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Examining Competing Notions of Social Justice at the Intersections of High-Stakes Testing Practices and Parents’ Rights: An Inclusive Education Perspective

by Federico R. Waitoller & Barbara L. Pazey - 2016

In this article, we examine tensions that can materialize at the intersection of high-stakes accountability assessments and the rights of parents of students with dis/abilities. We bring to the surface and analyze the competing notions of social justice that have fueled the implementation of both high-stakes testing and the inclusion of students with dis/abilities in public schooling. Our purpose is to problematize narrow discussions about high-stakes testing and students with dis/abilities, contextualizing them in broader struggles for inclusive education. To achieve this task, we examine an event, framed as a case study, which emerged from a larger research project. Our analysis is informed by an understanding of inclusive education as situated practice in which historically evolving notions of justice are tangled and enacted to negotiate situated identities. We conclude with implications for practice and accountability models.

The struggles for the inclusion of students with dis/abilities in public schools have a short but rich history. Justice claims for access to schools, for recognizing students with dis/abilities as capable of learning, and for parental rights fueled the dis/abilities rights movement and litigation of the 1960s and ’70s, which resulted in Public Law 94-142 (Education of All Handicapped Children Act [EAHCA]), renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990. Since its inception, the EAHCA and IDEA established key provisions for the education of students with dis/abilities including free and appropriate education (FAPE), zero reject, educational placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE), the development of individual education plans (IEPs), and parental rights and procedural safeguards. In the reauthorized versions of IDEA in 1997 and 2004, provisions to ensure the exposure of students with dis/abilities to academic standards and their inclusion in high-stakes accountability assessments were added to this policy. This history suggests that the struggle for equity for students with dis/abilities has encompassed various and sometimes competing agendas that create tension in the daily work of administrators, teachers, parents, and students (El-Haj, 2006; McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2003). For instance, while policies requiring the development of accountability systems and academic standards rely on top-down and standardized practices, IDEA gives control to local school multidisciplinary teams (that include parents of students with dis/abilities) to make individualized decisions about what students should learn, what services should be provided, and how students’ progress should be measured.

This article examines some of these tensions by focusing on the intersection of high-stakes accountability assessments and the rights of parents of students with dis/abilities, bringing to the surface and analyzing competing notions of social justice that have fueled these struggles. The purpose of this article is not to provide extended recommendations for improving accountability policies for special education, but rather to tangle and untangle notions of social justice that mediate people’s work in everyday practice. This is important as notions of social justice are rarely questioned, yet they afford and constrain local actors’ work (El-Haj, 2006). Thus, a better understanding of how different notions of justice are tangled can provide practitioners and administrators with greater conceptual clarity to better address the tensions they face in their daily enactment of competing policy agendas. Ultimately, this understanding can help to refine more inclusive notions of social justice that inform such agendas. To achieve this task, we examine an event, framed as a case study, that emerged from a larger research project (see Kozleski & Waitoller, 2010) designed to improve three schools’ capacity to include students with dis/abilities.

The authors of this article joined efforts for this piece to capitalize on synergies across points of view and theoretical stances. The first author situates his work at the intersections of critical special education, the political economy, and sociocultural theory. Thus, he understands high-stakes testing as a neoliberal cultural tool that mediates how school professionals construct and address students’ differences, benefiting some and marginalizing others. The second author positions her work within a social justice leadership and dis/ability studies perspective. As a former high school principal of a turnaround school, however, she characterizes the regulatory nature and punitive sanctions surrounding accountability reform and high-stakes testing as a negative binary and contradictory force that, through its enactment within schools, creates winners and losers. The analysis presented in this article is a negotiation between these vantage points.  

This article unfolds in the following manner. First, we conceptualize the inclusive education movement as one of many justice struggles that materialize in the situated practices of stakeholders such as teachers, administrators, families, students, and education reformers (e.g., policy makers, intermediaries, and advocates). Then, we discuss parental rights and high-stakes assessments as efforts to address particular justice claims. After we briefly describe the research project from which our case study was generated, we present a critical event in which parents’ rights and high-stakes testing and the notions of justice informing them are entangled in complex forms. We conclude with final thoughts and implications for administrators and accountability models.  


We understand inclusive education as a broad movement informed by various notions of justice that respond to the educational exclusion of students who have historically been positioned as different from the dominant culture of schools (e.g., students with dis/abilities, racial, ethnic, and language minorities) (Artiles, Harris-Murri, & Rostenberg, 2006). Waitoller and colleagues (Waitoller & Artiles, 2013; Waitoller & Kozleski, 2013) contend that inclusive education serves as a broad agenda toward the continued struggle for

(a) the redistribution of quality opportunities to learn and participate in educational programs, (b) the recognition and value of differences as reflected in content, pedagogy, and assessment tools, and (c) the opportunities for marginalized groups to represent themselves in decision-making processes that advance and define claims of exclusion and the respective solutions that affect their children’s educational futures. (Waitoller & Kozleski, 2013, p. 35)

