After a discussion with a charter school teacher, I was surprised at her reaction to the anger us public school teachers feel over the education deform movement that would destroy public education. She seemed genuinely shocked and hurt to hear people thought so negatively about charter schools. She even chided me on my tone. But she also seemed to have no knowledge of the moneyed and powerful political forces at work behind charter schools and organizations like Teach for America. Instead she defensively talked about the great work she felt she and her colleagues were doing at her school. I don't deny that. But I can't help but wonder how so many people, charter school teachers, TFA teachers, and even many teachers in neighborhood school choose to remain ignorant. It's like they purposefully screen out all the terrible things happening around them to only see their individual classrooms and students. Is this a coping mechanism? Is it fear? Is it just an environment saturated with the corporate deform propaganda? How can people anywhere ignore the growing evidence about the only partially-hidden motives of corporate reformers like Rahm Emanuel, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Wendy Kopp? Do they not see how these policies hurt children? And how does anyone ignore the poverty and lack of economic opportunity that holds our students and their families back? People still honestly believe that it is bad teaching causing our students to fail despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Here are some of the questions I posed to her. I did appreciate that she took the time to at least debate these issues, but I'm not really closer to an understanding on how people justify ignoring the destructive education political environment at play in our schools today. Here is her blog where I originally posted this:
Many thoughts have been stewing in my head today. I find I have many questions for charter school teachers like you. I'm realizing that maybe you were so surprised by the anger and vitriol expressed by public school teachers because you are simply not aware of the reality of the political landscape.
Do teachers in the charter schools see the problems we are talking about here? Do they acknowledge that the choice movement (as a whole, not individuals) has too often become more about profit, union-busting, and taking down public education than about children? What do you think about all the school closures and turnarounds happening in Chicago and elsewhere? Have there been students with disruptive behaviors expelled from your school? What types of disabilities do your students with IEPs have and how many are there in the school? What is the average age of teachers at your school? What are the racial and socioeconmic backgrounds of the teachers? How many teachers there came through alternative teaching certification programs? Have many teachers been fired at your school and if so, what were the reasons? What is the turnover rate like in your teaching force? Does your school receive supplemental funds from outside sources? What experts, publications, media, and research do you turn to for information about the education debate? Are charter school teachers talking about education reform in the teacher lounges and after-school? If so, what are they saying?
I mentioned I had a lot of questions, right?
You spoke a lot about your classroom and individuals in the charters. I won't argue with you about personal motivations. I am more curious how much you are aware of in terms of the big picture. Are you aware of how charters and TFA are being used to push neoliberal education policy at the Chicago Board of Ed, in the Illinois statehouse, and in Washington DC?
I honestly have no idea where you are coming from and what exactly you already know. Like I said before, I never had a problem with charters, or even TFA for that matter, until I did my research and learned the sad truth about these organizations. The media masks the truth. And at one point, before I worked in the schools, I believed the lies. In fact, I thought charters and TFA both sounded FANTASTIC! Like I was then, most non-educators certainly don't know what is actually happening in our schools, especially those labeled as "failing". They probably saw the movie "Waiting for Superman" and unquestioningly bought that poisonous narrative that "bad teachers" and their unions are the problem. Do charter school teachers also think this way?
I just cannot reconcile someone talking about working together, acting shocked by the strong response, and invoking "Kingian" language unless they simply do not understand or want to understand the scope of the problem. Dr. King believed in non-violent protest certainly, but he also believed in speaking out when he saw injustice occurring. And when I see the Board of Ed purposefully starving schools, crying "failure", and then using that failure as an excuse to close and privatize, I need to speak out. When I see them target low-income neighborhoods of color, I need to speak out. When I see children with special needs getting tossed around schools, I need to speak out. When I see our mayor hand out multi-million dollar contracts to his buddy Juan Rangel for his UNO charters and to his appointed President of the Board of Ed David Vitale's organization AUSL for turnarounds, I need to speak out. And when I see the ridiculous, gross under-funding of low-income schools, I want to scream.
Dr. King also believed in labor and the dignity of work. He died fighting for workers' rights. Why are almost all charter school proponents also anti-labor? It all comes back to the poisonous narrative. Did you know the NAACP has come out AGAINST charter schools? There's a reason for that pushback. Do you understand why?
Do you see the protests and sit-ins put on by neighborhood organizations and parents against charter schools and turnarounds? Do you ever question why so many community members, teachers, parents, and students out there are so very angry?
Charter schools allow society to ignore poverty, violence, and the growing income gap in this country by presenting an easy-to-do, cheap solution. No one has to change unequal school funding policies, 'cause charters are the answers! That's the line that is being sold out there. And as a result, charters have weakened education and made it worse, not better. As you hear stories of how other children are suffering because of schools like yours, even if you personally are helping the kids in front of you, is it worth it? Is it good enough to help some kids at the expense of others?
I just don't know if you all have even considered these many many questions...
And here are her thoughtful and thorough answers:
I’m not surprised by the anger of teachers. I know the media and politics are slanting information toward charters and TFA, and against unions. I think I’m starting to speak up because I know that’s not helpful. At the same time, going 180 degrees the opposite doesn’t get anyone closer to a solution. I think if progress is to be made, we need to be a bit more positive and see commonalities than just focus on what is wrong about everything.
I read Geoffry Canada’s Whatever It Takes and loved how he created supports for parents early on and hated that he replaced the staff of a school based on one year’s test scores. I personally have never seen Waiting for Superman because I don’t need to drink that Kool-Aid. I repeat, I don’t think charters and TFA are the answers nor are they better than many of their counterparts, but I do believe they can be part of a solution.
