Superman’s Shop Floor: An Inquiry into Charter School Labor in Philadelphia

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On September 9, 2013, Philadelphia’s students returned to empty schools. Not completely empty, of course – but due to drastic budget cuts by the state, the city’s schools are likely to function as little more than hollowed-out shells of what most of us imagine schools should be. As specified in the contract proposed in February 2013, the District’s decision to lay off thousands of teachers and school staff means that teachers are inevitably taking on duties such as monitoring the hallways, dealing with secretarial matters, and continuing to provide unofficial nursing and counseling services to their students, in the absence of other options. Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, describes one of the consequences of this disaster: “Telling a child who needs emotional support in school, who might be dealing with family troubles or an illness, who is being bullied in class or needs advice on post high school options – telling any child in this city that they are not entitled to a guidance counselor cannot be the norm we as parents tolerate.” Just days into the school year, students and teachers are deeply feeling the impact of class sizes as large as forty-seven students, an absence of counselors to fill out SAT fee waivers and to speak with students about recent deaths in their communities, and an inability to open the schools early to provide breakfast, due to the layoffs of many school aides.1

Philadelphia’s current plight illustrates a broader national trend: public schools are being intentionally underfunded and dismantled. Over the past ten years, teachers have been forced to follow scripts and rigid pacing guides, practices that contradict research about culturally relevant, responsive, and inquiry-based teaching as methods to deeply improve student achievement. These labor conditions amount to what Jessie Hagopian and John Green call “public sector speedups,” on the model of factory work.2 But this speed-up is not directed towards increased productivity – the work is being deskilled not because of evidence that the system can work with this scripted model, but because such a model does not work.

As public school teachers and students are pushed to failure, private interests will swoop in to provide alternate solutions and reap significant profits. Districts have shifted from elected school boards to mayoral or gubernatorial control, business leaders have orchestrated the shuttering of public schools and their replacement by charter schools, and seasoned, unionized teachers have been pitted against the bright-eyed Teach for America corps members and “superman” charter school leaders.3

Concerned citizens, genuinely hoping for equity in education, find themselves represented by one of two camps, defined largely by “education reformers,” proponents of a privatizing agenda who are backed by several large foundations. Charter school supporters, who call themselves the “civil rights activists of our time,” include political actors such as Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, members of the Republican party, and hedge fund leaders, celebrities such as Bill Gates, Pitbull, and Mark Zuckerburg, and a handful of actual school stakeholders, such as working-class families and new teachers. This odd assortment of characters has rallied behind the charter school movement with motives ranging from profit to ill-informed good intentions to desperation.

Education reformers set the charter school movement in opposition to teachers’ unions and middle-class families, who supposedly want to defend their own middle-class privileges and not those of poor students in urban districts. In reality, defenders of public education are a large and diverse group of committed educators and families from a variety of economic and racial backgrounds. Their common thread is that they are committed to a high-quality, truly public education.

In Philadelphia, as in other large cities that have become the contested terrain in the battle to privatize public education, public school teachers and staff, students, and their families have continuously waged a struggle against the closing of their neighborhood institutions. A central tactic of education reformers is to divide these public school activists from families who have elected to send their children to charter schools, and from new charter school teachers, who have been locked out of traditional public schools by hiring freezes. Stakeholders in the project of privatizing public schools have carefully orchestrated this division; using an extensive public relations campaign, they have represented the crisis of public education as a division into two opposing camps, favoring the shinier, glossier charter side.4 Beyond winning support for their team, this has allowed education privatizers to conceal several of their major plays: defunding public schools and then rating them as “underperforming”; sequestering the public school students with the most social capital in charter schools to train them for a Gates-controlled future economy, while encouraging the students who remain in traditional public schools to self-destruct; and using new forms of labor management in charters to squeeze teachers across charter and public schools, with the corollary goal of toppling teachers’ unions, the largest remaining public sector unions in the country.

