The Good Intentions and Troubled Legacies of No Excuses Schooling

This morning, Vox is promoting a new feature article by Elizabeth Green on the educational philosophy undergirding No Excuses schools.  I’ve written about Green’s work before — mainly her 2010 New York Times Magazine article and her subsequent book by the same title — in both journal articles and in a book of my own, Education Reform and the Concept of Good Teaching.  In fact, I credit Elizabeth Green’s 2010 reportage on Doug Lemov’s pioneering use of data to improve teaching and the entrepreneurial spirit he marshaled in creating the Uncommon Schools network — reportage that I think, even in retrospect, is fair to characterize as breathless — with sharpening the focus of my doctoral studies.  In that earliest NYT article, especially, I found an unsettling mixture of noble intentions, daring innovations, and what struck me as some deeply dubious assumptions about the skillful practices of human beings. Essentially, I saw in Green’s work itself, and in the many people she profiled, a potent combination of vast intelligence, moral zeal, and a kind of confidence in those two characteristics that, historically speaking, can do as much harm as good.

But that NYT article came out fully six years ago, now.  She’s certainly no longer so unreservedly optimistic about the reforms she championed then.  It’s not exactly a jaundiced eye that she turns upon the no-excuses disciplinary philosophy heralded by some reform-oriented schools, but she doesn’t sound quite as eager to buy in as she was back then.

Given the incident that seems to have inspired her most recent article, though, one wouldn’t expect unabashed cheerleading.  And the article isn’t exactly a straightforward defense of no-excuses disciplinary practices, either.  But it’s also not as critical as it ought to be in many places, and if Green is going to conclude, as she does, both that “the no-excuses approach to teaching needs radical overhaul” and that “the same ingredient that propelled changes so far — rigorous honesty about what isn’t working” can bring about that necessary change, then doing some difficult reflection about how the “ingredients that propelled changes so far” have ended up giving us a system that now needs radical overhaul will be necessary.  I don’t think that reflection is in this article.

Part of the issue is that Green structures the article in the actual form of an argumentative essay: three arguments against no-excuses schooling, followed by three arguments for it, the latter obviously intended to respond to the former.

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So when she claims in the conclusion that the whole idea needs an “overhaul,” it feels like something more than balance or objectivity; it feels almost like benevolence, like charity, as though despite the fact that she’s addressed the opposing arguments, she will grant that minor adjustments could improve things.  And so the reader is more inclined to trust the fine print, as it were: the suggestion that the ingredients that led to this problematic system can somehow also fix it, and that the very people empowered to create and administer that system should be entrusted with its reform.  If this conclusion came from the mouth of traditional public school officials, reform advocates would raise — and have raised — holy hell about it.  It would be held up as an example of powerful interests defending a broken status quo.

A bigger issue with Green’s analysis opens up when she wades into the exceptionally complicated territory of education and/as anti-racism.  That is, the territory itself is exceptionally complicated. Education and black social mobility have been inextricably intertwined since colonizers brought the first slaves from West Africa: it’s reflected in 19th century laws against teaching slaves to read and write.  It’s reflected in the seminal importance of Brown v. Board of Education to understandings of African Americans’ equal  citizenship. A minimally sufficient education has been imagined across the board as the necessary condition for autonomous personal flourishing in American society.  The denial of such an education has been used in this country as an explicit tool of disempowerment, and because it can be used in such a way, any such racially systematic denial has been declared, by the highest court in the land, unconstitutional, anathema to the founding principles of our democracy.

At the same time, though, Green points out a “concern” that seems to run counter to the above view of education as inherently anti-racist: “the so-called school-to-prison pipeline,” in her words.  And on this issue, I think, she badly misses the point.

The concern itself runs counter to the above narrative insofar as incarceration disproportionately affects people of color, particularly African Americans; that suspensions from school likewise disproportionately affect people of color, particularly African-Americans; and that there is a straight-line link between suspensions, dropouts, and incarceration. To the extent that no-excuses discipline would logically lead to more suspensions,  it would seem to encourage this school-to-prison pipeline.

Of course, that’s shoddy thinking of the classic “correlation is not causation” form, and Green doesn’t venture too far down that road. But when she says that “I’m not aware of research showing that attending a no-excuses school increases a student’s chance of incarceration,” she seems to offer a defense against this very straw man, which implies that in order for the “school-to-prison pipeline” to be a genuine issue where no-excuses teaching is concerned, there would have to be a more or less literal pipeline, a causal link between no-excuses teaching practices and rates of incarceration.