My first two years of teaching I was at a neighborhood school on the south side. It did not feel like a school. We don’t need another “ohmygod the school is awful” diatribe so I won’t go into too much detail.There are some amazing adults there that truly care about the children. There are also disenfranchised, unhappy and unhelpful adults. If I had stayed there my position would have been cut. Some teachers actually left that school and began their own charter school, across the street. They, like I, believed these students could be successful if the structure of the school was improved, and that’s how they choose to help that community.
What do you think about all the school closures and turnarounds happening in Chicago and elsewhere?
Fenger, Marshall and Collins are are high schools I’ve followed their turnarounds closely. I worry about the message it sends to a community to just quit a school and replace the teachers. I believe positive relationships are the foundation to a safe, meaningful school. It’s also disheartening to see the money come to a desperate school after it has been closed/turnaround. Finally, I don’t believe you can call a school successful if they expel the trouble makers. All that being said, when I think to my first two years on the south side, I’m amazed that school is not closed.
Have there been students with disruptive behaviors expelled from your school?
Few students (none that I know of, really) have been expelled. Most transfer out. The reason students transfer are 1) they/their parents cannot afford/students don’t have the time to make up all their failing credits 2) they/their parents do not appreciate our structure 3) they/their parents want them to go to school closer to where they live. As a staff we spend a considerable amount of time trying to keep students from failing. We are told by our President and Principals that if a kid’s name is on our list the first day of freshmen year, we want them to walk across our stage in 4 years. They are “our babies”.
What types of disabilities do your students with IEPs have and how many are there in the school?
I don’t know how many IEP students we have at our school, but as a teacher who sees 80% of the sophomore class I have about 15 kids. They range from learning disabled/beginning readers to Emotionaly disturbed to ADHD. We offer support groups for students with anger issues and a separate one for students who have experienced severe trauma. I really love working with our special education teachers, but we don’t have enough personnel for all the work that needs to be done.
What is the average age of teachers at your school?
If I had to guess the average age would be mid to late 30s. We hire very few first year teachers, and most of the first year teachers did their student teaching with us. We still have founding members, teachers who have been there for 12 years. Maybe ⅓ of the staff has been there since I have been there, 4 years or more. (We’ve also grown, doubling in size.) Most of the staff have experience teaching prior to coming here, many in the Chicago Public School system. Out of 70 staff members, I think maybe a little over half of them have children. As someone who struggles with finding balance between my personal/professional lives, I worry about this issue.
What are the racial and socioeconomic backgrounds of the teachers/administrators?
I am told there used to be more black males but we lost them to Urban Prep. We have a math teacher and a principal who were raised in the community. Some of the heritage of our staff includes Korean, Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Judaism. I don’t want to be incorrect in my guestamation, but about half of the staff is white middle class.
How many teachers there came through alternative teaching certification programs?
We currently have 1 TFA on staff, and I only know of one other alternatively certified teacher beside myself. There may be more but because we hire experienced teachers I don’t know.
Have many teachers been fired at your school and if so, what were the reasons? What is the turnover rate like in your teaching force?
Not many teachers have been fired. However, of those who leave, I believe pay is the biggest issue. When you come here, generally, you are matched at the salary you would expect from the district you come from, but after that it’s an across the board increase. Last year I was paid between 15-20% below what I’d be making in CPS. This issue will deserve it’s own post one day. We loose probably 4 or 5 teachers a year.
Does your school receive supplemental funds from outside sources?
We do fundraising for our summer program where we send our students on internships, college programs for highschoolers, and outward bound type programs. We pay for the students travel and lodging so that’s a big part of spring fundraising. The development office also has a campaign “bridge the gap” between the funding we get from the state vs. regular schools, which is about $1,500 less per student.
What experts, publications, media, and research do you turn to for information about the education debate?
I’ve been reading Diane Ravitch, Gary Rubenstein, The Frustrated Teacher, and many others, including your blog, for about two years. I think Linda Lutton on NPR does an amazing job of education reporting for Chicago. I also follow a ton of teacher blogs about resources and technology integration.
Are charter school teachers talking about education reform in the teacher lounges and after-school? If so, what are they saying?
There are a few staff members who are amazing community organizers I go to for robust conversation. One in particular helped create the Little Village High School center. Another one spoke up when they were fired without due process in CPS. Yes. Many charter school teachers acknowledge the issues. It’s hard for us sometimes not to feel taken advantage of, and exploited. I sometimes wonder if I’m perpetuating a system I know needs improvement, but at the same time I recognize that quitting my job won’t solve anything. However, we have a strong sense of family. I’ve yet to meet a colleague who has experience in CPS not appreciate the vibe of hard work, camaraderie, and support we as a staff offer one another. My charter school is not a major chain, we are a school with a mission tied to the community we serve.
What’s starting to form in my head are 3 major issues regarding education
all schools should be funded equitably. Clearly that is not the case, and we are in survival mode so we don’t have the energy to look at the bigger picture.
schools should have more autonomy. This was a big draw for me moving into a charter setting.
standardized testing is not an accurate way to measure a school’s success.
However, from my experience, while schools are important, it’s the communities that have been ignored and are decimated. An amazing school in a impoverished community alone is not the answer. I, too, get frustrated when a someone (especially middle/upper class) invokes the “well they have the opportunity they choose not to take it” mentality. We need to do a better job of exposing people to the complexities of the issues without being too antagonistic and push them away.
I think I get it. I want to work with you, but I feel like I’m being pitted against you.