College Ready Scholars or “Repeat Offenders?”: Perspectives of Black Educators’ on No Excuses Charter Disciplinary Practices [Literature Review] by Anabelle Marty

Introduction: Success Academy’s Recent Appearance in the News

The New York Times headline on October 29, 2015 “At a Success Academy Charter School, Singling Out Pupils Who Have ‘Got to Go’” has spurred disputes between parties from a diverse collection of fields. Recognized as “the high-performing charter school network in New York City,” Success Academy is presently being accused of “weeding out weak or difficult students” (Taylor, 2015). In reference to the newspaper article mentioned, Candido Brown, a former principal at a Success Academy school, articulates his reasoning for his creation of the ‘Got to Go’ list. He shares: “I felt I couldn’t turn the school around if these students remained” (Taylor, 2015). Thus, the removal of certain students may be interpreted as a “big win” for Success Academy (Taylor, 2015). Both former and current administrators within the Success Academy network detailed another tactic used to encourage students to remove themselves from such schools. Specifically, they “talked about suspending students or calling parents into frequent meetings as ways to force parents…or prompt them to withdraw their children” (Taylor, 2015). Moreover, Brown threatened to call the police on students who persistently misbehaved (Schneider, 2016). As a result, a group of parents filed the lawsuit Olgundiran et al. versus Success Academy Fort Greene et al. for the “emotional distress” such threats caused in both parents and targeted students (Schneider, 2016). In comparison to the overwhelmingly negative reactions to the “Got to Go” list, “At Success Academy, a Stumble in Math and a Teacher’s Anger on Video” (Taylor, 2016) has generated responses both in support of and in contrast to the teacher’s behavior demonstrated in the video.

In her latest newspaper article regarding Success Academy, Taylor (2016) captures the sensational story of an assistant teacher who secretly filmed her colleague, Charlotte Dial, rip a first grade student’s paper in half and angrily order the student to retreat to the “‘calm-down chair’ and sit.” Dial proceeds with, “There’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper” (Taylor, 2016). In defense of Success Academy’s “rip and redo” motto (Taylor, 2016), founder and CEO Eva Moskowitz expresses arguments for and against Dial’s practice. On the one hand, Moskowitz affirms that teachers should not address students in manners they would not use in front of students’ parents (Taylor, 2016). On the other hand, she claims that Dial “so desperately wants her kids to succeed and to fulfill their potential” (Taylor, 2016), even if it involves driving the student to tears. While Moskowitz has never personally witnessed a teacher make a student cry, “children cry a lot. Olympic athletes, when they don’t do well, they sometimes cry. It’s not the end of the world” (Taylor, 2016). Jessica Reid Sliweski, a former teacher and assistant principal at Success Academy, voices the following: “I felt sick about the teacher I had become, and I no longer wanted to be part of an organization where adults could so easily demean children under the guise of ‘achievement’” (Taylor, 2016).

In response to comments that mirrored Sliweski’s, a pool of seven parents of Success Academy students gathered and projected their perceptions of Dial’s (mis)behavior.

In the “Success Academy Parents Talk to New York Times” Youtube video, an overarching theme that binds the parents’ views is that the brief, sixty second video clip of Dial’s controversial interaction with her student is not representative of who Dial really is. As one parent declares, “That’s one small moment in time” (SuccessAcademies, 2016). Similar to Moskowitz’s response, a second parent suggests that “the rest of the video sounds like me with my children…it’s a tough love thing…and when my son finally brings it to me, the hug and the love is there and he knows it” (SuccessAcademies, 2016). The second parent’s comment  establishes the close connection that should exist between the adults that play influential roles in children’s lives, principally parents and teachers. Carly Ginsberg, another former Success Academy teacher, paints the disturbing exchange between a “lead teacher” and a student (Taylor, 2016); such an exchange may challenge the “tough love” parental role parents in the Youtube video describe. Ginsberg illustrates that the lead teacher “made a girl who had stumbled reciting a math problem cry so hard that she vomited” (Taylor, 2016). She includes, “It felt like I was watching child abuse. If this were my kindergarten experience, I would be traumatized” (Taylor, 2016). Despite such recollections, another parent in the Youtube video offers that “they [Success Academy] demand excellence and they get excellence, and that doesn’t happen in most other schools” (SuccessAcademies, 2016). Thus, the purpose of this project is to explore the underlying assumptions and consequences of the No Excuses model from the perspectives of Black educators at schools that exercise such No Excuses practices.