This definition draws from Fraser’s (1997, 2009) three interrelated notions of justice—redistribution, recognition, and representation—to frame the historical justice claims that have informed efforts toward inclusive education. A notion of justice based on redistribution focuses on the economic aspects of justice. It refers to justice struggles for equitable redistribution of and access to economic resources and social goods (e.g., education) (Rawls, 1972). For instance, a major justice claim in the inclusive education movement has been the claim for the redistribution of resources to provide equal access to quality educational opportunities for students with dis/abilities (Artiles et al., 2006). A notion of justice based on recognition focuses on the cultural aspects of justice and refers to justice struggles for cultural recognition. To illustrate, one of the premises of inclusive education has been to change school cultures so that all students’ culture, language, and abilities are recognized and valued (Ainscow, Booth, & Dyson, 2006). Finally, a notion of justice based on representation focuses on political injustices. It interrogates who has opportunities to advance and define injustices and their respective efforts to dismantle them. According to Fraser (2009), the representation domain “tells us not only who can make claims of redistribution and recognition, but also how these claims are to be mooted and adjudicated” (p. 17). An example of this domain of justice is the historical and contemporary struggle of parents’ rights to meaningfully participate in their children’s education, particularly those of racial minority and working-class backgrounds (e.g., Harry, Klingner, & Hart, 2005). From this vantage point, inclusive education encompasses a broad and complex agenda that goes beyond the inclusion of students receiving special education in the general education classroom. Inclusive education becomes a political, cultural, and economic project endeavoring to transform schools into catalysts for building a pluralistic and participatory democracy (Slee, 2011).   

Yet, as Gewirtz and Cribb (2002) note, if we conceptualize justice as composed of multiple notions, we need to acknowledge that tensions may emerge when efforts to address one notion overlap with efforts to address another notion. As Rizvi and Lingard (1996) state, “[T]he immediate difficulty one confronts when examining the idea of social justice is that it does not have a single essential meaning—it represents discourses that are historically situated” and is “a site of conflicting and divergent political endeavors” (p. 11). For instance, the special education system redistributes resources by labeling students as dis/abled. Having a dis/ability gives students the rights and resources associated with special education. In this example, efforts to redistribute resources can be based on the misrecognition and devaluing of student differences as reflected in the longstanding over-identification of racial minorities for special education, which adds another layer of stigmatization to an already stigmatized group of students (Artiles, 1998).   

This understanding of inclusive education compels us to study attempts to achieve inclusivity as a situated practice (Greeno, 2006) whereby the participation of individuals is mediated by various and sometimes competing notions of justice and their associated cultural tools. Inclusive education is grounded in situated struggles in which different stakeholders draw from and respond to historical and evolving justice claims about education. Stakeholders may not explicitly describe their actions as engaging in political struggles about justice, but at the core of their struggles and rationales are historically evolving justice claims in which redistribution, recognition, and representation are woven in complex forms. Their equity claims “are ideas afloat in the public imagination that take shape in the everyday practices of schools, and engender queries and struggles” (El-Haj, 2006, p. 5). Stakeholders become history in person as they engage in contentious and enduring struggles in daily school activities (Holland & Lave, 2001).

Struggles for redistribution, recognition, and representation are interwined with stakeholders’ enactment and negotiation of their situated identity (Gee, 2000); that is, their negotiation for being recognized by others as certain kinds of individuals in certain kinds of contexts (Gee, 2000). The term “situated” means that social identities cannot be stripped out of the social practice and activity in which they are observed (Gee, 2000). Stakeholders improvise upon the “sediments of past experiences, using the cultural resources available, in response to the subject positions afforded to them in the present” (Holland, Skinner, Lachiotte Jr., & Cain, 1998, p. 18). This theoretical stance emphasizes an emic perspective of how people’s engagement with inclusive education and their situated identity are mediated by cultural tools (e.g., high-stakes tests and accountability policies) in cultural-historical contexts, in which power struggles and micro and macro forces are at play (Artiles, 2009). From this vantage point, agency is not attributed to individuals, but rather to individuals-acting-with-mediational means (e.g., high-stakes testing, notions of justice) (Wertsch & Rupert, 1993) that constrain and afford possibilities for efforts toward inclusivity. Having described our theoretical stand, we turn now to examine two efforts to address injustices that are relevant to our analysis of the case we describe later in this article: (a) high-stakes assessments and (b) the individual rights of parents.  



High-stakes assessments are part of a conglomerate of neoliberal initiatives that include top-down accountability, parental choice policies, flexibility, de-regularization, and privatization of educational goods. These neoliberal initiatives can be understood as responses to address certain justice claims based on redistribution (Apple, 2007; El-Haj, 2006). These claims are premised on the assumption that educational inequities emanate from the unjust distribution of equal opportunities to learn and the underperformance of certain groups of students (e.g., students with dis/abilities, Black and Latino students). These inequities are the result of schools’ and teachers’ low expectations and poor-quality curriculum (Gartner & Lipsky, 1987). Neoliberal responses to these claims are based on market forces grounded in competition, flexibility, and consumer choice (Apple, 2001). The neoliberal argument is that by using data produced by the administration of high-stakes testing (and other quantitative measures such as school dropout rates), parents can act as consumers who can choose from a portfolio of schools that include but are not limited to charter schools, magnet schools, selective enrollment schools, and traditional neighborhood schools (Saltman, 2014). As Apple (2007) notes, “The movement toward marketization and choice requires the production of standardized data based on standardized process and products so that comparisons can be made and so that consumers have relevant information to make choices” (p. 111). Schools that cannot reach certain test score benchmarks or lose student enrollment due to consumer choices are turned around or closed. Further, under such accountability policies, educational outcomes, particularly those reflected in high-stakes assessment scores, serve as measures of and assurances that a quality education is made available to all students.

