Radical Eyes for Equity: The Crumbling Facade of “No Excuses” and Educational Racism
Sarah Karp offers a long overdue and somewhat surprising opening lede for WBEZ Chicago, home to a number of charter school chains:
Chicago’s largest charter school network sent a letter to alumni this week admitting that its past discipline and promotion policies were racist and apologizing for them. The apology is notable not just as an acknowledgment of misguided policies, but as a repudiation of the “no-excuses” philosophy adopted by many charter schools during the 2000s.
“No excuses” ideologies and practices have been a foundational staple of charter schools disproportionately serving Black students, Hispanic students, and poor students well back into the 1990s but blossoming in the 2000s since both political parties jumped on the charter school bandwagon. By the late 2000s, mainstream media and the Obama administration were all-in on charter schools as “miracles.”
There were always two problems with the charter school mania and propaganda—data never supported the “miracle” claims (see my “Miracle School Myth” chapter), and worse of all, “no excuses” ideology has always been racist, shifting the blame and gaze onto students and teachers in order to ignore systemic inequity and racism.
“No excuses” schools always began with the assumption that Black, Hispanic, and poor students are fundamentally “broken” and must be “fixed”—an ugly and racist version of deficit thinking.
Almost a decade ago, I spoke at the University of Arkansas after the publication of my book on poverty and education; in that work and talk, I directly challenged “no excuses” ideologies and charter chains as harmful and, yes, racist.
In the wake of that talk, I was discounted and mis-characterized in Education Next, along with an equally unfair swipe at another KIPP critic, Jim Horn: “critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart.”
Neither Horn nor I hold those views, and our criticisms were firmly and clearly grounded in arguing that “no excuses” is essentially racist and classist.
As I have documented, when I contacted the article authors about the false narrative they created around Horn and me, Maranto both admitted the framing was unfair and claimed the article would be updated; it never was.
The Noble charter chain mea culpa is likely too little, too late, but it is a serious crack in the facade perpetuated by “no excuses” advocates over the last two decades, included so-called “scholars” at the Department of Educational Reform (University of Arkansas) where Maranto works.
Jim Horn has an excellent volume confronting and dismantling the many problems with KIPP charter schools, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through “No Excuses” Teaching.
Our work, along with many other scholars and educators committed to equity and anti-racism, has been ignored and often directly attacked, primarily because we dare to name racism as “racism.”
While I am not suggesting that Noble’s confession trumps our scholarship and work that has spanned multiple decades, I do want anyone concerned about education, education reform, and educational equity to step away from assumptions and see clearly how harmful “no excuses” ideologies and practices have been for students and their teachers.
“No excuses” ultimately fails for many reasons—being trapped in “blame the victim” approaches that normalize an unspoken white and affluent standard against which marginalized populations of students are judged, and harmed.
“No excuses” has been compelling because in the U.S. we are prone to seeing all problems as individual and not systemic. But it has also been compelling because education reform has always been tragically drawn to silver-bullet solutions and the shiny mirages seen as “miracles.”
Let me stress here that currently “no excuses” has quite a number of equally racist and flawed practices entrenched all across K-12 schooling: “grit,” growth mindset, word gap, Teach for America, grade retention, and the poverty workshops of Ruby Payne.
K-12 education in the U.S. is mostly a reflection of the communities schools serve; our schools tend to house and perpetuate our social inequities, but schools do very little to overcome racism, sexism, classism, etc.
Education reform has for nearly four decades refused to acknowledge systemic inequity, choosing instead to punish students, teachers, and schools. The many policies and fads of education reform over those decades have been themselves racist and classist, ultimately doing more harm than good to students, teachers, and education.
Karp includes an important realization by Jennifer Reid Davis, chief equity officer for Noble:
“It’s important to own it,” she said. “I think you have to say it, I think you have to be honest. Part of what it truly means to be anti-racist is to be honest about the circumstances in which you are in and or created.”
The list is quite long still of those who need “to own it” and allow confronting racism to be the first step to ending racism in our schools and our society.
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