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June 11, 2015

Intoxicated by the Scent of Blossoms

This post is an excerpt from Chapter 7 of my dissertation, the final chapter, which focuses on arguments about charters and implications for further research. This project is a qualitative/ phenomenological study of teachers at an urban charter school, about how they make shared meanings of the phenomena around them (particularly aspects of contemporary school reform) and make meanings for themselves as teachers in the era of accountability. The first posting in this series is here.

Chapter 7: Intoxicated by the scent of blossoms

The ship of humanity, we think, has an even deeper draught the more it is loaded down; we believe that the more deeply a person thinks, the more delicately he feels, the more highly he values himself, the farther his distance from the other animals becomes…the nearer he will come to the real essence of the world and to knowledge about it…Error has made human beings deep, delicate, inventive enough to put forth such blossoms as religion and the arts. Pure knowledge would not be in a position to do so. Anyone who disclosed to us the essence of the world would cause us all the most unpleasant disillusionment. It is not the world as thing in itself, but the world as representation (as error), that is so rich in meaning, deep, and wonderful, bearing happiness in its lap. This result leads to a philosophy that logically denies the world: that can moreover itself be combined just as easily with a practical affirmation of the world as with its opposite. 
Nietzsche (1878/1995), p. 38

The Pence charter school Board has plans to expand the school’s presence and impact in Philadelphia and, if successful, to evolve into a small charter management organization in the near future. The School Reform Commission reviewed applications for new charters and charter expansions in Philadelphia in December 2014, and the Pence Board and CEO put together a bid for another K-8 school (to be located on the other side of the city) as well as a bid for a new high school.

At the opening of his presentation to the SRC about this proposed high school, Pence’s CEO quoted journalist Thomas Friedman. In his 2005 treatise on globalization (The World is Flat), Friedman wrote about seeing what he claimed was an African proverb posted on a wall in an auto factory in China which read: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.”

The Pence CEO referenced Friedman, and this particular proverb, in connection to the work skills preparation program he and the Pence Board have identified as a product differentiator and key feature in the proposed high school’s curriculum.

That the presentation about Pence’s expansion was introduced with a story from a proponent of the positive impacts of technology-driven global market competition was not surprising. The contemporary school reform movement has taken ideas and methods from the business world and applied them to schooling since charter schools emerged on the scene, and every teacher at a charter school is familiar with them. Every teacher at Pence is familiar with them as well. When I spoke with Teacher Molly about the purposes of teaching, to cite just one example, she said her daily goal was for what she called “value-add” (a term used in both economics, regarding how revenue is calculated, and more generally in business, related to the competitiveness of certain product features) in that “every interaction we have [in the classroom] should be value added and not value taken away, although sometimes easier said than done, let’s just be honest” (Teacher Molly, personal communication, March 13, 2014).

The organizational language of Pence is the language of contemporary school reform, which is in essence the language of products and features. And though it is independent, Pence’s longevity makes it an important participant in the discussion of charter-based reforms in Philadelphia, and its school culture, as with all charters, is infused with the vocabulary favored by the reformers. Aspects of this are woven into how teachers at Pence talk, think, and make meaning about their practice. And aspects of this contour the visible, marketable features of Pence, and the invisible features as well.

My research at Pence revealed that a point of connection between those invisible features of the school – the placement of responsibility for organizational issues (like a curricular choice that led to the social segregation Pence teachers observe) onto teachers by framing it as a racial proficiency problem, the promotion of an ideal of autonomy without actual empowerment, the framing of accountability (on posters and school guidelines, in professional development sessions) as being about personal interactions and behaviors rather than as tied to a charter’s economic imperatives, the reiteration of hopefulness about impacting students holistically when the future plans for and goals of the organization are based on quantifiable, disparate elements – is the internalization of these features by the teachers at Pence. And these teachers work together within a school culture where several of the shared common sense understandings actually work to preserve those same invisible features, those bugs deep in the code.

Teachers at charters like Pence are impacted by the language of contemporary school reform and by the multiple contexts which shift and shape their professional selves. As part of their working lives they create meanings out of interactions within these contexts (the social, emotional, psychological, political, structural, organizational and visual contexts) in their school and continually must navigate those meanings as well as their own values, ethics, and sense of purpose as teachers. Simultaneously, as charter teachers, they are by definition actors within the ongoing phenomena of the redefinition of their profession. Since the first charter school law passed in 1991, teacher identity has been impacted by a new franchise approach to schooling. And the majority of charter school teachers have been (and continue to be) trained to perform functions of teaching in school contexts that are informed by business ethics and goals, and without necessarily inhabiting what has been referred to in the literature as “teacherness” or, as in Akkermen and Meijer’s research (2010), being “someone who teaches.”

In a 2013 study by Schultz and Ravitch about the self-reported experiences of first year teachers, the researchers divided the subjects into two groups. One group was in an alternate certification program (Teach For America, or TFA) and one group was in a traditional teacher-training program at a university. The researchers findings in this study reflect much of the current literature, noted earlier, on teacher identity and teacher preparation: unlike those in a traditional teacher training program, alternate certification program participants did not necessarily view themselves as teachers, but “conceptualized their involvement in TFA as a form of civic engagement or community service for two years” (Schultz and Ravitch 2013, p. 40). One outcome of this attitude is that teacher identity may now be more defined by the idea of being short-time staffer rather than as professional educator in a career. This is reflected in the high turnover rate of teachers at charter schools (Stuit 2010). As one education journalist described it, charter schools, which tend to hire teachers with little experience and who have come through alternative training or certification programs, “are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable…even desirable. Teachers in the nation’s traditional public schools [in contrast] have an average of close to 14 years of experience” (Rich 2013).

The teachers I observed and interviewed during my six months at Pence overwhelmingly described themselves as educators in the profession of teaching, regardless of their training, years of experience, or grade level taught. Most expressed the belief that they were in their chosen career for practical as well as philosophical reasons. As Teacher Rob told me, “I think that education is the most important tool for social justice that we have. So for me that’s what I want to do” (Teacher Rob, personal communication, May 6, 2014). Like Rob, many Pence teachers identified themselves as agents of change, and they connected this to being teachers at an urban charter school – to being part of “the solution.” They recognized the constraints and issues associated with charters, but also that, as Teacher Karen noted, charters are key players in urban education today, and if you have a personal investment in urban education (as Pence teachers do) you have to work within the system that now exists.

Pence teachers holding this point of view about the inevitability of change in urban education (specifically in the direction of charter growth) makes their work and workplace both meaningful and palatable. It also reflects what Everdell (1997) noted about the modern fragmentation of life that occurs in a sped-up, globalized world – that the new state of being which emerges out of this change is seen as something virtuous simply because it is happening.

Based on her research on charter schools, corruption, and the pressing need for financial accountability in Philadelphia charters, legal scholar Susan DeJarnatt addresses this quite succinctly: “Charter schools bask in the warm glow of positive rhetoric and political support. They are seen as positive and as run by good hearted, well intentioned people. The key though is that they are run by people, who are subject to ordinary human frailties like greed, selfishness, and disconnect just like anyone” (DeJarnatt 2012, p. 38). And as her research shows, those human frailties can and do morph into what can become corrosive invisible features of charters. Awareness of that possibility influenced teachers, parents, and community members at one Philadelphia K-8 school who voted in June 2014 to reject a management bid from a charter operator and remain a traditional school under management by the SDP. The charter management organization they rejected manages a cluster of schools in the city; each of the schools they currently manage has a School Performance Profile in steady decline. Soon after this vote to reject charter management, the previously mentioned Walter D. Palmer charter school had its charter revoked by the SRC over accusations of fraud. The SRC then revoked the charter of the Imani Education Circle School (a charter school which opened just before Pence did) over concerns about academic performance and the school’s finances. And this past April, teachers at another K-8 charter in Philadelphia (one of only five charters in the city represented by a union) voted to strike if unable to obtain a new contract; this would be the first strike ever by charter teachers in Pennsylvania (Woodall 2014).

A recent analysis of the available data on the enrollment trends, demographics, academic performance (based on the PSSAs), and finances of charters across Pennsylvania showed that students who moved from a traditional public school to a charter school most often moved to a school with lower academic performance in reading and math than that of the traditional public school they opted out of (Schafft 2014, p. 52). The same study also showed that charters across the state continue to be a drain on public education; by the 2011-12 school year, “the annual increase in the traditional public school district tuition payments made to charter schools exceeded the increase in revenues generated from real estate taxes” which means districts had to “divert funds from existing programs and services to pay for charter school student tuition” (Schafft, p.1).

Despite these facts, a proposal was presented in late 2014 to the school board of the district of York, Pennsylvania for it become the only city in the country where public education is provided entirely by a charter management organization. Even in its post-Katrina, transformed state, charterized New Orleans still operated a few traditional brick and mortar public schools (RAND 2011, p. 80). Due to a state court allowing the district to appeal, this charterization proposal is now momentarily on hold. But if the transition in York were to be completed, it would mean that all of the current district teachers “would have to re-apply to the [charter] company for their jobs” and that all “students living in York would have the choice to go to schools operated by [charter management organizations only]. High school students…would only have the option of attending the charter-run [high school]…they wouldn’t have another brick-and-mortar option because there is no high school operated by another charter company in York, currently” (Allen 2014).

Supporters of the charterization of the York, PA school district promoted the same idea as supporters of charters everywhere: that charters offer an alternative to loss, improved accountability, enhanced efficiency, and increased productivity. Given what we know now about charter outcomes and how and why charters operate it is worth continued and persistent research into who has benefitted from this thinking.

