The High Cost of No Excuses

Professor Joan Goodman, the director of the Teach for America program at the University of Pennsylvania, talks about the philosophy behind *no excuses* charter schools, and the price paid by students who attend them.

walking in lineEduShyster: You’re the author of an article called Charter Management Organizations and the Regulated Environment: Is It Worth the Price? that’s the single best overview of *no excuses* charter schools that I’ve seen. Talk a little about the research you’ve been doing.

Joan Goodman: I began to focus on charter schools when the first Mastery Charter School was started in Philadelphia. These were supposed to be experimental schools which would have a variety of new approaches and they’d get rid of bureaucracy and we’d see all kinds of novel approaches to children. But particularly in terms of the charter management organizations they haven’t provided much variety—they’re all strikingly similar to one another. These schools have a very clear philosophy about what they’re trying to do, how they’re trying to do it, what they think is necessary, who they read, who their leaders are. And they’re explicit in describing it. The combination of the uniformity across these different schools and their explicitness about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it makes it easier to get hold of this movement than it is with say, public schools in a city or a school district where there’s so much variety and there isn’t a single philosophy.

ES: With the exception of KIPP, which has allowed Mathematica to study its admission policies and test results, these schools haven’t been receptive to academic studies. How did you manage to study them?

Goodman: I’m the academic director of our Teach for America program at UPenn and our TFA students are teachers in these schools. So I can go in to look at what our students and their teachers are doing, and then students tell me a lot about what’s going on. I have also done a good bit of visiting. The charters are hospitable to that. A lot of this is anecdotal, and much is based on what the schools have written, which is public. My work is investigative, I think, more than formal research. But you’re right—it takes a huge effort to try to get into these schools for any systematic research. They don’t welcome outsiders to study them. And they have a point. What academics do when they go in is criticize, and you can see why they might not like that. I think they’ll let just about anybody in for a visit. But to go in and have the schools really cooperate with an investigator, that’s a whole lot harder. What are the day-to-day processes that are happening in the classroom? How do teachers feel about these processes? How much range of behavior is there? It would be great to be able to investigate these sorts of questions, but the schools wouldn’t welcome that.

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ES: Minority children in urban areas are increasingly being educated at schools run by the types of charter management organizations you study, yet I find that people know little if anything about the way these schools view the world.

Goodman: These schools start with the belief that there’s no reason for the large academic gaps that exist between poor minority students and more privileged children. They argue that if we just used better methods, demanded more, had higher expectations, enforced these higher expectations through very rigorous and uniform teaching methods and a very uniform and scripted curriculum geared to being successful on high-stakes tests, we can minimize or even eradicate these large gaps, high rates of drop outs and the academic failures of these children. To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

stopwatchES: Time seems to be an essential component too—the idea that not a second can be wasted. I’m reminded of this video about *speedy transitions* for kindergarteners at a New Jersey charter school.

Goodman: In order to maximize academic accomplishment, no time can be wasted and anything that’s not academically targeted, that’s not geared to what the students have to know, is time wasted. So there is almost no opportunity for play, for relaxation, very little time for extra-curricular activities. The day is jammed with academics, especially math and reading because that’s what gets tested. The view of time and strict discipline are related, by the way; in order to get these kids to attend over very long hours—they have extended days and extended weeks—you have to be tough with the kids, really severe. They want these kids to understand that when authority speaks you have to follow because that’s basic to learning. So they don’t have the notion of learning that more progressive educators have, that learning is a very active enterprise and that children have to be very participatory and thinking and speaking and discussing and sharing and having initiative. That’s not their view of learning. It’s too variable across teachers, the objectives are too non-specific, and time is wasted.

broken_windowsES: The *broken windows* theory is well known when it comes to policing, but as you write, these charter management organizations apply that theory to schools. Explain.

Goodman: These schools believe that behaviors that you might not think are directly related to academic learning can have a domino effect if left unaddressed. Getting up from your chair to go to the bathroom without explicit permission, for example, or not having your hands folded on your desk, or not looking at the teacher every minute, or not having your feet firmly planted on each side of the center of the desk are problematic behaviors. Because if you don’t conform to these rules then you are going to precipitate the next domino and the next domino. It’s going to have a cascading effect on your behavior and pretty soon you’re going to be very disruptive. If you get up to sharpen your pencil, maybe you’re going to throw your pencil at someone. Or if you get up and get something out of your backpack that you forgot, maybe you’re going to elbow another student on your way back to your seat, or make eye contact with them and divert them from looking at the teacher. Any one of these little behaviors they see as leading to the next behavior. Before you know it there will be bedlam.

ES: Does the emphasis on discipline diminish as kids get older?

Goodman: Well yes—as kids learn and adapt to this regime there’s less time spent on discipline. It takes a while for the kids to adapt to this because it’s so out of their experience. The older kids are still getting merits and demerits all the way through high school, though. In some schools they wear these lanyards that get marked, and when they accumulate a certain number of demerits things happen to them. By 12th grade, the kids are almost giving the demerits to themselves, they’re so accustomed by this point. You might think that if this is still going on in 12th grade, then the kids can’t have internalized all of this very well, but they do get used to it. They do adapt.

ES: One of the questions you ask is whether there are legitimate limits to the power exercised by schools over children.

