High-Stakes Accountability Systems: Creating Cultures of Fear


  • Shelly Lynn Counsell University of Memphis
  • Brian L. Wright University of Memphis


Educational Policy, Accountability, Assessment, Equity, Social Justice


A phenomenological case study by Counsell (2007) explored and investigated the phenomenon of what happened as Florida’s A+ Plan intersected with the life histories of one beginning African American female third grade teacher and one veteran White female third grade teacher at demographically different school communities in one Florida school district. Habermas’ theory of communicative action served as an instructive framework used to examine and contemplate two key emerging trends based on lived experiences of the various social (communicative) actors. In addition to the beginning and veteran third grade teachers, other participating social actors included third graders, their parents, other third grade teachers and school principals at the beginning and veteran teachers’ schools as well as urban school teachers and personnel at urban schools in the same school district. Across the different social actors at each respective middle-income, low-income, and high-poverty school community, the emerging trends and patterns revealed: (a) a continuum of moral and ethical dilemmas specifically and (b) an overall continuum of fear in general. Social actors’ varied lived experiences with fear in relation to high-stakes testing illuminated the following: (a) a fear of speaking out; (b) a fear regarding children’s emotional welfare; (c) fear as it intersects with race; and (d) a fear of taking the test. From these testimonials, the continuum of fear toward the FCAT (according to third grade student reflections), proved to be the most serious (if not detrimental) consequence of Florida’s high-stakes accountability system. These insights can help guide and inform future accountability decisions under the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

Author Biographies

Shelly Lynn Counsell, University of Memphis

Shelly L. Counsell, EdD, is an Assistant Professor and
Early Childhood Education Program Coordinator in the
Department of Instruction and Curriculum Leadership in
the College of Education at the University of Memphis.
Her research and publications examine a range of early
childhood education topics related to constructivism,
diversity, inclusion, democratic learning communities,
reflective cultures of practice, inquiry teaching, and early
STEM. In addition to high-stakes testing, she has also
used Habermas’ theory of communicative action as an
instructive framework to examine Special Olympics,
Head Start, and early/emergent literacy. Current
research projects focus on collaborative partnerships
designed to improve STEM/STEAM and language
development/emergent literacy pedagogy and practices
with early childhood inservice teachers, preservice
teacher candidates, and young children within diverse,
high quality public school classroom and early childhood
program settings.

Brian L. Wright, University of Memphis

Brian L. Wright, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of
Early Childhood Education in the Department of
Instruction and Curriculum Leadership in the College of
Education at the University of Memphis. His research
and publications examine the role of racial-ethnic
identity in the school achievement of successful AfricanAmerican
males in urban schools preK-12. His current
research projects include high quality early childhood
education programs for all children, but especially those
children living in poverty, culturally responsive and
responsible school readiness for African American boys
(preschool and kindergarten), literacy and African
American males, African American and Latino males as
early childhood teachers, and teacher identity
development. He is the author of The Brilliance of Black
Boys: Cultivating School Success in the Early
Grades with contributions by Shelly L. Counsell.