My research was done in part to explore how urban charter teachers’ professional identities are impacted, in often subtle ways, by the aims and ongoing efforts of contemporary school reformers. I was interested in how a new prerogative in American education insinuates itself into the daily life of teachers. What this ground-level process helped reveal was that there are no directly obvious benefits to educators in this process. And that there is a great deal of internalization by teachers of language, aims, and efforts that actually are more associated with product marketing than with educating, even at a charter that is not part of a charter management organization. This research, at this one site, shed light for this researcher on the potentially negative effects of such internalization, and begs the question of how broadly this is occurring in charter schools, and if it is now a hallmark of contemporary teaching.

This study also has implications for teacher retention and training research, as most teachers currently in the workforce were trained via traditional teacher training programs, not via alternative training, charter-centric models. Proponents of the continued expansion of charters would no doubt claim that developing teacher training programs that enhance teachers’ entrepreneurial skills, marketing savvy, and awareness of product features testing and implementation would benefit charter operators. It is easy to argue that there would be little benefit to teachers in this, which underscores the value of continued and persistent research on the framing and reframing of the aims of alternative certification programs.

Proponents of the contemporary school reform movement continue to have a strong and very public voice in decisions about schooling Philadelphia. The teachers they impact do not, and of course neither do the students. The locus of control is very much with stakeholders and business owners who would see the use of a quote from Thomas Friedman in the promotion of an education project as inherently, and perhaps unquestioningly, positive. This particular kind of thinking is necessary, if one’s aim is the eventual elimination of traditional public schools in urban areas. And I would argue this kind of thinking is an essential invisible feature in all pro-charter arguments. To that end, further research into the impacts of freezing the charter momentum in urban districts, even for a short time, seems warranted – if only to provide a counter to this thinking, and perhaps give some weight to arguments for the persistence of (and continued resource allocation to) traditional public education in Philadelphia.




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Postscript, June 2015
Pence Charter School’s application to the SRC to expand and develop a second K-8 charter on the other side of Philadelphia – was approved, but its bid for a high school was not. The new Pence school will incorporate an intensive language instruction approach, where every student will be taught in English for some courses and in Spanish for others. Pence is not replicating the 2-track system in the new school, which will open in 2016. The York charterization proposal is still under review by the courts. And the School District of Philadelphia is now considering outsourcing both substitute teachers and medical staff for the district (giving contracts for these services to private agencies) in a cost cutting measure. This measure is being fought by parents, the teacher’s union, and several members of the Philadelphia City Council.

For those who are interested in this topic, two great sources for the most up to date information about education in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s approach to school funding can be found here: The Multiple Choices podcast and The Philadelphia Public School Notebook


Creative Commons License Invisible features: hidden aspects of teacher identity in an urban charter school by Martha Hope Carey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

June 10, 2015

Hope as a Presumption



This post is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of my dissertation, a chapter on perceptions of accountability, failure, charters, and choice. This post continues the introduction of my dissertation. This project is a qualitative/ phenomenological study of teachers at an urban charter school, about how they make shared meanings of the phenomena around them (particularly aspects of contemporary school reform) and make meanings for themselves as teachers in the era of accountability. The first posting in this series is here.

Chapter 6: Hope as a Presumption

Our social order will slowly melt away, just as all earlier orders have done, as soon as the suns of new opinions shine with a new heat over humanity. We can wish for this melting away only if we have hope: and we may reasonably be hopeful only if we give to ourselves and to others like us credit for more strength in our hearts and heads than we do to the representatives of what presently exists. This hope will therefore usually be a presumption, or an overestimation. 
Nietzsche (1878/1995), p. 239

Accountability in education can be achieved at the macro level, according to school reform proponents (and as detailed in No Child Left Behind legislation) using an approach that is fairly basic in business economics. The formula is: education spending levels should be set based on the notion that productivity is equalized across all groups (advantaged students and less advantaged students), and such productivity is measured through an outcomes-based assessment of student achievement based on equalized outputs (student test scores) rather than equalized inputs (variability in the provision of educational resources and services) – so accountability in this context means that 1) education spending is premised on ensuring productivity, 2) spending is equalized across groups equitably and 3) spending is kept efficient by redirecting resources (if you spend less there, you can spend more here) to achieve maximum productivity (Aske 2013, p.112).

The authors of this analysis of accountability conclude that the formula is not actually sustainable. The trade-offs between equity and efficiency can never be balanced. This is in part because continually higher levels of resources need to be re-allocated to groups with initial lower marginal productivity (less advantaged students) in order to achieve any parity on productivity with more advantaged students, so that “if compensatory education is used as the metric of equity, it is impossible to achieve equity and efficiency simultaneously…thus the desired objectives of NCLB are inherently mutually exclusive” (Aske, p. 117).

Working within the parameters described above, there is not really a solution to this problem, unless initial lower marginal productivity is raised without somehow tapping shared resources. Or unless those who exhibit lower marginal productivity are simply not counted in the data used to determine resource allocation. Or unless those less advantaged students who exhibit lower marginal productivity are denied resources all together.

Two researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently analyzed this issue of resource allocation impacting educational outcomes and found that an adequacy gap (“the difference between the resources that districts need for all students to achieve academically and the amount districts actually spend”) persists across all school districts in Pennsylvania, but is more prominent in districts with larger percentages of poor students, and is most prominent in the School District of Philadelphia. The researchers found that the SDP had an adequacy gap of “more than twice as large as the average district serving the same share of economically disadvantaged students” and the SDP “spent approximately 48% less than would be necessary to educate all students to meet performance expectations” (Steinberg 2014, p. 2-3). And the most recent data on student test scores in Pennsylvania (using the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment or PSSA) show declines in every grade level, across all groups, compared to 2011 PSSA test scores.

This decline in scores over time has paralleled both the reformulation of education funding first enacted by the Pennsylvania state legislature in 2008 and education funding cuts put in place by Governor Tom Corbett in 2011, which resulted in staff layoffs and increased class sizes in over 60 percent of districts across the state. Today “school districts are still operating with hundreds of millions” less than in previous years, and it is “the poorest school districts where we often find the largest concentrations of students who are English language learners and who are in circumstances of economic disadvantage, those kinds of school districts disproportionately lost greater amounts of state money” (Chute 2014).

Pauline Lipman describes this focus on educational accountability as “not a policy of public engagement in the improvement of schooling” but rather as “a panoptic system of surveillance that teaches people to comply and to press others into compliance” and as a means of assessing school quality, it is fraught with “a highly racialized discourse of deficits” because accountability measures are most often used to sort functional from dysfunctional schools predominantly along racial lines (Lipman 2004, p. 176-8). The state-level policies aimed at ensuring accountability which have been put in place since 2001 have had a range of negative impacts nationally, explored by Lipman and elsewhere in much detail. But one specific impact on the professional identities of teachers today can be easily summarized: the “history of this reform movement [around accountability] has been built not on teacher development but rather on a punitive accountability system of high-stakes testing” (Katz 2013, p. 19). As the former head of the National Education Association commented recently, “as we are all so painfully aware, the current accountability system…is totally driven by high-stakes standardized tests” and teachers know that, for the present, “our lives revolve around testing” (Van Roekel 2014, p. 3-4).

When teachers at Pence talked with me about what accountability means, it was often talked about in emotional and personal terms – and the idea of compliance was ever-present. For Nia accountability means “making sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And accountability takes the ugly face of standardized testing today” (Teacher Nia, personal communication, March 26, 2014). When Leah reflects on accountability, she thinks about “our supervision and evaluation, I think that’s accountability, and I think it’s really smart… I like that we’re being held accountable” and she explains “when [the former CEO] walked in the room, everybody sat up. I appreciate that we’re all going to do our jobs and someone’s watching. I kind of like it” (Teacher Leah, personal communication, March 31, 2014).

Teacher Diane’s perspective is that accountability involves scrutiny from all sides, including self-scrutiny. It “stretches to parents. And I believe…to teachers as well as the administration. And for me personally, I need to be able to go home at night and know I gave everything that I could possibly give today” (Teacher Diane, personal communication, April 11, 2014). For Teacher Tina, accountability is basic; it means simply that “I am accountable for whatever happens in the classroom, what they learn, what is delivered” (Teacher Tina, personal communication, March 28, 2014).

For Teacher Lisa, accountability is slightly more distant, more of “a checks and balances system” that ensures that “people are living up to the expectations set for them, whether [they are] administrators, teachers, students, parents, Board members, just that people are checking in to make sure that everyone is doing their job for the success of the kids” (Teacher Lisa, personal communication, April 29, 2014). And for Teacher Molly, who has been teaching middle school math at Pence for six years (after working for several years in the juvenile justice system), accountability is multi-layered and impacts language use at the school as well as her own perceptions of language and of time: “[W]e’re held to those standards. I think we’re accountable for making sure that our kids are safe and happy and educated and have opportunities for the future in terms of getting into decent high schools in the city…And on the federal side, us making AYP, is like, we have to do that so that we can continue to do what we do well. Like we have to follow those [annual] benchmarks that they’ve set for us, we have to get here…We don’t want our charter revoked. We don’t want people coming in and saying ‘you’re not doing the job, because you’re not meeting these grade levels that we’re expecting you to meet at some point’…And it changes the way we talk, have conversations about things. It’s always there in the background of every conversation we have” (Teacher Molly, personal communication, April 13, 2014).

The ideal of accountability is also expressed by some at Pence as compliance to a particular order, and about a future good. Administrator Jason has been a middle school math teacher at Pence for three years, but this year he is the acting Dean of Students. For him as an administrator, accountability means “children being accountable for their actions. As a teacher, I would say it’s making sure students are mastering the skills at the grade level that they’re currently in” (Administrator Jason, personal communication, March 6, 2014). James, the current Student Data Coordinator (and former Pence teacher), defines this as holding schools accountable for making students gain what they need for college or careers (Administrator James, personal communication, April 2, 2014). For other Pence teachers, the intersection of accountability and compliance is seen as purposeful and inherently negative. When Teacher Hannah and I spoke about the issue, her response was clear and firm: “I think it’s punitive. It’s like a punitive kind of trying to measure what happens in a classroom, and too often it’s used against a particular teacher as a tactic of intimidation” (Teacher Hannah, personal communication, March 21, 2014).

