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School Choice and 'No Excuses' Charter Schools

Note: This week, L. Trenton Marsh, a doctoral candidate at NYU's Steinhardt School, will be guest-blogging. 

This week, my writings will take a glimpse at the school choice policy in the U.S. as well as explore choice with particular emphasis in urban districts. From an ethnographer perspective I also plan to provide insight about what it feels like to be a participant-observer in the thrall of "no-excuses" public charter schools. These posts in particular will stick to descriptive field notes and analytic memos that I have written in the field after several months at no-excuses schools. If and when there are names, all the information will be pseudonyms to protect participants and the locations in which they represent.

At the center of a contentious conflict on the direction of public education across many cities in the U.S. is the extent to which how much influence market-based school choice policies should have in the context of education reform. Market-based school reforms generally come in two varieties: vouchers and charter schools. Whereas vouchers are state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private school rather than public schools, charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate outside the control of traditional school systems. From no more than a dozen schools twenty-five years ago, today over 6,400 charter schools serve just over 2.5 million students, which is 5% of the nearly 50 million students attending public schools in the United States. There are varying types of public charter schools having distinct focuses and effectiveness. For instance, the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This charter school's mission is concerned with the perseverance of indigenous language and culture which the founders believe is a catalyst for students' academic and social success. Espousing culturally responsive teaching and learning, the school integrates native Navajo, Lakota, and Tiwa language, culture, and heritage into multiple aspects of the classroom, prompting students to critically reflect about their families' legacy within the U.S. and identify positive synergy between the past and future. There are other public charter schools that have been created to work directly with a particular type of student with unique learning needs (e.g., NYC Autism Charter School). However, my focus is on public charter schools with a no-excuses ideological orientation, also described by some in a recent New York Times op-ed as "high expectations, high supports" schools. These schools would be on the other end of the charter spectrum, with a different ideology.

Following George Mason Professor Paul Gorski, the term "ideology" in the context of schools is a system of beliefs that explain, characterize, or determine the basis of the policies and practices schools are likely to adopt. As socially shared ideas and assumptions, ideologies are expressed and generally reproduced in the social practices of their members, and more particularly, acquired, confirmed, changed and perpetuated through discourse. In the current school choice rhetoric, public charter schools, and the no-excuses model especially, have been created as alternative schooling options for African American and Latino/a students living in poverty. Couched under education reform due to offerings of a framework and pedagogical approaches that teach hard work, grit, and values that are presumed not offered in students' homes, and ostensibly equalizes educational opportunities for its students, no-excuses schools are driven by a very explicit ideology of what kids need in part by what school operators think they lack.

These no-excuses schools emphasize a rigid disciplinary code, frequent testing, dramatically increased instructional time, parental pledges of involvement, aggressive human capital strategies, and a relentless focus on math and reading achievement. Ultimately, these models are viewed as a solution to close the persistent achievement gap of high-poverty students of color with their middle-class, White and Asian peer groups. And once enrolled, if caregivers are not satisfied with their school selection, under the auspices of school choice, caregivers can ostensibly "vote with their feet." That is, families can find an alternative, as the U.S. education system purports to advance the values of equality through opportunity, or choice.

Yet, most charter schools are not like the Native American Community Academy mentioned in the beginning of this post. The board members are typically not from the community in which the school will reside. The community members are typically not involved with the decisions concerning the school's curriculum. The caregivers often do not have a voice concerning the preservation of their children's culture. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform's 2016 study of charter school governance in Massachusetts, for instance, revealed that many board members do not even live in the district where the charter is located; 31% are financial or corporate executives, while only 14% are parents/caregivers. And an overwhelming 60% of the charter schools in Massachusetts have no parent/caregiver representation at all. No-excuses charter schools have a similar governing model, which some would deem in the context of school choice policy as "false choices," often leaving the nation's most marginalized students in an unwinnable situation.

—L. Trenton Marsh

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