Other People’s Children

Why are white people so eager to advocate for the sort of schools to which they would never send their own children?

Reader: more and more white people agree that strict, “no excuses” style charter schools provide an ideal learning environment for poor minority kids. As proof of this surging enthusiasm I give you exhibit A: a glowing report about Harlem’s Democracy Prep charter school featured in the current issue of the New Yorker, one of America’s whitest magazines. (Full disclosure: I am white and also a New Yorker subscriber). Which brings us to today’s fiercely urgent question: why are white people so eager to advocate for the sort of schools to which they would never send their own children?

Through the Gauntlet
The New Yorker piece, by writer Ian Frazier, is subtitled ‘Up Life’s Ladder’—but ‘gauntlet’ might be a more accurate metaphor. Frazier is dazzled by the spectacle of the 44 members of Democracy Prep’s first graduating class, on stage at the Apollo Theater in their school-bus-yellow robes, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on hand to fete them. But more than three quarters of Democracy Prep’s students—23% each year—never made it onto the stage. If Frazier is aware of the school’s attrition rate, among the highest in New York City, he doesn’t mention it. Nor does Frazier have anything to say about the school’s strict “no excuses” disciplinary policy. Instead, he seems excited by the fact that students at the school are required to take Korean, the only foreign language offered. Best of all, Frazier likes the fact that 100% of the remaining graduates are headed to a four-year college.

Whatever it Takes
I’m guessing that it’s not the fault of the New Yorker’s legendarily “no excuses” fact-checking department that these less inspiring (not to mention less democratic) details about Democracy Prep didn’t make it into the magazine. Instead, the writer is merely reflecting a growing consensus among elites that a certain kind of schooling is necessary to propel poor minority students along the steep uphill climb to college. This formula for success, the “special sauce,” is long and hard and requires the sort of militaristic discipline that I doubt any writer for the New Yorker would tolerate for his or her children for a day, let alone the four years, eight years, even 12-year-long slog that is supposed to end in a mythical place called “college.”

  • Doing time
    The school day at Democracy Prep starts at 7:45AM and lasts until 4:15PM, but students routinely stay until six for tutoring. A nine, ten or 11 hour school day would no doubt strike middle class parents as excessive (what about Skyler’s soccer practice, or Emma’s beekeeping camp?) but even within this endless school day there is no time to lose. Democracy Prep, like many urban “no excuses” schools, uses a countdown during transitions from one class or activity to the next so that students don’t waste a second of learning time.
  • Living the DREAM
    Democracy Prep relies upon a monetary-based system of rewards that is common in the “no excuses” world. Students earn and lose DREAM Dollars (the acronym stands for the school’s values: Discipline, Respect, Enthusiasm, Accountability and Maturity) based on behavior and academic performance. In addition to providing an important regulator of behavior, the DREAM dollars also prep the students for their ultimate destination beyond even college: work.
  • Broken windows
    A “no excuses” school embodies a philosophy that might best be understood as the educational equivalent of the broken windows theory. Small disruptions are seen as leading to the kind of unruliness and disorder that stands in between poor minority kids and college-bound success. Hence the straight, silent lines in which students transition from one class to another might be seen as leading straight to college.
    Suburban parents are likely unfamiliar with SLANT, the KIPP-informed mantra that shapes “no excuses” teaching. The behavior management technique instructs students to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the teacher. Younger students, who tend to be naturally disruptive, may also be instructed to fold their hands or “make a bubble,” pursing their lips and filling their cheeks with air so as to keep them from talking.

  • Time and Punishment
    The elaborate architecture of rewards and punishments that undergirds the “no excuses” approach must have consequences, of course. Suspensions at these schools tend to be extremely high, even though suspending students has long been linked to worsening academic outcomes and higher drop out rates. The recent revelations about the high number of kindergartners suspended by the charter school chain “Achievement First” in Connecticut may have caused some initial discomfort among suburban advocates of these schools (little Haley, suspended???). But amid the rising certitude that we must do “whatever it takes” to propel poor minority students to college, that discomfort was soon forgotten.

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  1. My first teaching job was as a biology teacher at a military boarding prep school in Virginia (which happened to be ruled by a fundamentalist Christian board of directors). Setting aside the issues I ran into teaching biology in this context, outside of morning and evening drill time and maintenance of neat uniforms (incl. polished shoes), the classroom setting (which was anything but ideal) was nowhere near as restrictive, oppressive or offensive as what has emerged in no-excuses-land. Even the discipline policies, which involved marching “tours” on the weekends (marching in a precise square in the gym) seem somewhat less degrading.

