Sunday, 12 May 2013

Whatever it takes?

Last week I sat in a classroom while a teacher chastised an eight year old girl for taking a pencil from the boy sitting next to her. She was made to stand on a line at the back of the class and was “red carded” meaning she had to leave the class. In two hours in this school, in one of the poorest parts of Brooklyn, I saw no other examples of bad behaviour from any child. In fact I barely saw another child off task.

That eight year old didn’t know it but she is at the epicentre of the education reform debate in the United States. She attends a “no excuses” charter. A school that believes it can compensate for the entrenched poverty in the community in which she lives through a relentless focus on academic achievement and good character. Its opponents would say this method of compensation is authoritarian, excessive, unsustainable and even racist.

I’ve visited a number of “no excuses” charters in the past couple of years and, broadly speaking, I’m on the side of the schools. No one else, to my mind, has come up with a compelling alternative for creating meaningful education choice in America’s poorest communities. The best “no excuses” charters achieve extraordinary results that few public schools can match. (Critics would note they can have high attrition rates too and, often, a lot more money than public schools).

That said it’s difficult not to feel uncomfortable in some of these schools. They can feel like unhappy and authoritarian places where the pursuit of tests scores, and college, is coming at a pretty high emotional cost for teachers and pupils. But the very best “no excuses” charters I’ve visited show it’s possible to create a positive and warm environment while also pursuing excellence. As more and more sponsored academies and free schools look towards the charter movement for inspiration it is important to understand what differentiates the very best.

But before exploring this; some more background. Charter schools, like free schools, are publicly funded schools operating independently from the traditional public (state) school systems. 40 States allow charter schools and they all have different legal models which makes studying the system at a national level almost impossible. Typically they are not bound by the strict tenure rules which often prevent public school leaders from dealing effectively with poorly performing staff or by state level rules on curriculum or length of school day. As a general rule those States that have adopted very laissez-faire models have more failing charters whereas those with stronger quality assurance systems, like Boston, Newark, New York and New Orleans, have seen greater benefits.

Although the policy was originally designed to create more opportunities for diversity and innovation in education, the charter movement, at least in poor urban communities, has coalesced around a single model that seems to work better than anything else: the “no excuses” charter. In New York the big four chains (Uncommon, Success, Achievement First and KIPP) all have a “no excuses” model. They all perform well in state tests and have a strong record of getting pupils into college compared to public schools with similar demographics.

These are the fundamentals of the “no excuses” model:

·         An intense focus on college. Classes are typically given the name of their teacher’s alma mater or referred to by their graduating year (“the class of 2025”).

·         Lots of wall-displays with both motivational quotes and “shout-outs” to students who’ve reached a given goal or done well in state tests.

·         Extended days with a heavy focus on academic work and sometimes Saturday/holiday school.

·         Very strong behaviour management. At the extreme this can mean complete silence at all times including lunch break but more often will mean any off-task behaviour during lessons will be consistently punished.

·         The extensive and consistent use of techniques like SLANT to keep pupils on task and lots of professional development in these techniques (and behaviour management) for staff.

·         Fast paced teaching with rapid-fire questions to pupils and, often, significant amounts of direct instruction.

·         A predominantly young staff disproportionately recruited from Teach for America.

These widespread similarities, though, hide some significant variations that can lead to very different environments. Probably the most important is the relative importance given to teacher’s ability to develop an independent pedagogy. At some of the most successful chains lessons are essentially scripted. The executives in these chains will tell you, pretty bluntly, that what they want from new teachers is a willingness to work very hard and follow the set lessons plans without diverting. They have a formula that seems to work and they believe that following it is in the best interests of their students.

At other chains – notably KIPP (which isn’t really a chain at all but a set of regional franchises) – the attitude is markedly different. They aim to hire strong teachers, give them high quality professional development but then given them significant pedagogical freedom (as long as they get good results).

This greater freedom for teachers translates into a stronger relationship with their classes and the ability of both teachers and pupils to express their personalities. While all “no excuses” charters are strong on behaviour management it feels much less oppressive in those where teachers have had the opportunity to build strong relationships with pupils through teaching. It also leads to lower teacher turnover.

At the moment both models seem to generate good results and it’s not clear yet which model is more scaleable. It may that my preference for the more independent model is based on my own prejudices about what teaching should look like. I can’t help but feel, though, that models which give greater agency to teachers and pupils are likely to be more successful at generating long-term benefits above the ability to pass tests and get into college. One reason for KIPP’s move towards a more pedagogically autonomous, and more relaxed, model is that they found pupils, having reached college, were struggling to cope in a less structured environment.

As a teacher at one of the more formulaic charters put it to me “the things we’re doing seem necessary but insufficient”. Lots of structure is fine but it should be used to give the space to build strong relationships rather than to substitute for them.


  1. Presumably these schools have Thomas Gradgrind as their inspiration?

  2. Really interesting post Sam - thanks. Your last two paragraphs are an essential reflection on the Charter movement - and its attendant strengths and weaknesses. It raises real questions about the problems with lasting social mobility.

    I think the highly rigid approach, with long days and 'no excuses' approaches to discipline and attendance etc. are built to serve communities that typically have very little parental engagement and with little structure to support schooling. It is obvious why a long school day and other such organisational principles flourish and are required in this context. I worry about the policy tourism that transplants such models whole-scale elsewhere, but divorced from the very specific contexts wherein they flourish.

    The necessary rigidity of the typical Charter structure is too far removed from the flexible and independent demands of college (not to mention the 'real life' skills of moving away from your local community that is too often alien to these students with no familial background of College) and drop out rates threaten to undermine the 'success' of the movement. Educating families about Higher Ed access is just as significant as priming the students for SAT success - a message we must learn in the UK. At least they have a scholarship programme (unlike our system - a huge future issue considering the recent escalation of fee costs in the UK) to help the transition, whereas we have moved to their Higher Ed model without the embedded support systems for a real breadth of access.

    The 'failures' of the Charter system and student College retention rates is an important lesson for our Higher Ed access ideals more generally. In my family there was no history of Higher Ed, but my two siblings and I all went to local universities (one way of lessening the 'culture shock'). I think we need to strengthen local links between schools and higher education still further, as well as systematising a scholarship programme. My fear is there is no money or political urge to make this happen.

  3. A good illustration of why education based on organisational conformity has severe limitations. It's easy to see how focus on a particular objective eg Jumping 2m, running a 4 minute 1500m or getting an A* in maths is more likely to be realised if all distractions are removed. The question is what is lost as a result? Is jumping 1.5m or a 5 minute 1500m or a C in maths good enough for most people? It doesn't follow that for any individual they will me happier or more successful in life because they perform academically beyond a certain threshold. If it was the case university professors would be the highest paid people.

  4. As 42 has noted it all depends on what you are trying to measure. If this is improvement in behaviour then clearly more discipline would help in any environment. If it is an increased love of and returns from learning then as you say it depends on a teacher who is given the freedom to express him/herself in the right environment. The latest accountability dashboard from FTT is a good insight into a range of possible measures. Who decides which is more important?

  5. Only 33% of KIPP students go on to complete a college degree.

  6. It's also important to note, among qualifications over the accuracy and desirability of results based school improvement, the difficulty of translating those great results in to positive social change.

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