2013. Vol.4, No.7, 452-460
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ce) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2013.47065
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Perspectives on Policy/Practice (Dis)Connection—Special
Educators Turned Teacher Educators’ Points of View
Kathryn S. Y o un g 1, Svjetlana Curcic2
1Department of Teacher Education, Metropolitan State University of Denver, Denver, USA
2School of Education, University of Mississippi, Oxford, USA
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Received November 30 th, 2012; revised March 14th, 2013; accepted March 22nd, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Kathryn S. Young, Svjetlana Curcic. This is an open access article distributed under the Crea-
tive Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any me-
dium, provided the o riginal work is properly cited.
Educational policy and practice have long been disconnected. This paper explores the experiences of two
former teachers turned teacher educators as they examine unintended consequences of policy reform. This
paper positions No Child Left Behind’s and Individuals with D isabilities Education Act’s “Highly Quali-
fied Teachers,” “Annual Yearly Progress,” and the issues of “evidence-based practices” alongside the au-
thors’ personal school-based examples to demonstrate (dis)connections between policy, schools, and
classrooms. The analysis provides a critique of these policies to demonstrate where teacher educators can
take an active role in helping future teachers understand implications of these policies.
Keywords: Special Education; Teacher Education; Policy; No Child Left Behind; Highly Qualified
Teacher; Annual Yearly Progress; Evidence-Based Practices
Teacher education lies at the intersection between policy and
practice. Teacher educators are often called on as part of state
and federal educational committees. They act as a conduit for
understanding how policy affects schools and teachers, and can
help determine future policy directions as well. This paper high-
lights both authors’ experiences as teachers and as teacher edu-
cators in order to provide experiential accounts of policies, and
pitfalls with these policies, in action.
Specifically, we examine current policies that seek to ame-
liorate this divide by providing “researched-based practices” as
a response. The growing (dis)connection between research and
practice is evident in examination of No Child Left Behind’s
(2001) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (2004)
“Highly Qualified Teachers,” “Annual Yearly Progress,” and
examination of “evidenced-based practices.” Although some
parts of NCLB and IDEA were developed from a research-
practice connection, with some findings in contention, there are
also unintended consequences and disconnections between these
policies and real classrooms with real teachers and students.
These consequences are not often well defined in the research
Before we turn to current policy initiatives, we offer a short
historical summary of prior educational policy initiatives. Cur-
rent educational policy arises from what was determined to be
failed educational polices during the Great Society of the 1960s
and 1970s (Rogers & Oakes, 2005; Sarason, 1990). Technical-
focused equity reforms like desegregation and compensatory
education were determined to have “no-effects findings” (Dar-
ling-Hammond, 1990; Rogers & Oakes, 2005) leading the pub-
lic and policy makers to believe that these policies did not work.
The result of no-effects findings led to greater regulation which
attempted to create greater adherence to policy initiatives by
schools or to remove support from schools that did not adhere
to new initiatives (Darling-Ha mmond, 1990; McLaughlin, 1 987).
In order to achieve greater articulation and adherence of these
policies to practices a “cadre of professional ‘change agents’
seeking to help educators implement researched-based ‘effec-
tive schools’” arose (Rogers & Oakes, 2005: p. 2184). These
change agents hoped to convey educational improvements to
schools and school districts. Rogers and Oakes provide exam-
ples of change agents as educational consultants and of those
who push for “large-scale sy stemic reform designe d to align cur-
riculum, teaching, and assessment, and school ‘restructuring’”
(p. 2184). Systemic reforms include privatization in the form of
vouchers and school choice and an intense rise in research-
based practices with catchy titles like Reading First, Response
to Intervention, Read 180, and Everyday Math—all with the
hope of aligning curriculum, teaching, and assessment. This
“era of accountability” links alignment of curriculum, teaching
and assessment to these educational reforms and to school im-
provement (King, 2006). It is hoped that testing, as the pre-
dominant measure of accountability, will also “raise organiza-
tional and instructional capacity” in schools (Greenlee & Bru-
ner, 2001: p. 2) and “serve to influence the teaching-learning
process” (King, 2006: p. 27). In this paper we argue that the
theory of action from accountability to attainment is not so
linear and abounds with implementation tensions. We use insti-
tutional theory to help explicate some disconnects we experi-
ence(d) between policy and practice.
Institutional theory helps explain why policies do not “trickle
down” as intended and instead become “rationalized myths”
where policies are implemented as a veneer of change rather
than actual educational change (Meyer & Rowan, 1977). For
K. S. YOUNG, S. CURCIC
example, one myth behind NCLB is that greater accountability
of schools coupled with tighter sanctions will improve students’
academic achievement. Policies, as rationalized myths, depend
on “the fact that they are widely shared, or have been promul-
gated by individuals or groups that have been granted the right
to determine such matters” (Scott, 1983: p. 14). NCLB has been
rationalized through promulgation and political backing from
both houses of Congress as well as from local actors like school
boards and parent groups. NCLB has gained “social legiti-
macy” in the eyes of insiders and outsides alike (Scott, 2004).
