An Open Letter to Teachers and Staff at No Excuses Charter Schools

The former dean of students at a New Orleans charter school urges teachers and staff at No Excuses schools to ask some hard questions about the model’s social and emotional costs…

By Ramon Griffin

Dear You:

no excuses chalkboardYou were selected to teach at your school because of your intelligence, spunk, tenacity, vigor and, most of all, your passion for public education. You are a risk-taker. You have a can-do attitude with swag to match. You believe that every child has the capacity to achieve academically and are committing your life to ensuring that you affect change in every student you encounter. Your dedication to ensuring that traditionally marginalized students receive a first class education is commendable. But do you know how much power you hold? Do you truly understand the *No Excuses* school culture that you are part of? Do you know the psychological and emotional costs that the No Excuses model has on students of color? Furthermore, do you care to know?

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled *Colonizing the Black Natives: Reflections from a former New Orleans Charter School Dean of Students.* I started the piece by asking if some charters’ practices were new forms of colonial hegemony. It is vital to add that while I was employed at the school, this thernstromthought never crossed my mind. My writings were taken by some charter management administrators and staff as an *attack* instead of an opportunity critically engage and refine, deconstruct and reconstruct practices that are doing more harm than good. This time around, I’m hoping to encourage teachers and staff at No Excuses charter schools to acknowledge what is transpiring in their schools so that we can begin to push back against these practices and transform our schools.

I’ll start by offering a few examples of my own. When I chased young Black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they had added a different color streak to their hair, or when I followed young men to make sure that their hair wasn’t styled naturally, I could have been critically engaging my administrative peers on why these practices were the law at our school—and how exactly they contributed to getting students into and through college. When my school punished young people for not having items school leaders knew their families couldn’t afford, I could have been pushing back against policies that effectively punished students for being poor. When we pulled students out of their classrooms for countless hours for minor infractions even as we drilled them constantly on the importance of instruction time, we could have been taking our own advice. Or when we suspended students from school for numerous days, we could have been providing alternatives that disciplined them but kept them in school.

When my school punished young people for not having items school leaders knew their families couldn’t afford, I could have been pushing back against policies that effectively punished students for being poor.

I recently spoke on a panel in Nashville about the psychological and emotional costs that No Excuses school cultures have on students of color. Afterwards, I was approached by a young white male who told me that he couldn’t understand why parents of color complained about No Excuses school excellencecultures when they’d chosen to enroll their children in the schools. But the idea that parents should not complain because they purposely enrolled their children in these schools is flawed.  Parents, whether they’re in Nashville or New Orleans, desire that their children attend schools that will provide them a rigorous and first class education. They’re sold a school culture *package* that claims to bring out the best in every student, challenging them to be creative, take risks and think critically. Yet too often, once the package is unwrapped and a culture of compliance is unveiled, students and families feel that they have been sold a dream.

Is it realistic to expect parents to inherently grasp the psychological and emotional costs of the No Excuses model when many of the teachers and school disciplinarians who enforce these policies don’t have a deep understanding of their effects either? In my experience, staff members are trained to follow the rules regarding discipline and school culture without questioning school leaders about why rules and practices exist in the first place. The idea of critically engaging administrators at these schools seems to intimidate staff, who fear potential backlash for speaking out against culture and disciplinary practices they don’t agree with. They don’t know how to push back critically and meaningfully without being disciplined or even losing their jobs.

Even more astonishing is that the same things young people of color are punished for in these schools, their teachers were probably raised and encouraged to value.

Whatever the reason, the lack of inquiry by and pushback from highly-educated professionals regarding the questionable socialization practices and disciplinary policies of No Excuses schools is striking. Even more astonishing is that the same things young people of color are punished for in these schools, their teachers were probably raised and encouraged to value. As students themselves, they were probably given the opportunity to be critical, to take risks, to disagree, to not conform, to ask for clarity, to push back, to show emotion and to be relentless about finding their own truth. Many of these educators are no doubt raising their own children to do similar things. But as teachers and staff at No Excuses charter schools, they are trained to instill the opposite values in youth of color, even punishing students for being critical or showing emotion. Why? I ask this question, not as a researcher or as a doctoral student, but as a colleague who has navigated the same terrain that you are currently treading. I understand—trust me. I am truly concerned that we are not asking the right questions. Why has No Excuses been celebrated, packaged and sold to people of color as the prescription for educational and career excellence? Why is it No Excuses for some and not for all?

