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Questioning "No Excuses"

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Could "No Excuses" schools—schools for low-income children that "create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values,"—be the solution to the achievement gap, as New York Times columnist David Brooks recently suggested? Teachers Nancy Flanagan and Doug Noon have some serious qualms:

Noon:

[Teachers and parents] understand that, while a “disciplined, orderly and demanding” school environment can promote middle-class values, these efforts, alone, will not sustain long-term changes for underprivileged students. Education reform must be accompanied by low-cost health care, decent housing, public and domestic safety, employment opportunities, job security, and affordable higher education.

Flanagan:

The next step in this line of thinking [toward no-excuses schools for poor children] is “paternalism”–a chilling and arrogant word that has recently been promoted as a positive quality in school reform. We choose what we want for our own children, and we know what's best for children in poverty. Work hard, be nice. No second chances, no excuses.
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This discussion of giving middle class values to poor kids is one that I find disturbing on a number of fronts. First off is the assumption that it is adherence to a certain set of values that underlies the achievement differences between social classes. This is a variation of victim-blaming. Sort of an "if they really wanted it, they could get it" excuse. This combined with the focus on externals (to the schools) such as health care, housing, nutrition, employment and safety really enable educators to put off any need to reform what happens within and between schools in order to equalize opportunity.

Nothing in my experience leads me to accept the suggestion that the yearning for a "disciplined, orderly and demanding" culture is at all foreign to low-income students--or further that they are incapable of cooperating with such an environment when the adults have clarity that this is needed. More the pity that so many urban schools are places of chaos--and believe that this is something that walks in the door with students. I know many low-income parents who are simply aghast at such conditions--and puzzled as to why teachers and administrators allow them to continue.

I will grant that I see little agreement among the adults as the best means of attacking chaotic conditions. Too many (both within and without the schools) still adhere to the throw them out or beat them with a stick school of thought. We can really do better than this. How about, for starters, a bit of discussion between the middle class teachers and the lower class parents?

From my own observations often "disciplined, orderly and demanding" schools often mean not teaching but excluding students who cause problems from school. In the mnds of many this is the solution to disordered school environments. We often hear "they should
know that" but if they don't what should a school do? Cognitive theorists respond help the students discover the relationships in a whole idea or concept. Meaningfulness and relvance become key ideas. Many students live their lives in a series of disconnected events This is not blaming the victim but actually using observation and research to understand where disruptive habits occur and how they are renforced causing the habits to become the norm.

Problem solving is the extension of one's personal thought processes beyond the information given in a problem situation. Deciding wheather to please staff, parents or peers, determining which activity would be more valuable and considering the extent one could influence the situation all illustrate personal thought processes the student brings to he problem situation. The best resource for problem solving is experience and the student brings a limited supply of this attribute. Ofter their experiences do not support the norms of the school.

So what are educators to do? We teach students reasons for situational appropriateness of behavior, we teach them dicipline and model the attritibute ourselves. We reward them for learning how to live in a two-rule world successfully. We bring rigor, relevance and positive relationships to the world of school. We teach order and dicipline and modle how efort receives rewards. We do water down, we do not attack, we make the students part of the solutio and bring them the world of diciplined living.

Margo/Mom: "First off is the assumption that it is adherence to a certain set of values that underlies the achievement differences between social classes."

Bingo. For all the grief she's taken from the critical theorists (and there are lots of things in her work that should make administrators trying to achieve "cultural competence" very wary)-- I believe Ruby Payne is correct in noting that teachers, as a group, tend to have middle class values, and be uncomfortable with children who bring different things to the table. Every time a teacher is able to step away from their own lens on "success" and ask whose beliefs and habits are being used to judge the situation, it's a move toward what Gary is describing--problem-solving, rather than reflexive criticism.

I'm not saying the polite behavior, personal discipline, and attending to speakers aren't desirable things--they are, and they're necessary for group work and productive classrooms. What bothers me is the subjunctive "should:" the presumption that kids can't learn unless they behave in ways that fit the teacher's norms.

I had lunch once with a group of charter school teachers in Chicago. All of them were National Board Certified, and most came into teaching via alternate routes. Their schools were all chartered under prescriptive behavior models-- uniforms, standardized communication ("yes, ma'am"), standardized ways of walking in the halls (arms folded over chest), and of course, a standardized curriculum. The teachers pointed out that the enforced norms in their schools looked a lot more like the military (or even incarceration) than a place of joy or growth.

I am also very wary of what Ruby Payne offers. But I do agree--the discomfort level of teachers (or anyone, really) when confronted with cultural difference causes problems. What I find really distasteful about Payne is that she ascribes many things to "poor people" that are just inaccurate. People who have actually studied such things find that the aspirations of poor people for their children tend to be higher than those of their teachers. Payne falls into "they're too busy staying alive to worry about those things," school.

I have also found that many African American families, through extended networks of family members that the white middle class tends not to even see (as it falls outside their own realm of experience), impart to their children a high level of respect for adults/elders. It must be confusing, therefore, to be confronted in schools by adults who are not well-schooled in the delivering the behavioral expectations that accompany this. Walking in straight lines, responding with sir or ma'am, or being told in no uncertain terms what one is to do, may or may not be a necessary form of respect, but if it is the familiar form, and it is not called for, a child ends up hopelessly testing the limits, trying to force the adults into their expected roles.

In white middle class homes, it is far less likely to be the quiet child who is obedient who gets attention than the precocious chatterbox who is able to interrupt the grown folks with examples of their vocabulary and learning.