Like many young teachers, I have worked in several charter schools out of necessity, despite my belief in the importance of public schools. Through this experience, I have witnessed the privatizers’ tremendous success in framing the public-versus-charter debate among the general public and within the educational community. I have watched fellow new teachers drift out of the realm of public school activism because of their precarious employment in charter schools, and I have watched committed families and educators struggle to prevent the closing of the neighborhood schools with little extra time or energy for examining issues of framing or identifying new allies. These trends raise a fundamental question: how can the educational community – and more broadly, members of the public who concern themselves with equity in education – be convinced to see charter schools not simply as an alternate model to traditional public schools, but as an integral component of  a meticulously designed machine built to dismantle public education over the next several decades?

Much has been written in response to this question, through critique of “venture philanthropy” and questions of school governance. Those within the world of education recognize the larger forces at play. However, casual observers who have jumped on the charter-school bandwagon often see a move towards charters as beneficial to working-class families. This is in many ways no surprise. The admissions and student retention processes of charters exclude high-need students, including students in special education, speakers of languages other than English, and students with behavior challenges. By selectively choosing their students, and by bolstering school programs with private funding, charter schools are often able to provide environments that public schools lack the resources to cultivate.

Another factor in the seemingly high performance of charter schools is their staff: a cadre of young, enthusiastic teachers who work around the clock to ensure student success. Education privatizers laud these teachers’ commitment to their students, while critics of charter schools dismiss them as neoliberal missionaries. But neither of these views appreciates the importance of an analysis of labor conditions and practices of exploitation in charter schools. These labor conditions, while alarming in their own right, shed light on the intricate, exacting strategy that is currently being used to disable teachers, across the public and charter spectrums, from effectively serving working-class students.

In order to truly understand the connection between the labor conditions of charter school teachers and the new situation of public school teachers, it is important to note the differences in the everyday realities of these two groups. While urban public school teachers are subjected to a counterproductive speed-up, charter schools, in their self-appointed position as the saviors of underserved children, need to demonstrate success. Thus, charter school teachers are asked to do a great deal of intellectual work, such as writing their own curricula, in addition to an excessive amount of physical and emotional labor, such as serving meals and supervising students before and after school. In addition, they are expected to competently function within the new forms of self-regulation that Emiliana Armano has described as characteristic of knowledge work: exercising autonomy, creativity, and collaborative prowess. While the model of factory production is applied to the work of teachers in what is framed as the obsolete institution of public schools, undertrained charter school teachers are cast as high-achieving knowledge workers – on the model of the Google worker or the freelance “creative” – who must cultivate their human capital at their own expense and on their own time.5

Teaching in Philadelphia

Two years ago, I graduated from a master’s program in teaching at a respected Philadelphia university and was thrown into the city’s extremely inhospitable job market, along with forty of my classmates. For those of us who hoped to remain in Philadelphia after graduation, charter or private schools proved the only viable options for employment. I began my school year as a temporary teacher in a unique charter school that serves young adults who have dropped out from, or been pushed out of, traditional public schools. Charter schools began with the purpose of developing innovative educational models for underserved populations, which could then be scaled up and applied in public schools. As a result, a charter-heavy city like Philadelphia has a diverse range of charter schools, ranging from Afrocentric elementary schools to wraparound programs for at-risk students to the familiar corporate chain models.

Despite the school’s many strengths, I struggled with my tenuous employment there under a temporary contract that allotted almost no paid time for planning lessons, providing feedback, and following up with students, who, because of their prior educational challenges, required a lot of additional attention. To make ends meet, I also ran an after school program and drove an hour outside of the city to tutor for families who could afford to pay a more generous hourly rate. I would often leave for school at 7:00 a.m. and return home after my third job at 10:00 p.m., only to repeat the process the next day.

