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No Apologies for 'No Excuses' Charter Schools

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Fordham Institute. Back in 2002, after twenty years in journalism, Robert left a senior position at Business Week to teach fifth grade in the South Bronx, before moving to the Core Knowledge Foundation and ultimately to Fordham. He has an eagerly awaited book coming out in September about New York City's remarkable, controversial Success Academy. He'll be writing about anti-charter school activism, the problems with searching for the New Big Thing, and why we're unlikely to reach consensus on what schools should teach—and why that's okay.

When The New York Times ran an article earlier this month on the "growing backlash" against urban charter schools, Greg Richmond, President of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), offered an oddly tepid response. "Most charter schools are not part of networks, most are not No Excuses," he tweeted. "You wouldn't know that from media coverage."

In fact, while "no excuses" schools operated by networks may not be the most common form of charters, they are by far the most successful. Perversely, they are also the ones that charter advocates, authorizers, and operators seem most eager to distance themselves from. NACSA cheerily notes a "notable and significant decline" in approvals by authorizers of no excuses schools. 

It's a strange and dangerous moment in the charter-school movement. Democratic presidential candidates are falling over themselves to distance themselves from charters and attack "privatizers." But the greatest victory of anti-charter activists has not been souring the public or even the Democrats on charter schools. It's been turning the charter school sector against its own most successful model.

The phrase "no excuses" was coined 20 years ago to describe an optimistic movement and mindset that insisted there must be no excuses for adult failure. This coincided with the charter movement's highest level of moral authority and public prestige, but that was no coincidence. When it first gained traction as a brand, a school model, and a rallying cry, "no excuses" signaled the non-negotiable belief that the root cause of educational failure and black-white achievement gaps was not poverty, not parents, not children, and above all not race. It was the belief that failing schools were the source of the problem and that great schools could be the solution—provided, of course, that everyone associated with them refused to tolerate or excuse failure.

Schools that embraced the "no excuses" mantra and mindset shared standard features such as longer instructional days, data-driven instruction, school uniforms, insistence on proper classroom behavior, an embrace of testing and accountability, and an unshakable commitment to get all students to and through college—features that remain in place in many charters (and other successful schools) today.

But you'd be hard-pressed to find a single charter leader who now uses the term to describe their school model. In an interview in The Atlantic two years ago, Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz responded almost viscerally to it. "We're not a no-excuses school. We're just not. I don't really know how to respond to that nomenclature." But as I note in my forthcoming bookHow the Other Half Learns, based on a year of fly-on-the-wall observations at Success, Moskowitz's schools are not merely no excuses schools, they're the most no excuses. Whether one cares for her brand of education or not, its defining feature is a demanding and unflinching culture that reflexively (often uncomfortably) asks what adults—including parents—need to do differently when things go awry.

If we're clear-eyed and candid, we have to concede that nearly three decades of ed reform has been a mixed blessing—lots of disruption in return for less than stellar results. But there have been two clear and unambiguous victories: the first was the moral authority of calling out the "soft bigotry of low expectations" making it unacceptable to hold poor and minority kids to lower standards. The second is urban charter schools, mostly CMO-run, that have come the closest to honoring that ideal while providing a critical lifeboat to families otherwise stuck in lousy schools.

A 2017 report from Stanford University's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) found that urban charter schools "provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers." CREDO estimated that students in CMO-run schools received the equivalent of 97 additional days of school in math over traditional district-run schools and an extra 46 days of instruction in reading. The standouts among this group were KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, YES Prep, and other "no excuses" pioneers. The comparatively lackluster results of other charters make ed reform and charter advocates' reluctance to embrace and defend the high-fliers doubly odd.

As I note in my book, no single event, policy directive, or study marked the moment when "no excuses" went from a rallying cry to a curse. The broken-windows theory of community policing on which no excuses school culture was loosely based (e.g., sweat the small stuff; order is essential; learning can't occur in chaos) became closely associated with aggressive "stop and frisk" policing, much as no excuses became conflated with thoughtless zero tolerance policies and exclusionary discipline.

The sight of black and brown children required to "track the speaker" in class, or passing through hallways in straight lines, routinely brings complaints from both progressive educators and political progressives that high-performing schools teach only compliance and perpetuate the "school to prison pipeline"—a critique that deserves the strongest rebuke. Students in high-performing charters are not on their way to prison. They're on their way to college. If all you see is teachers imposing their will on children, compliance for compliance sake, rather than a determined effort to create the school culture and classroom conditions—attention, focus, and affirmation—that make learning possible, you've missed the point entirely. 

The reluctance to defend the no excuses culture validates the common criticism that these schools are harsh and militaristic. Yet caring support for students is essential to the success of no excuses schools.  "One thing I consistently found was that no-excuses discipline failed if it was not combined with the sure knowledge on a student's part that teachers cared deeply about them and their education," said David Whitman, who wrote a seminal book in 2008 on no excuses schools, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. "There had to be a caring connection between teacher and student for strict discipline to work, or what I described as a kind of benign paternalism," he told me. SEL enthusiasts take note: tough love is not an oxymoron. 

Wonks may love research and data, but narrative wins hearts and minds. The general impulse—that a safe, well-run, and orderly school is a precondition to academic excellence—has not changed in a generation and remains very popular with parents who continue to swell urban charter waitlists. The mindset that it is (or ought to be) morally unacceptable to allow low-income kids and children of color to be failed by adults and the institutions we build for their ostensible benefit, is no less valid or resonant today than it was two decades ago. What "no excuses" got right—and it's still right—is that learning cannot occur in chaos. High expectations are essential and non-negotiable. "No excuses" meant exactly that: If kids are failing, we are failing. These are ideals that don't need an apology. They need a revival. 

--Robert Pondiscio

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