June 11, 2015

Intoxicated by the Scent of Blossoms

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

Chapter 7: Intoxicated by the scent of blossoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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