My classmates were having similarly taxing experiences throughout the city. We had all braced ourselves for a difficult first year of teaching, but when I checked in with former classmates months after the start of our first official school year, I was shocked by the stories they told about their working conditions across a wide range of charter schools. I decided to record these stories, as a way of showing my classmates and myself that our difficult experiences, which are framed by the market logic of charter schools as individual failures and successes, are actually pieces of a larger, intentional pattern of exploitation.6


Lily bounded into her first year as a full-time teacher, propelled by the enthusiasm of student teaching. After a year of training with one of Philadelphia’s most beloved public kindergarten teachers, writing integrated units, differentiating instruction, and learning to address academic and socioemotional learning in a full-day kindergarten class, Lily beat out countless applicants for an assistant teacher position at an up-and-coming branch of a nationally recognized charter organization, which we will call Booker T. Washington Collegiate. She knew that the work would be intense and that she would not receive the recognition or compensation of a full-time teacher, but, determined to serve the students of Philadelphia and develop her craft in an unfriendly job market, she saw this as a great opportunity.

Lily attended her charter organization’s national summer conference with thousands of likeminded young educators, including another of our classmates, Ana, who had been hired to work as an assistant teacher in a middle school run by the same organization. After the inspiring conference, Lily felt invigorated and ready to begin her work. Ana, however, spent much of the summer haggling over her position. After seven rounds of applications, demonstration lessons, and interviews, she had been hired as an assistant teacher and was expected to serve one year in this role before advancing up the corporate ladder to become a full-time teacher. Both Ana and Lily were assured that if they performed well as assistant teachers, they would receive promotions to full-time teacher status and accompanying $15,000 raises in their second year. Although Ana, a more skeptical new hire than Lily, saw the apprenticeship as an opportunity to exploit the enthusiasm of new teachers, she appreciated the charter organization’s intensity and stated commitment to social justice, so she took the position anyway.

Halfway through the summer, the organization called to inform her that they were cutting assistant teacher positions. Ana could work at the school in the coming year if she was willing to work as a full-time (non-assistant) special education teacher on an assistant teacher’s salary. Though she had no training in special education, and though she would make $40,000 in contrast to the other full-time teachers’ $55,000 salaries, Ana felt constrained to stick with the position, considering the late notice and the rapidly approaching school year.

Ana’s predicament illustrates how the flexibility afforded to charter school operators affects teaching contracts across the board. As of January 1, 2012, a new, certified teacher with a master’s degree would make $46,694 in Philadelphia public schools, and a new special education teacher would make slightly more than that. In addition, these new hires would receive all of the protections and benefits negotiated by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, including health insurance, a pension, a relatively predictable schedule for advancement, and a just cause clause for disciplinary action. In contrast, charter schools, which are publicly funded but freed from the governmental oversight of traditional public schools, usually do not have unionized work forces and thus pressure young teachers – who are forced to operate within the charter system because of the downsizing of the public school workforce – to sign flexible, risky contracts. Both Lily and Ana consented to sign contracts at about $6,000 below the District pay scale, although the assistant teacher job postings indicated compensation “commensurate to the District’s starting salary for new hires.”

In both of my positions with charter schools, I was also paid at notably lower rates than I would have made in a public schools. In my first, temporary charter job, I was paid an hourly rate for the hours during which I worked directly with students, with no compensation for time spent on preparation, grading, and student support. Mid-year, I was hired by another charter school to take over for a teacher who could not continue in the position for the second semester. At first, the position was offered as a per diem substitute position with no benefits, despite the fact that the job would entail the standard preparation and grading of a full-time teaching load. While some new teachers might have been grateful to trade in three part-time jobs for one full-time job, I was exhausted and frustrated with the labor conditions I had encountered. Only after persistent bargaining did I secure a starting salary several thousand dollars below the district pay scale, with health benefits, and yearly raises at the school CEO’s discretion.

Charter contracts clearly undercut district pay scales, which in cities like Philadelphia are already significantly lower than in surrounding suburbs. Even if newer teachers “step up” from charters to unionized public school districts, they have grown accustomed to the low pay and have little experience acting collectively or making demands of their employers. The ideology of individual achievement that pervades charter schools is on full display in Lily and Ana’s contracts, which promised generous raises after a year of stellar performance. But given the working conditions of charters like Booker T, these stellar performances are nearly impossible to pull off, and neither Lily nor Ana returned for their second year and that $15,000 raise.