Why has No Excuses been celebrated, packaged and sold to people of color as the prescription for educational and career excellence? Why is it No Excuses for some and not for all?

Ask yourself if you would allow your own children to be treated the way that some of your students are being treated. If the answer is *no,* then there is no excuse for complying with rules and policies you’d never tolerate where your own children or loved ones are concerned. Your students are young people, not robots. They are human children and sometimes their circumstances do warrant exceptions to the rules. Sometimes their excuses are legitimate.

walking in lineFor example, a student who shows up out of uniform because he doesn’t have a washer/dryer at home has a legitimate excuse. A kid whose family has been transient and is currently homeless has a legitimate excuse to not be in proper uniform. The school should be aware of the situation and at least attempt to provide clothing for the young person. A kid who has three younger siblings he has to care for, clean up, help with homework, protect and teach because they live with their elderly grandmother who was thrust into legal guardianship because his mother was abusive and they never met their father has a legitimate excuse. A kid who has witnessed his mother being shot by his father has a legitimate excuse to not want to walk on a line, talk to anybody or participate in class. A kid who hasn’t eaten a nutritious meal in weeks, but makes it to school every day has a legitimate excuse to feel tired, to not want to participate in an activity or to look at an adult in the eye while shaking their hand. But what happens at most No Excuses schools is that students get detention or worse because there are no excuses.

Is this what John Dewey meant when he described school as *the social center* of the community and as a site for building a democratic society? Are No Excuses schools preparing citizens, training workers or preparing individuals to compete for social positions? If the answers to these questions aren’t clear, it may be time to seriously re-evaluate the goals of your school.

Lastly, I believe that it is time for a thorough examination of the psychological and emotional impact of No Excuses policies and school cultures. It is time for everyone involved to start asking some critical questions. Stop being fearful. Let your voices be heard. Ask questions, push back, critically engage, and transform your school and your workplace.

Ramon Griffin is a former charter school teacher and administrator as well as a juvenile probation and detention officer. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in Educational Administration at Michigan State University. Contact him at, or visit his website.



    1. Gordon – do you have the sense that the debate w/in specific KIPP schools is representative of the larger sector? I haven’t seen any evidence that that’s the case but if you have, please share…

    2. KIPP needs to be a whole lot more vocal about such questions. When they first burst on the scene, they had all the answers: longer days, strict discipline, drill-and-kill – all the worst ideas of “public” education. And because of KIPP and similar schools such ideas are increasingly being forced on real public schools at the expense of rich curriculum, exploratory/hands-on learning, respectful interactions, etc. Now KIPP seems to be realizing, to some extent, how wrong they were and they’re quietly walking back some of those policies. They’re quietly shortening their school day, lessening the focus on drilll-and-kill, advocating for more respectful treatment of students and teachers.

      Sorry, but you’re a little late for that party. When you’ve done the kind of damage that KIPP has done, you need to have a very public, Diane Ravitch-type confession to the world: we were wrong. We’ve learned from our mistakes and now we’re going to be very vocal in getting the word out about the error of our ways.

      But instead, KIPP is coming full circle back to where those horrible public schools were to begin with (and getting the same test results as public schools, for whatever that’s worth) and yet they act like they invented the damn wheel.

      1. This comment illustrated my reaction so well that I reposted it in the comments section of a local news article
        Here in Dallas, a No Excuses style/KIPP-ish chain is trying to expand yet again, this time with a poorly-rated campus in an already oversaturated (by charters) area of town. Uplift (the charter chain) administrators have commented on some of the dehumanizing practices, denying specifics and seemingly to indicate a general softening, now that the entity is under more public scrutiny.
        I linked to this Open Letter and Griffin’s previous “Colonizing” pieces too. Thanks to both for helping me to illuminate the layers of unsavoriness involved within the edu-deform movement.

        1. Thank you Miss Adieux for pushing back. I am happy that the piece resonated with you and that it was able to highlight some of the problematic portions of Ed reform.

