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Critical analysis of accountability policy in alternative schools: implications for school leaders

Lynn M. Hemmer (Department of Educational Leadership, Research, Curriculum and Instruction, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, Texas, USA)
Jean Madsen (Department of Educational Administration, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA)
Mario S. Torres (Department of Educational Administration, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 9 August 2013




The expansion of alternative education, globally, has coincided with a shift towards greater accountability for ensuring educational access and opportunity, high academic standards and increased graduation rates. While studies suggest the pervasive influence of accountability may be redefining how school leaders provide meaningful learning experiences and facilitating high achievement, little is known about school leaders of alternative schools administering accountability polices. If there are inconsistencies between meaningful learning experiences for at‐risk students and performance‐based standards outcomes, this may suggest issues around equity and alternative schools that should be evaluated. Using a theoretical frame of policy implementation, specifically the authoritative design of policy and social constructs of compliance, this study aims to examine how alternative school leaders implement accountability policies.


This cross‐case study employs a qualitative thematic strategy of data analysis in conjunction with Fairclough's three‐dimensional framework of discourse analysis to examine how seven school leaders at five alternative schools in California and Texas interpret and administer accountability policy.


The theme of reconciliation: tension between compliance and innovation was revealed from the data. The discourses surrounding the nature of students at risk and policy compliance converged, creating a notion that alternative school leaders were losing their autonomy as knowing what is best for their students amidst increasing accountability standards.

Research limitations/implications

While many of the administrators are positioned by their districts to act as an at‐risk student expert when designing or sustaining academic and social programs at their respective alternative schools, they are in the process of losing some of their autonomy because of the pressures derived from accountability standards. However, school leaders continue to take responsive and reflexive actions to create distance between their settings and accountability policy in order to protect their students and schools from external pressures.


The study presents original findings in the area of accountability policy implementation in alternative school settings. This work suggests that the social constructs of compliance and student risk factors converge with the authoritative nature of accountability policy. In turn, tension was created for alternative school leaders as they consider what is best for at‐risk students.



Hemmer, L.M., Madsen, J. and Torres, M.S. (2013), "Critical analysis of accountability policy in alternative schools: implications for school leaders", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 51 No. 5, pp. 655-679.



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Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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