Despite striving for deregulation and privatization, neoliberal regimes give an important role to states and school districts by ensuring impediments against applying market ideology to all social sectors do not exist (Harvey, 2005). For instance, when the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law in 2001, the onus was placed on states accepting Title I funds to monitor the academic performance of districts and schools by disaggregating and reporting achievement data to determine whether students assigned to designated subgroups (e.g., students with dis/abilities) were reaching yearly benchmarks on annual measurable objectives set by each state (McLaughlin & Thurlow, 2003). This state intervention permeated to policies regulating the education of students receiving special education services. In 2004, Congress updated IDEA (2004) to counteract impediments caused by low expectations and to more closely align with NCLB. Legal mandates requiring schools to provide opportunities to learn the intended, age appropriate, grade-level curriculum were also put into effect (Kurz & Elliott, 2011).  

Neoliberal initiatives have been alluring to some advocates of students with dis/abilities due to their promise to address justice claims that have been at the core of the struggles for inclusion. Lipsky and Gartner (1996) advanced the argument that equity in inclusive education needs to encompass access not only to the school and the general education classroom, but also to quality opportunities to succeed, holding professional educators employed within these schools accountable for every child’s success. According to Katsiyannis, Yell, and Bradley (2004), the inclusion of accountability measures in IDEA (2004) signaled a shift from access to a greater focus on the educational achievement of students with dis/abilities. Madaus, Russell, and Higgins (2009) claim accountability reform and high-stakes test policies raise expectations for student achievement, create student incentives for learning, and motivate district and campus-based administrators and teachers to focus more on the teaching and learning of specific content and skills aligned to state content standards. They allege that by holding schools accountable for the academic achievement of all students, students with dis/abilities who have been previously underserved can gain access to highly qualified teachers. In addition, it has been argued that the combination of NCLB and IDEA strengthens access to rigorous curriculum specificity, as now a student’s individualized education program (IEP) needs to be based in the same academic content and achievement standards used with their grade-level peers (Cortiella, 2006).  

Principals have been in the eye of the neoliberal storm of changes. Under neoliberal regimes, principals are encouraged to think about themselves as self-enterprising subjects who add value to themselves by being highly competitive and innovative and improving the productivity of their schools (Ball, 2003). Principals are required to search for and implement practical solutions to comply with educational mandates amid shrinking budgets and increased pressures to meet accountability reform initiatives and their attached punishment incentives (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Fuhrman & Elmore, 2004). Those assigned to schools labeled as low performing have been forced to operate under the assumption that if they and their staff “try harder” and motivate students to “learn more” (Vasquez Heilig & Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 85), their schools will improve.    

Many critiques have emerged in response to neoliberal education policies. An extensive review of these critiques is beyond the scope of this section and can be found elsewhere (e.g., Apple, 2001; Ball, 2006). Some, however, are relevant to our case study. First, neoliberal education policies attribute historical injustices to an achievement gap and lack of parental choice. In doing so, they are silent about the educational debt created by the accumulation of historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral forms of inequality experienced by racial and ethnic minorities (Ladson-Billings, 2006) and students with dis/abilities (Thorius & Tan, 2016). This debt encompasses, among other issues, the historical lack of opportunities for parents of students with dis/abilities to meaningfully participate in making decisions that affect the life of their children, which we discuss in the next section.  Second, neoliberal education reforms emphasize individualistic and meritocratic views of student achievement. Success and failure are attributed to the individual student as well as the individual teacher and school. These attributions reify deficit views of students, teachers, and schools that serve racial and ethnic minorities while ignoring the decades of disinvestment in the communities in which they live. As a result, students and schools are labeled as deficient, perpetuating the historical stigmatization of Black and Latino communities and students with dis/abilities (Artiles et al., 2006).    


Notions of justice based on representation have permeated much of the dis/ability and parental rights discourse. The argument of this discourse is that parents should have the right to represent themselves in key educational decisions that affect the lives of their children. For instance, parental participation serves as one of the six main principles of IDEA (Turnbull, Stowe, & Huerta, 2007), invoking schools and families to establish and maintain a strong partnership on behalf of the student. Congress articulated specific rights for parents of children with dis/abilities as an important goal of the Act so they could be granted the opportunity “to participate in the education of their children at school and at home” (20 U.S.C. • 1400). If the parent and school disagree about issues related to a matter involving his or her child’s right to a FAPE, either party can request a due process hearing or opt to resolve their dispute through a mediation process prior to pursuing the hearing process (Yell, 2016). Further, if, at any time after the child begins to receive special education and related services, the parent decides to revoke consent and does so in writing, the provision of services must cease (Yell, 2016). In other words, parents are supposed to possess the right to have the final say in the outcomes of decisions surrounding their child’s life, which encompasses issues relevant to the education of their child with a dis/ability (Weber, 2013).

