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Guest Post: A Day in the Life of a No Excuses Charter School Student

Are you familiar with the term "No Excuses," often used to describe a certain style of charter school education? If you're not in an urban area with significant charter school presence, you may have never encountered this brand, and you might want to read this post. Note that there is huge diversity in the educational approach and focus of individual charter schools, but many of the most prominent charter networks subscribe to a "no excuses" framework.

After teaching for four years in a "No Excuses" charter school, fellow Brooklyn English teacher, Sarah Goodis-Orenstein, moved to a more progressive, pedagogically open, charter school, and has been reflecting on her experiences past and present through writing. On her blog, Making Room For Excuses, Sarah shares her ongoing process of finding her teacher voice without the restrictions that had been so defining of her role as a teacher. This piece follows a student through a typical day at her previous school. ~Ariel

By Sarah Goodis-Orenstein

A boisterous crowd of 5th graders bustles outside the entrance to the school building, awaiting the clock stroke of 7:15, at which point the scholars will begin to enter the cavernous public school dwelling. A quick handshake and oral greeting with the principal or another male staff member, and the scholars proceed down the stairs, past other teachers who have been posted at the different landings to counteract potential misbehavior and loudness. A quick uniform check from the Dean of Culture before a big smile and silent handshake from the Academic Dean who runs breakfast. Silent breakfast. Scholars line up for their Styrofoam trays of free and reduced lunch and shuffle back to their assigned seats along their homeroom’s cafeteria tables and benches. Talking and whispering equate to a demerit, a two-dollar deduction in the weekly Scholar Dollar paycheck. (Four demerits also equate to one detention.) Eye-talking is also not allowed, though not as easily monitored or ticketed.

***

From 2009-2013, I worked for a no-excuses charter school network in two different Brooklyn middle schools. In these four school years, despite having taught English Language Arts at a few different public middle and high schools in the years before, I almost completely lost my teaching voice to the tyranny of consistency and “no excuses.” For the 2013-2014 school year, I have transitioned to work at a different, much more progressive public charter school in Brooklyn in order to get back in touch with my pedagogical values. As I undergo significant culture shock, I am documenting my memories, reflections, and new experiences in hopes of coming to a better understanding of what a good public education can, and should, look like.

In the meantime, I must purge the humdrum, daily minutiae of my former school.

***

The Academic Dean calls the cafeteria to order with a hollow, “Good morning, ____________________ Middle School, scholars! Today is the date. In store for you today is __________________. Reminder that when your table teacher knocks on the table to dismiss your homeroom, you must be ready to leave, so you should silently make sure your backpack is on again and your coat is in your lap. Have a great day!” At this point, homeroom teachers officiate the dismissal process, whereby one finger outstretched above the teacher’s head indicates that scholars should gather all of their breakfast trash onto their trays. Two fingers means that scholars should stand up behind their spots at the benches. And three fingers means that scholars should pick up their trays and follow the person in front of them to dump the entire tray in the trashcan at the end of the table, except for the milk carton, which must be poured out into a separate bucket. The teacher monitors this entire process, issuing demerits for non-silent behavior and recording them on his/her clipboard or notepad.

Transition to homerooms. Teachers and counselors are perched on the various stairwell landings to ensure a smooth ascent, and to record the names of any offenders to this process.

Once in homeroom, teachers maintain the silence begun at breakfast by pantomiming the act of unpacking so that scholars will follow in suit. Once all scholars in the room appear to be unpacked, columns of the paired rows are dismissed to the coat closet where scholars hang their backpacks, coats, and any other non-uniform apparel. Different columns are often timed to encourage a friendly sense of competition over whose team can be most efficient at returning to their desks and busting open their independent reading books, some out of genuine enthusiasm for reading, some in sneaky hopes of earning a merit for reading when it’s not even class time, and most in sheer conformity.

