Garth Stahl

‘Rigor and grit’ in US charter schools and why it would be so wrong for Australia

Charter schools represent an important era for public education in the United States, with unprecedented private resources being expended to actively increase school choice in urban markets. These so-called education reform efforts all occur under the rhetoric of educational equity. Charter schools are a significant part of how the United States is changing its schooling systems.

However, charter schools, and their practices, are highly contentious. As an ethnographer, I immersed myself within the charter school world and documented what I found there. This blog post is about my experiences as a leader in one charter school and how the ideologies of the education reform movement (evaluating teachers by test scores; awarding merit bonuses; firing teachers and leaders who do not perform; encouraging privatized markets) work in everyday practice.

I sought to explore the controversial schooling practices and strategies on the ground in one Charter School Management Organization (CMO). I documented how these neoliberal practices influence teaching and learning, school leadership, teacher’s professional identities, and students’ understandings of success.

What is a Charter School Management Organization (CMO)?

Networks of charter schools, known as Charter School Management Organizations (CMOs), operate as a franchise-model following a very specific institutional practice to ensure consistently high exam scores. Typically, CMOs, who are partially funded by tax-payer dollars, but can and do accept philanthropic funding, serve low socio-economic students in urban centres; have unprecedented autonomy from bureaucracy; and are subject to market forces and lottery systems. As they are free from union involvement, CMOs can set their own hours and have tremendous flexibility in their ability to hire and fire staff as necessary. CMOs are corporatized environments which are fast-paced and where there is great attention to detail.

CMOs are often characterized by extended school days, an exacting focus on improving standardised test scores, and trying to direct students living in poverty toward middle class aspirations. Largely unregulated, CMOs have consistently attracted unparalleled levels of funding and other resources that have allowed them to grow quickly.

Why should we pay attention?

Prior to the advent of charter schools in the United States, there existed no consistent evidence that significant numbers of students from low socio-economic backgrounds in large urban areas could excel academically and be admitted to elite Ivy League universities. So charter schools were seen as a new pathway for poor children to access elite tertiary institutions.

According to the ideology of the education reform movement in the US, the success of CMOs is down to actively recruiting young university graduates with little or no experience of teaching in a traditional public school system through a programme called Teach for America. For the reform movement and Teach for America, teachers who come from traditional teacher education programmes are taught to ‘care too much’ and can therefore succumb to a bigotry of low expectations for their disadvantaged students.

We have a similar system now operating in Australia called Teach for Australia. There is considerable controversy around this scheme in Australia, however it has been given new funding by the Turnbull Government.

We do not have charter schools in Australia however conservative groups regularly call for Australia to introduce similar schemes.

How do these schools work?

Many educational researchers have highlighted how CMOs capitalize on corporate practices, specifically a ‘Goldman Sachs model’ of zero-tolerance, where the bottom 10% of underperforming staff (those whose students get the lowest test scores) are fired each year. For CMOs, student academic attainment is viewed as the ‘profit margin’ and any potential threat to the ‘accrual of capital’ must be removed, in order to ensure the CMO’s growth and dominance. As failure to accrue profit (improve test scores) could entail an immediate shut-down of the CMO, nothing in these environments are left to chance.

While the institutional practices of a zero-tolerance approach to student behaviour and teacher underperformance in CMOs have been extremely contentious amongst the community of education researchers, these approaches simultaneously have become very popular amongst disadvantaged African-American and Latino parents competing for access to quality schooling in large urban centres. Parents from these communities want their children to go to the top performing charter schools.

In addressing how these schools work, the controversial institutional practices I experienced working in a CMOs cannot ignore the wider context, specifically the mass incarceration in the United States of Black and Brown bodies. During the course of my fieldwork, privately run prison systems in the state I was working in carefully monitored the third grade (age 10-11) test scores of male students of colour in order to predict future prison populations. Reactively, I was routinely told these ‘students have only one shot at a good education’ as if education would simply solve the detrimental effects of poverty.

Daily Life: socializing the ‘ideal learner’

Various researchers in education have demonstrated how there exists certain dispositions that contribute to the composition of a ‘good student’ or the ‘ideal learner’, and that these performances privilege a White middle-class, upwardly mobile subject. As an ethnographer, I want to show how leadership practices serve to illustrate how surveillance and control contribute to the development of a concern for test scores, competition, economic worth and personal interests amongst the students attending the CMO.