Myths of accountability have become so taken-for-granted
that they become acceptable norms in schools and in society
(Bowker & Star, 1999). It is difficult to argue with these groups
who argue that schools should be accountable for children’s
learning—that part seems quite rational. However, Ellison and
Kritsonis (2006) quote English (2003) in a cautionary note, as
saying the “data driven” movement is based on the assumption
that “hard data will provide a quantitatively and qualitatively
better base and framework for decisions which will lead to
improved (more accurate, timely, reliable) decisions” (p. 3). In-
stitutional theory provides a frame for examining policies, pro-
cedures, and curricula in relation to claims of accountability
and improved student learning often found in the rhetoric sup-
porting NCLB because it entails a myth—a veneer of educa-
tional change—where there is little evidence that demonstrates
how schools truly operate differently than before.
Another example shines through in the work of Grubb, Kin-
law, Posey, and Young (2011) who examined twelve cases of
elementary and secondary schools that were working to im-
prove educational outcomes for their low performing students—
mostly through the intensification of reading and math instruc-
tion. These schools were trying to meet NCLB mandates.
Grubb and colleagues found that many of the schools adopted a
“more of the same” approach to improving student learning.
Students received “more” reading or math instruction, not in-
structionally innovative strategies for learning math and reading.
In Grubb et al.’s study, the schools employed reading and math
strategies that were sanctioned by the state, thus legitimizing
those educational changes. However, because the strategies were
not innovative, they just promulgated the rationalized myth of a
veneer of educational change without truly enacting teaching
and learning differently.
More than twenty years ago Darling-Hammond and Wise
(1981) began exploring teachers’ responses to educational pol-
icy. They and their colleagues found that policy can never be
implemented as written because of institutional and personal
responses to that policy (Darling-Hammond, 1990; Elmore,
1983; Spillane et al., 2002). This paper provides analysis of
three seemingly well-intended policy initiatives and the ways
they “trickled down” to schools and classrooms. The two au-
thors of this paper, both former special educators and now tea-
cher educators and educational researchers, provide their own
experiences and understandings as teachers, teacher educators,
and educational researchers of how educational policies affect-
ed our classrooms and those we visit and observe. Even though
other studies examine these factors, this study demonstrates
tensions we as teachers, and classroom observers, felt and con-
tinue to feel as we try to understand and implement new policy
directives (Cohen & Spillane, 19 92; Weatherly & Lipsky, 1977).
These tensions highlight micro-occurrences that complicate po-
licy adoption in real schools. These tensions also provide an
ideal forum for teacher educators to examine these issues with
each other and with their students.
Policy and Practice Disconnection—A Legacy
Disconnection between educational policy and practice is not
new. Elmore and McLaughlin (1988) examined federal educa-
tional reform policies of the 1950s and 1960s like curriculum
development in math, science, and social studies, compensatory
education for students in grades K-3, and monetary incentives
to improve academic performance of low-income youth to de-
termine the mistakes made by policymakers in education policy
implementation. More than 20 years after their study and 60
years after the policies they analyzed, we still struggle with
many of the sa me issues and what policies might have an effect
on entrenched schooling practices and on students’ academic
results. Hallinan (1996) takes a second tack and points to the
different agendas of researchers, policy makers and practitio-
ners. Researchers are “slow and cautious in presenting find-
ings” while “school personnel are faced with immediate and
pressing demands to manage their schools, make policy deci-
sions, and design school programs” (p. 133). Honig (2006)
points in a third direction to research on district central office
administrators as potential allies but more often demonstrates
how the central office acts as a barrier in implementing new po-
licy because of a lack of institutional support at the district level.
In addition to levels of disconnect, continues the pervasive
question on what sorts of educational changes do we want?
What do we do when we cannot reach consensus on type of
change or how to implement it? (Keogh, 1990).
One notable study that contradicts previous findings of insti-
tutional decoupling—where schools respond to pressure from
policy by divorcing changes in structures from classroom in-
struction—is that of Coburn (2004). She argues that policy does
reach within schools to influence classroom practice but that
teachers have a role in mediating the policy guidelines through
their “preexisting beliefs and practices” which are “rooted in
past encounters with institutional pressures.” She continues,
“This process is influenced by the nature of the institutional
pressure—its congruence with teachers’ preexisting beliefs and
practices, its intensity, its pervasiveness, and its voluntariness.”
(Coburn, 2004: pp. 211-212).
Coburn’s argument helps us explain the disconnect we, the
authors, felt as classroom teachers trying to implement No
Child Left Behind’s and Individuals with Disabilities Education
Act’s “Highly Qualified Teachers,” “Annual Yearly Progress,”
and “evidence-based practices”. In many ways, the following
sections highlight these policies’ congruence or incongruence
with our preexisting beliefs and practices and the intensity, per-
vasiveness, and lack of voluntariness of the new policies.
Highly Qualified Teacher
The recent reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabili-
ties Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004 (“Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act,” 2004), and of NCLB (2001)
prescribed a definition of “Highly Qualified” special educator
as the one who: (1) Holds at least a bachelor’s degree from a
four-year institution; (2) Holds a full state credential; and (3)
Demonstrates competence in their subject area.
