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


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.