School Choice & Charters Opinion

Understanding ‘No Excuses’

By Deborah Meier — April 09, 2013 2 min read
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Today, Deborah Meier continues her blog conversation with Elliott Witney.

Dear Elliott,

We’re going to have to converse for more than a month to get ourselves straightened out! It would be a useful learning experience for me so I’m hoping you’re willing.

I’ve been trying for the past few months to get into a healthy and vigorous disagreement with some other bloggers. It has been much more difficult than I anticipated it would be to get people to engage in constructive sparring. So it occurs to me that I may have jumped in too abruptly in our case. Here’s another attempt to trouble the water between us a little more gingerly—pursuing the issues around discipline before moving on to other topics.

It is well known that KIPP has a discipline model called the “Porch” that has been documented in Jay Mathew’s book, among many other accounts. (Do you know the history of that term: the porch? It’s a term that comes up in an early Zora Neal Hurston novel, I think.) The approach includes students turning their shirts inside out, sitting separately at lunch, not being allowed to speak with peers for breaking rules. SLANT is another much-admired KIPP practice that has been widely publicized and imitated. Schools that practice similar systems are sometimes described as “no excuses” schools.

I truly don’t understand the rationale behind these practices. I’m assuming that you and I agree that the goal of schooling is to prepare students for adulthood, including navigating a diversity of situations and settings, and doing so on behalf of both personal and social goals, prominent among them becoming effective citizens in a far-from-perfect democracy.

I was hoping for an insider’s perspective on what lies behind these practices—the unspoken assumptions about how society now works and how we might improve it! Might we agree on the following fundamental proverb as a guide to good parenting, schooling, and social justice? “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” I’m trying to fit this into the “no excuses” response. Whether we’d end up agreeing or disagreeing, I think it would improve the discussion if we were both able to follow the reasoning behind our different choices with their different trade-offs. Hopefully my colleagues at Central Park East, Mission Hill, et al question our practices (as I know KIPP staff do also). So it would definitely help us.

We, for example, actually honor “excuses"—which we’d argue lie at the heart of our legal system. In our “progressive” approach there is ample room for adults and students to make mistakes. How, in a no-excuses school, do students appeal if they believe the penalty is unfair?

Talking with you made me think about the Responsive Classroom approach to “time out"—an approach often used by schools that would see themselves as progressive. We actually tried it, and I think I’ll ask some of the Mission Hillers why we abandoned it—assuming we did!

How can we develop a language for sharing practices that seem so different, but might have similar underlying long-term rationales? Might it be beneficial if we could figure out a way to argue about these issues respectfully?

My best,

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