For Hannah this idea extends to students as well. The standardized tests “which change every year, of which [teachers are] not given any information of what’s going to be on them…these tests are going to matter for the kids getting into high school or not…And it’s crazy that can be the case” (Teacher Hannah, personal communication, March 21, 2014). Teacher Karen explained that for her accountability was “a very politically charged word” and that her experience with it in her former charter (which was run by a charter management organization contracted by the SDP) was personally and professionally debilitating: “I think that one of the big motivators for me leaving [her former charter school] was the accountability pay-for-performance system was so stressful and it was unpleasant…you had someone coming in in our observation notes every about minute or two they would list a percent of students on task. One student has their head down, ‘89% on task.’ I mean, the level of under-a-microscope accountability created an incredibly stressful environment that was, like, crushing. It was not easy to work there. And I think that when accountability creates a punitive environment, which it can both in the classroom observation realm, but also in the testing, AYP- funding realm, I think that that’s when it’s a runaway train, when people are scared into cheating on tests, because of ‘accountability.’ When people leave observation debriefs crying because they’re so stressed out that they’re going to have a pay cut next year or lose their job, because they happened to be observed on the wrong day, and a kid flipped out or something like that. Those are when people become desperate and things don’t go well and both adults and kids, I don’t think it’s good for when it’s that extreme” (Teacher Karen, personal communication, April 10, 2014).

Teachers at Pence, like all teachers today, are fully immersed in an ideal of accountability transmitted from the business world to education. Accountability in language, actions, metrics, data, testing, behaviors, expectations, and communication permeate their practice and also frame the terms of their employment. It goes without saying that teachers themselves cannot exert direct control over the lives of students outside the classroom, or control over parent engagement in students’ lives, or control student health or income level or cultural or racial background, which are all elements that impact students’ ability to achieve “maximum productivity.”

Yet the overarching aim of accountability, as outlined by corporate interests and now re-branded in education, is the financial health and success of the organizing entity. The focus is not actually on the health and success of individual students. Enhanced efficiency and productivity are goals that benefit the organization and aid in the process of developing new products to market. Regardless, many Pence teachers share the view that there can be a direct connection between their own ethical sense of accountability as practitioners (and modeling this for students) and how accountability is framed in the era of charter schools and school reform, which they hope results in long term success for their students. This is despite the reality that the accountability measures and testing practices put into place over the past 25 years have yet to show that they ensure, or even promote, student success out in the world.

In the contemporary school reform era, schools that do not meet certain performance metrics are seen as unaccountable failures that should be closed because they will not provide a future return on the investment in them by interested parties. The portfolio model (multiple organizations competing to operate schools in one district) of school privatization which was brought to Philadelphia in 2002 by former Superintendent Paul Vallas is alive and well in the city today. This model is supported in part because it gives Pennsylvania, the School District of Philadelphia, and the School Reform Commission opportunities to, as one school reform proponent recently stated at a national education conference, “keep dumping the losers” – just as one might dump bad stocks (Gym 2014).

The metrics used by the State to evaluate success in Pennsylvania’s schools include test scores, attendance, graduation rates, and student improvement, which are combined into a School Performance Profile score. Over the 2013-14 school year, all but three of the city’s charters were given a score, and of these, 58% saw decreases in their scores from the previous year, including all of the schools run by one particular charter management organization (McCorry, November 10, 2014). But for teachers at Pence, failure is not a disgruntled investor, or a missed metric, or poor test score. Failure can be personal, internalized, and heartbreaking. It can be about students’ perception of their own capabilities, and their own futures. And interviews with Pence teachers revealed that failure has a shared meaning, one connected to the purposes of teaching, the idea of equity, and the ethics of the school itself.

Teacher Sam sees failure in terms of students’ experience and emotional well-being. For him, it’s “when kids, like, shutdown…when they’re sad and it’s like nothing turns them around, you know. To me that’s failure, because it’s like they’re not working towards anything…they don’t care at all” (Teacher Sam, personal communication, May 19, 2014). Teacher Rob describes failure as “when a student gives up on something. It’s when they no longer believe that they’re capable of performing a certain task. Or they’re no longer capable of being in a certain situation or dealing with certain people. And being able to turn them from that, because it’s so often that they’ll give up on something, but usually they’re pretty resilient. But for me failure would be that they walk away just thinking ‘I can’t do that’” (Teacher Rob, personal communication, May 6, 2014).

And Teacher Nia describes failure in similar terms: “I think when a child feels defeated, to me that’s failure. Not for the student, but for me professionally that somewhere I have not stepped in to tell this child that he has potential, that he or she has capabilities of succeeding. And then that might not be in Math class, but that his presence is of value. And so I think when a child internalizes that defeat, internalizes that low self-esteem I think that’s when I have failed professionally” (Teacher Nia, personal communication, May 29, 2014).

For Administrator James, the scope of failure is broader, and connects directly to the mission and history of Pence. His concern is that Pence faces a future where funding from the SDP is reduced, which would mean increasing their focus on fundraising and donations. This would mean the school would have to market itself to parents of higher socio-economic status, and James thinks this would fundamentally change the culture and goals of Pence, and result in less equity. He explains, “That’s going to be I think the failure for us. That we’re going to end up – I think Pence will end up still as a school, but it’s going to end up being a school that doesn’t have a community that mirrors the city where the ethnic and social economic balances are similar to the city. It’s going to probably end up being more of a school that pulls more middle class and local right from this particular neighborhood of students versus throughout the city” (Administrator James, personal communication, May 28, 2014). And given the demographics of the Pence Kindergarten class this year (down to only 22% African American, and up to 45% Caucasian), James’ concern may well be warranted.

For Teacher Patty, failure means accepting a statistical status quo about students’ futures: “I feel like though if you ask the teachers around here, we have to be concerned about the state standards, but really [failure is] to not produce students who are successful in life as in completing high school, completing college. I feel like there’s a really big drive here to not accept the fact that a lot of these students, you’re traditionally, statistically going to drop out of high school and don’t go to college…like here it’s almost like there’s a culture where the expectation is you will get through high school. You will get through college. So I feel like that’s one thing is that just having students that generally would be considered to be successful in life that they are able to continue with their education and navigate these different situations with the skills that we’ve given them”(Teacher Patty, personal communication, May 29, 2014).

Pence teachers perceive that student failure is often connected to a lack of compassion, awareness, motivation, or engagement. These teachers feel a sense of personal failure as professionals when students’ needs are not attended to in a holistic way. Yet as employees they work in an environment that measures failure as the absence of specific quantifiable components in student achievement, just as every other charter does.

Teachers reiterated to me that their school is not as driven as other charters by the typical de-contextualized accountability measures which are then converted into product differentiators in the urban charter market. As noted earlier, Pence uses a responsive classroom approach, and the teachers also value reflection and responsiveness both in their practice and in the school community. This translates to notions about the culture of Pence, in which the values and voice of teachers have been perceived (by the teachers I spoke with) to play a large role in the past, particularly under the long leadership of the first CEO. But Teacher Lisa notes that in the present, with changes to the Board and a new CEO, this is changing: “I hope that Pence continues to like follow in the footsteps of its history…But it seems as though more teachers are unhappy. More teachers are a little frustrated. And because of that the students are acting out in different ways like where we found more fights this year than we have in the past and things like that. So because there is now starting to be a relatively high turnover where there wasn’t before, and that’s turnover in administration and in teachers, I can see our mission statement crumbling a little bit, because you might not have the same community feeling among the like educators if they’re constantly turning over…So it’s a different feeling, and there has definitely been murmurs that Pence is deviating from what it started as and potentially worsening” (Teacher Lisa, personal communication, April 29, 2014).

The idea that there could be a visceral distinction between what teachers are held accountable for in the contemporary school reform era and in the current political climate (like test scores) and what teachers actually feel personally/emotionally accountable for is not unique to Pence, or to charters. This distinction is an invisible feature in many school cultures. Yet observing these teachers work, and hearing their descriptions of what accountability and failure mean, I was struck again by how organizational aims often superseded the professional ethics of the practitioners within that organization. Because in the accountability era, a teacher failing to foster a sense of self-esteem or self-respect in one individual student is fairly irrelevant, unless this is shown to directly impact test scores, the AYP, and marginal productivity.

Nonetheless the committed teachers at Pence consider that part of the ethics and purposes of the job is to shape students into good citizens, to encourage students to be responsible to their community, to be progressive human beings, to care for others, or simply to have self-respect. For these teachers, this is their professional identity, and they stay tied to it despite the accountability-era reframing of educational priorities happening around them.

One such educational priority that has been reshaped and reframed over the past decades is choice. In a discussion about the concept of choice in education (which laid the groundwork for the development of charter schools), historian Daniel Rodgers explored how the 1960’s idea of school vouchers was reframed politically in the late1980’s into a debate with “democracy and choice moved into its center. Local public school governance had long been one of the most distinguishing features of the American polity” but “in the new turn in conservative writing on education, public schooling had become synonymous not with democracy but with a new authoritarianism” (Rodgers 2011, pp.217-18).

