norms, and values form in the process that may become taken for granted assumptions (Schein, 2004) about performance expectations, responsibilities, the nature of ones’ clients, or the appropriate repertoire of strategies for the task at hand; the taken for granted assumptions become a way of life (Artiles, 2003, p.180).

Until as late as 1975, public schools were not required to educate or include students with disabilities in their programs or services (Sullivan, 2010). Part and parcel of the larger, historical effort to create educational equity, the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act “enhance(d) access and participation for students considered different” (italics in original, Artiles & Bal, 2008, p. 5). The development of this parallel system of special—and separate—education for children with disabilities has not, however, automatically translated into equal opportunities. Questionable practices, such as vague disability criteria, ongoing segregation from general education, adoption of ineffective interventions and poor student outcomes (Sullivan, 2010), make the assignment of students with disabilities to separate special education tracks a dubious project.

“Special education has historically faced the dilemma of affirming or ignoring difference” (Artiles, 2003, p. 193). On the one hand, accepting the state’s accountability demands as worthy and realistic goals and pushing students with disabilities towards grade level norms may denote preparing children with disabilities for life in a competitive world. On the other hand, accepting the new accountability measures may imply a denial of real differences and respect for children with differences. Similar to general education, value conflicts between efficiency, equality, child-centeredness, and professional autonomy may abound (Kliebard, 1987).  

Elsewhere, the second author of this paper has developed the concept of integrity to capture how educators cope with these quandaries under pressure of accountability (Mintrop, 2012). In a nutshell, common sense notions of integrity conjure honesty, sticking to one’s principles, courage in the face of challenges, and wholeness in the face of fragmentation, conflict, or fragility. We say that educators as individuals or collectives have integrity when they: (a) strive for agency in pursuit of valued internal purposes, (b) establish coherence or consistency among values, word, and deed, (c) acknowledge compromise, rupture, and conflict with honesty and truthfulness; (d) evaluate action in light of perceived client needs; and (e) address institutional role obligations in the face of multiple values and moral demands of the institution.  

The concept of integrity has a moral and psychological dimension. A person with integrity affirms their core values and commitments within a normative frame while integrating, giving unity, coherence, or identity, to the manifold and conflicting demands placed on the self ). Morally, integrity is about developing a sense of right and wrong, discerning a course of action, and avowing to stay true to principles even when the environment does not reward the conduct (Carter, ; McFall, ). Integrity always involves risk and potential rupture or disharmony between the self and their social environment. Psychologically, integrity is about a sense of self-worth rather than clear normative standards. Steele) defines integrity as a sense of adaptive adequacy in the face of environmental forces that threaten individuals’ sense of self-worth, for example as a result of negative judgments, sanctions, and the like. Integrity is restored with images that affirm “the larger self” ). These images may not necessarily address the specific situation, nor may they be able to actually resolve the material threat. In fact, individuals may “tolerate specific inconsistencies with no attempt at resolution,” (p. 268) as long as a broad balance, a workable whole is maintained.

Because educators in their work settings act out a public role in a public office that is defined by institutional task structures and values, we are not only concerned with personal integrity, but also with public integrity. Expanding on Dobel (1999), public integrity for school administrators and teachers consists of four overlapping domains of judgment: obligations of office, personal integrity, client needs, and prudence. Obligations of office do not inhere blind obedience or abdication of personal responsibility, rather it requires careful weighing of the purposes and consequences of an institutional structure, goal, program, or policy in light of one’s own commitments and in light of what one perceives as one’s clients’ needs. But office holders, such as teachers, are expected to comply with laws and regulations, i.e., they are obligated to take authoritative regulations and intentions seriously.  

Officials are in their offices, principals in their schools, and teachers in their classrooms in order to achieve results. Given the increasingly impersonal, disintegrative, and amoral functioning of much of modern institutional life, integrity in the public realm needs to be augmented by prudence, the practical wisdom, skill, and forethought to marshal the forces and means needed to accomplish outcomes. Prudence is distinguished from expediency. For the latter, any means are welcome that produce effects in the moment; for the former, the choice of means, with sometimes needed ethical compromises, is oriented towards the longer term and with an outlook on a broader picture. Integrity is shot through with pragmatic but prudent politicking, managing, and strategizing (Honig & Hatch, 2004).

Figure 1. Integrity Force Field


Using the concept of integrity as central to this study, we assume that new, bold, and high pressure accountability demands pose a situation fraught with value conflicts and difficult strategic choices for special education teachers that they must cope with to feel cognitively consistent and morally whole in their daily work. To achieve integrity, they may activate interpretations of accountability obligations, especially with respect to equity and the realism of performance goals. They may activate perceptions of student needs, especially with respect to explanations of the gap and the strategies to narrow it. They may order value hierarchies, commitments, and responsibilities as professionals, especially with respect to child-centered or system-centered values. And they may finally fashion a sense of agency in day to day work by crafting a coherent story from these system interpretations, client perceptions, and value orderings in selective ways and acknowledging that loose ends may require prudence and compromise. Thus, we investigate how accountability demands obligate teachers, how they perceive the wide achievement gaps in terms of students’ cognitive and affective learning needs, how they position themselves in this tension as responsible professionals, and how they craft or maintain integrity given expected incongruities and inconsistencies.

Studying a person’s integrity requires the researchers to remain a neutral stance. While we as researchers may espouse a critical perspective on certain versions of accountability based on our reading of the evidence, participants in our study forge integrity in the nexus of their own values, interpretations, and experiences. For us as researchers, it was of utmost importance to be sensitive to the unique personal perspectives that form in this nexus and not constrain participants’ responses with lines of inquiry that take our own critical views for granted.    


Given how little research has been conducted on special education teachers facing high-stakes accountability, the study is exploratory. It consists of seven in-depth case studies of individual special education teachers who worked in varied organizational contexts. A multiple case study design increases the confidence to findings (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Special education teachers who taught students with mild to moderate disabilities were recruited. Students who have been designated as having mild to moderate specific learning disabilities are a large category of students within the subgroup of students with disabilities. Many typically spend at least part of their day within a general education classroom. Teachers of students with mild to moderate learning disabilities are mostly the ones whose students were required, under NCLB, to participate in districts’ high stakes accountability testing program. In addition, in the state of California, students with mild to moderate disabilities were mostly included under the state’s California Standards Test (CST) or a modified version of this test, while students with more severe disabilities were not.

An effort was made to select cases in varied contexts in order to capture a spectrum of circumstances in which special education instruction occurs. The seven teachers worked in two different districts. All seven teachers were well-meaning and engaged teachers who volunteered to participate in this study because their interest was piqued by the topic of the research. In District A, the study was conducted with three teachers at two schools, in District B with four teachers in three schools. Both districts are located in the state of California. Both districts’ special education subgroup population was about 10 percent, statistically significant at the secondary school and district levels for accountability purposes. The schools differed from each other with respect to ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. Three of the schools were located in stable middle class settings and two faced more challenges due to diversity and poverty. All schools were well-functioning. Some schools had met their NCLB performance targets overall, others missed subgroup targets, and some schools and one district missed their performance targets for special education students while the study was underway4. The relevance of these contextual conditions will become clearer in the case studies.

