June 5, 2015

At the Waterfall, Part 2

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

Chapter 5: At the Waterfall, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No comments: