Defining What “Works” in No-Excuses Schools


When no-excuses or other environments of strict discipline in education make the claims that they are simply following, “whatever works,” there is an inherent issue in defining what is considered to work. While simplistic metrics of cognitive learning such as test scores may be achieved, it does not necessarily indicate that learning is occurring. Still, there is a deeper problem in that schooling provides a dimension of social-emotional learning and the growth of “soft-skills” that inherently clash with a disciplinarian culture. The paper seeks to examine the cultures of discipline and how they fundamentally undermine social-emotional development, a necessary component of any school that can actually prepare students for future learning or a work environment. Failure to foster these skills creates environments that inherently disadvantage students from developing successfully and having long-term success.



The environments when discussing “no-excuses schools” are incredibly diverse and not all aspects of this paper may apply to all schools with disciplinarian cultures depending on the extremity and specific manifestations. This section seeks to define the characteristics of the schools in which the problems addressed later will have the largest impact. Still, even if a specific school does not fit all of the criteria outlined, it will likely exhibit some of degree of many of the issues faced in the more extreme cases.

The no-excuses charter model that is being considered below is one with a strictly enforced conduct code with very public punishments for a range of issues, big or small. They are charter schools, therefore having the ability to kick-out students that stray too far from their model or create too large of a problem in terms of discipline. Student interactions are generally kept to a minimum with silent lunches, silent transition times, and talking in class limited to being called on by a teacher to answer specific questions. This inherently means that there is very little utilization of open discussions or individualized learning. Instead, students are generally treated as absolute equals with the same academic and personal expectation; all students are essentially expected to learn the same material in the same manner (Golann, 2015; Lack, 2009; Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2004).


It is true that studies have generally found that no-excuses charter schools have better test-score outcomes that traditional public schools or even other charter schools (Carter, 2000; Cheng, Hitt, Kisida, & Mills, 2015; Chronis et al., 2007). However, not only do these measures not account for the massive selection bias of those that enter no-excuses schools to start and then for those that actually stay, it also assumes testing as an absolute measure of learning and thinking. Other metrics suggest that despite producing good-test takers and obedient students, that those coming from no-excuses schools are not successful at high-level thinking (Horn & Wilburn, 2013).

Some early work has been done to suggest that there are negative impacts on student in terms of social-emotional outcomes and ability to succeed in college and in a career (Goodman, 2013; Whitman, 2008). However, these pieces tend to speak generally about discipline and cultures of paternalism without outlining the specific psychological mechanism through which social-emotional learning is stunted in no-excuses schools.


The Need for Social-Emotional Development

Social-emotional development is a large term used to describe one’s growth and acquisition of a variety of skills needed to successfully interact with others as well as to self-regulate emotions and behavior in a positive way. Not only have studies shown that these skills are crucial to developing more cognitive skills, but self-awareness, empathy, perspective taking, and cooperation are seen as key skills for success in college and in almost all careers (Zins, 2004).

For higher wage jobs, a survey of employers actively list communication skills and creative thinking as equal importance to more cognitive skills like problem solving and critical thinking (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010).

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Percentage of employers prioritizing each skill (Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2010)

In a collegiate setting, success is often seen as directly tied to one’s level of social-emotional development when entering college (Pritchard & Wilson, 2003). Thus, schooling that does not account for social-emotional learning or that actively hinders it, harms the long-term viability of their students in career or collegiate settings. While there have been extensive critiques of social-emotional development failures in almost all primary and secondary education, these issues seem to be especially salient and widespread at no-excuses charter schools. Given that these schools are designed to help low-income students achieve success, it is extremely problematic if the schools use policies that seek short-term cognitive gains at the expense of long-term social-emotional health and development.


Problems in No-Excuses Schools


Peer Groups and Development

School serves a purpose for identity formation and interactions informal with classmates and fitting into peer groups becomes a method for social development; however, institutional design has been found to play a psychological effect on group and identity formation. For better or worse, a highly academic environment will create social hierarchies based on academic metrics while a school environment that reveres sports will structure the system around athletics (Crosnoe, 2011, pp. 184-187). As a result, a disciplinary culture that rewards those that follow rules will enhance the social position of those most willing to directly follow rules.

