Abandon the Mentality that Created "No Excuses" Schools

Chalkbeat's Elizabeth Green is the author of the excellent book, Building a Better Teacher. In the aftermath of the excesses documented at Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy charter chain, Green reviewed both sides of the arguments regarding "No Excuses" schools. Her inventory of the issues is fair. But, I believe Green asks the wrong questions, and consequently reaches a conclusion that isn't fully relevant for policy purposes.

Green starts with "Three reasons to abandon 'no excuses.'" For instance, a former dean of a no-excuses charter school in New Orleans, who "wrote in a 2014 essay that he came to view the rules and policies he enforced as stymying 'creativity, culture and student voice,' not to mention students' bodies." He added:

My daily routine consisted of running around chasing young Black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they added a different color streak to their hair, or following young men to make sure that their hair wasn't styled naturally as students were not able to wear their hair in uncombed afro styles. None of which had anything to do with teaching and learning, but administration was keen on making sure that before Black students entered the classroom that they looked "appropriate" for learning.

Similarly, Green cited the founder of a KIPP middle school in Newark who:

Began to believe that apparent academic gains might be superficial, too. Take the common no-excuses practice of requiring that every student raise his or her hand in response to a question. That kind of 100 percent participation made teachers feel great. But aiming for every hand raised could also mean that teachers posed only superficial questions.

On the other hand, Green then describes "Three reasons not to abandon no-excuses." First, Green writes, "the highest academic results ever produced for poor students and students of color have come from no-excuses schools. Period." She adds that some schools "maintained strong results" when Common Core tests were introduced. Then, citing her repeated visits to New Jersey KIPP schools, Green articulates "the final compelling argument in favor of the no-excuses schools." She concludes that no-excuses schools "are capable of changing, and that they can do this, to borrow their own language, 'at scale.'"

I wonder what Green saw in that subset of charters that argues for their claim that no-excuses proponents can scale up their current model, much less a more sensitive version of it. After all, I wonder if she's seen a KIPP that serves the same high-challenge students that we do in high-poverty traditional public schools.

Even the best of "high-performing, high-poverty" charters only retain as many suffering kids as they can handle. We in neighborhood schools serve everyone who walks in the door. The gap between those two realities is huge. And, the result of those two very different approaches is that the highest-poverty schools face even greater concentrations of kids from generational poverty who have endured extreme trauma, and bring their pain with them to school.

Green then acknowledges that the challenge of reforming no-excuses pedagogies will get tougher as their numbers expand. She also concludes that they need a "radical overhaul." The no-excuses pedagogy must change their approach so that students "have ample opportunities to make mistakes, both behavioral and academic, no matter how uncomfortable that makes their teachers." Green has seen charters that have done it. But, again, there is no indication of how many of those success stories there are, and whether those schools come close to facing the challenges that neighborhood schools face.

All of Green's observations are valid in terms of the questions she asks. But, how many educators demand that society "abandon" no-excuses schools? In my childhood, I would have despised such schools, and I wouldn't send my own child to one. Its hard to imagine many parents choosing no-excuses instruction if they had any alternative. Unlike many reformers, however, my colleagues and I haven't anointed ourselves as masters of the education universe. It's not up to us to micromanage parents' decisions.

What we should abandon, however, is the willingness to ignore the elephant in the room. Can't we acknowledge that it is a terrible tragedy that conditions exist where some educators and patrons embrace no-excuses behaviorism as the lesser of evils?

What we should abandon is the idea that poor children of color should settle for a second class education because society won't attempt to provide a humane, holistic, and high-quality education for all. We must abandon the idea that all poor children of color learn the same. We must abandon the corollary idea that all kids are supposed to conform to the ethos of test, sort, reward, and punish in order to be prepared for the global marketplace. We must also abandon the idea that corporate reformers are entitled to determine what rights of students and teachers must be abandoned in order to reinvent (or blow up) school systems.

While I would never tell parents that their ability to choose no-excuses schools must be abandoned, I contend we must abandon the edu-politics of destruction. We must abandon the idea that no-excuses schools must be scaled up in order to replace neighborhood schools that are closed due to the mass charterization of school systems that corporate reformers see as targets to be destroyed by "disruptive innovation." We must abandon the idea that children can be treated as lab rats as no-excuses charters are given even more time to heal themselves and, supposedly, figure out a way to successfully scale themselves up.