An earlier version of this article appears in educational Horizons, 88,4 (Summer 2010)

Teacher Accountability And The Pathology Of Domination
Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.
La Salle University

edited 5/2/12

One of the most critical aspects of the most recent wave of school reform is that would-be reformers haven't bothered to ask teachers what they think. Emboldened by their own ignorance and/or impelled by a desire to posture for the electorate, politicians concoct top-down changes then attempt to force-feed them to gagging teachers.

The chief problem with this heavy-handed approach is that it rarely works. As far back as the 1970's a Rand Corporation study clearly demonstrated that successful introduction of innovations requires voluntary, highly motivated participants.[1]

Think about it. Ultimately it is teachers who have to implement these so-called reforms. So if they oppose them, they have a thousand ways to resist ranging from half-hearted implementation through sabotage.

Moreover, forced change produces frustration and anxiety that increases resistance to future change.[2] That is exactly what is happening today. Any teacher who has been around the block a few times already has survived ill-conceived top-down "reforms" that didn't work. Their resistance to present 'reforms' is partially a consequence of this.

Autocratic Reform and Teacher Morale

The politicos and their minions think they can ram change down teacher's throats. This condescending style of management dates back to the era when classroom teachers were long-suffering females and the power holders were self-satisfied males. Today, however, this style is alarmingly bisexual and bipartisan. For instance, in his day William Bennett, President Reagan's blowhard Clown Prince of Education, gave top-down reform a right wing political edge; but these days lefty Arne Duncan, President Obama's conspicuously untrained but politically connected Secretary of Education, has adopted it without reservation.

It does seem that teachers, or at least teacher's unions, reflexively oppose change. And the perception that teachers stand in the way of needed reform is a major motivation for imposing non-consultative change. But resistance to change is hardly distinctive to teachers. In fact, resistance is an inevitable response to any major change in any organization.[3] And when those changes are being pushed on you by the same people who disrespect you and ignore your advice, resistance is not only more likely, but sensible.

Nevertheless, teacher resistance so frustrates policy makers that if they ever thought about soliciting teacher consent and cooperation they think about it no longer. Instead they become ever more controlling, autocratic and disrespectful. They design straightjacket policies, eliminate delegated authority, and ratchet up coercion via so-called "merit pay."

Then they make things worse by exercising their power with complete disregard for its impact on teacher morale. In fact, the most authoritarian reformers seem to have lost all concern for the actual consequences of their "reforms" on those who must carry them out. Worse still, they seem incapable of imagining the negative state of mind their actions promote.

The Myopic View from Olympus

One reason policy makers fail to appreciate how much they need teacher cooperation is that they are too far removed from classroom realities. Unilaterally imposed "reforms" might seem plausible when viewed from the Olympus of Capital Hill or the White House. Imposed change might even seem credible in the rarified atmosphere of a state capital. But on the ground, at the classroom level, non-consultative top-down change is obviously stupid. It fuels opposition, lowers teacher morale, and decreases teacher effectiveness.

Sure teachers must be held accountable for being informed, caring and doing their best with the resources they command. But contemporary reformers are going way beyond that. They demand that teachers be miracle workers who can somehow nullify anything that impacts school achievement. Never mind what goes on in the home, on the street, in the community, the economy, and so forth. There are "no excuses." In other words, if a child fails in school it is ultimately attributable to a teacher! What humbug!

Teachers know from bitter experience that what the boss calls "excuses" are often well-founded explanations. And researchers have found that a major source of employee resistance to change is fear of failure in the new environment.[4] So what are the reformers doing? They are demanding a change that literally allows no room for failure no matter what. Who wouldn't be fearful of that kind of craziness?

Trivializing Children's Suffering

Reformers say that they simply are requiring teachers to outgrow "the soft bigotry of low expectations," Common sense says this is twaddle. And it's hurtful twaddle too because it trivializes the misery, hardship and suffering that some children must endure.

Just recently, for example, an 11-year old Philadelphia schoolgirl strangled herself with a scarf. Police say she was a gifted student whose grades inexplicably sank to D's this semester. D's don't generally cause kids to strangle themselves so academic struggles do not seem a likely cause. Something beyond the classroom, perhaps clinical depression, bullying, a horrific home life, caused this girl to destroy herself.

What was her teacher to do to get her back on academic track? What do would-be reformers think she should do to bring the girl back from the brink of self-destruction and achieve better grades? The girl's misery wasn't that trifling, nor was it likely under the teacher's control.

School Management and Teacher Accountability

Obviously a plethora of things influence educational outcomes that are beyond any teacher's control. If those in authority decide to build inhumanly large schools, teachers must live with the results. If penny-pinching results in overcrowded classrooms, teachers must live with the results. If school board members wrangle while school buildings fall apart, teachers must live with the results. If school managers destroy morale by unnecessary impositions of authority, teachers must live with the results. If department heads select wretched textbooks or badly constructed instructional packages, teachers must live with the results. If school authorities fail to curb bullying or allow disciplinary chaos, teachers must live with the results.

Accountability Without Authority

Teachers endure all of these limitations, yet in today's "no excuses" reform environment they still are held to account when kids get "left behind." In fact, if President Obama has his way on teacher incentive pay, teachers will take a hit in the wallet if the kids score poorly on those misbegotten high stakes tests.

