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John Thompson: Does a "No Excuses" Approach Really Work?

Guest post by John Thompson. Part one of two.

Last week I read Paul Tough's New York Times Magazine article, "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?," about the approach being taken by the KIPP schools and others, inspired by the work of Martin Seligman. Two big issues came up for me. The first were some practical concerns, regarding what happens when public schools attempt to implement a "no excuses" model. The second were some larger philosophical questions about the moral lessons being taught, and the roles our schools play in this arena. This post addresses the first set of issues. Tomorrow, part two will address the second set.

In his article, Tough quotes a principal:

"The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure," Randolph explained. "And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything."

In inner city schools, there is plenty of failure but rarely is there an effort to cultivate grittiness, resilience, and skills for rebounding from failure. Tough's article hints at the reason why, and hints even more broadly at a better way to improve urban schools.

Tough started with KIPP co-founder Dave Levin who developed a system of rewards and demerits designed to train middle school students in fractions and algebra. Levin also saw the need to nurture perseverance and empathy, and that was one reason why he incorporated songs, chants, slogans, and exhortatory techniques in his schools.

I wonder what would have happened if systems across the nation had adopted Levin's entire philosophy. But not surprisingly, high-challenge schools started with the easiest of Levin's methods and put up signs saying "Whatever It Takes!" and "Failure is NOT an Option!" So, I am curious about the number of teachers who then saw the following pattern as systems cherry-picked Levin's model.

First, principals and teachers who supported Levin's vision would start by calling a faculty meeting and proclaiming an unflinching focus on instruction, as well as a system for providing remediation. Levin's concerns about the socio-emotional aspects of learning would immediately be forgotten. But a system of rewards and punishments for students and teachers, along with additional paperwork would be announced. In my experience, some teachers would push back, others would remind their colleagues of the number of times this basic model had been tried, and most would silently vow to stick with the new system until it worked or, more likely, failed and was abandoned.

In my experience, at first, these initiatives always worked pretty well, and often they were spectacular successes. After a few weeks, however, the issue for teachers would become the minority of students who failed to comply. It might be the same handful of "hallwalkers" or the 5 to 10% of the chronically disruptive kids. It might be the 20 to 25% of the school who couldn't or wouldn't make it to first hour, or the few who steadfastly refused to come to class on time or to do detention. Or perhaps, the push for higher standards drove up the failure rate to above the 20 to 25% quota on F's.

Of course, the above percentages vary. The problem, however, is the raw numbers. Educators in neighborhood schools, in my experience, are just as skillful as those in "No Excuses" schools in dealing with individual cases. It is the sheer number of challenges that is overwhelming. And with district administrators having proclaimed that, "Failure is not an option," acknowledging the failure of students to meet "Expectations!" is not an option.

The issue for administrators invariably became the teachers - and not just the minority of teachers who failed to comply with the new system. Earlier in my career, by October teachers would become louder in pushing for consequences, and then our faculty meetings would degenerate into shouting matches. Eventually, the system managed to ban those complaints as "Excuses!," and teachers became sullen as they abandoned these initiatives. Sometimes, though, principals would expend their political capital and get approval to refer some of the most high-profile discipline problems to alternative schools. By that time, however, alternative services would be full, and soon we would get those students back, along with dozens more who were not ready to return to regular schools.

I have always wondered what could have happened if the entire "No Excuses!" model had been adopted and if the system had invested as much political capital in teaching perseverance and empathy. What if the failure to meet classroom behavioral standards had not been dismissed as the teachers' failures with classroom management? Think of the difference it would have made if educators in neighborhood schools had the ability to draw a line and enforce standards. Then, the failure of a student to control his or her behavior could have become "a teachable moment." We could have helped students develop the resilience required to be a good citizen in class.

The failure of large numbers of students to meet attendance and tardy standards could have been an even greater opportunity. We could have used our wonderful data systems to identify truants and we could have used this as an chance to reach out to parents. It would have also created another "opportunity" to chip away at an even tougher dilemma. Students can't learn for mastery if they are not in class, but enforcing the attendance policies would have sent the failure rate through the roof. Once students gained the rational expectation of passing, even though they miss dozens of classes, it becomes much harder to learn for mastery.

Professor Emeritus Lynn Canady has a "smart ass" proposal, saying we should make students "fail faster." Canady asserts that, "Repeated failure does no good for anybody." He says that by the fall we already know which students are hopelessly behind, but we have no option but to let them continue to fail until June. Instead, Canady proposes a schedule where those students are pulled out of their classes at the six week mark and given a second chance. They would be placed on a contract in new classes within the building, and given the support necessary to return to their original class in January, as long as they fulfilled their contractual obligations. In doing so, educators could have taught the stick-to-it-ness required to turn setbacks into lessons for life.

Of course, there would be endless other opportunities to use failure as a starting point for teaching students to be students, and the KIPP model is not the only way to address the socio-emotional. In fact, KIPP does not accept nearly as many children who have undergone deep trauma, meaning that the interventions required in neighborhood schools must be much more intensive. But, had we been just as serious about teaching students to be students as we were about teaching subject matter, could we have avoided our reform wars?

What do you think? What are other ways of turning defeats into opportunities to teach life skills? How many readers have participated in successful experiments to replicate the "No Excuses!" approach to failure, and how many have primarily had experiences like I describe?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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