Lab Rats

Welcome to New Orleans—America’s urban education laboratory

B. Frederic Skinner [Misc.]Do you dream of being part of our nation’s greatest experiment in urban education? I know I do—which is why I was thrilled to be the recipient of a recent Google ad inviting me to Teach, Live and Love New Orleans. Welcome to NOLA, reader, where you’ll find plenty of *that je ne sais quoi, that elan, that bon temps* but absolutely pas d’excuses. In other words, it’s time for us to button up our lab coats and get busy. We’ve got a city to colonize an achievement gap to crush.

NOLA teachersWhiter and brighter (and an outsider)
The first thing you’ll notice about our laboratory of innovation is that most of the other lab technicians are, to use a bons mots, whiter than a lab coat. That’s because while NOLA, as we’ll insist upon calling it, abounds in *locavore markets and stores,* you won’t find many locavore teachers here these days. Nor will you find many African American teachers, despite the fact that New Orleans remains a majority/minority city. Both are long gone, fired (illegally, as it turns out) in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, leaving nothing behind but low expectations and *historic homes at attainable prices.*

Pas d’excuses
Look closely at the brighter, whiter, outsiders working as lab technicians and you’ll notice something else: they’re all performing the exact same experiment. *School choice abounds,* it’s just that all of the schools offer the same choice. Take the seven charter management organizations that are behind the Teach, Live and Love New Orleans teacher recruitment campaign, for example. While the badges on the lab coats may be different, they share a single working hypothesis: for students to achieve they must first be taught to submit to adult authority, no excuses. As for emerging evidence that such an approach causes students to distrust and disparage themselves, may I remind you that *every student can have lifelong success and achievement, regardless of their socio-economic status or zipcode*?

pigeon ping pongNew schools, old theories
I’m guessing that, unless you are Arne Duncan, you did not attend school in a laboratory. And yet, even if some of the bold urban education innovations in NOLA, like walking in straight, silent lines, silent recess, or cool hand gestures used by students to indicate that they need to go to the bathroom, are new to you, I’m betting that you’re familiar with the theory behind these innovations. Remember that Psych 101 class you took where you learned about B.F. Skinner and his brand of behavioral psychology? If you were the kind of college-ready student who actually attended class, you may even recall something called *operant conditioning.* Want to teach a pigeon to turn in a circle to the left? Just give it a reward for any small movement it makes in that direction. Soon the pigeon will catch on and begin making larger movements, garnering more rewards, until finally the bird completes the full circle. And as for that bit in Psych 101 about Skinner-style behaviorism being rejected decades ago, who learns anything in college anyway?

Love NOLALaissez les bons temps rouler (after testing season)
You know what else is great about NOLA? All of the art and music, which you will find just about everywhere in this city, except for in the schools. In fact, kids have 88 charter choices to choose from, but just one has an arts and music focus. Which is sort of an interesting experiment, when you think about it. From whence will the city’s future musicians come from now that the Big Easy is the undisputed capital of no excuses? 

lab coatExit ticket
NOLA’s bold experiment in urban education may be a mere decade old, reader, but there’s one conclusion of which we can be certain. Teaching in an *urban education laboratory* is exhausting—hence the fiercely urgent need for fresh talent as yesterday’s technicians hang up their lab coats and move on to less punishing work. Which is why Teach, Live and Love New Orleans wants you—and me—to work in an amazing city where *we all teach, live, and love.* *We love to live here, and you can too.*

Send tips and comments to Follow Jennifer on Twitter @EduShyster.


  1. That’s very kind of you, Dr. Schneider. Except that the piece really isn’t very funny!

  2. When you’re a teacher, about the only thing you can say about such nonsense is c’est la vie l’ecole.

    1. Thanks Peter. I’d love to know with what you disagree though. My experience dealing with fans of the new New Orleans system is that they’re quick to tell me I’m wrong but never provide any meat as to why. Did I get the demographics or attrition rate of New Orleans’ new teaching force wrong? Are there charter schools that are using a model other than No Excuses that I’m missing? (I put this question to everyone I talked to when I was in your fine city and was referred to one school again and again: the brand new Bricolage Academy ). Btw: If I can figure out how to swing it, I plan to return to New Orleans next year for a longer visit. Join me for a hipster donut?

  3. I’m actually kind of offended that their selling point is “historic homes at affordable prices.” Home prices are soaring in NOLA because of all of the carpetbaggers who are swooping up the “affordable” real estate as investments and making home-ownership in the urban areas unaffordable for natives (see gentrification). And, I totally agree with the colonization concept – it fits perfectly with the current situation in New Orleans. “Ok, over-privileged white kids who can’t find a job on Wall St. – come down to paradise and help the poor indigenous people who can’t make it w/o your assistance. Now, we have to put at least one indigenous-looking person in a position of pseudo-power to keep the local populace happy and under control, but we all know that he/she will really answer to THE MAN who came from among your ranks. Not to worry. The local people will stay in line and raise their hand properly because they are so grateful for your patronization, and you can use this wonderful, character-building experience to open big doors for your future.”