Interestingly, while IDEA (2004) spells out specific rights of parents in regard to consent requirements and assessment practices that apply to special education and related services options, the law does not provide parental rights in terms of revoking consent for their child in regard to high-stakes test situations. Despite attempts by parents of students with dis/abilities to challenge states’ requirements to pass a minimum competency test (MCT) in order to receive a high school diploma (Brookhart v. Illinois State Board of Education, 1983; Debra P. by Irene P. v. Turlington, 1984), the courts have ruled that such testing requirements do not deny the student from FAPE under IDEA, nor do they violate Section 504 as long as reasonable accommodations are provided.

As Tomlinson (2014) reminds us, parental struggles for representation are fraught with conflict and unequal distribution of power. Indeed, both historically and currently, our U.S. educational system destines certain families and parents with limited social and/or economic status and/or diverse racial, cultural, or linguistic backgrounds to disadvantaged positions (Graff & Vazquez, 2013). In part, this is due to the fact that struggles for parental representation have failed to acknowledge the hierarchical structures of knowledge and positional statuses that are embedded within the context of our educational institutions, and that privilege school knowledge and practices over those of diverse families. When parents engage in behaviors that deviate from prevailing schools' definition of parent involvement (e.g., volunteering to help supervise students on field trips, showing up for school-sponsored events, and serving on committees that support the overall purpose of the school; Scribner, Young, & Pedroza, 1999), school personnel often treat them as separate entities outside of the school system, dismissing parents’ alternative attempts to be involved in the education of their child (Graff & Vasquez, 2013). Further, when parents’ requests do not align with the school’s policies and administrator/teacher beliefs, teachers and administrators are less likely to encourage or accept their involvement in school affairs (Trainor, 2010). According to Graff and Vasquez (2013), this exclusion continues to function if the school personnel maintain the status quo rather than reflecting on their behaviors in terms of how they may “isolate, distance, or marginalize families from diverse backgrounds” (p. 86).

Thus, some parents may be subject to implicit or explicit means of coercion by educational professionals who tend to possess a greater command of power and resources, utilizing certain ideologies and rationales (e.g., expertise and humanitarian concern) that legitimate their actions and decisions (Tomlinson, 2014). In a sense, the parents are viewed as the clients of special education, and judgments rendered by educational professionals function as a form of social control exerted over both the clients and their children, ignoring and/or bypassing the legitimate concerns and rights of parents (Tomlinson, 2014). High-stakes assessment practices can exacerbate this equity issue as they place enormous pressure on practitioners and administrators, who may be more compelled to comply with mandates than to attend to the needs, values, and concerns of parents.

So far, we have established our theoretical stand toward inclusive education, high-stakes testing, and the rights of parents with dis/abilities. We draw from these insights to analyze the case of Ruben presented below. However, we first turn to briefly describe the research project from which this case was generated.


The case described in the following section occurred at an elementary school involved in a larger research project whereby a university master’s program partnered with three urban schools to develop teacher and leadership capacity for inclusive education (Kozleski & Waitoller, 2010). Desert Pride Elementary (pseudonym), an attendance-boundary school1 in a working-class Latino neighborhood, served as the school site for this case study. Seventy percent of the student enrollment was of Latino background, 60% of the students spoke Spanish as their first language, and 90% qualified for free or reduced price lunch. One of the goals of the program was to use teacher development as a catalyst for transforming schools into inclusive schools. As part of the research project, a combination of analytical tools from discourse analysis (e.g., Fairclough, 2003; Gee, 2001) and grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) were used to analyze (a) in-depth interviews with teachers, principals, language coaches, and university personnel; (b) videos of teacher practice coupled with video-stimulated recall interview; (c) weekly field observations from university personnel; (d) voice recordings of university classes taken by the participating teachers; and (e) artifacts and documents from the master’s program and the schools. The case described below was purposefully selected as a critical case (Patton, 2001). Such cases “can make a point quite dramatically or are, for some reason, particularly important in the scheme of things” (Patton, 2001, p. 175) and are likely to “yield the most information and have the greatest impact on the development of knowledge” (Patton, 2001, p. 236). The case was built from a combination of field notes from one of the authors and interviews with the principal at Desert Pride (for a more in-depth description of methods and other findings from this project, see Waitoller, 2014; Waitoller & Artiles, 2016; Waitoller & Kozleski, 2015).  



It was a sunny and warm morning at Desert Pride Elementary. The morning started with the same ordinary events that any other morning would have presented to anyone entering the school. The familiar faces of staff, parents, and students crossed through the same school doors as they did every morning. Students were organized in lines and marched through the halls for the same destination as the day before: the classroom. The same coffeemaker was launched to brew coffee for the staff, and the same clock and bell indicated it was 8:15 and classes were starting. Though it seemed like any other day in the life of Desert Pride, an unusual sign at the door of the school indicated otherwise: “Silence! Students are taking the state test.”

It was an important day for staff and students at Desert Pride. In previous years, Desert Pride struggled to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) due to its inability to get a high-enough percentage of students to participate in the administration of the test. That morning, every test score counted. Ruben, a second-grade Latino student identified with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and a central character in this story, was about to take the stage. According to the principal, when Ruben first enrolled, academically, he was two-and-a-half years behind his grade level. Yet, benchmark assessments such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) and other reading comprehension tests revealed that Ruben was making significant progress. Ruben’s test scores to Desert Pride were like water to a pilgrim in the desert—a highly valued outcome that could make a difference in the survival and sustainability of the school.  

