Repository logo

Schools deciding the purpose of education: Policy enactment in a context of goal-expanding, high-stakes accountability reform



Change log


Marfan Sanchez, Javiera 



Schools deciding the purpose of education: Policy enactment in a context of goal-expanding, high-stakes accountability reform Javiera Marfán Sánchez

New shared challenges across the globe are pressing educational systems towards pursuing an expansion in the range of goals to pursue, revaluing the social and personal development purposes of education. Efforts to develop educational policy based on a broader approach to education are increasingly emerging. These new goal-expanding policies are installed on top of the educational reform infrastructure that countries already had, merging with it. In many countries, this previous policy scenario has been a high-stakes accountability reform based on standards, creating a goal-expanding, high-stakes accountability reform. This research focuses on the Chilean system of education quality assurance (SAC being its initials in Spanish) as a case of goal-expanding, high-stakes accountability reform. In this type of policy, newly introduced social and personal development aims and long-standing academic goals interact within a bureaucratic accountability system. However, the reform’s mechanisms prioritise academic goals as measured by standardised tests over other results. The research aims to understand how schools address this contradiction, what educational goals prevail in the enacted policy, and why. Conceptually, I employ policy enactment theory, focusing on educators' interpretation of the policy goals, their translation into practice and how this process is influenced by aspects of the schools context, people's sense-making and the policy strategies. I complement policy enactment theory with school change and professional development theories, engaging in particular with cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) to build a conceptual framework in which policy enactment can be observed as a process of organisational and professional learning.
Data come from case studies conducted in four primary schools in Santiago, Chile, where I carried out semi-structured interviews with school leaders and teachers, observed multiple sessions of selected organisational routines and analysed the schools' improvement plans. I used NVivo to conduct a thematic analysis at the school case level and then made comparisons across settings to identify patterns and differences that allow for new theoretical developments. The results show that schools create new roles, teams, rules and meetings to meet SAC's academic goals only, motivated by a widespread sense of continuity with previous policies, local reputation concerns, and an understanding of SAC as a system that prioritises pupils' test results. To achieve this, all schools follow two different rationales. The first one consists of an accountability-coping logic in which schools emphasise internal control, practice repetition and standardisation. The second one is a teachers' collaboration rationale, which promotes productive conversations that lead to professional learning and development of new practices. These two rationales compete for schools' time and focus, although I argue that only the latter can produce practice transformation, promote school improvement and expand the range of educational goals that a school enact. Meanwhile, schools tactically address the social and personal development goals, but without incorporating them into teachers' practice. Across schools, educators consider that these new goals have always been present in schools' work and expressed in their pedagogic identities. Educators also mistrust the social and personal development measurement tools and complain of the lack of instruments to convert them into actionable goals. Thus teachers' lack of a professional grammar, a shared conceptual and operational infrastructure to analyse the teaching and evaluation of social and personal educational goals plays against their incorporation in the enacted version of SAC. I conclude that the SAC is failing to expand schools' focus but rather exacerbates an academic expectation mandate in a way that does not promote schools’ capacity to do things qualitatively differently. Schools show agency when facing the enactment of SAC by modifying the central elements of their organisational structure, including the creation of new organisational routines. However, in schools threatened by the consequences of the high-stakes accountability reform, those routines are used to focus teachers' practice on repetition and standardisation, thereby failing to expand the horizon of possibilities for teachers in a way that could promote continuous practice improvement. Only when schools can control the SAC accountability pressures and cease to feel threatened, can they use the new organisational routines to develop new types of practice and expand the range of educational goals. In this sense, the SAC incentives paradoxically inhibit the development of continuous improvement practices that could lead schools to achieve the expanded goals. The research finishes by discussing the implications of the results for theory and policy.





Hofmann, Riikka


Education reform, school change, Policy enactment, Cultural-historical activity theory, Professional practice change, Chilean policy, goal-expanding reform, Education quality assurance, High-stakes accountability reform, organisational routines, Purpose of education, Qualitative research, school leadership


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
This work was funded by the National Agency for Research and Development (ANID) / Scholarship Program / DOCTORADO BECAS CHILE/2017 – 72180025 and Cambridge Trust.