However, in many ways the ability to follow rules is a trait most associated with the lowest-skill and lowest-wage jobs (Bowles & Gintis, 1976, p. 129). Rather than rewarding positive behaviors that help develop skills students need for higher wage jobs they are kept in their current social class through training that best suits them for those jobs (Anyon, 1980). However, the issue of disciplinarian cultures goes beyond rewarding obedient behavior, it actively punishes other behavior that would help develop the skills called for in higher skill and wage jobs.


Teacher-Student Dynamic

Beginning with peer-teacher relationships, healthy development of communication and other social-emotional skills is demonstrably seen in neurological and psychological research when there are strong connections to adults within a child or adolescent’s life (McKeough & Griffiths, 2010, p. 219). A strong, stable relationship with teachers in particular is a pivotal part of healthy development. Especially when these relationships are weak between parents and children, where teachers are often surrogates for whom children will seek the same connection (Parke & O’Neil, 2000, p. 15)

However, when the teacher is forced to discipline students for even small problems, there becomes a crisis of legitimacy. The intense use of rules undermines relationship and trust creating a scenario in which it is difficult for a teacher to be trusted as a supportive adult they are distrusted for their enacting of seemingly unfair rules (Arum, 2003, p. 160). This lack of trust can create stagnation in growth without an individual to assist in this process. This can be mitigated with strong relationships with parents or other adults present and active in the lives of the students (Smetana, 2011, p. 13). However, these relationships are often most deficient in the case of low-income students as a resulting of the demanding nature of the work and other stresses in the lives of their primary caregivers. In many ways, low-income students are those most in need of strong connections to teachers, but those that are least able to receive it in the climate created in schools.

Additionally, no-excuses schools often can extended hours spent on class work, but this time remains rigid and formal in the same way that occurs during the day (Lack, 2009). This wastes a large potential opportunity for strong relationships to greatly aid in the development process. The extended hours and near constant on-call nature of charter schools seems to understand the potential power of these relationships, but if it is undermining them with other policies, the net effect is greatly harmed (Golann, 2015).

An import part of the development process for children as they grow up is changes in power dynamics that allow for inevitable increase in autonomy and standing on the part of the child. Learning the extent and degree of this power plays an important role for children to have an appropriate sense of their own standing and rights in a healthy adult-child relationship. Unhealthy power dynamics often run the risk of having the child question the legitimacy of the adult power or conversely internalize the relationship to mean leaving the child with continuing problems in asserting power in future relationships (Perlman & Diqqiqui, 2000, p. 174).


Culture of Discipline

So even in the cases of not having the strictest rules, the very design of disciplinary cultures do not allow for the kind of changes in power dynamics, gradually adding elements of equalization and greater autonomy. Doing so vastly helps create a climate of respect, as discussed earlier, but it also teaches students how to interact with superiors in a formal environment. There are very few formal settings in which a boss’ rule as nearly as absolute as the dynamics of many no-excuses charter schools. Not being able to navigate more intricate relationships with superiors returns to the difficulty of students that have undergone education designed to keep them in the lower class and it hinders a student’s ability to develop the skills necessary for economic advancement.

Furthermore, society as a whole is not composed of rules and laws that are expected to be strictly followed all of the time. Part of existing within a society and culture is learning which rules are bendable and just how far. School offers some of the first student experiences in just this topic where they begin to learn how to understand the difference between official rules and the real realm of what is enforced and how strictly (Bigelow, 1996, p. 63). Without this capability, students certainly are likely to struggle more with society as a whole, which does not look like their experience in school. Accountability is vastly different and not understanding those disparities can have negative consequences.


