Beyond the viral video: Inside educators’ emotional debate about ‘no excuses’ discipline

Many people have asked me what I make of the video, recently published by the New York Times, of a New York City charter school teacher scolding a first-grader and then ripping her paper in half. After all, I wrote a book about teaching, including several long chapters on school discipline.

My honest answer: It’s complicated, more so than you might think. Coming to any personal conclusion requires understanding a deep and very active debate about discipline, race, and the conditions that brought Charlotte Dial, the teacher in the video, to the moment that was caught on camera. Chief among those conditions: an educational philosophy known as “no excuses” that advocates for strict discipline as a critical foundation for learning.

Students and faculty at Success Academy Harlem 5 in 2014. (Geoff Decker)

On one side of that debate: educators and parents who argue that the no-excuses approach is not only defensible, but the only way to solve racial and class inequities in schools and beyond. These people grant that the no-excuses style has imperfections; indeed, moments like the distressing reprimand captured in the video of Dial make it very much a work in progress. But they say the strong academic results of “no excuses” schools prove that the model only needs evolving, not fundamental change.

On the other side: An equally passionate group arguing that no-excuses practices are systematically abusive and a form of institutional racism, undermining any academic gains they may enable. These critics are not just speculators. They include people who have taught and still do teach at no-excuses schools.

And then there are the many, many people who are deeply torn. More than perhaps any other issue in education, the discipline question finds individual students, teachers, and parents pulled between two poles of a heated, high-stakes, and very personal debate.

For its part, Success Academy declined to make academic leaders or Charlotte Dial available to speak for this story. Responding to the video, Success founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz pointed out that the network’s teacher training materials ban yelling and consequences intended to shame children. She called the moment in the video an aberration. Moskowitz has, however, vigorously defended Success’s stringent demands on students’ behavior as the only way to guarantee they learn — a cornerstone of the “no excuses” philosophy. A spokesman for Success said the network had no plans to change its approach to discipline.

"More than perhaps any other issue in education, the discipline question finds individual students, teachers, and parents pulled between two poles of a heated, high-stakes, and very personal debate."

What follows are the three strongest arguments I have heard against the no-excuses approach, followed by the three strongest arguments in favor. The arguments draw on academic research about no-excuses schools and school discipline broadly, as well as conversations over the last six years with dozens of current and former charter school teachers and some students.

I also share my own conclusion, sweated out after years of reporting. I think some founding principles of the no-excuses philosophy, principles born in the 1990s that survive in schools today, need fundamental overhaul. I also think there is evidence that the same people and institutions who created no-excuses ideas can successfully revise them. Some are well on their way. That said, it’s equally plausible that, should certain mindsets, policies, and practices persist, reformers’ efforts to change their schools from within will fail, and children will suffer.

But before we dive into the arguments, let’s review how the no-excuses movement began and what it means.

The “no-excuses” philosophy (Or, how ripping up a student’s work became a real thing)

Strict schools are nothing new; your grandmother can tell you that. They also aren’t rare. Teachers across the country, in all types of schools, levy strict consequences and sometimes go farther, raising their voices or disrespecting children, as Dial appears to do in the video.

But a new and unique form of strict — the “no-excuses” approach — was born in the 1990s, when a group of mission-driven educators began opening new charter schools to serve the country’s poorest students. Among those educators: current acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King, who co-founded the high-performing charter school Roxbury Prep and helped lead the Uncommon Schools charter network.

“No excuses” signals the group’s original diagnosis for what hurt high-poverty schools, one that many still hold today. Too many people, they decided, used poverty as a reason to accept less-than-excellent academic results. They made excuses.

"We believe that like crime, poor behavior in a school is also contagious; it starts with minor details and spreads through both people and the environment like an epidemic."

KIPP Fresno's 2003 school plan

Another key diagnosis: the primary role of behavior. At struggling schools, the no-excuses educators argued, learning was regularly undermined by chaos, from physical fights to a refusal to follow even basic directions. To create dramatically different academic results, they needed to create dramatically different behavior.

With that goal — and remember, this was the 1990s — some members of the group turned to a newly ascendant philosophy for fighting crime: broken-windows theory, the idea that very serious infractions, like robbery and violent crime, could be avoided by zealously policing seemingly un-serious ones, like … broken windows.

