Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Whatever Happened to “No Excuses” Schools?
Nothing. They are still around in big cities. What has changed is the rhetoric of reform. Where once the phrase “No Excuses” was plastered on car bumpers. It was a popular label that one wing of urban school reformers used with pride, but now it has fallen out of favor. Although the sticker has been stripped from the bumper, “No Excuses” schools remain.
The substance of these mostly charter network schools–curriculum, instruction, organization, and governance– continues largely as they have been (e.g., Knowledge Is Power Program–KIPP–Uncommon Schools, YES Prep). As “policy talk” goes–the rhetoric of reform–charter school spokespeople avoid “no excuses” as much as they would in talking about their undergarments.
In two decades, the phrase has gone from a proud label charter school advocates used to fierce rejection by many of the same boosters. Listen to Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academies in New York City in a 2017 interview:
“We’re not a no-excuses school. We’re just not. I don’t really know how to respond to that nomenclature…. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe that high levels of learning can occur in chaos, and we do believe that students do need to say please and thank you to the lunch ladies. We do assign school uniforms to simplify things for parents … and really allow us to focus on learning [instead of clothes.]”
What Problems Do “No Excuses” Schools Intend To Solve?
The problems such schools attack are the achievement gap in test scores between whites and minorities and small numbers of low-income, minority high school seniors entering higher education. No Excuses schools, then, seek to raise the low test scores plaguing minority and poor students in urban districts. They also prepare minority low-income students for college entry and long-term success. See here and here.
What Do “No Excuses” Schools Look Like in Practice?
A teacher at one such school described her experience:
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.
Or take Democracy Prep:
At Democracy Prep Harlem Middle School, a sixth grade math teacher started her class by giving her students exactly four minutes to solve a problem involving ratios. When her watch beeped, homework was collected and all eyes turned to the front of the room.
“Pencils in the groove and you’re tracking me in three, two, one and zero,” she said, using a term common among charter schools where students are frequently instructed to “track” a speaker with steady eye contact and full attention.
Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.
Democracy Prep is among several charter networks with a “no excuses” philosophy. Like other charter schools the days are long, running from 7:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and the academics rigorous. But there is also a culture of discipline that can cut both ways. In some schools, and with some families, the tough approach has worked well while for others it has prompted students to leave….
“No excuses means that there’s no excuse for our kids not being successful in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship,” said Seth Andrew, founder and Superintendent of Democracy Prep….
Do “No Excuses” Schools Work?
Using measures of providing safety, structure, high test scores, and college admissions the answer for low-income and working class families is a resounding “Yes.” Much less resounding, however, are college completion rates. These schools are less successful in having their graduates earn bachelor’s degree in four to six years. See here and here.
Why has the once popular label “No Excuses” fallen into disuse
Criticism of classroom disciplinary codes, whole-class direct instruction, and less than stellar results in college completion have eroded the image of No Excuses schools (here and here). Epithets–“militaristic,” “rigid,” “rote learning”–spilled over mainstream and social media. The phrase lost its initial luster. Moreover, some charter networks (e.g., KIPP, Achievement First) questioned whether their students were acquiring the necessary skills to succeed at the next level of education. They began expanding student autonomy encouraging teachers to alter lessons to get students to think independently (see here and here).
So No Excuses may have fallen into the dust-bin of abandoned catch-phrases but particular charter school networks evolving as they–and other schools so often do–modified a few aspects of their curriculum, instruction, and behavioral codes, continue many of the features that have characterized them for decades.
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