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Goodman: That’s a big question. What rights do children have that are similar to the rights of adults? Can you search them? Can you control what they say and don’t say at all times? Do they have any freedom of speech rights? Do they have any freedom to bring something to school if they want to? More than that, do they have any rights at all against oppressive punishment? Students in these schools have to go to a certain chair and sit there for a certain length of time, all at the teacher’s discretion, and sometimes they have to go repeatedly to this isolated chair with their back to the class. They may be deprived of recess if that’s granted. They have to go to detention and stay after school. They have to write things 100 times. In some of the schools, there’s a good bit of shaming: they have to wear different colored shirts, they can’t talk, they have to sit on a lower bench than other children. And it’s deliberate shaming of the kids. No one is allowed to talk to them. And what offense have they done to merit this kind of punishment? They haven’t done their homework or they’ve come in late, perhaps repeatedly. They haven’t done anything violent. There has been no adjudication. The teachers or the school norms say that this is appropriate. So what are the limits of what a teacher can do to a child?

ES: You expected that students in these kinds of schools would consider the rules oppressive, but in your study The Quest for Compliance in Schools: Unforeseen Consequences, you found that the students had come to believe that they didn’t deserve more freedom.

Goodman: One thing about these atmospheres is that they’re very uniform. Everybody is on board—you don’t have variability from teacher to teacher or class to class. The atmosphere is totalizing. And the children tend to model themselves after this authority. It has that effect on kids, that they identify with the rules of the regime and their identity becomes *a kid in this school who conforms to these rules.* Now some of the students, of course, don’t conform to the rules, and I think that if you get the kids later in life it’s much harder. But if you get them early, you develop their sense of self that accords with those of the authority. The adults know everything, they know nothing. Here’s what’s good, here’s what’s right. You’ll be successful and happy if you take on these characteristics. Without these rules you’ll be bad or impulsive and you’ll destroy your future. You may not be having fun but you’re doing what’s important. We know best. And the kids come to believe that. As the social psychologists have shown, in totalizing environments, that’s often the result. They call it “identification with the oppressor.” Here oppressor should be changed to authority. There is very, very strong authority in these schools. The teachers are novice teachers, so they get molded too. I don’t think you could take highly experienced teachers—20 years of running a classroom—and put them into these schools and have the same kind of experience. It’s a really interesting study to see how both the teachers and the kids get acculturated.

ES: I think it’s important to point out that you also have some very positive things to say about these schools—you’re not just a straight-up hater.

Goodman: Not at all. I’m certainly not a hater. I think the basic idea of order, of developing habits—you walk into class, you put your things away, you sit down, you take out your book, teacher says good morning, shakes hands, you look at her—some of the habits they’re cultivating will be helpful to kids. And certainly the prohibition on violence makes for a safe community. The problem is that the approach is unbalanced. I think a certain amount of routine, habit forming, strictness, limiting certain behavior is good—but I would always be working towards reducing that. Once you’ve established a safe environment, for example, why not loosen up on the behavior regulations? If I were running one of these schools I would feel that *OK—I have to do this* but I would always be working towards turning over more authority to the kids. That would be my goal all of the time. Let the kids be responsible for their behavior. Have more group work, more student councils, more kids in charge of their own lives.

Joan Goodman is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education University of Pennsylvania and a former school psychologist. Her article, Charter Management Organizations and the Regulated Environment: Is It Worth the Price?, appeared in the February 2013 issue of Educational Researcher.

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  1. This interview confirms with what I’ve seen at a KIPP school here in DC at which I’ve observed classes. At some charter schools however the administration claims that they do this but it’s really not enforced and it’s bedlam.
    I really, really disagree with the philosophy and I’m sure that the boards of directors will never ever send their own schools to one like KIPP.

  2. This may be the most important thing that has yet been written in the voluminous literature on charter schools. Among the most fundamental purposes of public education are these: to develop a citizenry equipped to run a democracy; to equip young people to contribute to and succeed in the work world; to enable each individual to achieve personal self-fulfillment of his/her talents and aspirations; and to teach people how to empathize and collaborate with others, especially of other opinions and cultures. Effective schooling must provide exposure to principles and experiences advancing these goals. The confinement of young children in arbitrarily and relentlessly regimented, oppressive, tyrannical, authoritarian, punitive, and hostile environments as settings for learning certain quash these experiences, and teach them that power over others is to be abused, that authority is to be obeyed unquestioningly, that competition is the baseline human relationship, that knowledge is about a certain set of facts that are fed to them, and that the individual is assumed worthless unless he/she fits neatly in the mold of uniformity and compliance. The charter schools that produce the best “performance” statistics are those that impose this regime most strictly; this has actually been shown in one of the studies funded to prove the superiority of charter schools.

    Explaining Charter School Effectiveness

    “Instruction time (minutes per day and in the relevant subject) and per-pupil expenditures are often thought to be part of the education production function. As it turns out, however, these traditional inputs are unrelated to variation in charter school treatment effects, and accounting for these measures of practice does little to account for the No Excuses advantage. Our results suggest that No Excuses practices are a key driver of charter school effectiveness, and that discipline may be an especially important component of No Excuses. This analysis revealed large effects of urban charters on discipline and attendance. Specifically, urban charter attendance is estimated to increase suspensions by 0.7 days in middle school and more than a full day in high school, effects that exceed mean suspension rates in the lottery sample. Estimates for both middle and high school show significant increases in out-of-school suspensions, and smaller (but still substantial) increases in in-school suspensions. Attendance at urban No Excuses charter schools produces large effects on discipline as well as achievement; attendance at other charter schools has little effect in either domain.”

    This aspect of the charter “model” has to be discussed more explicitly. By asserting that charters and only charters can “close the [black-white] achievement gap,” the charter movement defines itself as the solution to “the civil rights issue of our time.” In fact, I believe they are setting up black children, especially boys, who are even more ill-treated than girls (judging from the six high-performance high schools in Boston, where boys are suspended at much higher rates than girls) to have less self-assurance, take fewer risks, exhibit less curiosity, adaptability, originality, and independent critical thinking than children who were given more freedom in their formative years. It is probably doing similar harm to many young people in TFA and similar programs who are being told that this is the right way to treat children. Thank you, Joan Goodman, and thank you, Edushyster, for bringing this urgent problem front and center.