The school version, which became a key tenet of the no-excuses philosophy, targets the classroom equivalents of shattered storefronts. “We believe that like crime, poor behavior in a school is also contagious; it starts with minor details and spreads through both people and the environment like an epidemic,” one school — a KIPP charter school in Fresno, California — wrote in its 2003 school plan.

The list of those “minor details” that threaten learning can be long. KIPP Fresno’s school plan described what it called “a few” examples:

messy binders and desks, crooked lines, trash on the floor, untucked shirts, slouching, note passing, loud talking, deep sighing, whining, laughing at others, eye rolling, teeth sucking, gum chewing, yawning, pen tapping, doodling, feet dragging, running in the hallways, and sloppy bulletin boards

Take any of those steps, and a student would face a sliding scale of consequences, from losing points in their classroom reward system to being asked to stand up for the rest of the class period, according to the KIPP Fresno plan.

Another common example of a small misbehavior that no-excuses teachers answer with consequences: failure to follow a teacher’s direction. This seems to be what happened in the video of Success teacher Charlotte Dial’s classroom. After Dial asks the student, a first-grade girl, to share her math strategy with the whole class, the student stumbles. In response, Dial delivers a consequence, first tearing the student’s paper in half, and then ordering the student to separate from the group.

Dial’s anger and disrespectful tone have drawn wide criticism, including from Success Academy. But the practice of delivering a consequence for not following directions survives in many schools today.

Over time the no-excuses approach has both proliferated and morphed. Not all no-excuses schools look exactly alike, and some schools that I would identify as part of the movement today reject that label in favor of more positive tags like “high expectations.” Success Academy did not respond when we asked about the network’s position on the “no excuses” label.

Still, some elements are consistent. At no-excuses schools, students often walk from one class to another in orderly and perfectly silent single-file lines. Detailed instructions dictate precisely how and when students should pay attention, from nodding to folding their hands and legs just so — poses on display in the Success Academy video. Teachers sometimes ban conversation during breakfast or lunch. It all happens against a landscape of aspiration, with college pennants pinned to classroom doors and inspirational quotes painted on the walls.

The proliferation, with no-excuses schools becoming no-excuses school networks (charter school chains), largely owes to the schools’ impressive academic results. One 2013 study of charter schools in Massachusetts compared students admitted to charter schools through a random lottery to those who “lost.” The study found that attending an urban charter school significantly improved students’ test scores. A key driver of the charter school advantage: schools that embraced no-excuses practices. And within the bundle of practices researchers identified as “no-excuses,” the feature that was most important in leading to academic improvements was discipline.

Educators explain this more concretely. Ultimately, they argue, all those consequences buy teachers time to focus on learning. Scott McCue, an early proponent of the style, told me that he could spend 50 full minutes of a 54-minute period on content at no-excuses schools, whereas he’d spent 15 or 20 minutes of each period just getting his classroom in order at his New York City district school.

Today, McCue leads a new graduate school of education that prepares teachers to work at no-excuses schools across the country. Another leading progenitor, Building Excellent Schools, claims credit for creating 101 no-excuses schools serving more than 21,000 students across the country.

A kindergarten student works on reading skills at Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in Brooklyn. (Stephanie Snyder)

Three reasons to abandon “no excuses”

As the no-excuses philosophy has grown, so have its critics. And some of the most persuasive critics are those with experience at schools that practice the philosophy. They make three compelling arguments in particular.

Argument Number 1: The extra learning doesn’t justify the cost.

The most common argument in favor of no-excuses is that the ends (learning gains for students) justify the sometimes excruciating means. Argument Number 1 against no-excuses grants this point. Even with academic benefits, critics contend that no-excuses still creates students who are unhappy or even psychologically harmed — and that harm is not worth the gain.

In one ethnographic account of a no-excuses school, published in 2015, a researcher recounts her conversation with three eighth-grade girls who “had little positive to say about the school”:

I tried to push them, arguing that their teachers worked hard to get students to learn. One girl conceded that she did learn a lot here, more than she might learn somewhere else. ‘But it’s not worth the stress,’ she insisted. Pointing to her hair, she explained that it started falling out only after she came to this school. Her friends agreed… their feelings of stress overshadowed any positive learning experiences.