This shift in language was used to push a shift in perception about democratic processes in educational decisions, and about how public education should be organized. Historically school boards had been arenas “for democratic deliberation, compromise, argument, tax referenda, and election. But ‘voice’ in the arguments of the new voucher proponents was not the essence of democracy. What mattered was ‘exit.’ Give unsatisfied education consumers the power to walk away” through school choice (Rodgers, p. 218). As Nia said to me during one interview, choice in schooling (of which Pence is a prime example) means “[b]eing able to choose a school that fits your philosophy of learning and teaching” (Personal communication, 3.26.2014).

This same sentiment was captured in a remarkable policy essay penned by Ted Kolderie back in 1990, a policy essay that was used as the basis for the America’s first ever charter school law enacted in his home state of Minnesota in 1991. In his essay, Kolderie called for a change to the process of education on a broad scale. He proposed that in order to improve, if not perfect, public education, all states should give up the old idea of school districts as franchises and instead give more power to individual education consumers instead. “A State canting to create incentives for improvement will want first to withdraw from the district its ability to ‘take customers for granted’” he wrote, proposing that the state should “transfer the attendance decision from system to student…shifting from assignment to choice as the basis on which the student arrives at the school…Choice alone is not enough. But choice is essential” (Kolderie 1990, p. 5-6). He advocated for diversification in education offerings, with schools established by one local district in other locales (a city district running a school for at-risk youth in the suburbs, for example) and run by “Perhaps a business firm. Or an investor group. Or a group of parents. Or perhaps educators” which would be held accountable by “its sponsor, through the contract, and to its families, through choice” (Kolderie, p. 7-8).

This point of view, centering on educational choice as a form of consumer empowerment, was reiterated by Teacher Ella when we spoke. But as a practitioner in a charter school she sees the practical implications: “I’m someone who’s like very sympathetic to, like, anarchist ideals. I love the idea of a school being a single, autonomous unit that responds to the community. So in that respect I think charters are awesome. I don’t want a big district. I don’t want someone far away telling schools what to do. I think schools need to be responsive to the people that are in them. So, yeah, in theory that’s grand, but that’s not – when people who are running a school don’t know how to run a school, or aren’t responding to the community of the school and its surroundings, then it’s just as much of a mess as when someone in the state capital is doing it” (Teacher Ella, personal communication, April 20, 2014).

Teacher Diane sees the development of charters (as the embodiment of choice) as the best solution to a very real problem. Charters evolved in Philadelphia because “the school system was failing, they were failing the children…And I feel like, so, parents should have their choice to be able to say ‘you’re not performing very well, and I want my child to go somewhere where people care about what’s going on with them.’ And it could be that because of financial reasons the teachers are overwhelmed by the amount of students that are in the classroom, which of course rubs off on how you interact with them. If you have 34 kids in a class I’m thinking you might be like ‘I give up, I can’t’ and then you don’t have the support of your administration. You don’t have the proper resources…But somebody has to be accountable for that, and parents should have a choice about where their kids are” (Teacher Diane, personal communication, April 11, 2014).

And Teacher Rose, who has taught 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders at Pence over the last nine years, has a similar perspective: “Because I think it’s like any problem…if you encounter a problem people are going to try to find solutions to their problem, and that’s why I believe that charter schools are a good solution. Like they encountered a major problem with education for so many years and nothing was happening that someone thought about let’s do a charter school, and it’s a business too. So from the business perspective you want your business to be successful. So a charter school is offering that choice to parents” (Teacher Rose, personal communication, April 9, 2014).

Choice and accountability intersected in Kolderie’s vision of public schooling; citizens could be empowered to open independent schools, and parental choice would keep those schools accountable in some manner, as would the “contract” the schools have with whoever funded them. This approach was informed by the influential1983 education reform report, A Nation At Risk, which opened with a stark statement of fear – “Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world…What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur – others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments” – and whose authors (members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education) concluded that “declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted” (U.S. Department of Education 1983, pp. 1-4). The report proposed education reforms that focused not on social mobility or equity, but rather on regaining a foothold in the ongoing global competition for knowledge, advancement, and commerce.

The authors of the report proposed changes to the educational process that included but were not limited to: school days and years being extended; moving “continually disruptive students” to alternative classrooms, schools, or programs; consistently sanctioning students for tardiness; and integrating work skills instruction into the curriculum as early as possible (U.S. Department of Education, p. 4). The idea that choice could be presented as a solution to the problems A Nation At Risk outlined made sense, as it aligned with the report’s premise about changing “the way the educational process itself is often conducted” to improve America’s competitive edge and restore its global preeminence.

That educational choice could link with outside/for-profit interests also echoed one of the report’s recommendations – private interests should play a larger role in both leadership and financing for education, and the Federal government a smaller one – and led, over time, to the creation of schools like Pence. Choice and charters were marketed to parents and communities by highlighting a very visible feature: your lack of choice in schooling can lead to failure, and charters and choice could give you a pathway to success, which you as individuals will now be empowered to take. As sociologist Renata Salecl has noted, “Capitalism has always played on our feelings of inadequacy, as well as on the perception that we are free to decide the path we will take in the future…And capitalism, of course, has encouraged not only the idea of consumer choice but also the ideology of the self-made man, which allowed the individual to start seeing his own life as a series of options and possible transformations” (Salecl 2011, p. 19).

Despite Kolderie’s (and others’) presentation of a new choice-centered approach to organizing schools, the reality is that the American educational system is “one of many institutions that link individuals’ residential locations with their life chances…The fact that schools are typically organized and partially funded by residential districts means that the quality of one’s educational opportunities depends directly on where one lives” (Sharkey 2013, p. 14). In his recent work analyzing patterns of wealth and income inequality, economist Thomas Piketty examined the connection between education and the promotion of social mobility, which had been the stated aim of public education over the twentieth century. The earliest incarnation of American public education was seen, in the early 1800’s, as a “levelling engine” that had the potential to equalize social power and reduce class distinctions (Kaestle 1983, p. 91).

But Piketty found that even with the considerable increase in the average level of education over the course of the twentieth century, earned income inequality did not decrease: "As technologies and workplace needs changed, all wage levels increased at similar rates, so that inequality did not change. What about mobility? Did mass education lead to more rapid turnover of winners and losers for a given skill hierarchy? According to the available data, the answer seems to be no: the intergenerational correlation of education and earned incomes, which measures the reproduction of the skill hierarchy over time [meaning the division between highly paid/skilled and less skilled/lower paid workers], shows no trend toward greater mobility over the long run" (Piketty 2014, p. 484).

This is in part, Piketty explains, because those American institutions of higher education which provide students with the training, skills, and networks that best predict success in high wage jobs have been, and continue to be, prohibitively expensive to attend for those of lower socioeconomic status. Research has shown that the proportion of college degrees earned by children whose parents belong to the bottom two quartiles of the income hierarchy stagnated at 10-20 percent in 1970-2010, while it rose from 40 to 80 percent for children with parents in the top quartile. In other words, parents’ income has become an almost perfect predictor of university access (Piketty, p. 485).

In a recent national study of trends in educational choice, the data showed 90 percent of students enrolled in private schools in the United States in 2007 were considered non-poor, versus 60 percent of students in public schools, and 88 percent of the parents of the students enrolled in private schools had some college/training post-high school, versus 68 percent of parents of public school students (Grady 2010, p. 14-16). And in terms of the social mobility of African American students in particular, a review of data from the 1960’s to the 2010’s shows that only about “35% of black children advance upward in the income distribution” in the United States and that a “majority of black families that begin outside the poorest quintile of the income distribution are not able to transmit this relatively advantaged position to their children” (Sharkey, p. 101).

A Nation At Risk presented the country’s lack of global competitiveness (not the population’s lack of social mobility) as the most pressing educational process problem, and proposed that we change the process. New approaches to organizing schooling, including school choice, were developed to address this perceived competitiveness problem. Whether this was the most relevant problem that needed to be faced in American education is still debated – but for the teachers at Pence today, that issue is not very pertinent. They are working within a system that was offered as a solution and therefore they tend to view Pence as an example of a positive response to a problem. And their professional identities are linked to the idea that they are part of a solution.

The teachers I interviewed and observed at Pence were not, however, unaware of the varied impacts of the broader charter/choice “solution” and how this has affected them as professionals. They see that the juncture of accountability, failure, charters, and choice is that most visible feature of schooling: money. Teacher Molly takes the view that Pence is a distinct and better environment (and thus a better part of the solution) than most other charters in Philadelphia, but it is unfortunately trapped by the resource allocation decisions that impact all schools in the SDP: “[W]e’re a charter school, but we’re different than the other charter schools…and we’ve always put ourselves different, and separate, and we got the [award from an investment bank’s foundation]…and now it’s like we’re just getting thrown in the mix…but we’re not like – it’s not who we are…And it’s hard to separate when the news doesn’t separate, the media doesn’t separate, you don’t have people in this school who are standing tall and separating us. And we’re just going to get thrown into the hot mess that’s happening [regarding school funding in the SDP]” (Teacher Molly, personal communication, June 13, 2014).

When we discussed his perspective on teaching at and funding for a charter school in the city, Teacher Kevin was typically pragmatic: “I think some charters are great and some suck, I mean, that’s just the way the world is. Obviously, in the last few years there have been some shut down because of mismanagement of funds. There are some that are, in my opinion, way too militaristic, but there are some great ones, and kids have a great experience, and they learn, and they grow. As far as funding goes…there’s the lack of resources in a lot of urban settings, and they’re taking it away, and now we have to buy all new curriculum to get ready for Common Core, and it’s supposed to be computer based, but many schools have no computer in their school. I just don’t understand how you can cut education funding” (Teacher Kevin, personal communication, March 10, 2014).

