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May 29, 2015

Taking on the Color of Our Surroundings, Part 2

Continuing with the process I started on May 22, the next few posts are from Chapter 4 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 4: Taking on the color of our surroundings, part 2

My starting point for the research was an analysis of the visual culture of Pence, which incorporates how Pence presents itself as an entity and which, when found in classrooms, can also reflect teachers’ individual expressions of their professional selves. Visual culture critic Paul Duncum explains that visual culture is a generalized term for postmodern everyday aesthetics, what we encounter visually in schools, stores, “city streetscapes, and tourist attractions as well as mass media images” along with images streamed to us over the internet – all of which are now part of ordinary daily life, and part of the daily life of a school (Duncum 1999, p.296).

Duncum describes the comprehension of such visual contexts as a psychological counterweight, and a balancing of self-identity, against the “aestheticization of everyday life [which] involves…how we all construct our appearance for ourselves and for others” (Duncum 2007, p.288). The function of visual culture is to transmit values and beliefs, and to do so in an unconscious manner; “[i]deology works because it is unconscious,” Duncum notes, “it operates behind our backs. Hegemony…works its way through ordinary social exchanges [and] establishes the parameters for thinking and feeling outside of which it is not possible to think or feel or act alone” (Duncum 1999, p.299). And as educator Patricia Amburgy describes this, with respect to the interpretation of visual culture, “viewers may actively and critically interpret what they see but viewers may also passively accept dominant constructed meanings” (Amburgy 2011, p.6). And in her work, Lipman suggests that the educator, particularly in contemporary urban education, must ask whom this passivity benefits.

Signs, lists, and messages for a range of audiences are on almost every wall at Pence. The school’s visual culture content reiterates ideas about and the ideals of the school in a pervasive and direct manner, primarily with text. Each classroom and hallway contains bilingual postings of the school mission statement along with a list of directives for expected student behavior at the beginning of each class (called the “First Five Minutes” list). There are also additional posters, in two languages, directing students to follow three key rules when in hallways and on stairwells, and other posters identifying the five aspects of being a Pence citizen, which include “using Pence actions” and “being a team player” and “making everyone feel welcome.”

On the staff room bulletin board, several lists are tacked up including one outlining the acceptable student behaviors at recess (students are to stay away from cars, slide one at a time on the recess yard slide, no playing tag on the mulched areas). Other notices remind teachers of the school’s maternity leave policy, announce job openings and teacher awards, list when students should or should not see the school nurse, and detail the appropriate responses to bullying behavior or anti-LGBT language used by students. Also posted in the staff room, and above the lockers in several hallways, are glossy laminated signs that list what one teacher laughingly referred to as the “global citizenship proverbs” – Pence’s version of employee workplace motivational posters that have questions for teachers to ponder, such as “Did you know that when you make students responsible for their belongings you are nurturing global citizenship?”

Along the main hallway on the ground floor, near the front door to the school, there is a large wall space used as a display area for projects that promote the culture of Pence. For one week in March the wall was covered with notices about acts of kindness which students in all grades had engaged in; each act was printed onto award which was then posted. The awards listed “Lining up for recess quietly so that other classes could focus” and “Deciding to read a book while his classmates watch a movie he could not watch due to family beliefs” as examples of acts of kindness. A small poster on construction paper, with words in magic marker written by a second grader, was also attached to the wall next to the awards. It read “Don’t act up. Help out.”

From April through June this same wall was gradually covered with a growing number of black and white copied photos of K-3 graders. Each photo was of an individual student holding up a card that stated what they wanted to be when they grew up. Their aspirations ranged from artist to soccer star to doctor to biologist to judge to police officer to President. One happily grinning student wanted to be a “ninja y maestro.” The display was in the most visible area of the school, near the front door and right next to the main office, right down the hall from the cafeteria, where everyone – all Pence students, teachers, staff, parents, visitors – could see. The concept and placement seemed a heartfelt reflection of school pride. But the images were also visually evocative of something else: each image contained just the head and shoulders of a child, facing the camera, each one holding an 8 x 10 card with writing on it, directly in front of their chest, much like mug shots.

On the wall across from the display area is a permanent mural, created years ago by Pence students and still bursting with color, which states in Spanish that the school is all about global citizenship. Next to this mural are the emblems from the Pennsylvania Department of Education that certify Pence has achieved AYP in consecutive years. And near those emblems are notifications of awards to the school, including a plaque from a prominent international investment bank’s foundation, given to Pence in 2008 for its focus on promoting global cultural awareness. There are also wall-sized maps by the stairwell on each floor of the school.

Pence has no art program in grades 6-8, and only one period of art class per student per week for students in grades K-5, so older students’ classroom projects (on geography, literature, math) make up much of the school’s artwork. Multiple map projects, designed by students, line the hallway near the 7th and 8th grade classrooms, including one outlining how resources and populations are dispersed around the globe. The question “How do maps affect your thoughts about the world?” is printed on white paper and posted near a cluster of these resources maps. I found myself re-reading that almost every day that I was at Pence. This was one of the few questions I saw posted in a public area of the school that did not refer to actions and behaviors, but rather to critical thinking and intellectual engagement.

Listings of the “right” behaviors, school guidelines, “proverbs” about citizenship, posters on human rights and global religions, Pence’s achievements on State tests, the images and statements presented on the display wall, and status recognition from an investment bank and student- work-as-art all intermingle in the space inside Pence, and teachers are saturated by this all, every day.

As part of her research, Lipman examined the focus on testing in school reform policies in Chicago and how this pacified both pedagogy and the actual language of teaching and learning. “As accountability measures exert real authority over student, teachers, and school administrators and permeate instruction,” she found, content and context become dis-embedded; a “staff development session on ‘critical thinking skills’…was about teaching children how to think about test questions…[an] example of ‘making students part of the educational process’ was students making up their own multiple choice test questions” like those on a State test (Lipman 2004, p.80). These examples reveal acquiescence to the accountability mindset that can permeate educational settings. But this type of acquiescence is not limited to how textual information is formally structured or delivered within the classroom.

The aspects of visual culture that Duncum critiques are typically dis-embedded symbols, but they can also include physical environments, and images of those environments. An example of this is photographer Richard Ross’ Architecture of Authority, a collection of images of specific public places that were designed for constraint: jails, the lobby of a Secret Service office, border crossings. But the book opens with a photograph of the Montessori circle at his children’s school, a reminder “that coercion starts young and wears many disguises…The legendary open-classroom approach of the Montessori method is curiously contradicted by the big white circle on the floor…Does the circle have to be literally drawn to make the point about fitting into a system?” (Ross 2007, p.10) Lipman addresses this idea as well, by noting how urban spaces in our globalized society often become both a visual fetish and an element of social control, explaining that as “global economic processes make gentrification ‘the cutting edge of urban change’…education policies become a material force supporting the displacement of working-class and low-income communities, the transformation of others into urban ethnic theme parks, and the consolidation of the city as a space of corporate culture” (Lipman, p.179).