Broader-reaching studies have been inconclusive on the mental health effects of school discipline. But some teachers at no-excuses schools do report catching themselves in situations they later worry will affect students negatively. The no-excuses philosophy, as they tell it, can become a slippery slope, with good intentions about laying a foundation for learning spiraling into a desire for control that becomes almost violent.

One educator who asked that I not use his name out of concern for his professional reputation told me about a moment early on in his teaching that he came to deeply regret.

On the theory that organized minds require organized binders, the teacher had spent a lot of time teaching students exactly how to arrange their papers. But one girl — a perpetual troublemaker — kept struggling with her binder. “I distinctly remember … taking her binder and flinging it across the room and telling her that she had to put all the pages back in the binder,” the teacher told me. The student was in the hallway. “She was crying, trying to get all the pages back together. And I went back to my lesson.” When the teacher returned to the hall to check on her progress, he found that the girl had successfully organized some papers. But only some. “It wasn’t acceptable to me,” the teacher told me. “So I had her do it again.”

Eva Moskowitz defends Charlotte Dial at a press conference in February.

Responding to the leaked video of one of her teachers, Moskowitz, the leader of Success Academy, suggested that Dial overreacted out of emotion. “When you care about your students so much…and you want them to go to school and graduate, it can be frustrating,” she said. But flinging his student’s binder, the teacher I spoke to says, was a calculated decision, not an emotional reaction. “I wasn’t mad at her. I was trying to teach her and the class a lesson…I was trying to make an example of her.”

The teacher never found out how that incident made the student feel, and I was not able to contact the student for an interview. But I did speak to one early alumnus of a no-excuses school who has since become a teacher, Rousseau Mieze. Mieze attended one of the first no-excuses charter schools, a Boston high school called the Academy of the Pacific Rim.

At APR, Mieze made many friends, fell in love with learning, and successfully applied to elite Williams College. But as I wrote in my book, Building a Better Teacher, the school also left Mieze with some real scars.

One teacher in particular stood out in this regard — Chi Tschang, who later went on to found the KIPP Academy in Fresno, the charter school that named dozens of educational “broken windows,” from “deep sighing” to “doodling.”

In some ways, Mieze looked up to Tschang, whose dedication to his students was undeniable. But Tschang also “became the embodiment of my low self-esteem,” Mieze told me. As I wrote in my book:

In high school, Chi had always been the one to remind the students of what they needed to do to succeed — and what would happen if they didn’t: the colleges they wouldn’t get into, the dreams they wouldn’t fulfill. So in college, whenever Rousseau questioned himself, he found himself thinking of Chi. “I would always hear Chi’s voice, even while I was a freshman at Williams, telling me that I didn’t belong there and that I didn’t work hard, that I didn’t deserve to be there.”

The school Tschang started after teaching Mieze, KIPP Fresno, ultimately came under criticism for its treatment of students, which a local school district deemed abusive. Tschang denied the charges, and his current employer, Achievement First, agrees with him that the allegations against Tschang were false or “grossly distorted,” according to a letter from Achievement First’s co-CEO, Doug McCurry. KIPP’s leadership, however, did not dispute the charges. Instead, KIPP supported a swift leadership transition at KIPP Fresno in which Tschang resigned as principal. Later, KIPP supported the school’s closure, citing a lack of financial resources but also a lack of capacity on the school’s leadership team.

When I spoke to Tschang last week, he said he believes that the best teachers, like the best parents, are “simultaneously no-nonsense and nurturing, or warm and demanding.” As for his relationship with Mieze, Tschang told me he has great “respect and admiration” for him. Indeed, Mieze now works as a teacher at Achievement First, a no-excuses charter school network where Tschang is a regional superintendent. (Tschang’s approach to discipline has attracted other criticisms over the years; to learn more, see Chapter 7 of my book.)

“It was definitely not my intention as a 22-year-old teacher to make comments that would cause him to doubt his place at a university like Williams,” Tschang said. “I obviously can’t change how he perceived what I said, but that was not my intention.”

Argument No. 2: No-excuses perpetuates racist forms of control

Teaching that exerts control through strict consequences is especially disturbing, this line of thinking goes, because of how often it is conducted by teachers who are white, working with students of color.

