Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 1: The Changing Teaching Profession and You/Accountability in Education

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New Trend #3: Accountability in Education[edit]

In recent years, the general public and public leaders have begun expecting schools, teachers, and students to be more accountable for their work, meaning that schools and teachers are held responsible for their educational activities, and that students are held responsible for learning particular amounts or types of knowledge. Among other effects, the trend toward accountability has increased the legal requirements for becoming and (sometimes) remaining certified as a teacher. Preservice teachers (which include many of you reading this book) need more subject-area and education-related courses than previously, for example, must often spend more time practice teaching than in the past, and have to pass one or more examinations of their knowledge of subject matter and teaching strategies. The specifics of these requirements vary among the states and school districts, which hold primary jurisdiction over them. But the general trend—toward more numerous and “higher” levels of requirements—has occurred broadly across the United States, and even throughout the English-speaking nations of the world. The changes obviously affect individuals’ experiences of becoming a teacher—including the speed or ease with which they can do so, and sometimes even whether an individual manages to become a teacher at all.

High-Stakes Testing For students, public expectation of accountability for learning has led to increased use of high-stakes testing. These are tests, often with a structured format such as multiple-choice, given to all students in a school district, region, or particular state or province (Fuhrman & Elmore, 2004).[1] High-stakes tests by definition have important consequences for students, such as influencing the final grade they receive, or influencing whether a student is allowed to graduate or to continue on to the next level of schooling. Such testing raises important questions about what teachers should teach, as well as how (and whether) they can help students to pass such examinations. It also raises issues about whether high-stakes testing is in fact fair to all students and therefore consistent with other ideals of public education, such as giving all students the best possible start in life instead of screening out or disqualifying individuals. Furthermore, since the results of high-stakes tests are sometimes also used to evaluate the performance of teachers, schools or school districts, insuring students’ success on them can become an obvious concern for teachers—one that can affect many of their instructional decisions on a daily basis. For this reason I discuss the purpose, nature and effects of high-stakes tests at length in Chapters 10 and 11. Here in Chapter 1, however, it is more important to understand the most prominent source of the general trend toward accountability, the No Child Left Behind Act.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 One of the most visible, recent expressions of the trend toward accountability in the United States is Public Law 107-110, usually called the No Child Left Behind Act (or NCLB) (United States Government Printing Office, 2002).[2] The law places conditions on states’ receiving money from the Federal government to support students from low-income families—which in practice includes virtually every state in the nation. To receive such funding, NCLB requires that a state do the following:

  • The state must create a system for assessing how well schools are performing—for example by giving annual tests of how well low-achieving students are doing, or by keeping records of the graduation rates of low-achieving students. The state must also determine minimum levels of acceptable performance on these measures, which the law calls the adequate yearly progress (or AYP) for the school. The law requires that all schools eventually demonstrate AYP.
  • The state must also insure that all of its teachers are “highly qualified,” meaning that they have fulfilled the state’s certification and licensing requirements. For any new teacher, the law also requires possessing at least a bachelor’s degree, as well as taking special licensing exams related to the teacher’s area or level of teaching.
  • The state must measure the educational progress of its students every year in language arts and math, and every few years in science. In practice this requirement insures the use of some sort of high-stakes testing in these areas, in the sense described above.
  • The state must keep parents informed not only of their child’s educational progress, as schools have done traditionally, but also about whether their child’s school is meeting the standards of adequate yearly progress. In addition, if the child’s teacher does not meet the standard of being “highly qualified” as described above, then the state is required to inform parents of this fact as well.
  • Finally, the law requires that schools failing to make adequate yearly progress for any significant time must offer parents the option of sending their child to another school, or of receiving special tutoring or after-school assistance. By law, too, parents must be involved in planning improvements to their child’s school.

For teachers, there is both good news and worrisome news in these provisions (Harris & Herrington, 2006; Borkowski & Sneed, 2006).[3][4] The good news is that the law focuses the attention of schools, parents, and political leaders on something teachers have long known: that achievement is very low for certain groups of students, whether because of poverty, students’ disabilities, or racial prejudices. Potentially, therefore, NCLB can stimulate more effort (and funds) to make education a more truly democratic, equalizing influence on society—a goal that many educators support at least in principle. Another benefit is that the NCLB legislation increases parents’ choice about and influence over their child’s education, both by keeping them informed of the quality of education the child is receiving and by involving parents in making plans for improving their child’s school. These changes make parents potential partners of teachers in devising the best education possible for children.

The worrisome news takes two forms. One is that the methods for insuring a school’s AYP may not be valid (Glassford, 2005; Lubienski, 2005).[5][6] Critics point out that it is the states, not the Federal government, that set the standards for AYP, so states may have an incentive to set somewhat low standards of AYP so that as many of its schools can receive Federal funding as possible. For teachers (as well as for parents and students), this tendency could translate into continued gaps in achievement for disadvantaged students—continued lack of materials or qualified staff for schools serving high proportions of these students, alongside comparative abundance of materials and staff for the more well-off.

The testing required by NCLB has been a special focus of concern by some educators (Rudalevige, 2005).[7] Some point out that students likely to perform below average—such as those with a specific reading disability or those who speak English as a second language—are required to take yearly testing in language arts, they could lower a school’s overall performance and therefore jeopardize its status as making truly “adequate” yearly progress. Others fear that school districts might be tempted to manipulate the testing process so as to exclude students likely to perform poorly (e.g. students with certain sorts of disabilities) and thereby raise the overall performance of the school. Still other educators remind us that yearly testing could lead many teachers to “teach to the test”—tailoring an undue amount of their teaching not to what students should know in general, but to what they need specifically to pass a particular yearly high-stakes test (Neil, 2003; Volante, 2004).[8][9] In addition, curriculum areas not related directly to the yearly testing, such as music, the arts, or physical education, might suffer as funds are diverted from them into activities that relate directly to preparing students for their annual test. These possibilities would affect the daily work of most teachers quite directly, both in terms of what teachers teach as well as how they teach.


  1. Fuhrman, S. & Elmore, R. (2004). Redesigning accountability systems for education. New York: Teachers College Press.
  2. United States Government Printing Office. (2002). No Child Left Behind Act: A desktop reference. Washington, D.C.: Author
  3. Harris, D. & Herrington, C. (2006). Accountability, standards, and the growing achievement gap: Lessons from the past half-century. American Journal of Education, 112(2), 163-208.
  4. Borkowski, J. & Sneed, M. (2006). Will NCLB improve or harm public education? Harvard Educational Review, 76(4), 503-526.
  5. Glassford, L. (2005). Triumph of politics over pedagogy? The case of the Ontario Teacher Qualifying Test. In Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Issue#45. Retrieved on August 7, 2007.
  6. Lubienski, C. (2005). Public schools in marketized environments: Shifting incentives and unintended consequences of competition-based educational reforms. American Journal of Education, 111(4), 464-486.
  7. Rudalevige, A. (2005, August). Reform or séance? Seeking the “spirit” of the No Child Left Behind. Teachers College Record. Online at Teachers College Record Online, ID# 12112.
  8. Neil, M. (2003). The dangers of testing. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 43-46.
  9. Volante, L. (2004). Teaching to the test: What every educator and policy-maker should know. Online at Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Issue#35.