Identity Development

Turning towards the importance of peer socialization, students interact with their peers to develop ability to work with others as well as find one’s place within society. While there are problems with peer interactions and frequent struggles, the allowance of these struggles in structured school settings can help limit the negative potential interactions, such as bullying, while allowing for healthy confrontation so that student can develop social and emotional skills (Adler, 1998). One of the main elements that makes it extremely difficult for no-excuses schools to allow this kind of interaction is that it requires open exchanges between students in informal settings; failing this condition, the peer interactions do not have the same effect while in school (Erwin, 1993). It is still possible for this socialization to happen out of school, but interacting with those outside of one’s direct friend group or community can have separate positive effects (Salmon, 1992).

Instead, these informal interaction wit peers are shut down with rules and instead replaced with contact in only formalized settings, a far different experience. It is also very problematic how no-excuses charter schools can sometimes utilize social shaming and peer pressuring as tools to enforce behavior. The pressure of peers has a fundamental psychological mechanism through which peers disrupt one’s sense of self and can tie the opinion of peers to the opinion of oneself. This means that negative reactions to one’s behavior has the ability to lessen an individual’s opinion of his or herself, thereby exerting influence to act in accordance with the norms of the group (Bukowski & Velasquez, 2008, pp. 128-130)

It can degrade one’s very notion of self, creating a series of complicated problems surrounding social-emotional growth. While many schools attempt to use schooling to help students withstand peer pressure and build self-esteem it up through teaching, the no-excuses schools are utilizing the existing peer influence dynamic to serve the short term ends of establishing order (Rae, 2013, pp. 26-27). Not only is this a failure to develop important skills, it is an impediment to doing so. It builds on the exclusionary nature of schooling and the in-group, out-group dynamics so that it can shun and shame behaving students into submission. It might work, but it is using one of the most problematic influences on students to do so. While most schools work to contain the peer pressure put on students, no-excuses schools chose to channel it.



Along the same line, the extreme nature of the discipline that sometimes occurs can create environments where punishment is essentially institutional bullying. One primary feature of bully is the essential power dynamic that leaves the victims feeling as if they lack the ability to defend themselves for a variety of potential reasons. This powerlessness can have a negative effect on social-emotional development and stunt the ability to develop self-confidence and other important non-cognitive skills (Monks & Smith, 2000, p. 148). In the same way, the institutions in no-excuses schools strips a student of the ability to fight back or defend themselves effectively. While this aspect may not be an inevitable component of no-excuses schools, it appears to be the risk that they run. In some cases, the lines are clearly crossed where the scolding and punishment of students becomes far too severe (Taylor, 2016).

Making choices are a pivotal part of the emotional development process. Guidance and support are great tools for teachers and school to help students make the right choices in handling their emotions, but without an element of choice, the routines are generally reactions based on environment and are not sustained growth. That is to say that a student becoming angry and choosing to say nothing because school policy will punish any other reaction will only illicit that response to anger in the future in the school environment where the negative reinforcement exists without fundamentally teaching the student how to handle anger in other contexts (Lewkowicz, 2007, pp. 10-11).

In the case of no excuses schools, this means that the frustration in their students never reaches a healthy outlet, stunting emotional growth and creating a potentially very damaging coping mechanism where students suppress the emotions rather than find an appropriate outlet.


Group-Specific Problems

Racial Minorities

In these models, it is also important to consider some specific student cases that might be worsened by no-excuses schools. The most glaring examples seems to be the negative racial dynamics at play in those schools; much larger works with the explicit goal of examining the racial dynamics of schools have been and could be conducted. However, generally, the no-excuses models continues the highly disciplinary structures that continues the school to prison pipeline (Wald & Losen, 2003). In addition to creating an extreme form of this negative environment, in reality the school is targeting not only those of lower socio-economic statuses, but generally racial minorities, in particular African-Americans. Thus not only is it a perpetuation of the school to prison pipeline, but it also creates a problematic racial dynamic where African-American students are being severely disciplines by primarily white teachers. Even amongst those in college African-Americans are vastly overrepresented in majors that lead to low-wage jobs, as seen below (Downs, 2016).