I don't know that there is one model of schooling that is most or best responsive to different norms of culture--except that it is difficult to build on either discomfort or a perception of cultural deficit on the part of another. This is where I find Payne to be doing actual harm. Her descriptions of poor people as dumpster divers who sit in dark living rooms watching TV does nothing to tap into the resources brought to the table by students in poor (or black or otherwise different) neighborhoods.

I'll wager that in any neighborhood where young and inexperienced teachers are struggling with "discipline" and "classroom management," there are within easy walking distance a handful of adults who know how to walk into a classroom and demand instant attention. Furthermore, such adults likely share a concern for the future of the children in those classrooms--as a community value. Unless and until we are able to see the potential of these resource people, and understand that they have things to teach and to share, we are likely to remain stuck in situations that blame students, their parents and their neighborhoods for their inability to succeed in school.

Margo/Mom: "People who have actually studied such things find that the aspirations of poor people for their children tend to be higher than those of their teachers. Payne falls into 'they're too busy staying alive to worry about those things,' school."

"[Payne's] descriptions of poor people as dumpster divers who sit in dark living rooms watching TV does nothing to tap into the resources brought to the table by students in poor (or black or otherwise different) neighborhoods."

Nancy: Wow. I attended two Ruby Payne trainings and read her "Framework" book twice and never heard/read anything remotely like that. In fact, Payne is careful to say that many people in poverty do have high goals for their children, especially since they know that only with such aspiration and determination will their children have a shot at moving out of generational poverty. The fact that children in poverty bring many resources and skills to school that are unrecognized/unacknowledged by their middle class teachers is a core tenet of Payne's framework.

People who have actually studied Payne's materials know that. But this is not a referendum on Ruby Payne, nor am I a Payne acolyte--far from it.

I do agree with your statement that respect for elders is valued in strong, extended families living in poverty-- and that there are respected adults who share deep concern for the future of children in dysfunctional classrooms. The fact that those adults are not utilized daily as models and leaders in high-needs schools is a shame, indeed. And it doesn't help to send young, poorly trained "missionary" teachers into poor schools for a two-year stint (speaking of situated respect), believing that an Ivy League degree trumps human regard and deference.

There's a big difference between teaching children the tangible signs of respect (walking in lines to make it easy for everyone to pass in the hall, respectful ways to address another person whether elder or peer, paying attention to a person who's speaking) and enforcing standardized behaviors via fear and coercion. I understand that there is comfort, value and learning in routines (I taught music for 30 years-- protocols for rehearsal, group pride, and care of equipment were essential). But when the desired outcome is control and power over students, there's a shift in intent--from "we're doing this because we care about you" to "we're making you do this because it's what we have decided you need." Paternalism.

Going back to your statement about the widespread belief that middle-class values are necessary for students to achieve in schools: Working with minority teachers in Detroit who are pursuing National Board Certification, I have been struck repeatedly by their willingness to aggressively get into kids' faces, scolding and demanding harshly that the child shape up. They say things that white teachers would be fired for-- but the kids respond to being chewed out by trying hard to do better, because they understand that the teacher cares deeply about them. That's a different kind of paternalism-- the village taking responsibility for raising the child. Those teachers, of course, are solidly in the middle class. But the values they're putting into play bridge class separations.

Nancy:

Susan O'hanion has a fairly thorough qualitative analysis of Payne's claims at http://www.susanohanian.org/show_research.html?id=192

I believe that I first saw this published in Teacher's College Record.

Margo,
I have read Ohanian's piece--and Gorski's stuff--and Paul Tough's piece--and most of what the critical theorists and written--and I've watched the annoying YouTube video of the young man who believes he is "debunking" Ruby Payne. And--once again, I have been through the training myself (something that those who would cherry-pick a sentence here, a bullet point there, have not), and have read Payne's books.

As I noted--I am not a Payne acolyte. We can do much better than Payne if we want to offer our teachers insights and skills when working across poverty lines. But--the fact remains: teachers feel that they have learned something valuable from the Ruby Payne trainings. When you ask teachers (as I do in all teacher leadership experiences) what books have had influence over their practice, her name invariably comes up.

Are all those teachers wrong? I don't think so. Payne may be simplistic. But most of the pushback against her work (which doesn't differ much from any other social science analysis, going all the way back to Bourdieu) is around the flaws in her research and the fact that she is not one of the higher-ed inner circle. She writes "practitioner books," not articles for peer-reviewed journals. She also makes a great deal of money and has spread her thinking to countless numbers of teachers. Plus she is a conservative, white woman who lives in Texas. How could she be sharing anything valuable? (tongue firmly in cheek here)

As I think about how teachers learn to teach "other people's children"--the craft knowledge, shifts in belief, development of mental models-- Ruby Payne's ideas are less paternalistic than some highly structured charter school programs. Ruby Payne is not the devil--but there are better lenses for looking at how we educate children in poverty.

I would vote for a few visits to parents at home, or to churches or supermarkets in the neighborhood around the school. But--using someone like Payne really skirts, to my mind, the need for authentic relationships to the families of children that one is teaching. I don't know that she confronts the discomfort around difference as much as she affirms it.

Then there is also the issue that her experience doesn't match up with research done by sociologists. I don't have any problem with "practitioner books," as long as that is not an excuse for shoddy underpinnings. In Payne's case, I think this is so.

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  • Margo/Mom: I would vote for a few visits to parents at read more
  • Nancy Flanagan: Margo, I have read Ohanian's piece--and Gorski's stuff--and Paul Tough's read more
  • Margo/Mom: Nancy: Susan O'hanion has a fairly thorough qualitative analysis of read more
  • Nancy Flanagan: Margo/Mom: "People who have actually studied such things find that read more
  • Margo/Mom: I am also very wary of what Ruby Payne offers. read more

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