Veteran teachers are not considered highly qualified unless
they demonstrate subject knowledge through coursework, test-
ing, or “high, objective, uniform state standards of evaluation”
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 453
K. S. YOUNG, S. CURCIC
(HOUSSE) determined by each state (US General Accounting
At first glance the definition of Highly Qualified Teacher
(HQT) makes sense, which helps it gain legitimacy as a part of
new educational policy. However, we present several personal
scenarios that indicate HQT to be part of a rationalized myth.
The US Department of Education recognizes “alternative routes”
to credentialing such as “Troops to Teachers” and “Teach for
America” with college students placed into classrooms while
they are completing teacher education and certification pro-
grams. Why these individuals would be considered highly qua-
lified as long as they are “participating in a qualifying alterna-
tive route program while teaching,” (US Department of Educa-
tion, 2003: p. 6), as opposed to veteran teachers who have com-
pleted teacher preparation programs is not clear and scratches at
the veneer of this rationalized myth. It is also not clear how
such arrangements differ from teachers who were teaching on
emergency credentials, while completing teacher education pro-
grams, arrangements which are no longer acceptable. Both
groups, veteran teachers and college students, have to eventu-
ally prove their competency through exams. Surprisingly, how-
ever, college graduates are considered highly qualified as soon
as and as long as they participate in an alternative certification
program, while veteran teachers who have college degrees and
a teaching license already, will only be highly qualified upon
completion of the HOUSSE steps as determined by each state.
Determining “highly qualified” strictly according to policy gives
scenarios like the one below, where someone with extensive
experience is not deemed highly qualified, though a person in
the same teaching position who was completing an alternative
route would be highly qualified.
Scenario #1: Highly educated and experienced but not
(West coast high schools, Resource room, 1999-2002—Sec-
When I started a career as a special education teacher, I al-
ready had completed a doctoral program (Ed. D.) and worked
for years with students with disabilities. None of this contrib-
uted to making me a teacher then, or would make me a “highly
qualified teacher” now. As my doctoral program was not a tea-
cher credential program, and my experience was not in public
schools, I then engaged in completing a teacher credential gra-
duate program in Mild/Moderate disabilities, just one of the
many prerequisites on the way to becoming a special education
teacher. Equipped with all this knowledge, coupled with ex-
perience of working for years with students with disabilities, I
finally one day appeared enthusiastically in the Resource room
in a public school, for my first class in the first period. To my
surprise, thirty students with learning disabilities showed up in
the first period, one student in the second period, and varied
students in numbers and grades in the periods to follow. It took
almost a month to make different schedules for the students, a
job of the counselors, as I learned in the process. My new high-
ly qualified status did not prepare me for any encounters with
school bureaucracy (A similar experience happened a year la-
ter in another school, in another state).
Within the current education framework one can be qualified
to teach future teachers but not present students as in Scenario
#1. This example highlights tensions in the meaning of “highly
qualified” with lived school experiences. The focus in educa-
tion, as well as in educational reforms, is predominantly on
teachers, and rightly so, because they are at the heart of the
education process. To hold HQT as the professional bar but
then expect any teacher to be prepared for institutional bure-
aucracies that put student learning behind institutional schedul-
ing is setting the teacher and students up for failure. It also sets
the policy up for people to question its relevance in the real
Kelchtermans and Ballet (2002) acknowledge the role of in-
stitutional politics in the ability of teachers to teach better in
schools. They argue that teachers need to be well-versed in mi-
cropolitical literacy as an important part of professional devel-
opment. Micropolitical literacy includes “three aspects: the
knowledge aspect, the operational or instrumental aspect and
the experiential aspect” (citing Kelchtermans & Vandenberghe,
1996). The knowledge aspect entails knowing how to read a
situation. In relation to policy, this would include future teach-
ers’ being well versed in practical implications of policy im-
plementation. The operational aspect includes a teacher’s rep-
ertoire of effective strategies for enacting the roles they will be
asked to fill in schools given new policy imperatives. The ex-
periential aspect of practical implications for policy mandates
would indicate how (new) teachers feel about the new policy—
from powerlessness and anger to joy and acceptance. This as-
pect often requires future teachers to react in some way to their
changing role in schools, like knowing what to do when teach-
ers’ schedules change rapidly at the beginning of the school
Using strategies and understandings from micropolitical lit-
eracy is one way to keep new teachers teaching and to help
them truly become more qualified at their positions by prepar-
ing them with knowledge about the rest of the school organiza-
tion that provides a more complete picture of schools, more
opportunities to find the human or physical resources they may
need, and a better understanding of the politics of teaching.
Curry et al. (2008) use the idea of micropolitical literacy to
further their work with mentors and new teachers in an inquiry
based professional development program that works to create
positive change in urban schools. Participants of this program
report that they have been “inspired… to improve their teaching
and hold fast to the ideal of making a difference for kids and
society” (Project IMPACT website
project works to keep new teachers teaching so that urban
schools do not lose one third to one half of their new teachers in
the first five years of teaching. It works with new teachers to
“effectively contribute to school reform” and “advance trans-
formative, critical visions of education” (Curry et al., 2008: p.