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Much of the research conducted on gender and classroom participation have demonstrated that girls are less likely than boys to participate in classes confidently and also are generally less likely to be called on than boys (Gillibrand, Robinson, Brawn, & Osborn, 1999). Boys face obvious barriers in no-excuses charter schools, likely having a greater chance or running expulsion due to the general trends in which boys are perceived as “acting-up” far more often than their female counterparts in schools (Myhill, 2002). However, of the students that remain in the no-excuses charter schools, it seems likely that it is the girls that will face the biggest negative consequences.

Given the cultural predisposition to make girls more passive in conversation and far less assertive than boys, entering into schools that strictly enforce passivity and obedience perpetuates the inherent gender disparity that exists. Given that women are less likely to negotiate salaries or rise to executive positions not only because of sexism, but because they are less likely to be assertive in ways that the workplace rewards (Wade, 2001). In this way, no-excuses schools create massive failings, perpetrating and enforcing behavior that negatively affects women far more than men. Whereas it schools should pay explicit attention to the development of self-confidence and ability to be assertive of women, no-excuses schools are performing the opposite function.

Women also are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs, meaning that the issue of perpetuating low socioeconomic statuses has a disproportionate effect on women. Below is a table representing the percentage of women in low-wage jobs verse their overall percent of the work force (The National Women’s Law Center, 2014).

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Students that have been Abused

In cases of children that had undergone emotional or physical abuse, a child will exhibit a variety of coping mechanisms two prominent ones being obedience to the abuser or continued resistance, depending on the particular personality and other factors. While the outcomes are not universal for all children, some are “catastrophically” effected with stagnation across all cognitive and non-cognitive development (Minuchin, 1992). These students that already face obstacles then are potentially faced with dynamics that place them back into the negative states that exist within their abusive home relationships. Not only are all of the previous issues going to be accentuated in this group of students, but it also adds elements of much higher degrees of stress for these students face harsh discipline in two areas of their lives.

As seen below children that have had adverse childhood experiences are far more likely to exhibit negative outcomes later in life. However, this can be mitigated by the development of relationships and strong, positive connections. Given that children living in poverty are most at risk for not finding these mitigating relationships, ignoring the potential for harm to this student population is incredibly dangerous (Anda et al., 2004).

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Department of Defense schools are a fascinating counter to the no-excuses charter model in that it utilizes some of the same mechanisms, but in far more productive ways. Still, the department of defense schools would rank in the top 4 states on all test score data across all demographics, leading as number one or number two in most categories (C. E. Smrekar & Owens, 2003). The racial and socioeconomic test score gap is also far smaller in Department of Defense schools than it is in most states. This is achieved with schools that reflect some a racially and socioeconomically diverse school; additionally, the spending per pupil is not substantially higher than average in the United States, including the added bonus of teachers generally having housing provided (Kingston, 2002). Though some metrics, such as lower rates of one-parent households and having at least one parent working full time, due to the fact that being part of the military is a prerequisite to enter the school, generally DoD schools are diverse across many metrics. The DoD schools are even potentially disadvantaged as there are students that switch school mid-year rather frequently due to changes in assignments of their parents, a switch that is demonstrated to have negative consequences on students, but that no-excuses do not face given most will not except student mid-year (Engel, Gallagher, & Lyle, 2010).

Many of the criticism of the DoD model has been that it cannot be replicated in public schools because of instances where parents are required to pick up children who are severely misbehaving and the threat of expulsion is always a looming possibility (Kingston, 2002). Additionally, teachers work longer hours than most traditional schools. However, these are options that are open to no-excuses charters and actually frequently used. Still, the details contain the key differences. Student behavior is not met with the goal of expulsion by inconveniencing parents forced to come into school; instead, it is treated as an opportunity for the parents and teacher to work together to solve the behavioral problem and prevent future issues (C. Smrekar, Guthrie, Owens, & Sims, 2001).