To her credit, Green spends a great deal of time on the more pressing notion that no-excuses disciplinary practices are racist all by themselves, without needing an outcome measure like incarceration rates to make the point.  It’s to her credit because this represents a potentially fatal objection to an idea that she, in principle, believes in.  And she doesn’t pull punches, which is, again, to her credit.  She discusses the concern that “no-excuses discipline deliberately seeks to control and diminish the bodies and cultures of students of color,” and she quotes researchers and administrators on their own discomfort with policing the dress and grooming habits of their students, which disproportionately seem to affect African Americans.  Which leads to outcomes like this:

But then, at the end of this longer section, she curiously pivots to a third facet of the issue: “Do no-excuses schools protect students from teachers’ bias, or might they leave room for teachers to act out of fear or prejudice?” This pivot strikes me as suspicious because of what it allows Green to do, rhetorically.

First, no disciplinary policy can “protect students from teacher bias.”  The whole idea is that policies by their very nature have to be implemented in order to have any effect at all, and that the people doing the implementation, including teachers, have some ineradicable degree of interpretive agency when it comes to bringing policy to bear. If an individual teacher understands aspects of black cultural life to be inherently disordered or disruptive, no disciplinary policy will prevent that teacher from levying discipline (whether in the form of surveillance, consequences, or what have you) disproportionately.  Green herself points to the vague category of “disrespect” as something that allows teachers potentially harmful discretion in this regard, but the truth of the matter is that no disciplinary policy could ever be sufficiently specific to eliminate discretion altogether.

For further examples of this, one only has to examine the downfall of the policing theory that Green says provided the model for no-excuses tactics.  Article after article took broken-windows strategies to task for disproportionately targeting people of color, firmly establishing that even when it comes to law enforcement procedures, it’s impossible to preclude harmful forms of discretion.

It’s curious that Green brings up this third argument, then, mainly because it amounts to asking whether this no-excuses disciplinary policy can accomplish the impossible.  Why would she want to do that? Why would she hold it up against an unrealizable standard?

The answer appears in her kill-shot:

“Again, nobody reasonable could accuse no-excuses schools of intentional racism. But just because the schools aim to target systemic racism doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes succumb to it or even, without meaning to, advance it.”

Intentional racism, she implies, is worse than, and separable from, systemic racism. No-excuses teaching policy “targets systemic racism,” and might accidentally, as it were, “advance it,” but it’s certainly not intentional racism, which, again, is worse.

This is a complete dodge.  Ending the section with that paragraph seems to acknowledge the reality of structural racism and even to acknowledge that no-excuses practices might “succumb” to it, as though structural racism is a temptation, like carbs.  But it only acknowledges the reality of structural racism as, in the same breath, it also presents it as the lesser of two evils, specifically the less morally blameworthy form of racism.  Coming at the conclusion of a few hundred words that pretty clearly demonstrate the racially disparate disciplinary regime that no-excuses teaching in fact is, this irrelevant distinction Green draws between intentional and systemic racism allows her to mitigate the rhetorical impact of everything she just described.

She knows how powerful this idea that no-excuses might be in itself racist is: I think that’s why she puts this argument against no-excuses teaching second — neither first nor last — which is the rhetorical best practice for minimizing an argument’s impact without actually ignoring it.

And let’s be clear: When she says that “just because the schools aim to target systemic racism doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes succumb to it or even, without meaning to, advance it,” she’s giving these schools a little too much credit. These schools are explicitly targeting the effects of systemic racism — that is, the persistent under-education of people of color in the United States — but they can, and arguably do, pursue an anti-racist agenda by de facto racist means.  That is to say, targeting systemic racism and targeting its effects aren’t necessarily the same thing, and the very fact that administrators and teachers in no-excuses schools are voicing their ambivalence around the issue now is itself ample evidence there hasn’t been sufficient consideration in the past around targeting anti-racism across the school’s conduct.

And yes, it is possible to pursue anti-racist ends via means that are themselves racist. The historical divergence between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois on matters of education might be framed as an argument over whether Washington’s form of “uplift” was predicated on racist ideology.

And then Green concludes with her weakest argument against no-excuses teaching, which is to say, the argument that she finds most easy to refute: that no-excuses teaching doesn’t work.  Again, to her credit, she raises some actually excellent concerns in this section, mostly driven by what she characterizes as the “side-effects” of such disciplinary policies: kids who are compliant but not creative, kids whose behavioral repertoire is overly scripted or narrow, consequences that unintentionally exacerbate the behavior they were meant to quell, and so on. If true, these are in fact enormous issues: some forms of no-excuses education would be, in effect, producing literate graduates who were nonetheless deficient in other ways , say, socially. In fact, one of the more consistent arguments against school reform efforts going back to NCLB is that the overly-narrow curricular focus ends up failing the “whole child” in other ways.  But having brought up the idea of “what works,” and then pointing to these large areas in which no-excuses teaching seems to let kids down, Green leaves those areas completely alone.

Instead, when she turns to reasons not to abandon no-excuses discipline, she hammers on one note: it works… to raise test scores.

