How Does High-Stakes Accountability Pressure Affect Frontline Public Service Empowerment? Evidence from North Carolina Teachers

KANG, Minsung Michael / Park, Soohyun / Sorensen, Lucy

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One purpose of the federal government offering No Child Left Behind (NCLB) “waivers” was to cede control back to the states, so that each district, school, and teacher gained empowerment to use localized information and capabilities to improve performance. Although accountability systems were originally designed to empower teachers to drive student performance growth, the impact of such high-stakes accountability pressures on their empowerment remains unanswered. This study examines how accountability systems reshape, or leverage, teacher empowerment. It employs a regression discontinuity design (RDD) to consider how such systems affect teachers in schools just below (as compared to just above) the designation of a “low-performing” school.
Empowerment has received growing scholarly attention in public administration, with a body of work showing the positive role it plays in increasing performance. For instance, employee empowerment has a positive impact on promoting innovative behavior (Fernandez & Moldogaziev, 2012), on reducing turnover (Kim & Fernandez, 2017), and on supporting higher levels of satisfaction and commitment (Fernandez & Moldogaziev, 2015). In educational research, correspondingly, teacher empowerment has been identified as increasing teachers’ work quality, satisfaction, and commitment (Grissom, Nicholson-Crotty, & Harrington, 2014), and as improving student academic performance (Marks & Louis, 1997).

As a first step towards understanding the determinants of public service empowerment, we review the concept in both public administration (bureaucrat empowerment) and education (teacher empowerment). Empowerment is defined as a process whereby employees develop the competence to take charge of their own growth and resolve their own problems (Short, 1994). Teacher empowerment can be understood as a process that teachers participate in by taking ownership of and action towards their own growth and problem-solving capabilities (Hammond, 2018). Based on extensive review, we established a six-dimensional construct of teacher empowerment: 1) Involvement in decision-making; 2) Engagement in professional growth; 3) Supportive culture; 4) Self-efficacy; 5) Work autonomy; and 6) Performance information use.

We construct a panel dataset from 2015 to 2018 using School Report Cards and the Teacher Working Conditions Survey provided by the North Carolina Education Research Data Center, which covers the entire universe of public schools. The TWC Survey has an average response rate of 91% and provides a unique opportunity for studying how managerial reforms shape the public workforce. Using this reliable dataset, we ask two key questions: a) What is the association between school working conditions and the level of teacher empowerment? and b) Does designation as a “low-performing” school, and the ensuing implementation of an improvement plan, increase or decrease existing levels of teacher empowerment?

Such empirical questions would be answered by a combination of descriptive and quasi-experimental analyses. We apply a fuzzy RDD using the official school performance score and grade to assess the impacts of “just achieving,” as compared to “just missing,” low-performing school status. This study contributes to theoretical discussions of empowerment in the public sector by consolidating measurement concepts, focusing attention on the use of performance information, and determining the relation between accountability pressures and public service empowerment using a causal research design.

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Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management
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Association for Public Policy Analysis & Management (APPAM)
Sheraton Denver Downtown
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