Ruben was about to sit at a desk and fill bubbles with his pencil, deciding whether the right answer bubble to color was A, B, C, or D. Later, someone from outside the school would assign him a score for such action. This event, however, was not the only significant event Ruben would experience that morning. Ruben’s parents were picking him up at 10 a.m. to take him to the doctor for a check up. As it turned out, to get Ruben’s prescription for Ritalin renewed so his wiggly body and mind could conform to the rigid routines of the school, it was necessary that Ruben be excused so they could arrive at the doctor’s office on time. And so it happened. At 9:55 a.m., Ruben’s parents showed up at the front desk of the school with a simple but highly problematic request—to remove their child from the school in the middle of the testing session to take him to the doctor.  

Taking Ruben to the doctor wound up being more complicated than what Ruben’s parents had expected. Ruben was not finished with his test and if he were to leave at that point of the testing session, all his scores would be considered invalid and discarded—something Desert Pride could not afford. The receptionist explained to Ruben’s parents that if Ruben withdrew from the test, all his answers up to that point would be dismissed. However, Ruben’s dad had taken time away from his construction work to take his son to the doctor and was not willing to negotiate his decision to pull Ruben out of school and, ultimately, from the test he was taking. The receptionist told the parents she needed to call the assistant principal, who arrived a few minutes later. The assistant principal told Ruben’s parents that Ruben was 19 minutes from finishing one of the sections of the test, after which Ruben could be removed from the testing session. He asked the couple if they could arrive a little late to the doctor’s appointment, allowing Ruben to complete at least a section of the exam by rationalizing, “It would be a shame to invalidate his test because Ruben had worked so hard all year and his hard work will not be reflected in his test score.”  

Ruben’s parents stood a few steps from the school’s doors, right in front of the receptionist; Ruben’s father was swinging the car keys in his hand. Facing the assistant principal, a couple of steps ahead of Ruben’s mom, Ruben’s father did most of the talking; speaking few words at a time, determined to take Ruben to the doctor. He told the assistant principal he did not care about Ruben’s testing session being nullified by pointing out that the problem belonged to the school and did not involve them. He retorted,

I left work to take him to the doctor and that is the only time we can take him. I do not want to lose the appointment because Ruben needs the medicine. Do you want him to lose his medicine and not be healthy because [of] the test?  

The discussion continued with cyclical arguments: The assistant principal insisted and asked the couple to reschedule their doctor appointment while Ruben’s father repeatedly insisted that he wanted to take Ruben to the doctor and had asked time off from work to do so. Both parties were involved in a locked, no-win argument and the entry hallway of the school filled with tension.

At that point the principal arrived. The physical contrast between Ruben’s dad and her was noteworthy. Ruben’s father was a tall and muscular Latino male in his mid-20s, wearing worn out jeans, a T-shirt, and work boots. The Desert Pride principal was a female in her early 50s, five feet tall, and wearing professional dress pants and a shirt. She repeated to Ruben’s parents that Ruben was almost done by assuring them, “I had an assistant right next to him. As soon as he fills that last bubble she [will] grab him and rush him over here.” Ruben’s father argued they were already late for the doctor’s appointment. The doctor’s office was a half-hour away and they could not arrange any other appointment options that worked for them. The principal insisted, “Ruben did very well in school. It would be a shame to take him now because his score would not accurately represent what he knows.” The discussion continued with the same cycle of arguments until the principal came up with an unexpected suggestion: She offered to call the doctor herself and reschedule Ruben’s appointment.  

Ruben’s parents looked at each other, disconcerted and frustrated, trying to read the messages portrayed in each other’s faces. Ruben’s mother explained to Ruben’s father, “Yes, Ruben is doing much better in school this year.” “Yes,” the principal interjected, “and it would be a shame that it is not reflected in his test score.” Ruben’s father took his cell phone from his pocket, dialed the doctor’s office, and handed the phone to the principal. While the principal talked to the doctor’s secretary, the assistant principal continued to assure them that Ruben was almost done. Ruben’s dad stressed that the doctor’s appointment is crucial to refill Ruben’s prescription and he was losing paid work time for being there. The principal interrupted the discussion with a smile on her face. “I got it! The doctor will receive him 30 minutes later!”  She continued, “This is good news! Ruben will be able to finish his exam. As soon as he fills the last bubble they will rush him to the front office.” The principal repeatedly thanked the parents—at least three times—for being flexible. Ruben’s mother seemed relieved the situation was over, but Ruben’s father did not seem pleased.  


When reading Ruben’s case, a number of impatient questions knock at our doors: Who had the right to decide Ruben’s agenda for the day? Should the principal have immediately released Ruben from the testing session? Should the parents have left and rescheduled the appointment for another day? Though these are interesting and pressing questions, we must resist the voices calling out to us for an answer as they distract us from core problems with the scene that took place that morning at Desert Pride. These questions refer to a scene that was already “in the making” even before Ruben’s parents crossed the school doors. Thus, rather than asking who had the right to decide Ruben’s agenda for the day, we should ask how this scene was built before and during that morning and how this construction relates to the historical justice struggles for inclusive education and the identities people construct and bring to bear amidst these struggles.   