    1. Civil Rights? … No. Unfortunately the Civil Rights of the moderately to severely disabled, such as those with autism is being greatly trampled on by charter schools. It is not equalizing Civil Rights it is making it worse and pulling funding away form schools that need it.

    2. Great response to a great article . I might add that Charter Schools don’t quite understand what ‘ self-control’ is all about. When a teacher has a system of rewards and punishments in place , she has become responsible for the kids’ behavior. The locus of control is outside the kids and with the teacher. When teachers trust kids – the Pygmalion effect – and instead of rewards and consequences uses cps – collaborative problem solving to deal with problems and unmet expectations kids will see themselves as good and moral people who will exercise self control as something intrinsic and an expression of their values. Charters confuse responsibility, self control with obedience.

  3. Submission. Order, Authority. These were key parenting style and values taught to the generation that grew up to become the Nazi’s. Following authority was highly emphasized.

  4. At Brooke, we consider ourselves “No Excuses” but in some ways we are very different than what’s described here. So while we have high behavior expectations of our students, they also don’t look anything like what I’ve seen at some other schools where heads snap around in unison. That’s kind of scary. We do expect our kids to walk in silent lines. We do expect teachers not to waste time. We do have detentions and suspensions (though we reduced suspensions last year by something like 60%). We do expect kids to track the speaker and raise their hands and not call out. We do expect all of our teachers to have authority in the classroom. We do expect kids to sit up straight and be prepared for class and do their homework on a nightly basis.

    Here’s how we’re different:
    – We use a behavior system that allows kids to “recover” from minor rule infractions during class by “fixing their behavior.”
    – Our classes are built around student engagement and interactions. For example, math classes start with a problem-solving task followed by a discussion of the math concepts uncovered in the PST. Across the board, we hope that student voices are being heard during class more than teacher voices.
    – Our kids write more in one week (for science, social studies, reading, and creative/personal prompt), than I probably write in an entire month of middle school.
    – All of our students get art, music, dance and PE during their time with us. [Elementary gets those things once a week; middle school gets two, twice a week each]. Our music teacher teaches our kids the percussion, recorder, steel drums, marimbas, and electronic music composition during their time at the school. In art, kids learn artistic techniques and vocab, photography (they build their own pinhole cameras), sculpture, art history and drawing. Dance ranges from hip hop to jazz to lyrical and choreography. Our PE teacher has units on all sorts of games, from badminton to basketball to things I’ve never heard of before to jump-roping. Two of our campuses have Spanish instruction.
    – We have extra-curriculars like soccer, basketball, track, cross-country, and newspaper.
    – We take our kids on academically focused field trips; we also take them to high schools and colleges (all types – community, state, private). We also do a few community building trips per year – usually canoeing and hiking.
    – Our teacher turnover rate is getting lower each year. We rarely lose students before 8th grade any more. In fact, we’re beating our early projections so badly that we’re starting to run out of room.
    – Our elementary school students get recess every day – outside unless it’s too hot (rarely), too cold (rarely) or a complete downpour.
    -Our kids read voraciously and we buy tons of books to keep up with them. Each grade level has $300/month to buy new books for classroom libraries. The kids often suggest books they want.
    – Yes, math and reading is a huge focus, but all of our kids get writing, science and social studies every day too.

    Jennifer’s been to my school – what am I missing?

    1. What do you consider “wasting time”? If kids bring up a tangential but relevant/important topic, is it wasting time to pursue their interest in the topic? Is it wasting time to allow time for kids to get started on their homework for a few minutes at the end of a class period, or is it really important to force young kids who have already had 8 hours of school to do more work at home? If kids are clearly exhausted from the ridiculous schedule you expect of them, is it wasting time to allow them time for quiet reading or simply putting their heads down on their desks? Is it a waste of time to allow a few minutes for kids to look out the window at the first snowfall of the season? In short, is attending to any human need or interest just a waste of time and a distraction from the regimented need for rigorous academic focus every single solitary second of the day?

      1. Your use of adjectives does little to mask your disdain of our school, which I’m guessing you’ve never seen. Thanks for giving us a chance! I’ll try to answer your questions to give you fodder to bolster your opinion of how bad our school is for our kids.

        “If kids bring up a tangential but relevant/important topic, is it wasting time to pursue their interest in the topic?”

        It depends on the topic, the amount of time that is spent, and whether the kids can still get everything out of the lesson that they were supposed to. Or, the topic can be tabled to another time. As a science teacher, I could spend every class period answering questions and never get to the point of my lesson. When I first started teaching science, I fell into that trap all the time.

        “Is it wasting time to allow time for kids to get started on their homework for a few minutes at the end of a class period, or is it really important to force young kids who have already had 8 hours of school to do more work at home?”

        We occasionally start HW in class, especially in writing. But we also set aside about 70 minutes of our day for kids to work independently on writing assignments for science, writing, reading and/or social studies.

        “If kids are clearly exhausted from the ridiculous schedule you expect of them, is it wasting time to allow them time for quiet reading or simply putting their heads down on their desks?”

        Most of our kids have zero problem keeping up with the schedule. When kids are exhausted it is almost always a product of them staying up too late with video games, texting, TV or the like (I know, they tell me). Or, it can be about a late night ER visit (asthma, etc.). As to reading, our kids get a 45 minutes of silent reading 4 days per week, right before lunch. Many kids read silently at any and every moment, to the point that I often tell them to put away their books so we can move on in the lesson. It’s a tough problem to have.

        “Is it a waste of time to allow a few minutes for kids to look out the window at the first snowfall of the season?”

