19 SES 06 A, Neoliberalism, Leadership and School Actors
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 of exclusion 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.
This institutional ethnography is positioned within an important era for public education, with unprecedented private resources being expended to actively increase forms of school choice in urban markets—all under the guise of educational equity. The ethnographic research of the daily practices of a CMO had three main aims:
1) exploration of the theoretical overlap between corporate America practices in school governance
2) the use of Smith’s work on institutional ethnography and
3) the methodology of school-based ethnography alongside stories which serve to illustrate CMO’s daily practices.
The presentation draws on the findings of a recent book Ethnography of a Neoliberal School: Building Cultures of Success (Stahl, 2017) which ethnographically documents 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 to wider international research on neoliberal governance, neoliberal structuring of educational policy, and social reproduction in schooling.
In exploring neoliberal practices of culture building in a CMO, I work with two different perspectives of neoliberalism: Harvey’s economic perspective of neoliberalism (e.g. consolidation of class power, extraction of profit) and a cultural perspective (e.g. reconstitution of identity, inner subjectivity and its alignment with new configurations and assemblages of identity making). Honing in on the discourse on education reform, I document ethnographically how a “unique blend” of neoliberalism and social justice values permeate the CMO’s institutional culture, promoting the belief that adopting corporate practices will fix America’s schools and ensure equity of opportunity for all. A main pillar of institutional ethnography is to study “the social relations of knowledge of the social” where the method of inquiry seeks to enlarge the scope of what becomes visible in order to show how we “are connected into the extended social relations of ruling and economy and their intersections” (Smith, 2005, p. 29). Furthermore, institutional ethnography, as a sociology for people, urges us to consider the overlaps and disjunctures between individual identities and institutional identities. As Smith (2005, p. 27) observes, “how people become caught up in, and how our lives become organized by, the institutional foci of the ruling relations” is “mediated by institutionally designed realities that organize relations …” that objectify and assign subject positions. For analytical purposes, “discourse” in this book refers to the translocal coordination of practices of talking, writing, reading, watching where people participate and their participation both regulates and reproduces discourse. 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.
In documenting the neoliberal school, the presentation offers provocations around what constitutes curriculum and pedagogy in a time of neoliberal capitalism. Drawing on personal anecdotes, the presentation shows how critical pedagogy has been squeezed out and how in the charter school sector hopeful alternatives are few and far between. The presentation concludes through connecting personal ethnographic experience to predictions for a Trump/DeVos educational policy climate and what this may mean for research in international education.
Smith, D. E. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Oxford: Altamira Press. Stahl, G., 2017. Ethnography of a Neoliberal School: Building Cultures of Success. New York, New York, Routledge.
00. Central Events (Keynotes, EERA-Panel, EERJ Round Table, Invited Sessions)
Network 1. Continuing Professional Development: Learning for Individuals, Leaders, and Organisations
Network 2. Vocational Education and Training (VETNET)
Network 3. Curriculum Innovation
Network 4. Inclusive Education
Network 5. Children and Youth at Risk and Urban Education
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