          1. Thyank you for this article. “No excuses” teaches nothing but compliance and is in total opposition to critical thinking and self-actualization for students. That is what is so horrifying to me about “no excuses” schools. When minority students need so much to feel that they are in charge of their destinies and that they too can be leaders and entrepeneurs, any education program whose major component is compliance is diametrically opposed to self-actualization. I find the entire concept abhorrent.

      2. Dienne,

        Thank you for your comment. You took the words out of my mouth. There needs to be some radical and swift action occurring within CMO’s like KIPP and other “No Excuses” schools acknowledging how harmful these policies actually are and have been.

    3. Thank you Gordon. It is great to see that this idea is catching on. Now, if we can actually see these improvements and changes in ideologies go from casual conversations to actual everyday practice I will be satisfied.

      1. What troubles me is that nowhere in your post do you address the importance of academic rigor and the need to help traumatized youth reach college and career, whatever their background and circumstance. After all, my understanding was that the term “no excuses” is intended to mean there’s no excuse for the school not to see every child off to college, not that there’s no excuse for the child not to fall in line.

        1. I’ll be interested to hear what Ramon has to say to this, but I think he touched on this very question in this sentence: “When I chased young Black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they had added a different color streak to their hair, or when I followed young men to make sure that their hair wasn’t styled naturally, I could have been critically engaging my administrative peers on why these practices were the law at our school—and how exactly they contributed to getting students into and through college.” That is, the issue Ramon is raising is ‘what do these specific no excuses policies have to do with getting traumatized youth, as you put it, in and through college?’ Will they be attending colleges where co-eds walk in silent lines? Or eat lunch in silent dining halls? Will they be tracking their professors with their eyes? Or will their campuses ban mismatched socks the way some religious schools still forbid dancing? I ask these questions to No Excuses fans and they never have a good answer. Do you?

    4. It took me 30 seconds to search and see that she isn’t even licensed in the state of Tennessee as an educator. I don’t know her resume, but as some licensed as a teacher and administrator, I find it ridiculous that she is somehow an expert on education, but couldn’t get a license.

  1. The Thernstorms, authors of the manual, “No Excuses” have a well deserved reputation for being disdainful and out of touch with the very populations for whom they write their dictats. I regret deeply that Abigail Thernstorm once served on Massachusetts State Board of Education, for more than a decade beginning in 1995 until 2006, while John Silber reigned as chairman. This political appointment somehow has conferred on her an expertise in all things educational.

    Here’s a taste of the Thernstorm’s proclivities:
    ” ‘That’s our dear friend Clarence, whom we adore,’ Abigail Thernstrom
    said, proudly showing me the framed photograph of Supreme Court Justice
    Clarence Thomas that hangs above the fireplace in the office she shares
    with her husband, Harvard University historian Stephan Thernstrom.”

    Abigail has fans in the usual places: The Manhattan Institute, The Fordham Foundation (not to be confused with Fordham University!) and the Hoover Institute. In fact, the power couple has made a living, from their exclusive suburban enclave (now also home to Roland “two-tier” Fryer) pontificating and shaking their fingers at “those people” and sighing in bafflement as to why they don’t just tug much harder on their non-existent bootstraps.

    1. Thank you Christine for your powerful testimony. I am so full that this has sparked a national conversation about this topic. For the sake of our babies, the deserve so much more. Thank you again.

  2. Thank you Mr. Griffin, for a thoughtful and important piece. I want to reiterate the call you made in the last paragraph: “Lastly, I believe that it is time for a thorough examination of the psychological and emotional impact of No Excuses policies and school cultures.” Having worked as a teacher on an inpatient child/adolescent psychiatric hospital unit, I saw far too many students coming from these “no excuses” school suffering from severe depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. Because many parents in urban districts are only being given “false choices” in today’s educational landscape of sabotaged/severely underfunded public schools or harsh, “no excuses” charters, kids are often left in an unwinnable situation. They reported feeling trapped in a school with extra-long days, harsh/rigid discipline, demoralizing academic/retention policies, and overwhelmed by the unwavering expectations regardless of disability or circumstance.

    No excuses, instead of a program to improve behavior, is actually a way to sort students over time. Many kids are not going to conform to the rigid expectations of NE schools, and the ultimate goal of these programs is to push out undesirable students. But often their parents will not let them leave the school-for very pragmatic reasons-and the kids get stuck in a limbo of abuse. And some kids crack under the pressure leading to severe mental health problems. I’ve worked with too many students who would rather hurt themselves than return to those harsh environments.