What Are Charter Schools? What Makes Them No Excuses?

In her The Death and Life of the Great American School System, author Diane Ravitch discusses the historical arguments for and against school vouchers and school choice. Ravitch utilizes Milton Friedman’s (1955) article, “The Role of Government in Education,” and finds that school vouchers grant families with an equal amount of governmental funds “so every student could attend a school of choice” (Ravitch, 2010). A type of school students could choose to attend are charter schools. Viewed as “the jewels of the school choice movement,” charter schools are “expected to work on the cutting edge of research and knowledge, not to replicate what others are doing” (Ravitch, 2010, p.122). For an institution to become a charter school, an organization may choose to apply for a three to five year charter to collect public funding (Ravitch, 2010). One of the major requirements charter schools must satisfy in order to receive such public financial support is to “meet certain minimum requirements and academic targets” (Ravitch, 2010). Thus, charter schools experience considerable amounts of pressure to meet and exceed written expectations, to ensure their continual receipt of public funding and charter to operate.

You may be wondering: what exactly are No Excuses charter schools anyway? To begin, it is essential to realize that not all charter schools function on a No Excuses model. In his “The No-Excuses Charter School Movement,” blogpost writer Max Bean synthesizes the distinctive characteristics of such schools and proposes the following six features that encapsulates most, if not all, of them: i) high behavioral and academic expectations for students ii) unambiguous disciplinary codes iii) additional time on academics iv) college preparatory curriculum v) creation and promotion of school culture and community values and vi) exclusive policies to hire and retain exceptional teachers. From the list aforementioned, the first two categories most closely align with this paper’s focus. Bean argues that in the eyes of No Excuses charter schools, “to lower expectations…would be to give up on a student, to say to her, ‘We don’t expect you to learn what others learn; we don’t expect you to behave in school…your circumstances make you incapable of academic achievement and success in life’” (Bean). The “circumstances” Bean alludes to are the typically low-income, urban environments where, at one charter management organization, 59% of students are African-American, 36% are Hispanic, and 87% qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, stem from (Ash, 2013).

Do Student Outcomes Reflect Stated Goals?

No Excuses charter schools “are mission-driven, built around a unifying vision” (Finn, Manno, & Vanourek, 2000). The belief of many of the charter management organizations include statements, such as, “…all children, regardless of race or economic status, can succeed if they have access to a great education” (Achievement First Home Page). Achievement First, a charter management organization formally established in 2003 to expand the exemplary practices of Amistad Academy, a small, New Haven charter school founded in 1999 (Achievement First Home Page: Our Mission and Vision) has delivered on such promises. Stationed in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island, Achievement First published the following data of their students’ performance on state examinations at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in 2013:

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Altogether, the data presented above depicts the extraordinary state examination results of Achievement First students, in comparison to similar students attending non-Achievement First schools in neighboring districts. To reinforce such results, in New York City for example, Achievement First students are “within 4 percentage points of Rye, N.Y., an affluent town in Westchester County” (Achievement First Home Page: Results). Because such charter schools inculcate their students with an urgency to perform as well, or better than, their affluent counterparts, such a statement warrants celebration because it proves that they are achieving their stated goals.

