No Escape: A Brief Examination into the No Excuses Philosophy of Education
I spent years demanding that children walk in a silent, straight line exactly twelve inches from the wall. “Stay in your child’s box and know your place,” I told them whenever they sucked their teeth or rolled their eyes. I woke up at 3 a.m. to check to see if their most recent test scores had been posted online yet. Only now am I beginning to make sense of my time at Scholar Academy , a charter school following the No Excuses movement. No Excuses schools are characterized by extended school days, extra blocks of reading and writing, strict obedience, and a routinized schedule of testing. What follows is an exploration into how this proliferating movement handles data, standardization, and behaviorism to create a school environment where numbers rule and teachers and students suffer.
A Myopic Obsession with Data
Public schools rely upon data to justify their continued existence. Even as lawmakers work to re-tool No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, schools across the country grapple with a federal legacy of obsession over data. Nowhere is the drive towards quantification greater than in No Excuses schools, where high-stakes, norm-referenced assessments are the be-all/end-all of education. Private companies and psychometricians design norm-referenced tests to produce bell curve results. The very nature of norm-referenced tests require a significant percentage of participants to fail. If test scores look too promising then test-makers adjust the assessment to be more “rigorous.” The same thing happens on the other side of the curve; the same technocrats deem a test too difficult if not enough people score well on it. As a teacher, this has grave consequences. It means that no matter what you’re doing, no matter how many hours you’ve spent pouring over spreadsheets of data, how many electives you replace with test-prep classes, many of the children you teach will fail.
In a vacuum, such assessments are neither positive nor negative. No Excuses schools, however, worship at the altar of testing, insisting upon data as the raison d’etre of education. Knowledge becomes valuable only if teachers can use it to increase test scores. Reducing learning to passing a test is a fairly cynical view of education. To combat this, the private entities behind No Excuses-style reforms push a narrative linking test skills to civil rights and national economic imperatives. An imagined school-to-prosperity pipeline where test scores can somehow take the place of real, systemic structural reforms. The difference between succeeding and failing becomes a matter of effort.
Meritocracy, the distinctly American notion that good things come to those who work hard enough, therefore plays a key role in the No Excuses philosophy. How hard has each student worked to master the testing material? School and teacher become error hunters consumed with ferreting out perceived student weaknesses. This deficit gaze is an integral component of the instructional model, where successes and failures are measured by a relentless push towards the perfect score.
In order to teach to the test, the No Excuses model approaches curricula through the lens of standardization. My old school, just like many of the “successful” charter schools I visited throughout the nation’s capital and New York, teach children according to level and skill. Instruction begins with the testing blueprint, a document telling teachers exactly which standards will be on the end-of-year exam and the amount of questions per standard. The mere existence of such a document, much less its widespread usage throughout K-12 schools, removes any illusion that a No Excuses-style education is anything other than teaching to the test. Test blueprints are products of a technocratic regime predicated upon the fundamentally flawed notion that curriculum and instruction are best created by non-teachers in an environment outside the classroom.
Since high-stakes exams typically take place at the end of the year, No Excuses schools pay large sums of money to outside companies to create and administer benchmark exams. These quarterly assessments provide teachers with data on how every child in every grade (and every school in the company’s network) answered a set of multiple-choice questions. Let’s play this out with an example. So, every student takes the beginning of the year benchmark to help teachers pinpoint deficits and plan remediation. Malik’s data sheet shows he missed two out of the three cause and effect questions on the benchmark exam. I would then sort Malik into a group of children who had also missed either one or two cause and effect questions. Then, I would prepare a test prep packet highlighting the skills I deem necessary to solving these types of questions. This packet would include every cause and effect question stem provided to me by whichever company we hired out to create the tests. After demonstrating the particular strategy on a test-prep passage, Malik and the other students would practice the skill on similar 1-3 page passages. This approach is then repeated with every “struggling” student throughout the entire school year. Knowledge has no part of a No Excuses pedagogy. Neither does authentic learning nor encouraging student interest. Just strategies. Strategies to be used only in niche situations using inauthentic literature in a highly controlled and scripted environment.
The No Excuses movement uses two main justifications for this type of instruction. The first reason is that if the test is well-designed, then teaching to it helps students learn critical thinking and literacy skills. Such specious reasoning was popular during the mental discipline movement from the early 1800’s, when many educators and politicians believed learning was transferrable. This logic says that teaching a child how to answer multiple-choice questions correctly also helps the child read, write, and reason things out. The second reason this model gives for relying on rationalized instruction is akin to “Well, this is how the world works. These numbers will define these children.” This circular logic legitimizes disastrous education policy while undermining any attempt at something different.