        Yes, we shut the shades when there is any chance that it might snow or there might be a rainbow or an eclipse. Just kidding! Of course we notice the snow, cheer a little and then get back to whatever it is we’re doing.

        Remember, our kids get art, computers, music, dance, yoga and/or PE 4 times per week. They learn to type. At some of our schools, they get Spanish classes. We’re hoping to implement computer programming next year. And they have breaks in the middle school, and recess in elementary school (and when they earn it as a reward in middle school). In homeroom, we talk about high school, economics, current events, weird OK Go videos and random things we learned from Facebook. During lunch we play Geoguessr and show/play throwback music with a different theme each week – this week was 80s movie music, last week was Bob Marley. We have multigrade level “squads” that meet for lunch and are led by our 8th graders. We have community meetings each week where we bestow accolades kids who stood out on the previous week, have guest speakers, play silly games and share school-wide information. We play pranks on them for Halloween and April Fool’s Day and motivate them with the immortal words of Coach Eric Taylor (Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose!)

        So much time is wasted at traditional schools for the little things.

        My wife once saw a writing class in a suburban 3rd grade class where they spent 40 out of the 45 minute lesson sharing topics that they had decided to write about the day before while the teacher critiqued each kid’s idea as they went. They wrote for all of 5 minutes. There are so many ways to make that more efficient and productive for those kids.

        Another example is loudspeaker announcements. In many schools, there are constant announcement over the PA system. Our classes are never interrupted in that way.

        And I once watched a transition to an assembly in a district school that took at least 15 minutes. We can make an equivalent transition happen in about 2-3 minutes. How is that a bad thing?

        1. “So much time is wasted in traditional schools for little things.”
          “In many schools there are constant annoucement over the P.A. system.”
          “I once watched a transition to an assembly in a district school that took at least 15 minutes (HOW BIG WAS THAT SCHOOL COMPARED TO YOURS? My district schools are five or more times as large as the charter schools).

          As you don’t want others to make assumptions about your schools, please do not do it about mine. My colleagues and I work very hard to not “waste time.” I’m tired of the cheering of charter schools as the savior of education while true public schools get denigrated. We work with a far more difficult clinetele, with less money, than the local charter schools (I have intimate experience with the charters in my area). We also have to take anyone back that is kicked out of the charter school, which always happens after the count on October 1, meaning that we get none of the money for that student.

          1. I was not making assumptions – I was observing in district schools that my daughter might have attended. What I saw was pretty clear, and confirmed by teachers that I talked to.

            The transition issue It had nothing to do with size (though I could see how that’s a possibility).

            It had to do with the fact that there was no clear communication about how, when and to where the classes were transitioning. Classes of kids were standing in line in the hallway for 15 minutes before they entered the room for their assembly. Under any criteria, that’s 15 minutes of wasted time and teachers screaming at kids. The teachers were frustrated at the situation too. When there are a lot of kids that need to get to the same place at the same time, it’s amazing what staggered transitions will do. Just saying.

            Getting rid of all school announcements for a teacher to report to the office the middle of the day costs nothing and zero to do with the children.

          2. A lot of traditional schools are better than what you observed. I’ve worked in four different junior high and have never seen what you have described. Annoucements to the whole school only happen every other day in my building, and most other calls to the office come via note or phone call into o only the room in question.

            Your charter school sounds fine, but a lot of other charter schools are awful. You assume that all public schools are awful because of what you witnessed at a public school or two. Give the same consideration you want for your charter schools to those of us in real public schools.

    2. I visited Paul’s school last spring (and even managed to take home a good behavior wrist band that I still wear on occasion!) While there were aspects of the style of school and classroom management that bother me (particularly in the early grades), Brookes wasn’t anywhere near as strict as the kinds of schools that Joan Goodman is describing. In fact, as I told Paul after my trip, I came away feeling that Brookes is doing some interesting and amazing things. The problem is that the future of public education for poor minority kids doesn’t look like Brookes, where kids have access to incredible enrichments and one of the only full sets of marimbas in New England. It looks like Rocketship or the CMO-run schools Goodman talks about: math/ELA heavy test prep, silent lunch and a *boot to the neck,* as one Boston charter parent described it to me. These are the schools that are expanding rapidly through urban areas with enormous money and political heft behind them. Paul and I disagree on a lot (you should see some of our email exchanges!), but I think we both agree that whatever kind of school kids are attending, they should have access to a full curriculum – just like their more affluent peers get.

  5. Can one teach, say, creative writing or revolutionary critical theory or, heck, photography in a classroom where the enforced expectations are that you listen when asked to listen, discuss when asked to discuss, and maintain attention on the speaker at all times?

    To the best of my recollection of my rich-kid-liberal-prep-school education, the classrooms where I learned the most and most deeply were the ones where standard operating procedure was to do exactly what the teacher said, when she said it. Slouching in your chair–or lab stool, or studio easel bench–while not specifically codified as misbehavior, was a no-no in these classes. We were (mostly) affluent white kids being taught by (mostly) hyper-educated white teachers. I called them strict at the time, but I get the sense that some of the commenters here would have called them draconian, patriarchal, or, ahem, Nazis.

    Were they draconian? Were they not, but because the socio-economic and racial context was so different from the contexts being discussed here?

  6. Welcome back, Ross! Actually you’ve put your finger on exactly the issue here. *Slouching in your chair–or lab stool, or studio easel bench–while not specifically codified as misbehavior, was a no-no in these classes.* The expectation is, that because affluent white students show up on day one already knowing words like *dressage* and *catamaran* that they have the ability to *self-regulate* and so don’t require broken windows schooling. You may have slouched on your studio easel bench but I highly doubt that the entire school culture was oriented around the belief that your slouching would cause a domino effect of misbehavior culminating in the destruction of the art studio.

