Reshaping teacher professionalism. An analysis of how teachers construct and negotiate professionalism under increasing accountability
This thesis explores how the teacher profession in Norway constructs and negotiates professionalism when teacher professionalism is reconstructed in national policy. I am particularly concerned with the increased policy emphasis on accountability and how accountability policies influence senses of professionalism. There is limited knowledge about how teachers in Norway respond to accountability policies. Moreover, existing international research on changes in teacher professionalism in the last two decades largely rely on document analysis or interviews. In this study, the empirical data consists of white papers, policy documents from the union, participant observation of teacher meetings, focus group interviews, individual interviews with teachers, and in addition, 28 peer-reviewed articles. Theoretical perspectives on policy enactment and professionalism are employed, and in what ways and to what extent educational policy discourse intersects with teachers’ professional discourse are investigated through a discourse-inspired approach. Taken together, these perspectives enable discussions around relationships between constructions of professionalism made by different actors, how it is related to more defining, substantial aspects of teaching, and in what ways language is used to create legitimacy and relevance for teachers’ work. In the first article, I investigate how policy makers and the teachers’ union have constructed teacher professionalism over the last decade in particular. Both actors are increasingly being concerned with professionalism, yet give different meaning to the term. While the policy makers place emphasis on teacher accountability, research-based practise and specialisation, the teachers’ union emphasises research-informed practise, responsibility for educational quality and professional ethics. The constructions from the teachers’ union are, however, more closely related to classical professional ideals. The union mainly resists accountability policies, but appears increasingly proactive in terms of how it places emphasis on research as a way of enhancing professionalism, in combination with an emphasis on taking responsibility for quality in education. In the second article, I examine how groups of teachers locally give meaning to accountability. Through using internal and external accountability as sensitising concepts, I attempt to ‘open up’ the concept of accountability by studying how teachers themselves construct discourses around being accountable. Being accountable for student learning, to the curriculum, to laws and regulations, and to principals and parents, is highlighted as important, particularly by younger teachers. Veteran teachers are more concerned with being accountable for broader aims of education and to professional knowledge and experience, which are also used to de-legitimise accountability policies. However, in this tension between internal and external accountability, an alternative legitimation discourse of being accountable to research and scientific knowledge has developed. In the third article, I elaborate on what takes place when accountability policies are implemented locally and more precisely how teachers in meetings negotiate around the concrete and mandated practise of national testing. Tensions that are created in interaction revolve around what is seen as internal (teachers’ everyday work) and external (policies and practises outside the main frame of teaching) to teachers’ work. There are particularly four issues that are found to be at stake for teachers with national testing: professional knowledge, the curriculum, the formative aspects of teaching and loyalty to the students. These aspects are mainly placed as internal to the participating teachers. However, even though national testing mainly is placed as external to teachers’ work, teachers involve in boundary work and reshape professional discourse to create relevance and maintain legitimacy following new expectations. In the fourth article, I add an international perspective by reviewing what existing research reports on possible changes in teachers’ relations to students and colleagues following accountability policies and standardised testing in particular. This study provides knowledge about what might be social effects of accountability policies as implemented in more high-stakes contexts. A greater focus on testing and performance is reported to often lead to less attention to caring and relational aspects of teaching. However, the same emphasis on positive social relationships might prompt teachers to resist such developments. Relationships to colleagues are also affected, yet reported to be changing in both positive and negative directions. These findings point to the importance of the organisational context of teaching in terms of how accountability is realised. The findings in this thesis contribute empirically to document shifts in discourses of teacher professionalism among policy makers and the teachers’ union, and suggest that the profession in Norway has become more proactive in terms of creating legitimacy for their work. Both the union and teachers locally make forms of resistance toward external control, such as national testing. This is more strongly articulated by the union whilst being more subtle and varied among teachers’ locally. First, younger teachers seem to be more balanced over new demands. Second, an alternative legitimation discourse has developed as the profession places more emphasis on what can be described as research-informed practise. While accountability mainly is placed outside teachers’ value systems, research is more greatly placed within. However, accountability policies such as national testing influence teacher work also in a low-stakes context such as Norway. The thesis has shown different ways in which the profession does legitimation and boundary work in this context, and how teachers create relevance and legitimacy for accountability practices that are mandated (national tests) even though they challenge professional knowledge and values. Therefore, an answer to the question whether accountability policies reshape teacher professionalism is yes, partly. On the one hand, teachers have become more concerned with evidence and justifying practise. On the other hand, they are more resistant in terms of outcomes and more specifically the tools that are implemented to enhance outcomes. The ways that this is done, that is, what is placed inside and outside of teachers’ main frame of teaching, is important knowledge for politicians given the relatively strong belief in accountability as a policy theory of action. Theoretically, the thesis can contribute to how including perspectives on professions and professionalism adds a dimension to the study of accountability policies that can suggest possibly interpretations of why teachers resist external accountability, and how this takes place through discursive legitimation and boundary work. This discursive work can be interpreted in light of what I describe as the ‘double-loop’ character of teacher accountability, that is, how teachers are accountable for what the students in turn are accountable for. If policies intersect with teachers’ work in classrooms in ways that they experience as decreasing rather than enhancing student motivation and engagement and emphasising a more instrumental view on learning rather than a broader view, this creates tensions for teachers that needs to be resolved to create relevance and legitimacy. How teachers attempt to resolve such tensions that take place can be interpreted from a performative perspective, how teachers reshape what they do or not do in their classrooms due to aspects of professional knowledge and values, or from an organisational perspective, that teachers reshape professional discourse to remain in control over the classroom. Methodologically, this thesis contributes to how analysis of language-use provides a useful and fruitful lens into these processes. I have discussed how discourse analysis can be used to think about the relation between policy and practise, yet in ways that combines attention to actors’ first-order constructs and theoretical interpretations.