Teacher Learning in an Era of High-Stakes Accountability: Productive Tension and Critical Professional Practice

Jan. 10, 2011

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 113 Number 1, 2011, p. 133-180.

With the installation of No Child Left Behind, teachers, particularly those who serve marginalized students, have increasingly been told what and how to teach.
Yet we know little about how teachers who have been specially prepared to serve marginalized populations respond to accountability demands within tightly controlled contexts, such as those commonly found in “underperforming” schools.

Purpose of Study

This study draws on social learning and activity theories to examine the specific factors that support equity-minded teachers to navigate accountability-driven language arts reforms.
Furthermore, the study examines the specific barriers that might hinder teachers from serving marginalized students—particularly English Learners—in an era of accountability, and how particular contextual factors mediate teachers’ responses to accountability pressures.

The study was conducted in three different “underperforming” schools in California, predominately comprised of Spanish-speaking English Learners.

Three highly qualified, upper-elementary teachers, who earned their bilingual (Spanish/English) teaching credentials and Master’s degrees from three different equity-focused teacher preparation programs.
Research Design
The research design is qualitative case study.

Data collection
Data collection took place between September 2003 and December 2004 and consisted of teacher interviews, classroom observations, principal interviews, and focus group interviews.


Initial coding identified patterns in teachers’ technical, normative, and political responses to accountability-related pressures in the area of language arts. Further analyses illuminated variations in teachers’ responses and emphasized how contextual factors, especially that of local leadership, mediated teacher learning and agency in the context of school change. Specifically, when principals provided teachers with opportunities to grapple with reforms they found objectionable and to apply innovations to their classroom practice, a “productive tension” led the teachers towards important professional learning and instructional improvement.


Findings underscore the importance of balanced leadership in an era of high- stakes accountability, particularly as it relates to teacher professionalism, learning, and agency.

Updated: Oct. 10, 2011