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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.

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Demerits are assigned for slouching, not making eye contact with teachers when speaking, and a maze of detailed clothing rules. The most prevalent discipline issue, however, is students failing to comply with the enormous homework requirement for all students in all classes. [Homework, though, remains a failed traditional practice discounted by the weight of research, but in "no excuses" schools, excessive homework, like longer school days, perpetuates a false veneer or "rigor."]

Teachers were told in orientation that the school was a "culture, not a cult."

Teachers are bombarded with data/stats without care to distinguish between correlation and causation (see below how this manifests itself).

The faculty is overwhelming white/female, though serving a minority population of students; over 50% is TFA, and almost all are under 30. Most of the teachers live in affluent areas away from students/school.

Students are nearly silent in class (to quote this teacher) "mostly because they've been trained like dogs [emphasis added] to never speak -- I had to repeatedly tell one class that it was ok to talk to their group during GROUP discussion -- foreign concept for them." ["No excuses" schools confuse "training" with "learning."]

The students have primarily been taught to be compliant; again to quote the teacher:

"They [the students] can't think for themselves, they have no concept of style and author's craft (they're skill drilled their 9th grade year), and they have a very prescriptive method for annotating texts to the point where the students are annotating in the margins so they won't get in trouble [emphasis added], but they're not making any meaning with the text. One student today asked me how many annotations per paragraph they needed, and when I told her she needed to note where she saw fit, she looked so confused and upset."

Ironically, teachers have a great deal of support and autonomy, and are primarily themselves treated with respect and as professionals, but, as this teacher notes, that allows TFA recruits (without experience or expertise) to function with little supervision. [ Note that increasingly charter schools are afforded autonomy while public schools suffer under impossible mandates.]

Again, the correlation/causation issue is not trivial. Consider this comment from the teacher:

"The problem with this autonomy though is that there is absolutely no authority on what good teaching should look like -- so this freedom of curriculum is great for [experienced and expert teachers] -- but it's horrible for the TFA-ers who are not properly trained, are not teaching in their content area, and are relying on a strict authoritarian management style. Kids comply no matter what they do even if what they do is not meaningful. And [w]hen the kids show growth on interim assessments and [standardized tests] benchmarks...they attribute their 'culture of discipline' to the reason they are successful when really the kids are cherry picked and less than 10% of the population is [special needs]. Our success on those tests has nothing to do with the 'culture of discipline' -- we don't have kids that don't want to be in school or kids who want to be in vocational programs. And I don't want to dismiss the growth some teachers make [because] learning time is definitely being maximized in my classroom. I literally have ZERO disruptions from students."

[The most salient feature of "no excuses" schools is compliance by the students.]

Among the core staff and administration, there is also a culture of bashing public schools and public education, although most of those doing the bashing have never taught in public schools (primarily the TFA core).