Almost nobody accuses no-excuses schools of intentionally practicing racism. After all, these schools were explicitly created to offer students of color and poor students better life paths. The question is whether, in practice, the schools ultimately target systemic racism — or, in some cases, succumb to it.

One concern: the tough discipline espoused by no-excuses schools could accelerate a trend the schools aim to squash, the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Like incarceration, the discipline practices of suspension and expulsion disproportionately affect African Americans. Nationally, black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Office reported — a finding that draws on data from U.S. schools across the board, not just no-excuses schools.

Examining data from multiple states, researchers find that having been suspended is a strong indicator that a student will drop out of school. And students who drop out are significantly more likely to be incarcerated.

"My daily routine consisted of running around chasing young Black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they added a different color streak to their hair."

Ramon Griffin

I’m not aware of research showing that attending a no-excuses school increases a student’s chance of incarceration. But attending a no-excuses school may make students more likely to be suspended. A 2013 study of charter schools in Massachusetts found that attending one of the schools (most of which identified as no-excuses) increased students’ suspension rates by an average of 0.7 days in middle school and a full day in high school.

Critics also argue that no-excuses discipline deliberately seeks to control and diminish the bodies and cultures of students of color. As with concerns about criminalization, this critique mirrors recent outcry against the broken windows policing that partly inspired no-excuses.

Ramon Griffin, a former dean of a no-excuses charter school in New Orleans, wrote in a 2014 essay that he came to view the rules and policies he enforced as stymying “creativity, culture and student voice,” not to mention students’ bodies. He went on:

My daily routine consisted of running around chasing young Black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they added a different color streak to their hair, or following young men to make sure that their hair wasn’t styled naturally as students were not able to wear their hair in uncombed afro styles. None of which had anything to do with teaching and learning, but administration was keen on making sure that before Black students entered the classroom that they looked “appropriate” for learning.

After spending two years observing no-excuses charter schools in New York City, the researcher Terrenda White was struck by the way the schools targeted elements of African American culture — such as the language students use at home with their family and friends — as misbehaviors warranting correction. White concluded that the policies and practices, though not designed with malicious or racist intent, nevertheless “in many ways represent contemporary forms of racism,” in which features of black culture are deemed deficiencies.

A final set of concerns has to do with racial bias. Do no-excuses schools protect students from teachers’ bias, or might they leave room for teachers to act out of fear or prejudice?

Deborah Gordon Klehr, who has represented students at no-excuses schools in disciplinary hearings through her work leading the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania, points out that no-excuses discipline codes sometimes advise teachers to issue consequences for vague actions — like, for example, a student’s display of “disrespect.” (See, for example, this recent manual from KIPP’s schools in Washington, DC.) Whether a shirt is tucked is indisputable. But what counts as disrespect can be open to wide interpretation, and in turn, susceptible to racial bias. Left to their own discretion, teachers disproportionately punish African American students for alleged “disrespect,” Klehr says.

"Might the same biases that inspire some police officers to take violent action motivate educators who react to students with fear?"

Indeed, after studying public records of disciplinary “tickets” given to students in Texas for a six-year period, a law clinic found that African American students faced disproportionate expulsion rates. The disparity was the most extreme for the most subjective and nonviolent offenses, such as what Texas education officials termed “serious and persistent” misbehavior, according to findings published in 2011.

To be clear: the study examined public schools across all of Texas, and I have no idea how many of those schools identified as part of the no-excuses movement, if any. But the finding could plausibly have implications for discipline codes that suggest consequences for subjective infractions.

Meditating on recent high-profile shootings of unarmed black men by police, Rousseau Mieze, the graduate of a no-excuse high school who now teaches in one, found himself considering the similarities between the shootings and school discipline at its worst. Might the same biases that inspire some police officers to take violent action motivate educators who react to students with fear?

A musician, Mieze decided to write a song. Its final verse:

What you doin’ suspendin’ students cuz you don’t feel safe? That boy eleven / You feel threatened / Well here’s the lesson Imagine if these educators packed a deadly weapon In the class teaching math / Out of fear, they react That’s bullets to his chest / In his chair fallin’ back You might laugh, like you stretchin’ / But the facts is depressin’ Can’t relax, feel the stress when / These mindsets we acceptin’ A teacher’s fear / The same that causes cops to shoot And it’s the teachers here / That has full access to the youth Full access to the youth… Don’t shoot

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.