Teacher Karen’s pre-Pence experiences at both a charter and at a school in the SDP impact her perspective on how the “solution” actually functions, and how this can fail: “[T]hat’s a reality that charter schools are expanding and the district is contracting. I don’t think that’s a good thing overall…It’s deregulation. You get some people who can flourish, and innovate, and shine, which I think Pence does, but it’s deregulation in the sense that you also get people who take advantage of that. And we have crooks in Philadelphia charter schools, people paying themselves triple salaries, and running bars out of their cafeterias, and engaging in horrendous nepotism…right now charters are public schools. They’re part of urban education…they definitely are a player, and you can’t ignore that” (Teacher Karen, personal communication, April 10, 2014).

And Teacher Hannah described the broader cultural implications of the charter/traditional schooling split, the social implications of how resources are allocated, and who this fails: “[T]he creation of charters is leading to kind of a segmentation of the system, and it’s creating kind of an us-versus-them mentality, as far as district-versus-charter. It’s also creating more inequality…resources are very concentrated it seems like, and not equitably distributed. And it’s created in the system where it’s like it’s a last resort to go to a local neighborhood school unless you live in very specific neighborhoods. And so that creates a whole culture of kind of disrespect towards those schools I think, and it kind of, yeah, you make a certain perception about those teachers, and the principals, and the students who go there” (Teacher Hannah, personal communication, March 21, 2014).

Teacher Charlotte reflected on the idea of choice as the catalyst for a shift in how education is funded in Philadelphia, but also more broadly as a shift that is changing the culture and future of the city itself. Like many at Pence, she is torn between striving to provide something of quality to urban students (who might not get it elsewhere) and feeling a sense of control or accomplishment about that, and the choices about schooling being made all around her that have a greater cost: “I think charters can be a great thing, are a great thing for the city as far as – we’re going back to the word – choice. But as far as School District of Philadelphia, I think that there’s an agenda definitely coming – I don’t know if it’s from the State or from the new school district superintendent, but they are breaking it down. They’re trying to privatize it, and they’re doing it slowly but surely. It’s like they’ve given up on the city of Philadelphia” (Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

In conversations and interviews, many Pence teachers acknowledged the direct (and seemingly unalterable) connection between charters, resource allocation, and inequity. But they did so with the recognition that they personally are part of a “good fight.” They work to provide a safe, stable, motivating, and academically rigorous environment for students. These teachers aim each day to create good citizens who have dual language skills and a sense of their place in a connected world, while as employees they have to respond to the seemingly ceaseless demands of the accountability era. They are acutely aware of the potential for corruption and failure within the system of charters in Philadelphia, and also that they work in a growing charter system within a larger education system that is being slowly dismantled because of its perceived failings.

The meanings these teachers make of accountability and failure, and of charters and choice, reveal yet another invisible feature of Pence that affects teachers’ professional identities: a persistent hopefulness about their immediate actions, mingled with a persistent sense of resignation about the inevitable. Teachers work in community with each other within both a time and place, and teacher identity is framed by time. Ideas about the past impact actions and language use in the present, and the past and present impact individual and communal perceptions about what exactly might come next, and who shapes that future.

Philosopher Calvin Schrag, writing about modern perceptions of identity and self, states this far more eloquently: “The self in community is a self-situated in the space of communicative praxis, historically embedded, existing with others, inclusive of predecessors, contemporaries, and successors” he explains, and though each individual self may be conditioned by contexts, they are not determined by contexts, and therefore (ideally) are able to make ethical choices and take decisions about “a particular tradition, a particular conceptual system, or a particular form of behavior” (Schrag 1997, p. 108-9). Yet Pence teachers’ sense of engagement in, or power over, what comes next for their school is not particularly strong, and the school culture does little to promote such engagement or empowerment around determining strategies for the future. This is because the future of Pence will be shaped primarily by market forces, by reform efforts centered on an ideal of accountability taken from the business world, and by the politics of resource allocation. Not by practitioners.

During one interview, Teacher Rose and I discussed her experience of growing up in a socialist country which has become, in recent years, more open to capitalism. She has witnessed fundamental changes to how resources were allocated to health care and education in her country as a result, and this made her reflect on what she sees happening in education today. “This State is a reflection of the country” she said, and “they’re not doing anything to try to solve the situation…They talk about it, because of course they have to show that they’re talking about it. They cannot just be ‘no we don’t care.’ They have to pretend that they care, but they’re not moving on. They’re not moving forward to make any changes. The opposite, they’re getting worse and worse. The [Philadelphia] school district is closing the schools. They are taking personnel. They don’t have nurses. They don’t have counselors. So that’s what you want for your children? The children of your country, the free country for all? No, that’s not right…but I think, in some sense of capitalism, it’s just for rich people. And then, sadly, not everybody’s rich” (Teacher Rose, personal communication, April 9, 2014).




Creative Commons License Invisible features: hidden aspects of teacher identity in an urban charter school by Martha Hope Carey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

June 5, 2015

Intermission

I am so grateful to any and all who have read dissertation excerpts posted here over the last few weeks...there are two more chapters to come, but I will pause in the posting for a time. Because the place for words crafted into academic work -- it is a delimited space. Limiting too. Unlike the usual blog posts. Unlike so many other things. The requirements and rules to be followed for the formal written presentation of academic arguments, or at least approved-by-the-academy persuasive arguments, never ceases to amaze. That, and the idea that some writing is objective.

But now that it is basically election season again, the days to come will be filled with contenders (recycled from the last time around) re-generating sentences made up of words that are ordered just slightly differently from that last time around (crafty!) to make what they feel are persuasive arguments -- sentences which are also so often pretty wackadoo. Certainly this can shake one out of feeling bounded by words. Or at the very least give you the giggles. (Thank you, Rick Perry.) Should be fun.

At the Waterfall, Part 2

This post is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of my dissertation, a chapter which focuses on race and perceptions of equity among the teachers. This project is a qualitative/ phenomenological study of teachers at an urban charter school, about how they make shared meanings of the phenomena around them (particularly aspects of contemporary school reform) and make meanings for themselves as teachers in the era of accountability. The first posting in this series is here.


Chapter 5: At the Waterfall, Part 2

The teachers at Pence are tasked with generating an interpersonal solution to an embedded organizational problem (the two-track curriculum) at their school. They are taking part in ongoing self-education through professional development sessions, which is both difficult and admirable, and they are doing so based on their perceptions of the disruptive and destructive social/racial segregation at the school. But Pence teachers were not the original proponents or developers of the policy that actually caused the extant segregation of Pence. They were not the authors of the organizational choice that has led to the problems they are tasked to solve. Nonetheless, over the past year they have been doing emotional work, both as individuals and as a community, around the problems that resulted from that original organizational choice.

The new Pence racial equity task force evolved from the professional development sessions on race, and its goals and mission statement were developed over the summer, before the start of the 2014-15 school year. Members of this task force (which will meet throughout the year) will be tasked with the development of a supervision and evaluation system that assesses teachers’ cultural competency, the development of further professional development sessions which will equip teachers with intervention strategies to hold colleagues responsible for racially equitable practices, the development of training for all staff on handling student behaviors in non-structured settings, and the examination of institutional practices that have led to segregation at Pence – but there is no call for a dismantling of the current program structure. And, according to the task force mission statement, Pence employees will be asked to provide the administration with guidelines about hiring practices and assessment tools about cultural competency to use with school employees, and to use intervention strategies to hold others accountable for racially equitable practices. Such requests for teacher/staff surveillance of teacher/staff behavior mirrors the “pervasive monitoring” approach most charters (particularly those operated by charter management organizations) use with students, only in this case applied to adult employees, with an expectation that they will be compliant informants. (Goodman 2013, p. 90)

To paraphrase Teacher Kevin, one of the things that the Pence community needs to have a conversation about is why they have maintained the current curricular structure at all. The product differentiator (conceived of by parents and the first CEO at the school’s founding) of fully immersive bilingual education gave way, a few years in, to the reality of the two-track system. After the first year in operation Pence started attracting urban parents who were not necessarily interested in immersive language learning for their children, and at that time the school could have opted for a language intensive model (providing second language instruction to all students who attended) instead of sticking with the Fluency Track/Language Instruction Track split. As an independent charter, Pence had the flexibility to make that choice. But this was not the choice made. And now, more than a dozen years later, Pence teachers are being tasked with finding resolutions to problems (among both students and teachers) which stemmed directly from that original, organizational decision. And the creation of the racial equity task force makes an overt and vaguely punitive connection between the psychoemotional work teachers are currently doing as employees regarding racial proficiency, the purported organizational aim of equity for Pence students, and how Pence markets itself as a successful, diverse school in the city.

During my interviews with Pence teachers I asked each of them to personally define equity in the context of the school and in their roles as educators. Their answers were very clear, and revealed a widely shared value and meaning about the issue. Teacher Diane, who has been teaching Kindergarten at Pence for three years, and worked at two charter schools before then, described equity as “making sure that every student gets what they need” (Teacher Diane, personal communication, April 11, 2014). Rob said equity meant “receiving what you need to be successful” (Teacher Rob, personal communication, May 6, 2014). Rose said it meant that “everybody should be having the same chances to learn” (Teacher Rose, personal communication, April 9, 2014). Karen described equity as “different students need different things, and in order to support them, you can’t have a one size fit all” (Teacher Karen, personal communication, April 10, 2014). Nia described equity as “giving what the students need when they need it” (Teacher Nia, personal communication, March 26, 2014). Teacher James, a long time Pence ELL teacher whose current position involves school-wide data coordination, said “I think the adults in this building really understand that fairness is giving everybody like whatever they need to be successful, and that’s going to look differently for every single child in this school” (Teacher James, personal communication, April 2, 2014). And Teacher Patty, who has been teaching Spanish at Pence to grades K-2 for two years, explained “When I think of equity related to education it’s almost like ‘everyone has what they need in order to be successful’…I don’t think you’re ever going to reach a point where students have everything equal coming into the school, but at least we can do our best to kind of make sure they have what they need” (Teacher Patty, personal communication, May 29, 2014).

