To align or not to align: The enactment of accountability and data-use in disadvantaged school contexts

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.