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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

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.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 9, 2017, p. 1-39 ID Number: 22047, Date Accessed: 11/15/2018 6:27:12 PM

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