Despite the academic victories of Achievement First schools, some individuals have challenged the integrity behind such examination statistics. One figure is Diane Ravitch herself, who claims that “charters avoid students with high needs…because they fear that such students will depress their test scores” (Ravitch, 2010, p.134). To intensify this conversation, others have argued that although such schools fulfill their goal of getting one hundred percent of students into a four year college or university, this percentage is colored by information left publicly unannounced. In “Amistad Sends 30 To College, ‘Loses’ 23” (2013), author Melissa Bailey details an annual event that Achievement First Amistad High School hosts, known as “Senior Signing Day.” Senior Signing Day provides graduating seniors with a platform to announce which college or university they will attend and retell “dramatic stories of overcoming death in the family, gangs, and gun violence” (Bailey, 2013). For each of the thirty seniors who presented at the 2013 Senior Signing Day, “another was ‘lost’ along the way” (Bailey, 2013). Questions such as, “What happened to those ‘lost’ 23?” “Why did Amistad High School not work for them?,” have been wrestled with by Achievement First educators, parents, community members, and students themselves. From a list of “unacceptable departures” Chris Bostock, former principal of Amistad High School, drafts, the first relates to a parent who removed her child from the school “due to restrictive school culture” (Bailey, 2013). Such a restriction is symptomatic of the high behavioral expectations and explicit disciplinary responses to infractions of rules.

To What Extent Do No Excuses Charter Schools’ Disciplinary Practices Cultivate College-Ready Students?

A motto that resounds in the classrooms and hallways of No Excuses charter schools resembles the following: to get students to and through college. To maintain elevated college persistence rates, majority of the No Excuses charter high schools hire several College Success Counselors (and the like), individuals appointed to provide alumni with continuous support throughout their college journeys. Currently, from the one hundred percent of Amistad High School graduates who were accepted into a two or four year college, seventy-four percent of them have persisted or graduated in the 2015-2016 academic year (Achievement First).

Another charter management organization, known as KIPP (The Knowledge is Power Program), has revealed the percentage of alumni who have graduated from college within six years. The outcomes for KIPP students, in comparison to low-incomes students across the United States, are highlighted in the visual below:

The most obvious similarity between the visual above and the academic performance of Achievement First students on their state examinations (previously presented) is that students within these No Excuses charter schools generally outperform their peers in local non-charter public schools. Despite the striking difference in the percentage of KIPP students who enter college (eighty-six percent) in comparison to other low-income students across the United States (forty-five percent), the datum most alarming is the percentage of KIPP students who graduate from college (forty-two percent), in comparison to the percentage of students who entered college. What are explanations for the dramatic decrease in the number of KIPP students who got through college? In her “The Paradox of Success at a No-Excuses School” (2015), Joanne W. Golann incorporates the perspectives of students discussing the extent to which their school, in particular the behavioral expectations and disciplinary practices, are college-preparatory.

The disconnect between the stated purposes of the No Excuses behavioral expectations, disciplinary repercussions, and students’ perceptions of them is substantial. In her introduction, Golann (2015) captures the experience of an eighth grade student, named Alexis, who was housed in detention — as opposed to participating in the school’s snow tubing field trip — due to garnering a certain number of behavioral offenses, which automatically disqualified her from attending the trip. Alexis projects the following statement: “…you’re not prepping us for college–you’re disciplining us, like you don’t have detention in college. You don’t have to wear a uniform in college. You don’t have to walk in straight lines in college” (Golann, 2015). As Golann reflects, while such expectations may be necessary to get students through high school, they may not help students transition into the “college student role” (Golann, 2015). To supplement Golann’s opinion, a college counselor at a similar school expresses the following concern: “…my biggest fear is that these kids are going to go to college and go crazy and like party all the time and not go to class…while some students were doing well in the college courses, others were failing, not having developed the independence to take responsibility for their own work” (Golann, 2015). While the rigid behavioral expectations and prescribed disciplinary practices at such schools are well-intended, they may fail to instill in students the character traits necessary to excel in college settings. If such disciplinary practices are not benefitting each student, then what are they doing? Are there broader significances of such practices that remain hidden from the eye?