Drawing from notions of justice based on redistribution, recognition, and representation, the principal and Ruben’s parents were personifying historical struggles in local, contentious practice (Holland & Lave, 2001). First, the principal’s actions were informed by notions of justice based on neoliberal forms of redistribution: They informed her situated identity as an enforcer of accountability mandates. Desert Pride had been in probationary, “needs improvement” status for not meeting AYP for three years in a row. Prior to the start of the school year when this event occurred, district officials had relocated the principal from another school in the district with marching orders to turn around and transform Desert Pride into a high-performing school. District officials viewed her as a strong leader who was committed to standard and accountability mandates.  In her words,    

There was a reason I was asked to come here and they knew that. I think when you’re told it’s not going well, someone’s got to come in and make change, and then I’m given that directive, you need to kind of wipe it clean and start over. (Interview, Desert Pride principal, April 15)

She believed one of the major problems facing the school stemmed from the low expectations teachers held for the students:

People didn’t really believe kids could achieve. They really didn’t believe that what I’m doing is better than nothing and that’s good. I really don’t think they believe that if they put the effort in, the kids could achieve as highly as they’re capable to achieve. (Interview, Desert Pride principal, April 15)

This principal was deeply committed to improving the quality of education the students received and having a close control over teachers’ instruction practice. She saw herself as an enforcer of high expectation and accountability measures:

They [teachers] do the minimum to stay off of the radar, if you will. But you can see, in academic achievement they’re minimalists because the kids are not achieving where they can. Those are the people that you do—you spend your time in and out of their room three, four, five times a day because if you don’t, they’re not performing. (Interview, Desert Pride principal, April 15)

Keeping Ruben in the testing session reflected the principal’s enactment of neoliberal redistributive models of justice: Her purpose was to ensure the redistribution of quality opportunities to learn for Latino students through holding the entire school accountable for adhering to high expectations and engendering increased academic outcomes. Such an endeavor was motivated by an effort, as she mentioned in an earlier quote, to remediate teachers’ low expectations for working-class Latino students. In doing so, she drew from accountability models of redistribution to position herself as a strong leader, aiming to remediate historical inequities for the students in Desert Pride.


Interestingly, redistributive notions of justice were tangled with those notions based on recognition, informing the principal’s work. She insisted Ruben’s test outcomes would reflect his hard work and true ability. In doing so, she positioned herself as a caring professional who was concerned with recognizing Ruben’s abilities by giving him the right to finish and pass the test. To understand this positioning, it is useful to examine the history of the relationship between the principal and Ruben’s family. When Ruben started the school year, he was reading below grade level. In her estimation, “[T]there was no reason in the world for that kid to show up two-and-a-half grade levels behind because he was able to [read at a higher level]” (Interview, Desert Pride principal, April 15). She explained that Ruben’s parents had met previously with his teachers and complained about Ruben’s performance. According to the principal, his parents asserted, “You guys never did anything for him” and she confirmed their complaint: “It was true, honestly; it had to have been true because he was totally capable” (Interview, Desert Pride principal, June 9). Thus, the principal was eager to show Ruben’s academic progress to his parents and recognize his capabilities and continued effort to improve:

He wasn’t invested. He didn’t feel motivated. He didn’t spend his time on it. That’s how, because it was always that he was capable. They tested him for Special Ed. So when you do that, what you’re saying to a kid: ‘You can’t.’ My thing with the parents is he’s going to do fabulous. Let’s give him that opportunity to show that he can improve. . . . We put a lot of time to figuring out what it was and I just thought it was only fair to let him show what he could do. I’m so passionate about it because he was so capable. (Interview, Desert Pride principal, June 9)

Sending Ruben to be evaluated for special education was a form of misrecognizing Ruben’s abilities. According to the principal, a high score on the state assessment could show Ruben that he could perform well academically, remediating injustices based on misrecognition. Thus, Ruben needed to stay in the testing session. Interestingly, it was by leveraging justice claims based on recognition that the principal obtained support from Ruben’s mother and was able to call the doctor and reschedule the appointment.  

Yet the principal’s explanation also included concerns about the school not being able to meet AYP:

Well, because I think at the end of the day there’s a label put on them and your school on state testing, like this is the high-stakes testing. . . . So knowing that and knowing that he felt so good about himself—his confidence. They were taking him because he has attention deficient. He needed his medication. We get that. We know he needs that. That wasn’t the only thing. He needed to be engaged in his learning and be challenged. When you not only just have one student, you have two students, and you know how this system works. You  have one or two kids who don’t test, it could mean the whole school doesn’t make it. So the expectation is 100% of the kids. (Interview, Desert Pride principal, June 9)

She continued,

I want to hold you accountable. It’s your job to do this, but I’m going to come and pull my kid out in the middle of state testing. To me, there’s a mismatch. OK, then let me do my job.  Let’s do what we are supposed to do. Make your doctor’s appointments after school. Make them whenever. (Interview, Desert Pride principal, June 9)

In neoliberal forms of accountability, every student’s success or failure is attributed to the school’s efforts and, in turn, school administrators are compelled to show they can lead the charge in improving the test scores of all students. Further, as a representative of the school district and in accordance with neoliberal mandates, the principal needed to ensure that the correct percentage of test scores (designating proficient knowledge or above) is produced that, according to neoliberal ideology, allows the state, school district, and parents to make informed decisions based on market models. In light of the need for recognition in the context of neoliberal forms of accountability and the principal’s marching orders to turn around the school, we cannot help but speculate about the motives of her desire for recognition: Ruben’s capabilities, or the school’s?  We can’t answer this question with our data, nor do we think this is the key issue. What we find noteworthy is the historical accountability context of the school that contributed to the principal’s ambiguous and shifting situated identities: the accountability enforcer and the caregiving professional. In the context of talking to Ruben’s parents, she characterized herself as a caring professional, aiming to recognize Ruben’s ability. In the context of who she viewed herself to be within the interview, she positioned herself not only as a caring professional but also as an accountability enforcer.  

