The Crippling Effect of 'No Excuses' Charters on Long-term Student Success

Does the "no excuses" model of education work? Not according to Joanne W. Golann, a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Princeton University, who will soon take up residence at Vanderbilt University as an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Education. Golann is the first researcher to spend an extended period of time inside a no excuses school – 5 hours a day for 15 months – and the conclusions she draws based on those experiences are both devastating and disturbing.

Golann says that no excuses charters are teaching low-income students the opposite of what they’ll need to succeed in college and life; their focus on forcing students to defer to authority and hold back their opinions leaves graduates without the higher-order thinking skills required to meet the intellectual challenges of university life, not to mention life as an engaged citizen. Jennifer Berkshire, who runs the blog, interviewed Golann about her findings.

Jennifer Berkshire: You’re one of the first researchers to spend an extended period of time inside a no excuses charter school. Here’s where I ask you to sum up close to two years of research into a single sentence. OK—you can have a paragraph.

Joanne Golann: I found that in trying to prepare students for college, the school failed to teach students the skills and behaviors to help them succeed in college. In a tightly regulated environment, students learned to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority. These are very different skills than the ones middle-class kids learn—to take initiative, be assertive, and negotiate with authority. Colleges expect students to take charge of their learning and to advocate for themselves. One of the students I talk about in the article learned to restrain herself to get through, to hold herself back and not speak her mind. She ended up winning the most-improved student award in 8th grade for her changed behavior.

JB: To conduct the study, you were basically "embedded" at a school you call Dream Academy, an acclaimed charter school in a Northeastern city. Explain how you did your research.

JG: For a period of fifteen months between 2012 and 2013, I was at the school, a no excuses middle school of about 250 black and Hispanic students, four or five times a week, for at least half the day. I spent another three months in the high school. I observed classes, teacher and staff meetings, and student and staff orientations, and also hung out with students at lunch, after school, and on field trips. I interviewed 58 students and 34 staff members. I think it helps that I look about as old as these middle school students. I obviously wasn’t one of the students but I did try to blend in and do what they did. When they had to walk in straight lines in the hallways, often I would just fall in line. I’d sit next to students in their classes if there was an empty desk. That’s part of the ethnographic tradition, to try to understand a lived experience by putting yourself there.

JB: One of your conclusions is that the overwhelming emphasis on order in the school, a feature of no excuses charters, ends up socializing kids to follow rules and obey authority. In fact, you argue that even as they talk the language of social mobility, these schools are instilling in kids some very familiar "working class" skills and behaviors.

JG: Bowles and Gintis wrote this famous study where they were looking at the history of mass public education in the US. They argue that schooling expanded in large part to quell social unrest. You had these immigrant populations coming into the cities in the mid-nineteenth century, and Bowles and Gintis basically make the argument that factory owners and the professional class wanted a docile workforce. They wanted people who would be obedient and man these factories, and so they used schools as a way to socialize children to follow rules and show deference. Looking at the school I studied, I found the same behaviors but with a very interesting twist. In a new era of accountability, instead of creating workers for the factories, schools are creating "worker-learners" to close the achievement gap. Schools are emphasizing obedience because they need to create order to raise test scores and they see that as the way to social mobility. It’s the same behaviors but for a different purpose.

JB: The leaders of the school you studied seem very aware of this contradiction—that by rewarding compliance and deference to authority, they were undermining the exact skills their students were going to need in college and life.

JG: I found very clearly that the school leaders wanted the opposite. The principal of the school really wanted to empower students to be able to use their voices and make social change. But she also wouldn’t budge from this highly prescriptive system because of her fear that chaos would ensue. School leaders didn’t see a way out and they weren’t willing to compromise order because they had experienced really chaotic urban schools. They didn’t see an alternative. School leaders would tell me "I haven’t seen anything else that works, and what I have seen work is this no excuses model so I’m going to adopt it."

JB: The students you observe complain about being punished indiscriminately, and that the nature of the system means that they have no ability to protest, even if they didn’t do the thing they’re being punished for. You conclude that often times the students were right and the teachers were wrong, and yet in the classrooms you observed this rarely seemed to matter.

JG: If you constantly give out consequences and don’t have time to stop and reflect and have a discussion with the child about what just happened, you’re going to get into a situation where students start to perceive you as being unfair and the system as being unfair. Ultimately what happens is that you start to lose your authority, and that’s a vicious cycle. You don’t want to have to be dependent on the rules to run your classroom. You want students to willingly comply with you because they respect you, not because you’re going to give them a detention. I think the model really reduces teacher discretion. It’s made to replace or substitute for teacher discretion. In fact, the principal told me that that’s the purpose of the model because discretion doesn’t work. It’s too dependent on a teacher having a good or bad day. But teachers are working with individual students and specific situations—a good teacher is not a robot.

JB: I recently interviewed a student who spent a year attending a school similar to Dream Academy. He’s only 15 but keenly aware of the civic implications of a system where kids can’t question authority. Here’s how he put it: "These students will end up just going along with anything anyone says. The government will make a dumb rule and they’ll be like ‘let’s just follow it.’"

JG: The schools talk about promoting individual mobility—getting these students to college so that they can get good jobs. But there’s a large critical education tradition that argues that if you really want to make social change in society, you need to teach people to become active citizens, to have the skills, ability and desire to question authority.

JB: While your research focuses on one school, as you point out, the no excuses model has been extensively replicated. You argue that "the expansion of choice and accountability has led to the copying of a school model that produces test results yet limits the development of students’ higher-level skills." As a chronicler of the unintended-consequences of education reform, I found your conclusion both affirming and horrifying.

JG: If we create an educational marketplace where success is measured by student test scores, perhaps it is not altogether surprising that we end up with a rigid school model that produces these test scores. What we don’t get is a model that teaches students how to speak up or even a model that leaves students feeling like they have had a positive school experience. While charter schools were originally seen as a way to innovate, a way for communities to develop schools that might better fit their students and families, what’s come to dominate the charter field are charter management organizations and this no excuses model. For example, in Boston, one study found that 71% of the urban charter schools subscribe to the no excuses model. Of the high-achieving urban charters, almost all are no excuses schools. They’ve expanded rapidly because of the support of foundations and the US Department of Education. Some $500 million in private foundation money has gone into replicating these schools.

JB: The last line of your paper is really powerful. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to read it aloud so that we can all go forth pondering the essential point you make: "If teachers and administrators committed as much effort to learning about students’ families and neighborhoods as they dedicate to raising test scores or managing behavior, they might discover new ways of instruction and management to get kids to and through college, and perhaps more importantly, prepare them to ‘be the change,’" as one Dream Academy leader described.

JG: I believe that. I think these schools work so hard, and the teachers work so hard. They’re smart and passionate, and there are a lot of great individuals working in these schools. It just makes you wonder, what would happen if all of this energy was directed in a different direction? The no excuses model has become so dominant, but if we really put our energies in a different direction, couldn’t we find a model that doesn’t infringe so heavily on student autonomy? Administrators and teachers have very little time to get to know families and communities because they dedicate so much energy to discipline and raising test scores and trying to maximize instructional time. That makes it hard to find and try other approaches.


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