EDjango Unchained: The Coming Revolt against ‘No Excuses’ Schools

A middle-school student at a ‘no-excuses’ school in Memphis.

For tens of thousands of black and brown students who attend what are billed as “college-prep” academies, today’s return to school begins as always: in straight, silent lines. For these students, more and more of them in our cities every day, school is now synonymous with control. While the specific systems of rewards and punishments vary from one urban charter school to another, the premise is the same: poor minority children must be made to be compliant. Resistance is met with still more punishment until the lesson is finally learned: compliance = success. No excuses.

A brief history of ‘no excuses’
The label ‘no excuses’ to describe urban charter schools that use a culture of control to extract high scores on standardized tests originates from the right-wing Heritage Foundation. But the no-excuses cause gained real momentum with the 2003 publication of No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by conservative academics Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom—two of America’s whitest writers, as it happens. In search of what charter advocates are fond of calling “the special sauce,” the Thernstroms set out from their leafy Massachusetts suburb to uncover the mysteries of high-performing, high-poverty urban schools and liked what they saw:

These schools are not waiting until the day social and economic disparities disappear. “No Excuses” is their relentless message. Every student is expected to work hard to acquire the skills and knowledge that tests measure…Those [schools] we came to admire set social norms that create effective learning environments. Students learn to speak politely to the principal, teachers, and strangers; they learn to dress neatly, to arrive at school on time, to pay attention in class, finish homework, and never waste time. Teachers work hard to instill the desire, discipline, and dedication—the will to succeed—that will enable disadvantaged youth to climb the American ladder of opportunity. These are essential ingredients in the definition of effective education for high-need kids.

The Thernstroms get into the matter of WHY minority students require a compliance-based approach to learning later in the book (see black youth, too much TV watching by, chapter 4, and Asian culture, superiority of, chapter 5). The topic of why black and brown children must be educated differently than their white peers is one that the no-excuses schools and their advocates prefer to steer clear of; it is dangerous, queasy-making stuff. Instead they focus on the specific ingredients that make up the high achievement stew: longer school days, weeks and years for students, what one academy bills as “Wall Street like hours” for teachers, and an elaborate architecture of punishment, complete with a monetary-based system of rewards for compliance.

Leveraging success
The speed with which these schools have become the urban education ideal is nothing short of astonishing. (For example, 9 of the 11 proposed new charters in Massachusetts are no-excuses schools, including the Argosy Collegiate). While the schools themselves are often the subject of fawning media coverage, neither the no-excuses philosophy nor the schools’ punitive culture has received much scrutiny. The difficult subject of race that underlies the philosophy, meanwhile, is barely mentioned at all. I’ll put it bluntly. With a few notable exceptions this is largely a movement driven by white people—from the young teachers who staff the schools, to the advocates who serve as flacks, to the funders who underwrite their expansion, to the edupreneurs who now seek to “scale up” and “leverage” the schools’ success and earn a hefty return in the process.

The coming revolt
The potential explosiveness of this race dynamic has been on vivid display in Memphis recently, where parents are demanding an end to what they say are humiliating and demeaning disciplinary measures at a former public elementary school turned no-excuses charter. Lester School, a historic African-American elementary school with a large population of Muslim students, is now being operated by Cornerstone Prep, a church-based charter school that is staffed almost entirely by young white teachers and headed by the former comptroller at a copper tube manufacturing company. Parents and community activists say that the school’s insistence on silence and compliance, including forcing children who fail to ask permission to tie their shoes to go barefoot, is culturally reprehensible.

“There are so many similarities to segregation and slavery connected to this because of how it is being played out. You know, coming in and taking over, not trying to get any input and wanting everyone to be quiet…[W]e did not have shoes in slavery. There’s a major comparison right there.”—Chan Douglas

Culture change
Like a growing number of American cities, Memphis has begun handing its formerly public schools over to outside operators. I’ve written elsewhere about the reform effort in Tennessee, one dominated by handsomely paid outsiders, who will accept no excuses in their efforts to see the bottom 25% of Tennessee’s students skyrocket to the top 5% in five years. But as Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom know well, that will require a transformation of the urban students’ culture. At Cornerstone Prep, for example, the kindergarten through third graders must be inculcated with the value of time itself.

The pace may be frenetic action, judging by the stopwatches Cornerstone teachers wear to time even simple tasks while chanting an almost mesmerizing mantra of praise and encouragement. Cornerstone teachers work the line for the bathroom, quizzing children on addition and subtraction tables.

Underachieving Lester School in Hands of Faith-Based Overseer,” Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Outside investors
The objection of many of the parents seems to be that essential decisions regarding their children’s education are now being made by rich, white outsiders. They’ll have to get used to it—many more such outsiders are eager to invest in their children’s futures. Among them, the leaders of Facebook, Skype, Benchmark Capital and Netflix, all of whom are major investors in the no-excuses charter chain Rocketship Education.Tennessee will soon be home to ten Rocketship charters that use computer-based classes to boost test scores but offer no music or art classes. Parents haven’t yet been asked how they feel about that…

Should we be willing to use “any means necessary” to close the achievement gap? Talk back to tips@haveyouheardblog.com.


