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'No Excuses' Charter Schools and the State of Urgency

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

By the year 2025, the non-White student population in the U.S. is expected to rise over 50%. While classrooms across the country become increasingly diverse, the teachers at the helm remain overwhelmingly homogeneous, as 82% of public school teachers identify as being White. In addition, the pedagogical practices to address the student diversity have, for many teachers and school districts, remained unchanged. Similar trends exist in no-excuses public charter schools, where white teachers comprise the majority of the teaching force and the pedagogical practices are driven, in part, by a state of urgency. Some argue the idea of urgency, as a neoliberal principle, perpetuates urban education as constantly in "crisis" mode and students' time must always be maximized because their lives depend on the notion that "every minute counts." While this type of pejorative rhetoric can resonate with teachers at various schools across the country, it is those teachers located in urban cities, and certainly those situated at no-excuses schools that may have this implicitly biased messaging on internal replay, affecting their pedagogy the most.

The practice and quality of teaching consists of a complex set of knowledge and skills which encompass a teachers' everyday work, such as facilitating content accurately yet also at a level that can be digested by students; implementing critically challenging lessons and tasks; and evaluating and remediating student misunderstandings. And while teachers' knowledge, skills and expertise are important, teacher beliefs—the ways in which teachers understand their students, including the assumptions they make about and expectations they have for students, particularly marginalized students (e.g., low-income, linguistic and ethnic minority, etc.) and their families—are just as essential. This is especially important when teachers do not mirror the identities nor have any experience with the lived realties of their students. Teachers' beliefs and school's ideological dispositions toward students can dictate the pedagogical approaches that are offered within schools.

In many no-excuses public charter schools the pedagogical approaches are often rooted in the teacher-directed instructional taxonomies and strategies developed in 2005 by Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools, author of Teach Like a Champion (TLC). The latest edition includes nearly 70 techniques that can be implemented inside classrooms as demonstrated by teachers who were evaluated as being "effective" from the Uncommon Schools charter management network. The effective rating was due to students excelling on standardized test scores by not only passing state requirements but for some also meeting or exceeding the scores of students from more affluent backgrounds. TLC promotes a streamlined version of educational efficiencies drawn from a corporate model used to create shared technical language, cultural tenets and infrastructure across a school's content areas.

One tenet in particular is the idea of urgency. In an interview, a teacher in a no-excuses school serving low-income, African American and Latino/a students suggested, "Individual students when given an opportunity to demonstrate willpower, persistence and urgency in an academic environment, are going to be much the better off than their peers in every way shape and form." In this quote she paints the idea of the state of urgency as universal. That is, any student in the U.S. when given an opportunity to demonstrate particular values will be better off in school and in life. This seemingly is marked by a color- and context-blind vacuum of meritocracy. Since no-excuses schools are predominantly made up of low-income, African-American and Latino/a students, in essence the belief is that these are the types of students that must be urgent if they want to achieve. In another interview, a teacher confided the state of urgency creates "...extra time to mold [students] and to [show them] what it takes [to be successful]." For this middle school teacher, there are prevailing stereotypes about vulnerable students, stereotypes hardened by a pseudo-psychological process called cultural deficit thinking, resulting in a school culture that sustains pedagogy predestined on the notion that classroom 'time loss is a life loss'. Thus translating into silent hallways; timed movements; straight lines; uniformity; work packet-driven classrooms; teacher-led discussion; hand signals in class to minimize verbal communication; limited recess; regulated communication during lunch and rigid disciplinary actions for any noncompliance. Students' 'lack of urgency,' can be adversely misinterpreted ensuing un/official school-centric labels such as defiant, disengaged, disrespectful, or worse.

This state of urgency comes with additional human costs. Students can lose relevancy. That is, the explanation why education and achievement, particularly for students of color, may be so important. Since learning is fundamentally contextual, some scholars argue there are extra social, emotional, cognitive, and political competencies required of African American students because the ideology of the larger U.S. society has historically been about questioning Black intellectual competence. Educational psychologist Asa Hilliard, III discusses the notion that African American students and students of color generally, can do exceptionally well in school if they can build self-esteem, but self-esteem is not generated and created without self-confidence—aspects of human development that, for some students, may not be built speedily without proper interpersonal relationships. And to have the type of confidence Hilliard talked about, schools and teachers need to genuinely point to ancestors, the Black and Brown indigenous individuals of this country, upon "the backs" of whom the United States laid its foundation, and present them as great people. That is, individuals who are revolutionary inventors, leaders, and activists saw education as liberation and liberation as education. This positioning would be woven into the fabric of the school's ideology and pedagogical practices. Accordingly when students understand this aspect of their socio-cultural history, they can create a self rooted, self-esteem that is relevant for the construction of self and can ultimately help them in their academic growth. But in no-excuses public charter schools, the described self rooted, self-esteem is often missing under the aegis of a state of urgency.

—L. Trenton Marsh

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