The Lowest Expectation of Them All

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.

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(From datboyct.deviantart.com )

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.

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(From thecollaboratory.wikidot.com )

“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”.

Comments

  1. Do tiger sharks really give birth to their young alive?
    And do the small ones really get eaten before they’re born?
    By their brothers?

    Sorry, I was distracted by a friend’s lesson plan that tried to engage kids. We don’t need any of that. Zero tolerance is the way. Accept being browbeaten by authority figures or we’ll toss you out. No need for teaching interesting stuff or having a relationship with a kid, Nope, if the don’t learn, that’s their problem. We’ll just get another kid.

  2. Karl Wheatley says:

    It’s impossible to tell whether discipline policies are successful only by looking at short-term behavior or compliance. We know from motivation research and guidance research that highly controlling approaches undermine complete internalization of societal values, and also promote more rebellion at some point in the future.

    When the adults walk out the the room, kids experiencing democratic/authoritative guidance tend to continue doing the right thing and acting appropriately, while kids who experienced authoritarian control tend to go off. Thus, one problem with authoritarian control is it doesn’t help students prepare for the real-world situations in which you need to be captain of your own ship.

    It’s fair to claim that students from high-power distance cultures sometimes need a firmer hand at first, or need other indicators the adults know what they are doing, but there are lots of successful models of doing this without giving in to the temptation to be an authoritarian-especially a prison-style authoritarian.

  3. Yes and no. Impoverished communities often have high-power distance cultures, even though mainstream American culture is a low-power distance culture generally speaking. Children who come from homes where high-power distance relationships are normal often go to schools run by adults from low-power distance cultures. This is confusing, and the children can end up feeling as if no one at school can be trusted to know what they are doing or is truly in charge. Their insecurity about this leads to power struggles in the classroom, as some children attempt to fill a perceived gap of knowledge and authority by taking charge themselves. A high-power distance school with “no excuses” and harsh discipline is comforting; the children know very clearly who is in charge. But it doesn’t prepare these young people for life in the middle-class. It prepares them to be successful poor people. That can’t be the goal.

    • This is a very good point. However, I would like to say that I take serious issue when the ones in authority, as is true for most ‘no excuses’ charter schools, are white, upper-middle class teachers. Within this Black community or Latino community, I can understand the importance of these power-structures, but when it is white authoritarians, then the power imbalances take on a racist undertone. Also, I’d like to say that I appreciate structure, clear expectations, and routines (I am a special education teacher afterall), but that I believe in restorative practices NOT punishment. There of course can be consequences for negative behavior, but they should be learning opportunities, not sorting mechanisms. Too many ‘no excuses” schools use discipline as a way to push out undesirable students, not as a chance for teaching appropriate responses to anger or frustration.

      • Are they? Schools with leadership from the same cultural backgrounds as the students also favor these approaches.

        I am really not justifying the approach, only pointing to why it appears to be successful, and to the complexities of the problem.

        • While some charter schools very purposefully will put a minority leader in charge, they employ-on the whole-much whiter teacher populations. See p. 30 in this report: http://www.ctunet.com/quest-center/research/black-and-white-of-chicago-education.pdf “The diversity gap between black teachers and black students in charter schools is over twice as large as that found in non-charter schools in CPS.” Corporate education reform in general has drastically contributed to this phenomenon. In 1995, about 45% of the Chicago Public School teaching force was Black, today it is down to 19%.

          • That’s interesting. I don’t know the statistics for our area, but all of the charter school principals I have met are of color (and from a similar background as their students.) That may just be chance or it may have to do with me and who I’m likely to meet.

  4. CitizensArrest says:

    Thanks so much for writing this (so I now don’t have to!) and doing it better than I would have! Super body slam of the no excuses lie.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 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… continues [...]

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