The first author collected most of the data. She introduced herself as a fellow special education practitioner and a person with a disability herself (see below). Repeated in-depth interviews and multiple direct observations opened a window into the lived experiences of special education teachers under high-stakes accountability systems (Creswell, 2007), beyond the surface of espoused beliefs and values (Schein, 2004). Interviews varied from open to semi-structured and from formal to informal (Creswell, 2007). Participants were engaged in three data collection cycles comprised of an initial interview, an observation, the nature and focus of which emerged from discussions during the initial interview, and a post-conference after observation. Questions for the post-observation interviews rested largely on the data gathered during observations. Observations aimed at (a) understanding how teachers operationalize their espoused beliefs and values; (b) seeing if expressed beliefs were aligned with or discrepant from observed behaviors; (c) gathering data that corroborates or contradicts information collected during interviews, and (d) generating interview questions for the subsequent cycle. All in all, 21 structured interviews, and 17 observations, augmented by a number of informal contact that included invitations to observe teacher meetings and conversations with school administrators, were conducted. In some cases, the initial interview protocol of the next cycle was collapsed with the follow-up interview of the previous cycle.

The conceptual framework for this study guided the data analysis, leading to multiple steps in the analysis. A list of initial descriptive codes and codes tied to the conceptual framework was developed. In addition, codes emerged from the data that helped in developing a thick, descriptive, within-case analysis for each case (Onwuegbuzie & Collins, 2007) and then in comparing the cases. Data analysis was facilitated by NVivo software.

Zane, the first author collecting most of the data, is a woman who is Hard of Hearing/Deaf. During the one-on-one interviews, Zane, who is a successful lip reader can, in quiet settings, fully participate in and understand conversations. In addition, interviews and conversations were tape recorded and later transcribed. For the classroom observations, Zane was accompanied by note takers to record and interpret teacher conversations, dialogue and interactions.

As a researcher and practitioner in special education, Zane had to be highly aware of her own biases. To avoid bias and ensure rigor, colleagues and researchers, among them the second author, provided consistent and critical friend feedback throughout the data analysis, interpretation, and writing process. Perpetual peer review of notes and report drafts during biweekly meetings with critical friends also served to reduce bias, identify inconsistencies in data analysis and ensure the accuracy of interpretations and findings. Data collection for this study occurred over a period of eight school months, from February 2011 through June 2011 and again from mid-October 2011 through early December 2011.


Using a case study format, this research study focused on interviewing and observing seven special education teachers of students with mild to moderate learning disabilities at the middle and high school levels. Four contrasting cases were selected for this article. Three of the four selected teachers were veteran, special education teachers, and one was a young, relatively new teacher. The four cases gave us a spectrum of committed teachers that high-stakes accountability systems would have had to reach, or win over, in order for the system to work for special education. Variations across the four cases offered differences in generations, work context, and accountability pressures encountered.

We used the concept of integrity to conceptually order the ways educators cope with performance demands that potentially upset the traditional occupational culture in special education. Integrity is not something one possesses, but something that one strives for. “Where there is no possibility of its loss, integrity cannot exist” (McFall, , p. 9). Integrity comes about when educators strike some sort of balance between four main poles: accountability obligations or demands, personal professional values and responsibilities, perceived student needs, and prudence, a shot of concern for survival. The balance renders moral and psychological integration of the self. It rests on views of reality that are, or are made, consistent with an ordering of one’s values.  

NCLB put forth the proposition that a majority of students with disabilities could and should be achieving at the same academic levels as their nondisabled peers. This call for standardizing something that appears to be exceptionally resistant to it epitomizes the discontinuity or dissonance between special education and general education. It frames the dilemma for special education teachers working in a standardizing high-stakes environment. For whatever reason, the achievement gap for special education students is especially wide and requires approaches for its closing that do not come to educators with facility. What makes this enormously challenging problem a dilemma is the fact that the remedies tried by the spectrum of educators we studied attenuate the problem in some respects, but leave much to be desired. Whether educators embrace or reject accountability demands, individualize or standardize, accept or rebel against “difference,” the problem seems just as intractable. When contradictory solutions produce similarly desirable or undesirable outcomes, one faces a true dilemma (Cuban, 2001). A dilemma cannot be solved; it needs to be coped with. This is what the four cases are all about.

Each teacher in the study is unique in how he or she copes, but across the cases we found that there were a number of salient dimensions that structure their coping: the way teachers answer to the equalizing obligation of accountability; the way they perceive student needs, subdivided into four subdimensions: the perceived gap between their students’ abilities and grade level norms, especially the way they explain, or explain away, the gap; the repertoire of instructional strategies, evident in classroom practice, that teachers develop to address the gap, and the precision with which they keenly observe their students’ cognitive and emotional needs; and finally a sense of professional responsibility and claim to autonomy with respect to system pressures.

In the following section, we present four of the seven cases. Each teacher case opens with a brief introduction and the context for teaching. We then examine how study participants related to accountability goals, perceived the achievement gap and how to narrow it, and formulated their own professional expectations and responsibilities. Throughout each case study, data gathered from interviews are supported by evidence culled from classroom observations.


After a brief overview over the seven cases, we delve into the analysis of four cases that together reveal the main contrasting patterns in crafting integrity. All seven teachers were interviewed and observed. Flo’s case was not unlike Jerry’s, both were beginning teachers. Dan and Catherine did not add anything to the picture that Stella and Joe did not exhibit. But there was a pronounced difference between the four cases chosen for this paper and the three dropped with respect to free access they granted to their classrooms, depth of reflection, openness with which they engaged with our questions, and willingness to follow up on clarifications and puzzles that arose as a result of initial data analysis.

Table 1. Characteristics of study participants by years of teaching and type of classroom    


   Number of Years                         Classroom Model






Special Day Class (SDC)*



In-depth case






 6 & 7







Grades 6–8







Grade 7








7 & 8








Grade 7







9 &10







 9 & 10



* A Special Day Class (SDC) is a class where students with disabilities receive specialized academic instruction that is separate from the general education program. SDC classes have a small number of students who may spend all, or a large percentage of their day in SDC classes. A Resource Classroom is a classroom where students with disabilities receive “pull out” resource support; intensive, small group instructional support in one or more academic subject(s) provided to promote success within the general education setting.

Since high-stakes accountability systems had been in place for roughly 10 years in the state at the time of the study, there was sufficient time for the new performance measures to have become a way of life for some teachers, a radical departure and change for others, and “the only thing they ever knew” for the newer teachers.