Students in the CMO I worked in are educated according to what Angela Duckworth calls ‘grit cultures’ where words like ‘tenacity,’ ‘resilience’ and ‘determination’ are embedded in daily dialogue. CMOs have been widely criticized for their high levels of discipline and militarization. While I focus on one school site, the experience of the students I worked with illustrates the wider realignment of opportunities contributing to the stratification of race and class practices in urban spaces within the United States.

To increase ‘grit’ and ‘resilience,’ many CMOs use slogans, motivational posters, incentives, encouragements and punishments all centered around purpose, high expectations, and strict discipline. When commands around routines and procedures are given, they are delivered with urgency. Magnetized timers—which are attached to the doors and the interactive whiteboard at the front of the room—are used to time students concerning everything from how quickly they speak to how quickly they move.

In order to ensure a “culture of exactness” and the importance of “sweating the small stuff” in the CMO teachers composed weekly schedules not around learning but instead around routines. These routines were practiced and re-practiced. The posters of inspiration, juxtaposed beside the posters of routines, adorn all the walls and classrooms relay to the students a certain uncompromising message around high expectations.

Power is established by making everyone seem the same and by expecting the same order and compliance from students without taking into consideration anything about the social and cultural backgrounds and family life. In the CMO, all students are held accountable for their daily actions and reactions; all students are fed on a diet where academic “rigor” and “grit” which are considered the only respectable foundations of success.

What is possibly most striking when walking through the corridors of the CMO where I worked was the frequency of commands concerning routines and procedures around learning, movement and the body. Depending on the teacher and the activity, commands permeate the lesson where, classroom management and pedagogy are blended. During the lesson, teachers frequently call out merits and demerits depending on students’ levels of compliance.

As the lesson is delivered, the teacher intersperses rewards and punishments, which are recorded on the clipboard which follows the class. For example, in a Science lesson, a teacher may say, “The founding father of physics is Newton. Derron, sit up straight. That’s a demerit. Newton lived in what year? Patricia? Yes, you are correct. Merit for Patricia.” As a ‘culture of exactness’ is held in high regard, students are required to answer questions in complete sentences and are demerited for not remembering to do so. A high level of surveillance and accountability is enacted at all times. Teachers, who are ever-monitoring, lead the students from one classroom to the next with clipboard in hand. When a teacher hands over a class the new teacher skims the clipboard to get a sense of the progress of the students throughout the day. These clipboard scores are then amalgamated and rewards are issued.

What is gained by this integration of discipline with academics is questionable as, in many cases, students come to depend on it. As this approach to pedagogic instruction is what students are used to, when the clipboard is not on hand, and the codified behaviour commands are not integrated with the teaching, the students become easily disengaged.

My research

My research aims to capture my own immersion in the CMO’s blend of neoliberal ideology and social justice values, which served as the cornerstone to all culture-building practices. My lived experience is central to the narrative. As I recount the daily life in the CMO, I am interested in the paradoxes of how neoliberalism works in everyday life and where charter schools choose to invest their energies in order to ensure a high level of consistency amongst students and staff who ascribe to a rigidly articulated neoliberal ideology.

 

If you would like to read more, my book Ethnography of a Neoliberal School: Building Cultures of Success is available from Routledge

 

Garth Stahl, Ph.D. (@GarthStahl) is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Education at the University of South Australia and Research Fellow, Australian Research Council (DECRA). His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform.

 

Garth Stahl is presenting on this topic at the 2017 Australian Association for Research in Education Conference beginning 26th November in Canberra. The theme of this year’s AARE conference is ‘Education: What’s politics got to do with it?’ There will be over 600 presentations of current educational research and panel sessions at the conference over five days. Journalists who want to attend or arrange interviews please contact Anna Sullivan, Communications Manager of AARE,  Anna.Sullivan@unisa.edu.au   Follow the conference on Twitter #AARE2017

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Real-time coaching and how it helps educate new teachers: latest research

Teacher training institutions across Australia are constantly striving to improve the way they educate our future teachers. As teacher educators we know how important it is to give our teachers an effective launch into their careers.

This means helping our students develop a wide range of teaching skills and knowledge but also a resilient disposition. We want our graduate teachers to be able to reflect on their practices and have the enthusiasm for ongoing learning that is required for long-term professional success.

Significantly, teacher educators today understand that pre-service teachers who see themselves as effective teachers are more likely to be committed to teaching and to respond positively to change. They are less likely to become stressed or burnt out.