Pence is part of that corporate culture space in marginal ways, via small visual reminders, such as the colorful sign attached to its entrance gates listing the corporate sponsors who helped to pay for and build the school’s playground. But in terms of the organization as a whole, the school has never been part of a charter management organization, is situated in an extant 100-year-old public school building (as opposed to an office building), and was founded by a group of community parents (not an outside organization or business group). The examples of the visual culture in the wide Pence hallways capture the visible features the school wishes to promote. They also echo aspects of the more subtle, sometimes invisible features of the school that can impact teachers’ professional identities.

Since Pence is not part a chain of urban charter schools, it does not have on display consistent, pre-packaged marketing messages framed by a larger corporate entity. But Pence does use its visual culture to present the ethics of the organization – both the educational ethics, represented by the school’s curricular focus and policies, and also Pence’s business ethics, as represented by those organizational structures, actions, and messages to employees that promote adherence to actions and values that best ensure this school’s longevity. When asked about the case for charters in Philadelphia from a business ethics standpoint, a former member of the School Reform Commission explained to me that the best case is when charters are viewed as “a repair and recovery strategy” for the city, “a response to a crisis” and a means of finding best practices to implement in traditional schools, rather than as a long-term or stand-alone solution (J. Dworetzky, personal communication, February 7, 2014). Pence does not present as a temporary solution, a test case, a laboratory for best practices, or a means to recovery for the School District of Philadelphia; it presents as a stand-alone solution.

You come to know about how Pence views discipline and self-discipline (of teachers and of students), expectations of interpersonal relations within the space, and the value it places on the cultural capital of global citizenship when you read what is posted on the hallway walls. But alongside the school mission statements, guidelines posters, and examples of student work, the school’s classrooms also contain teacher-generated visual discourses. Such in-classroom examples of visual culture express to others something about that teacher’s sense of values and purpose. But these also reiterate to that teacher who they are as professionals within the school culture, and how they make meaning of themselves within this setting.

In Teacher Rob’s 7th grade social studies classroom, for example, he shares a personal creed on posters in the front of the classroom, written in both English and Spanish: “I believe that you are all capable of doing great things. I believe everyone is smart in his or her own way, and we all deserve respect. I believe that hard works leads to success. I believe there are no shortcuts on the road to success. I believe we were all meant to love and be loved. Life is hard, and I believe true success lies in making this world an easier place to live in.”

Rob, who is in his third year teaching at Pence after teaching at another charter for one year, describes his professional identity as an educator rather than as a teacher. “I mean, for me, when I think of a teacher I think of someone specifically in a classroom that is up in front of the room talking to people” he explains, “and when I think of ‘educator,’ I think of it being a little bit more well-rounded, and that it addresses more elements of the students and their lives. So not just, you know, their academic growth, but also social emotional, you know, their self-confidence, their self-image, and I feel like that…that’s probably for me the more important part of my job…if they leave and feeling good about themselves and having a positive self-imagine, and believing that they’re smart, and believing that they’re capable, and interacting with their peers, and believing that their voice is worth hearing then those are the things that are really important to me…and I think that the academic learning comes as a result of the other things that we do, making kids feel comfortable, making them feel like they’re listened to, that kind of thing”(Teacher Rob, personal communication, May 6,2014).

Rob’s choice of visual content, so prominently displayed at the front of the room, aligns with both his self-description and with his view of the values of Pence. Like every other teacher in the building, he must teach to the standards, but he sees his key role as an educator as aiding in the development of emotional maturity and confidence in his students.

I observed Teacher Ella, who has been at Pence for four years, discussing (in Spanish and English) constitutional amendments and what an ACLU “bust card” is with her 8th grade social studies class. On one of her classroom walls was a large poster with a quote from the writer David Foster Wallace: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people, and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” Ella says she teaches best through connecting content to students’ experiences and by encouraging their participation, rather than through direct instruction. She views herself “first and foremost as a teacher” and explains that “[t]he longer I’m in the position the more I…think about teaching as encompassing…relationships with my students and less about what specifically I teach them. So I’d say that [my role] is ‘in progress,’ or that it’s like ‘in motion.’”

Ella also believes that “the kids have to really care about what I’m trying to get them to learn. And if there’s no reason for them to care then there’s no reason for them to learn it, and there’s no reason for me to be teaching it…So I would say that’s key, like [content] has to really be directly meaningful. They have to want to know about it. So relevance is huge for me. And I would say the other thing, although I struggle with it…is like them being able to have a community of learning with each other. So the idea that they want to ask each other questions and help each other find the answers. And they want to work together and tackle something together…I want very much to have a classroom where like, you know, when someone has a question they don’t just ask me. They’re asking each other, and they want to help each other, and they want to learn together, and they want to figure out what things mean, and like tackle issues together. So that’s a big part of like my dream of how teaching and learning works”(Teacher Ella, personal communication, April 20, 2014). Teacher Nia is in her first year at Pence, and she self-describes as both an educator and an advocate. She says her primary responsibility is “to educate my children to be successful in the world that they live in…but also to be able to advocate for them and with them or at least teach them the ability to advocate for themselves when necessary.” For her this approach to pedagogy aligns with her philosophy about the profession: “I’ve always been told that a teacher can never be ordinary, because if a teacher is ordinary that means your students are ordinary. And the purpose of teaching is to help mold the minds of these young children who will then go onto shape the world. So as a result you’re responsible as a teacher is to shape the future…I truly think that my role as an educator is to help these children develop into good and progressive human beings…When I first started teaching I wanted to give them the skills they need to be successful in life. And now I have learned to differentiate between the two. That being progressive includes the skills that you need to be successful in life, but that it can’t be limited to that…to be a progressive human being you have to have the skills to hold down a good job. You have to have the skills to be able communicate with your peers. You have to have the skills to be able to navigate the information that you’re getting. So it’s a part of it. But the big picture here is to help them become progressive human beings”(Teacher Nia, personal communication, March 26, 2014).

Nia attributes part of her understanding of the purposes and meanings of teaching to the Moral Sciences classes she attended as a child in school in India, classes which stressed both religious and secular moral actions (be polite, be respectful of elders, obey your parents, be truthful). This is similar to what U.S. educators call character education, which emphasizes, among other things, student docility, dependence on adult approval, respect for authority, and the acceptance of hierarchical structures of power as natural (Halstead 2010, p. 305).

