The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why ‘no excuses’ charter schools mold ‘very submissive’ students — starting in kindergarten

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Here’s the Q * A:

EduShyster: You’re the author of an article called “Charter Management Organizations and the Regulated Environment: Is It Worth the Price?” that’s the single best overview of “no excuses” charter schools that I’ve seen. Talk a little about the research you’ve been doing.

Joan Goodman: I began to focus on charter schools when the first Mastery Charter School was started in Philadelphia. These were supposed to be experimental schools which would have a variety of new approaches and they’d get rid of bureaucracy and we’d see all kinds of novel approaches to children. But particularly in terms of the charter management organizations they haven’t provided much variety—they’re all strikingly similar to one another. These schools have a very clear philosophy about what they’re trying to do, how they’re trying to do it, what they think is necessary, who they read, who their leaders are. And they’re explicit in describing it. The combination of the uniformity across these different schools and their explicitness about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it makes it easier to get hold of this movement than it is with say, public schools in a city or a school district where there’s so much variety and there isn’t a single philosophy.

ES: With the exception of KIPP, which has allowed Mathematica to study its admission policies and test results, these schools haven’t been receptive to academic studies. How did you manage to study them?

Goodman: I’m the academic director of our Teach For America program at UPenn and our TFA students are teachers in these schools. So I can go in to look at what our students and their teachers are doing, and then students tell me a lot about what’s going on. I have also done a good bit of visiting. The charters are hospitable to that. A lot of this is anecdotal, and much is based on what the schools have written, which is public. My work is investigative, I think, more than formal research. But you’re right—it takes a huge effort to try to get into these schools for any systematic research. They don’t welcome outsiders to study them. And they have a point. What academics do when they go in is criticize, and you can see why they might not like that. I think they’ll let just about anybody in for a visit. But to go in and have the schools really cooperate with an investigator, that’s a whole lot harder. What are the day-to-day processes that are happening in the classroom? How do teachers feel about these processes? How much range of behavior is there? It would be great to be able to investigate these sorts of questions, but the schools wouldn’t welcome that.

ES: Minority children in urban areas are increasingly being educated at schools run by the types of charter management organizations you study, yet I find that people know little if anything about the way these schools view the world.

Goodman: These schools start with the belief that there’s no reason for the large academic gaps that exist between poor minority students and more privileged children. They argue that if we just used better methods, demanded more, had higher expectations, enforced these higher expectations through very rigorous and uniform teaching methods and a very uniform and scripted curriculum geared to being successful on high-stakes tests, we can minimize or even eradicate these large gaps, high rates of drop outs and the academic failures of these children. To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

ES: Time seems to be an essential component too—the idea that not a second can be wasted. I’m reminded of this video about “speedy transitions” for kindergartners at a New Jersey charter school.

Goodman: In order to maximize academic accomplishment, no time can be wasted and anything that’s not academically targeted, that’s not geared to what the students have to know, is time wasted. So there is almost no opportunity for play, for relaxation, very little time for extra-curricular activities. The day is jammed with academics, especially math and reading because that’s what gets tested. The view of time and strict discipline are related, by the way; in order to get these kids to attend over very long hours—they have extended days and extended weeks—you have to be tough with the kids, really severe. They want these kids to understand that when authority speaks you have to follow because that’s basic to learning. So they don’t have the notion of learning that more progressive educators have, that learning is a very active enterprise and that children have to be very participatory and thinking and speaking and discussing and sharing and having initiative. That’s not their view of learning. It’s too variable across teachers, the objectives are too non-specific, and time is wasted.

ES: The “broken windows” theory is well known when it comes to policing, but as you write, these charter management organizations apply that theory to schools. Explain.

Goodman: These schools believe that behaviors that you might not think are directly related to academic learning can have a domino effect if left unaddressed. Getting up from your chair to go to the bathroom without explicit permission, for example, or not having your hands folded on your desk, or not looking at the teacher every minute, or not having your feet firmly planted on each side of the center of the desk are problematic behaviors. Because if you don’t conform to these rules then you are going to precipitate the next domino and the next domino. It’s going to have a cascading effect on your behavior and pretty soon you’re going to be very disruptive. If you get up to sharpen your pencil, maybe you’re going to throw your pencil at someone. Or if you get up and get something out of your backpack that you forgot, maybe you’re going to elbow another student on your way back to your seat, or make eye contact with them and divert them from looking at the teacher. Any one of these little behaviors they see as leading to the next behavior. Before you know it there will be bedlam.