Stella, a veteran special education teacher with more than 20 years of teaching experience, with most of those years spent in District B, taught in sixth and seventh grade. Stella’s career began as a general education teacher in a local school district, but through serendipity and quirks of fate, she quickly, albeit unexpectedly, moved into special education. Having taught for more than 20 years, Stella’s main professional socialization took place long before high-stakes accountability measures were put in place. If the hallmark of a good special education teacher is strong compassion for students who learn differently than those in the mainstream, Stella exuded it. She extended warmth, thoughtfulness and support to her students during classroom observations. There was no down time for Stella when students were present (Stella, Obs. March 18, 2011; Obs. April 20, 2011). She created a safe, upbeat environment for learning by peppering dialogue with encouraging comments and positive reinforcement:

Good! I like that people are looking back for the answer, good job . . . can you help [student] out? Thank you. Alright I want you to touch the chapter quiz. Everyone touch it. [Student] you did a good job looking, I liked that people went back to look, good job . . . Remember this one, you are going to write your answers in complete sentences. Okay that was a long time ago, if you don’t remember, go back and look. Wow some people already know . . . I see people looking, I like it. Okay now you are going to look. Hands are going up. I love it, I love it. Keep going. Good job. I see hands and a lot of people looking. (Stella, Obs. April 20, 2011)

In Stella’s classroom, the walls were covered with motivational posters, student work, classroom rules, school schedules, and a copy of the California State Standards. Stella’s repertoire of instructional materials consisted of district-based curricula and programs. The bulk of the materials she used were made expressly for special education, modified or adapted in various ways to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Since most of Stella’s students also functioned below their grade level, she often used a good deal of her materials off-level, such as sixth and seventh grade textbooks with eighth grade students. For assessment purposes, Stella relied on a mix of formal and informal tests. In the spring, Stella said that all of her students participated in the California’s state-wide, standardized testing program by taking the California Modified Assessment (CMA). Stella did not, however, place too much importance on the CMA because she perceived it as too difficult for most of her students to read, nor did she think that the tests assessed the same information she covered in class: “I look at it. I mean I don’t think much because again I know that I haven’t taught them [the material]” (Stella, Int. February 28, 2011). A great deal of Stella’s information on student progress came from checking for understanding during classroom instruction. During classroom visits, Stella was observed checking on students’ progress constantly and noting it on her own charts: “I am all with checking, checking, checking for understanding and they do work that shows and I get it” (Int. February 28, 2011).

Accountability Demands

In District B, the assessment outcomes for students with disabilities on state tests had begun to grab the attention of district leaders, and consequently, the scores for Stella’s students came under scrutiny. While she had grown accustomed to viewing and analyzing the test scores for general education students, examining the performance of students with disabilities with an eye towards accountability was an entirely different matter. While she acknowledged the change in the district leadership’s focus, Stella remained nonplussed:

They look at them [the scores]. I mean it’s part of it for sure, because now that they have the subgroups, and then like, what is it, the significant numbers. And so now special ed is one of those groups that you have to bring up. So the state is looking at those . . . I am hearing now, may be you can do this to help bring up the scores, and maybe, you know, so now they are looking at the kids and saying you know now we have to worry about it. (Stella, Int. February 28, 2011)

Being used to be on the margins and largely left alone by the administration, Stella did not see the school leadership as overly concerned. “The special ed group is not their biggest thing to worry about” (Stella, Int. February 28, 2011).  Thus, when we first met, Stella considered the habitual stance of district and building leadership—one of basic inattention to the performance of students with disabilities—as a way of life.

Perceived Student Learning Needs: The Gap and How to Narrow It

The push for standardized instruction presented a challenge to Stella because most of her students functioned significantly below grade level, and as a result, Stella’s top priority remained focused on meeting individual student needs as articulated in their IEP goals (Stella, Int. March 31, 2011). Stella’s professional socialization had taken place long before the advent of high-stakes accountability systems and the IEP was a heart piece of her goal setting. Yet, the push for special education teachers to improve test scores meant Stella would have to embrace general education standards. She resisted the idea:   

Well, right now, I still feel like the IEP goals and objectives drive the curriculum.  So whatever their IEP goal and objective is in math, that’s what drives what I do. (Stella, Int. March 31, 2011).


Most of Stella’s students, she stated, struggled with reading, writing and math. She focused on doing whatever it took to help her students with mastering basic skills: “So the standards, yeah, they are important. . . But if they never learn to read, they are stuck, so it’s the basics for me” (Stella, Int. February 28, 2011). Stella said that she designed her instruction based on what she “really thinks they need to know” (Stella, Int. March 31, 2011). Stella explained how—in the name of student welfare—she managed to work the system:

They can't write a sentence, that’s what I need to teach them, and then improve and improve and . . . so now I write my goals, I mean they are related to the standards but lower than their grade level, but do we talk about, like the genres of writing and reading, not really, they don’t understand that but I don’t care right now.  I want them to be able to write a sentence that makes sense. (Stella, Int. March 31, 2011)

Faced with the pressure to teach to the standards, Stella operated with stealth and selectivity. She would teach to the standards and to the IEP goals:

And it [an IEP goal] can always be related to a standard, always . . . You can write it on paper, but is that really what's happening in the class? I make sure that whatever I write down on the IEP, I am doing that in the class. (Stella, Int. Feb. 28, 2011)

Despite her insistence on setting individual student goals, Stella was acutely aware of the achievement gap. Indeed, Stella was observed putting considerable effort into bridging the gap. One way she did this was by reading the textbook aloud to her students as they followed along with the text (Stella, Obs. April 20, 2011). As she explained later, although her students could not read grade level text, she wanted to be sure they had access to grade level concepts (Stella, Int. April 28, 2011). By reading text aloud, Stella had found a way to bring grade level concepts to her students who could not even read the modified textbook. This bridging practice, according to Stella, was common among teachers of students with disabilities and reflected the nuanced response of special education teachers to the new performance demands; acceptance, but only in a way that met students’ needs, i.e., on their terms.: “If they are in sixth grade we don’t really do third grade work with them. We still want them doing sixth or seventh even if the reading level is lower” (Stella, March 31, 2011).  

Stella had thought deeply about the effectiveness of the strategies she used in her efforts to bring grade level information to her students. Although not perfectly satisfied with her bridging practice, she considered it the most fitting solution because it did not compromise her beliefs or her students’ welfare. In response to the administration’s messages about changes in performance expectations, Stella knew that some of her colleagues were now using grade level text with their students. She strongly disagreed with this practice: “There’s no way – there’s no way that the kids could read that [grade level text] and understand it.  So, yeah, I mean it’s a dilemma for sure” (Stella, Int. March 31, 2011).

Professional Responsibility

Although Stella put a good deal of effort into addressing the new performance demands emanating from a standards-based environment, she did not, ultimately, see strong potential for her students to reach grade level proficiency. She presented a blunt assessment of the impact learning disabilities can have on student achievement:

The truth is they have learning disabilities. They can't help it, and that’s why they are in here. . . So . . . I really think also that we can't pity them and say “oh, poor you, you can't learn.” I don’t believe that. They can learn. They can definitely make progress for sure, and I don’t baby them. (Stella, Int. February 28, 2011)

Stella believed that her students would progress but not at the same pace or to the same level as students in general education. Stella gave several examples of how she saw learning disabilities limiting her students. One instance surfaced after an observation of a social studies class. Stella had been explaining the concept of westward expansion: “Sometimes, its eye opening because I think I’m being so clear.  I think I can’t think of another way to show them, to explain it. I think there’re going to get it. Then I ask or I’ll ask them a question and the answer is, I’m like wow, they missed it completely” (Stella, Int. April 28, 2011).

Stella’s perceptions were reinforced by the reactions she observed in her students when they took the state tests. While administering the state tests was mandatory, Stella turned her back on them because she considered them inappropriate for her students:

They just bomb it. They can’t do it.  And they – they’ll start out like the first – I think I said this before – the first day of testing – they’re trying so hard, and they work so hard. By the end, they’re like, screw it. I can’t do it. And the math is really hard. Even the example problems that you read to them – sometimes are too hard for them. So – and I tell them beforehand – I haven’t taught you this yet, so don’t worry about it . . . Try your best. But if you don’t know how to do it, don’t worry about it . . . we’re – we’re being – we’re asked to test you on something you haven’t been taught. So I’m pretty honest with them. (Stella, Int. March 28, 2011)

Accepting only certain aspects of accountability and accustomed to being the expert when it came to the education of students with disabilities, Stella’s expectations were grounded in her daily interactions with students and the result of her many years of experience. She insisted on having precise knowledge of the students’ cognitive and emotional needs and using a broad instructional repertoire to meet those needs. This knowledge also bounded her sense of responsibility: grade level standards ran up against the reality that learning disabilities were a biological fact.