Micropolitical literacy asks more of new teachers than proper
degrees, credentials, and subject competence to lead students to
academic success. It provides context for new teachers to ex-
amine policy initiatives in practice. Micropolitical literacy is
being examined as one way to further teacher professional de-
velopment and longevity in the classroom and can become part
of what is asked of “highly qualified” teachers. Teacher educa-
tors must not only focus on developing “highly qualified” tea-
chers as the law has determined, but also teachers who under-
stand that teaching is highly contextualized and may be highly
political if they are to stay in the field and increase their teach-
ing competence (Blase, 1997; Kelchtermans & Ballet, 2002;
The next example “Highly qualified by whom” contrasts the
previous one “Highly educated and experienced but not highly
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
K. S. YOUNG, S. CURCIC
qualified”. In the previous scenario a person with extensive
experience and success with pushing students academically is
not highly qualified while in this example a person with little
experience and lack of academic success with students is con-
sidered highly qualified. Both teachers need to better under-
stand the micro-politics of their situations to be better suited to
accomplish the task at hand and work well with students in
Scenario #2: Highly qualified: by whom?
(November, 2005 West coast high school—First author)
I witnessed a self-contained class for students with moderate
disabilities where the teacher was more focused on students
feeling good than with teaching them academic content. It took
almost two years of working with the teacher to have him de-
cide that teaching high school students with disabilities about
fuzzy animals and the holidays was not an adequate curriculum.
This teacher was in the process of becoming a “Highly Quali-
fied Teacher.” He did extremely well in course work but did not
bring this intellectual stimulation to his classroom. His school
district supported his methods because he kept students out of
the office, parents happy, and paraprofessionals without com-
plaints. According to everyone but me, he was a highly quali-
fied teacher—but the problem was that he was not teaching
students. If he had a different university supervisor, it is likely
that his methods would have passed as acceptable and he would
have reached the designation without educating his students in
a highly qualified manner.
The teacher’s students were not receiving the best education
they could, not even a very good education by some accounts.
Although the school felt this individual was highly qualified by
meeting the federal definition, he did not provide quality in-
struction to students. This example demonstrates a disconnect
between policy initiatives like highly qualified teacher and what
actually happens in schools—where a teacher who pleases the
administration is highly qualified (Another teacher at the same
school, who worked on including his students in general educa-
tion, and had all but one student pass the high school exit exam
was “let go” by the same administration because he did not get
along with several key players at the school).
These two scenarios highlight a policy/practice disconnect
between the federal definition of Highly Qualified Teacher and
examples from lived experience. These scenarios help to de-
mystify HQT and help explain why endorsement of HQT as a
rationalized myth is not adequate for improving teaching and
learning in schools. One way to address this disconnect is
through adoption of a micropolitical lens with preservice and
inservice teachers so they can move beyond definitions to
thinking and then acting differently in the classroom.
Annual Ye a rl y Progress (A YP )
Teachers, and especially special education teachers, are in an
unenviable situation described by Castell half a century ago in
terms of data driven progress monitoring in schools (in Barzun,
1959). He noted that since the scientific observation of children
had discovered norms of development, these should determine
the time and the way any subject is taught. Yet, it had also been
noted that each child should set his or her own pace—which
Castell termed “blowing hot and cold” in relation to research,
policy, and practice (in Barzun, 1959: p. 104). Developmental
exceptions are not embraced by statistical norms; consequently,
there is a tension between assessing students against norms and
letting each student progress independently.
While using data is not a new concept, what is new in NCLB
is the idea to use averaged data for subgroups in order to deter-
mine whether a school is making adequate yearly progress
(AYP), or whether a school is failing. If a single group, for
example students with disabilities or students with limited Eng-
lish proficiency, falls short of a target set against the (arbitrarily
chosen) year 2014, that school may be designated as failing. As
Darling-Hammond (2004) points out, these subgroups (e.g.,
students with disabilities, English language learners) were cre-
ated because some students do not meet the “norm” standards
in the first place. Consequently, the schools might not meet
their AYP goals. As a result, those schools that educate stu-
dents with learning difficulties may end up being penalized for
their efforts to educate them. The NCLB policy therefore cre-
ates competing objectives.
