June 10, 2015

Hope as a Presumption

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

Chapter 6: Hope as a Presumption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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