Green (2011) argues that accountability is a difficult concept to define, but that, ‘at the level of policy governance…’accountability’ has come to have a very specialized meaning, one associated with ‘satisfactory audit’’. This has led to official structures to carry out such audits, in England for example this is the role of Ofsted. In turn, school management and teacher work have become focused on examination results, a test of efficiency and effectiveness, as there is an assumed link between student results and the quality of teachers (Labaree, 2011). As an aside, this is in stark contrast to some, mostly Asian systems which focus on improving teaching as opposed to focusing on the results associated with teachers (Stigler and Hiebert, 1999). Policy-led accountability has also impacted on the way in which teacher work itself is understood, leading to the introduction of systems of official teacher standards, giving an explicit framework for what teachers should know, how they should act, and hence, how they should develop their expertise over time. By binding such frameworks together with examination outcomes and the need for efficiency, performance management has become a central point in the accountability system for teachers. By incorporating teacher standards into this system, teacher professionalism has been made a formal, and policy-driven process, what Whitty (2014) calls ‘official national professionalism’, and Evans (2011) ‘performative professionalism’. Many of the policy developments which have been introduced since 1988 are merely different attempts to intensify and refine a system of accountability, in some cases with ever greater potential for micro-management from the political centre.
However, with the constant advance of policy, leading to associated change for schools and teachers, comes the potential for ever greater impacts on the work and professional identity of teachers. Valli and Buese (2007) argue that there has been a shift in teacher roles in the USA, with both extensification and intensification of work. The extensification is identified by the constant rise in activities which need to be completed outside of the classroom; new curricula to be planned, increasing levels of testing and the need to record all aspects of teacher work so as to make it available for accountability purposes. Intensification has also occurred, with ever greater drives towards efficiency in how time is used, leading to teachers feeling constantly time pressured. Some of these patterns are discernible in England, with teachers now spending more of their time on activities outside of teaching than with their students (DfE, 2017). Day and Smethem (2009) stress that the constant increases in the need to service accountability measures leads to ever greater levels of workload amongst teachers. The greater levels of workload drive aspects of work intensification, and both together lead to incremental loss of professional autonomy. This in turn leads to greater feeling of time pressure and can lead to demotivation.
Several researchers point out the potential negative impacts that accountability-related pressures can precipitate. Berryhill et al (2009) working in the USA make a link between increases in accountability processes and teacher burnout. They create a constant level of high pressure from which there is no escape. Over time this can lead to feelings of ineffectiveness, exhaustion, of be emotionally drained and a lack of achievement, all symptoms of burnout. They make the case that these feelings tend to have one or both of two causes. The first is role conflict where teachers believe the aims they are being asked to meet are incompatible with each other, leading to exhaustion as they attempt to make them fit. The second is a lack of self-efficacy. Where teachers are constantly operating under the direction of others, they have little opportunity to show and develop their own professionalism. This can lead to demotivation and a feeling of time pressure (Wood, 2019). However, where teachers are given greater levels of autonomy, they actually begin to work harder and longer hours as they are motivated by the work they have identified as being important to them and their students.
The pressures relating to accountability are not consistent in their impact across an education system. Schmidt and Datnow (2005) stress the importance of values, beliefs and prior experiences in how teachers make sense of policy shifts. As they point out,
‘Reforms that conflict with teachers’ own moral purposes inevitably become ethical dilemmas for teachers, especially when they involve compliance with a policy that conflicts with their concerns for their students.’ (951)
Our values and emotions play an important role in our sensemaking of the world. Teachers are no different, evaluating policies and potential change to practice through these lens, framed by their prior experiences to decide what they are comfortable in advocating as professional practice. When suggested changes fit with values and prior knowledge, they will have a good chance of being embedded in practice, where they don’t they will tend to be resisted. What Schmidt and Datnow (2005) stress is that where teachers can see that a change has a positive impact on their students, they will tend to have a more positive view of the policy being introduced. Their research demonstrates the importance of seeing policy enactment as both complex and driven by values and experience, and underpinned by a strong ethic of care towards their students.
As outlined above, much of the literature stresses the negative impacts of rising accountability in school systems, but Day and Smethem (2009) emphasise that whilst these dangers and effects are real, they are not ubiquitous. They are critical of the changing system in the same way as many other researchers, but also highlight that some teachers are content, particularly younger teachers who have no alternative to compare their experiences to.
The research strongly suggests that the policy shifts since the late 1980s have brought an ever expanding accountability agenda, supported by agencies and frameworks to ensure these changes are embedded, at least at a surface level. This has brought fundamental change to teacher activity, with more and more focus on accountability, standards frameworks for professional development, and a resulting explosion of work.
Berryhill, J., Linney, J. A., & Fromewick, J. (2009) ‘The Effects of Education Accountability on Teachers: Are Policies Too-Stress Provoking for Their Own Good?’ International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 4:5, 1-14.
Day, C. & Smethem, L. (2009) ‘The effects of reform: have teachers really lost their sense of professionalism?’ Journal of Educational Change, 10:2-3, 141-157.
Department for Education (2017) Teacher Workload Survey 2016: Research report. London: DfE. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/592499/TWS_2016_FINAL_Research_report_Feb_2017.pdf (accessed 2 June 2018).
Evans, L. (2011) ‘The ‘Shape’ of Teacher Professionalism in England: Professional Standards, Performance Management, Professional Development and the Changes Proposed in the 2010 White Paper.’ British Educational Research Journal, 37:5, 851–870.
Green, J. (2011) Education, Professionalism, and the Quest for Accountability Abingdon: Routledge.
Labaree, D.F. (2011) ‘Targeting Teachers’ Dissent, 58:3, 9-14.
Sahlberg, P. (2012) Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Teachers’ College Press.
Schmidt, M. & Datnow, A. (2005) ‘Teachers’ sense-making about comprehensive school reform: The influence of emotions.’ Teaching and Teacher Education, 21:8, 949-965.
Stigler, J.W. & Heibert, J. (1999) The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom New York: Free Press.
Sugrue, C. (2006) ‘A Critical Appraisal of the Impact of International Agencies on Educational Reforms and Teachers' Lives and Work: The Case of Ireland? European Educational Research Journal, https://doi.org/10.2304/eerj.2006.5.3.181
Valli and Buese (2007) ‘The Changing Roles of Teachers in an Era of High-Stakes Accountability’ American Educational Research Journal, https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831207306859
Whitty, G. (2014) ‘Recent Developments in Teacher Training and Their Consequences for the ‘University Project’ in Education.’ Oxford Review of Education, 40:4, 466–481.
Wood,P. (2019) ‘Rethinking time in the workload debate’ Management in Education https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020618823481