With the accountability turn in policy, we are back to the
discovered norms of development and using data to determine
performance. This system forgets that there are those students
who will not fall in the middle of the distribution, which is one
of the reasons why some students, with a specific learning dis-
ability in reading for example, will not read at grade level by
2014 as required by No Child Left Behind. Expecting the same
results from all students on the state tests is in direct tension
with most Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) of stu-
dents with disabilities and is impossible given statistical norm-
The tension between 100% of students making Adequate
Yearly progress (AYP) and meeting individual needs at the
pace individuals need to progress looms large for teachers in
schools. In this respect, the IDEA goals with a focus on indi-
vidual needs of students established in their IEPs and NCLB
goals with testing and evaluating students against the same
standards contradict each other. On one hand, tracking the pro-
gress of students through a mechanism like AYP is a welcome
goal of accountability in the field of education. On the other
hand, using the averaged student subgroup data to penalize
schools is an unfortunate outcome that does not increase stu-
dent learning. This tension frames the following scenario and
brings into question how legitimate is this part of the rational-
ized myth that assessment data lead to improved student out-
As special education teachers, we regularly received data on
our students’ performance on state-mandated tests. The data
usually came in numbers for math, reading and writing. An im-
portant question about the data is: How did these numbers in-
form our instruction? The short answer to that question is: not
much. What informed our practice was daily attention to our
students’ work and progress. Data from state tests come to-
wards the end of the semester or sometimes the end of the year.
Waiting and relying on one score would be a disservice to stu-
dents. Teachers, fortunately, do not rely on one score and con-
duct their own assessments.
Skrtic (1995) noted more than a decade ago that educational
policy discourse reflects naïve pragmatism dominated by those
concerned primarily with efficiency. The US is not alone in that
respect: studies that extend beyond the borders of the US note
an increased policy attention to clinical and managerial aspects
of education, focused on accountability, school evaluations, in-
dividual diagnosing, and school choice (Simola, Rinne, & Ki-
virauma, 2002). There is less of a focus on how to decrease
adverse effects for those deemed culturally “different” or eco-
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 455
K. S. YOUNG, S. CURCIC
nomically worse off than the average student (Johannesson,
Lindblad, & Simola, 2002). On the contrary, there may be some
indication that such students may be pushed to exclusion (e.g.,
Wood, 2004). Through examples from different US states,
Wood (2004) points out how real graduation numbers can be
correlated with a similar rise in the students who are being re-
tained in grade level for more than one year (e.g., “Texas mira-
cle”) and increased drop-out rates (e.g., Illinois) (pp. 36-38).
The next scenario illustrates how a policy like AYP affects
educational decisions teachers m ake i n th eir classrooms.
Scenario #3: AYP and Inclusion
(October, 2007 Southwest middle school—First author)
I observed lessons in an inclusive middle school in an inclu-
sive district where I witnessed good teaching. It was not obvi-
ous who had and who did not have a disability in many class-
rooms. In this school, I also observed a teacher reprimand a
student (who is considered “at-risk” or to have ADHD, no one
knew which) who was acting silly with his peers. I had already
heard his name called out several times. This student had spent
more than 80% of his time in class doing what he was supposed
to but without notice from the teacher. When she did notice, he
was sent to the hall, where he slouched over and kicked his
textbook under his feet until he got outside the door and slum-
ped to the floor.
In another class, students were practicing mapping their class-
rooms. A little boy (with no apparent disability, but he certainly
would be considered “at-risk” in this environment) in the class
was reprimanded several times (for offenses I did not witness
even though I sat less than three feet from him). The third time
he was told he would be staying after school for detention and
needed to call home to tell his guardians about it. Immediately,
he shut off. He folded in on himself and his eyes became vacant.
For the next twenty minutes this child did nothing and no one
The above middle school is under intense pressure by the
state and federal government because they have not made “Ade-
quate Yearly Progress” for two years in a row, even though
they have been making academic gains with students. This
school’s response to try to meet the demands of No Child Left
Behind’s (2001) AYP was to send disruptive students into the
hall so the rest of the students had more time to learn resulting
in the students who most need instruction (disabled or not) be-
coming disengaged from it. Though we can see why a teacher
might not want a student to be disruptive in class, removing the
student from any chance of academic engagement will not in-
crease that child’s performance on standardized testing and
does not bode well for increasing school-wide AYP if this is a
pervasive school practice. When I (first author) brought up this
experience with my teacher education students, they felt the
teacher was justified in excluding those children from the
classroom. It was only upon probing for deeper understanding
did some students begin to see the systemic nature of student
exclusion (Skiba, Simmons, Ritter, et al., 2006). They moved
from feeling justified to remove students who impacted others’
learning, to wondering how to better engage those children in
the classroom and the learning process. In reporting about dis-
ciplinary exclusions, Head, Kane, and Cogan (2003) noted that
many teachers in their study recognized that difficulties did not
reside within the students but rather within the curriculum. This
recognition shifted the focus on cooperation between learning
support staff, classroom teachers, and students toward coopera-
tive teaching and further curriculum development.
Adequate yearly progress threatens to become another veneer
of change if schools choose options that remove students from
the classroom for disruptive behavior rather than reexamine
curricular choices as a way to keep children engaged and in the
classroom. In a chapter titled “Reimagining special education,”
Florian (2007) advocates examining the potential for student
academic progress in relation to “the fulfillment of the right to
education, the challenge to deterministic beliefs about ability,
and a shift in focus from differences among learners, to learn-
ing for all” (p. 18). Hart et al. (2004) argue for the teacher’s re-
sponsibility to enact curriculum differently so they no longer
have to focus on problems with students, but instead think
through problems for teaching.