  2. “suspending students has long been linked to worsening academic outcomes and higher drop out rates” – Maybe, but they just get thrown back to the public schools (23% attrition rate – is that even legal?). So, your numbers look fantastic and the public school’s look worse, so it’s all good! Churn, baby, churn!

    I am also white and a New Yorker subscriber, and I think the New Yorker should seriously consider having at least one person on staff who can do math.

  3. Thank you for including the video. It will make the indoctrination so much easier. I am practicing on my pets right now. The stuffed animals are good, but my dogs not so much.

  4. The school sounds like a prison without bars. Where is play? Research shows that children learn best through play. Oh, but then, the reformers wouldn’t know that, since they’ve never taken an education course or taught in their lives. It makes one wonder why so many people trust them as education experts. I guess having oodles of money qualifies one as an expert in anything one chooses.

    1. My point is that there’s nothing particularly unique about this school (although Democracy Prep does make a strange attempt to meld “No Excuses” and what it calls “citizenship training” that results in having kids lobby for more charter schools). There are now hundreds of schools operating within just this framework across the country and elites routinely advocate for more–see Globe, Boston–without acknowledging what these schools actually do…

      1. and when they do drop out or are kicked out they go right back to public school where we teach everybody who walks through the doors.

  5. It might be interesting to note that one of the (white) founders of KIPP sends his children to a non “no excuses” Montessori School in New York City Now if that doesn’t tell you something when there is a KIPP elementary school near by that he could have chosen!!

    1. Maybe the waiting list at the KIPP is so long that the founder had no choice but to send his children to the Montessori! I just hope their college ambitions aren’t derailed due to disruptive behavior, either theirs or others. Fortunately there is still plenty of time after their artificially short Montessori school day ends for Mr. KIPP to help them practice their SLANTing. They might enjoy this little exercise for example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Uuk9anq4c8

      1. My God. That video is absolutely horrifying. Those kids look old enough to start reading some serious books and cracking their heads against algebra. Instead, they are treated like toddlers that haven’t been housebroken! Who sends their kids to these places?

        1. These schools are very popular with lots of parents because they provide so much structure. So when charter advocates say that the proliferation of no excuses schools is a response to demand, they’re not wrong. But for all the talk about “choice” this approach rules among urban charters. Btw: to see more of what this style of teaching looks like, google “Teach Like a Champion.” They never give away the content of what they’re teaching but man they can make a lot of hand signals!

        2. Unfortunately, parents that are not aware that teaching children should not be tortuous but joyful and interactive. This type of regiment does not prepare a child for college. As the child is not learning independent or critical thinking only to conform to avoid punishment.

          Many of the parents I have met in these schools are to busy trying to survive that they are working 2+ jobs at odd hours. They relinquish the raising of their child to the corporate reformers. The parents that donot fit in this mold are the complainers and advocate for change and felt duped after their child attended this horrid type of school. The truly middle class parent, forward thinking parent is not their target market.

          It is sad, I reccomend that parents do not send their children to these type schools.

          But parents that have limited life experiances, are stressed trying to survive and are stressed in many different ways, see these schools as an easy way out.

          Unfortunately they damage more children then they help, the purpose seems to be to create a worker that will be trained in total compliance without free will.

          The parents have to educated on the false promises to save the children.

  6. I taught 8th grade science for one year in an “inner city” school where the majority of students were Hispanic/Latino and Black (with a sprinkling of Southeast Asians and the occasional blue-eyed, blonde White student). The saddest thing for me is that the kids themselves expected me to treat them badly (yelling, etc., to maintain discipline and order), probably because they have been treated that way by teachers for many years before coming to me. I absolutely refused to do that. I tried to keep my voice and composure calm and inviting–I even told them straight out that I refused to yell at them because I respected them as human beings. I can’t say that it was always easy. I didn’t read the article, but I’d bet it’s safe to say that it’s just another example of White privilege.

  7. Actually, in the suburbs that would be “Hayleigh” instead of Haley. She would sit next to Kensington and Covington (twins who went to camp with my daughter).

    And their parents would absolutely not tolerate a school like this. Shocking.

  8. 1) If we’re going to segregate poor black and Hispanic kids in cities by their ability to follow a strict discipline routine, let’s at least be honest about it.

    2) Elite colleges look for extra-curriculars: music, sports, arts, community service, etc. The very best colleges will only admit a very small number of these students if they are not well-rounded.

    1. Would you not count it as a success if these kids went to Rutgers or Ohio State? Do they really need to go to Stanford and Yale for college to matter?