Argument No. 3: No excuses doesn’t work.

The final significant critique of no-excuses is that, moral concerns aside, the approach does not even achieve its primary goal of teaching students the habits — behavioral or academic — that they need to be successful.

“The absence of misbehavior,” one charter school educator, Stacy Birdsell O’Toole told me, “doesn’t mean the presence of high levels of learning.” In fact, as some teachers see it, no-excuses might even thwart those high levels.

Drew Martin, who founded a KIPP middle school in Newark, Rise Academy, started drawing this conclusion in 2009, when Rise was in its third year. One impetus was the No Limits bus, one of four bus routes Rise students took to and from school.

As I describe in my book, for the first two years of the school’s existence, students had obediently followed the strict rules of the bus, which banned talking, moving from one seat to another, and certainly pushing. But by 2009, the school’s third year, students had begun getting up out of their seats, and not only that; they were even pushing each other midtransit. Martin started to wonder whether the discipline practices he’d put meticulously in place at the school’s start might have actually, perversely, made the students less disciplined.

"The absence of misbehavior doesn’t mean the presence of high levels of learning."

Stacy Birdsell-O’Toole

All the silence had prepared them only for situations with tight supervision and no social interaction. As soon as they found themselves a bit older, on the bus without their teachers, they didn’t have the tools to resolve conflicts without putting themselves in danger. And how could they? Their school hadn’t taught them.

Martin’s evolution mirrored one happening across multiple schools inside the KIPP network. KIPP founder David Levin has publicly criticized some of his own early disciplinary actions, which he came to see as excessively harsh. And multiple KIPP schools have walked away from a practice that was widespread at KIPP early on, and subsequently imitated by other no-excuses charter schools — a disciplinary consequence known as “The Bench.”

Students who racked up too many demerits (or “paycheck violations,” in KIPP-speak) would be sent to The Bench, a punishment via social isolation. Students on The Bench wore a different colored T-shirt from the rest of the class (or, in some cases, a “bench sticker”). They were prohibited from speaking outside of official classroom talk.

Like a parentally mandated time out, the Bench could be an effective deterrent. But, as I wrote in my book,

the Bench also had a perverse side effect. The students who had the hardest time interacting with each other were also, naturally, the ones most likely to get on the Bench. Some of them would stay on “for weeks and weeks and weeks,” says Ranjana Reddy, [a former teacher at Martin’s school, Rise Academy]. As a result, “our biggest behavioral problem kids would have no practice interacting with other kids socially.”

The concerns get at the heart of the no-excuses philosophy: the idea that attention, basic obedience, and order are the key ingredients for learning. If even behavior gains are only short-term, what about learning in other subjects, like English and math? Those subjects, too, depend on getting students to imitate detailed instructions in order to get right answers — one reason the discipline codes so carefully prioritize paying close attention to the teacher and always following directions.

Drew Martin began to believe that apparent academic gains might be superficial, too. Take the common no-excuses practice of requiring that every student raise his or her hand in response to a question. That kind of 100 percent participation made teachers feel great. But aiming for every hand raised could also mean that teachers posed only superficial questions. “Engagement doesn’t always look like hands shooting up in the air,” Martin says. “That’s a great feeling, but over the years, if all our lessons were about like, you ask a question and [everyone answers], we’re going to have some really dumb kids.”

The concern about the quality of students’ learning has been exacerbated by the rise of rigorous Common Core learning standards. While merely paying attention might have served students fine as they moved into the American economy of a few decades ago, the new standards make clear that more is required today.

Indeed, many of the results that have provided no-excuses’ schools best defense draw from standardized tests that do not reflect new learning standards. When New York State recently adopted exams reflecting Common Core standards, many charter schools suffered the same test score drops that district schools experienced. In New Jersey, KIPP schools saw similar trajectories as tests became more rigorous. (Success Academy was a notable exception.)

A sign hangs in a fourth grade class at Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School in Brooklyn. (Stephanie Snyder)

Three reasons not to abandon no-excuses

For all the reasons to abandon no-excuses, many schools across the country still adhere to the philosophy. Students still walk in single-file lines, lunches are still sometimes silent, and swift consequences are still viewed as essential to learning, especially in high-poverty communities. Why?