Towards the end of the study, after the new state test results had come out, Stella related that the district was in Program Improvement. As Stella realized that her life would change, she addressed the pressures of high-stakes accountability with a directness that was not perceptible before. Although she tried to infuse the situation with her usual optimism, frustration was palpable:

But, I think it is like that 2014 pipe dream. Everybody knows that it is never going to be one-hundred percent . . . And, I feel like that is what is going to happen to students with disabilities. Unless we cheat. Right? You cannot get blood from a turnip. So, maybe it will help us. Maybe we will get, right? Lower class sizes? Probably not, because there isn’t money. Maybe we could look at it as, oh gosh, maybe we will get more support. But, we know that is not what is going to really happen. We are not going to get more aides, we are not going to get necessarily better. . . Because of the budget issues . . . Kids end up in special day class for a reason. (Stella, Int. April 28, 2011)

Stella expressed concerns that disabled students would end up feeling the brunt of the pressure: “You can’t put pressure on these guys. . . It’s harder for them to do all these kind of stuff and you know I wouldn’t want them to think, ‘Oh it’s us, and we are bringing the district down.’” (Stella, Int. June 6, 2011). She also expressed a concern for her autonomy. As a long-time special education practitioner, she felt that she was the expert who knew her students best. She approvingly stated earlier: “As special education teachers we have so much freedom” (Stella, Int. April 28, 2011). But this freedom she feared might go away, much to the detriment of students. Of this she was certain.


In facing the accountability dilemma in special education, Stella crafted cognitive consistency and moral wholesomeness in several ways. She insisted on her professional status as the expert, yet prudently made allowances to expectations that she teach at grade level. She conceded that more pressure would mean more external intrusion and more compromise. She hoped that in the end the standards would have to be changed once the “2014 pipe dream” mark had been passed. A mixture of long experience, keen observation of student needs, and the belief that there were biological boundaries that talk about goals and expectations could not make go away made her feel right. Her professional values fell squarely on the side of individual growth and care. Her insistence on sticking to her principles, such as the importance of teaching basic skills (which she considered the sine qua non) and her commitment to authenticity (i.e., using only materials and instructional methods that could support her students’ progress exactly where they were) were characteristics of a teacher committed to doing what she thought best for her students. Stella was a teacher who did not concern herself with covering the tested materials, yet explored with technical precision and detailed record keeping what instructional strategies might enable her students to go as far as she felt they might be able to go.


Reflective, articulate and thoughtful, Sami had been teaching for more than 15 years. Although she had initially intended to work with general education students, Sami soon found herself teaching students with special needs in District A, and had been in the field ever since. She described her decision as a good one: “I just realized this is where I needed to be” (Sami, Int. February 22, 2011). Sami was a resource special education teacher whose job included supporting students with their general education classwork and teaching core academic courses directly. She used a mix of regular education and special education textbooks with her students, and most of her materials were preselected by the district, which she supplemented with a wealth of resources that she had made up herself or had gathered over the years (Sami, Int. February 22, 2011). Sami followed the district’s benchmark system and used regular curriculum based tests and student portfolios to measure student progress.

The students in Sami’s classes presented her with a broad range of learning abilities. This was reflected in the various ways her students participated in the state assessment program. A few of Sami’s students took the regular state test, others took the modified version, many took a combination of both versions. For some, she saw testing as inappropriate:  

Just the fact that they are in a testing situation for a kid who is being treated for anxiety disorder . . . I don’t think that is going to measure real well what that kid can do because they are just going to be overwhelmed with the disability they are trying to deal with. (Sami, Int. Feb 22, 2011)

Consequently, she found her own testing yielded more useful information than the state tests, which she viewed with skepticism: “A lot of it is their work, their portfolios; you know how, where they’ve grown.  There might be a student who can’t add and if they can add two to three digit numbers at the end of year, that’s progress for them . . . But if I was to measure it by the regular standards out there . . . they’re nowhere on that (Sami, Int. April 8, 2011).

Sami was an intensely focused and caring professional. Her classroom was relatively small but well organized, with posters, schedules, and notices on the walls, and an array of textbooks on the shelves. Her classroom could have been an emblem of her teaching style, because Sami ran a tight ship. Moving constantly from student to student to check understanding and provide explanations as needed, Sami worked hard to make every minute count. When discipline issues arose, she attended to them so quickly and firmly that her approach to instruction appeared seamless:

I like your green. Come on in. Cool, where did you get that from? Nice! Yes, we are doing groups today. We have a lot to go over today. [Student], I need you in your seat. Whose is that? Is that yours? I need you in your seat. Put that away. Okay let’s get started, group! Yesterday we took our chapter 8 test, and I will have it back to you tomorrow . . . Okay we will start chapter 9 today . . . and [student] class is up here! Thank you. (Sami, Obs. March 17, 2011).

Accountability Demands

Sami’s responses to accountability pressures were quite similar to Stella’s in some respects and different in others. As an experienced educator at her school with a strong standing, she regarded herself as an expert, and it is from this position that she felt free to be critical of the system. When her principal reviewed student scores with the whole faculty, among them the scores of the special education subgroup, she did not feel singled out. Some of her students had done well on the state test, and she knew that a certain amount of the tested material would have to be covered in order to achieve that success (Sami, Int. February 22, 2012). Given the mixed profile of her clientele, she did feel responsible to adhere to the content of the state standards.

Perceived Student Learning Needs: The Gap and How to Narrow It

“That Asperger’s kid is probably brighter and more capable than any regular ed kid” (Sami, Int. April 8, 2011). For these students, Sami set goals that involved social-emotional skills because achieving their nonacademic goals was a prerequisite for academic success. For other students in her class, Sami designed a modified curriculum near grade level, while for still others, her goals centered on mastering basic skills. Given the wide spectrum of students Sami taught, her perception of gaps varied. Her challenge was to integrate her students’ multiple and varied needs into her curriculum. During a classroom observation in May (Obs. May 17, 2011), while teaching a math class, Sami employed cooperative learning and peer-teaching strategies. Later, she explained that this was one of the ways she bridged the gap between state standards and social emotional goals. The goal for the lesson, she stated, was having her students to “learn how to work with another person, learn from somebody else”, and find out how to “extract information from somebody else in an amiable way” (Sami, Int. May, 2011). But she expressed puzzlement:

We don’t have the same standard. That’s what special education means. We don’t work by the same standards that the regular education does. So why the standardized test? (Sami, Int. April 8, 2011)

Here we have individualized goals that a student is supposed to meet. But yeah, they’re supposed to also meet what all the general population is meeting. I mean, it is just kind of a big contradiction to me. I do not understand it. (Sami, Int. Feb 22, 2011)

When asked how she reconciled this apparent contradiction she responded: “I wouldn’t say I reconcile, I just kind of do what I do, and let it be, because there is no way that my kids can, I can’t have the same expectations, or they wouldn’t be with me.” (Sami, Int. Feb, 22, 2011). Sami, like Stella, had confidence in her expertise, keen understanding of her students’ individual needs, and instructional practices honed through long experience. But unlike Stella, she organized her work more strongly in reference to grade level standards and the need to narrow the gap by adhering to the general education curriculum. Her stance was not principled. She “just kind of did what she did.” She had found what worked in muddling through her “not understanding.”