With all of this in mind we decided to have a closer look at the role of real-time coaching in the education of our student teachers.

What is Real-Time Coaching?

Real-Time Coaching is where an experienced mentor teacher, skilled in giving immediate feedback, sits in with a student (pre-service teacher) while they are giving a lesson. The teacher educator (or coach) gives the student live, real-time feedback about their teaching via an earpiece during the lesson.

The difference with this coaching model compared to customary coaching practices is that the feedback is immediate, rather than being given after the lesson. As John Hattie famously showed us feedback is particularly effective when provided immediately, during task acquisition, rather than deferred.

We view coaching, generally, as a non-evaluative process in which two or more educators collaborate using planning, observation and feedback to develop productive teaching behaviours and dispositions.

Real-Time Coaching methods at the University of South Australia

We studied pre-service teacher’s experience of Real-Time Coaching (RTC) undertaken as part of a teacher education programme at the University of South Australia.

This RTC model provides direct instruction and feedback via an inner-ear coaching device (a Motorola CP476 CB Radio). As the pre-service teacher teaches their lesson, the mentor provides guided reflective practice in ‘real-time’ with the aims of promoting pre-service teacher’s self-assessment and reflective practice in order to foster a disposition toward continuous improvement.

Blending theory and practice through opportunities for active learning, the first phase involves the pre-service teacher reacting to the teacher-educator’s feedback and adjusting their behaviours in real-time during their micro-lesson.

Coaching typically highlights skills such as volume, tone of voice, positive narration, body posture and movement around the room, all skills determined to be key to effective teaching. The responsibility of the coach is to highlight, model and cultivate such skills.

To study the influence of Real-Time Coaching, two rounds of semi-structured interviews were conducted with pre-service teachers following their RTC sessions on campus. Interviews, which were around an hour in length, took place at a time and place of the pre-service teachers’ choosing.

Our findings

We found RTC to be effective and productive in three main areas. It encouraged: 1) personal goal development 2) reflective practice and 3) was seen as supportive.

Encouraged personal goal development 

Through the process of drawing attention to skill gaps, pre-service teachers found that RTC encouraged explicit goal development. For example RTC enabled Aaron to identify his tendency to notice negative student behavior. He determined to do things differently by setting goals with respect to key skills, like positive narration.

Ben and Samantha had not thought of the potential benefits of managing the classroom by continuing to scan the room while speaking with individual students; Samantha said this simply had “never occurred to me”.

Lucy, also, had not been aware that her delivery was largely monotonal, making it difficult for students to differentiate between her instructions, commands and feedback.

The RTC drew attention to the “simple things that you overlook” (Aaron) or, more specifically, the “things that an experienced teacher looks for” (Ben).

Through RTC, Ben developed the goal of building a positive classroom environment using techniques like ‘with- it-ness’, which he thought of as “the Eye of Sauron,” (as in Lord of the Rings) combined with the skill of positive narration.

Encouraged a reflective practice 

Pre-service teachers reported that Real-Time Coaching was effective in encouraging reflective practices. More resilient teacher identities develop when teachers are encouraged to reflect on their practice in ways that challenge their beliefs and values and enable them to accommodate new ideas and thinking. Engaging with others in professional conversations that include talking with, questioning and, sometimes, confrontation, in a supportive environment fosters reflective practice.

RTC’s skill-based model, which is concerned with developing teacher’s mindsets around effective teaching practice, worked to develop a pre-service teachers critical eye. They cast this ‘eye’ over their own practice, as well as the practice of their fellow students and the teachers they encountered during their practicums, identifying skills and skill gaps.

For example, as mentioned before, Lucy had not been aware that her delivery was largely monotonal, making it difficult for students to differentiate between her instructions, commands and feedback.

Lucy: I think [Real-Time Coaching] really highlighted what aspects of our teaching that we could improve on so you were able to see maybe things that you weren’t so strong in and then, cause you knew about them, you could work on them. You start to think, well, this is who I am, my mannerisms, my gestures, my … and that’s something you can look at and think, oh perhaps when [the coach] was talking about tone and it varying and all that kind of stuff. Whether some things that we’re doing is actually a deterrent …you know like you’ve got to kind of fine tune it so that’s something I’ve learnt is that it’s good to kind of look at your delivery, look at your whole personality and see whether you can round off some things or work on some things.

The RTC drew attention to the “simple things that you overlook” or, more specifically, the “things that an experienced teacher looks for”.