Here are three of the strongest arguments in favor of the approach.

Argument No. 1: Radical structure is actually radically anti-racist.

If the real promise of no-excuses schools is to change the life trajectories of poor students and students of color, does the evidence show that graduates of the schools succeed — or not? When it comes to the best available indicator, academic achievement, the data speak loudly.

"Looking at test scores, all the highest academic results ever produced for poor students and students of color have come from no-excuses schools."

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. And before you say the tests are too narrow and too gameable, while it is true that several no-excuses schools saw scores drop when their states used more rigorous tests aligned to the new Common Core standards, other schools maintained strong results. The most notable case: Success Academy charter schools, which ranked in the top 1 percent of all New York schools in math and the top 3 percent in English. No schools, no-excuses or otherwise, have successfully educated large numbers of low-income students of color at the levels they desire, but no-excuses schools have come closest.

Other life outcomes are impressive, too. 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.

Can teachers and schools that don’t practice the no-excuses style produce these results for children? Yes, some have. But no schools I have seen — and I have looked — have been able to replicate those results more widely than a dozen or so classrooms. (If you know of schools I haven’t considered, tell me!)

"Stroking only makes those children more fragile and more vulnerable, because by stroking we guarantee that they will never get the American dream."

Lorraine Monroe

No-excuses defenders also point out that policing theory was not the only source of their ideas. They also looked to African American educators who had developed protean versions of no-excuses philosophy in their own classrooms and schools in the 1980s and early 1990s.

One such educator, Lorraine Monroe, the founder of the Frederick Douglass Academy school network in Harlem, explained the philosophy in an essay that the Building Excellent Schools group distributed to educators it was training in the no-excuses tradition. Monroe criticized educators she called “strokers.” “The strokers,” she wrote, say things like, “These children are black, they are brown, they just came to this country. You cannot push them, because if you push them, you know, they are already fragile.’ But stroking only makes those children more fragile and more vulnerable, because by stroking we guarantee that they will never get the American dream.”

Monroe’s diagnosis underscored early no-excuses educators’ observations of schools that struggled to serve poor students of color, despite ambitious goals. Like Monroe’s described “strokers,” these schools embraced a romantic notion — the idea that the best route to building a more egalitarian society was egalitarian schools — but could not translate their vision into better academic futures.

One school where King briefly taught became, he said, “indulgent.” If students were bright and well-intentioned, but failed to turn in assignments on time or read and write with precision, teachers would allow them to get by anyway. The real world, King knew, would not be as forgiving, and what would students do then?

As King built a school of his own, a Boston charter school called Roxbury Prep, he embraced the tougher no-excuses spirit. “Like, you’re going to be accountable, and I would much rather you learn that lesson with me here than out in the world when you’re dealing with the way in which the world is going to treat that,” he told me.

The obsession with small details and perfect compliance that no-excuses fosters might not feel like liberation. But, defenders argue, subtracting freedom in the short term is actually the more radical path to defeating poverty and racism in the long term.

Argument No. 2: Consequences don’t have to hurt kids.

Another compelling argument in favor of no-excuses is that the approach is not in fact inherently damaging to students. Even actions that could cause harm if delivered with the wrong intention, can in fact be protective, if done in the context of a warm and caring school environment, the thinking goes.

Speaking to the New York Times about why they fiercely defend their school and lead teacher Charlotte Dial, even after seeing the video of her lashing out at a student, parents emphasized the love students and parents feel for Dial. “My child who had Ms. Dial knew the whole year that she loved him — unconditionally,” one parent told a reporter, in an interview recorded and released by Success Academy. “She was very nurturing,” another parent said. “We absolutely loved her.” Even if they disapproved of her decision to rip up a student’s work, as most of the interviewed parents said they did, “there’s so much more context to what happens in this building than that,” said another parent.

The evidence that students aren’t being harmed by no-excuses schools, and in fact like them, extends beyond anecdotes. A recent study of KIPP schools by the policy research group Mathematica asked whether the schools have a negative effect on students’ levels of “well-adjustedness.” The answer: no. Researchers also found that attending a KIPP school did not negatively affect students’ feelings about school.

"There are some no-excuses-type middle schools that have silent breakfast, and it’s wonderful, and there are some no-excuses-type middle schools that have silent breakfast and it’s torturous."

