Charter schools in the US

‘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,   Follow the conference on Twitter #AARE2017

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