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

Con­tracts

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.