    I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that poor and minority kids need to be educated differently than their affluent white peers – and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that. In fact based on the emails I’ve been getting from charter parents of late, I’m positive I’m not alone.

    1. I’m uncomfortable with that idea too, but when the two groups are educated using similar methods, has that worked? I mean, there’s a strong correlation between wealth and test scores for a reason, right? (And I know, I know, the test scores aren’t the end-all, be-all.) We know there’s a persistent achievement/attainment gap in everything from college graduation rates, pre-K access, etc.

      This is really the core of the issue, right? Fair doesn’t always mean equal. If that was the case, then we should all be in favor of a flat tax (and not many are). I haven’t really exercised since my kids were born. If I want to run a marathon in 6 months, I am going to have to work a hell of lot harder than my friend who runs 10 miles to and from work each day (and yes, I understand this is a crap analogy since I put myself in my situation, and my kids did not choose to be low income and of color). If we were able to treat everyone the same from now on (no racism, no classism, no sexism, etc.), things wouldn’t be fair because lots of groups have years of advantages behind them in education, established wealth, positions of influence, etc. There needs to be an even greater push in the other direction. What if I proposed an education reform plan to push Title I school class sizes down to 12 kids per class? That wouldn’t be “fair” to the kids in the burbs, but I bet it would be ok with most of you. And I think that would fine with me. I just think it’s a pipe dream, along with slavery reparations, eliminating poverty, etc. Have you ever looked at the electoral map or met a Republican?

      Well, for my students, the majority of them come from a background that has not been successful in the halls of educational power in our society. It’s not for intellectual reasons – it’s an issue of navigation, resources, parental educational attainment, racism, etc. We try to reverse that. We think education is HUGE lever for reversing these persistent patterns. So we focus on what we can do within our school for our students. We think tight management, a well-rounded curriculum and awesome teaching can get more of them there than if they were at another school without those things. In the short term, that’s better than hoping for a doubling of the minimum wage.

      As for the pissed off charter parents, I feel for them. They are opting to keep their kid in a place they are unhappy with because their other options must be even worse. They don’t have to stay at the charter if they are unhappy with it. But I’m sure they know it’s providing a safer environment, with a greater chance that their kid will actually learn to read and do math, than their public school option. But what if the charter didn’t exist? Would the local school really be better?

      My sense is that many charter parents, especially of middle school students, choose charters for safety and lack of chaos a lot of the time. It would be interesting to see if the district could stop the bleeding (departures for charters) if they could figure out how to make the schools safer. But that brings us back to the beginning again. Why are they unsafe? Is it the kids? The teachers? The administration? District policies? A combination of the four? When I watch kids at the local BPS middle school get off the bus in the morning and immediately leave school property, I’m thinking the adults need to get their acts together and then maybe the kids (at least most of them) will get into line. And I bet that would help improve what happens in the classroom.

      But maybe getting them back together will be different than the way they treat kids in Newton. And maybe that’s ok.

  7. I often have occasion to think, and I hear other teachers and adults say, “Give and inch; take a mile”. There’s truth here. We all want a friendly, relaxed, spontaneous classroom. But while human nature may not be as depraved as Hobbes and Machiavelli thought, it’s definitely not as angelic as Rousseau thought.

  8. What always strikes me when I read articles like this is… what was it again that is supposed to be the goal? “College and career ready”? Someone should do a survey of college admissions departments and ask them if this is the profile they look for in an applicant — good at reproducing information given by an authority figure, good at choosing the correct answer out of several options, but with their capacity for independent thinking atrophied, their creativity crushed, and their ability undeveloped to deal with questions that don’t have preset right answers from an authority figure. Seriously, someone thinks that that prepares a student to succeed in college? Or in careers? A person whose creativity and independent thinking capability are crushed will not be fit for many high-level careers. They will be fit only for jobs that involve competently carrying out orders without question … like the military. Schools like this, by accident or design, will assure the country a steady supply of youth who are prepared only for either the military or for a low-level jobs that require competence in following orders.

    1. Yes, I’m sure the college professors would prefer kids who had lots of creativity and couldn’t read a 4th grade level text. That would clearly be preferable.

  9. Somehow I can’t respond to Threatened above, so I will here. By the way, charter schools are public schools. Thanks.

    I’m not talking about every district school; the one I was talking about is in turnaround status. And even then there are glimmers of good things going on there. But I’ve seen similar things in the two Boston Public schools where I worked before I was a teacher, and have seen / heard similar stories from my peers who work or worked in those schools. So I know it’s not an anomaly.

    I’ve never been to any of the schools you’ve worked in. Are they traditional district schools in low-income communities? If they’re doing well, that’s fantastic. Between my wife and I, we saw 12+ Boston Public schools last year as we tried to decide how to rank order our choices for our daughter for pre-K. We would have been ok with her in many of the schools we visited. Some are doing really innovative things; others are more basic. We have a sense that we will be able to support her to be successful wherever she ends up. I hope we’re right. But we’re also applying to our own charter school (though the odds are slim). In one of the better schools, my wife saw kids making turkeys the week before Thanksgiving. Makes sense, right? But that was in K, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. The whole school was filled with turkeys. Are you freaking kidding me? How is that useful after maybe first grade? How about a pilgrim or something else if you want to talk Thanksgiving. Really.

    I don’t think district public schools are all bad. I attended one in a Long Island suburb. I had fantastic, creative and passionate teachers; I know our test scores were good, too. I think I got a great education there. But I really don’t think that the outcomes of that education system couldn’t have been predicted by the educational attainment of the students’ parents. I think that’s probably true in most places. In wealthy places like Scarsdale or the Upper East Side or Newton, more kids go to and succeed in college. In Bed-Stuy or South Central or Mattapan, almost none do. In my school, many of my peers never went to college or never made it through if they did. Where I teach now, we hope that that will be different in the long run.

