Constrained Professionalism: Dilemmas of Teaching in the Face of Test-Based Accountability

Apr. 30, 2009

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 111 Number 4, 2009, p. 1065-1114


In response to state-level test-based accountability and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, school administrators increasingly view centralized curriculum. They also prescribed instructional strategies as the most direct means of increasing student performance. This movement toward standardization reduces teachers’ autonomy and control over their classroom practices. The consequences of test-based accountability on teacher practice are often conceptualized as a tension between teacher professionalism and standardization.

Focus of Study

This case study examines the classroom instruction of an experienced teacher in an elementary school where the principal supported teachers’ autonomy and authority over curriculum and instruction. Examining her instructional practice in social studies, a subject not included in state testing, the authors demonstrate how specific teaching dilemmas that arose in response to state testing led to a new type of professionalism that they call constrained professionalism.

Setting: This qualitative case study focuses on social studies instruction in a fifth-grade classroom at a rural elementary school in southern California serving a low-income, diverse student population with a large percentage of English language learners. The school was selected for two reasons: (1) as a low-performing but improving elementary school as measured by state testing, the school was under pressure to continue to raise student test scores, and (2) social studies continued to be part of the elementary curriculum.

Data Collection: Data collection extended over a 10-month period and included observation and videotaping of social studies lessons, interviews with the teacher and principal, and document collection. Observation and videotaping covered virtually all the social lessons during the school year in the teacher’s classroom, a total of 66 lessons.

Results: As state-mandated testing was instituted, administrative support of teacher autonomy continued, but constraints on this teacher’s decisions emerged as instructional time and resources shifted to language arts and mathematics. Although able to make independent decisions, this qualified teacher did not teach social studies in the way she believed would best serve her students’ needs and interests.


The results demonstrate how teachers’ professional discretion is being minimized in subtle yet consequential ways amid high-stakes testing, even in subject areas not tested by the state. Constrained professionalism represents a new situation in which teachers retain autonomy in classroom practices. However, their decisions are significantly circumscribed by contextual pressures and time demands that devalue their professional experience, judgment, and expertise.

Updated: Mar. 16, 2009