Preservice Elementary Teachers’ Understandings of Competing Notions of Academic Achievement Coexisting in Post-NCLB Public Schools

Jan. 03, 2013

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 115, No. 1, January 2013, p. 1-37.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the authors focus on the coexisting discourses of academic achievement circulating within in the participants’ teaching credential preparation experience.

The authors present the data, drawn from the first two sets of interviews completed for a larger study of preservice teachers’ understandings of the relationship between sociocultural factors and academic achievement, that document the participants’ confusion and uncertainty about the meaning of “academic achievement.”

They draw from the notion of discourse, as theorized by Michel Foucault, to foreground the need to establish specific terminology—namely, academic progress and academic success—to clarify the various aspects of academic achievement and to facilitate discussion of this critically important construct.

The participants were twelve undergraduate students enrolled in an elementary (prekindergarten to Grade 4) teacher education program at an urban university in the Southern United States.


NCLB requires that the academic achievement of all students must be the highest professional priority of U.S. public school teachers.
Yet the participants’ comments revealed confusion about the meaning of “academic achievement.”

Analysis and interpretation of the participants’ transcripts revealed the presence of two separate, distinct discourses, both of which shared the name academic achievement.
The first notion, called “academic progress”, reflects a developmental viewpoint.
In this perspective, students are understood to have experienced academic achievement when they demonstrate levels of skill and knowledge more advanced than they held previously.
The second notion, called “academic success”, reflects a mastery orientation.
In this perspective, students are understood to be achieving academically when they master the knowledge and skills designated for their grade level at an appropriate pace.

The participants’ personal definitions of academic achievement reflected the academic progress perspective.
At the same time, however, the participants also expressed concern and confusion about the relationship between their academic progress view of academic achievement and the academic success view of academic achievement they expected to encounter as practicing teachers contending with NCLB-driven policy mandates.
This understanding of academic achievement raised concerns for participants, who worried about how best to manage this tension in their future teaching careers.

In a few instances, participants attempt to balance the tension between their personal philosophy and the expectations set by federal and state policy by determining a specific time period or grade level in which teachers would be justified in preparing students for standardized testing.
Yet even in these cases, preservice teachers expressed confusion about the apparent disconnection between what they viewed as the correct, ideal understanding of student achievement—academic progress— and the professional expectations they were held accountable for meeting—academic success.

At the conclusion of their first semester of professional development courses and supervised classroom field placements, the participants maintained their growth-centered beliefs about academic achievement.
In the second set of interviews, the participants recognized a gap between their belief in the importance of academic progress and the NCLB-driven emphasis on academic success they saw bearing down on their cooperating teachers and the upper-grade teachers at their placement schools.

Furthermore, the findings illustrate the powerful hold that the discourse of growth and progress has on these preservice teachers’ conception of the nature of teachers’ work.
The participants seemed to perceive teachers as playing a passive role, providing support and encouragement to students as they developed new skills at a pace dictated by their own natural, immutable inner timetables.
At this point in their professional preparation, none of the participants appeared to recognize the active role that teachers play in facilitating students’ learning or paused to consider teachers’ professional accountability for their students’ academic accomplishments.


The findings suggest that all preservice teachers need carefully guided opportunities to examine their assumptions and beliefs, to explore the competing notions of academic progress and academic success coexisting within the term academic achievement, and to examine the ways in which these key distinctions should be taken into consideration in their practical decision-making.

The authors propose, then, that by helping teacher candidates to make sense of and talk about the competing discourses of achievement they may encounter in their teaching lives, they will be better equipped to negotiate expectations that stand in opposition to one another and that may restrict student learning.

Updated: May. 20, 2014