This reinvisioning of schooling would lead to very different
classrooms where the definition and expectation of student pro-
gress goes further than scores on sta ndardized tests to authentic
learning in classrooms for everyone and reduces the need to
exclude some stude nts so that others may learn.
Improving Education through AYP and
“Evidenc ed- Based Prac tices”
Our discussion in this section is limited to some under-ex-
amined assumptions that are present in NCLB and IDEIA pol-
icy and are offered as a legal guide to the improvement in the
field of education. These assumptions include legislation re-
lated to school choice and AYP, Resp onse-to-Interventio n (RTI),
and evidence-based practices. We examine these provisions
through the lens of legitimated policies that often affect practice
differently than might be expected in policy circles.
Under the provisions of NCLB, schools that fail to make
adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward meeting state goals are
eventually subject to restructuring, which may include turning
the operation of the school over to a private company or allow-
ing students to transfer to another school that is making AYP at
a cost to the first school. In 2002-03, nearly 50 private compa-
nies managed over 400 public schools in 25 states. The US Ge-
neral Accounting Office (GAO) (2003) compared standardized
scores on mandatory state tests of students attending public
schools with scores of students attending privately managed
schools that had been in operation for four years or more in six
large cities. Fourteen privately managed schools in Cleveland
(Ohio), Denver (Colorado), Detroit (Michigan), Phoenix (Ari-
zona, St. Paul (Minnesota), and San Francisco (California) were
matched with two or more traditional public schools in the
same city that were similar in terms of grade span, enrollment,
student race and ethnicity and the percentage of students with
English language learners, disabilities, and eligibility for the
federally subsidized free and reduced price school lunch pro-
gram (GAO, 2003: p. 2).
The GAO findings indicate that there was no significant dif-
ference between privately managed schools and public schools;
some had equal performance, some better and some worse than
the public schools measured on reading and mathematics tests.
The school sample was not small but it was limited and strong
conclusions are not warranted. However, also not warranted is
the idea that school choice will contribute to a better education
for some students who may opt to transfer to another school or
that they might even have such an option. This is part of the
rationalized myth that privatization leads to higher academic
proficiency. For example, in 2002 only 10% of eligible Chicago
students requested transfers, and half of them were denied due
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K. S. YOUNG, S. CURCIC
to lack of space in receiving schools (Borkowski & Sneed,
2006: p. 509). They further their claim by citing evidence from
The Civil Rights Project (CRP) at Harvard University. CRP
conducted research in eleven urban school districts where only
3% of eligible students transferred to other schools (Borkowski
& Sneed, 2006: pp. 508-509) which leads one to question the
legitimacy of legislation that allows children to “opt” for better
schools if that option is limited in realities of implementation.
Finally, student placement should be viewed in the context of
another report cited by Borkowski and Sneed (2006), that of the
US Department of Education in 2006, confirming that students
in public schools generally do just as well as students in similar
private schools (p. 509). Therefore the veneer of change that in-
dicates “choice” and privatization as mechanisms of school im-
provement tarnishes when examined more closely.
Of particular interest to us, as special educators, is the reau-
thorization of IDEA in 2004, renamed “Individuals with Dis-
abilities Education Improvement Act of 2004” (IDEIA). The
IDEIA changed the way we determine whether a student has a
learning disability. On August 16, 2006, the US Dept. of Edu-
cation issued extensive commentary to accompany the final
IDEIA on LD regulations. One of the changes described in pa-
ragraphs 300.304 through 300.306 is the reliance on data. Data
should demonstrate that prior to, or as a part of a referral proc-
ess, the child was provided appropriate instruction in a regular
education setting, and secondly, that the repeated assessment of
achievement at reasonable intervals was also databased. The IQ
discrepancy model is no longer required but instead “in deter-
mining whether a child has a specific learning disability, a local
educational agency may use a process that determines if the
child responds to scientific, research-based intervention as a
part of the evaluation procedures as described in paragraphs (2)
and (3)” (IDEIA, 2004, Public Law 108-446, 2004). What con-
stitutes “appropriate” and how many assessments of progress
should be conducted in regular education setting, has not been
specified. There are requirements for comprehensive evaluation
without relying on any single criterion for determining eligibili-
ty. However, the focus in practice seems to be away from
“comprehensive” and decisively toward RTI (e.g., ISBE, 2008),
although RTI may not be the sole determinant of whether a
child meets LD eligibility (IDEIA, paragraph 300.304.b). Again,
policy, when not well paired with practice leads to disconnects.
“Comprehensive evaluation” in policy becomes “response to
intervention” in practice.
RTI already means different things to different groups of
people. For example, some general education teachers see this
initiative as a special education job (since originally it offered
another means of classifying students with disability), while
some view this initiative as a general education initiative (as the
implementation is envisioned to start in general education set-
ting). At the same time, many schools are adding early reading
programs as RTI interventions. Gamse, Bloom, Kemple, and
Jacob (2008) conducted the first impact study on Reading First,
a congressionally mandated evaluation of the government-
sponsored initiative to help children read. The study examined
18 sites across 12 states and the impact of Reading First, con-
sidered “scientifically based” instructional model. Gamse et al.