Students experienced RTC as supportive 

The pre-service teachers, though they cited stress and anxiety, universally experienced Real-Time Coaching as a supportive process.

It helped increase their positivity. It became, for them, a process of rapid development where resilience, confidence and efficacy were all working in tandem:

Velma: Like, I think I have a much more positive mindset after doing this because in the past you don’t really get that much time to like reflect on your teaching. It’s way after you’ve done it and you feel sort of powerless cause you can’t really change anything ‘cause it’s already happened but when you’re up there and if he says ‘why don’t you try it this way’ you know you’re improving on the spot, as you’re going, and I think that’s something you know. You feel like you’ve really achieved something and you’re constantly evolving.

Emotional support is needed

Coaching and mentoring strategies come with certain cautions. To be effective, coaching and mentoring must be done within a safe and professional environment where the needs of the learner are central and with feedback that is both layered and precise.

Early career teachers, in particular, require emotional support. In the RTC process, emotional support was heavily accounted for from the onset and founded on mutual respect between the coach and the pre-service teachers.

The university classroom was an enthusiastic environment with a lot of movement around the room, positivity and frequent ‘checking in’ to make sure pre-service teachers felt safe and secure. Rather than feeling judged by the process, pre-service teachers felt supported in their role as learners in both the university- and school-based sessions, enabling them to fully engage with the RTC process.

Sylvia: So if you kind of get stuck on what you’re saying or whatever, it wasn’t like you felt embarrassed because it was a supportive environment.

Real-Time Coaching has a role to play in teacher-training programs
To adequately prepare teachers for success in real classrooms, teacher-training programs must provide pre-service teachers with practice-based approaches. Furthermore, pre-service teachers themselves can contribute significantly to our understanding of the experience and effectiveness of teaching training methods, as evidenced with this case study.

Our research supports the position that RTC accelerates the development of the skills necessary for teaching such as growth mindset, orienting student teachers toward continuous improvement and promoting resilience.

We do not consider RTC to be a magic bullet and we believe it should be used with caution. Teacher preparation should never be reduced to learning a suite of skills with the educator’s role limited to that of a technician.

Our research, however, clearly supports the view that RTC can improve the delivery of curriculum within teacher training programs.

stahlGarth Stahl, Ph.D. is a Lecturer in Literacy and Sociology at the School of Education at the University of South Australia. As a sociologist, his research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality, and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform. He is interested in innovative methods and improving the quality of pre-service teacher training.

 

sharplinErica Sharplin is in the final stages of her PhD in education at the University of South Australia. She has extensive experience in qualitative research, having worked as a Research Assistant on several qualitative research projects over the course of her studies. Her PhD research is an examination of how middle school students in low SES context perceive their recreational spaces at school and the impacts on their behaviour. Prior to entering the field of education, Erica worked as a project manager and editor on several large scale publishing projects, primarily in legal education. In 2009, Erica was the recipient of the University of South Australia’s Satisfac Credit Union Merit Award in recognition of outstanding performance in a B.Ed.

kehrwaldBenjamin Kehrwald, Ph.D. is an online learning and education technology expert. As a researcher, designer and online facilitator, he is passionate about understanding and improving learners’ experiences with technology and technology-mediated social processes. His past work included educational development projects in the USA, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. In 2010, he was the recipient of the Distance Education Association of New Zealand’s Award for Excellence in Distance Education. He is currently a member of the Teaching Innovation Unit at the University of South Australia and is leading design and development of dedicated online programs in UniSA Online.

 

Further reading on Real-Time Coaching

Stahl, G., Kehrwald, B.A., & Sharplin, E. (2016) ‘Developing Pre-Service Teachers’ Confidence: Real-Time Coaching in Teacher Education’. Reflective Practice. (accepted)

Sharplin, E., Stahl, G., & Kehrwald, B.A. (2016) ‘It’s about improving my practice’: Learner experience of Real-Time Coaching. Australian Journal of Teacher Education. Vol. 41. Issue 5, 119-135.

And, in 2017, we’ll have a book out with Springer:

Stahl, G., Sharplin, E. & Kehrwald, B.A. (2017) Real-Time Coaching and Pre-Service Teacher Education. Springer, New York.

Problems with white working class boys plague UK school system

In the United Kingdom, it is widely documented both in academic circles and in the popular press that white working-class children consistently underperform at school. Today this ethnic group in the UK is considered to be one of the lowest performing in educational attainment. The underperformance of boys, especially of boys from marginalized backgrounds, has also been of concern here in Australia as seen with recent policies such as Boys: Getting it Right (2002).

