The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why there’s no excuse for ‘no-excuse’ schools

By Sigal Ben-Porath

As any parent knows, teaching children to comply with rules is a long and frustrating task. Teachers know that too. In school, students will push boundaries by passing notes in class, chewing gum or texting, and violating dress codes. But how schools “manage” these and other behaviors varies widely. An action resulting in a finger wagging, stern reprimand, or even gentle encouragement at one school may land a child in detention at another. These inequalities could result in further ones down the road, as the students grow to become citizens and adult members of their communities.

In an effort to close the persistent achievement gap and to improve academic outcomes among poor and minority students, a new model of schooling has emerged in recent years. Based on a conservative book called “No Excuses” (Abigail and Stephan Thernstorm 2004) and replicated in further books and missions statements of numerous charter networks, this new type of school focuses on an unrelenting form of teaching that molds the behavior of students at any moment of the day. As they go about this effort to create a productive learning environment, these schools inadvertently create greater inequalities between the students they serve and their more affluent peers, particularly in terms of their dignity and sense of self.

‘No excuses’ charters pride themselves on their tightly controlled environments. From the minute students walk into their school – and even before, as they get dressed in the mornings – their actions, their bodies, and their words are documented, reported, rewarded, and punished in an endless stream of behavior management practices. Most famously, the KIPP network of charters has embraced a view of teaching as an urgent, constant act that includes a parallel effort to deliver content knowledge while simultaneously monitoring behavior and punishing all transgressions.

As Joan Goodman critically described recently, in many charter schools students of all ages must wear a card dangling from a lanyard around their neck at all times. Any staff member can sign their “demerit card” for any infraction – speaking in the hallway, having their shirt improperly tucked into their pants, chewing gum – and a few demerits result in detention, in loss of privileges, and as they amass, in expulsion. Some schools have also ‘merit cards’ that allow students to collect privileges, including an opportunity to pay for trinkets in the school store with their signed cards. In class, teachers constantly mark the class overall behavior using a color chart (“you are doing great listening to me! I will move the arrow up to yellow!”), mark individual students’ demerit cards (“your pencil was not out and ready, that’s one demerit”) all while seamlessly continuing to teach ‘as if every second counts.’

The effort to monitor and mold student behavior comes as a response to the chaotic environments that some public schools in the same neighborhoods suffer from. Students loitering in hallways instead of going to class, fights breaking out with no adult intervention, students dressed in ways that seem unprofessional or inappropriate and coming to class unprepared are all common phenomenon in the more dysfunctional schools that many charter students have attended in the past. The struggle to create a quiet, respectful, productive learning atmosphere leads charters down the path of strict behavioral management.

This approach is no longer limited to charters, either. As charter proponents hoped when they lauded their alternate form of governance as an opportunity to create schools unburdened with bureaucratic red tape, ones that would serves as “labs for innovation,” public schools around the country are beginning to embrace this form of behavior management—particularly when ‘turning around’ failing schools that serve poor, minority, and immigrant children and youth.

Of course, you will be hard pressed to find any suburban school, or any school serving middle- or upper-middle class students, endorsing these practices. I have not seen any private school marketing itself as providing no opportunity for children to speak, unless called on, during the school day. Suburban schools and private school, serving children who, we must remember, are similar in all relevant aspects to those served by urban public and charter schools—they are young, they often behave in undesirable or inappropriate ways, they make many mistakes, the majority of them want to do well—find ways to shape their students’ behaviors that include many more degrees of freedom, respect, and dignity.

Charters and innovative public schools do well to try and overcome the chaotic and unsafe environment that plagues some dysfunctional public schools. But they are mistaken when they treat their students as dangerous, as persons who need to be monitored, put into shape, controlled. They are mistaken when they provide students with little or no opportunity to participate in decisions about their daily lives in the school, when they treat their students as if they have nothing valuable to contribute, as if they are best kept silent. When young people are treated as if the main public institution they have access to—their school—fears or undervalues them, their dignity is harmed. Moreover, their opportunity to learn how to become contributing members of their communities is severely limited.

The “no excuses” model aims to find innovative ways to close the achievement gap. This is seen as an important step in helping students from marginalized communities have a shot at the American dream, get access to further education and a well-paying job, and establish a stable economic life. This goal cannot be fully accomplished without treating students with dignity. Their future place in society cannot be ensured until they are supported in developing the skills, and the sense of self, that are required for becoming a citizen in the full sense of the word.