Scott McCue

Another argument that the schools have positive psychological effects: The possibility of what educators call “warm-strict,” a way of administering tough discipline without disrespecting students or wreaking harm. Take the practice of correcting students’ grammar, which John King, the acting Secretary of Education described to me in our conversation in 2012. Critics argue that these corrections might cause students to be afraid to speak. That could happen, King says, if the corrections are practiced without skill.

But King says teachers can also give corrections in a way that encourages students to talk. The difference is in the delivery: exactly what the teacher says, how he says it, and what explanations he gives. “If done well, you’re giving kids lots of opportunities to speak,” King told me. “You say the sentence back to them grammatically correctly, or you ask them a question.”

Similarly, strict consequences about dress, delivered out of a desire to control, could become a game of “gotcha” — a way to catch students in the act of defiance in order to demonstrate authority. But working from a spirit of warmth, educators can enforce standards of dress without causing students harm, King told me.

At Roxbury Prep, the no-excuses charter school he founded in Boston, where academic results are have been continually impressive, King says, “we got better every year at making sure that incoming students and families understood how relentless we were going to be about the uniform.” By their third year, they held an annual “student fashion show” to make sure they knew exactly what was and wasn’t allowed, from precise color expectations to the definition of a banned “side pocket” in boys’ pants. “Our goal wasn’t to send kids home,” King told me. “We were trying to make it easy for people to comply.”

Their deeper goal: to help students escape a climate that could be alienating and judgmental. “I can recall the kids leaving Roxbury Prep — boys especially — untucking their shirts, putting their hoodie on, putting their backpack underneath their sweatshirt, hardening their face — getting ready to go,” King says. “For a lot of the young men, they had to be someone else when they weren’t at school.” The uniform was a way for King and his fellow school leaders to help the students become more themselves. “You could be 11 or 12 at school, and you didn’t have to be like that other person you have to be when you’re outside of school … [you] don’t have to think about what I’m wearing or what other people think about what I’m wearing or what colors I wear … all of that is eliminated, and you can just be excited to learn about math.”

Some educators take King’s logic and extend it further. Teachers we’ve spoken to at Chalkbeat have defended their own decisions to tip over a student’s desk, throw a student’s notebook in the trash, and yes, rip up a student’s work — because, they say, they took the action in the context of a warm relationship and mutual respect.

What’s more, educators say, the reverse is possible, too. Even actions that seem loving, or seem to provide students freedom, can make students feel unsafe or insecure.

A Success Academy third-grade teacher reads aloud to her students in June 2013. (Courtesy Sasha Growick)

“It’s possible for all kinds of structures to feel sort of autocratic and repressive, or for all kinds of structures to feel efficient and joyful,” McCue says. Similarly, McCue says, “there are some no-excuses-type middle schools that have silent breakfast, and it’s wonderful, and there are some no-excuses-type middle schools that have silent breakfast and it’s torturous.”

The difference between wonderful and torturous speaks to another challenge for no-excuses schools, one that defenders say they can overcome: Making sure that the schools retain their best intentions, and best effects, even as they rapidly proliferate.

The concern is especially serious as no-excuses schools expand more and more rapidly. Today, Success Academy includes 34 schools; Moskowitz says she hopes the number to become 100 in the next decade. 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.

Argument No. 3: Schools are capable of change, and they are changing.

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.”

Rousseau Mieze describes the first no-excuses school where he worked as a teacher that showed him how to hold the line with love. The school’s principal, Stacy Birdsell-O’Toole, held a training where “she got really serious,” Mieze says. “She goes, we are not a yelling school. We do not yell at kids. If I see you yell at a child, I’m going to pull you to the side, I’m going to have a talk with you, and then you’re going to go back and you’re going to be successful.” She followed through, and Mieze never saw a teacher yell.

Trainings like these, and constant learning from experience, are what leaders at Success Academy say makes them confident they are moving in the right direction.

Speaking on a panel organized at Teach For America’s 25th anniversary celebration, Andrew Malone, the principal of Success Academy’s first high school, explained what he called the network’s “journey.” The schools, he says, “expect all the kids to be on a good rigorous task.” But, he said, “we want to get there without making school miserable at all.”