Disciplinary Practices Used to “Control” Black and Brown Bodies

A leading vocalist against the disciplinary measures implemented in No Excuses charter schools, Ramon Griffin draws similarities between them and historical practices used to colonize “inferior” groups of people. A former Dean of Students at a charter school and a Black educator himself, Griffin perceived the disciplinary practices at the school through a “postcolonial theory” lens (Griffin, 2014)). He articulates that his daily schedule “consisted of running around chasing Black ladies to see if their nails were polished…or following men to make sure that their hair wasn’t styled naturally as students were not able to wear their hair in uncombed afro styles…” (Griffin, 2014). In response to not allowing students to embrace their “uncombed afro styles” while at school, some charter school educators argue that such a physical presentation can distract other students and/or not prepare them for the professional image they will need to adopt in the future. However, an influential Black Martinique-born revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, would vehemently disagree with such reasoning (Lazarus, 1999).

A famous line that Fanon published in 1961 reads as follows: “Colonialism wants everything to come from it” (Griffin, 2014). After meditating on it, Griffin translates the statement into the charter school he previously worked in. He reflects that “colonizers delegitimize the knowledge, experience, and cultures of the colonized, and establish policy and practice that will always confirm the colonial status quo” (Griffin, 2014). In other words, the “colonizers” represent the predominantly white educators leading the No Excuses charter school movement, while the “colonized” symbolize the Black and Brown students who house such schools. Griffin furthers his analysis and shares that “the systems and procedures seemingly did not care about the Black children and families they served. They were suffocating and meant to socialize students to think and act a certain way” (Griffin, 2014). The term “suffocating” not only illuminates the detrimental effects such practices may have on Black and Brown children, but it suggests that if such children fail to comply with the prescribed rules both in school and in society, they will end up “suffocating” and suffering from broader eternal consequences.

Inherent in such practices is the idea of No Excuses, which implies that despite any outstanding circumstances, Black and Brown children who violate them will still receive their forewarned punishments. In “An Open Letter to Teachers and Staff at No Excuses Charter Schools,” Griffin (2016) questions educators on their [supposed] understandings of the disciplinary practices. Griffin argues that some of the practices “punished students for being poor,” since many were castigated “for not having items school leaders knew their families couldn’t afford” (Griffin, 2016). Additionally, Griffin offers potential extenuating circumstances that should immunize students from receiving punishments. Such circumstances include “a kid who has three younger siblings he has to care for, clean up, help with homework…a kid who has witnessed his mother being shot by his father…” According to Griffin, such a student “has a legitimate excuse not to walk on a line, talk to anybody or participate in class” (Griffin, 2016). Despite the discomfort many educators may feel about such practices, they are — in a way — conditioned to not challenge them. When such educators were students themselves, they were encouraged to “be critical, to take risks, to disagree, to not conform…” (Griffin, 2016); however, “they are trained to instill these opposite values in youth of color, even punishing students for being critical or showing emotion” (Griffin, 2016). Overall, such educators “don’t know how to push back critically and meaningfully without being disciplined or even losing their jobs” (Griffin, 2016). To what extent will such educators, specifically Black educators, compromise their beliefs to not jeopardize their job security?  

Does a “Hidden Curriculum” Exist Underneath Similar Disciplinary Practices?

From their Schooling in Capitalist America (1976), Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis coined the phrases correspondence principle and hidden curriculum, which are theories in regards to the operations of the education and workforce systems in the United States. Particularly, Bowles and Gintis (1976) observed that schools praised students differently depending on if their behaviors aligned with the future occupations society expected them to go into. As they claimed, “…schools prepare people for adult work rules by socializing people to function well and without complaint in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation” (Bowles and Gintis, 2002, p.1).