(2008) findings indicate that Reading First did not improve stu-
dents’ reading comprehension. The program did not increase
the percentages of students in grades one, two, or three, whose
reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level. In
each of the three grades, fewer than half of the students in the
Reading First schools were reading at or above grade level.
However, in some states such as Illinois, for example, the Illi-
nois State Board of Education (ISBE), has concluded that the
Reading First schools improved student reading by 20% (ISBE,
2008). For a scientifically based reading program such discre-
pancies are not something to be expected.
In Illinois, Reading First was combined with the tiered three
approach to instruction (students provided with intensive read-
ing instruction). The 20% gain in Illinois reading gain was
shown on Dynamic Indicators of Basis Literacy Instruction
(DIBELS). Many states receiving federal Reading First funds
have been mandated to use DIBELS for the purposes of moni-
toring students’ reading progress in early grades (K-3). Al-
though DIBELS seems to be widely used, Schilling, Carlisle,
Scott and Zeng (2007) suggest supplementing DIBELS with
measures of reading comprehension. In their study from first
through third graders attending 44 schools in 9 districts or local
educational agencies that made up the first Reading First cohort
in Michigan, they concluded that DIBELS at-risk benchmarks
for oral reading fluency (ORF) were reasonably accurate at
identifying second and third graders who were reading below
the twenty-fifth percentile at the end of the year (80% and 76%
for second and third graders, respectively) (We do not know
whether the teachers might have been reasonably accurate at
predicting at-risk students as well, if asked). However, 32% of
second graders and 37% of third graders who were identified as
at low risk in the fall by the ORF benchmarks turned out not to
be reading at grade level on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS)
in April. There are further concerns that DIBELS measures
fluency (or speed) without taking into consideration compre-
hension and therefore may lack predictive validity. Pressley,
Hilden and Shankland (in revision) conducted a study with 191
early elementary students taught by 10 teachers in four different
schools. They concluded that DIBELS is “at best a measure of
who reads quickly without regard to whether the reader com-
prehends what is read” (p. 1). Both the instructional program
(Reading First) and the way it is evaluated in the schools
(DIBELS) raise concerns about the meaning of evidence-based
As examination of policy initiatives—Highly Qualified Tea-
chers, Annual Yearly Progress, and evidence-based practices
points out, policy solutions are without enough implementation
support or realistic accounting of schools and schooling to fully
realize their goals. Meyer and Rowan (1977) would argue that
creating new policy initiatives rationalizes the myth that teach-
ing and student achievement will improve because of the new
initiatives. We argue that schools will never improve with weak,
contradictory, and under funded initiatives that do not reexam-
ine teaching and learning in an in-depth manner. Schools will
improve with policies that are well aligned with multiple sta-
keholders’ needs and are well supported at every level of gov-
ernment. These policies must be well understood by schools
and teachers and demonstrate to teachers, parents and students
how learning on multiple fronts is progressing (Guilfoyle,
Schools want highly qualified teachers, students who make
adequate yearly progress, and teachers to use evidenced based
practices. However, as former teachers and current teacher edu-
cators and educational researchers, we question these reified
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K. S. YOUNG, S. CURCIC
catchy phrases and the policies they represent. We have spent
and continue to spend time in schools where we daily confront
practices that represent more of a veneer of educational change
than schooling done differently.
States want highly qualified teachers. They always have.
States must also find ways to fill their classrooms with teachers
—no matter the qualification. M. Pugach (personal communi-
cation, October 11, 2007) pointed out that in order for high
school special educators to become highly qualified, they must
teach only the subject they are qualified to teach. For those tea-
chers who continue to work in self-contained classrooms, they
will need to be highly qualified in English, Math, Social Stud-
ies, and Science. Special education is the only content area
where Highly Qualified is nearly impossible to meet and where
one teacher is expected to be highly qualified in so many con-
tent areas. We do not advocate for lowering the standards for
hiring and credentialing good teachers, but we are and should
be wary about terms like Highly Qualified and how best to
meet such policy expectations while not sacrificing quality for
bureaucratic adherence in schools.
The AYP mandate does bring attention to groups that his-
torically have performed poorly in school and demands that
these groups not be overlooked. It also implicitly encourages
schools to craft instruction differently for different subgroups of
children. The policy could encourage innovative practices, but
because of the heavy threat of sanctions, innovation is shelved
in favor of looking for loop holes or adhering closely to the law
to avoid sanctions (Guilfoyle, 2006; Schoen & Fusarelli, 2008).
AYP also implicitly encourages schools to move to choice
plans where not only parents, but schools, can choose which
children to educate. The schools will have added incentive to
choose to accept children who will perform better on the tests,
and to also turn away students with disabilities or students who
are learning English, especially since many schools that are
meeting AYP are already full or close to full (Borkowski &
Sneed, 2006; Figlio & Getzler, 2002).
