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The Impact of High Stakes Accountability Systems and the New Performance Demands on Special Education Teachers' Attitudes, Beliefs and Practice


The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) articulates the goal that all children can learn and are expected to achieve grade level academic proficiency by 2014. Based on theories underlying models of extrinsic motivation, the fundamental assumption and theory of action is that a system of rewards and sanctions will motivate teachers to focus on student learning and work harder. While the mandate that students with disabilities participate in large-scale, statewide assessment and reporting systems makes explicit the academic progress of students with disabilities, the primary measurement tool, standardized tests, were not designed with students with disabilities in mind. Consequently, the goals special education teachers are supposed to be striving for may or may not be suitable for their students - a population with presumably very different educational needs than students in general education.

This in-depth study examines how accountability pressures and performance targets mandated for all students impacted a small number of special education teachers. While there is a considerable body of work investigating the effect of high-stakes assessment and accountability mandates on teachers in general education, generally, special education teachers' plight has been neglected. Although the mechanisms and underlying concepts for understanding teacher responses to accountability may be the same for general and special education, special education teachers are under a more accentuated strain, given the wide gap that often separates their students from the demanded norm.

The study found that the special education teachers faced a true dilemma: across the spectrum of teachers contradictory solutions - some embraced the new demands, some rejected them - seemed equally untenable. A problem that cannot be solved turns into a dilemma that must be coped with. Each teacher in my study is unique in how he or she copes with the dilemma. The study reveals four salient dimensions: what teachers chose to see when they viewed the achievement gap; how they rationalized (or explained away) their agency or capacity in closing the gap; how they muddled through with instructional tactics to make the gap go away, regardless of their beliefs; and what they regarded and guarded, as fields of professional responsibility and autonomous decison making.

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