“As teachers try to master that,” he went on, “we have some who go too far in the direction of just compliance for compliance’s sake, or they try to get it and they’re not there yet.” But he said, “we have others who do it really quite well.”

Working to build a school system where all teachers can do that, he said, “is one of the great joys of the job.”

"Sometimes I think we’re arguing against a utopian ideal that I haven’t seen exist."

Doug McCurry, co-CEO of the Achievement First schools

Doug McCurry, co-CEO of the Achievement First schools, a no-excuses charter network in New York and Connecticut, says he has yet to see the perfect school. But that doesn’t stop him for striving. “Sometimes I think we’re arguing against a utopian ideal that I haven’t seen exist,” he told me recently. “People are like, well, this school is bad because they don’t do X, Y, and Z right. I think, you mean, they’re struggling to balance the right level of focus and investment and rigor and student relationships and joy, and they might not have gotten that balance right at all times in all classrooms? … That’s the challenge we are all taking [on].”

McCurry also added that all of the dozens of New York City schools he has visited, he thinks Success Academy schools “are often coming close as anyone to that right mix.”

Last week, I sent Chi Tschang the original KIPP Fresno school plan, which he wrote in December 2003 — the one citing everything from “deep sighing” to “doodling” as educational versions of broken windows in need of speedy correction. “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. “Since then, we have learned much about how to maintain incredibly high expectations yet to do so with warmth, joy and purposeful rationale.”

For their part, over the last five years and more, both national and local leaders at KIPP have repeatedly described to me their decisions to change their approach to school discipline. I’ve seen these changes myself on repeated visits over the years to KIPP’s schools in New Jersey. And the New Jersey KIPP schools aren’t the only ones reflecting. Just last month, KIPP’s annual gathering of school leaders included a well-attended session on the “restorative justice” approach to school discipline, arguably the opposite of no-excuses orthodoxy, according to KIPP’s director of public affairs, Steve Mancini.

Erica Murphy, school director of Brownsville Ascend Lower Charter School, oversees students in a fourth-grade English class. (Stephanie Snyder)

My take: Where we can go from here

Ultimately, I think that critics inside no-excuses schools are right that the no-excuses approach to teaching needs radical overhaul. The behavior first, learning second formula prescribed by broken-windows theory — and for that matter, by most American schools — can successfully build compliant, attentive students, at least in the short term. But it cannot produce students who think creatively, reason independently, and analyze critically.

Students cannot just “track” the teacher, follow every direction, and repeat right answers in choral back-and-forths; they also need to learn to track arguments, pay attention to their work, and evaluate evidence in order to agree or disagree respectfully. And they need to have ample opportunities to make mistakes, both behavioral and academic, no matter how uncomfortable that makes their teachers. I’m not saying educators should reject structure or even practices that ensure students pay attention when that matters to the academics. I’m saying that educators need to embrace new, more complicated structures that feel messier in the short term but build more permanent learning in the long term.

How do I know a more complicated approach is possible, despite all the protestations to the contrary? Because I have seen schools do it, and do it with poor students of color. Indeed — and this brings me to my next point — I have seen no-excuses schools do it.

"The more this conversation happens not just behind closed classroom doors, but in public, the more quickly schools can change."

This is my next point: not only must no-excuses schools change, I believe they absolutely can change. It won’t be easy. As I wrote in my book, the historical evidence offers long and damning testimony against the possibility of any group of American schools successfully changing their teaching. But if there is one group of schools that have shown they have what it takes to help teachers learn and change over time, it’s the high-performing charter schools founded in a no-excuses approach.

What can be done to guarantee their success? The first important step might be the same ingredient that propelled changes so far — rigorous honesty about what isn’t working, no matter what the short-term cost.

When we first started reporting our most recent discipline package at Chalkbeat, several educators implored us not to draw attention to gaps in practice that, in their view, were small compared to the failures of other schools to serve poor students of color. Others, however, took a different approach, encouraging us to bring this story to light so that they could encourage more honest reflection and change.

Obviously, we sided with the latter group. The more this conversation happens not just behind closed classroom doors, but in public, the more quickly schools can change. After all, students aren’t the only ones who need to make mistakes, sometimes even public mistakes, in order to learn.

Fabiola Cineas contributed reporting. Sign up for Chalkbeat’s morning newsletter here