Ruben’s father’s resistance to comply with the administrator was informed by a notion of justice based on representation. As stated by Fraser (2009), “[T]hose who suffer it [injustice based on misrepresentation] become objects of charity and benevolence. But deprived of the possibility of authoring first-order claims, they became non-persons with respect to justice” (p. 20). Ruben’s father verbally resisted becoming an object of charity for a principal who saw herself as caring and acting on behalf of her students through an adherence to the specific instructions outlined in the state’s test administration manual. While the principal insisted Ruben be given the chance to finish a portion of his test to keep his scores from being made void, Ruben’s father authored his own claim about what was best for his child according to how he made sense of the situation he was facing (Solórzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001). He endeavored to draw upon his right, as the parent, to remove Ruben from school for what he perceived to be a legitimate and necessary reason. Ruben’s father thought Ruben’s doctor’s appointment and consequent prescription to ameliorate his ADHD would benefit his son more than Ruben’s involvement in completing an assessment that seemingly would have a greater, more direct impact on the institution than his child. By raising his parental right coupled with the limitations of his ability to take off work in the near future, he held fast to his identity as Ruben’s father.  

The mixed reception and avoidance of Ruben’s father’s request, however, aligns with Delgado-Gaitan’s (1991) assertion that certain families may encounter isolating or exclusionary behaviors within the school context if they lack “appropriate sociocultural knowledge” (p. 21) about schooling practices in the United States. For example, the principal appeared to be controlling the process, advantaged by her ability to keep the student in the testing environment until she gave the directive to retrieve Ruben from his assigned location. This situation mirrors the experiences of Black and Latino working-class parents in IEP meetings, and more recently in Response to Intervention meetings, wherein the conversations and decisions are led by school professionals, who under the banners of humanism and expertise, sideline the voices of parents (Harry et al., 2005; Thorius, Maxcy, & Cox 2014). 

To conclude, the principal’s efforts clashed with Ruben’s father’s enactment of a notion of justice based on representation. This clash, we suggest, is due in part to the shortcomings of neoliberal forms of redistribution that reduce quality education and student differences to a single test score, and overlook the reality that students and parents come to schools with racialized and social-class histories of struggle. Informed by neoliberal forms of redistribution, the principal may have only thought of Ruben in terms of a test score, an attribute used to both redistribute quality education and recognize Ruben’s capabilities. In doing so, she overlooked the importance of why the parents were there and the history of struggles between schools and working class, less privileged parents of students with dis/abilities (Lalvani, 2012; Ong-Dean, 2009). Ruben’s father had taken time from work to fulfill his parental role and right to take his son to the doctor, who would ultimately enable Ruben to receive an updated prescription for his medication—an agenda Ruben’s father judged more appropriate that better aligned with his family’s needs.  


Our aim in this article was to problematize narrow discussions about high-stakes testing and students with dis/abilities, contextualizing them in broader struggles for inclusive education. We presented a situated analysis to illustrate how notions of justice associated with the struggles for inclusive education are taken up amidst the unfolding history of schools and the professionals working within them. Ruben’s case is an example of how historically evolving notions of justice sometimes collapse in situated practice where parents and school professionals act amidst the resources available to them and the particular circumstances they face. While stakeholders engage with these historical struggles for inclusive education, they enter into a dialogue with the past, present, and the future, becoming history in person (Holland & Lave, 2001).  

Two implications emerged from this article. First, the notions of justice informing parents’ and administrators’ situated identity and the history of institutions are woven into scenes that afford and constrain possibilities to debate and contest what is equitable for students. High-stakes testing and its narrow focus on student test scores pose more constraints than affordances for the development of professional identities capable of advancing an inclusive agenda informed by all three dimensions of justice: redistribution, recognition, and representation. Calling the doctor to reschedule an appointment was a creative and spontaneous act that represented the neoliberal call for principals to be innovative self-entrepreneurs, i.e., homo economicus (Brown, 2003). As Brown (2003) explains, “The model neoliberal citizen is one who strategizes for her- or himself among various social, political, and economic options, not one who strives with others to alter or organize these options” (p. 43). Though the act of calling the doctor temporarily resolved the tension among the parents and the principal, it did not solve the core issues discussed in our analysis nor contribute to the development of a trusting partnership between Ruben’s parents and the school, a partnership that might lead or contribute to collective action. We recommend that principals examine the notions of equity and justice that drive their work so they can contest and enrich their motives and actions with a justice model that moves beyond narrowly derived neoliberal redistributive notions. Such a model would integrate and balance issues of redistribution, recognition, and representation, and aim to restructure the options at hand (e.g., taking or not taking the test). For instance, working with collaborative parents and students to examine, contest, and transform current testing practices can be starting point. Of course, this will involve responding to the histories of families from racial minorities, particularly their negotiated, multifaceted identities (e.g., Latino, working class, and the parent of a student with a dis/ability).  