At the charter school where she taught previously (before moving to Pennsylvania), they had a specific curricular focus on character education, which Nia describes as particularly relevant when teaching a population where many students are “from a divided household where parents are working hard to make ends meet or sometimes there is no adult in the picture that is actually taking care of the child. The child is basically raising themselves…the values that they need to become good human beings aren’t coming from home, so they have to be taught somewhere. And so they had decided that school is the place that that needs to be taken up, and to a very greater extent I agree with that”(Teacher Nia, personal communication, March 26, 2014).

The visual culture content in Nia’s classroom is consistent with her perceived role as a conveyor of values, ethics, and morals. Posted in Nia’s 5th grade classroom there is a large sign across the back wall, next to the Pence behavioral guidelines, which reads “Remember, we all have choices. Choices have consequences. So be smart and make the right choice.” And near the front door there is a large poster reminding students of the ways they can show character – through wisdom, forgiveness, accountability, patience, and cooperation.

Teacher Tina studied visual communications in her home country, worked for some years as a graphic designer, and taught design at the high school and college levels before moving to the United States and getting a job teaching K-3 at Pence four years ago. She feels her visual arts background helps her when teaching young kids with low literacy skills. Her self-definition is that she is a “teacher and entertainer who performs each day” and her pedagogical approach aligns with her view of Pence’s teaching model: the responsibility for the learning process is on the students, and for them to learn, they have to be in control of themselves and know what consequences are. She tries to “encourage exploration with self-control, so that their brains can work better in two languages” through “a combination of toughness and high expectations and a creative and hopeful and positive attitude” (Teacher Tina, personal communication, April 28, 2014). Her current Kindergarten classroom is covered with images – of animals, plants, colors, etc. – all posted at the height of an average 5-year old. The classroom rules are posted high up on the wall, above the whiteboard, which you would not find if you were not looking for them.

In Teacher Hannah’s 4th grade classroom the space is divided into the working area (shared student work tables) and the reading/group seating area, which is a typical Pence classroom setup. The room is bright and very organized, particularly in the reading area and around the badge board by the classroom door; the badges are for students to quietly excuse themselves and take a badge when they need a hall pass to the restroom. All the posters listing class rules, school guidelines, class goals, etc. in the classroom are in Spanish, as is the day’s agenda, which is listed on the whiteboard at the front of the room.

Above her desk in the back corner of the room, however, is a poster in English, with a quote on it attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Hannah’s view of her professional self is that she is a guide more than a traditional teacher, particularly because the students she teaches are at an age where they are starting to become independent people and independent learners. This is her third year teaching at Pence.

When it comes to her pedagogical practice and her perspective on the philosophy of teaching, Hannah explains, “[My approach] is focused around student voice. So trying to let students have as much power in the classroom as possible and giving them as much responsibility as possible... like the way we run the school with responsive classroom, it puts a lot of responsibility on the students, and they create their own classroom rules as part of the design, and they create their own school rules as part of the design too. So it’s kind of a little bit of both... I usually find whenever I teach something new it’s hard for me to think about it through that lens. Like we were teaching protractors, for example, in Math, and so those couple days of lessons were very like teacher-driven, direct instruction, ‘this is how we do it, now you practice, now we do it together, now we check.’ And classroom management-wise it’s never very successful for me, like it’s not the way I want to be teaching, and it’s not the way that they’re used to learning in this room. It’s always a little more frustrating, and then I get frustrated with them. So it’s the kind of thing where I have to remember that part of it when I’m teaching”(Teacher Hannah, personal communication, March 21, 2014).

The Pence school guidelines and mission statement are posted prominently in Teacher Leah’s classroom, just above where students’ daily writing workbooks are stored, and the mission statement poster has also been signed by each student in the class. At the front of the classroom, on one portion of the whiteboard, directions for expected student behavior are listed. And on the other end of the whiteboard there is another poster, connected with a recent content unit Leah taught, which reads “What are Civil Rights? What are ways to prevent conflict? Who has the power?”

Leah has been at Pence for four years, and describes herself as a teacher and a guide who enjoys that part of teaching where “I can kind of come along side and listen in and kind of advise from the side and find the thing that I need to teach.” This is a self-perception she has evolved into after over a dozen years in the profession, teaching first in a Christian school and then in the Philadelphia public schools before coming to Pence four years ago. She explains “When I first started teaching I didn’t have any teaching background. I was an English major and kind of fell into teaching. And I was strictly by the book…as I got more comfortable and took more classes I would say that I kind of have taken bits and pieces of everything. And so I think I want to see where kids are at, and I want to help them get to the next place. I really love books, and I love writing, and so I want them to love books and writing too, and I think I’m way more interested in that than figuring out what the Common Core [new national education standards] says right now. I’ve read the Common Core, and I’ve tried to think how that fits in, and sometimes I don’t quite understand what it’s asking me to do, and I much more want kids to love books and reading and writing…to me that’s introducing them to great things, sharing great things with them, encourage them in their writing, writing a lot. And to see their power in it, their choice, what they can do with it, that they can explore the world more, that they can make an impact on the world”(Teacher Leah, personal communication, April 7, 2014).

Teacher Audrey has been in the profession for almost 30 years, and at Pence almost since it opened. She views herself as a teacher, a resource for students and for her teaching team, and, because of her tenure here, as an informal school historian. Her role includes modeling emotional responsibility and truthfulness to her students so that they can “learn a confidence about their own abilities” which for Audrey “involves not just math but speaking, writing, articulating how you feel, communication…how to be responsible…how to speak to one another respectfully…just being civil, learning to take care of one another in a way that’s nice” (Teacher Audrey, personal communication, February 24, 2014). And in her classroom, the walls are almost entirely covered with student math projects, which are organized and lined up neatly, as are all the books and other materials in the room. The only messy space in the room is her desk, which is so laden with books and papers you cannot see its surface.

One coordinated example of how Pence shares its school culture visually (and socially) is through the end of year global citizenship concert. For the 2013-14 school year, the concert theme was identity, and student drumming, dancing, and singing performances were each linked to this theme. To publicly signal cohesive school identity to the students, teachers, and parents in attendance, the students wore a rainbow of Pence school t-shirts, each grade level in a different vibrant color. Events like this obviously have visual elements (and motivations or aims) that are far harder to ignore than posters or maps on hallway walls that one passes by every day. Through my role as researcher I noted every aspect of Pence visual culture incessantly, and individual responses to (or participation in) the visual culture context varied widely. Yet I observed that every teacher in the school was very aware of it at least once: when they had to block it out. For testing week during spring semester, teachers spent hours taping up construction paper in their rooms, as all text and every image on every classroom wall had to be completely covered for testing periods, per Pennsylvania’s state mandate.


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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.

