Progressive Education Meets the Market: Organizational Survival Among Independent Charter Schools

Committee: Janelle Scott (Chair), Daniel Perlstein, Christopher Ansell

Dissertation Abstract

The charter school movement “has always been an ideologically big tent,” incorporating schools framed by conservative market and progressive democratic tenets (Knight Abowitz & Karaba, 2010, p. 539). However, the charter school movement has become increasingly aligned with the market values of accountability, choice, efficiency, and privatization, hence crowding out the democratic and progressive aims of charter schooling (Lubienski & Weitzel, 2010; Wells, 2002). Scholars have explained the rapid proliferation of market-oriented charter schools, such as those affiliated with charter management organizations (CMOs), by demonstrating their robust levels of political and financial support from an array of advocacy groups, intermediary organizations, and foundations (DeBray, Scott, Lubienski, & Jabbar, 2014; McGuinn, 2012; Reckhow, 2013; Scott, 2009). Yet little research has investigated how independent charter schools unaffiliated with CMOs and founded upon progressive pedagogical and political missions mobilize the political, financial, and ideological support needed to thrive in a market-oriented policy context.

In this qualitative comparative case study, framed by the empirical literature on what charter schools do, have, and know to survive, I examined how three independent charter schools in New York City garnered political, financial, and ideological support to maintain their founding progressive missions and remain in operation. New York City was an ideal site in which to conduct this dissertation, because despite rapid CMO growth in the last 2 decades, independent charter schools constituted 40% of the charter sector (New York City Charter School Center, 2017). I spent 10 months interviewing a total of 44 founders, school leaders, board trustees, and advocates of the three focal schools; and conducting approximately 50 hours of observations of school community and advocacy events, to understand how these schools engaged various constituencies to mobilize support for their schools when disproportionate support flows to CMOs and other market-oriented charters. I also explored what actors and organizations constituted the supportive political and financial coalitions of independent charter schools, and the impact of charter leaders’ mobilization efforts on their framing of what constitutes equitable, inclusive, and democratic education.

Findings reveal that schools each experienced various challenges to garnering support for their founding missions, illustrating the difficulties inherent in instituting progressive schooling in an educational environment deeply informed by market principles. Indeed, competitive market and accountability pressures compelled each school to adapt to the market context to maintain legitimacy, garner resources, and survive organizationally. Specifically, schools adjusted both their internal organizational structures regarding curriculum and instruction; and their external activities related to political advocacy, community engagement, and fundraising. For example, across schools, leaders incorporated test preparation into the curriculum, contradicting their original progressive pedagogical aims, as they perceived test scores to matter not only to securing charter renewal, but also to attracting prospective families, donors, and the political support of elected officials. Such practices compromised schools’ missions to advance equitable access to experiential, inquiry-based learning experiences for poor students and students of color. As schools adapted and evolved, school leaders redefined what it means to be progressive, shaping their notions of progressivism to what is possible in a market-based educational context.

Extending the argument that the basic “grammar,” or instructional and organizational routines, of schooling is resistant to change (Tyack & Tobin, 1994), this study demonstrates how ubiquitous market values create another grammar of schooling, organizing schools around the logic of the market. In adhering to a market-based grammar of schooling, schools enact practices and acquire resources that advance their survival in the competitive market, sometimes at the expense of their progressive pedagogical and political missions.

Refereed Publications

Scott, J., DeBray, E., Lubienski, C., La Londe, P. G., Castillo, E., & Owens, S. (2017). Urban regimes, intermediary organization networks, and research use: Patterns across three school districts. Peabody Journal of Education, 92(1), 16–28.

Kagan, S. L., Castillo, E., Gomez, R. E., & Gowani, S. (2013). Understanding and using early learning standards for young children globally. International journal of child care and education policy, 7(2), 5–23.

Book Chapters

Scott, J., DeBray, E., Lubienski, C., Hanley, J., Castillo, E., & Hedges, S. L. (In press). The politics of charter school evidence in local context: The case of Los Angeles. In M. Berends, R. J. Waddington, & J. A. Schoenig (Eds.), School choice at the crossroads: Research perspectives (pp. 206-234). New York, NY: Routledge.


Fuller, B., Castillo, E., Lee, J., & Ugarte, C. (2016). Will $4 billion in new spending make a difference? Narrowing achievement gaps in Los Angeles: Progress and inequality as LAUSD implements local control funding. Berkeley, CA: University of California.

Fuller, B., Castillo, E., Nguyen, T., & Thai, A. (2015). Expanding preschool in New York City: Lifting poor children or middling families? Berkeley, CA: University of California.