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Posted at 10:50 AM ET, 06/04/2011

NBA finals and ‘no excuses’ charter schools

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This was written by Paul Thomas, an associate professor of education at Furman University in South Carolina. It was published on dailykos.com.

By Paul Thomas

After Game One of the 2011 NBA Finals, pundits began to clamor to reappraise the status of the Miami Heat, a team nearly equally loved and despised for the same reason — the acquisition of LeBron James. But in the closing seconds of Game Two, Dirk Nowitzki made a spinning, driving layup with his splinted left hand to seal a huge fourth-quarter comeback, spurring Gregg Doyel at CBSSports.com to write a column titled “ Heat return to their smug ways and Mavs make them pay .”

Consider some of Doyel’s comments. Frame this about the Heat — “Ultimately, this was everything we have come to expect from these fascinating, infuriating Miami Heat: Hollywood as hell. Damn good. But a bit too full of themselves” — with this comment about Nowitzki:

“Dirk Nowitzki is the anti-Heat — a quiet, humble, mentally tough SOB. He played with a splint on the middle finger of his left hand, and for more than 45 minutes he didn’t play well. But he scored Dallas’ final nine points, seven in the last minute, four with his left hand. That game-winning layup? He created it, then finished it, with his left hand. It probably hurt, but Nowitzki had more important things to worry about than pain. He had a game to win.”

When I read this column, I immediately thought about a recent column by Dana Goldstein, “Integration and the ‘No Excuses’ Charter School Movement .” In her piece, she examines “no excuses” ideologies connected with the new charter school movement:

“That said, there are some troubling questions about whether the most politically popular charter school model — the ‘No Excuses’ model popularized by KIPP and embraced by Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network — is palatable to middle-class and affluent parents.”

Later in her essay, Goldstein makes one comment that continues to trouble me: “What seems clear is that the ‘No Excuses’ model is not for everyone, and presents particular challenges to parents who are accustomed to the schedules and social routines of high-quality neighborhood public schools.”

It is the intersection of the column about Game Two of the NBA finals and Goldstein’s article on “no excuses” charter schools that reveals for us the powerful influence of middle-class norms on every aspect of American society.

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Throughout the NBA playoffs this year, the story no one is talking about has been the narratives following Nowitzki and LeBron James.

Nowitzki, a German-born centerpiece of the Dallas Mavericks, has been repeatedly compared to Larry Bird, one of the NBA all-time greats who shares with Nowitzki an important quality — race — which appears to translate into a default assessment — working-class ethos, the ability to rise above limitations through hard work (the personification of middle-class myths).

James, while often championed as the “next” Michael Jordan, has increasingly been compared to Magic Johnson, the arch rival of Bird from an era decades in the past. Also like the Magic comparison, James now carries the “Hollywood” label — and that means too much talent and not enough humility, not enough effort.

And as the narrative about the Heat and the Mavericks (let’s not ignore the coincidental symbolism in the team names and the geographical significance of Miami Beach against Texas) continues to play out, we read the subtext of class and race that drives not what happens on the court but how the media and public craft those narratives as a response to the players.

Culturally, we want Nowitzki and the Mavericks to win because that proves us right, the triumph of the middle-class norm. And we hope that a Nowitzki/Maverick win will go one step further by putting James and the Heat in their place, creating the ultimate personification of the middle-class norm — James’s talent plus Nowitzki’s humble working-class persona.

And this is what troubles me about Goldstein’s sentence from above: “What seems clear is that the ‘No Excuses’ model is not for everyone.” This leaves open an endorsement for continuing to champion “no excuses” schools as long as they target children of color, children trapped in poverty, and children struggling against being English-language learners.

Middle-class and affluent children don’t need “no excuses” schools, the unspoken message goes, because they are already on board; they are a part of the normalization of middle-class myths of who people should be, what people should say and how people should behave.

We should not be contemplating for whom “no excuses” schools are appropriate because “no excuses” schools are not appropriate for any children in a free society. “No excuses” schools are the worst type of classism, and they are the ultimate reduction of education to enculturation.

“No excuses” ideology denies human agency, human dignity, perpetuating a Western caste system of knowing one’s place.

Yes, as a society, we want LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to sit down and shut up, but we also want some children to learn this, as well. The elite remain elite as long as the rest remain compliant.

Adrienne Rich (2001) fears that what is “rendered unspeakable, [is] thus unthinkable” (p. 150). [1]

And Bill Ayers (2001) recognizes the silencing purposes of schools:

“In school, a high value is placed on quiet: ‘Is everything quiet?’ the superintendent asks the principal, and the principal the teacher, and the teacher the child. If everything is quiet, it is assumed that all is well. This is why many normal children — considering what kind of intelligence is expected and what will be rewarded here — become passive, quiet, obedient, dull. The environment practically demands it.” (p. 51) [2]

The “no excuses” miracle schools are no miracles at all. They are mirages carefully crafted to reinforce cultural myths. They are nightmares for childhood and the basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They are tragic examples of allowing the ends to justify the means.

If we are a people who embrace human freedom and agency, if we are a people who believe all people are created equal, if we are a people who trust the power of education as central to that freedom and equality, then there simply is no excuse for perpetuating “no excuses” charter schools that are designed to squelch the possibility of LeBron James-type agency among more people and throughout our society, and not just safely within the confines of a basketball court.

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