May 27, 2015

Taking on the Color of Our Surroundings, Part 1


The next few posts on the blog will be excerpts from Chapter 4 of my dissertation; this chapter explores the setting and the visual culture inside the Philadelphia charter school where I did my research, and teachers’ perceptions of autonomy at that school. 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 4: Taking on the color of our surroundings, part 1
Why are inclination and aversion so infectious that we can hardly live in proximity to a person of strong feelings without being filled like a cask with his pros and cons? First, completely refraining from judgment is very difficult, sometimes outright unbearable for our vanity; it appears in the same light as a poverty of thought and feeling or as timidness and effeminacy: and so we are at least moved to take sides, perhaps against the prevailing orientation, if this position provides more satisfaction for our pride. Ordinarily though – this is the second possibility – we are not even consciously aware of the transition from indifference to inclination or aversion, but instead gradually habituate ourselves to feeling the same way as those around us, and because sympathetic agreement and mutual understanding are so pleasant, we soon bear all the signs and partisan colors of our surroundings.
Nietzsche (1878/1995), p. 214
A few minutes before the start of the Pence Charter teachers’ meeting on this snowy February afternoon, the new school CEO is unstacking chairs and setting them at student work tables. As he moves around the classroom he talks to me about the possibility of tomorrow being another weather closure day – the sixth so far this winter – and how this will impact the academic calendar. Readying the room is a familiar task for him, one he is used to from his years as a teacher. And, like most teachers, time is very much on his mind.

His words and actions would not seem at all discordant in this particular setting except for the fact that he is engaging in them while wearing a suit and tie. As the Pence teachers start to enter, singly and in pairs, the noise level grows, as does the contrast. Every other person is dressed in jeans or pants, casual shirts and sweaters, and boots or sneakers. They talk with one another and choose seats while the CEO waits at the front of the room. But, just before he begins the meeting, he suddenly looks down at his feet. He tells me under his breath that he forgot to switch out of his outdoor shoes and into his dress shoes, which he has to remember to do before the Board meeting tonight. This is a crazy meeting day, he says, like most days.

The CEO begins by announcing that there will be some follow-up on the issue of teacher pay, since he had heard the feedback from teachers that receiving only a percentage of their contracted raises this year was both unexpected and dispiriting. He also reminds the assembled teachers that the Board will be discussing the Pennsylvania State renewal application process Pence Charter is required to complete this year. Another topic of discussion with the Board that evening will be the possible future expansion or replication of Pence and how to market the school’s strengths. Pence has not requested any increase in enrollment (referred to as new “seats”) for several years, and the school is at capacity, but development of another K-8 school site or expansion into a high school is in the offing.

With regard to whether Pence will have its charter renewed and whether the school will continue to operate, the teachers see no impediments since the academic performance of the school has been solid, though it did miss the required Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goal (part of No Child Left Behind legislation) in the 2012-13 school year. But teachers have little impact on the range of factors reviewed by the School Reform Commission (SRC) regarding charter operations, factors which can and do impact the SRC’s and the State Department of Education’s decisions about charter renewal. This process can be unpredictable; when Pence first applied for a charter nearly 15 years ago, the application was denied by the School District of Philadelphia but approved by the State.

A cluster of issues that continually impact charter school teachers arose in just this one afternoon teachers’ meeting at Pence: the insecurity of pay and contracts, Board control of strategic planning, the fact that charters have to be renewed by the School District of Philadelphia (and reviewed by the SRC) in order to continue operating, questions about the need for growth and the possibility of expansion, which hinges on competition with other schools for enrollment. The CEO is always working to define Pence’s most marketable differentiators. He explains to me that he perpetually has to think about what is most relevant when it comes to marketing Pence’s future and possible growth, and that what really makes the difference is finding ways to stand out in the ever-expanding urban charter market.

Pence Charter was originally brought into being as a small, dual-language K-3 school by a group of parents who first met in a playground in one of the tonier neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Most of them had young children, and each of them wanted their children to have quality educational experiences. These were parents of privilege, intent on developing a way of providing private/suburban school quality without having to either pay or move out of the city; they sought to create a publicly-funded school to meet the needs of their own children and those like them. As one longtime Pence teacher put it, “I am convinced that our founding people, having met them all and worked with them…they thought they were going to get like Friends Select [a well-regarded private school in the city] for free” (Teacher Audrey, personal communication, February 24, 2014). The 1997 charter school law in Pennsylvania (the PA Act 22 Charter School Law) allowed a variety of groups to seek funding from the State and from the public school system in Philadelphia to create schools to meet their specific needs, and this group of parents chose to do just that. In the most literal sense, they opted out.

By making the choice to start their own charter school, the founders of Pence were responding to the sudden availability of resources through the charter school law. Accompanying this availability was marketing (still prevalent today) about the promise of alternatives to traditional public schools, along with a push from the State legislature for an outside, for-profit contractor to manage all of the city’s schools and operations (Denvir 2014). Many structural arguments were made at the time to justify this shift, but the messaging about charters was (and is) fueled by something less tangible: the idea of loss. Marketing drives the search for options in schooling, and messaging loss or absence fuels that drive.

Charters were and are still positioned as products, each with a features list containing on it what parents perceive as being absent from another school option. Charter marketing frames non-charters as missing essential features and targets parents using language that reiterates, in both overt and subtle ways, the loss they and their children will encounter should they choose differently. No doubt for the Pence parents, the sorry state of Philadelphia’s public schools (or at least their perception of this) presented them with a clear picture of loss.

Twenty years into the charter experiment, even a cursory review of reports on charters (Carroll 2010; Grady 2010; Fergeson 2011; RAND 2011; Kahlenberg 2012; Lake 2012; CREDO 2013; Squire 2014) conveys that what charters actually offer, what truly differentiates them from traditional public schools, are not consistently high test scores or consistent student academic successes, but rather their less visible features. These can be features that parents desire but may not always be able to list on a form or survey: whether a K-8 school has strict teachers, for example, or many teachers of a particular race, or many students with special needs; whether the school is perceived as a pathway to social improvement through the “right” high school acceptance; the school’s reputation within its neighborhood (which outsiders may never hear about); the relationships between school staff, parents, and the community, particularly those in the community with the greatest needs; and aspects of the school’s interpersonal culture, including how teachers and staff are regarded by (and addressed by) students, and the method used to maintain noise levels, order, containment, protection, and control within the building. Some of these features may be entirely hidden from view to parents and teachers alike, visible only to the administration or the Board, or to funders or other outside interests – yet they impact the school’s culture and how teachers make shared sense of that school’s culture.