Professional Responsibility

Given the range of her students’ abilities, Sami set her expectations for student success on a case by case basis. The evidence gathered in her day to day, and year by year, interactions with students shaped how she viewed her own standards:

It varies from year to year. Some years I have students that I say, “Wow.” You know after [a] year of my class, they’re just going to fly and they do. But some years, you have students who like, “Gosh, this is not okay for them.” (Sami, Int. April 8. 2011)

Sami saw a possibility for narrowing the achievement gap for students with disabilities, but this possibility was based on the characteristics of individuals. It was not programmatic:

I think the achievement gap is, we can close it to an extent for a student with disabilities depending on the level of . . . I have students in resource who, by the end of junior high, they don’t need a resource program anymore. . . So okay, technically they’ve closed that achievement gap. . . But then there’s a student who’s you know, high functioning Asperger’s, some things are never going to change for that student . . . they do have potential. I agree with that completely but their potential is different, or it’s differently achieved than the regular ed child. (Sami, Int. April 8, 2011)

Not unlike Stella, she paired long experience, expertise, and an elaborate repertoire of instructional strategies with the belief that learning disabilities were placing a biological limitation on student achievement:

Well, it’s because of the nature of what we’re dealing with . . . Some of these are disabilities that they cannot overcome. An achievement gap for an African American student can be overcome . . . And we can. It’s doable . . . I think they [the state] are not looking at the whole picture . . . So, the state is putting on blinders in a sense to say, “No, we’re still going to throw everybody into the same pot and you should be able to work with this kid.” (Sami, Int. April 8, 2011)

Over the months of the study, accountability pressures were mounting in her district, but the messages reached special education teachers obliquely. There was little discussion about goals or test scores per se, but district administrators had adopted a new program for special education that they wanted implemented right away, mid-year. For Sami, this was irresponsible: “The district has now introduced a new . . . program to us which we are to start yesterday even though we didn’t have all the books and things like that . . . Well, mid-year, when my kids are at a certain place and I cannot start a new program with new textbooks, three fourths of the year is already gone. You know I have my kids on a certain track” (Sami, Int. April 2011). In Sami’s eyes, the decision was poorly planned and detrimental to her students’ learning process: “For me to stop now, start something new right from the beginning and take them all the way through in this new supposedly successful method is, you’re not thinking about the child” (Sami, Int. April 8, 2011).

Disagreeing with the district’s directive and trusting her instincts, Sami decided to start the new program the following fall. Although some of Sami’s colleagues complied with the district, no one appeared to challenge her decision. She was willing to accept the new program, but on her own terms. She dug in, but was also resigned:  

Yeah, I get all of it from a personnel level right.  It’s there, it’s there, absolutely, it’s there. You know, there is always a fear of, my god, you know what if . . . Yeah and some days it’s like, well go ahead and fire me. I don’t care, you know, so it just is, and that’s because you are pressured that you say that, because you get so frustrated. (Sami, Int. May 13, 2011)


Sami crafted cognitive consistency and moral wholeness in ways that were similar and different from the previous case. Like Stella, Sami insisted on her professional status as the expert. Given the range of students with disabilities that she was serving, grade level standards and state tests played a larger role in her work. Like Stella, she paired keen observation of her students’ individual learning needs and a broad instructional repertoire of meeting those needs with the certainty that there were biological limits that she as a teacher, laboring under the pressures of a standardizing accountability system, could not easily overcome despite her strongest wishes. Sami did not take a principled stance in understanding her dilemma. She just did what she did, implementing an instructional program that she had built up through trial and error. Only when the district demanded to dismantle her workable program and replace it wholesale with a prescriptive alternative did she balk. She did not resist, she did not try to save her approach. She simply insisted on a reprieve for a semester so that her students’ learning trajectories would not be disrupted. She reserved that little resistance to herself, took the risk, and got away with it, prudently banking on the traditional position of special education on the margins of administrators’ attention.


Jerry stands in sharp contrast to Stella and Sami in many ways. Young, passionate and well-spoken, Jerry was in his fifth year of teaching special education students in the same district as Stella. Unlike Stella or Sami, who knew they wanted to become teachers and then quickly found their way to the field of special education, Jerry had not planned to become a teacher. His career path took an unexpected turn in college when he met a professor who believed in him (Jerry, Int. Nov. 1, 2011) despite his academic troubles. Motivated by this experience and the desire to give something back, Jerry decided that he wanted to “work with kids.” He returned to school to become a special education teacher:

I started thinking about myself in school and how if I was growing up in today’s educational environment, I’d be in special ed . . . and it was amazing to me because I felt that in my educational experience I didn’t find that teacher who believed in me until I was in college. And so, it just all came together and I started doing well in all my other subjects. I want to be that guy for these kids in school. (Jerry, Int. November 1, 2011)

Jerry’s classroom was big and spacious with high ceilings and large windows almost completely taking up one wall. A white board hung in front of the classroom and the remaining available wall space was covered with student work, motivational posters, schedules, and school notices. Several small tables were interspersed with individual student desks and set up in clusters, giving the impression of separate learning spaces for students to work individually or in small groups. A variety of textbooks, magazines, and instructional materials filled low book shelves that stood flush against the walls.

As a resource teacher, Jerry worked closely with the general education teachers who taught the classes where his students were mainstreamed. For assessment purposes and gauging the progress of his students through the curriculum on a daily and weekly basis, Jerry used materials drawn from the grade-level curriculum, teacher-made tests, and information culled from his students’ performance on practice assessments that he downloaded from the state department website. Test preparation was a centerpiece of Jerry’s curriculum, and in order to prepare his students for the state standardized assessments, he routinely incorporated test taking skills into his instructional activities. For example, when his students worked on their writing skills he aligned his lessons to meet the target skills indicated on the blueprints from the state tests: “I use a lot of, a lot of stuff from the [state department of education] websites like the . . . released stuff. . . We want to get as close . . . as possible. (Jerry, Int. November 1, 2011). Jerry wrote student goals based on grade level competencies and aligned his IEPs with the standards articulated in test prep materials. In this way, Jerry’s practice was markedly different from that of Stella or Sami, who wrote more proximal student goals based on students’ ability levels. Jerry’s intent was to formulate goals that challenged his students in order to improve their skills as well as their performance on state assessments. He found, “it’s easy to align those [standards] with your IEPs” (Jerry, Int. November 1, 2011).

Jerry attached great importance to the concept of student motivation. Driven by his personal educational history, he saw this as the essential element in improving student outcomes, and he put considerable effort into motivating his students. During one observation, Jerry opened his resource class with a short presentation from a guest speaker—a former student of his—whom Jerry had invited to give a motivational speech. While the guest student talked, Jerry asked probing questions. At one point, he asked the speaker to share any regrets he might have had, to which he responded, “Not trying [in school]” (Obs. Jerry, November 15, 2011).

