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.

[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]

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.


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.

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