Charters market themselves through productizing what they offer (such as high standards for academic achievement, or a unique curricular focus, or low tolerance for misbehavior) and identifying for the consumer what they will not lose by enrolling their children there. The Pence parents chose this path. They worked to develop a school that prioritized certain aspects of cultural awareness they themselves valued and similar to certain features of the private school in the city mentioned by Teacher Audrey earlier; the Pence founders identified global citizenship as a school theme and placed a curricular focus on second-language acquisition. They sought to promote the idea of the school to like-minded parents. But they found within the first two years that a fully bilingual school could not be sustained, because, as one Pence staff member put it, “the realities of whether or not you could quickly build up the student base were questionable, whether people would be afraid, you know, ‘what is this model? Would I send my kid there? Do I think they're getting the same education? I don’t speak Spanish, how am I going to support my kid?’”(Administrator JH, personal communication, June 3, 2014).

In alignment with both the visible, promoted feature of global citizenship and the desired but less visible feature of a certain social status/capital associated with having culturally diverse staff, many of the teachers hired in Pence’s early days were fluent native Spanish speakers from other countries. This meant most “were not trained teachers. Or if they were trained teachers in the country they came from and they didn’t have equivalent certification in Pennsylvania” and that because of their native fluency, “there have been excuses and exceptions made from the very beginning of the school”(Administrator JH, personal communication, June 3, 2014). The idea of a new charter school with an immersive focus on language acquisition, taught to all students by non-white teachers from Spanish-speaking countries, devolved over time into a two-track system where some students would get fully bilingual education in every class, and some would get second language instruction for a portion of each day, four days a week. And the focus on hiring native speakers from abroad also shifted over time, so that Pence now hires local bilingual teachers, most of them white. In the first eight years of Pence’s existence, white students of privilege filled out the Fluency track of this program, and African American students, who were also often socio-economically disadvantaged, filled out the Language Instruction track. Over the past few years track enrollment has gotten more diverse, but the two-track system is still firmly in place.

Today Pence’s enrollment is larger than the local public K-8 school closest to the park where the Pence founding parents met one another. Pence adheres to the required School District citywide school choice lottery policy to fill seats, and enrolls those students whose parents choose to send them to an alternative to their neighborhood school, drawn from all over the city. According to the school data collected by the SDP, about 50% of the students at Pence are considered economically disadvantaged, which is on par with that local K-8 public school, but across the District as a whole about 87% of the student population is considered economically disadvantaged. Currently Pence has an overall student population that is slightly more than 50% African American but due to that same computerized District lottery draw – and which parents chose to put their child’s name into that system of choice, or were even aware of its existence – the incoming Kindergarten class for the 2014-15 school year at Pence is 22% African American, and 45% Caucasian. In the 2013-14 school year, these numbers were 39% and 26% respectively (Administrator JH, personal communications, June 3, 2014 and December 4, 2014).

Pence provides for students from across the city, and the families that send their kids to Pence are assured that what it provides is vastly better, safer, more rigorous, and more effective than a typical Philadelphia public school, or than a charter school managed by a charter management organization. Many know this in a subjective way, from personal experience (as many have had other children who have attended District schools or have had other charter experiences) and they know this in a purportedly objective way, given that they hear the perpetual bad news about budget constraints, school closures, and poor performance in the Philadelphia public schools. And as one sixth-year Pence teacher put it, “I just think our issues wouldn’t even be thought of as issues in someone else’s program…There’s so many other bigger issues, that ours are like – everyone wishes they had our issues, I’m sure” (Teacher Molly, personal communication, June 13, 2014).

Yet the Pence two-track language instruction model has resulted in a deep racial and socioeconomic segregation of the student population. There are few African American teachers on staff, and the teachers are currently engaged in ongoing professional development about racial proficiency. As of the 2013-14 school year, Pence was rated in the mid-70s (out of a possible 100) on school performance by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (McCorry, November 10, 2014). And the school has no empirical data on how and whether its graduates succeed in high school or college.

What is indisputable is that Pence is a vital, clean, vibrant, colorful space. The school building has wide bright hallways, large windows, colorful locker bays, and an enclosed play yard and garden space. It shows well. Yet my first impression when I began observing at the school was that this was a space in which white professionals spend a lot of time setting standards for the noise level and behaviors of non-white students. Having been in charter environments that are much more controlled and controlling of student voices and actions, I could see that this school was disruptive by comparison; in contrast to a large Philadelphia middle school, however, Pence was as peaceful as a Quaker meeting.

These initial reflections about the space further fueled my curiosity about how teachers here make meaning of their experience. Who are you as a Pence teacher, at this independent charter school which operates in a competitive environment much like a small business? How does this all work within the backdrop of a “failing” public school system, in this racially and socioeconomically diverse city, and at this particular moment in American public education? Given that all these things come into play in your daily work life, what are the features, both overt and invisible, of this school culture and of the teachers’ roles within it? Do the teachers here always know which shoes they have on, and for which audience they are dressed?




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.

May 26, 2015

The Worth of the Work is Open to Interpretation (continued)

This post continues the introduction of my dissertation. The project was 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.

Background/framing the local research context: Philly schools and reform efforts

Philadelphia is a pivotal urban site in the implementation of new educational models that embrace free market aims. This has been the case since the state of Pennsylvania passed a charter school law in 1997, subsequently took over management of the Philadelphia schools in 2001, appointed a School Reform Commission (SRC) which replaced the district’s Board of Education, and then hired former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas to lead the district (Gold, et al. 2007; Bulkley 2007; Whittle 2005). Vallas promptly introduced a new school improvement program in Philadelphia, one based on educational privatization, expansion of charters, and defining school effectiveness via test score outcomes, which was a model similar to the reform program he had implemented previously in Chicago (Gold 2006; Burch 2006; Lipman 2004; Socolar 2002).

Today this model (referred to as the portfolio model) is still followed in Philadelphia and continues to be supported through both law and policy, though the school district has been almost continually in crisis over this same period of time (School District of Philadelphia 2013; Derstine 2013; Boston Consulting Group 2012; Denvir 2014). Governor Tom Corbett (2010-2014), who was interested in limiting funding for traditional urban public schools, dramatically reduced state and federal aid to all districts in the state, and withheld 45 million dollars from the School District of Philadelphia in 2014 until it complied with new work rules that allow traditional public schools to bypass union-endorsed teacher seniority in hiring decisions, as is already the case in non-unionized charter schools (Mezzacappa 2013; Mezzacappa 2014).

