Pros and cons of ‘no excuses’

Chalkbeat New York explores the discipline policy in the aftermath of the Success Academy teacher video.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Chalkbeat New York has been running a series on the “no excuses” approach to discipline policy in the aftermath of the recent viral video from a school in the Success Academy charter network. In the video, a teacher angrily tears up the work of a 1st-grade student who answered a math question incorrectly.

This culture underpins many charter schools: There is no excuse for low student achievement, especially not poverty. But it has raised many hackles. Critics of the policy say that students are punished for the slightest of rule infractions and that it prizes keeping order over engagement. They say it does more harm to students than good and leads to students being demeaned rather than respected.

In Philadelphia, charter operators who want to come into the city as Renaissance turnaround school providers are asked to abandon the practice. The city’s largest charter organziation, Mastery, which began as a “no excuses” operation, has tried to shed that label and has been evolving its approach and philosophy – Mastery 3.0, as founder and CEO Scott Gordon calls it.

As a recent piece by Chalkbeat editor-in-chief Elizabeth Green explains, the policy has pros and cons. Green tackles touchy questions: Is it racist or anti-racist? Does it contribute to the "school-to-prison pipeline" or divert students away? Do the higher test scores in many such schools really mean higher achievement? She talks to proponents and opponents, including some who have worked in "no excuses" schools. She interviews one “no excuses” teacher who attended such a school and continues to have mixed feelings.

Here’s a sample from Green’s article:

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 … 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.

She gives three arguments for the policy, three against, and then her own conclusion. It’s a long read, but worth it.