Ethnography of a Neoliberal School: Exploring Charter School Management Organizations (CMOs) in the United States

Year: 2017

Author: Stahl, Garth

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Within the US educational reform efforts, charter schools are often celebrated by politicians as a simple antidote for complex problems. Furthermore, in recent years, there has been a growing debate over the managerial and leadership practices of expanding charter school networks, often referred to as Charter School Management Organizations (CMOs). CMOs, by definition, are consistently high-performing school networks in urban spaces that follow a very specific formula in order to build and maintain a culture that ensures high academic outcomes for their students. To ensure their continual success in what has become a high stakes environment, CMOs often draw upon practices associated with corporate America, specifically a 'Goldman Sachs model' of zero-tolerance and firing the bottom 10% of underperforming staff each year. These CMOs have consistently attracted unparalleled levels of funding and principals often have unlimited resources to enact their vision of educational success. However, scholarship regarding the daily practices of leaders remains limited; we know very little about how leaders actively strategize and make their own rules.

The presentation presents the findings of a recent book Ethnography of a Neoliberal School: Building Cultures of Success which ethnographically explores the controversial schooling practices and strategies embedded in charter school management organizations (CMOs), as well as how these practices influence teaching and learning, school leadership, teachers' professional identities, and students' understanding of success. By theorizing the common practices within the organization, I connect current research in neoliberal governance, neoliberal structuring of educational policy, aspiration and social reproduction in schooling. Honing in on the discourse on education reform, I demonstrate that a "unique blend" of neoliberalism and social justice values have permeated the CMO's institutional culture, promoting the belief that adopting corporate practices will fix America's schools and ensure equity of opportunity for all. The inclusion of institutional texts (emails, Blackberry messages, posters, and rubrics) balances the personal-subjective and inter-subjective to capture a blend of neoliberalism and social justice reframing.