Governor Corbett had previously revised a law that allowed traditional public schools to be reimbursed for a portion of the cost per student when students choose to attend charter schools and removed that reimbursement, a change that left every district in the state facing budget revisions, and left the Philadelphia school district with a 110 million dollar reduction in the 2011-12 budget (Delano 2013; McCorry 2015). The current Mayor of Philadelphia is interested in expanding the number of charter schools in the city and redeveloping closed public school buildings (Herold 2013; Greco 2011; McCorry, November 10, 2014). But many of the charters he has supported have a tainted history; as of mid-2012, there were nineteen charter schools in Philadelphia under investigation by federal authorities, mostly for fraud, misuse of funds, and inflating student enrollment numbers in order to receive increased payments from the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) to the charters (DeJarnatt 2012, p. 49-50). The School District of Philadelphia today employs 8,500 fewer staff than it did in 2011(Gym 2014). The SDP Superintendent has just overseen a rash of school closures which accompanied these broad staff and teacher layoffs in the face of yet another serious budget crisis, and the SRC controls any pathways to a long-term funding solution (Blumgart 2013; Gold et al, 2007). And just one month into the 2014-15 school year, SRC members voted unanimously to cancel the union contract with Philadelphia teachers and redirect 44 million dollars allocated for teacher health benefits directly to schools (Leach 2014; Madrak 2014; Mezzacappa 2014).

Crises such as these have been hallmarks of neoliberal school reform efforts in a number of cities, Chicago and New Orleans foremost among them, and the impacts of such crises resonate at the ground level within each district, affecting every school and every teacher to varying degrees (Cuban 2013; Steele, et al 2011). Lipman examined the positioning of teachers operating within this framework in Chicago and drew a straight line between neoliberal policies and teachers’ experiences in their workplaces. She found that “In the schools I studied, imposed pedagogical practices corrupted relations with students and ran counter to the intellectual and ethical purposes at the core of teachers’ professional identities” (Lipman 2011, p. 130). Other researchers have also explored this often problematic shift – specifically, how urban charter schools define and redefine the functions and roles of teachers in the era of accountability.

Charter school administrators see their schools as locales of choice for both students and teachers. In their view, teachers are researching market options and choosing these schools for employment, meaning “[t]eachers have market power and can’t be ignored” – but this also means that teachers can be easily replaced by charters depending on the whims of the market and how desirable a charter’s product features are (Hill et al, 2006, p. 6). All charters have product features, as all products we are persuaded to purchase do. The most visible features of a product tend to be those that promote a positive spin on its usefulness or functionality and ideally promote a desire on the part of the consumer to be associated with that product. This holds true for how charters and charter management organizations market themselves to districts, and to parents and communities, as well. And some of the most visible features of charters concern teaching and teachers, from how they are assessed, how they instruct, and what they teach, to the terms and conditions of their at-will employment. But there are also invisible features in every product, those things that are hidden from view, sometimes intentionally.

In software, invisible features are those bugs that were identified as issues but never really fixed after release and testing of the beta version and they are now simply embedded in the structure of the code, and impacting the product, in perpetuity. And in schools such invisible features (which may be connected to a range of issues, such as levels of teacher empowerment, or decision making about curricular choices, or approaches to student data use) can become so deeply embedded in a school’s culture that identifying them and their impacts on policy decisions, strategic planning, student life, or teacher identity can be difficult even for those within the organization. In charter schools this can be particularly acute, as they are generally less regulated and less transparent about process and policy (per most current state charter laws) than traditional public schools have been. Acknowledging the existence of, or making overt, such invisible features in charter schools also begs the question of who, in the end, is accountable for fixing those bugs – or even if they should be fixed.

Leaders of school reform initiatives are highly motivated by an ideal of accountability that is promoted as a very public and very visible feature of schooling. Since the first state charter school law passed in 1991, charters have enacted policies that reflect the idea that “to get accountability, we need to ‘get tough’ with teachers by controlling their behavior, choices, and quality from the top-down” which is an approach that “focuses on standardizing curricula, tightening licensure requirements, offering merit pay, tying teacher evaluations to student performance, and attacking unions for policies governing tenure, pay, work hours, and role differentiation” (Education Evolving 2013). One upshot of this is that teachers who may base their understanding of the practices and purposes of the job on the traditional model of teaching as a broadly unionized public service profession instead become, when they are employed by charter schools, the responsible parties in market-based accountability efforts.

Teachers who may have been trained to work within a centrally-administered government organization are instead workers in autonomous entrepreneurial organizations generating products the market will support. Both environments may well have organizational policies and/or pedagogical practices that teachers object to, but in charter schools these are widely variable and poorly regulated, and these policies and practices can change dramatically and without teacher input depending upon market forces, local or state-level political realignments, changes in school leadership, or changes in charter management organizations (Fergeson 2011). And in the majority of charter schools across the country, with recent exceptions in Chicago and Los Angeles, teachers cannot collectively bargain for changes in their working conditions or salaries and expect to remain employed by their school (Abowd 2009; Maxwell 2010). Such redefinitions of teaching are echoes of the larger effort to redefine public education at the core of neoliberal school reform and provide compelling reasons to this researcher for the exploration of how teachers navigate the various contexts and concepts that impact their professional identities in a school that was created during (and is reflective of the aims of) the accountability era.

One impetus for this work is related to the issue identified by educational researcher Pauline Lipman in her work on Chicago schools: how the “intellectual and ethical purposes at the core of teachers’ professional identities” are presented to teachers at and by an urban charter school. But what is primarily of interest to this researcher is how the less overt aspects of the school culture, those embedded and often invisible features, may be engaged in or reacted to by the teachers within a school. How do teachers with a strong pedagogical stance balance this against the market-driven aims of their public charter school? What are the common sense meanings these teachers share (and describe to themselves and others) when faced with contrasts between the organizational aims of a business and their own training as educators? And how do these teachers understand the varied meanings of autonomy, accountability, equity, choice, and failure at their school?

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.

May 22, 2015

The Worth of the Work is Open to Interpretation


I am posting sections of my dissertation on the blog. I begin at the beginning (the abstract) and also post the context/background section. The project was 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.

I conducted in-depth interviews with 22 staff at my chosen site (18 full time teachers, 4 administrators) over my 6 months at the school. I observed 16 of those teachers in their various classrooms (grades K-8) and I attended staff meetings, new teacher induction, school events, and took 200 photographs of the visual culture of the school over that same period of time. When I describe it that way, it sounds really boring. But it was emotionally engaging and exhausting, intense and wearying too. And now that it is done, I can say that I continue to have deep respect for educators and the emotional energy it takes for them to navigate the self-involved hypocrisy of contemporary school reform efforts, and for the selflessness with which the good ones always protect and encourage the students in their care.


