Despite the growing number of researches about performance-based accountability (PBA) in education, there is still scarce evidence on the mediating role of subjective variables (e.g., perceived pressure and alignment to PBA mandates) in the enactment of PBA in socially disadvantaged contexts. This is paradoxical because marginalized schools are usually those that are on probation and have to cope with the threat of sanctions more frequently. Existing investigations on PBA enactment have put increasing attention to the role of situated and material contexts, but there is still limited knowledge on how subjective variables can mediate policy enactment processes and enable the adoption of different school responses. To address these gaps, the article aims to explore how the perceived accountability pressure, the school performative culture, and meaning-making processes at the school level are mediating the enactment of PBA policies in disadvantaged schools. At the theoretical level, the study is informed by sense-making and policy enactment frameworks. Methodologically speaking, the investigation uses a comparative case study approach based on two extreme cases, which have been selected on the basis of a factorial analysis that combines both survey and secondary data. The extreme cases represent two different scenarios, which, despite operating in similar situated contexts, are characterized by having opposite levels of perceived pressure and alignment with the performative culture. The case studies combine survey data (n = 39) with documentary analysis and semi-structured interviews with the management team and teachers (n = 7). The findings show that subjective variables, in interaction with other contextual factors, can exacerbate or inhibit PBA regulatory pressures and trigger diverging school responses.
In recent decades, performance-based accountability (PBA) has become an increasingly popular policy instrument to ensure educational actors are responsive to and assume responsibility for achieving centrally defined learning goals. Nonetheless, studies report mixed results with regard to the impact of PBA on schools’ internal affairs and instructional practices. With the aim of contributing to the understanding of the social mechanisms and processes that induce particular school responses, this paper reports on a study that examines how Norwegian principals perceive, interpret, and translate accountability demands. The analysis is guided by the policy enactment perspective and the sociological concept of “reactivity”, and relies on 23 in-depth interviews with primary school principals in nine urban municipalities in Norway. The findings highlight three distinct response patterns in how principals perceive, interpret, and translate PBA demands: alignment, balancing multiple purposes, and symbolic responses. The study simultaneously shows how different manifestations of two social mechanisms form important explanatory factors to understand principals’ varying responses, while it is highlighted how the mechanisms are more likely to operate under particular conditions, which relate both to principals’ trajectories and views on education, and to school-specific characteristics and the local accountability regime. The study contributes to the accountability literature by showing how, even in the relative absence of material consequences and low levels of marketization, standardized testing and PBA can drive behavioral change, by reframing norms of good educational practice and by affecting how educators make sense of core aspects of their work.