    I would like there to be a comprehensive study done on the psychological/emotional impact of “no excuses” on students. I’m certainly not saying every student at NE schools will be harmed to the point of hospitalization-many will adapt to the desired compliance level, which brings up its own set of ethical questions especially as these students are overwhelmingly students of color. But it was a far too frequent symptom of the kids who did need psychiatric treatment. This ideology is dangerous and damaging.

    1. Katie, thank you for perspectives. I am so happy that you found the article to be thoughtful and representative of everything dangerous and damaging to students around the nation. Your thoughts about this topic are spot on. Many educators in this system may not realize, but they are cultivating “conformist” and not critical thinkers. This is the exact opposite of what we socialize our children to be. My upcoming dissertation work at Michigan State University will examine the very issues that you brought up. Thanks again.

  3. Lest all ye public school teachers and administrators think that the concerns of Griffin apply only to “no excuse charters”, I plead with you to look in the mirror as all of the educational malpractices you have helped institute from educational standards and standardized testing insanities through the labeling of students through “grading” and perpetuating that those “grades” actually have any validity and realize that you too are just like the “no excuse charter” educators (sic-better said trainers)-broken and sad excuses of/for the teaching profession.

    That statement is addressed to the 95% of you public school teachers and administrators who Go Along to Get Along, who put in place malpractices that are epistemologically and ontologically rife with errors, falsehoods and invalidities and that HARM ALL STUDENTS. You are as much of the problem as those “evil” “no excuse” charter folks. You who put personal expediency before justice must learn to re-examine your self and practices. Start with these thoughts:

    “Should we therefore forgo our self-interest? Of course not. But it [self-interest] must be subordinate to justice, not the other way around. . . . To take advantage of a child’s naivete. . . in order to extract from them something [test scores, personal information] that is contrary to their interests, or intentions, without their knowledge [or consent of parents] or through coercion [state mandated testing], is always and everywhere unjust even if in some places and under certain circumstances it is not illegal. . . . Justice is superior to and more valuable than well-being or efficiency; it cannot be sacrificed to them, not even for the happiness of the greatest number [quoting Rawls]. To what could justice legitimately be sacrificed, since without justice there would be no legitimacy or illegitimacy? And in the name of what, since without justice even humanity, happiness and love could have no absolute value?. . . Without justice, values would be nothing more than (self) interests or motives; they would cease to be values or would become values without worth.”—Comte-Sponville [my additions]

    1. Duane,

      You are so right. These concerns do not just apply to “No Excuses” schools, policies or socialization practices that may be harmful to students. It directly calls out educators for conforming and not be critical of their own practice. It definitely pushes the envelope and I believe that words provide significant fodder for another post related to the issue. Your words are powerful and make me look in the mirror as well. Thank you.

    2. Dear Duane,

      Having served (briefly) as an “instructional leader” (i.e. principal, dean of students, lunch lady, prep-time relief teacher, part-time janitor, part-time psychotherapist & surrogate mother) at a charter school that was not technically or officially or even philosophically a “no excuses” school, but still, as you Duane so aptly point out, utilized “educational malpractices” that were minimally pedagogically suspect and psychologically questionable at best, I too found myself being called out by Mr. Griffin’s treatise.

      At one point in my short tenure at the school, I found myself punishing children who were out of uniform by giving them the “option” of coloring or playing with Legos instead of playing outside for recess. That is until I realized:
      1) I was punishing a child for an adult issue.
      2) I was punishing an impoverished family for a systemic issue.
      3) Many of my kids were smart (er than me) and came to school out of uniform on purpose because they didn’t want to go outside to play in a yard that didn’t have enough mulch to cover the concrete or the crack pipes we regularly cleared anyway!

