'Work Hard, Be Hard:' How KIPP's No Excuses Model Fails Students and Teachers Alike

Education professor James Horn explores just what is so wrong with the "no excuses" approach to education.

Photo Credit: Hung Chung Chih via

The following edited excerpts are fromWork Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through “No Excuses” Teaching, which will be published February 28 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

On April 6, 2015, the New York Times published a 4,800-word news story (Taylor, 2015) on the front page of its New York edition that reported for the first time some of the extreme charter school practices that are detailed in this book.  The Times’ groundbreaking feature was aimed at Success Academy Charter Schools (SACS), which operates 43 “no excuses” charter schools in New York City.

SACS’s Board of Directors is comprised largely of Wall Street equity and hedge fund managers, and it shares many of the same funding streams, values, and methods of KIPP schools and the many KIPP emulators.  Along with huge injections of philanthropic and investor cash, SACS selectively enrolls students, enrolls fewer special education students and English learners, engages in active weeding of problem students that are not “backfilled” with new students, imposes longer and more school days, and maintains a laser focus on tests and test prep.  And like many other KIPP Model schools, SACS produces high test scores among the majority of its surviving students.

SACS also has a huge teacher attrition problem.  Untrained teachers fresh out of college work 11-hour days, with unceasing stress to produce higher test scores and perfect student behavior.  All test and quiz data go into a shared database that provides the basis for surveillance and monitoring by inexperienced principals who have been promoted after a couple year of teaching in a similar environment.

Pressure is unrelenting. When a group of students failed to use approved test-taking strategies, or the approved “plan of attack,” a leadership resident sent an email to her 4th grade teachers that included this:

We can NOT let up on them….Any scholar who is not using the plan of attack will go to effort academy, have their parent called, and will miss electives. This is serious business, and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them (para 98).

The “no excuses” school model that KIPP charter schools popularized owes significantly to an assumption made two decades ago by paternalistic school reformers (Finn, 1997), who argued that schools and teachers could “reduce inequality in educational achievement if disadvantaged students were held to the same high standards as everybody else” (Cohen, 1996, p. 101).  This belief remains widespread today, and it has contributed to at least four bad outcomes for children, teachers, and public schools:  1) it leads us away from altering the corrosive socioeconomic realities that affect children’s lives outside school, while pushing our attention toward fixing children and their teachers’ belief systems, 2) it requires educators and children to subscribe to an ideology that demands toxic levels of anxiety and stress to attain some modicum of success, even temporarily, 3) it has led to widespread failure to live up to expectations that prove more fanciful than real, which creates self-loathing or self-blame for failing to achieve what students and teachers, alike, are told is achievable, 4) it has contributed to a totalizing compliance regimen for students and teachers that is more penal than pedagogical.

Teachers Suffering

The human impacts of implementing the KIPP Model ideology come out clearly in the accounts of former “no excuses” teachers who were interviewed for this book.  Their accounts are interspersed throughout the book, for reasons that include consideration for readers’ capacity to absorb all together the psychological brutality and physical stresses that are recounted.  Those former teachers who were able to revisit some of their painful remembrances provide disturbing insights into schools where the “no excuses” credo is in practice.

When asked why she stayed at KIPP after she found out what it was like there, one former teacher talked of how school leaders had convinced her and her fellow teachers of their unique importance to the children, and how their work at KIPP was saving children who, otherwise, would be lost to the public school bureaucracies that operated for the benefit of adults, not children.  As a result, she had committed herself to carrying out the mission, regardless of what it took and regardless of personal consequences.

She noted that a lifeboat mentality among the teachers helps create a camaraderie among “team and family,” which enabled levels of self sacrifice that remain somewhat mysterious to those who are on the outside.  Understanding this phenomenon only took hold when her own life was put in jeopardy by refusing to accept her own physical limits to sustain the demands imposed by the “no excuses’ code:

I think that there is an expectation where you don’t want to let anyone down at KIPP.  They [KIPP leaders] are constantly telling you how important you are and how important this work is, and how you’re saving all these children.  And then you do find yourself thinking, oh my God, what am I doing?  You’re watching teachers drop left and right.  I mean I’m stronger than most because I was experienced, but I’m sitting there watching new teachers literally have—I’ve seen about four teachers have complete nervous breakdowns.

And then you find yourself asking, why am I doing this?  And it’s basically because I think something kicks in where you don’t want to disappoint…

….And then before you know it, you’re in there a year, you’re in there two years.  And after two years you’re considered like a veteran teacher at KIPP.  Then, finally, I just had to stop.  I mean you become physically ill.  Your body breaks down—you can’t take it anymore.  I fell asleep one day driving home from work, and I hit a car in front of me.  That’s when I woke up, and I was like, okay, this is enough.

Predictably, this kind of distress contributes to many teachers like this one eventually leaving the “no excuses” schools.  When I asked her what it was like after she left KIPP, she had this to say:

Heaven, if there is one.  It was like for the first time I got to sleep.  My body started to repair itself.  I noticed that my mind was clearing up.  I was being able to communicate effectively. I can’t explain what your body does.  It shuts down—your body shuts down.  You just become like a robot.  It took me a good six months . . . to recover from that experience.  And after six months I found myself like enjoying life again because it was absolutely miserable for two years. 

The KIPP Foundation and its political and financial supporters would have us believe that there are, indeed, no excuses, and that its schools prove as much. Are they right, and if they are right, what are the economic and human costs and benefits of such a program, and for whom? The answers to these questions are teased out in the following pages, but for now one thing is certain: by ignoring or denying the effects of economic disadvantage and segregation on student achievement scores, supporters of the KIPP mission must pressure ever harder the stressed-out KIPP personnel to corral and channel the behaviors and attitudes of KIPP children whose lives, from the beginning, have been shaped by the effects of poverty.