Implications for Teacher Preparation
As schools and policy makers continue to make “technical
focused equity reforms” (Rogers & Oakes, 2005) we will con-
tinue to see the same students failing in schools. Ryan (2004),
points out that though No Child left Behind has “laudable
goals” it is structured in such a way that choice based schools
are incentivized to exclude “African American, Hispanic, and
poor students” because “these students traditionally do not per-
form as well as their white and more affluent peers on stan-
dardized tests” (p. 961). As members of Congress continue to
weigh revisions to No Child Left Behind, this is a time to look
to those who offer alternative solutions and possible ways for-
ward within teacher education and educational policy more
Kelchtermans (2005) critiques the increasing performativity
of schooling. He notes that schools have become “a whole se-
ries of technologies and procedures: standards and standard-
based testing, audit procedures and methods for self-evaluation,
etc. In some countries this has resulted in league tables of
schools, high stakes testing, scripted curricula…” (pp. 2-3). He
argues that performativity has reshaped the relationships in
schools and that “performativity results in a reductionist con-
ception of education” (p. 4). He asks educational researchers
and teacher educators to ask ourselves “where are we as re-
searchers in this? If we don’t want to simply be accomplices,
we have to critically ask whether and in what respect our activi-
ties as researchers, teachers and teacher educators contribute to
the negative impact of that performativity?” (p. 5).
We focus here on some aspects of teacher preparation pro-
grams and the ways they could better meet the needs of future
teachers. Literature that recognizes the advantages of schools
conceptualized as learning organizations has begun to accumu-
late (cf., Silins, Zarins, Muliford, 2002). Yet, most teacher edu-
cation programs prepare teachers to become individual profes-
sionals rather than members of some future team. One way to
integrate teachers into all aspects of school functioning is to
think about schools as learning organizations. Some of the most
frequent descriptors of schools as learning organizations are:
shared vision, cooperative and team learning (often times ad-
vocated as an approach to teach students but not practiced by
teachers), and the sense of “interconnectedness of the parts
and… contribution to the direction in which the school is head-
ing” (Silins, Zarins, & Mulford, 2002: p. 29). Elmore and Mc-
Laughlin (1988) advocate the following:
(1) charge practitioners with the development of solutions
rather than mandating requirements that have little or no basis
in practice; (2) accommodate variability be creating policies
that lead to better understanding of effective practice rather
than discouraging and penalizing it; (3) learn that rules only
set the standards of fairness and do no prescribe solutions to
practical problems; and (4) create organizations that foster and
encourage reforms of practice (p. vii).
An example of these types of practitioner driven reforms that
bring policy and practice closer together is that of the possibil-
ity of examining school vision in relation to zero tolerance
policies. Many schools have adopted zero tolerance policy as if
a strict school policy will remove problematic behaviors. Sus-
pensions lead to less instructional time for students and less
instructional time is not likely to increase schools’ performance
on AYP. Teacher education programs must also examine the
unintended consequences of curricular decisions about where to
place conversations about students’ behaviors. Teacher prepa-
ration programs often teach classroom management as a sepa-
rate course as if classroom management happens in a vacuum.
A more productive route would be to focus on teaching how to
increase student engagement through the curriculum. After
shadowing students qualified as “severely emotionally and be-
haviorally disturbed” (SEBD) over one academic year, Hamill
and Boyd (2001) reported that in classes with occurrences of
challenging behaviors, the behaviors were just as likely to in-
volve students who were not qualified as SEBD as those la-
beled SEBD. Although there are studies on student engagement
and motivation (e.g., Guthrie, McRae, & Litz Klauda, 2007),
these aspects of students’ learning are much less researched
(Troia, Shankland, & Wolbers, in press) and taught in teacher
education programs than other aspects of learning, divorcing
academics from behavior.
Finally, Rogers and Oakes (2005) caution us not to rely only
on those within the professional educational community for
reform. In their paper exploring what John Dewey might say
about “Research, democratic social movement strategies, and
the struggle for education on equal terms” they remind us that
Dewey was reliant on activism from teachers, not the masses.
Rogers and Oakes borrow from Cornel West in remarking that
participatory social inquiry can only occur where professionals
and the public work together to create reform. They argue that
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
K. S. YOUNG, S. CURCIC
teachers often “hold themselves above and apart from work-
ers,” but to make lasting equity-based reforms teachers must
work in conjunction with “the masses” (Rogers & Oakes, 2005:
p. 2194). In the 1930s John Dewey became disillusioned with
professional educators’ willingness to advocate for political
(and educational) change because “powerful interests could use
mass communication to distort and subvert public understand-
ing” (Rogers & Oakes, 2005: p. 2179). Eighty years later these
“powerful interests” are still at work. Finally, we suggest focus
on envisioning teacher education as a conduit for policy, ex-
amining teacher education as a mirror for policy, placing tea-
cher education as a stakeholder and creator of policy, and part-
nering teacher preparation with schools, teachers, parents, and
students. These ideas are not new but merit repetition since they
are not at the forefront of ideas forwarded by the “powerful
interests” of today.
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