    1. Yep, my school is medium risk–about 35% free and reduced lunch. We have a huge amount of turnover of students throughtout the year–I estimate that 1/3 of our students move in or out (and sometimes both) during the school year. The school district consistently understaff my school, because the district “leaders” all come from the more affluent end of the district and haven’t figured out that we have a lot of student turnover. I have classes in social studies as high as 37.

      Here’s the problem I have with charter schools–they take all the money and kick out the kids. We have to take them back, and we get no money for them. A colleague of mine recently overheard a teacher at one of the local charter schools bragging to someone else in a doctor’s waiting room. She says that the school waits until October 2 (the state count day is October 1) and then kick out kids who violate the school’s dress code. We usually get a dozen or more kids back from charter schools before Thanksgiving. They are often credit deficient.

      I also disagree with you that parents keep their kids in charter schools because the alternatives are worse. I’m not sure why this is, but there’s a certain cachet of having a child in a charter school. It’s almost a bragging point to these parents that their children aren’t around “those children” in the public schools. It’s a very elitist attitude. That’s even though kids in the charter schools in my area do not get as good of an education as public schools offer, and the opportunities for extracurricular activities and other special offerings just don’t exist in charter schools.

      I also disagree with you that charters are public schools. In my area, most charter schools are run by a charter management company that will not open its books and employs legislators and family members of legislators. If the public cannot see where public money is being spent, then it is not public, in my opinion.

      I’m glad your charter school works, and I wish you well. But a lot of public schools work, too, even with the extra problems that we have to deal with that charter schools do not.

      1. Hi Threatened,
        It’s clear that one of the troubles with comparing charter schools in different states and different communities is that the laws are so vastly different.

        For example:

        In Massachusetts, there isn’t a single “count point.” Rather, we have to report our enrollment I think 4x per school year. If the kid leaves, we lose the money.

        In Boston, there are almost no open-enrollment middle schools that are as safe and getting the same academic results for low-income kids as all but a couple of the charter schools. But that could be different where you live. In MA, they’ve found that charter schools in Boston tend to have a greater affect on kids’ test scores than any of the ones in the burbs or other locations around the state. I could see how that could be true where you are then.

        I’m not completely sure about the “books” at our school, but I know we have auditors in at least 2x per year checking every last receipt and piece of spending that happens. I’ve heard of elected officials sitting on boards of directors at charter schools, but never employing them or their family members. We follow open meeting laws, get public per pupil funding, don’t discriminate in hiring or accepting kids, have a random lottery only weighted for sibling preference. We are accountable to the state, which can shut us down if we don’t manage our finances or charge to educate children appropriately. We have to get our charter renewed by the state every 5 years. The state comes in to check on up in some capacity almost every year – whether to check on our Special Ed department, our finances, our teachers and teaching, or our protocols on testing days. I think we’re public.

      2. Thanks! I’m just tired of being treated like an idiot because I teach in an at-risk, public, school. And I teach 8th graders, so I get treated like either an idiot or a saint (I am neither) for that, too.

    2. To my Chicago perspective, your ideas about charters and college seem vaguely elitist. First off, I wouldn’t have sent my kids to either a Chicago charter (no proven academic success, Orwellian rules) or a Chicago neighborhood public school (kids show up way too behind to ever catch up). Secondly, what about the trades? Is there no value in them anymore? At the Catholic school where all three of my kids have attended, an old-school teacher was finally persuaded to retire after years of parent complaints. Her sins? Insisting on students tracking her with their eyes as she spoke, insisting on students sitting with hands politely folded on top of desks, enforcement of silent lines, detentions for the wrong sock and belt color, maintaining frequent silent work time, and refusing to call on students whose hands where not held up in the manner she expected. We middle and working-class parents who sacrifice in order to pay Catholic tuitions want acknowledgment from the school that we’ve taught our children to behave and have sent them to school ready to learn. This teacher’s practices sent the message that we had failed to do so.
      Urban charter schools do indeed offer remediation, of sorts, from the chaos and dysfunction that plagues many urban neighborhoods. Children who arrive to school unready to learn must master the rules before they can break the rules. And as we know, trailblazers of any kind tend also to be rule-breakers. Unfortunately, the achievement gap is firmly in place by the time children arrive in kindergarten. Only the super-bright and equally super-tenacious students can transcend formative years (birth through five) that lack exposure to enrichment opportunities, academic conversations, cooperative play, self-regulation, boundary-setting and fair negotiations with authority (both parental and institutional).
      The behavior rules imposed by charters do seem successful in preventing or alleviating some of the fighting, discourtesy, and explicit academic apathy endemic in some urban neighborhood public schools. Maintaining good posture, eye contact, straight lines, hands-to-yourself, shirt-tucked-in, tight schedules and homework expectations certainly gives the appearance of academic improvement. And all students deserve to be safe at school. Nevertheless, no data supports the idea that charters, on the whole, create measurable gains in the all-important norm-referenced test scores.
      If charters’ purpose is to teach students how to follow institutional rules, then they certainly seem successful. As we know, though, charters’ purpose is also to line the pockets of educational profiteers and to provide hedge fund philanthro-capitalists with the opportunity to improve their public image.
      Perhaps charters will prove the haters wrong and will cure poverty. Many people clearly believe that weak teaching and weak institutions are the reason for the poor academic performance of urban students in non-hedge-fund-backed public education. Nevertheless, those of us who educate our children in urban Catholic systems believe that is it the strength of the nuclear family — and the strength of that family’s dedication and contribution to the immediate community – that is responsible for strong academic results. We believe that there is no institutional replacement for this.

