Education scholars Joanne Golann and Mira Debs recently attempted to define the important term “no-excuses schools” in an online Education Week commentary. They got the common view of those controversial institutions right.
But the no-excuses model was born two decades ago. Are the schools now what they were then? Education debates should not depend on what was happening in the 1990s.
Golann, at Vanderbilt University, and Debs, at Yale University, listed five networks: KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Success Academy, YES Prep and Achievement First. They are good examples of the no-excuses species. All are successful charter school groups with mostly students from impoverished areas, college-prep curriculums and longer school days.
Here are, according to the scholars, the qualities they share:
“No-excuses students are typically required to wear uniforms, sit straight, with their hands folded on the table, and their eyes continuously on the teacher. At breaks, they walk silently through the halls in single-file lines. Students who follow these stringent expectations are rewarded with privileges, while violators are punished with demerits, detentions, and suspensions.”
Do no-excuses schools still look like that? I found the following.
Students wearing uniforms: That continues to be the rule. It is not unusual. Many private schools have uniforms. Twenty-one percent of public schools require them. Charters, no-excuses or otherwise, constitute only 6 percent of public schools.
Sitting straight in class with hands folded on the table and eyes continuously on the teacher: Those were the rules when I started visiting KIPP schools in 2001, but no longer. All five networks have moved toward more student interaction. Kids are supposed to focus on whoever is talking, teacher or not. Success Academy spokeswoman Ann Powell said its elementary schools have rug spots, where students sit not in straight rows but crisscross so they can see one another.
Walking silently through the halls in single-file lines: That is no longer the rule in these networks. “Not all transitions are silent across all our schools,” Achievement First spokeswoman Amanda Pinto said. Angela Rodriguez, spokeswoman for YES Prep, said, “We expect students to connect and socialize with teachers and peers during class transitions.”
Rewarding with privileges those who follow stringent expectations: The five networks say their expectations aren’t “stringent.” (Dictionary synonyms for that word include “extreme” and “harsh.”) It is difficult to see how listening in class, doing homework and being polite fit that adjective. “Our expectation is that given the same chance of a high-quality education as their more affluent peers, our students can and do succeed at the same high levels,” said Barbara Martinez, spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools.
Punishing violators with demerits, detentions and suspensions: KIPP spokeswoman Maria Alcon-Heraux said “after much research combined with student and family feedback,” her network has discontinued most of the rewards and repercussions. Like other networks, KIPP has introduced restorative justice for student misbehavior. Students and educators sit down to sort out what happened.
The networks say the word “punish” is also misleading. “Every school, every classroom, every teacher has consequences when students do things they shouldn’t. It’s silly to say this is a charter school move,” Martinez said.
Even within the same network, different schools have evolved in different ways. Some may stick to old ways, but the trend away from strict rules has been evident for many years. Networks that once started with middle-schoolers who needed better classroom habits right away now have elementary schools to establish learning routines.
In general, no-excuses has become a term loaded with out-of-date stereotypes. “Our schools’ aim is to connect potential with opportunity and to encourage students to develop their best thinking,” Pinto said.
Golann and Debs acknowledge that the schools have added restorative justice and made other adjustments. “We are encouraged by the public self-criticism and reevaluation happening in these networks,” Golann told me, although she said she thinks there has been less change than I do.
Simplistic labels can obscure important improvements. Innovations in both regular and charter schools, such as the growth of research writing, aren’t even part of the no-excuses debate. BASIS and IDEA charters have made college-level Advanced Placement their basic curriculums. That goes far beyond what most of the five networks have done.
Golann and Debs made their own contribution to fresh thinking by showing in their article what is happening in Montessori schools, a century-old approach reborn. No-excuses is so 20th century. Let’s talk about something new.