Inculcation of Capitalist Values and the Replication of Social Hierarchies
Such an unnatural and regimented system requires a byzantine system of behavioral control to keep children and teachers in line. This often means instating a token economy, a behaviorist system where “good behavior” earns tokens and “bad behavior” earns demerits. At my old school, the heart of the extrinsic reward system was the individual student paycheck. Every teacher carried around a behavior tracking sheet:
Tracking sheets were full-page grids with spaces for teachers to mark down deductions, detentions, and scholar dollars. At the bottom of each tracking sheet was a chart that linked observable student behaviors to numbers. It’s worth noting here that the behavior tracking sheet offered nine specific reasons to reward a scholar (many so-called soft skills such as being organized, showing initiative, and displaying enthusiasm), thirty specific reasons to punish a scholar (calling someone by his or her wrong name, grooming during class, or simply not being enthusiastic enough), and eleven specific ways for a child to earn an automatic detention (sleeping, sucking teeth, or ignoring an adult).
Teachers handed out paychecks every Wednesday. The school designed these paychecks to resemble actual pay stubs, making sure every child understood that the end goal of every class was to maximize individual profit. The idea was to familiarize children with the trappings of a capitalist society. Different paycheck totals resulted in various privileges or punishments. Students who struggled to follow rules had to attend Wednesday Extension, a three-hour block of detention spent copying down the school’s code of conduct by hand. Since flimsy extrinsic rewards and punishments are ineffective in shaping behavior, the same students ended up in Wednesday Extension week after week. Learning nothing but estrangement from a system bent on punishment. Middle-level paychecks guaranteed a trip to the scholar store, a room full of cheap trinkets and unhealthy junk food available for purchase using each week’s earnings. Students could even bank their scholar dollars for bigger purchases.
Children earning 100 dollars or more joined the Century Club. Weekly membership in Century Club meant you were allowed to leave class one minute early and walk to your next period unaccompanied in the hallway . You also received a bright orange lanyard to wear around your neck at all times. Although Century Club membership was meant to last a full paycheck week, many students had their privilege stripped away by teachers. While wearing a lanyard was supposed to be a marker of pride, in reality it made you an easy target for teachers looking to ‘make an example.’ A good percentage of Century Club scholars would lose their status by the end of the next school day. Forget to bring your two non-mechanical pencils? Whisper to your friend while waiting silently in line before heading out to recess? Being pretty much anything except for perfect meant students could expect to lose their lanyard. Taking students’ lanyards came to be a status marker for teachers, a symbol meaning you weren’t to be trifled with.
This system replicates the income gaps in larger society. Students who know how to play the game are the same students who earn Century Club every week. They are the same scholars who enjoy favoritism from the staff. The kids who struggle at the beginning of the year, on the other hand, get the short end of the stick. They go to every Wednesday extension. They routinely spend lunch and after school time in detention away from their peers and ostracized from the school community. These children have come to learn that there is no place for them in school. They have been disenfranchised by the very system claiming to serve them.
Using extrinsic rewards to control behavior only works in a minority of settings. School isn’t one of them. Yet without training and assistance to deal with the cornucopia of emotional and mental health problems plaguing children from poverty, teachers often grasp onto whatever they can to help students find success, even if that success is ephemeral and fleeting. We were told that the paycheck system was set up “to help the weakest teacher.” Such a system ignores the weighty work of working through value systems for the sake of surface-level purchasing power.
“No one opens up a school hoping to fail,” my old head of school would often tell us. “No one wakes up and makes up his or her mind to let down children.” Ms. Jones, like many of the individuals pushing the No Excuses model, combined 19th century beliefs in quantification and rationalization with the zeal of a religious missionary. Who would disagree that education has the power to truly transform someone’s life? She demanded that we “drink the kool-aid.” I don’t think she understood how the tacky metaphor equated success at the school with suicide and mindless cult-like devotion. As more and more U.S. children fall below the poverty line, my fear is that public schools will turn to the privatized charter world for guidance on “best practices” for dealing with children from impoverished backgrounds. Now is the time to repudiate No Excuses methodology and dismantle the corporate reform apparatus.
 All names have been changed.
 This was a big deal since, again, like most schools operating within the No Excuses model, kids transitioned to every class in silent straight lines. At this school, children were to walk on the “edge of the blue.” This meant exactly twelve inches from the walls. A blue line of tile had been conveniently built into the floor to facilitate this language.