Specifically in the UK there has been concern about the underachievement of white working-class boys and their lack of aspiration for many years. According to the UK’s Department for Children in 2008, “white young people have lower educational aspirations than most other ethnic groups”.

When I first began working as a teacher in England in 2002, I taught at a ‘failing’ school in Essex with a low level of teaching and learning (a school that has now been closed). I went on to teach in and around London for nine years, primarily in white working-class schools with high levels of disaffection. Throughout my professional and academic experience, I have been fortunate enough to engage with white working-class boys in a variety of different roles and contexts either as a volunteer, a teacher, an administrator, a friend or a resource; each role has increased my understanding of their identity construction and relationship to education.

These experiences taught me important first-hand lessons about disengagement, cultural deprivation and the provision of education in British society.

They also led me to spend a year researching the educational aspirations of 23 white working-class boys in South London (ages 14-16) in order to better understand how they saw themselves in relation to the educational provision provided. Through my study, it became apparent that, in order to understand the low academic achievement of the white working-class, it is imperative to examine what is happening in their lives now and to see what has happened to similar boys in the past.

The central questions which informed the research were:

  • What shapes the aspirations of these young men?
  • How do these young men comprehend their own disadvantage?
  • How do these boys make sense of expectations surrounding social mobility?
  • What factors contribute to them ‘buying into’ education or ‘buying out’ of education?
  • How does the system set them up to fail?

Many of these young men grew up in schools which were largely inadequate in terms of teaching and learning yet – paradoxically – were robust in preaching the ‘raising aspiration’ agenda. This agenda was so embedded in the politics of the time, the Michael Gove-era. It was a time when educational policy documents often promoted an idea of aspiration that was self-serving, competitive, and only interested in self-advancement.

Competition for credentials, jobs or income taught by schools at the time were in direct contrast to the boys’ family lives which were grounded in emotional commitment, social ties and collective responsibility for the vulnerable. A similar type of competition in schooling can be seen in Australia today where NAPLAN league tables and HSC league tables are produced and there is much talk about which schools ‘top’ the tables, which schools are ‘losers’ and identifying the most ‘successful’ students.

As a researcher, I was continuously drawn to the fascinating disjuncture between the values and aspiration for the boys coming from their schools and the values of their families, where helping each other and loyalty was paramount. I could also see the difference between the reality and the rhetoric.

As I studied these young men, I became interested in how the boys saw themselves. They liked to ‘fit in’ in’ and be ‘loyal to oneself’. Their ideal world was one where everyone has an ‘equal say in the world’ and where ‘no one is better than anyone else’ or ‘above their station.’ The boys often articulated their desire to disassociate themselves from being classified as aspirational subjects. This often came from the way they saw themselves as working class and their ideas of how males should behave.

Their ideal egalitarian world where everyone can be equal is, as I see it, a falsehood they increasingly buy into as they understand the cards they have been dealt in life and internalize their own future academic failure. I explore more of this thread in my academic paper.

I wish I could say the historic persistence of white working-class underachievement, and the ominous implication of these trends on the long-term life chances, not to mention the ramifications for UK society in general, has led to a growing chorus that something must be done to intervene. However, while there was a Parliamentary Inquiry in 2014, the general response from UK politicians has been simplistic and preachy. Nothing much, in practical terms, has been done.

Of course, working-class underperformance in schooling is symptomatic of larger systemic issues of inequality in the UK. There may be no easy answers or solutions to the problem but what worries me is the great silences. Specifically, how can we improve school quality for white working class boys?

As I see it we need to urgently counteract social and material disadvantage for white working class boys that arises from their disengagement with schooling, not just in the UK but elsewhere in western societies. It is a problem that will affect everyone in the long term, both socially and economically.

Garth Stahl copy

Garth Stahl (@GarthStahl) is a Lecturer in Literacy and Sociology at University of South Australia. He is a theorist of sociology of education. His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality and social change. Currently, his research projects and publications encompass theoretical and empirical studies of learner identities, gender and youth, sociology of schooling in a neoliberal age, gendered subjectivities, equity and difference, and educational reform. Of particular interest to him is exploring counternarratives to neoliberalism around ‘value’ and ‘respectability’ for working-class youth. His book, entitled Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration: Educating White Working-class Boys is now available from Routledge.