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’Twixt Scylla and Charybdis: Navigating the Paradoxes of Data Use, Accountability, and Program Improvement

Academic leaders in teacher education are currently faced with unprecedented policy pressures related to collecting, reporting, and acting on an intensifying array of program outcome measures. Moreover, many of the state and federal policies driving these pressures are saturated with paradox, attempting to address multiple and often contradictory goals. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is related to the essential tension between policy goals related to identifying and eliminating “low-performing programs,” and those related to “program improvement.” Coping with contradictory discourses and policies related to accountability, program improvement, and “data use” has become one of the facts of life experienced by virtually all contemporary teacher educators.

Over the past 3 years, my colleagues and I have been engaged in a collaborative effort with AACTE to locate and learn from teacher education programs that have developed strategies for navigating these policy tensions in ways that support and sustain their work. While the ostensive focus of our research has been on issues of data use, perhaps our most important and consistent finding has been about the ways in which some teacher education programs resist pressures to organize their work around issues of “compliance” with state and federal accountability requirements by adopting a continual focus on internal “inquiry” and improvement of their own practice.

From what we have seen, developing and sustaining a culture of continuous and collegial inquiry around program improvement begins with imaginative and strategic leadership. And in the programs we have observed we have been impressed with the ways in which many of these leadership qualities are distributed across multiple academic leaders, faculty, and staff. Strategic leadership actions often focus on creating concrete supports for the time-consuming work of examining artifacts of candidate learning and other valued program outcomes. They may involve organizing and allocating program meeting time in new ways, or investing in the acquisition and/or development of information technologies that make analysis of program processes and outcomes more practical within the ongoing challenges of scarce time and resources.

Perhaps most fundamentally, we have observed program leaders — whether located in the dean’s office or in classrooms supervising fieldwork — engaging in a process of “reframing” in which they actively assist candidates, cooperating teachers, and faculty in imagining how they may use (at least some of) the intensifying accountability requirements for their own purposes, addressing local questions about the improvement of practice. (See this video for several examples of how programs have used one particularly valuable data source, edTPA, to undertake this kind of local inquiry).

In the end, perhaps the most remarkable thing we have noticed in many of the inquiry-oriented programs we have visited over the past 3 years has been the sense of energy and engagement that pervades their work. This is not to say that nodes of alienation and dissatisfaction do not exist — much less that they should not exist. But it does suggest to us that one of the most effective strategies for resisting the sense of disempowerment and demoralization that pervades so many contemporary narratives within teacher education may actually lie in proactively turning the pressures of accountability into resources for local program renewal and improvement.

Please join in a discussion of our findings during AACTE’s Annual Meeting Twitter Town Hall at #AACTE15, 4:00 – 5:00 p.m. EST Wednesday, January 28. Hear from our research team on our discovery of common challenges and effective strategies that program leaders employ to implement data-use activities for program improvement.

You may also learn more at AACTE’s 67th Annual Meeting, February 27 – March 1 in Atlanta, Georgia. Plan to attend our concurrent session, Building Capacity for Using Data for Program Improvement, Sunday, March 1, 2:30–3:30 p.m. EST. Register here.

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Cap Peck

Professor of Teacher Education and Special Education, University of Washington