Beyond maneuvering around fair and predictable salary schedules, many charters also skirt teacher certification requirements. To be clear, teacher certification requires a massive personal investment of time and money, and I have spent thousands of dollars demonstrating and re-demonstrating my competence at basic reading and writing skills on numerous states’ certification exams. However, at present, they are the only means for ensuring adequate teacher preparation. Ana was hired by Booker T to teach special education with no certification in this area, without even a complete college course in effective teaching methods or the legal procedures required in this field. She had never written or even contributed to an IEP (Individualized Educational Program, the legal document outlining educational objectives and services for special education students) prior to this position, and she had no training in supporting students with specific learning disabilities like dyslexia, or with emotional disorders. Though she had signed on to work in this organization in order to achieve equity in education for Philadelphia’s poorest students, Ana knew that her lack of preparation would perpetuate a subpar school experience for her special education students, regardless of how committed she was to the school’s mission and to her work.

Other former classmates also took on jobs for which they were neither certified nor qualified, because of strange Human Resource practices at other schools. Jessica was hired as a kindergarten teacher but then transferred to the position of reading specialist, a job that requires separate coursework, trainings, and certification, several weeks into the school year. Despite her thoughtful approach to teaching and her positive intentions for her students, she admitted to having no knowledge of best practices. And because she had to collect and present data on student reading achievement to request funding for her own job, she often felt a tremendous conflict between doing what she believed to be best for her students’ reading growth, and following protocols to show quantitative student growth in order to ensure her own continued employment.

Whatever It Takes

Lower pay and less formal training for teachers are only two features of the charter world that contribute to a larger privatizing project. Let’s return to the story of Lily, the assistant teacher.

After she attended the national summer conference, Lily began her school year in a kindergarten classroom in an underserved, predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia. Although she was one of the younger teachers, the oldest teacher at her school was a mere 32 years old. Early on in the year, the all-female, mostly white teaching staff took personality tests, and many of them received the same descriptors: hardworking, competitive, and aspiring to be the best. Few of the teachers were married or in relationships, but they saw their lack of obligations at home as an opportunity to truly approach student achievement with a “no excuses” attitude.

As a participant in the assistant teacher program, Lily worked alongside a veteran teacher, engaged in professional development, and gradually assumed more responsibility for her kindergarten students throughout the year. Even from the start, she worked around the clock to ensure her students’ success. Students as young as five attend the school for eight and a half hours a day, and Lily found herself routinely exceeding the ten hours per day that she was required to spend at school. She arrived before 6:00 a.m. to complete the labor-intensive preparation for science and social studies lessons and worked until 6:00 p.m. daily, eating lunch on the go at some point during that twelve-hour stretch.

Throughout the day, Lily served as an assistant in traditional academic classes, such as independent and small group reading, writing, math, science and social studies. However, her duties extended far beyond academics. At 7:30 a.m., Lily went through the emotional labor of warmly welcoming her kindergarteners and supervising breakfast. After breakfast, she coaxed them into sitting for a forty-minute Morning Meeting of skills review and community building. Following two to three hours of literacy and writing instruction, Lily supervised her twenty-five students for recess, lunch, and a short nap. She then escorted the children to art, Spanish, and physical education and returned to her work space for her prep period.

Lily’s school’s website describes this hour of student-free preparation time as a time when teachers plan engaging lessons, develop materials, respond to emails, and contact families. However, Lily’s supervisors required her to spend this time quizzing children on sight words, and she postponed school-related emails and planning until the evening, after work. (She replied to personal emails from family and friends at 4:30 each morning in order to make sure she did not lose touch with them during this time.) Following the prep period, Lily and her colleagues led another round of academics and waved goodbye to their students at 4:00 p.m. They then headed off to meetings (a different meeting for each day of the week) until 5:15 p.m., and most teachers stayed beyond that time to plan for upcoming lessons.

