From metaphors to mantras - Principals making sense of and integrating accountability expectations: A grounded theoretical model


Norris, Judith. (2017). From metaphors to mantras - Principals making sense of and integrating accountability expectations: A grounded theoretical model [Thesis].
AuthorsNorris, Judith
Qualification nameDoctor of Education (EdD)

There is increasing pressure on principals in Australia in general, and in New South Wales (NSW) in particular, to report and justify the results of their students on externally mandated assessment programs such as the Higher School Certificate (HSC) examinations and the National Numeracy and Literacy Assessment Program (NAPLAN). However, our understanding of the way these principals interpret and respond to accountability demands is limited. Research on the way principals understand, prioritise and comply with system accountability requirements regarding student learning is scarce. This study addresses this gap in the literature. It adopts a case study approach to investigate this phenomenon. Two cohorts, comprising 13 secondary school principals from two Catholic School systems in NSW, consented to participate in the study. The researcher interviewed each principal individually during the first phase of data collection. The interviews were semi-structured and were held in agreed sites. They lasted between 60 and 80 minutes. Interview transcripts were sent to the interviewees for member-checks. Upon completing the first phase of the study, the researcher met with four principals from the first group and five principals from the second group, in two separate focus groups. The focus group interviews were designed to represent the principals’ collective consensus with the derived themes from the first phase. Collected data were analysed using the Grounded Theory analytical framework, favouring the Straussian techniques. The study found that the principals did not simply implement policy expectations as policy makers intended. These principals rejected the idea of reducing their accountability reports on student achievement to a single grade or band. They were adamant that learning is broader and more complex than the limited aspects of achievement measured through external assessment programs, though they are governed by sophisticated technologies. These principals’ conceptualisations of learning were more comprehensive than the domain of any external assessment program. They reported that they tended to realign their actions as leaders xxii of learning to be consistent with the priorities of their schools. Their actions indicated strong confidence in the teaching and learning that took place in their schools in response to the identified needs. The principals managed to absorb the tensions associated with the accountability demands through a process of sensemaking that was consistent with Weick’s (1995) Sensemaking Framework and Ajzen’s (1991, 2012) Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB). This study has generated a theoretical model that is based on the collected evidence and explains the effective sensemaking processes that principals may use to accommodate misaligned priorities. It proposes that principals’ sensemaking processes are indicative of their ways of leading learning. This model may be a useful self-reflection tool for educational leaders in their continuing endeavours to make sense of and integrate policy expectations.

KeywordsAssessment-focused accountability; regulated accountability; educational accountability; principals; educational leadership
PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupSchool of Education
Final version
Publication dates01 Jan 2017
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