Education Opinion

Can ‘No Excuses’ Schools Become Places of Deep Learning?

By Contributing Blogger — December 11, 2017 6 min read
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This post is by Sarah Fine, a faculty member at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education and a fellow at the George Lucas Education Foundation.

In a recent edition of The New Yorker, staff writer Rebecca Mead writes about Success Academy--a rapidly-expanding network of “No Excuses” charter schools in New York City that has been the subject of much controversy. Mead focuses on the efforts of CEO Eva Moskowitz to “combine rigid discipline with a progressive curriculum,” describing how, at Moskowitz’s behest, the network’s 42 schools have embraced pedagogical practices associated with traditions of child-centered schooling. In Success Academy’s kindergartens, for example, children get to play with blocks each day in a sustained way. And in the older grades, when unpacking and analyzing academic texts, students spend much of their time collaborating in small groups.

Folks in the No Excuses world certainly have been rethinking their work in important ways. This comes as no surprise to me; the No Excuses leaders and teachers that I have encountered are as relentless about questioning and improving their practices as any educators I have ever encountered. But can the notion of a “deeper” No Excuses school ever be anything but an oxymoron?

In our forthcoming book, Jal Mehta and I try to offer answers to this question. We acknowledge that these schools are often joyless and repressive. We also, however, mount a case for taking seriously the things they’ve figured out about how to support novice teachers and how to scaffold higher-order academic tasks in ways which allow students to undertake complex (though often unimaginative) thinking on a regular basis. In a world where so many schools fall so short of their aspirations, we believe there is something to be learned from the intentional, coherent, highly designed nature of these institutions--even if we also ultimately believe that schools should pursue a very different set of goals. (Our views have been shaped, among other things, by the dozens of incredibly thoughtful and deeply committed No Excuses educators that we have encountered in our work.)

In our chapter, Jal and I also take up the recent efforts of a No Excuses network to incorporate more student-centered and open-ended tasks into daily instruction. We followed one such effort quite closely, and, like Mead, we saw some glimmers of progress when it came to enabling greater student agency and autonomy. However, the experiments in deeper learning at the school in question were highly bounded--and are likely to remain so. This is because control, micromanagement, and adultism are core to the school’s identity. Undoing these things would mean risking the school’s reputation; it would also require everyone, from principals to teachers to students, to unlearn what they have spent so long learning.

Mead seems to agree with our assessment. When writing about Success Academy’s recent experiments with more progressive pedagogies, she treats the topic seriously but also makes no great effort to cover her skepticism. The most incisive observation that she offers, in my opinion, is that many of the students who are engaged in what appear to be rigorous student-centered tasks are in fact following a rigid formula for analysis--she notes that they seem to be “performing thought” rather than engaging in the improvisational and recursive process associated with actual thinking. This is consistent with what Jal and I observed in a similar network of schools: even the most adventurous teaching was curtailed by an unwillingness to release control and embrace the messiness that so often accompanies the deepest learning.

All of this is to say that Mead’s piece is illuminating and important--it does for the general public what Jal’s and my book-chapter (and related article) tries to do for educators, scholars, and policymakers. That said, however, that there are several key points to add to her analysis.

First, we need to recognize that truly progressive instructional practice is likely impossible in the context of repressive school culture and school discipline. I learned this while writing my dissertation about a No Excuses school that began by doing the opposite of Success Academy--that is, leaders decided to replace the school’s punitive approach to discipline with the progressive and participatory processes associated with restorative justice. At first, teachers and leaders saw no reason to adjust their teacher-centered and test-oriented instructional approach. Over time, however, they began to realize that transforming their approach to discipline without transforming their approach to teaching would thwart the school’s work in both domains. In so doing, they surfaced an important idea: it is counterproductive for educators to reject authoritarian discipline without similarly rejecting authoritarian pedagogy, because to do so is to risk creating schools which send incoherent messages to students about their roles and capabilities. The inverse is also true. How can a school that requires students to conform to an endless set of micro-rules expect its students to feel safe being bold, creative, and playful in their thinking? (In her piece, Mead quotes Shael Polakow-Suransky, the president of the Bank Street College of Education, who makes a similar point.)

Second, I fear that Mead overlooks one of key reasons that some parents (most of them black or brown and poor) might choose schools like Success Academy: namely, they are afraid of their children landing in jail or dying on the streets because they said the wrong thing or looked the wrong way at someone with power--and they know that schools with reputations for being intensely strict are likely to teach their children how to keep their heads down and submit to institutionalized authoritarianism (which in schools like these is often billed as “tough love”).

I don’t believe that many of these parents want their children to go to schools like Success Academy. They would, I suspect, prefer schools closer to the ones that are often featured on this blog: places where their children can learn about themselves and learn about the world and learn from their mistakes and play and thrive. To this end, Mira Debs at Yale has some compelling research on why parents make certain school choices; her findings lend credence to the idea that low-income parents of color tend to choose well-run progressive schools (such as public Montessori schools) when such schools are available to them.

But these parents also know too well that the society that their children will enter as adults is one in which being black or brown and poor means that curiosity and self-advocacy are more often punished than rewarded. And so, out of the deep fear that accompanies the deepest love, and knowing that the “choices” available to them are hardly choices at all, they enter their children in the lottery for places like Success Academy. Many of those who “win” the lottery come to regret this choice; as Mead points out, out of an entering first-grade class of 73, only 17 graduated. And Joanne Wang Golann has evidence on the outcomes which actually result when kids stay in schools like Success Academy. (Spoiler: they’re not good ones.)

Success Academy and other No Excuses schools bill themselves as places of hope. I certainly think that moving in the direction of more progressive pedagogy is a step toward living up to this aspiration. I would argue, however, that until these schools are ready to do much, much more than allow kindergarteners to play with blocks on a regular basis, they will remain places of deep cynicism--perhaps even despair.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.