After leaving school each night, Lily graded student work and prepared for the next school day. Spending over eight hours with energetic and needy five-year-olds drained her of the desire to speak with family and friends in the evenings. Intellectual stimulation, her love of reading and discussion, and her creative streak withered away during this time. Lily pushed her interests, her health routines, and even her personal life aside in order to fulfill her school’s expectation to do “whatever it takes” for her students.

Despite her willingness to make sacrifices, Lily had some reservations about the real consequences of her work. She saw the power of the academic and behavioral systems in place to manage her students and teach them how to read, but she worried about their critical thinking skills and emotional development, and she did not feel that she had cultivated a love of reading and books in her class. The school used many extrinsic rewards to encourage positive behavior, and teachers managed negative student behaviors by publicly removing students from “The Team,” a practice rooted in shaming and excluding students as a consequence for misbehavior. While Lily felt proud of her school in comparison to public schools in the neighborhood, she admitted that she would not send her own children to such a school, due to its heavy emphasis on skills development over critical thinking and socioemotional learning.

With the work week approaching and often exceeding 70 hours, without recognition as a fulltime teacher, and with a salary that most people with professional or master’s degrees would scoff at, Lily and her colleagues could easily have become exhausted, frustrated, and unable to go on after only a month or two of work. But instead of caving to the immense pressure and fatigue, Lily just repeated to herself, “It’s not about me. It’s about the kids and their growth.” This phrase emerged several times during our conversation, and especially when she addressed difficult topics such as stress and dissatisfaction with her work environment.

The attitudes of Lily and her fellow teachers reveal a deep seated tendency within the field of education: despite their low pay and often arduous labor, teachers tend to view themselves as “professionals” separate from the wider working class, a perspective that has historically been reinforced by the major teachers’ unions in the United States. Teachers see their work, which often extends far beyond contract hours and schoolhouse walls, as a source of self-realization, satisfaction, and identity, rather than as wage labor. As Lily put it, “Nobody needs to be told that they have to work hard. Nobody’s there with a whip. You get tired, but you want to stay. It’s competitive. You want your kids to advance.” Teachers’ identities and sense of self-worth have strong ties to their students’ levels of academic and personal success. With a new generation of young charter school teachers invested in professional elitism and a belief in individual achievement, it is hard to envision collective action for improved labor conditions, and improved public education for our working-class students.

A handful of charter school teachers have pushed for unionization, with varying degrees of success. But this approach to building collective power among young teachers can only succeed if it is part of a project which takes the particulars of their position into account. In her study of knowledge workers in Turin, Emiliana Armano highlights several defining characteristics of designers, programmers, translators, and other creative workers, which are very useful for analyzing labor conditions in charter schools. First, the autonomy of charter school teachers, who, like Armano’s creative workers, “are willing to surrender rights and even pay in order to obtain an identity.” Second, the transient nature of contemporary knowledge work. As Armano explains, “knowledge workers seek to turn the temporary character of their work to their advantage by leveraging their skills, asserting their independence from the employer and constantly re-negotiating their position.” In the absence of the formal labor protections that have characterized public school teaching for a century, charter school teachers need to manage their careers through “personal risk management,” protecting one’s income in this precarious field by maintaining some level of detachment from the school community. For teachers, the “flexibility” of charter school contracts and employment is in tension with their sense of duty not only to their creative and intellectual work, but also to the children and families with whom they work.7

The Turnaround Model

After pursuing a career in publishing and then teaching English abroad for several years, Alex decided to take the plunge and pursue a master’s degree and certification in Philadelphia, where he owned a home with his wife and small children. Knowing that the School District of Philadelphia was not hiring for the coming school year, he began to market himself to the city’s charter schools at a local education job fair. He gave his résumé to two administrators at Neighborhood Enterprises, a community-based organization based in the “cradle to college” philosophy made famous by the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Weeks later, Alex received a call from Neighborhood Enterprises. In the past, Neighborhood Enterprises had served as the Educational Management Organization (EMO) for struggling public schools. EMOs emerged in the 1990s as a method for bringing market principles into public schools. Philadelphia is nationally known for its large-scale experimentation with school privatization, including turning struggling schools over to for-profit and nonprofit EMOs. In the early 2000s, Neighborhood Enterprises was appointed as the EMO for several Philadelphia public schools.

