The 800 teachers and staff of Chicago's Noble charter school chain is working to form the largest charter teacher union in the country.
just averted a strike by their own teachers' union by agreeing to wage increases, shorter workdays, and, apparently, occasionally listening to their staff. Like the proposed Noble union, the Aspire teachers belong to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS), a group affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.
The Noble chain is one of Chicago's most prominent, founded in 1999. Its investors include Governor Bruce Rauner, the billionaire Pritzker family and Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark. It's marketing literature makes plain where Noble's focus lies:
At Noble, success is the only option.
No excuses. We believe that no matter how far behind a student is when they enter ninth grade, they will succeed. No matter what their family’s income or education level is, they will succeed. No matter if their neighborhoods are plagued with violence or their peers are involved in gangs, they will succeed. At Noble, we hold everyone—students, teachers, and leadership—to the highest possible standards and accept no excuses for failure.
The brochure also notes that "The Noble Way" is "discipline, data and deliverables."
A Chicago Reporter profile about Noble from a year ago included this characterization of the chain:
Critics often imagine the Noble Network of Charter Schools as a monolith that steals “good” students from neighborhood schools and pushes out the “bad” ones. A place where students walk silently in hallways and teachers are obsessed with test prep.
There is some truth to that stereotype, as higher-achieving students are more likely to choose Noble to start with, while many who can’t handle the strict system of demerits leave.
The profile argues that things are "more complicated." Nobles own figures on retention are not great, but not shocking (and also not easily verified by any outside source.
Noble has run into other issues. In 2013, news reports publicized Noble's "disciplinary fees," a fine assessed against students for infractions like "unkempt appearance and not making eye contact." In the worst cases, students would not only pay fines for infractions, but be assigned a "summer behavioral session" with a corresponding tuition fee. One student's family racked up almost $2,000 in fees for a ninth grade son, just to keep him in the school. Noble has also become a school associated with the "grit" movement, with the attempts to turn joy into a school chore. It's not a pretty picture.
Noble also got in trouble last fall when they used Chicago Pubic School student home addresses for promotional mailers. And like many charter chains, they are hard on their teaching staff-- the school runs a long school day. In their book A Fight for the Soul of Public Education, Steven Ashby and Robert Bruno report that a beginning teacher at Noble in 2012 made roughly half of their public school counterparts. Noble does not have a set pay scale, and teachers who want a raise must ask for one, or hope that they can score a test score bonus based on student results (up to $5,500).
The Noble staff is much whiter than Chicago Public School staff. It's also about 40% Teach for America. Noble's own exit interviews tell them that about 40% of the departing teachers feel they were underpaid. But Noble teachers, while given some autonomy and a generous classroom budget, gave as their Number One reason for leaving "unreasonable job expectations." As one former teacher told the now-departed magazine Chicago Catalyst,
If we expect teachers to be martyrs forever, we’ll never retain talent.
But if a charter is based on demanding a culture of compliance from its students, it seems likely that they will extend that sort of firm, commanding hand to their staff. If your whole school is based on an atmosphere of obedience, of shaping your appearance and behavior to the demands of your superiors-- well, it would be hard to institute that approach only to students, and not also to the teaching staff. If your school's motto is "People got to know their place," it's hard to see how that wouldn't not have a long-term toxic effect on your relationship with your staff.
In a letter calling for the union, organizers wrote
We want a voice in decisions, stability in our schools and,
most importantly, the best possible future for our students. Under current local and national conditions, educators
labor to remain in their classrooms while our value is diminished, our
capacity drained, and our power constrained.
Some teachers are quick to note that they do not see this as an "us versus them" situation, but believe that the chain has some issues that need to be addressed. In a WBEZ report, teachers noted the high staff turn over rate at Noble-- about a third of the staff leaves every year, according to the state. This is not unusual for Illinois charters; for many of them, it is a feature and not a bug, because teachers who leave within a year or two cost far less than teachers who stick around. But some teachers see it as a problem for the students and the school community:
Spanish teacher Christina
Verdos-Petrou said she got involved in the union effort after the return
of a former student opened her eyes to the impact of teacher turnover.
was the only one he recognized,” said Verdos-Petrou, who works at
Noble’s Golder College Prep campus in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood.
“It is truly heartbreaking when I see our students come back and they do
not recognize the majority of staff in the building.”
Management, meanwhile, does not want to sacrifice the "flexibility" that comes with an non-union staff. Noble principals are free to pay each teacher whatever the principal thinks that teacher is worth, within the financial limits of the chain. Noble leaders say that they could pay better if they got more money from the public system. But it's hard to see why they need more money from the public system in order to stop demanding that teachers work twelve-to-fourteen hour days.
Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, Noble is a textbook example of how quickly teachers can get beat up and burned out when they have no employment protections, no clearly set job requirements, plus low and uncertain pay. Noble's yet another example of a charter chain that uses "flexibility" as code for "profitable instability that works in management's favor."
If the teachers and staff can pull this off and manage to unionize the chain, they'll be doing the management of Noble a favor, and doing the students of Noble an even huger favor, but it remains to be seen if Noble management understands that, or whether they put a greater value on the freedom to run their schools without having to answer to anybody. If Noble does become home to the largest charter union in the country, that will send a message to other overworked, underpaid charter teachers who don't know their place. On the other hand, it will help to legitimize charter schools. This is a story worth watching.