Accountability Demands

District B had just entered Program Improvement under NCLB when data collection with Jerry took place. Forthcoming and dynamic, Jerry wasted no time explaining that he understood the details of the high-stakes accountability system. He viewed the situation of increased accountability pressure as an opportunity to try something new and different, and he embraced accountability pressure as a vehicle for initiating positive changes in the special education program. What for district administrators may have been a concern for test scores not improving, for him it was the excitement of “an additional option for service” (Jerry, Int. November 1, 2011). He was in full support of the district’s new initiative in breaking down barriers between special and general education by creating coteaching setups in regular classrooms that would reduce the amount of time students received services in the resource classroom, but would increase their exposure to grade level content (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011). Excited by the prospect of change, Jerry’s status as a relatively new teacher—and his active embrace of the new system demands as opportunities to equalize gave him a very different perspective than that of Stella and Sami.

Perceived Student Learning Needs: The Gap and How to Narrow It     

Okay I use all the regular materials. I get all the regular books. I use everything that’s all standards based. I would say maybe one percent of the time I’d pull from middle school type resource but everything else, grade level from the classes that it’s being, you know, used in, I work with the regular teachers to get those things. (Jerry, Int. November 1, 2011)

In a conversation, following an observation of an algebra lesson in his resource room, Jerry explained how he managed to use mostly grade level materials and still would meet students’ individual learning needs. His students were mainstreamed into a general education algebra class and they were expected to take grade level math, “whether they were ready for it or not” (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011). Jerry saw his job as remediating specific weaknesses that the students had in following the regular curriculum: “My job [is] to try and get them from where they are to passing that class” (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011). He justified his use of grade level text with the philosophy that presenting challenging material would increase his students’ motivation and engagement with school. Jerry explained it this way:

In Algebra let’s say I have a student who . . . they cannot add, subtract, multiply or divide fractions. Well . . . I wouldn’t hold that kid back and make them do fraction review for the whole year. Maybe by giving them some curriculum that may challenge them like, solving algebraic equations I might be able to spark an interest in them which then might make them say, “Hey, you know what? I’m actually motivated to finally learn how to actually do fractions because I care about it now.” (Jerry, Int. November 1, 2011)

He conceded, however, that in reading he sometimes used off-level resources to meet student needs: “Reading is the only area where I think that’s where I go in terms of lower level curriculum.” (Jerry, Int. November 1, 20111). Additionally, in order to motivate his students to work on improving their reading skills, Jerry would also ask his students, on occasion, to bring in materials of their own choosing.

Jerry believed that his high expectations for student success were fair and achievable; “I would not put those expectations on my students when I didn’t think that it was something that they would be able to do” (Jerry, Int. November 1, 2011). To him, optimism, enthusiasm, and prodigious energy were powerful engines for driving improvement. Jerry described his thinking this way: “I get excited. They [other teachers] will bring them—they’ll give them the pre-algebra stuff but because they are so weak with fractions. . . I don’t spend a lot of time practicing fractions but I spend a lot of time on how to solve fractions in different ways with different types of problems. So it’s not like they’re getting . . . the stuff that they . . . had such a bad taste in their mouth” (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011).

Centrally, Jerry believed in the motivational power of setting high academic goals. Although many of his students functioned below grade level, he reasoned that writing challenging goals was a means of engaging students as well as a good strategy for breaking what he saw as a cycle of failure (Jerry, Int. November 1, 2011).  He wanted “students start to become motivated in their own ability to learn.” (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011). But he was less certain when challenged to connect his idea of motivating students via goal setting with instructional strategies and materials that would close the gap between high goals and students’ present levels of proficiency. Instead of laying out his instructional strategies, Jerry clamored for new programs and courses that were apparently not in place yet:

Okay, can I write goals that are challenging yet achievable? Yes, I can do all those things, but to get that significant improvement they need like a course specified to reading, we don’t have that. We don’t have a course that is just reading intervention, and I think that that’s necessary in those cases, and those resources aren’t here. (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011).

Yet, the absence of these instructional resources could be overcome by determination: “My overarching goal for school is I want kids [to have someone believe in them] because this [is what] happened to me and it changed my life” (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011).

Professional Responsibility

Unlike Stella and Sami, Jerry did not engage in any thoughts about the limiting conditions of disability. Instead, he saw the limits in the special education programs which he saw as reflective of a “deficit model.” Jerry would completely revamp the special education program:

If you’re just doing what you’ve been doing forever then you’re going to have the same score as you had forever and, you know, and I think our special ed. department has looked the same for the last 30 years here so, you know, I bet your scores are pretty consistent. (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011)

In Jerry’s’ view, accountability pressures directly connected to the responsibility of educators to equalize opportunities for students with disabilities. External pressure bolstered, or empowered, his sense of professionalism, but with a distinct managerial orientation. He was encouraged by his administrators to become an agent of change, and he embraced his role, but suffered setbacks:

Well that’s kind of a double-edged sword because they [the administration] have said we need to do this, but they are not following through. So it’s like I’m standing here alone and . . . We can’t get the buy-in because there is always one person saying no. . . . I’m standing out there alone by myself facing an army on this side and a general on this side who . . . who is not backing me up and so that’s the challenge right there. (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011)

Interviews with other special education teachers in Jerry’s school revealed that, in spite of Jerry’s idealism and enthusiasm for program innovation, his level of skill and expertise was not seen as commensurate with the power that he had been granted by the administration (Catherine, Int. November 7, 2011). He on the other hand tried to understand his colleagues’ skepticism in terms of a generation gap: “You’re asking to change the whole, everything they’ve ever done their whole lives” (Jerry, Int. November 22, 2011). But at a deeper level, his approach to change, consistent with his belief in the power of goal setting and accountability, ran counter to occupational traditions in public schools and would have seemed odd to the likes of Stella or Sami:

In business, your boss gives you some directives and then you follow and it’s really simple. And you know, I’ve been given some directives from my boss and then I pass those on to the rest of the staff, and some of them don’t want to follow it. There is something wrong there. You can’t run a business like that. Whether or not the directives from the administration are correct or incorrect, it doesn’t matter. I mean that’s the boss and, you know, you have to have that top down leadership, and it’s not happening. . . I think that’s where the disconnect is. It’s not with the kids. (Jerry, Int. November 1, 2011)


In facing the accountability dilemma in special education, Jerry crafted cognitive consistency and moral wholeness in ways radically different from the previous two cases. A young, passionate, and relatively new teacher, Jerry was a member of the new generation of teachers born into high-stakes accountability. He embraced the new accountability demands with enthusiasm, considering them as good and just for his students and a marker of assuming responsibility for urgent change. The gap between his students’ actual cognitive performance and the high goals of the system disappeared in his mind when he focused on the power of motivation and expectation. Technical aspects of bridging the gap with instructional strategies faded into the background. Not unlike his pedagogy, his idea of changing professional practice is decidedly managerial. It flows from goal setting, expectations, and directions from the top that are to generate enthusiasm on the bottom.


Joe, a special education teacher in District A was cordial, relaxed, and gregarious when we met. With his rich and varied teaching background, and long, extensive career in special education, Joe was on a par with Stella and Sami in terms of experience and expertise, but his approach to teaching and dealing with the new system demands was markedly different. Joe’s classroom seemed small. Every square inch of space was packed with papers, posters, schedules, school notices, student work, books, magazines, and art supplies, lending the room a slightly frazzled but lively and colorful ambience. Very much like the students in the Sami’s and Jerry’s classes, Joe served a broad range of and skills and abilities: “I have a range in here. . . I have probably a five year split in real ability.” (Joe, Int. April 6, 2011).