      1. In the beginning, no excuses charter schools explicitly tried to model themselves off those old school Catholic school teachers, or so I’ve heard. In Boston, parents were happy to get what was essentially like a Catholic school education (minus JC, minus nuns, plus recent college grades), for free. In fact, in the early days, the Church sold buildings to charters (like the one where my school is now). Then, they realized that the existence of charters was damaging their already depressed “market” share (things like changing demographics, fewer middle class families, sex abuse), so they stopped selling their buildings and let them moulder. Now, we nominally are working with them to share ideas.

        For the record, I think charters in Boston are way more than Catholic school light.

        And, I disagree with your premise that kids who have less than ideal home lives can’t make it unless they are super “smart” or “tenacious” (though it certainly helps). #growthmindset #dweck

        1. In Chicago, less than 6% of CPS (including charter) graduates receive a university degree within 6 years of graduating from high school. Since “making it” isn’t believed to include the trades, this data does support my premise. At least in Chicago.

          But I think you’re missing my point.

          1. Wait, what was your point? My point was that there are charter schools that are blowing numbers like 6% out of the water.

          2. Also, in Boston, the trades have been traditionally controlled by primarily white unions, which made it harder to make them seem like decent options for African-Americans and Latinos. When I taught at a charter with a larger low-income white population, lots of the kids thought our college push was silly since their dads made more money than me. And don’t know if you’ve see what’s going on with the one trade school in Boston:

          3. Interesting piece on how voc/tech schools in Massachusetts are becoming increasingly selective to the detriment of minority students:

            I’ve been trying to get college completion data from Boston charters for ever. My sense is that there are a few charters that are doing a good job of getting kids to college (but still losing most of the boy students), but that college completion remains a huge issue–for a variety of reasons. This is also an area where the BPS deserves credit for getting more students to college than in any time in Boston’s history. If you have data or can think of a way for me to get it, let me know. Parents are being sold hard on the idea that attending a Boston charter will put their kids on a path to college. But there’s never any acknowledgement that that path is pretty narrow. btw: thanks for all of your comments. Nice to see some actual back-and-forth.

  10. Curious about something. What does the school do with students who will not or cannot conform to the rules?

    1. They are kicked out. While charters may do some good, and there are a small number of them that are really getting outstanding results, a lot of them get those results by kicking kids out for small infractions. So charters end up kicking out a lot of kids, especially those with disabilities who have trouble controlling their behavior.

  11. The spirit of this reminds me of those Victorian novels where a poor child is taken in by rich relatives and then exhorted over and over about how grateful they ought to be. There seems to be a sense of punishment in this. Whether the administrators intend it or not, it may come across that way to under-privileged students and parents who are coming from years, if not generations of under-funded, pitiful, schools. Now they go to a for-profit charter with, perhaps, nice new chairs and materials and white, well-educated fresh-faced teachers. But the “no excuses” boot-camp-style discipline is the price. The message I would take away is “you didn’t really deserve a nice school”.

    I went to one school in Memphis that was incredibly strict. I remember drilling on walking up the stairs quietly. Once you sat down at your lunch table you couldn’t get up for any reason. Then I went to an inner-city magnet school where when the lunch bell rang, there was a stampede to the cafeteria. You could eat lunch outside and we had a “sock hop” last period every single Friday. There were some terrible teachers and some students who were headed to jail, but there were also some wonderful teachers and the atmosphere was creative and humane. It didn’t break your spirit or make you want to rebel. People are not robots to be trained with some sort of Skinnerian stimulus-response experiment.

    1. While there are some for-profit charters in some states, they are are in the minority from my understanding. Most are non-profit.

      1. The vast majority of charters in Utah are run by charter management organizations, which, while technically non-profit, make A LOT of money for the select few who sell land, build the buildings, or run the CMO.

        1. If the CMO employees are getting paid big bucks, then I think that’s a fair accusation. But I don’t get how contractors and real estate developers are roped into this. If a district was putting up a new school, how would that be different? Unless there’s some kind of kickback scheme that you’re aware of…

          1. When districts build schools they remain public assets until such time as it’s decided to sell them. In many states the building a charter occupies is a private asset owned by real estate investors or other private entities who are effectively building a real estate portfolio with public funds. There is also heavy subsidizing of investors real estate acquisitions through NMTC. I’m aware that construction of district run schools is not always the most efficient or ethical process, but at least we aren’t simply handing ownership of the schools to investors beyond whatever chicanery may occur. That seems a rather big and important distinction to me.

      2. 80% of charters in Michigan are for profit as reported by Forbes. In many cities and states, charters claim they are public when there’s a question of funding, but turn around and hide behind the private banner when any question of financial transparency and accountability comes up. This doublespeak has been seen in court cases where local stakeholders want to see how their tax dollars are being spent. In Ohio, charters spend far more on administrative costs than public schools do. Overall, the amount of financial corruption and malfeasance in the charter sector is huge compared to it’s size. There’s a gold rush mentality among for profit and not for profit CMO’s and charter ownership that does not and cannot exist in public schools due to the difference in financial structure between the two. Non profit schools may also be run by for profit CMO’s, and since “non-profit” merely designates a tax status rather than a financial one, an examination of the compensation of those at the top of the charter food chain is in order. As I alluded to before, many are refusing to open their books even when faced with the probability of a lawsuit. How much are they taking off the top, how much higher is their compensation than those who manage much larger numbers of public schools and students? From everything I have seen, a lot higher

        1. In Massachusetts, only 2 out of 80 are run by for-profit companies. Another reason that making generalizations about charters schools is hard to do. The rules and cultures are so different from state to state. Ohio, I know, has some ridiculous charter laws from what I’ve read, and absurd corruption to go along with it. My perspective, living in a state with really high standards for charters, is different, I suppose.

