"No Excuses" and the Culture of Shame: The Miseducation of Our Nation's Children
"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.
• 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).
• Also the school perpetuates a culture in which only numbers and quantitative data matter. The focus on quantitative data within the school and the broader public discourse allows "no excuses" advocates to mask their means by trying to justify their ends. To shift the gaze away from the children involved is to dehumanize the discussion and hide that those same children are being dehumanized in these schools.
• From the inside, experienced teachers notice that these "no excuses" schools that overwhelmingly hire TFA recruits expose the failure of placing inexperienced and inexpert teachers in classrooms with high-needs students. Faculty with public school experience also recognize that statistical claims coming from charters hide the population differences between comparing charters with public schools.
This true story isn't quantitative data, and it isn't part of the raising-test-scores or graduation-rates debates. It is one story, but it is typical and even exemplary of "no excuses" schools.
And it is the primary reason I reject this ideology regardless of the metrics anyone offers.
"Missionary Zeal": The Miseducation of "Other People's Children"
The "no excuses" model depends on creating a new template for the teacher, one personified by the "missionary zeal" associated with TFA recruits.
Carol Burris has exposed the new and disturbing template for teachers in the "no excuses" model: The teacher is “the ultimate authority in the classroom, in other words, your mindset is, I am a total badass” (p. 9). Further, Burris clarifies:
"The reader [of the teacher manual Burris is citing] is told that while ...[the teachers being trained within a "no excuses" ideology] were 'stellar' students who 'succeeded in school when given freedom.' He will not be 'teaching a classroom of Mini-Me’s' (p. 10)[;] hence the... [Demanding Teacher] cannot treat his students as he was treated."
At the center of the "no excuses" ideology is the creation of the Demanding Teacher (from the training manual cited by Burris):
The most basic idea we have about classroom management is that teachers need to be demanding. Demanding about their expectations for student behavior, demanding about how hard students try. We believe that being demanding is the only way to create a classroom that is orderly, efficient, and focused on learning.
"Being demanding" means adopting six specific beliefs, developing a specific kind of classroom presence, and using sixteen specific classroom management moves correctly and at the right times....
The 6 Beliefs are:
1. Belief 1: I am the ultimate authority in my classroom.
2. Belief 2: My goal in classroom management must be 100%.
3. Belief 3: My Patrolling Effort and Behavior Oblongata (PEBO) needs to be strengthened to the point of automaticity.
4. Belief 4: Even though my classroom management abilities are not perfect, I still have the right and the responsibility to correct wrong behavior.
5. Belief 5: I have to hit the ground running on the first day in September.
6. Belief 6: Even "bad" kids want to be good and do well.
Just as the true story above reveals about the TFA-heavy faculty common in KIPP and other charter schools, "no excuses" environments are predominantly about placing affluent and privileged people in positions of authority to deliver authoritarian training to students unlike them; in other words, "no excuses" ideology is about isolating, controlling, and ultimately "fixing" "other people's children."
As well, "no excuses" environments embrace school cultures, modes of teaching, and student conditions that are explicitly unlike the experiences of the privileged administrators and teachers implementing policy (similar to Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and others endorsing school reform unlike their own experiences and the experiences they provide for their children.).
Two aspects of "no excuses" practices must be rejected directly: (1) the deficit perspective at the core of "no excuses" ideology that has its roots in racism and classism, and (2) the "missionary zeal" associated with TFA recruits and advocates for "no excuses" practices (at the exclusion of expertise and experience).
Alfie Kohn has identified the pedagogy of poverty that comprises viewing "other people's children" with a deficit gaze (thus a racist and classist gaze) and seeking an elite core of soldiers to whip those children into shape, a core driven blindly by their "missionary zeal."
From 1991, Haberman's description of the pedagogy of poverty is disturbingly similar to the policies and practices found in TFA, KIPP, and the teacher manual cited above. Haberman concludes, "Unfortunately, the pedagogy of poverty does not work" (p. 291).
But Haberman, like me here, is not basing his conclusion on metrics, not on test scores or graduation rates. Haberman is making a much more important pronouncement.
Democracy and equity cannot be built upon coercion and inequity.
Racial and economic equity cannot be built on racist and classist policies.
One America cannot be realized by perpetuating two Americas in our schools: One education system that assumes children to be "good" and offers them the freedom and culture of respect and dignity necessary to learn and another education system that assumes "other people's children" are "bad" and offers them "badass" teachers, a culture of shame, and a school environment that treasures quantitative data and silent and still students above anything else.
No metrics can ever justify for me the indignity of "no excuses" practices. None.
In order to have one America, the America of democracy and equity for all, we must have one education system of democracy and equity for all.