The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schools that accept ‘no excuses’ from students are not helping them

I should know; I taught in one.

About 100 students protested the lack of minority teachers near the campus of Achievement First Amistad High School. (Brian Zahn / The New Haven Register)

When I taught at a charter school, I once gave out 37 demerits in a 50-minute period. This was the sort of achievement that earned a new teacher praise in faculty-wide emails at Achievement First Amistad High School, in New Haven, Conn.

Amistad is a No Excuses school, in the mold of high-profile charter networks such as KIPP and Success Academy. The programs are founded on the notion that there can be “no excuses” for the achievement gap between poor minorities and their more affluent, white counterparts. To bridge that gap, they set high expectations and strict behavioral codes. School days are long. Not a moment is to be wasted. Classes even rehearse passing out papers quickly so they can save every second for drilling academic content. Instruction is streamlined with methods that data says lead to strong performances on standardized tests, which lead to college acceptances.

In May, Amistad’s students decided they’d had enough of compliance. One morning, they refused to attend classes and instead marched to protest the school’s racism and draconian discipline system. In a way, they were taking after their school’s namesake: Nearly 200 years ago, the Amistad was a slave ship whose cargo rebelled, then demanded education as well as freedom.

Amistad’s students were mostly protesting the fact that their school doesn’t have more minority teachers: Achievement First says 17 percent of its faculty members at its five New Haven schools are black or Latino, which is roughly what I saw at Amistad. But the problem goes far beyond the racial composition of the faculty. More important, the students would benefit from teachers who treated them as equals in dignity and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

The Achievement First network, like many No Excuses schools, hammers its students from their first days with the notion that each of them will graduate from college. To do so, they must work hard. At school, students encounter careful uniform checks and communal chanting of motivational slogans. And because students will face professional standards in college and the workplace, No Excuses schools insist that they start young. Posture and eye contact are important, even for 16-year-olds. Class is not to proceed without total compliance.

By some measures, the methods work. At Amistad, for example, 100 percent of graduates are accepted to college, many to very selective ones. And yet such charter schools have often been criticized as excessively harsh. A New York Times story last year described Success Academy students peeing their pants because they were not permitted to go to the bathroom during practice tests. That harshness looks worse when it is carried out mostly by white teachers against students who are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

On my first day teaching 10th-grade English, I broke with No Excuses protocol. I wanted my students to fall in love with ideas; I wanted them — not me, and certainly not some figure behind a desk at Achievement First headquarters — to control their own confrontation with difficult concepts. So I had them rearrange their desks into a circle and gave them a short but baffling text by Jorge Luis Borges. The kids struggled. More than a few of them broke the behavioral code (slouching, talking to classmates, shouting out their reactions to the reading or my queries). But they worked hard and asked questions. At the end of the class, one student thanked me: “I’ve never thought about such big ideas before,” she said.

From that day, the school’s administration, which learned about the violation, had my number. An administrator watched my class every day. If I didn’t fully enforce the school’s code — under which demerits must be issued for slouching, looking at the wrong person or even taking notes when not explicitly directed to — the administrator would correct me on the spot.

Soon, questions were forbidden. In an email to the faculty, the school’s principal explained that the 10th grade was not doing well. Evidence included the fact that students were hugging each other in the halls. As a solution, the principal presented a rule: “There Are No Questions.” He explained: “Every time you engage with a question, you effectively A) go off your carefully planned lesson pacing, B) put one student over the rest of the class and C) kill momentum.”

Amanda Pinto, the school’s communications director, told me last month that, at Amistad, “kids are asking questions all the time.” She noted that banning “unsolicited questions [during the] full class” didn’t mean that students couldn’t ask individual questions when their peers were otherwise occupied.

Still, the questions rule turned my class to chaos. My students had read a bit of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” and I asked them to write briefly about Machiavelli’s morality. Following protocol, I told the students to silently spend the next minute writing an answer. Two students raised their hands. “Start working silently, and I’ll come answer your question once everyone’s started,” I said, following the required script. They kept their hands defiantly in the air.

With an administrator watching, I wasn’t allowed to hear their questions, so I kept pushing back, telling the students to wait. Eventually, their protest turned vocal, and soon the whole class was yelling and throwing things — open rebellion. Later, I learned that those two students (good, focused kids) had raised their hands because they didn’t know the word “morality.” The problem could have been easily solved.

Classes were designed to follow No Excuses dogma, in a way that precluded real engagement. Discussion was considered a waste of time because it didn’t produce measurable results. Teachers were forbidden from speaking for more than 5 percent of a class period. That meant most of the time was devoted to worksheets.

Classrooms at Amistad were often unruly. My students’ favorite disruption strategy was to make bird noises — a clever move, because it’s impossible to tell who is making the noises, so no one ends up punished. One of my student advisees said to me, “I’ve been in charter schools for 10 years, and the only way to have fun is to get in trouble.” Amistad officials knew they had a morale problem. Still, an administrator once stopped me in the hall to say (on her own initiative, not following policy) that she had seen me laughing in front of my students, which was wholly inappropriate behavior.

I told a friend who had grown up in China about some of the struggles at Amistad. “That’s as bad as Communist China!” she said. “They made us march at recess.” I told her that Amistad does not have recess. The students’ only opportunity to socialize was during the lunch period, half of which was devoted to silent study hall. For a few kids facing extra punishment, lunch, too, was silent.

It’s much easier to teach behavioral management tactics than to foster deep passion and knowledge about an academic field, and Achievement First provided all the scripts and coaching necessary to get a willing body functioning as part of its behavioral management machine. Inspiring kids with academic content wasn’t really part of the picture. The inspiring part of education is messy: Teenagers are excitable, emotional creatures, and when they encounter ideas that thrill or upset them, things are bound to get a little chaotic. That’s a sign that something good is happening — that ideas matter.

When I left Amistad, I went to teach at a progressive prep school in D.C., where the arts thrived and students shaped the spirit of their school. Once, I looked around the room at my students and noticed that, at that moment, every one of them — engrossed in discussion, looking through their books to develop ideas, taking notes, sitting comfortably — was doing something that would have earned a demerit at Amistad. Sure, the two schools’ populations differed significantly in racial composition and affluence, but the way a school treats its students shouldn’t be based on race or class.

That’s the basic premise of No Excuses: Race and class shouldn’t determine educational success. But because administrators so misunderstand what matters about education, their students are punished for the same behavior that, at a school with a hefty price tag, merits celebration. Amistad, like its No Excuses brethren, holds that no academic work can be done until and unless the classroom reaches perfect behavioral compliance. Yet no one demands such compliance of more-privileged kids. And so No Excuses schools re-create the racial gap they aim to eliminate.

Amistad students focused their protest in May on the relatively low number of black teachers on their school’s faculty. They protested because they sensed that something was wrong at their school; they knew, in some way, that they weren’t getting the rich and exciting experience they deserved. And, as one Amistad teacher put it, they seized on faculty diversity because that’s what they’ve been taught: The school’s curriculum focuses heavily on racial issues. What they don’t have the tools or experience to know is just how much deeper Amistad’s problems go — just how much more they’re missing out on.

In some ways, Achievement First administrators acted admirably: They knew in advance about the protest, met with students while it unfolded and commended the students afterward for speaking their minds, according to an Amistad teacher who asked for anonymity in speaking against the administration. Perhaps the school will hire a few more black teachers this year. But it shows no sign that it will address its demeaning merit system, its fundamental joylessness, or any of the other issues that cut closer to the core of the school’s problems and those of others like it. That students are refusing to comply with their school’s draconian system is a sign that Amistad hasn’t yet stamped out their heart.