I had firsthand experience with Neighborhood as an EMO during one of my student teaching placements at a public school in a low-income neighborhood. Although the organization provided some appreciated resources and additional per-pupil funding to the school in which I worked, most teachers did not understand its role. Once a week, a representative from Neighborhood Enterprises would drop off stacks of worksheets on goldenrod paper. In professional development meetings, an executive from Neighborhood Enterprises emphasized the importance of making sure that the students completed these worksheets each week, although the work was not aligned with the school district’s rigidly paced curriculum.

Students completed the worksheets at home, turned them in, and received a score for their work. The skills and concepts addressed in the worksheets were never discussed during the school day because teachers had to adhere to the district’s rigid pacing schedule and had no time for forays into other topics. After scoring worksheets, teachers saved them in large binders, and occasionally the school principal and an executive from Neighborhood Enterprises would demand that a teacher produce a set of worksheets from months before. Together, the administrators evaluated the teacher’s ability to score the student worksheets correctly. Although the organization’s stated role in the school was much more extensive, the worksheets, along with an at-home reading program, seemed to represent the extent of the EMO’s on-the-ground involvement in improving this particular school.8

In the late 2000s, the Philadelphia school district shifted away from EMOs and towards a model of turning public schools into charter schools. In a turnaround model, an existing public school building is handed over to an outside nonprofit or for-profit organization as a charter school. The students remain at the school, but usually the whole staff is dismissed, and the school is turned over to an outside operator. Often, a turnaround project comes with funds for physical improvements, leaving the school’s old teachers, administrators, students, and families wondering why such funds were not offered to them. In addition, although they are intended to change school culture for the better, turnarounds can exacerbate tensions and school violence as new staff replace all of the adults familiar with the students, school, and neighborhood. In The New Political Economy of Urban Education, Pauline Lipman describes a widely publicized tragedy in a Chicago high school that that was “turned around” in 2009. Students from another neighborhood were transferred to the school and tensions between groups of students resulted in the beating death of sixteen-year-old Derrion Albert. As Lipman explains, “The school opened in 2009 with a new principal and staff who did not know the students or the community and lacked the moral authority to defuse conflicts and mentor students.”9

Neighborhood Enterprises had been granted a charter for one of Philadelphia’s “persistently violent” middle schools. Interestingly, it had lost a contract to serve as the EMO for this very same school only two years earlier. In the turnaround model, Neighborhood retained only two or three teachers from the public school and hired Alex to take charge of several middle school classes. He could bike to his new job and was promised instructional freedom in his work. Although Alex had the impression that those who had interviewed and hired him were flying by the seat of their pants as they scrambled to set up a new school over the course of a single summer, he was excited for the new opportunity.

Alex’s new position brought him many early mornings at school and late nights planning lessons, but he had anticipated such a schedule based on what he heard from other new teachers. What Alex did not anticipate was the constant vigilance during chaotic transitions between periods, which administrators expected from him throughout the school day. Although Alex taught seventh and eighth grade, he walked his group of students to and from each of their classes. (This is a common practice in elementary schools, but most middle school students move autonomously from one class period to the next.) The administrators at Alex’s school explained this decision as a method for enforcing one of the elements of their new school culture: that students will walk through the hallways silently, in orderly lines and without downtime in order to maintain a high level of structure. For the students, this meant a loss of time to socialize between classes, but for Alex and his colleagues, it meant they lost opportunities to reset their rooms between ninety-minute classes, to take a few deep breaths in private after a challenging lesson, or to run to the restroom. It also opened the door to criticism of the teachers for failure to meet school expectations. Alex was simultaneously required to escort students to their next destination and be at the door to greet and shake hands with his incoming class. It was logistically impossible to meet both of these expectations.