When each of these Pence teachers defined equity, they centered the idea in their classrooms and on student needs. In the classroom teachers attend to issues of equity and equality at every turn. When Pence as an organization grapples with the issue, the focus differs. As employees of a charter school with a particular curricular differentiator, teachers here have to work on issues of equity both as an aspect of the business ethic of Pence and to support the school’s brand. But how do those involved make an ethical decision about resolving the equity “problem” Pence has? How can they make an ethical decision?

Teachers and staff are all aware of this internal feature of Pence. There are differing imperatives about resolving the issue. The racial equity task force and professional development sessions are seen as actions taken resulting from awareness. But “awareness does not necessarily promote responsibility” and can lead instead “to oversimplified and direct applications of knowledge” that, in this case, focus on the employees’ perceptions of race and racism rather than on structural or organizational solutions; those in a position of power (to promote and then require engagement in professional development sessions on race, etc.) support approaches that are, in fact, basic mechanisms for the shifting and sorting of employees, not substantive approaches that are a result of facing an aporia (Koro-Ljungberg 2010, p. 606).

And this essential, impassable issue is embedded in the school culture, and in teacher identity, at Pence. It impacts decisions about the future and impacts daily interactions. It also impacts perceptions of the ethics and purposes of teaching. As Charlotte describes this, ”I just think about the substance of it. Like as far as equity, as far as in our classrooms, like how fair is it…just because the two classrooms are given equal amount of instructional time, but how equitable is it if this is a brand- new teacher with two more students because their classroom is bigger as opposed to this classroom with a teacher that’s been there for eight years? How equitable is that learning as opposed to that learning? So in theory it’s there, but in reality is it really? So are we providing supports to make it more equitable over here than over here?” (Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014)

This idea of the provision of supports connects to another aspect of equity in charters: how they attend to students with special needs. The Pennsylvania charter school law provides charters with a fixed amount of special education funding, redirected from public schools, to offset costs associated with special needs students. Until the most recent version of the state education budget approved by the Pennsylvania legislature (which modifies the formula somewhat), the allocation formula was based on a fixed cost per special needs student/fixed population percentage of 16, meaning that 16% of students are assumed to have special needs and money is allocated to each district in the State based on that number.

This formula has “generally discouraged [school] districts from identifying too many special education students” because when those districts calculate “per-pupil district special education expenses to determine payments to charters, the state bases the number of students – the denominator – on the 16 percent rule. So districts with more than 16 percent special needs children pay charters a larger amount than if the actual numbers were used” which ends up rewarding the charters (Hardy 2014). Charters are also not required by the state to specifically provide tracked expenditures per individual student, and one recent analysis of data on the subject showed that “Pennsylvania charters received close to $200 million for special education students that was not spent on services for them” (Hardy 2014; Browne 2013). As another report put it, “Under the current funding formula for special education tuition payments [in Pennsylvania], the charter schools received substantially more in tuition payments for special education students than they reported for spending for special education” (Schafft 2014).

Though operating within this questionable funding structure, the two Special Education teachers whom I observed and interviewed at Pence also had set definitions of equity, and these were tied to their daily work. For Teacher Sam equity means “everyone is kind of treated the way that fair should work for them” (Teacher Sam, personal communication, March 12, 2014). For Teacher Kay, who has been at Pence for eleven years, equity means “giving people what they deserve regardless of who they are, what they are, and what skills they have…students, teachers, parents – you assume nothing” (Teacher Kay, personal communication, March 27, 2014). Both teachers expressed that the purposes of what they do were linked directly to their professional actions, which impact the social and emotional well-being of their students and, in turn, the culture of the school.

Teacher Sam explained that “At this school – and, you know, we have a lot of students with behavior issues – as a Special Ed teacher I see a lot of that. But I never have felt disrespected by a student. Like even a student that hasn’t been a positive exchange, I don’t ever feel like it’s been personal…I think that students kind of realize that there’s no one here that’s out to get them. At least that’s the impression that I get from my kids, and I hope that it’s true…It feels safe, I think. I think that people feel really, really comfortable here. We have kids that don’t want to leave here, because maybe their home lives aren’t that great. We have kids that have great home lives, and they still don’t want to leave either, because they have a lot of things that they can get involved in. Kids love to stay for office hours. They love to come up here for lunch. It’s nice that they like the support of their teacher. They don’t see it as like the authority. They see it kind of as someone who’s there to help them” (Teacher Sam, personal communication, March 12, 2014).

Teacher Kay’s perspective was that “we have a responsibility to educate students in all areas, the whole child. So I think of, when you say ‘whole child’ that’s where you’re helping them socially, emotionally, whether you’re helping with academics, it all kind of goes hand in hand. And my approach, and I feel Pence’s approach, has always been to educate the whole child…like, just doing what we’re supposed to do, educating our children, in the best way we can and keeping it about the kids and not so much about the numbers, the money and everything else…actually sticking to our mission and vision to the best we can” (Teacher Kay, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

For Sam and Kay, providing the necessary supports to students with special needs means enacting a professional identity that is other-focused and holistic, and an identity as an employee that is only marginally connected to the complexities of funding. Because they work at a charter, both feel they have resources they might otherwise not have, resources that allow them to provide supports that help students and also affirm these teachers’ professional ethics. As Sam explained to me, “The caseloads here are very small. In the past I’ve had much larger. When I taught at a different charter school in Philly I had over 30…So this is a nice size. Last year I think I had 12 students” (Teacher Sam, personal communication, March 12, 2014).

The idea of equity as expressed by all of the Pence teachers I spoke with informs what they do every day and, from their vantage point, the goal of equity also shapes the culture of the school. This is their shared perception, and their hope. These teachers take actions around equity and engage in self-reflection which informs their professional identities. But issues related to equity at Pence are not resolvable by teachers. This is in part because the two-track curriculum which has led to segregation at Pence is an organizational/policy issue, not simply an individual, psycho-emotional one, and for this to change it would have to be addressed by the Pence Board, funders, and administration.

Another reason teachers at Pence cannot rectify issues of equity at the school is that there are structural inequities “baked in” to charter school legislation which have a lasting impact on equity across all schools in Philadelphia. As former School Reform Commission member Joseph Dworetzky has explained, each time a student enrolls in a charter school, the local school district must transfer the costs for that student (minus non-education budgeted district expenditures like adult education, student busing, facilities costs, etc. as outlined in Section 1725-A of the Pennsylvania School Code, 2002) to that charter school and in some manner then reduce the district costs in order to maintain a balanced budget.

But students do not enroll in charters in whole class groups. One student may leave a public school kindergarten class, another a third grade class, and another a sixth grade class to attend charters, but just because each of these classes has one less student this does not mean the school district can directly save staffing costs by immediately laying off a kindergarten, third, or sixth grade teacher. It simply means those classrooms will each now have 31 students instead of 32.

Precisely because there are a range of fixed and variable costs for schooling, and there are also costs that change only over considerable time, there is budget constraint in any district as long as charters siphon funding. Imagine, for example, that the per student “all-in” cost in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) is $10,000 and that charters siphon off about $8,500 of that when a student goes to a charter school. Using this example, Dworetzky notes that “historically, the [SDP] has been able to shed only about $4500 in costs per student” in any given year when there is a charter transfer, leaving the SDP with a large net loss each time a student leaves. And this cycle repeats every year.

This funding formula holds true for charters whether they are “brick and mortar” or cyber charters. Each and every charter school, even if they have no costs for maintaining a building, busing students, or after school activities, gets funding from the district at the same level. Similarly, if a student who lives in the SDP transfers from a private or religious school to a charter school, the Pennsylvania charter law requires that the SDP send that charter $8,500 for that student, but “because the student was not in a District school before transferring, the District had no prior costs associated with that student that can be shed” so the net loss for the SDP in that situation would be the full $8,500 (Dworetzky 2013). Add to this the realities of special education funding noted above and the 2013 decision by Governor Tom Corbett to eliminate any reimbursement from the state to public school districts to ease this funding issue and the funding inequities become structural. As one school superintendent in western Pennsylvania put it, “The more money that we have to pay out for charter school expenses…we’re experiencing increased class sizes [in traditional public schools], less money to pay for textbooks and programs, less money to pay for staff” (Delano 2013).

The Pennsylvania Department of Education withheld nearly 9 million dollars from the SDP budget between 2011 and early 2013 and redirected those funds to six charter schools in Philadelphia that, it turns out, enrolled more students than they were contracted to enroll. Or in some cases, reported enrolling more students on paper only. Over 5 million of the withheld amount went to just one school, the Walter D. Palmer Charter (Herold 2013). But in October 2014 the Walter D. Palmer Charter school was shut down. The school’s charter had been revoked by the SDP, a decision reached after years of “poor academic performance, unstable finances and failure of its associated foundation to maintain its nonprofit status” as well as mounting evidence that “Palmer had fraudulently charged the District for students that did not exist” (McCorry, September 23, 2014). And this is not a singular occurrence among Philadelphia charters; dozens of charter schools in the city are under investigation by federal authorities for precisely this type of fraud (DeJarnatt 2011).

Beyond the fundamental inequities of the charter funding system which has led (at minimum) to divisions and constraints around school resource allocation that hamper efforts toward equity, and beyond the organizational/curricular issue at Pence which has led to some racial segregation within the school, another reason teachers are limited in their efforts to resolve issues of equity at Pence is that any teacher action around this or any other issue at the school that is not sanctioned by the administration (as the various task forces and strategic planning committees are) can always be responded to with termination. Pence teachers currently have no collective bargaining rights. That Pence teachers believe that their actions reflect professional autonomy, trust, and empowerment which can lead to real change in how the school operates, and thus enhances their sense of satisfaction as employees, is actually an invisible feature of the school culture that works to the benefit of the employer. Not the teachers.