    2. I completely agree with you. There’s also something ominous and Orwellian about listening to the passionate defense of charters. I’m reminded of a lesser Party member describing a subcommittee dedicated to the rectification of the overfulfillment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan.

      1. why is defending something that one believes to be useful and beneficial (even if you don’t) wrong?

        1. My point wasn’t that defending a belief is wrong. I was commenting on the tone that seems common amongst charter defenders.

          1. Sorry to have misread your intent. I haven’t read 1984 in a while. What is it about the tone that’s off?

  12. I have no idea how to get that data. I think it’s a little easier for the high schools to track that data, but for middle schools that don’t have a high school, it’s tough to track kids for 8+ years to see what happens. We provide all kinds of incentives for kids to keep us up to date with their school progress and we provide support all the way through college to some extent. But sometimes kids get lost. What I can tell you is that there are kids persisting in college now who I didn’t think were going to make it that far, and others with much more potential who have fallen by the wayside. We try to hold ourselves accountable for getting kids through college, but there is only so much influence a K-8 school can have on that level. We have 3 full time staff and some other part time people helping our kids after they leave us. It’s also why we want them to attend college prep high schools that will keep them on the same path. We are also have more and better staff doing that work today than we did 8 years ago.

    One thing I like to say is that looking at college completion rates at this point is like looking at the light of a far away star. You’re seeing evidence of a school a long time ago. Our first class just graduated from college (assuming they did 4 and 4 in HS and college). Some made it, many did not. But our school was no where near as successful in those early years, by whatever measures you use – MCAS rates, attrition, quality of instruction, well-roundedness, etc. So if we measure the quality of our school as it is today, based on what the school was like 8 or 10 years ago, it wouldn’t seem all that hot. Hopefully, the data will improve as the rest of the school has improved. The students I teach today are substantially more skilled, on average, than the ones that I taught when they were coming to us in 5th grade.

  13. After reading the back and forth in this posting, I would submit that mathteacher is a troll. He/she exhibit all the markings and symptons.

    Congrats edushyster, your blog just took another step to being taken seriously as a speaker of truth to power. I raise my glass of (non-screwed cap, non-boxed) wine to you (sorry, I’m an unrependent wine snob).

    1. Wow, I’ve never been called a troll before. Thanks, I guess.

      From Wikipedia: “n Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people,[1] by posting inflammatory,[2] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.[4]”

      My understanding is that this is a forum to discuss topics related to education reform. While I disagree with Jennifer on may issues, and clearly with many of you here, I think a hearty back and forth is useful. I also think it’s not particularly useful when the internet is compartmentalized into sites where everyone agrees.

      1. I’ve met Math Teacher so can vouch for his non-troll-ness (unless you left your troll suit at home that day???) And as a big fan of hearty back-and-forth, I’m glad that he stops by. But I appreciate the toast and the sentiment, HAI, even if you are a wine snob!

  14. I’ve been thinking a lot about these schools since the Adrian Peterson controversy surrounding how the athlete disciplines his children. A friend of mine posted a link to this Salon article describing what the author identifies as “The Racial Parenting Divide.”

    I’m wondering if there is a connection between what is said in the Salon excerpts below about how living in a “culture of white supremacy” forces the author, a black parent, to put too high a price on raising her children to be well-behaved.

    I wonder if this sentiment is at all shared or reflected in parents’ decisions to send their kids to a No-excuses charter school where some, but not all, teachers/deans/principals shame their children when they misbehave.

    For the year I taught in a no excuses middle school, I had some really frank conversations with parents about their kids, particularly the ones that were always in trouble and staying in detention until 6pm for weeks at a time. (School started at 7:30am)

    One parent of a student confided in me that she was just trying to get her daughter through the year as best she could. That it was grueling, she didn’t like the school, but they knew it was good for her.

    The afterschool and silent lunchtime detentions, sometimes known as being on the bench, but later renamed something about “success”, were typically comprised of black boy students who were very active kids. (As a new mom to a 4 month old boy who is incredibly active, I know I already feel anxious about what his school experience will be. Will he be constantly disciplined for just being too wiggly?)

    At this No-Excuses school, teachers did try to give the active students tasks through out the day, like passing out paper, or picking things up, so that they got some movement. But the entire system– from no structured PE class, to silent lunch, to silent and still standing in lines to enter classrooms– seemed poorly designed for kids who need to move. And talking while standing in line, or leaving pencil shavings in a desk, or forgetting to wear your belt, or forgetting your homework folder, or laughing at the wrong time, lowered your numerical standing in the grade, and if you fell below the line, you earned yourself a week of silent detentions at lunch and after school.

    I cannot imagine subjecting my son to this environment. It’s hard for me to imagine that the Co-Founders of this CMO will choose to send their kids, when they are old enough, into their no-excuses schools where there’s no time for team sports after school, because they have to get their extended minutes of Math instruction in. I mean, seriously. Unless something has grossly changed in the last few years, the kids, active boys, can’t play CYA basketball or AYSO soccer.

    “Stakes are high because parenting black children in a culture of white supremacy forces us to place too high a price on making sure our children are disciplined and well-behaved. I know that I personally place an extremely high value on children being respectful, well-behaved and submissive to authority figures. I’m fairly sure this isn’t a good thing.”
    “I hope Peterson is a cautionary tale, not about the state intruding on our “right” to discipline our children but rather a wakeup call about how much (fear of) state violence informs the way we discipline our children.
    If the murder of Michael Brown has taught us nothing else, we should know by now that the U.S. nation-state often uses deadly violence both here and abroad as a primary mode of disciplining people with black and brown bodies.”

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