  4. The PRsters charged with marketing this particular vision of *NOLA* and its schools are remarkably tin-eared and their reference to *historic homes at attainable prices* is a classic example. I see no way that this ends well–except, of course, for the achievement gap which will be crushed….

  5. Brilliant as usual, Jennifer. Laughed out loud at the city of art and music not providing thise frills in schools. Right on the mark. I like to use the word “colonialism” for this approach to education. The recruitment ad is looking for missionaries.

  6. As for your “emerging evidence” line on “no excuses,” it’s continually interesting how you manage to spin research in the worst possible way. Here’s what the researchers actually found:

    “To our considerable surprise, most respondents approved of the authoritarian regime and disapproved of granting students more self-expression. Most have come to believe that they do not deserve freedom from pervasive rules, for they will indeed abuse it.”

    Sounds remarkably self-aware and mature for teenagers.

    1. Here’s a link to the full study. I also really recommend this study that looks at the logic behind the rules and regulations at no excuses-style charters. These schools are proliferating rapidly and yet there’s been little real discussion about why they do what they do and how it impacts the students who attend them. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think.

  7. I’m guessing that you read the paragraph summary that was in front of the pay wall. The full study is pretty distressing – in fact the researchers were shocked by what they found. I’ll upload and post a link so that you can read the whole thing.

    1. I see that they were shocked, but I’m not sure why other than academic prissiness. The students themselves seem far more self-aware, including awareness of their social context. Speaking of which, I find stories like this far more troubling (and, if you think about it, a reason why lots of poor minority parents are looking for alternative options):

      So in schools like that, what’s your magic answer to creating a wholesome educational environment for kids? Whatever public schools are currently doing doesn’t seem to work, or such stories wouldn’t be a dime a dozen.

  8. I’m going to see if I can do an interview with Goodman and will be sure to confront her with the evidence of her academic prissiness! What interests me about this disciplinary approach is that kids are punished not just for misbehavior but for the possibility of misbehavior — which raises the question of what if any limits there are on the kinds of behaviors that can be required or prohibited. I don’t have a silver bullet – my issue that these schools are being held up as having the solution without anyone asking even the most basic questions about how the hyper-regulated environment effects kids. Btw: I’ll be in Las Vegas for the big charter school conference in a few weeks. If you’re there, be sure to say hello – and it’s fine if you wear a bag over your head!

  9. I have no idea what conference you’re even talking about, but so be it.

    Anyway, I think that you (and especially these authors) are probably suffering from the delusion that if not for charter schools being so mean and rigid with all their rules and stuff, these kids would all be running carefree in a meadow somewhere, free to chart their own destiny. Rousseau and all that.

    The reality is that these kids would otherwise be in public schools that might as well be prep schools for the prison system — full of fights and gangs and drugs and crime of all kinds.

    So sneer at the charter school rules all you want. Do you think that the prison system wouldn’t be much much worse? That’s where many of these kids would go (thanks in large part to our punitive policies and the drug war).

    1. I’m headed to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools conference at the end of the month and was hoping you might be going as I find your warmth and charm irresistible! Oh well – perhaps another time.

      While the school the delusional authors studied was an alternative school for students who’d dropped out, been expelled and/or involved in the criminal justice system, this view–that poor minority students are just one small disruptive act away from the prison system–runs through ALL no excuses schools, even those for elementary students. And that’s what I find objectionable.

      1. I don’t think that “poor minority students are just one small disruptive act away from the prison system” — but they are indeed in danger — one act of vandalism or a lunchroom fight or a drug pickup gone wrong, and they end up in juvenile justice, and it’s downhill from there. Given that 1/3 of black men in inner cities end up in jail at some point, this isn’t exactly a hypothetical point.

        I’d radically reform the criminal justice system, as you might have intuited. But in the meantime, it is beyond me why the target of anyone’s venom should be the charter schools that are trying to nip disorder in the bud so that these kids have an alternative path in life.

        And from the unions’ perspective, why bother whining so patronizingly on minority kids’ behalf? If enough minority parents share the views that you so solicitously express on their kids’ behalf, they won’t choose those charter schools in the first place, now will they?

        1. I wasn’t implying that you personally believed that, just reiterating that that’s the foundational view that underlies the entire No Excuses approach. These schools are quite explicit about that in their handbooks, by the way. As for the issue of parent’s choosing these schools, if you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll note that I never question the choices parents make. I’m calling attention to the fact that in a growing number of communities, No Excuses schools are the only choice left for parents to choose. Which in my mind isn’t really a choice. But what do I know–I’m just a hack for the union, although of the non-compensated variety. (Is there such a thing as an unpaid hack? A shill?)

Comments are closed.