  9. When I, New Yorker subscriber (not white but with my share of class privilege) read that piece, I was dismayed to see that it had been written by Frazier. Why? Because I have firsthand knowledge that his child goes to a school that, as you correctly speculate, bears little resemblance to Democracy Prep.

    Rather, his kid’s school is as about as progressive as they come (within the parameters of NYC public schools). Children are allowed to be children, with the loudness and messiness that often entails. They are encouraged, indeed expected, to exhibit independence.

    To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe Frazier thinks that these sorts of highly structured schools are what many folks want (even if he doesn’t want them for his own family.) This is what you (correctly) point out in your response to Enrique above. However, I doubt that even those parents who crave structure and discipline advocate for massive attrition. More likely, they don’t know about it until it is too late. And their support of no-excuses schools itself may simply mean that they haven’t been exposed to the possibilities inherent in progressive alternatives.

    Of course, these progressive alternatives work best, especially for kids coming in with academic deficits, if class size is small enough for teachers to be able to know students well. That’s another reason why it upset me that Frazier penned this article. Does he not know that the charter sector draws money away from regular public schools–including those attended by his kids, and, full disclosure, mine? Power to those kids who walked the stage at the Apollo, but there are so many more who are hurt by the policies that undergird that ceremony…

    1. It is interesting how loudness and unruliness is seen as a necessary part of child development for one set of kids (within reason of course–if they are TOO loud or TOO unruly they must have ADHD and require medication–and don’t even get me started on the nut allergy business). But for poor kids, even the slightest deviation from the behavior code cannot be tolerated. Check out, for example, the student and family handbook for a new K-1 charter school in Boston. And you are absolutely right about the parents who are “voting with their feet,” to use a favorite phrase of the Boston Globe being told nothing about the downsides of these schools. The Globe ran a “Waiting for Superman” style story this spring about a high-stakes lottery of parents desperate to get their kids into a charter high school where “100% of graduates attend college.” Except that the school itself predicts that it will lose 65% of the students between 9th and 12th grade. Of the 130 students who entered the school in 2009, just 47 remained by 12th grade–and just 18 of them were boys. Just sayin’…

  10. But…might it not be at least possible that kids from poor urban background need a different kind of school than kids from wealthy suburban backgrounds?

    KIPP famously recruited its first set of students by promising parents little except that they’d keep the kids in school longer–which is immensely helpful for working parents who can’t afford a nanny. Regardless of the primary educational consequences, there are primary health and safety consequences to putting kids on the street hours before their parents get home, and these lead to secondary educational consequences.

    On a similar note: there’s a lot of data showing that summer vacation has wildly different effects on kids in different situations. And this is intuitively obvious: a kid doing a summer reading program and taking piano and dance lessons and traveling to France has a very different summer than a kid who spends two months in low-quality day care or on the streets of a dangerous neighborhood. Nitpicking about summer vacations aside, the point is: you cannot hope to give all kids optimal educations with the same system.

    My experience has been that many parents in dangerous communities place a premium on discipline in schools for very understandable reasons. It may not be the ideal system, but the ideal system would involve making all those communities affluent and safe overnight, and that’s not going to happen. It’s a little presumptuous to think that the parents sending their kids to these schools would all prefer less structured, gentler environments if only they knew what the wealthy folks know, regardless of whether they had the material advantages the wealthy folks have.

    1. I’m reminded of a recent poll conducted by Democrats for Education Reform of voters in Boston. DFER found that the best way to sell charters to parents was to make the case that the extended day would keep their kids off the streets. True? Perhaps. Cynical? Most definitely. The problem with your argument is that it assumes a degree of choice that doesn’t exist. In a growing number of cities, parents can choose between the underfunded public schools of last resort OR no excuses schools with 9-10 hour days. While it’s true that waiting lists for the latter are often long, it’s also the case that attrition rates are incredibly high too. When kids leave a school they are often voting with their feet. What concerns me the most is that we’ve arrived at the new consensus that urban kids require a very particular kind of school with predominately white teachers, overseen by a private board of local power brokers, with so little discussion. That’s why I do what I do 🙂

  11. Excellent post. I was also grossly disappointed by the New Yorker’s breezy article about DemPrep–I think they puppsefully sidestepped confronting issues by placing the article in the first section of the magazine. That first section always needs a light piece sandwiched between more sober reading. Like, instead of reading about Christopher Walken’s preferred route for walking the city, we got fluff about (35% of the entering class of ) underprivileged kids beating the odds. Maybe Frazier moonlights for Readers Digest?

  12. I love that it’s called Democracy Prep. It has the same inspiring ring that a piece of GOP legislation has.

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