Over the years, Joe had accumulated a large repertoire of non-standard, off-level instructional resources, which he used as he saw fit. While he used primarily district approved, special education textbooks and programs for teaching core subjects such as science, math, or reading, he occasionally used general education text for covering curriculum content: “The mainstream textbook is a small resource of overall content.” (Joe, Int. February 23, 2011). Joe also had a large selection of diagnostic and curriculum-based tests for determining students’ skill levels as they progressed through the curriculum. But tests were not his emphasis.

I am just not a data person, you know I am really, my mission as a teacher is about, you know, engagement and relationship, and you know, developing the kids’ abilities and it’s all individual . . . you know I pay attention [to state assessments] . . . But . . . it’s not going to help me be a better teacher. (Joe, Int. May 16, 2011)

He considered the state tests, “just one more little bit of information about ‘Johnny’” (Joe, Int. February 23, 2011). He looked at the state standardized tests from a pragmatic standpoint: “Most of my kids are Below Basic and Far Below Basic, so that’s how I look at it, as a pragmatic thing” (Joe, Int. May 16, 2011).

Accountability Demands

While Joe said that he was aware of the accountability system and kept in mind the need to prepare his students for high school and passing the High School exit exam eventually (Joe, Int. April 6, 2011), he was not overly concerned about his students’ performance on state tests. While Joe did not actively try to protect his students from the demands of state testing, the way Stella did, neither did he worry much about meeting the new performance demands, like Sami. Rather, he looked at the tests pragmatically: “There are some uses, but it’s not enough to justify the testing I think” (Joe, Int. May 16, 2011). His main criticism of standardized tests was that they measured only a narrow aspect of the whole child, neglecting to take into account each student’s unique personality, strengths and abilities: “I mean all the different parts and interests and skills and abilities that the kid might have . . . As a teacher, those things are more interesting to me, the individuals” (Joe, Int. February 23, 2011).

Perceived Student Learning Needs: The Gap and How to Narrow It

Joe followed a process similar to that of Stella and Sami when formulating student goals. He pulled student goals from a data bank of grade level content standards, and then “tweaked” them (Joe, Int. February 23, 2011) to match student’s ability levels and comfort. During one observation (Obs. Joe, March 17, 2011), the students in Joe’s class were reading aloud a short play from a student magazine, assuming the voices of different characters and taking turns reading from the script. The magazine contained topics of high-interest for teenagers with a readability level and format designed to help struggling readers. All of Joe’s students were engaged in this activity, and when some students stumbled over words, he gently encouraged their efforts. The readability of the student magazine was well below the grade level of the students in the class. When asked about this wide gap, he said: “You got to get them reading what they can read.” (Joe, Int. April 6, 2011). Akin to Stella, Joe considered mastering basic skills a top priority. He was, however, less concerned with finding ways to bridge the gap between students’ compelling individual needs and grade level competencies—and less meticulous about the technical aspects of curriculum delivery—than Sami or Stella. His teaching philosophy was low key, pragmatic, if not relaxed:

So, the working teacher is the person in the trenches. We use the material as means of interacting with the kids and reaching where they are. That's the philosophical difference with the idea that you approach it through a standard. I have a subject . . . history [or] science . . . It's just a device. It could be any content because the real things are helping kids towards accessing all sorts of information in their lives. (Joe, Int. April 6, 2011)

In much the same way that Stella filtered out those aspects of the new performance demands that she deemed inappropriate, Joe focused solely on doing what he thought best for the students:

How willing they [the students] are to try and take on something that's hard for them. Those are the issues that we face day in and day out, and those are my hurdles. I don't really care if they remember this or that about China or Asia or Africa. I teach it with enthusiasm and I try to get them interested, but it doesn't matter whether Ghana lasted for 400 years or whatever. (Joe, Int. April 6, 2011)

Such an attitude would not lead to overcome achievement gaps in a systematic or testable way, and Joe confirmed that that was not his moral guide:  

To me, the gap is part of why they are here. It's just part of the definition. Am I going to close the gap? In some cases, they are sixth grade levels behind. I’m not going to close any gaps. I’m hopefully going to get them move along their skills to get closer to grade level . . . If they could handle the standards they wouldn’t be in special ed. (Joe, Int. April 6, 2011)  

Rather he found guidance in himself:

I have a conscience and my conscience is my guide. I care that I do the right thing in my eyes right, that's the accountability. And a lot of it probably is good enough to satisfy the district’s accountability, most of it. (Joe, Int. April 6, 2011).

Professional Responsibility

More than any of the other teachers, Joe largely ignored external obligations and was the least troubled by them. He saw himself as the one setting the standard. He cared and yet he lacked the precision and preoccupation with which teachers like Stella or Sami pursued their craft. And he lacked the idealism that engrossed Jerry.  

When we inquired about his instructional approaches at the beginning of the study, Joe said that he was learning to use a new reading program that he had just been given by the district the previous semester. It had multiple levels of intervention that was unlike anything he had used before and, calling the changes in the new program “massive”, he was still learning how to use it several months later (Joe, Int. February 23, 2011). Then, more than half-way through the school year, he received yet another new program, this time for teaching math. For Joe, these were the ways that accountability arrived—indirectly, and in the form of new programs that district leaders insisted special education teachers begin using right away. These kinds of compliance expectations could get teachers like Sami, working in the same district, resentful or resistant. But not Joe who was more accepting. Ever the pragmatist, he was willing to try the new program when others refused, if the district thought it might make a difference for his students. He was willing to give the program the benefit of the doubt. During a classroom observation, Joe was putting the new math program into play. It was a standards-based, computer driven program designed for struggling students and enhanced with colorful graphics to pique students’ interests. Joe admitted that he was not familiar enough with how to implement the program to its full capacity (Joe, Obs. April 18, 2011):

Once I get that up and running and we move through it, I’m hopeful that it is going to make it more sensible. . . The best thing is that they’re [the students] buying into it already and . . . I have a group . . . that are all too cool for anything, attitude is dripping off of them. And they are like giving us kind of approval to this so far . . . So that’s [why] I’m optimistic. (Joe, Int. April 6, 2011)


In facing the accountability dilemma in special education, Joe, not unlike Stella, Sami, and Jerry, professed to care deeply about his students’ welfare. When he said that he “let his conscience be his guide,” he was implying that he answered only to himself, a stance he had adopted many years before the advent of high-stakes accountability. He largely ignored the new external imperatives. His inner moral compass, however, did not extend to the myriad technical details involved in providing students with appropriate and fitting curriculum delivery that would maximize learning gains, the way we saw in the Stella and Sami cases. So, it is perhaps not surprising that he, although rejecting the standards-based performance targets, was willing to accommodate the programmatic prescriptions that the district had generated to address these performance targets. When faced with a directive, Joe readily and pragmatically complied, justifying his compliance on the grounds that the new programs might make improvements. Prudence in this case extended to maintaining his calm and the space for the relational core of his pedagogy.


Table 2. Conceptual Meta-Matrix


                                     Instructional Core





of gap


of gap




std needs































SPED label




It is apparent from this matrix that the two senior female teachers draw from very similar material when they craft their response to accountability. These teachers are centered on the instructional core. Perceiving the achievement gaps as wide, experiencing that their best efforts and desires could not trump what they interpret as the boundaries of biology, and observing student needs with precision, especially in the cognitive realm, shape their rejection of the equalizing obligation of accountability. These considerations also justify their duty as professionals to protect students from the system and resist undue programmatic requirements.