Creative Commons License Invisible features: hidden aspects of teacher identity in an urban charter school by Martha Hope Carey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

June 4, 2015

At the Waterfall, Part 1

This post and the next are excerpts from Chapter 5 of my dissertation, a chapter which explores perceptions of race and equity among the teachers. This project is a qualitative/ phenomenological study of teachers at an urban charter school, about how they make shared meanings of the phenomena around them (particularly aspects of contemporary school reform) and make meanings for themselves as teachers in the era of accountability. The first posting in this series is here.


Chapter 5: At the Waterfall, Part 1

When we look at a waterfall, we think that we are seeing freedom of will and free choice in the countless bendings, twistings, and breakings of the waves; but all is necessary, every movement mathematically calculable. So it is, too, with human actions; we would certainly be able to calculate every individual action in advance if we were omniscient, likewise every step forward in knowledge, every error, every act of malice. The agent himself is admittedly stuck in the illusion of free will; if at some moment the wheel of the world were to stand still, and an omniscient, calculating understanding were to make use of this pause, it could tell the future of every creature, on into the most distant times, and describe every track on which the wheel had yet to roll. The agent’s delusion about himself, the assumption of free will, is itself a part of this still-to-be-calculated mechanism. 
Nietzsche (1878/1995), p. 82

“It’s always been a discussion at our school” explains Teacher Charlotte, “our school culture in general…everybody’s opinions can be said and heard. And with that a lot of feelings come up and a lot of things come up.” We are sitting at a coffee house around the corner from Pence, and Charlotte is describing her decade at the school and the key structural issue that in her view impacts the culture of Pence the most. “There was a lot of things about race” she continues, "and it was a time I was the only African American teacher period. And when I say period, well, we had like African American [teaching] assistants. We did have a black nurse. We had support staff and like office staff, but as far as classroom teachers there was a year or two where I was the only African American classroom teacher…So there was times when I was like ‘I’m not doing this anymore. I’m going to dental school. I don’t want to do this!’ [Laughs] So this was hard at times. I’d take it home and my mom would say, ‘you can’t leave, like you have to stay there. When you look at the makeup of your students and they need somebody there to start looking up to that looks like them or someone that’s behind a desk that looks like them.’ So I felt like I needed to stay. But I enjoy working at Pence. I mean, with any teaching job it’s always hard, there’s always things, it’s frustrating, and you’re underpaid, but for the most part I don’t hate coming to work every day” (Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

Charlotte has moved from being a fulltime classroom teacher to a Teacher Leader at Pence over those ten years, and she views herself now as a both a teacher and a mentor. Her role is part administrative, part classroom; she teaches part-time (third grade, Fluency Track), trains, observes, and mentors new hires, acts as a liaison between the CEO, Principals, and teachers, and helps define and present relevant professional development sessions for the Pence staff. Race is the most pressing and most pervasive topic in those professional development sessions, and teachers at Pence have been engaged for more than a year in a structured discussion (led in part by outside consultants) on race, privilege, and teaching students with backgrounds different from your own. The aim of this ongoing series of professional development sessions was for teachers to gain “racial proficiency,” meaning they would become more skilled at recognizing how race and racism intersects within Pence culture and in their own teaching practice.

Ella is a co-coordinator of these sessions, and she defines racial proficiency as having to do with awareness, meaning “how aware I am of my own racial identity, how conscious I am of how that…impacts my teaching…how much space I create in my classroom for students of all races and backgrounds to be academically and behaviorally successful” (Teacher Ella, personal communication, October 16, 2014). According to Ella, part of the impetus for this work was the observed disparity (which is just now starting to be analyzed by the administration) in disciplinary action between white students and students of color. More students of color regularly receive negative disciplinary actions at Pence, which the coordinators of the professional development sessions on racial proficiency believed was correlated to the cultural competence and awareness levels of staff and teachers.

Charlotte and I discussed how Pence has approached this problem and where the story of this particular feature of the school began. The invisible (to outsiders) feature of social segregation is, as Charlotte describes it, an outcome of the choices made by the former CEO and the school’s founders about how to approach bilingual education. “I think it started – honestly, the race talks started years ago, again, because I’ve been here, I’ve seen the evolution – started off with the blatant line of division between [Fluency Track] and [Language Instruction Track]” she explains, a division which was present almost since the day Pence opened its doors: “All the rich, white kids [were in Fluency]. And [Language Instruction] was all the black kids of all backgrounds. Like financially it was like you had the blacks who were doing fine, and then there was the ones that were living in shelters. Like it ran the gamut. So then when they started encouraging, because this is how they would present [Fluency to parents], ‘this is immersive, it’s really hard, you have to do a lot outside of school. You have to do this, and this, and this, and this, and then you homework in Spanish…’ Well if I’m a single parent of three kids, and I don’t get home until 7:00 pm, it’s hard enough just doing regular homework. I can’t do that. So it’s really hard for the dynamic of the parents…But then they started to sell it differently, so then you started to see a little bit more of the speckles into both [Fluency and Language Instruction]. So like I remember a couple of years when I started having like more than one or two black students in my class…and that blows my mind, that I remember when it was so blatant”(Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

Charlotte has been actively engaged both in the creation of professional development sessions for teachers on race, and in working with the administration to find ways to alter the two-track system. She is a member of one of several strategic planning task forces the new CEO has formed to review plans for the school’s future expansion. And the message that Pence is “one of the only schools [in the city of Philadelphia] successfully teaching an integrated student population” (as noted in the school’s new racial equity task force mission statement, shared with me by Ella) is a prominent school feature, a prominent aspect of Pence’s current marketing approach, and part of their argument for expansion. But as Hannah explained to me, students in the Language Instruction Track have always been viewed through a “deficit model” by Pence teachers.

Compounding this is the evident social division of students who “have been in the same grade for five years…and don’t even know each others’ names” because their academic lives have been so separated by the two-track approach (Teacher Hannah, personal communication, March 21, 2014). Charlotte reiterated that in her view everyone is missing out if students (and teachers) are starkly segregated by track. “I just remember a crucial time when it was like we had to figure out how to make it stop feeling like ‘us and them’ or ‘them and us, and them’” Charlotte says, “so discussions happened, ‘how do you all think as teachers we can start to blend in the two, [Fluency and Language Instruction] and that’s when the [blended art and dance classes in the lower school] started.” And making this core change in Pence’s organization after years in operation has meant that the administration and teachers have had to face the impact of that division, and the language used around and about race:”[T]here were teachers – it was beyond the students. It was the culture of the teachers also, and the teacher in the middle of this conversation said ‘well it’s just, my students are afraid, because a lot of the [Language Instruction] students are aggressive and loud, and my students are scared of them.’ And that was my deciding moment of, ‘wow, it’s beyond the parents.’ They always say it’s the parents, the parents, the parents. And it was like that moment, and someone called them out on that, and said ‘do you realize what you just said about them, they’re scary, them?’ It turned into ‘a group of students are scary.’ And so that’s, that’s when the conversation I feel like really was like administration was really like, ‘okay, we need to figure this out.’ I don’t think they were fully equipped on how to deal with it”(Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

Charlotte describes her understanding of the purposes of teaching succinctly: “No student doesn’t want to learn. It’s my job to figure out how to make them want to show that they want to learn…Every child wants to feel good about themselves and their learning.” But like many other Pence teachers, she is continually in a position of responding – in interpersonal interactions and with her own inner dialogue – to Pence’s organizational ethics: “It’s a scary thing to have to do self-reflection on [race]…but I can honestly say to this day even it’s still an issue. It’s beyond just having a culture disconnect with the non-white teachers with the African American students. But it’s also me, as an African American teacher, with my non-African American students…It’s still a culture disconnect, and it’s a different thing, people are just different, culturally. But it’s not a bad thing, but it’s like I recognize it, and that’s the only way I can admit it and say it out loud and fix it. But if you’re not going to admit and say it out loud that’s where the problems are lingering, like ‘It’s not me. It’s not me. No, no, no, I love all my students. I don’t see color.’ Those comments are coming up [in professional development sessions]. So that is very frustrating"(Teacher Charlotte, personal communication, March 27, 2014).

For Charlotte, the story of Pence’s issues with “racial proficiency” comes into play as she makes meaning of her professional self in the context of the school. As Perinbanayagam (2000) notes, “class, race, caste, and gender, etc. are inescapably meanings derived from various discourses and assembled variously…and richly articulated in the mind and memories of the self” (p. 46). In Charlotte’s case, the social/structural element of race interplays with organizational responses and language use at Pence in which she, as an employee, is continually immersed. The actions Charlotte takes are informed by her own history, memory, and experience, and these shape her professional identity in this context. She had a hand in planning the August 2014 induction for new teachers, where one of the topics covered is how to build a racially proficient community at Pence. And during the summer of she also helped to create the mission and structure of the new Racial Equity Task Force. One stated mission of this task force is to increase racial proficiency among staff and faculty, with the goal of achieving racial equity in students’ behavioral outcomes.