Rather than pressure and shaming, this model is a cooperative one to enforce good behavior in students and address bad behavior through communication and a plan to help the student succeed. The fundamental mentality is reverse of that of the charter school. Whereas the charter school punishes bad behavior, the DoD school seeks to prevent it on a case-by-case basis. From a social-emotional stand point this is actually building a student’s capabilities to regulate behavior and function properly in a formal setting rather than using absolutist rule to enforce strict militaristic behavior codes. Ironically, the military runs schools that are less militaristic than no-excuses schools, believing in a pedagogy that encourages expression and individualized development (Department of Defense, 1983).

This very notion also undermines any ideology that states that children from low-socio economic backgrounds respond best to schooling that is more directed and rules based because that is more similar to their home environment; in turn, the assumption is that their home environment is structured that way due to the nature of low-wage jobs (Kelley, Power, & Wimbush, 1992). It is hard to image a more structured work life than that of all but high-ranking officers in the military; yet, practices other than strict disciplinary structures work in DoD schools.

Additionally, DoD schools have been widely praised for their curricula that emphasize individualized learning, experiential and project based approaches, and generally building strong student-teacher relationships (Owens, 2006). Additional school hours in DoD schools are used for extracurricular activities and generally build a level of trust and positive informal interaction that is no exhibited in no-excuses schools (C. Smrekar et al., 2001).

Still, DoD goals and outcomes are extremely centralized and standardized. Students are expected to reach levels of proficiency across their classes that match their peers at any other DoD run school (C. Smrekar et al., 2001). The approach to this differs from no-excuses schools in that general goals are standard, but teachers still maintain classroom autonomy. Teachers are well-trained and well-compensated and, as a result, are expected to create their own lessons using best practices and the learning outcomes set by standards as guiding principles; additionally, teachers in DoD schools frequently collaborate with other teachers (C. Smrekar et al., 2001). This demonstrates how learning outcomes can be set without deciding exactly how a classroom should be run. Autonomy and agency are key for teachers to be able to individualize their curricula and their classroom to best meet the needs of their specific students.

Of course, it is likely that even DoD schools have flaws and that not everything used in their model is widely applicable or even usable by no-excuses schools. However, they take similar student populations and find ways to achieve amazing outcomes without utilizing the tactics that stunt social-emotional development in no-excuses schools. Even the use of calling parents in to pick up a child who is misbehaving and treats of expulsions are framed in a fundamentally different way. The intent matters as much as the actions.





One does not succeed in college or in the world by being someone that obeys instructions exactly and remains within the confines of limited and strictly cognitive thinking. Success requires a variety of skills, which are cognitive, emotional, and social. The ability to navigate power dynamics and communicate are equally as important as critical thinking and far more important than any set of facts one can memorize. When no-excuses schools fail to develop social-emotional skills, they are disadvantaging their students. The Department of Defense offers an alternative model for reform and, in fact, many no-excuses schools are attempting to reevaluate their own policies. A greater focus on experiential and individualized learning, as exhibited by the Achievement First Greenfield Schools pilot, can certainly help to break down the lack of development of students and improve outcomes (Achievement First, 2016). However, it fails to address the negative power structures and social climate perpetrated by no-excuses schools.

Even with better curricula, the schools will still have a foundation that has negative racial connotations and one that exacerbates how society disadvantages girls from developing traits needed to succeed. Simply put, reform needs to be larger than simply curricular; it must address ideological, disciplinary, and social failings that contribute to the current difficulties of no excuses schools. The Greenfield model might be a step towards these changes or it may be an attempt to plaster over far larger issues, it is still too early to tell.

Ultimately, one must look deeper than test scores to evaluate school, especially no excuses schools. The benefits of small test gains are coming at much larger social-emotional costs and the cognitive gains made are not nearly large enough to let the students truly succeed. Instead, students are effectively being trained to remain low-wage workers lacking the skills needed for advancement beyond their current social and economic statuses. This is a model that does not work in its current stage and should be forced to reform or should be discontinued.


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