Sunday, April 15, 2018

Expanding "No Excuses" Models is a Bad Idea

An organization called The Future of Children came out recently with a report titled Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap by Sarah Cohodes, an assistant professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Future of Children is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Brookings Institution whose mission is "to translate the best social science research about children and youth into information that is useful to policymakers, practitioners, grant-makers, advocates, the media, and students of public policy."

Here is the key takeaway from the report: While charter schools as a whole have been shown to perform at about the same level as traditional public schools, some charter schools serving urban, low-income and minority students and employing a no excuses philosophy tend to produce the largest gains. We should, therefore, scale up the no excuses model into traditional public schools to narrow the achievement gap.

The National Education Policy Center has done a terrific analysis of this report and goes into detail into the report's failings. Chief among the weaknesses of the report is a failure to fully examine what "no excuses" schooling really means and just how advisable recommending a no excuses approach is.

I encourage all to read both reports, but in this post I want to address just how antithetical to a real education the no excuses approach is.

For the uninitiated, "no excuses" is a model employed by many charter schools, including those that get the most publicity like KIPP and Success Academy. It includes several facets including high expectations in academics and behavior, longer learning days and school years, extensive tutoring, frequent teacher observation and feedback and data-driven instruction using frequent assessments to inform teachers.

The no excuses approach is controversial primarily because of its harsh, military, style approach to discipline. I have experienced this personally in "no excuses" charter schools. Children are expected to sit up straight, maintain eye contact with the teacher, remain quiet in the hallways, walk to class and lunch single-file and comply unquestioningly to teacher directives. All this doesn't sound so bad, after all an orderly environment is necessary for learning to take place.

But when students do not comply with these rigidly enforced rules, discipline is harsh and focused on shaming. Students may be placed "on the bench", a designation that may require them to wear a garish colored shirt so that all know they have broken the rules, to be isolated from classmates in the classroom and at lunch and to write a letter of apology to the teacher and fellow students that must be read in front of the class.

The sight of privileged, mostly white, teachers and administrators meting out this punishment to mostly brown students is squirm inducing. And the shaming does not stop there. Data Walls in the hallways of many of these schools display student test scores for all to see. I have written about my observations of this discipline based on shame here and here.

I question whether a few points of improvement on a standardized test is worth this kind of treatment. Should we be attempting to narrow the achievement gap by widening the disciplinary gap? These harsh discipline policies often lead to high rates of suspension. Is this really the message we want to send to children and what impact does this kind of treatment have on the kinds of non-cognitive skills that are necessary for success, such things as self-efficacy, persistence, curiosity, assertion, cooperation, and empathy.

There may be some things we can all learn from the charter school innovations. Intensive tutoring, extended school days, effective use of data (actual actionable data, not standardized test scores) all seem to be good ideas for students at academic risk. But the harsh disciplinary practices should be unacceptable to teachers and parents alike. Indeed, the indications are that the "teachers" hired by these charters find these practices oppressive. Research indicates this is one impotant reason for high teacher turnover in these schools.

Slavery was an effective means for getting cotton harvested. That didn't make it right or desirable. Is raising a few kids test scores worth importing the plantation mentality to the classroom?

  proactive  skills  can  be  in  direct  tension  with  disci-
plinary methods found i no-excuses schools

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