Teacher Ann has been at Pence (on and off) for ten years total, first as a long-term substitute for all grades, then as a teaching assistant, and now as a 6-8 grade classroom teacher. Her subject is Spanish and she teaches students in the Lower Track. She sees her role as helping her students “make connections between themselves and others, make connections between their culture and others while also learning the language.” We talked about the culture of Pence, the history of the two-track system, and her perspective on that as a teacher and as an African American woman. She explained that for her there is a problematic intersection between the ethics of teaching and the culture of open discussion around race that the school is attempting to promote. In her view, the biggest ethical issue is teacher/student confidentiality, because “I think , teachers just talk or just feel like you need to share and we don’t always think about whether it’s appropriate to share, even with a colleague” (Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

Pence uses a community-focused responsive teaching approach. This “responsive classroom curriculum” was developed by the non-profit Northeast Foundation for Children and this teaching model is implemented at Pence in grades K-4. The model promotes respectful interpersonal interactions and the fostering of students’ emotion management. Proponents of this model strive to reiterate positivity across the school culture in order to build and sustain a stable school-wide community. This is reiterated in Pence’s middle school grades by another approach, the Developmental Designs curriculum, which also forefronts social-emotional skills building and adherence to classroom and school rules and cultural norms.

Ann strives to integrate Developmental Designs concepts into her own teaching practice, specifically encouraging students to be self-aware and that when they encounter an issue they should “work it out themselves…that’s what it’s all about. So they’re evaluating, they’re analyzing, they’re discussing, they’re being empathetic, they’re putting themselves in the place of someone else, they’re collaborating…to expose students to expressing their ideas without being really judgmental” (Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014). As for the teachers, Ann’s view is that the ongoing push to get staff to engage in this same kind of critical thinking and self-expression around the issue of race through the directed professional development sessions is linked to a perception about teacher-student relationships: "I think [the Pence administration] started [the professional development sessions on race] because teachers were requesting it...I think that teachers said 'we need someone to come in, like we need some outside to come in...to give us some guidance and some thought questions, facilitate some discussions.' So like how useful its been, I don't know. I think the teachers were complaining to the administration that we need to talk about things. And to relate better to the students"(Teachers Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

But this effort is constrained, in Ann’s opinion, by two organizational realities, two long-term tensions, within the Pence culture. These tensions impact how and how much teachers at Pence talk about and share understandings on a range of issues, including race. The first is the exclusion that teachers who only work with one track experience and how this exclusion shapes perspectives on students, parents, and other teachers. That exclusion also shapes Ann’s view of Pence community values and how she talks about her work at a school with a two-track curriculum. She explains that “I’m one of only two teachers [who teach 6-8 grade students] who never works with the [Fluency Track] students…So because it’s a different dynamic between the two programs, between the students and the [Fluency] and the students in the [Language Instruction] program, it’s different because I never see the [Fluency] students. So the only reason I know most of them now is because I’ve been at Pence so long, so I’ve had them all when I was a sub. I remember when they were in second grade. But four years from now I won’t know the [Fluency] students, because I never worked with them…So like it’s very different – there’s different parental involvement, there’s different part of knowledge the kids are coming in with, like different backgrounds amongst the students in the two programs”(Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

As sociologists Brubaker and Cooper (2000) note, this kind of reification is a social process and “it is central to the process of ‘ethnicity,’ ‘race,’ ‘nation,’ and other putative identities” which can “crystallize, at certain moments, as a powerful, compelling reality” (Brubaker, p. 5). This socio-organizational reality of Pence impacts the story of Ann’s past, present, and future, and thus her story of the school culture as well. And her perspective on the two-track system was shared by the majority of the teachers I spoke with.

The second organizational issue Ann describes, and which in her view directly impacts her role and experience at the school, is that Pence was founded on another form of exclusion. “I think that the founders of the school were upper middle class,” she explains, “and like, a lot of the first families were upper middle class, that they weren’t as concerned about salary, because they had comfortable salaries,” she tells me and “I feel that for them it wasn’t as much as a priority as making sure that they had like this dual-language program, and, you know, they had the global citizen curriculum. I think for them, well, you know, yeah, their teachers when they started, making $36,000 or $38,000, like that’s okay, because like ‘the school is awesome’…I’ve had several conversations with teachers here who have had to borrow money from their parents or move in with their parents. Or one teacher who was eating peanut butter sandwiches and apples every day, because that was, like, her protein. She couldn’t afford to buy meat. So she would eat lentils and make a dish or something out of the lentils. That’s crazy…As a Pence teacher, we just don’t get paid enough…[it’s] one of the main factors with our turnover, more than anything else” (Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

This concern was also expressed by several of the other Pence teachers I spoke with. Ann explained to me that she persists at Pence despite these issues by thinking about, speaking about, and acting on solutions. She has acted on the pressing issue of compensation by becoming a member of a newly formed teacher task force on teacher pay and turnover, which the new CEO just agreed to meet with on a regular basis.

As Akkerman and Meijer (2010) noted in their research of teacher identity development, teachers continually engage in processes (external and internal, active and reflective) and through these find their own identity positions. This activity results in the acquisition of insights and information that in turn help form professional identity. Ann’s action on an issue that matters to her is evidence of this, and gives her a sense of empowerment because being on the compensation task force gives her an opportunity to speak to the CEO. But unlike their colleagues in traditional public schools, teachers in charter schools generally have no group affiliation (like a union) or broader educational bureaucracy in place that frames the basic ethics of education, supports the development of their professional identities simply as educators, or provides protection for them when they take action. And any actions do they take are done at the risk of unemployment.

Pence teachers are positioned, as are all teachers in charters, to have to negotiate around (or navigate priorities based on) business ethics, organizational processes, and policies and practices for which they have no training and about which they have no leverage. Ann explained that on policy issues, Pence teachers generally lack both voice and choice, which was yet another point she raised that was echoed by many other Pence teachers. Regarding the decision the CEO and Board eventually made to shorten spring break and to add President’s Day as a work day (due to the winter weather closures), for example, Ann asked “Did we have a choice? No, there was no discussion about it…some decisions we know do come from the Board, or from the admin, so we’re told there isn’t really room for discussion, so it’s like teachers, we might feel like we didn’t have a choice. Why didn’t we vote? Why couldn’t we extend a day in June? The choice was made for us” (Teacher Ann, personal communication, March 17, 2014).

In a similar vein, regarding compensation at Pence, Ann describes that the pay scales and incremental increases for teachers and counselors is a matter of public record, while the pay scale for administrators is not. “I have no idea how they [the administration at Pence] figure base pay,” she tells me, “it could be a like a handshake in a backroom.” As Ann’s experiences with the compensation task force and around the professional development sessions on race convey, Pence teachers push for equity from below (for themselves and for students) and are continually made responsible, as employees, for changing on behalf of the organization.

From Teacher Kevin’s perspective, Pence’s ongoing professional development on race, led by “a couple of professors from [a local university] who are allegedly experts, it’s okay. I mean, I think we, in some ways, some of us are resentful about it. Why focus on race when there’s so many other things that you need to have conversations about” (Teacher Kevin, personal communication, March 10, 2014). Kevin came to teaching after a long career outside of education and has been at the school for eleven years. His self-definition is “teacher/coach/dad” and he sees that his role at Pence changes depending on who is looking. “I teach math, but my job is way bigger than that” he explains, “My job is to try to teach them how to be responsible, mature young adults…helping prepare them for the world…I think [my role] is defined by different people differently. I’m a math teacher. I hope and I think that I’m a molder of young adults. I think that’s how I see myself, and I think generally that’s probably how other people see me, and hopefully that’s how people see most of us here” (Teacher Kevin, personal communication, March 10, 2014).

Regarding his pedagogical practices at Pence versus other schools (he taught previously at what he called “hellholes in North Philly”), Kevin tells me “I can’t imagine that I would be any different in no matter what setting I was in. You go in and you teach [students] things that you think are important, some of them are aligned to the standards, some of them are aligned to your personal philosophy of life” (Teacher Kevin, personal communication, March 10, 2014). And regarding the impact of the ongoing professional development sessions on race, Kevin notes the psychological and emotional aspects of the process, and its limitations. "I guess some of the conversations that have come up" in the sessions on race "are interesting because, some of the things [the session facilitators] say to me, its like 'that's ridiculously obvious. Why does that even need to be mentioned?' But then other folks from different backgrounds, and didn't understand the impact race has on African Americans in particular. They grew up in white, suburban neighborhoods and barely knew any African Americans their whole lives" he explains. "So I think given that experience it's pretty impossible to know how an African American feels day in and day out, dealing with the things they have to deal with. I mean, we had, during one of those sessions, we had a circle, and everybody had to share about something, and when it got to be my turn I kind of broke down talking about my life. I had a pretty tough childhood. And I grew up in the projects, and I could go on forever, but I was poor...but ultimately not black, so I can't know what it feels to be black" (Teacher Kevin, personal communication, March 10, 2014).

For Kevin, teaching is not a process of self-discovery.“When I started working here” he explains, “I was already who I am…you know, hopefully we all evolve, but I don’t think my social or political views have changed much in the last 30 years” he tells me. He did not (and Pence administration would not have allowed him to) sit out the professional development sessions on race, for example, and he explored his own memories and experiences while taking part in those sessions. That he makes sense of that engaged narrative process through an individualist, slightly detached, stable/static lens is an aspect of his professional identity (teacher/coach/dad) as well. This is one example of how “signs of identity, with their logical structures” are “put into practice in everyday life to organize the world in which an individual has to live. The signs become elements of the acts, the meaning and significance of which may change as they proceed…to claim an identity by an act is also to claim a place in an evolving narrative”(Perinbanayagam, p. 105).

Although he tells me that his identity is fully formed, Kevin is, like all the other teachers at Pence, part of an evolving story within the school about race and how teachers must become more skilled at identifying racism and its impacts. The organizational narrative about how to address these impacts places the resolution squarely on the shoulders of teachers, each of whom is required, as employees, to engage in a personal reflective process about what is actually a structural issue.



Creative Commons License Invisible features: hidden aspects of teacher identity in an urban charter school by Martha Hope Carey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.