      But seriously, if we were going to practice what we preached about making quality education accessible for every child that entered out doors, in a way that honored who they were as individuals, why in the world did it matter if they were in a yellow Polo or not, particularly if they couldn’t afford one?! In our defense, we thought we were “leveling the playing field” by relieving our low-income parents from the pressure of having to buy expensive school clothes, helping the children to focus on academics and not who was (or wasn’t) wearing the latest whatever. But when you have to look at the faces of Kindergarteners who just want to learn to read & play & speak English, and those in charge of the school’s purse strings won’t give you money for uniforms (or furniture or books or a curriculum or enough food so that on the first day of school you have to go to Little Cesar’s to buy enough pizza to finish feeding your upper elementary students!), you make those (not so) tough moral decisions & do what many of us (who can’t really afford it ourselves) do and start wracking up frequent buyer points as you clean out the yellow Polo section of the local uniform retailer. We stop going along to get along, we go get our kids what they need.

      Your quotation of Rawls brought back memories of my (painful but necessary) encounters with seminal works in education as I pursued my doctorate, when I learned about the literal and philosophical architects of education, particularly American public education. Your invocation of the (social) justice imperative reminded me of when Pedro Noguera speaks of the moral imperative of public education in “City Schools & The American Dream”…We have (& have had) the research, the money, & the talent. But do we have the WILL? Do we REALLY want to help those poor black and brown kids? Have we ever?!!

      Of course we do, but again, as you aptly point out, too many teachers and administrators are going along to get along, at the cost of the most vulnerable populations’ present & future which will eventually (or is currently) lead (ing) to the demise of us all.

      As an idealistic teacher educator, this is precisely why I push my students to question EVERYTHING! Even what I am offering as the remedy to the ills of (public) education. Stop doing school! Unlearn what you’ve taken for granted and/or has been fed to you! I try very hard not to train teachers, I (try) to show bright young minds how to BECOME effective educators, and those are the kinds of folks Mr. Griffin encourages “no excuses” teachers and administrators to be: critical thinkers, push-backers (I don’t know if that’s a real word), question-askers (not sure about that one either), risk takers, the same kinds of people we educators claim to we want our K-12 students to be!

      We’re all in(dicted in) this together!


      A choir member to whom you preached.

  4. People question why parents would want heir children to attend “no nonsense” schools. For districts in receivership there may be no choice. Charters have replaced the traditional public schools.

    1. This is a great point. It was actually what I trying to convey to the folks in Nashville. In many cities around the country, “No Excuses” is all they have to select from. Is that really a choice?

      1. I worked in Camden, NJ for two years where the district is rapidly fazing out public schools in a push to open charters. Five new charters opened this year with beautiful new facilities. The parents aren’t even aware of the mentality of the charters – they’re just told they’ll offer better educational opportunities. In addition, the teachers in Camden’s public schools are being forced to adopt charter practices. We were directed to have 8th walk quietly in a straight line and line up on separate tiles. The staff would morbidly joke that we weren’t preparing them to think independently in college – rather we were preparing then the follow orders in prison. Outside of the military or prison, there’s no place they’ll ever be expected to follow these practices. As someone who values individuality, it was unbelievably frustrating to try to balance the “conformation” mentality with the needs of students who are at an age where they are trying to create their own identities. Quite simply, the parents of Camden might not have a choice to put their students in a place where they don’t face these types of restrictions.

  5. I recently had a very disturbing conversation with a new member of our faculty. She began the conversation by saying how happy she is at our school, especially after her experience last year.
    She is a teacher with 20 years experience but relocating to Massachusetts forced her to take the first job offered, a charter school in Lawrence.
    She told me that there was very little real teaching going on. Most class time was devoted to issuing demerits. There were demerits issued for not maintaining the “slant position” (folded hands on top of the desk), for not “tracking” the teacher as he/she spoke, for not “tracking” the student who is responding to the teacher. Other demerits were issued to students for not meeting time limits – so many seconds to pass back papers, so many seconds to pee.
    She considered herself the mother hen of the faculty. Most of the teachers were in their early twenties. Other than herself, the senior members of the staff were the TFA teachers who had signed two-year contracts.
    After listening, horrified, to all this, I had to ask, ” Why would parents ever send their children to such a school?”
    Her response, “They have no choice. The school is the neighborhood public school that they must attend.”

  6. Just read the first couple of paragraphs. Sorry to hear that your students were subject to bad practice. At both my current and former “no excuses” schools the cited practices would be quickly called out as bad and immediately addressed. So I guess my experience suggests that it is not the no excuses model per se but the quality of the implementation and fidelity to sound ideas–which I find to be the case whether district, charter, public, private or montessori. Its the “practice” not the model.

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