  1. Grim.

    Thank goodness my children had art in a messy, noisy art room, music with a weird but dedicated music teacher, and recess every single day in all sorts of weather. Then again, my children are white so the charters wouldn’t dare treat them like inmates.

  2. I love your posts, but I have to quibble with your word “discipline”. The word “discipline” actually means “teaching”, which such discipline bears little resemblance to anything we find in a “no excuses” school. Actual discipline can be meted out through such measures as, for instance, explaining expectations upfront, a raised eyebrow or other meaningful look, and/or a respectful chat. The only word that properly labels what goes on in “no excuses” schools is “control”.

  3. BTW, in response to this: “Should we be willing to use “any means necessary” to close the achievement gap?”, I say absolutely! We should do whatever it takes to preferably eliminate or at least greatly reduce poverty. We should make sure that every student is adequately fed and has decent medical, dental and mental health care. We should provide every child with the same kind of rich, stimulating education that the Obama girls are getting.

    Oh, wait, you were talking about test prep….

    1. Do you think the road to poverty reduction is by producing compliant test takers? If that were so, the rich wouldn’t be paying to send their kids elsewhere. The road to poverty reduction is not to force feed a drill, kill, bubblefill diet to children but rather to eliminate the intentional propagation of two school systems and allow all children to attend the type of schools where those in power like our president and the wealthy send their kids.

      “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
      -Woodrow Wilson

  4. They call the gap an achievement gap. We know it’s an opportunity gap. If our prisons and our military is doing such a good job of disciplining (teaching) our citizens via control and compliance why doesn’t every person who leaves those institutions have high paying jobs, lead their community to prosperity and happiness, create and innovate to expand their economic affluence, lead the non-profit sector, and heal the world? For that matter, wouldn’t those TFA’ers and the cadre of reformys be really useful and more purposeful in our prisons and in our military doing what they are UNETHICALLY doing now to the nation’s CHILDREN and have a more relevant and timely impact?

    1. They are in our prisons. Our privatization of prisons has resulted in making many men wealthy, and led to many deaths.

  5. Compliance was for the industrial economy; there was a pot of gold at the end of the high school rainbow. These students are being groomed to be “wage slaves” to serve.The new economy requires maverick thinking, marching to a difference drummer which this approach does not promote. Read Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed which children of color still are.

  6. The high school that my daughter graduated from was a small public high school where the student was challenged to think for themselves and express themselves in various forms.

    There were seminar style classes and everyone was encouraged to participate.

    There were colleges that came to my daughter’s school to try and persuade students to enroll in their colleges. Why? Because these students were prepared to continue into higher education. They challenged, thought, wrote and were ultimately articulate. These are the types of students that colleges want. Not student who can dutifully take a test and otherwise sit in silence.


  7. If minority children are not disciplined, they act like jerks- look at the violence in Chicago schools and elsewhere.

    And the minority parents won’t hold their children responsible for this.

    But now that good behaviour is enforced on these same students, their stupid parents scream that they don’t like it. Well, which way do they want it?

    I’m tired of the pathetic screams about it being like slavery. Pretty soon, minority parents are going to run out of race cards to play. What will they do then?

  8. Lester School in Memphis suspends 5 year olds. What sort of cruel worldview endorses suspending babies from school?

    1. Yes, obviously these “babies” need counseling and support rather than suspension. However, in a backwards urban district such as Lester School is in, Social Workers and School Psychologists are very thinly stretched, and Guidance Counselors are enlisted to work on issues such as attendance and discipline rather than counseling. Since children need to get the message that what they have done (fighting, hitting others, disrespecting and even cursing the teacher) is wrong, and there is no help available to counsel these students outside of class, they are sometimes (rarely) suspended. In-school Suspension, with a Behavioral Interventionist, for elementary schools, was cut in last year’s budget cuts, by the way, so there are few options in dealing with students who have broken the rules. I think there are many things that could be cut (such as district personnel) to give students the counseling and support they need, but the higher-ups at Memphis City Schools are unwilling to cut their own jobs to help students. Perhaps, with all of this extra money, Cornerstone can afford to hire the counselors and psychologists that children in poverty certainly need. I hope they will, but I doubt that they will.

  9. “School as prison” is certainly the logical conclusion to which high-stakes testing and privatization takes us. Luckily, the privatized penal system will be ready for these kids when they explode. In fact – it’s probably the same companies. Volume discount if you can both educate and incarcerate. This is truly terrifying – I had no idea it had gotten this bad. Thank you edushyster.

    1. sporks, stay tune and stay informed. This is just a minor consequence of what is really going on!

  10. FYI…the caption for the photo in this post is entirely incorrect. The school in the photo is neither an elementary school, nor a charter school. It’s a neighborhood middle school in the Frayser community of Memphis.

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