Corporate education reformers love to rave about how schools that “beat the odds” are full of teachers with “high expectations”. There are echoes of George W’s “soft bigotry of low expectations” in this mantra implying that in the past, teachers–stifled no doubt by those innovation-hating unions–all had “low expectations” for their students and somehow THAT is why students from low-income backgrounds struggled in school. Regardless of the obstacles of poverty, homelessness, underfunding/lack of resources, large class sizes, mental health problems, special needs, or not yet knowing English, the rationale is that a teacher who just BELIEVES a child can graduate and go to college can make it happen (with a little grit and maybe a longer school day to boot. Oh, and don’t forget to hang up college banners in the hallways and talk about “college and career readiness” all the time.) This refrain is a constant in charter franchises, Teach for America circles, and the EdReform movement as a whole.
Still, when you look at the schools supposedly “beating the odds” you begin to see another refrain besides the “high expectations” of the superhero teacher force. These schools almost invariably also practice “no excuses” discipline policies. These are zero tolerance schools where even minor infractions including not making eye contact with adults, not tucking in a shirt, or possessing contraband items like Flaming Hot Cheetos (No red-hot fingertips in THIS school, young man!) are punishable. Detentions and suspensions are frequent and so-called “trouble-makers” are dealt with quickly and harshly. The rationale is that this ultra-strict discipline is what is needed for urban students to succeed. And kids (and parents) that cannot or will not adhere to the “no excuses” philosophy can choose some other school.
The reliance on these “no excuses” policies, to me, is the very lowest expectation an adult can have for a student. These schools assume the worst of students and build a school environment based on the notion that kids are already criminals. Rather than create a therapeutic, safe environment where racism, oppression, trauma, and violence can be dealt with and discussed head-on, students are treated like inmates in juvie. There is no respect for individual expression, no space for righteous anger at society’s mistreatment of their communities, or the rebellions of youth. There is also no place within “no excuses” to learn new behaviors or to use restorative practices to right wrongs.
“No excuses” reformers act as if this approach is completely justified. There is the unspoken understanding that “those kids” need that kind of harsh discipline. Never do they acknowledge the inherent racism and paternalism of “no excuses”. After all, children in these “no excuses” schools are almost exclusively low-income children of color and-let’s be honest-these practices would never, ever be allowed in the schools serving white, middle/upper class children. Most leading EdReformers themselves would never allow their own children to attend these rigid, joyless, prison-like schools. In fact, we know the beautiful, progressive, individualized, relaxed-atmosphere schools where they send their children.
Ultimately, the disconnect between people who seem to truly believe in the magic of “high expectations” while simultaneously praising and teaching in oppressive “no excuses” schools baffles me. And I have not even touched upon the “low expectations” of reliance on prescriptive, test-prep curricula, the assigning of the least-prepared, least experienced teachers in these schools, or the use technology in lieu of individualized attention by trained personnel. At the end of the day, “no excuses” beliefs are racist to the core and they need to be called out.
It doesn’t matter how many times a teacher says “I love my students,” or drones on and on about college, or even gives out more “rigorous” work (for the sake of giving rigorous work, not based on the needs of the student), if a teacher and school treats a child like an animal in need of training, then they are exhibiting the lowest expectation of them all. There is no excuse for “no excuses”.