This collective examination of notions of justice is important for principals since one of the functions in Standard Four of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) Standards for School Leaders (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2008) calls for leadership preparation programs to prepare future administrators with the capacity to “build and sustain positive relationships with families and caregivers” (p. 15). A similar function in Standard Six underscores the school leader’s role as an “advocate for children, families, and caregivers” (p. 15). To foster these behaviors, administrators will need to be trained to engage in “critical reflection” (Klingner et al., 2015, p. 128) as they progress through their program, both in their course content and administrative internships. They will also need to become mindful of the multiple and complex circumstances that exist in their students’ and parents’ lives. In this regard, Kalyanpur and Harry (2012) recommend school professionals utilize “cultural reciprocity as a method of inquiry” so they can “reflect on their practices and question the assumptions of the field” (p. 16). They offer the following four steps as a method of inquiry:


Identify the cultural values that are embedded in your interpretation of a student’s difficulties or in the recommendation for service.


Find out whether the family being served recognizes and values these assumptions and, if not, how its view differs from yours.


Acknowledge and give explicit respect to any cultural differences identified and fully explain the cultural basis of your assumptions.


Through discussion and collaboration, set about determining the most effective way of adapting your professional interpretations or recommendataions to the value system of the family. (p. 17)

We acknowledge the complexities inherent in bringing such a practice to scale, on the part of both school personnel and each student and his or her family, whose culture and values may be different from the school. Yet to create schools for all students involves an ongoing collective examination of values and practices that construct centers and peripheries so that no student and family is left on the margins.

The second implication of this article concerns the scene involving Ruben’s parents and the principal. As discussed in our analysis, that scene was in the making before they met that morning. Thus, it is more powerful to discuss how to prevent such scenes than providing guidance about how to respond in such situations. In the life world of the school in which this event took place, high-stakes testing ruled nearly every aspect of the school’s modus operandi and contributed to creating a scene in which the principal and Ruben’s parents found themselves on opposite sides. To prevent this situation, we echo Artiles et al.’s (2006) argument that for inclusive education to fulfill its promises, we must design and test transformative approaches that address individual needs as well as historical and structural forces. According to Fraser (1997), transformative remedies address injustices by restructuring the root causes that generate them, in contrast to affirmative remedies that address injustices by changing social outcomes without altering the social orders that created the injustices in the first place. Accordingly, transformative approaches to accountability will require moving from top-down leadership approaches to local approaches in which parents, teachers, students, and administrators meaningfully participate in deciding not only to whom schools should be accountable to, but also how and for what schools should be held accountable. Hargreaves and Braun (2013) argue that these questions of accountability

are most likely to be resolved when there is collaborative involvement in data collection and analysis, collective responsibility for improvement, and a consensus that the indicators and metrics involved are accurate, meaningful, fair, broad and balanced. When these conditions are absent, improvement efforts and outcomes-based accountability can work at cross-purposes, resulting in distraction from core purposes, gaming of the system and even outright corruption and cheating. This is particularly the case when test-based accountability mandates punitive consequences for failing to meet numerical targets that have been determined arbitrarily and imposed hierarchically. (p. i)

In other words, accountability should be driven by the values of communities and not by just what is easily measured. Stakeholders (i.e., parents, students, administrators, and teachers) should drive rather than be driven by accountability measures (Hargreaves & Braun, 2013). Values informing a transformative approach to accountability should include the capacity of schools to redistribute quality opportunities to learn, recognize and value students’ differences, and provide all stakeholders meaningful opportunities to participate in decision-making.


The first author acknowledges the support of the American Educational Research Association’s Minority Dissertation Fellowship, the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Office of Special Education Programs leadership grant #H325D050017, and the support of the Urban Professional Learning Schools Initiative under the Office of Special Education Program grant # H325T070009. Funding agency endorsement of the ideas expressed in this article should not be inferred. The first author also thanks the support and mentorship from Alfredo J. Artiles (Dissertation Chair) and Elizabeth B. Kozleski, Principal Investigator of the project from which the case study examined in this article emerged from.  Support from members of the research team, including Laura Atkinson, Taucia Gonzales, and Lisa Lacy, is also acknowledged.  


1. By attendance-boundary school we refer to traditional neighborhood schools that provide guaranteed access (as opposed to selective enrollment or lottery-based forms of enrollment) to students living within a determined geographical boundary.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 14, 2016, p. 1-24
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About the Author
  • Federico Waitoller
    University of Illinois at Chicago
    E-mail Author
    FEDERICO R. WAITOLLER is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses on urban inclusive education. His most recent publications include "Teacher Learning as Curating: Becoming Inclusive Educators in School/University Partnerships" published in Teaching and Teacher Education, and "No Stone Left Unturned: Exploring the Convergence of New Capitalism in Inclusive Education in the U.S.” published in Education Policy Analysis Archives.
  • Barbara Pazey
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    BARBARA L. PAZEY is an Assistant Professor in the departments of special education and educational administration at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on inclusive urban education and disability policy. Her most recent publications include “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: Comparing Special Education Students’ Experiences of Accountability Reform Across Two Decades,” published in The Urban Review, and “Incorporating Quality of Life Concepts into Educational Reform,” published in Journal of Disability Policy Studies.
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