The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise?
Parents—and researchers—question why academic achievement should come at such a high cost
The school was calling again. This time, it was for humming. Esmeralda, a middle-class Latina mother whose daughter attended a high-performing charter school in a northeastern city, was incredulous as she recounted the conversation. (As education researchers, we use pseudonyms to preserve anonymity).
"I said, 'Did she curse?' 'No.' I said, 'Did she disrespect another student?' 'No.' I said, 'Did she disrespect you?' 'No. She was humming.'"
Another time, the school called when her daughter laughed during a fire drill. The punishment was a day spent wearing a yellow shirt and no talking with her peers. These frequent phone calls made Esmeralda feel disciplined, too.
"I'll swallow my pride," she told us, balancing her discomfort with her daughter's impressive reading gains.
In our recent study with co-author Anna Weiss, "'To Be Strict on Your Own': Black and Latinx Parents Evaluate Discipline in Urban Choice Schools," we interviewed many parents who echoed Esmeralda's experience, questioning whether a system of harsh discipline was worth the promise of academic achievement.
In the past decade, the no-excuses charter model has proliferated around the country through prominent charter networks, including KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Success Academy, YES Prep, and Achievement First, all of which combine a college-prep curriculum with strict discipline and a longer school day.
These schools have been celebrated for Black and Latino students' high-test scores and now form the most prevalent charter option in a number of American cities.
No-excuses students are typically required to wear uniforms, sit straight, with their hands folded on the table, and their eyes continuously on the teacher. At breaks, they walk silently through the halls in single-file lines. Students who follow these stringent expectations are rewarded with privileges, while violators are punished with demerits, detentions, and suspensions.
When some have challenged this model as unethical and racist, supporters point to parent demand. Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of Success Academy, which now runs 47 no-excuses charter schools with long waiting lists in New York City, has argued that parents who "believe in stricter discipline" are "voting with their feet" by enrolling their children in these schools. (Incidentally, Success Academy was recently found to have violated FERPA privacy laws in revealing identifying details about a child in response to the child’s parent complaining about the school’s disciplinary practices on “PBS News Hour.”)
As researchers who have taught in and studied these schools, we found that parents' attitudes were not that simple. The Black and Latino parents we interviewed in a no-excuses middle school valued discipline, but viewed it as more than rule following. They wanted demanding academic expectations alongside a caring and structured environment that would help their children develop the self-discipline to make good choices.
Recognizing the peer pressures their children faced, these parents told us that they did not want their children to become "robots" or "little mindless minion[s], just going by what somebody says." Their concerns echo an earlier study that one of us (Joanne Golann) published in 2015, questioning whether the no-excuses model's emphasis on obedience adequately prepares students for the self-directed learning skills they need to be successful in college.
There are, however, other school models that offer parents a better balance of academics and a nurturing school environment. In our study, we also interviewed Black and Latino parents whose children were enrolled at two public Montessori magnet schools. These parents, we found, also valued structure and high academic expectations. But they liked that their children were not being punished and had the freedom to choose their work and collaborate with peers on projects.
The parents who spoke with us questioned the assumption that different families need or even want stricter kinds of schools. One Black middle-class mother whose daughter attended a Montessori school was frustrated that her experience was the exception for Black children rather than the norm: "Why is it that a certain population has to have so much structure in order to be successful compared to another population?"
It would be one thing if a no-excuses environment was the only way for urban schools to ensure order and achievement. But while many Montessori schools are private, there are more than 500 whole- or partial-school public Montessoris around the country, roughly half of which are located in cities. These schools, which can include district-run, magnet, and charter schools, are racially diverse: Students of color constitute a majority of total enrollment in the whole-school public Montessoris. Public Montessori schools are also rapidly expanding, having roughly doubled in size since 2000.
Montessori schools aren't perfect: A 2015 study showed Black students in a public Montessori school were still disciplined at higher rates than their White peers, even though overall discipline rates were lower than other area public schools. Researchers and practitioners have called for more Montessori teachers of color and training in culturally responsive practices to support the diverse population of students. But public Montessori schools have demonstrated academic benefits for Black and low-income students without having to constantly monitor student behavior.
Charter schools were originally designed to respond to the needs and desires of families and local communities. To give parents the choices they want and deserve, school districts and charter authorizers should encourage a diversity of school choices—including those that foreground student independence and downplay punishment. They also need to hold charter schools accountable at the approval and renewal stage by measuring school culture, including student satisfaction, teacher turnover, and school suspension rates, and by closely examining the nature of school disciplinary practices.
It's encouraging that a number of no-excuses schools are responding to criticisms by incorporating social-emotional learning, making schools trauma informed, and using restorative justice circles to reduce suspensions. But this culture change is not easy, and the model is not changing fast enough. Recently, students have protested the disciplinary system at Success Academy’s high school in New York City. A disciplinary scandal at one Achievement First high school in New Haven, Conn., led to leadership change and a commitment by the network to improve school culture for students.
Parents from all backgrounds want strong academics and respect for their children, where no one has to swallow their pride. Why can't their children have it?