The failure to acknowledge and alter those economic and social disadvantages places an intense focus and weight upon what happens inside the KIPP classroom to change children so that they become, in effect, impervious to the effects of poverty.  The resulting cultural, character, and behavioral compacting process, then, creates debilitating and unsustainable pressures for teachers and students, alike.

The sacrifices required of “no excuses” teachers and students assure that large numbers will not survive in the KIPP Model schools.  In this brave new world of corporate schooling aimed to build gritty super kids taught by “rock star” teachers,  such losses have become entirely unexceptional, and they are quickly forgotten by the “no excuses” survivors who must continue to face the unrelenting demands of a system that assures one’s best is almost never good enough.  In a system where teaching experience is regularly not required or even desired, new and inexperienced teachers’ lack the professional knowledge or experience leads to acceptance of narrow, robotic learning goals that are often enforced by brutal methods. 

Students Suffering

A majority of the teachers I interviewed for the book expressed regret and embarrassment over hostile run-ins and serious confrontations with students over the “extreme discipline” style imposed at KIPP Model schools.  After relating in detail an incident that escalated into a “screaming match with a 7th grader,” one teacher said, “I felt embarrassed and I think it called into question for me a lot of what we were doing at school.”

When I asked, specifically, what was called into question for her by this incident, she replied,

This whole notion of extreme discipline.  There were some places where we were able to create an environment where there’s a love of learning.  But by having, exerting, so much control over the environment and the students, I wondered what happened to them when that kind of discipline wasn’t instilled, that kind of control wasn’t [there], when those reins were taken off when they went to high school, what would happen. 

And shouldn’t we, as educators, be trying to prepare them to be more independent than we were.  I think we felt like a lot of our kids were coming to us in crisis, and they needed stability and they needed somebody who they could trust.  I think we did absolutely our best.  I can’t imagine having done more.  But sometimes more is not the answer; sometimes less is the answer.  The idea of more rigor, more discipline, more control, more stability, I think, was not appropriate for our kids, over time.

When the KIPP odel’s “extreme discipline” is combined with administrative pressure to cultivate an image of perfect order, drastic measures result with abusive consequences.  At one school when important visitors or potential donors were in the building, students were gathered together and sent into isolation for up to three hours at a time.  Approximately thirty children at this school were rounded up and sent to the school basement during visits by important outsiders, while regular classes carried on above them for the smiling VIBs (Visitors In Building).  To make sure that infractions of rules were kept to a minimum, class changes were suspended during the hours that VIBs were present.

At another KIPP school, 100 new fifth grade students at the beginning of school were packed into a regular classroom for a week and required to sit on the floor until flawless behavior based on non-negotiable rules finally earned them desks to sit in.

The practical effects of trying to create the perfectly ordered school can be particularly devastating for special needs students. One teacher who was assigned a self-contained room with between 20 and 25 lowest performing third graders had seven students that she knew had individualized education programs (IEPs), even though she did not know what their individual plans stipulated.  Four of the seven “had diagnosed ADHD,” even though the diagnoses did not alter the SLANT requirements that demanded that all children sit with hands folded, listen, ask and answer questions, nod assent, and track the teacher at all times:

These poor kids just had to sit there with their hands folded, and they would rock and they would tap.  Every time they would rock or tap or talk, you would have to mark it on the chart.  If you had to mark it three times, then they had to go to time out.  If they had to go to time out twice, they had to go to the Dean.   There was about five, six or seven kids who were constantly either in time out, or in with the Dean because they just physically were struggling to sit that still….I had one little boy who got suspended probably once or twice a week.  He wanted to talk, and he wanted to tap, and he didn't want to have to sit completely still.  He couldn't sit completely still like his peers.  It was really, really sad.

The “no excuses” ideology of the KIPP Model ignores the effects of poverty and discrimination on test performance and student behavior, and as a result, it becomes its own worst excuse for engaging in morally hazardous acts.  Young, privileged beginning teachers like the ones recruited by Teach for America are particularly susceptible to the kinds of psychological manhandling that “no excuses” school leadership demands.  The KIPP Model’s use of indoctrination and stringent discipline techniques provides a breeding ground for rationalizations and practices that, outside the “no excuses” bubble, would be considered entirely hostile to the well-being of children and tantamount to educational malpractice and abuse.  There is a treacherous tipping point where zealous commitment becomes cult-like blindness, where moral clarity and educative purpose are displaced by relentless fixations on data, chain-gang methods, and foggy, futuristic abstractions (Brookfield, 2005, p. 164) that place adult readiness far ahead of children’s needs today.


Brookfield, S.  (2004).   The power of critical theory:  Liberating adult learning and teaching.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Cartright, L.  (2010, November 1).  School big ‘bullies’ kids.  New York Post.  Retrieved from //
Cohen, D. K. (1996). Standards-based school reform: Policy, practice, and performance. In H. F. Ladd (Ed.), Holding schools accountable. Washington, D.C: The Brookings Institution.
Finn, C.  (1997).  Paternalism goes to school.  In L. Mead, (Ed.), The new paternalism: Supervisory approaches to poverty, (pp. 220-247).  Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Taylor, K.  (2015, April 6).  At Success Academy Charter Schools, high scores and polarizing tactics.  New York Times.  Retrieved from
Book citation:
Horn, Jim.  (2016).  Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys through “No Excuses” Teaching.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

James Horn is professor of educational leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA. He is an education blogger at Schools Matter and has published widely on issues related to education reform and social justice in education.

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