A unique feature of the turnaround school was their daily, mandatory Zero Period staff meeting before the start of the school day. The intention of Zero Period was to provide a space for teachers, staff, and administrators to solve the inevitable problems that would emerge in a new school. For a while, Zero Period served this function, but as the school year wore on, it transformed into a negative time for assigning blame, rather than a constructive time for problem-solving. Much of the discussion during these meetings focused on the difficult hallway transitions, and administrators scolded teachers time and time again for failing to facilitate smooth, simultaneous transitions. Even when the discussion veered towards instructional issues, the conversations were invariably negative. Administrators frequently singled out teachers, demanding to see paperwork, questioning the implementation of procedures, and ignoring the small, everyday successes of staff and students.

When executives from the Neighborhood Enterprises central office visited the school, the criticism and stress intensified. Alex recalled a barrage of orders coming from his assistant principal in preparation for the executives’ visits: “Make sure you’ve got your ties on. Make sure you’ve got your goals on the board. Make sure that your students have got their sweaters on.” Executives noted these details, at the expense of providing feedback on the teaching and learning in the classrooms. A stellar teacher who had received a glowing review from the principal earlier in the week would suddenly receive a disciplinary notice from an assistant principal for a uniform infraction, or for failing to hang a particular poster on the classroom wall. (The phenomenon of executive “walkthroughs” extended to many of the District’s public schools that served lower income students. For example, one of my former classmates and his Classroom Mentor at his student teaching site were rebuked by district officials for failing to display a poster of the alphabet in a sixth grade classroom. For readers who are not familiar with the conventions of child development, sixth graders should definitely not need alphabet posters to assist them in their literacy work.)

Over the course of the year, Alex had to battle a constant sense of uncertainty about his own performance, an overwhelmingly negative tone of staff meetings, conflicts between administrators, inconsistent enforcement of rules by hall monitors and aides, a grueling schedule with few breaks, and a lack of training and resources for teachers, including a sudden ban on paper. Eventually, this bombardment took its toll. Zero Period meetings had become so stressful, so critical, that Alex began to feel physically ill each morning and eventually had to excuse himself to vomit during one of the meetings. Although he believed deeply in his students and supported the school’s stated mission, and despite the fact that he had a family to support and few other job options for the academic year, Alex resigned from his position several months into the school year. Months later, as he discussed his experience, he emphasized that he had seen a potential for openness and innovation, for collaboration, and for positivity in what had clearly been a troubled school prior to the turnaround. But Alex also emphasized that if he were to repeat his year over again, he would make the same decision to leave the school, without hesitation.

Beyond Division and Privatization

While public school teachers have had to respond to specious attacks on their work ethic, charter school teachers are structurally compelled to embrace market-oriented principles and a philosophy of individual achievement. The practice of “teachers’ inquiry” has the potential to arm allies of teachers and students with knowledge that counters mainstream representations of charter schools as the superheroes poised to save a failing public education system.

Supporters of charter schools often argue that when the administration is freed from the restrictions of union contracts, it can retain high-quality teachers. However, in many cases the model focuses on hiring the cheapest (least experienced) teachers to work many more hours than public school teachers are contracted to work.10 Experienced teachers know that they will be unable to perform adequately with additional non-teaching duties filling time intended for planning and collaboration, and with a pay scale that does not measure up to public school salaries and benefits. This approach achieves several goals in the service of privatization: it demonstrates the fiscal solvency and efficiency of the charter school model for those who do not look at the fine print indicating where money is being saved. (For those who have little regard for the actual quality of teaching and learning, the fine print is not disturbing.) It introduces a new generation of teachers to the profession as an individual, achievement-obsessed endeavor in which those who do “whatever it takes” to achieve high student test scores will receive the most recognition and professional success. And it allows policymakers to push for fewer duty-free periods, lower pay, fewer benefits, and longer hours in public schools, using threats such as charterization and turnaround models to undermine union contracts and decent teacher working conditions.