By contrast, Jerry connects to a morality of equalization when he embraces accountability and he links this morality to the morality of failing professional practices and the managerial impetus of overhauling entrenched occupational traditions. It is interesting how this approach is facilitated by his view of the instructional core in his own classes. He privileges motivational and expectancy forces over keen observation of cognitive learning, and he deplores the absence of powerful instructional technology that he believes needs to be provided to him and his colleagues. Jerry’s view of the instructional challenge in special education is shaped by his own personal experiences which taught him the power of motivation and committed professional effort. By fading out the precise nature of cognitive learning and by banking on powerful instructional programs as yet to be made available or found, he creates consistency between accountability, professionalism and the instructional core where Stella and Sami could see only a gulf.

Lastly, there is Joe. He at once rejects the accountability demands as unrealistic and accommodates the programmatic prescriptions that come his way as a result of these very accountability demands. He, more than any of the others, professes to rely on a personal moral compass unperturbed by external obligations. But the action space that this compass regulates expands or contracts pragmatically depending on administrators’ directives. It is not clear if Joe accommodates these directives because of a personal preference for being left in peace, because of a pedagogy that stresses relationships and reaching the whole child as opposed to knowledge acquisition or because of a view of professionalism that leaves core curricular issues out of the bounds of his responsibility. All three considerations seem to work hand in hand to create consistency and moral wholeness for Joe in the midst of apparent cognitive dissonance and programmatic disruption.


We believe that the concept of integrity has afforded us a powerful lens into the inner work life of special education teachers working under NCLB accountability demands. The “2014 pipe dream” as Stella hoped and predicted has by now passed in its acuity in many states of the U.S., among them California. The virulence of a sanctions regime that at its height declared more than half of California schools and districts in need of improvement, many of them due to failing subgroup goals for students with disabilities has brought the dilemmas facing special education teachers into sharp relief. Special education is a field that is at once called to serve individual student needs and to overcome the power of low expectations. It is asked to create a safe space for students to learn and is criticized for being an exclusionary track that reinforces inequalities. In such a space, teachers are challenged to carry out their work with integrity. Integrity is not a high ethical standard; rather, it is a continuous striving for consistency, self-worth, and moral order in a technically dissonant and morally ambiguous work environment that cannot be traversed without a dose of prudence.

The four teachers we followed over a period of many months accomplish integrity in many different ways. In each instance they found ways to make accountability demands, their perception of student learning needs, and professional values and responsibilities fit with each other. The reader may agree with one of these paths more than with another. Our role is not to judge but to document. We may underwrite the concern for technical instructional expertise and the insistence on naming cognitive learning needs with precision on the part of the two senior female teachers, but we may shrink from the “biology” that borders their expectations. And then again, we may applaud that they resist undue disruptions of their carefully crafted instructional programs. We may adopt the strong motivational impetus of young Jerry and may wish for the success of his reform effort, but we may be skeptical of his overreliance on inspiration and management that seemingly encourages fuzzy observation of student learning needs and devalues the accumulated wisdom of practice. Lastly we may embrace Joe’s humanity and flexibility in trying out new programs, but shrink away from his passive, accommodating stance towards student learning outcomes and from his feeble sense of responsibility in crafting his own instructional expertise to produce these outcomes.    


In this paper, we explored personal ways of forging integrity. But for good practices to emerge we should imagine a collective dialogue among the varied voices (Benjamin, 1990) in which each of our protagonists, described here, would engage. This collective dialogue would be pursued with the intent to strive for agency in pursuit of valued internal purposes; establish shared coherence or consistency among values, word, and deed; acknowledge compromise, rupture, and conflict with honesty and truthfulness; evaluate action in light of perceived client needs; and address external obligations in the face of multiple values and moral demands of the institution. We could imagine the hypothetical situation that our four protagonists sit around a table and talk to each other.

Even though they may not acknowledge it explicitly, each of them strives to maintain their integrity in the eyes of the others. Each has something to contribute and each has something to learn from the other. Stella and Sami might tap into their rich funds of instructional expertise and experience, but Jerry might point out that “biological” boundaries may unduly limit teachers’ expectations and that enthusiasm and a can-do attitude would serve them well. Joe would probably agree with Jerry that motivation, personalization, and affect are very important for learning success, and that ambitious performance goals should be seen as positive aspirations. To this, Stella might respond that it behooves teachers of special education students to closely study and observe their students’ cognitive learning needs and to develop the appropriate materials and strategies. Both Joe and Jerry might be advised, she might point out, not to trust external programs too much. And Sami might point out to Joe that it is a special education teacher’s responsibility to never lose sight of their individual students’ learning needs. Joe would probably agree, as he values each of his students as persons, but Sami would want to bring the point home that as a special education teacher one cannot simply follow the programmatic decisions of district administrators.

Joe may appeal to Sami to lessen her defensiveness and give new programs the benefit of the doubt, but he might agree that it is important to observe carefully whether any new program is a good fit with their students. Sami and Stella, who might conceivably unite to express their concern with the “new normal” of accountability and how it runs contrary to both their training and their years of experience, could then reluctantly agree with Joe that for the good of the students, they would, of course, try their best to work with accountability demands and see what they could tweak in their approach.  Jerry, as a new teacher, might accept high stakes accountability as the norm, but might admit that he has much to learn from more experienced teachers how to bridge in cognitive terms what ought to be with what is.

Following our scenario, what kind of accountability system would enable a collective dialogue among special education teachers in which high expectations, keen diagnosis, instructional expertise, internal responsibility for individualized learning gains, openness to external challenge, and attention to results would be the poles of the professional discussion? At the core, such an accountability system would validate the professionalism of the most expert teachers and avoid activating their defensiveness and demoralization. It would guard against middling expectations by making the performance of a wide spectrum of high and low performing schools or special education departments transparent. It would stay away from high pressure attached to unrealistic goals in order to discourage teachers from developing blind spots about their students, or acting with mere compliance and expediency. It would motivate a dynamic of student-centered continuous improvement in reference to a common standard, but also to low-stakes metrics that may guide iterative improvement. Such an accountability system would fundamentally redistribute the weights between managerial and professional accountability. Whether the reformed state accountability systems following new ESSA requirements do this remains to be seen.


1. http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/policy/ESEA_NCLB_ComparisonChart_2015.pdf

2. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/speced/2015/12/essa_special_education.html

3. Students with disabilities are those served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, http://www.advocacyinstitute.org/ESSA/SWDanalysis.shtml).

4. Source: California Department of Education: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 9, 2017, p. 1-39
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22047, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 10:22:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Heinrich Mintrop
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    HEINRICH/RICK MINTROP is the faculty director of the Doctoral Program in Leadership for Educational Equity at the University of California, Berkeley. As a researcher, he explores issues of school improvement and accountability in their academic and civic dimensions. In 2004, he published the book Schools on Probation. How Accountability Works (and Doesn’t Work), at Teachers College Press. In 2016, he published the book Design-Based School Improvement: A Practical Guide for Education Leaders, at Harvard Education Press.
  • Robin Zane
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    ROBIN ZANE, Ph.D., is the Director of the Diagnostic Center, Northern California in Fremont, California. A graduate of UC Berkeley’s Doctoral Program for Leadership in Educational Equity (LEEP), Robin’s interests focus on equity and accountability in special education.
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