Research tells us that accountability without authority fuels frustration, generates feelings of futility, feeds resentment, causes anxiety, worry, depression, aggression and, if the stress continues, a decline in performance.[5] Eventually it leads to resignation and learned helplessness.[6] Worse still, in self-defense the victims hold back information, refuse cooperation and suppress dissent within their ranks. ("You're either with us or against us.")

Researcher Kenwyn Smith describes this sort of reaction formation as "the pathology of domination." Pray tell, how is inflicting this on teachers going to improve our schools?

A Vicious Circle

Ironically, teacher resistance to unfair accountability and related "reform" intensifies the very managerial practices that set the pathology of domination in motion in the first place. As they try to deal with the resistance, power holders become ever more convinced that teachers avoid work, require compulsion, shirk responsibility, lack ambition, place excessively value on security and are incompetent. In short, they come to expect the worst.

Frustrated by lack of cooperation, put off by the teacher's "negative" attitude and resistance to change, power holders typically intensify the heavy-handed control that created the problem in the first place. They concentrate even more power in their own hands. They impose even stricter policies. They become less sensitivity to individual differences. They withhold even more information to intensify dependency and increase their leverage. They become still more punitive. They place unrelenting emphasis on teachers pursuing authorized goals. Responsibility is still delegated, but the necessary resources are increasingly hard to get.

Fearing an unknown future, afraid that they will be unable to meet ever-escalating demands, resentful that they are held accountable for things they cannot control, the teachers respond to the escalation by further intensifying their resistant behavior.

Eventually the situation crystallize into a highly negative configuration where each side refuses to change their behavior and there are fixed ways of perceiving and dealing with the other. Their attitudes and behaviors have become, in effect, imprisoned. Or, in the language of organizational theory, they have become "encased."

"Kill Them All and Let God Sort Them Out"

When the Vietnam War was stalemated, when the military couldn't tell friend from foe, frustration led to an unofficial policy of "killing them all and letting God sort them out."

School reform stalemates lead to similar, if less severe, stupidity. In Rhode Island, for instance, the teaching staff of an entire high school was dismissed in order to effectuate "reform." Similarly, under NCLB, schools that have been declared educationally dysfunctional are "reorganized" by either closing them or replacing at least half the faculty. These strategies are directly at overcoming teacher resistance to change.

Overcoming this resistance also is a big factor in the growth of the charter school movement. Sometimes this reform also takes on Vietnam War qualities. In this case, destroying the village in order to save it.

Unfortunately, frustrated power holders typically fail to realize that they are dealing with the consequences of previous similar mismanagement. In fact, heavy-handed, authoritarian management is what created teacher unions in the first place.

It isn't as if the first teachers to unionize were drooling Bolsheviks itching to throw bombs and put the educational establishment against the wall. It took a mountain of arrogant provocation and ill-considered unilateral decisions to push fundamentally conservative teachers into such an angrily desperate response.

Facing Facts

If they want to be more successful and not just posture for the public, wanna-be school reformers must first recognize that their own condescending behavior feeds the very teacher resistance they whine about. They also need to start listening, really listening, to what teachers have to say. Then they must actually rethink their proposals in light of what they have heard.

These putative reformers must also get it through their head that not all resistance is negative, disrespectful or unfounded. Some of it is motivated by high ethical principles, a genuine desire to protect the student's best interests and an accurate understanding of what is actually happening on the ground.

Finally those who say change is urgent must develop and implement strategies that address the reality that teacher resistance to change is often rooted in fear of the unknown and worries about not being able to meet the challenges a new situation imposes. That's why organizational experts suggest employing transitional change.[7] Such intermediary changes might help teachers "let go" and move forward.

So far as the teachers are concerned, they must recognize that their behavior often creates the public impression that they care more about pay and working conditions than they do about kids and learning. This alienates the public and only encourages the autocratic arrogance of would-be reformers.

Teachers would be wise to replace their recalcitrance with forceful reform ideas of their own. And they must engage in far more energetic lobbying on behalf of children rather than themselves. Fighting the good fight for kids would help restore public confidence and undermine the popular notion that the unions are selfish.

Will both sides adjust their attitudes, perceptions and behavior? Odds are they won't. But if they don't, even the most well-intentioned school reforms are likely to be weak and ineffective.

[1] Paul Berman and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, Federal Programs Supporting Educational Change, Vol. VIII, Implementing and Sustaining Innovations, R-1589/8—HEW (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, May 1978).

[2] Piderit, S.K. (2000, Oct). Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: a multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change. Academy of Management -794. A, 783

[3] Albert Bolognese, Employee Resistance to Organizational Change, 2002 (

[4] Kotter, J. P., & Schlesinger, L.A. (1979). Choosing strategies for change. Harvard Business Review 106 - 114.

[5] Stress, Shared Resource,

[6] Kenwyn K. Smith, Groups in Conflict: Prisons in Disguise (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt, 1982).

[7] Coetsee, L. (Summer, 1999). From resistance to commitment. Public Administration Quarterly, 204-222