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"No Excuses" and the Culture of Shame: The Miseducation of Our Nation's Children

Does our constant focus on educational "data" mask a raft of racist and classist policies designed to shortchange poor and minority children? You bet, says one education expert.
"Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear someone say that 'eliminating poverty in America is the civil rights issue of our day'? Since poverty is the single most reliable predictor of poor performance in school, poor health, poor attendance, dropping out, and almost every negative indicator, wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear some of the politicians addressing the root cause of inequality?" Diane Ravitch

The education reform debate is fueled by a seemingly endless and even fruitless point-counterpoint among the corporate reformers—typically advocates for and from the Gates Foundation (GF), Teach for America (TFA), and charter chains such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP)—and educators/scholars of education. Since the political and public machines have embraced the corporate reformers, GF, TFA, and KIPP have acquired the bully pulpit of the debate and thus are afforded most often the ability to frame the point, leaving educators and scholars to be in a constant state of generating counter-points.

This pattern disproportionately benefits corporate reformers, but it also exposes how those corporate reformers manage to maintain the focus of the debate on data. The statistical thread running through most of the point-counterpoint is not only misleading (the claims coming from the corporate reformers are invariably distorted, while the counter-points of educators and scholars remain ignored among politicians, advocates, the public, and the media), but also a distraction.

Since the metrics debate (test scores, graduation rates, attrition, populations of students served, causation/correlation) appears both enduring and stagnant, I want to make a clear statement with some elaboration that I reject the "ends-justify-the-means" assumptions and practices—the broader "no excuses" ideology—underneath the numbers, and thus, we must stop focusing on the outcomes of programs endorsed by the GF or TFA and KIPP.

Instead, we must unmask the racist and classist policies and practices hiding beneath the metrics debate surrounding GF, TFA, and KIPP (as prominent examples of practices all across the country and types of schools).

Masking Racism and Classism Behind Slogans

Let me start with an example. This is a true story, although it is necessarily anonymous. It is also increasingly typical of teacher, student, and school conditions because the new "norm" of schooling in the U.S. is the "no excuses" model first popularized and associated with KIPP (a charter chain that has a strong relationship with TFA—a dynamic captured in the propagandistic documentary Waiting for "Superman").

A talented and exceptional public school teacher was driven out of a high-poverty public school that embraced "no excuses" policies; that teacher now teaches in a "no excuses" urban charter school serving a high-minority student population.

First, let's not discount how the national move to de-professionalize teaching by dismantling unions, eradicating tenure, and reducing teacher evaluation and compensation to test-based metrics has created a job market and workforce culture wherein this teacher would have had to choose to leave teaching to avoid what appears to be a lateral move—"no excuses" public school for a "no excuses" charter.

The reality of "choice" for the American worker is a much different animal than the idealized "choice" promoted among politicians, corporate America, and the media.

What has this teacher discovered at the new "no excuses" charter school? Let me outline here:

The school is primarily test-prep oriented, rigidly authoritarian, and distinctly segregated (race and class).

At orientation, all students not conforming to the dress code were pulled out in front of the entire student body and had pointed out what was wrong with their outfits. ["No excuses" culture is a culture of shaming.]

Students are required to use complete sentences at all times, and call female teachers "Miss"—with the threat of disciplinary action taken if students fail to comply.