Invisible features: hidden aspects of teacher identity in an urban charter school

The reconfiguration of public education around free-market aims means that each charter school must define its product, and its product features (specifically their school’s pedagogical practices, aims, and goals) around marketability. Yet how these are defined may not align with how teachers perceive of the aims and goals of teaching. This in turn impacts how individual teachers make meaning of their roles within a school culture, and how they talk about what the purposes and practices of teaching are for them. This descriptive phenomenological study explores how one group of teachers at an urban charter school in Philadelphia react to phenomena (such as how the various product features of their school are presented) and how they make meaning of the prominent concepts in contemporary school reform, including teacher autonomy, accountability, failure, choice, and equity. This study also examines how, and how broadly, these perceptions are shared among these teachers, and how these concepts are internalized by them. One key finding from this study was the clear agreement among these teachers around the idea of equity, as each of the study participants defined equity in the same way.

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[Chapter 4-7 titles in this dissertation are taken from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, 1: A Book for Free Spirits, 1878 edition]
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Background/framing the broader research context: neoliberal school reform

Proponents of contemporary school reform initiatives are essentially proponents of productizing public education and claim that countering the perceived failings of traditional public education requires accountability to the consumer market – and that charter schools model this ideal of accountability, as they can be closed and teachers fired if the product underperforms (Gawlik 2012). Lipman succinctly describes this as part of a neoliberal political agenda aimed at bringing “education, along with other public sectors, in line with the goals of capital accumulation and managerial governance and administration;” within this agenda, neoliberal school reformers who view “education as a private good” support a form of school administration “geared to management techniques designed to meet production targets” and teaching that is driven and defined by performance indicators (Lipman 2011, pp. 14-15).

Lipman, among others, has noted that this approach to education is an outcome of epistemic closure. Linda McNeil reiterates that view, describing the neoliberal school reform project in Texas as “a self-contained system that permits critique aimed at fine-tuning the mechanism but does not permit critique that challenges its premise” (McNeil 2000, p. 268). And a premise that goes unchallenged is the primacy of the “noncognitive” values that support a free market, consumerist democracy, and the idea that the “job of education for neoliberals…is not to convey knowledge per se as it is to foster passive acceptance in the hoi polloi toward the infinite wisdom of the Market” (Mirowski 2013, p. 80). Neoliberal reforms shaped by this perspective have been implemented in school districts across the country for just over two decades. Such education reforms, conceived around free market aims and which frame pedagogical practices as products, have not yet been shown to directly impact either teaching or learning in a consistent or even a positive manner, to markedly improve test scores, or to ameliorate inequality in schooling (Cuban 2013; Robelen 2011). These results may actually be well-aligned with neoliberal views, but can be misaligned with teachers’ perceptions of their professional roles and even the purpose of schooling itself.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes recently published a 27-state study of charter schools and found that in a number of states, the standards for performance for charters were set too low, that “sub-sectors” of charters exist and these produce very different outcomes, that the trend in existing charters is that they do not make strong improvements over time, and that charters that do not perform well tend to be closed, which has mixed results depending on the district (CREDO 2013, pp.88-90). The Poverty & Race Research Action Council found that charters are more likely than traditional public schools to be high poverty or racially isolated for minorities, and that while “in theory, charters schools, as schools of choice, could be far more integrated than traditional public schools,” in reality, “many state charter laws provide an incentive to create high-poverty charter schools. Plus, current federal law requires charters to use blind lotteries for admission in order to qualify for start-up funds” which limits the tools schools could use to create mixed-income and diverse schools (Kahlenberg 2012, pp.2-3).

A 2011 study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education/ Mathematica Policy Research of 22 charter management organizations across the country found that middle schools managed by a charter management organization have “students’ test scores that are marginally positive but not statistically distinguishable from the effects of other public schools nearby” (Ferguson 2011, p. 61). A recent study of charter schools in Ohio (which serve over 120,000 students) noted that fully 88% of the state’s charters were graded at C or below on measures of student performance by the Ohio Department of Education (Squire 2014, p. 9). And educational scholars Larry Cuban and Jane David noted in 2010 that “[f]or the immediate future, no clear answer to the question of whether charter schools are better than public schools can be found in the research” (David 2010, p. 37). With regard to charter school teachers, this absence of empirical data means there is little support for the idea that charters are better educational settings than traditional public schools, and therefore little to support an identity narrative premised on the idea that charter school teachers are working in settings that promote well-proven or more effective pedagogical practices.

The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report shows nominal improvement in reading and math test scores across all schools in the United States from the previous survey, but that a racial gap in performance (a 26% difference between white and African American students in fourth grade math, a 21% gap between white and Hispanic students in eighth grade reading) persists (National Center for Education Statistics 2013). The report reiterates several other long-term issues in public education which educationists have been researching and writing about for generations, and which link to issues of poverty, resource allocation, and structural inequality in the United States. With these in mind, education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond has suggested five school improvement policies aimed at enhancing “quality and equality” in public education overall: creating meaningful learning goals that align with “the content and skills needed for success in the twenty-first century;” having supportive accountability strategies that undergo continuous review and improvement to provide students with good learning standards and teachers with good standards of practice; reviewing federal and state resource allocation for schools, developing strong professional standards for teaching, and having schools organized around good pedagogical practice and good use of technological resources (Darling-Hammond 2010, pp. 279-328).

Lipman has offered suggestions for improvement that focus on combatting inequality, including the promotion of social equity through giving students an education that “instills a sense of personal, cultural, and social agency” and promotes critical thinking (which would involve a serious reorganization of school resources and comprehensive and “massive reconstruction and renewal project” for urban schools),  a reframing of “deficit notions about the potential of low-income children and children of color” and connecting the transformation of urban schools to “a larger local and global social struggle for material redistribution and cultural recognition” (Lipman 2004, pp. 181-3).

Educational researcher Anthony Bryk and his colleagues also worked with Chicago schools for their research on schools as organizational systems and offered what they see as the essential organizational supports that influence student learning in urban schools: professional capacity; the school learning climate; parent, school, community ties; and the school’s instructional guidance system (Bryk et al 2010, p. 50-78). Their suggestions about school organization were premised on the idea that all schools can improve, but that not all schools and school communities “start out in the same place and confront the same problems,” he explains, and that “unless we recognize this, unless we understand more deeply the dynamics of school stagnation, especially in our most neglected communities, we seem bound to repeat the failures of the past” and so those invested in school improvement must pay “more attention to how we improve schools in these specific contexts” (Bryk 2010, p. 30). Of note is that each of these suggestions for the improvement of public education (made by experts in and practitioners of the subject) emphasizes contextually-informed decision-making, and that the “answers” to school improvement can be found within public schools and school communities – and such improvements do not hinge on the creation of a new system of market-accountable schools. These educationists connect school change to broad social issues unconstrained by the parameters of one socio-economic theory. They also allow for the voices and experiences of teachers to play a part in school change.