With charter school teachers working under these conditions, it is no wonder that the state-run School Reform Commission has made unprecedentedly brazen requests for concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in recent contract negotiations. The state has asked for $133 million in union concessions, a sum that exceeds the contributions or concessions made by any other stakeholder in the District’s current fiscal crisis. Among the most widely discussed requests made of the union are increased contributions to health insurance, and salary givebacks ranging from 5% to 13%, despite the fact that the city’s teachers have not received a cost-of-living raise in years and make significantly less than their suburban neighbors.

But truly understanding how charters have transformed labor in the public sector requires a closer look at the original set of proposals to the union, as well as the reality of the school conditions that teachers and students will enter this year. The original contract proposals offered by the School District includes:

  • A longer school day by nearly an hour
  • Unlimited evening duties without compensation
  • An expanded definition of professional duties that includes curriculum work, professional development, meetings, bus duty, yard duty, and faculty meetings with no compensation
  • No limit on the number of different classes (preps) that a teacher must prepare for and no restrictions on assigning teachers to classes outside of their subject areas
  • No limit on the number of consecutive teaching minutes (read by this teacher as “no bathroom breaks”)
  • No requirement, on the part of the administration to provide copy machines or instructional materials necessary for learning
  • Increased class sizes

And this list does not even begin to address the changes to teacher evaluation and compensation that have been proposed as a radical departure from current contract language.

Philadelphia’s governor-appointed School Reform Commission could only muster the confidence to make such outrageous proposals by using the working conditions of charter schools as a foil for District conditions and by using the mechanisms of privatization as a threat to transform public school students into charter school students at rapid rates. Charter schools have changed the game for public school employees, allowing for a much more aggressive squeeze of teachers’ time and labor for far less compensation. The results have already undermined the quality of teaching for the city’s poorest public school students.  Reversing these dangerous trends will require public and charter school teachers to recognize their positions within a single complex system of labor discipline, and collectively oppose it.

  1. Helen Gym, “Don’t lower the bar to $50 million for schools,” The Notebook, August 12, 2013; “Teachers’ first-day-back recap: ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this’,” Philadelphia City Paper, September 9, 2013; Our City, Our Schools, “Five Points: Five Numbers to Think About In the First Week of School,” September 12, 2013. Photo by pwbaker

  2. Jesse Hagopian and John T. Green, “Teachers’ Unions and Social Justice” in Education and Capitalism, eds. Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 150. 

  3. See James Cersonsky, “Teach for America’s Civil War,” The American Prospect, July 9, 2013. 

  4. See Kevin Kumashiro, Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture (New York: Teachers College Press, 2012). 

  5. Emiliana Armano, “Notes on Some Features of Knowledge Work: A Social Inquiry Into Knowledge Workers in Turin,” trans. Arianna Bove, Sozial.Geschichte Online, 6 (2011), S. 63–97. 

  6. Many of my colleagues, who were generous enough to share their stories with me, are still living and working in the Philadelphia area. In order to protect their identities and professional standing in a school climate that provides little recourse against spontaneous dismissal from charter school teaching positions, I have created composite characters that reflect the working conditions of several teachers working in similar environments, and have not used the real names of the organizations with whom they worked. 

  7. Armano, “Knowledge Work,” 87. 

  8. For specific information on the intended role of EMOs in Philadelphia, please see School District of Philadelphia, Diverse Provider Model , April 23, 2007

  9. Pauline Lipman, The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City (New York: Routledge, 2011), 71. 

  10. See “At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice,” New York Times, August 26, 2013; and National Conference of State Legislatures, “Teaching in Charter Schools,” July 2012. 

Author of the article

is an educator who has worked with children and youth in schools, libraries, art organizations, and residential detention centers. She lives and works in Santa Cruz, CA.