She says this under the heading “Radical Structure Is Actually Radically Anti-racist”: “Looking at test scores, all the highest academic results ever produced for poor students and students of color have come from no-excuses schools. Period.”  That’s wonderful, obviously.  No-excuses teaching sets out to counter the effects of systemic racism and succeeds, by this measure.  That doesn’t mean that no-excuses policies are themselves anti-racist in practice.  The argument does nothing to counter the racism claims that she raised in the previous section: that the policies have in effect led to the disproportionate policing of African American culture.

To the test-score data, she adds that “Data collected by the KIPP charter school network in 2013 showed that 44 percent of the schools’ graduates go on to earn a four-year degree, compared to just 8 percent of low-income Americans.”  Again, that’s wonderful, a real achievement. And KIPP schools practice this no-excuses approach.  But no-excuses discipline is not the independent variable in this comparison: to gauge the effectiveness of no-excuses itself, you’d have to compare KIPP graduates to the graduates of other similar charters who don’t practice no-excuses disciplinary policies.  KIPP has had incredible and laudable success.  Is that success because of or incidental to their disciplinary policy?  The data that Green cites doesn’t say.  That suggests it can’t be an argument in favor of no-excuses discipline itself.

This “no-excuses just works” argument is the way she opens her section devoted to responding to the critics, and it’s meant to drown out and overshadow the remainder.  Deftly, though, she devotes the rest of her arguments to the idea that no-excuses practices don’t have to be mean or destructive, pointing to a “warm-strict” mode of implementation that achieves accountability without the harmful side effects; and she extolls the ability of no-excuses schools to mend themselves, saying, “the final compelling argument in favor of the no-excuses schools is that they are capable of changing, and that they can do this, to borrow their own language, ‘at scale.'”

These arguments are, if anything, just unimpressive.

First, if there are “right” and “wrong” ways of doing no-excuses education, why has the movement itself been so cavalier about including the “wrong” ways under its own heading?  The answer is, the people running things are still figuring it out; they didn’t know at the outset that there were better or worse ways of implementing no-excuses policies.  Green quotes one of her informants: “‘At the time, it reflected the best of our knowledge, but that was more than a dozen years ago,’ Tschang told me in response, by email.”

Part of the reason they didn’t know is that they didn’t bother to find out.  This is the part where moral zeal and vast intelligence can take on that destructive glint of arrogance.  Believing that traditional public schools had failed children, which meant that the adults working in those schools, and leading those districts, and writing the policy, were morally culpable, or at any rate, morally exhausted, the education reform movement sought to actually reinvent the wheel. Had they consulted the vast archive of classroom management practices, books on school culture, or works of educational philosophy, especially those of Nell Noddings, they might have come to the idea that privileging the relational aspects of the classroom decisively informs understandings of disciplinary practices much earlier.

Secondly, the idea that no-excuses schools can change at scale is a tough sell.  For exactly the same reason that no disciplinary policy can protect students from individual teacher bias, scaling as a concept is only of limited use when we’re talking about educational innovation. Green actually acknowledges this in one paragraph, only to seemingly forget about it by the end: “The more ‘replication’ schools emerge, the farther away each new school is from the good intentions of those who created the philosophy — and the higher the risk of teachers misinterpreting the idea and falling down a slippery slope toward a disconnected desire for control and compliance.”

Well… is the value of the innovation contained in a set of propositions that can be mechanically reproduced in school after school, or is it embodied as it were in the amorphous spirit of a first exemplar, such that the value of the innovation fades a little with each iteration?  Scaling would apply, conceptually, to the former, but not as neatly to the latter.

There is much more that could be said about this article.  On the whole, it is an effective piece of persuasive writing that simultaneously, if problematically, defends no-excuses disciplinary practices from its most damning critics and also advocates for tweaking some of its particulars.

But its effectiveness as a persuasive piece owes as much to its rhetorical organization as anything else: its success fully depends on the reader not noticing that Green’s counterarguments do not map onto to the objections she raises in the first half of the article.  Are no-excuses disciplinary practices harmful to children?  They don’t have to be, she says, acknowledging that they sometimes are.  Are no-excuses policies racist?  That depends on what you mean by “racist,” she essentially replies.  They’re not intentionally racist, though they don’t prevent it.  They work against the effects of systemic racism even though in some cases they seem also to  perpetuate such racism in practice.

But if academic achievement is the sine qua non of anti-racism, she says, then definitely yes, no-excuses discipline is anti-racist. Look at those numbers!  And don’t think too hard about whether the data is showing the difference between no-excuses and other disciplinary forms, as opposed to the difference between one large charter network and all other schools in general. And definitely don’t think too hard about the suggestion raised earlier in the article, that you might accidentally produce adults who score well on literacy and numeracy tests but who lack other characteristics of well-rounded, socially competent adults.

Green intends those numbers to carry the vast majority of her water, I think. To her, they make her point.  And that’s really the question that sticks with me at the end of this process of reading and writing: to what extent can you measure anti-racism via academic achievement metrics?

It’s an honest question, so I’m asking.




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