ES: Does the emphasis on discipline diminish as kids get older?

Goodman: Well yes—as kids learn and adapt to this regime there’s less time spent on discipline. It takes a while for the kids to adapt to this because it’s so out of their experience. The older kids are still getting merits and demerits all the way through high school, though. In some schools they wear these lanyards that get marked, and when they accumulate a certain number of demerits things happen to them. By 12th grade, the kids are almost giving the demerits to themselves, they’re so accustomed by this point. You might think that if this is still going on in 12th grade, then the kids can’t have internalized all of this very well, but they do get used to it. They do adapt.

ES: One of the questions you ask is whether there are legitimate limits to the power exercised by schools over children.

Goodman: That’s a big question. What rights do children have that are similar to the rights of adults? Can you search them? Can you control what they say and don’t say at all times? Do they have any freedom of speech rights? Do they have any freedom to bring something to school if they want to? More than that, do they have any rights at all against oppressive punishment? Students in these schools have to go to a certain chair and sit there for a certain length of time, all at the teacher’s discretion, and sometimes they have to go repeatedly to this isolated chair with their back to the class. They may be deprived of recess if that’s granted. They have to go to detention and stay after school. They have to write things 100 times. In some of the schools, there’s a good bit of shaming: they have to wear different colored shirts, they can’t talk, they have to sit on a lower bench than other children. And it’s deliberate shaming of the kids. No one is allowed to talk to them. And what offense have they done to merit this kind of punishment? They haven’t done their homework or they’ve come in late, perhaps repeatedly. They haven’t done anything violent. There has been no adjudication. The teachers or the school norms say that this is appropriate. So what are the limits of what a teacher can do to a child?

ES: You expected that students in these kinds of schools would consider the rules oppressive, but in your study “The Quest for Compliance in Schools: Unforeseen Consequences,” you found that the students had come to believe that they didn’t deserve more freedom.

Goodman: One thing about these atmospheres is that they’re very uniform. Everybody is on board—you don’t have variability from teacher to teacher or class to class. The atmosphere is totalizing. And the children tend to model themselves after this authority. It has that effect on kids, that they identify with the rules of the regime and their identity becomes “a kid in this school who conforms to these rules.” Now some of the students, of course, don’t conform to the rules, and I think that if you get the kids later in life it’s much harder. But if you get them early, you develop their sense of self that accords with those of the authority. The adults know everything, they know nothing. Here’s what’s good, here’s what’s right. You’ll be successful and happy if you take on these characteristics. Without these rules you’ll be bad or impulsive and you’ll destroy your future. You may not be having fun but you’re doing what’s important. We know best. And the kids come to believe that. As the social psychologists have shown, in totalizing environments, that’s often the result. They call it “identification with the oppressor.” Here oppressor should be changed to authority. There is very, very strong authority in these schools. The teachers are novice teachers, so they get molded too. I don’t think you could take highly experienced teachers—20 years of running a classroom—and put them into these schools and have the same kind of experience. It’s a really interesting study to see how both the teachers and the kids get acculturated.

ES: I think it’s important to point out that you also have some very positive things to say about these schools—you’re not just a straight-up hater.

Goodman: Not at all. I’m certainly not a hater. I think the basic idea of order, of developing habits—you walk into class, you put your things away, you sit down, you take out your book, teacher says good morning, shakes hands, you look at her—some of the habits they’re cultivating will be helpful to kids. And certainly the prohibition on violence makes for a safe community. The problem is that the approach is unbalanced. I think a certain amount of routine, habit forming, strictness, limiting certain behavior is good—but I would always be working towards reducing that. Once you’ve established a safe environment, for example, why not loosen up on the behavior regulations? If I were running one of these schools I would feel that, “OK, I have to do this,”  but I would always be working towards turning over more authority to the kids. That would be my goal all of the time. Let the kids be responsible for their behavior. Have more group work, more student councils, more kids in charge of their own lives.