This tension between the market-based aims of neoliberal school reform proponents and the actual school improvement ideas put forth by educational scholars plays out in local sites (as in Philadelphia), in political discourses, and at the national policy level. From its inception, the idea propelling American public education was “to take a vast, heterogeneous, and mobile population, recruited from manifold sources and busy with manifold tasks, and forge it into a nation, make it literate, and give it at least the minimal civic competence necessary to the operation of republican institutions: and that the “most irresistible way to ‘sell’ education was to stress its role not in achieving high culture but in forging an acceptable form of democratic society” (Hofstadter 1962, p. 305). Teachers have always been viewed as essential to this project, but that they are “not well rewarded or esteemed is almost universally recognized in contemporary comment…The educational enthusiasm of the American people was never keen enough to dispose them to support their teachers very well” (Hofstadter, p. 312).

As a nation we have argued over the implementation of public education, teacher pay, school organization, “the administrative apparatus [of urban public education], and the income taxes proposed for their support” since as far back as 1825 (Rury 2005, p. 51). But we had not fundamentally challenged the entire premise of education as a centrally-administered public service in any large-scale manner until contemporary neoliberal school reform efforts were undertaken. Over the last few decades traditional public education in the United States has been described primarily in terms of its perceived limitations and failings, to the point where this “universal access” approach to education is no longer viewed as an inherent social good or even as necessary for the development of future citizens, or future workers (David and Cuban 2010; Fruchter 2007). Each charter school that has opened since that first charter legislation passed has been, to some degree, part of this postmodern shift in perceptions of public education.

This philosophical shift has been accompanied by a shift in the “education sell” Hofstadter described, and by political and legal changes which continue to open up spaces for educational privatization. These have proven to be effective. The number of charter schools in the United States grew from just under 1000 in 1999 to nearly 6000 in 2011, and by 2012, 42 states had passed laws which allowed for the development of charters (Lake 2012). And despite the lack of data to support the idea, one 2013 national study showed that the majority (52%) of those polled regarding their views on public schools say that students receive a better education at public charter schools than at traditional public schools, and 59% support a large expansion of charter schools in the United States (Phi Delta Kappa International 2013).

As explained by sociologist Colin Crouch, historically it was assumed that the tension between the egalitarian demands of democracy and the inequalities that result from capitalism can never be resolved, but there can be more or less constructive compromises around it. Today these assumptions are seriously challenged, and increasingly powerful lobbies of business interests ask why public services and welfare policies should not be available to them for profit-making purposes just like everything else…why not schools? (Crouch 2004, p. 79).

If one views traditional public education as a universally accessible social service, or simply an expression of an ideal of an equalizing democracy, privatization of schooling means “[p]roviding goods or services through markets [which] involves an elaborate procedure of creating barriers of access…Sometimes the character of a good itself has to be changed to do this” (Crouch, p. 85).  As the direct providers of these services, one “good itself” that has had to change significantly in light of contemporary school reform efforts is teachers. Veteran teachers are leaving the field (300,000 retired between 2004 and 2008) and are often replaced by new teachers with alternative or no certification and minimal training, leading to “an emerging conventional wisdom that ‘experience doesn’t matter’” in many school districts (Carroll 2010, p. 3).

Two recent studies have shown that the rate of both involuntary attrition in charters and the rate of charter teachers leaving the profession altogether are significantly higher than in traditional public schools, and that the rate of teacher turnover in charter schools is twice that of traditional public schools (Stuit 2010, 2012). These researchers found that the “low unionization of charter schools was the single most important factor” in explaining high turnover rates in charters, followed by the relative youth and inexperience of charter school teachers (Stuit 2012, p. 277). Studies such as these attest to marked changes in the profession sparked by accountability-era school reform initiatives, and spark questions around how teacher professional identity is impacted and shaped in light of those changes.

Looking at the shift Crouch describes from a political vantage point, philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard predicted in the late 1970’s that the coming information-technology age would fundamentally change the relationship between what the state sees as its role as a provider of services, how that state activity is perceived by citizens, and what the aims of education should be from the perspective of corporations making decisions beyond control of the state. In this context, [k]nowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold…the mercantilization of knowledge is bound to affect the privilege the nation-states have enjoyed, and still enjoy, with respect to the production and distribution of learning. The notion that a society falls within the purview of the State, as the brain or the mind of society, will become more and more outdated with the increasing strength of the opposing principle, according to which society exists and progresses only if the messages circulating within it are rich in information and easy to decode. The ideology of communicational ‘transparency,’ which goes hand in hand with the commercialization of knowledge, will begin to perceive the State as a factor of opacity and ‘noise.’ It is from this point of view that the problem of the relationship between economic and State powers threatens to arise with a new urgency (Lyotard 1979, p. 4-5).

In the present day, anthropologist Jill Koyama describes how the messaging about accountability in education has “recently become amplified in response to globalizing processes, characterized by the increased availability of comparative data and the circulating discourse about increased productivity” in first-world countries, and “the relative standing of a nation’s academic achievement has become an obligatory passage through which any discussion of global competition and comparisons of the twenty-first century must pass” (Koyama 2013, p. 78).

A recent example that underscores Koyama’s point: when the most recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores came out and showed the U.S. student rankings on math, science, and reading literacy as “still well behind their peers in top-performing nations.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan explained that [t]he problem is not that our 15-year olds are performing worse today than before. The problem instead is that they are not making progress. Yet students in many nations… are advancing, instead of standing still. In a knowledge-based, global economy, where education is more important than ever before, both to individual success and collective prosperity, our students are basically losing ground. We're running in place, as other high-performing countries start to lap us” (U.S Department of Education 2013).

For Lipman, globalization is the “connection of markets, production, sites, capital investment, and related processes of labor migration” which is guided by the hypermobility of capital and which leads to severe urban social stratification (Lipman 2004, p. 6). In this view “corporatist” school reform efforts in the United States are taking place in an “ideological environment that supports or contests global trends to deepen economic and social polarization;” and charter school teachers are actors within that ideological environment, and therefore part of such polarization, whether they are aware of this or not (Lipman, p. 12).

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe states that globalization is used to justify the status quo. “When it is presented as driven exclusively by the information revolution, globalization is deprived of its political dimension and appears as a fate to which we all have to submit,” she explains, and “this technical revolution required for its implementation a profound transformation in the relations of power among social groups and between capitalist corporations and the state” so that today global corporations benefit from lenient regulation and taxation and “have managed to emancipate themselves from political power” in a manner that allows them to restrict resources needed by governments to fully support social welfare programs, among them public education (Mouffe 2000, pp. 119-20). Teachers are part of this new status quo premised on a shift in relations of power, and teacher professional identity is impacted by this shift. Just how, and to what extent, calls for deeper research into teachers’ perceptions, and their levels of intersubjectivity within charter schools.


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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.