In her “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” (1980), Jean Anyon navigated through five elementary schools to determine whether such theories apply to schools today. From her fieldwork, Anyon discovered that in schools where the majority of students stem from working class backgrounds, “work is following the steps of a procedure…work is often evaluated not according to whether it is right or wrong but according to whether the children followed the right steps” (Anyon, 1980). In other words, students from working class backgrounds are congratulated for their “docility and obedience” (Anyon, 1980). In affluent schools, on the other hand, “the products of work should not be like anybody else’s and should show individuality” (Anyon, 1980). As Anyon confirms through her research, there are deeper sociological forces that differentially shape the educational experiences of students from dissimilar socioeconomic backgrounds. In his “‘Tuck in That Shirt!’ Race, Class, Gender and Discipline in an Urban School” (2005), Edward Morris applies such theories to the practices of a middle school in Texas. Throughout his observations, Morris noted that African-American female students were not viewed as being “ladylike” and “baggy and over-sized clothing will not be allowed” (Morris, 2005). Moreover, Morris converses with a Black male teacher who notes, “Like the black girls here — they lack social skills. The way they talk, it’s loud and combative. They grow up in these rough neighborhoods, and that’s how they act to survive” (Morris, 2005). Thus, “the hidden curriculum tacitly teaches students unspoken lessons about their race, class, and gender and often manifests in how schools regulate their students’ bodies” (Morris, 2005). While educators at such schools do not overtly disclose the hidden curriculum underlying their practices, students do not fail to experience the detrimental effects of it. As one Black male student shares, “…it’s like we did something wrong, but we didn’t do anything. Prisoners are there [in prison] because they did something wrong. We’re just here to learn, we didn’t do anything wrong, but it’s like we’re being punished” (Morris, 2005). The reactions of both the Black male teacher and the Black student in relation to the disciplinary culture of their school are characteristic of what this project sought to learn more about and highlights below.     

Works Cited

Achievement First Web Page (http://www.achievementfirst.org/)

Anyon, Jean. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” Learning Power. Web.

Ash, Katie. “Q&A: KIPP CEO Addresses Impact of Discipline Policies.” Education Week, 20 Feb. 2013. Web.

Bailey, Melissa. “Amistad Sends 30 to College, ‘Loses’ 23.’” New Haven Independent, 30 May 2013. Web.

Bean, Max. “The No-Excuses Charter School Movement.” Dewey to Delpit. Web.

Bowles, Samuel and Gintis, Herbert. “Schooling in Capitalist America Revisited.” Sociology of Education, 75(1). 2002, p.1-18. Web.

Finn, Chester E., Bruno V. Manno, and Gregg Vanourek. Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education. Princeton University Press, 2000. Web.

Golann, Joanne W. 2015. “The Paradox of Success at a No-Excuses School.” Sociology of Education 20(10):1-17. Web.

Griffin, Ramon. “Colonizing the Black Natives: Reflections From a Former NOLA Charter School Dean of Students.” Cloaking Inequity, 24 Mar. 2014. Web.

Griffin, Ramon. “An Open Letter to Teachers and Staff at No Excuses Charter Schools.” Edushyster, 25 Jan. 2016. Web.

Lazarus, Neil. “Fanon, Nationalism, and the Question of Representation in Postcolonial Theory.” Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives (1999): 161. Web.

Morris, Edward W. “‘Tuck in That Shirt!’ Race, Class, Gender and Discipline in an Urban School.” Sociological Perspectives (2005), 48(1). p.25-48. Web.

Ravitch, Diane. 2011. “Ch.7: Choice The Story of an Idea.” The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education: Basic Books. p.113-147. Web.

Schneider, Mercedes. “Details on the Success Academy ‘Got to Go List’ Lawsuit.” Huffpost Education, 11 Jan. 2016. Web.

SuccessAcademies. “Success Academy Parents Talk to the New York Times.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Feb. 2016. Web.

Taylor, Kate. “At a Success Academy Charter School, Singling Out Pupils Who Have ‘Got to Go.’” The New York Times, 29 Oct. 2015. Web.

Taylor, Kate. “At Success Academy School, a Stumble in Math and a Teacher’s Anger on Video.” The New York Times, 12 Feb. 2016. Web.