At 7:40, the first period teacher rolls her cart in and immediately begins to issue commands. “Aside from two pencils, and your IR book in the top left corner of your desk, your desk should be cleared. As soon as you get your classwork packet, begin on your Do Now. You have 3 minutes.” A timer is set and placed under the document camera, and any students not on-task within thirty seconds are first reminded to get started, and then issued a demerit, sometimes privately, sometimes publicly. Class proceeds to enfold in a highly-systematic structure with a review of the warm-up, some sort of mini-lesson, some sort of guided practice, and a chunk of independent practice before the exit ticket is collected. Packets in hands high over their heads, the teacher snaps, and the last page is signaled to be torn from the staple in a crisp sound of unison tearing. The teacher bustles out as the next teacher and her cart rolls in, ideally with less than 1 minute wasted in this transition, a transactional cost that, over the course of the year, equates to literal days of wasted learning. (Consult Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion, for a clearer explanation of the math.) Scholars stay put in the same room. All day.

Rinse and repeat six more times for the other class periods. Reading, Writing (not ever kept together as a holistic English Language Arts program), Math, Science, Math again, History, and some combination of physical education, an arts class, and/or an intervention for reading or math. A 10 or 15 minute break may exist somewhere in the morning block of school, and another in the afternoon block, but otherwise, bathroom opportunities are relegated to mealtimes and are strongly discouraged from occurring during class. These breaks are also, aside from lunch and recess, unless you earned Homework Club for failing to do your homework to standard the night before, the only opportunities for unbridled conversation between students and, for that matter, between students and teachers. Otherwise, during and between classes, students’ voices are to be “off” unless specific accountable talk procedures or partner share expectations have been put into place.

***

Now, a few disclaimers:

1) Not all charter schools operate this way.

2) Not all teachers that work for no-excuses charter schools are monsters.

Either way, the lessons that students indubitably learn from this type of schooling are that rigidity and compliance are predictors of success, and that imagination and interpersonal skills are of nominal use. They also likely learn that school is boring, that it has little relevance to their lives, or in the case of my last school, it is a place where white ladies try to control Black and Latino children.

If the achievement gap in high-poverty urban settings is to ever close, these can’t be the lessons young adults internalize.

9 Comments

Dawn DuPriest commented on February 10, 2014 at 12:32am:

Thanks

I have only recently started hearing this side of the story of urban charter schools. I started reading "How Children Succeed" by Paul Tough, and he writes about KIPP charter schools in particular. The schools get quite good results on tests up through secondary school, but the students' success in college is low. More students than you would expect drop out of college. He hypothesizes that the answer lies in character education, but you wonder if many of the life lessons learned in these schools just don't transfer to college well.

 

Sarah Goodis-Orenstein commented on February 10, 2014 at 8:47pm:

The charter network I used to

The charter network I used to work for has only put a few classes into college at this point, so it's hard to say whether their results will mirror KIPP's, but I would venture to say it is likely. Aside from what you said about character education, I think many schools of this 'no excuses' persuasion do not do enough to foster students' critical thinking skills. Most decisions throughout a school day are made for students, whether logistical, behavioral, or academic. Curricular decisions are informed by classroom management policies, i.e. what styles of learning, assignments, exercises are easiest to manage. I haven't read Paul Tough yet, but it seems like I should!

 

Paul Barnwell commented on February 10, 2014 at 8:51am:

Wow.

Ariel and Sarah, 

Thank you for this illuminating post. I can't think of a worse environment if we hope to empower and engage students. I've worked in an out of control middle school, and I'm sure I would have appreciated some of thie rigid structure at the time.  But now that I've become a veteran teacher and worked with a wide range of students, this prison-like approach is not the way to improve schools.  Curtail behavior problems?  Sure.  But to mold students who are ready to take on life's challenges with zeal and problem solving ability?  No way.

Sarah Goodis-Orenstein commented on February 10, 2014 at 8:52pm:

Thank you for your response,

Thank you for your response, Paul.

Interestingly enough, it was my experience that I was already perceived as a 'veteran teacher' in my 3rd year of teaching in that charter network. Most of the school culture policies were designed with TFA 1st and 2nd year teachers in mind, in particular. While the sense that actions have consequences was impactful for students, the system didn't evolve for students as they got older in the middle school, nor was variation allowed for teacher personality. 

Clearly, I agree with your sentiments. :)

Justin Minkel commented on February 10, 2014 at 2:17pm:

Echo in my experience

Sarah, I worked in a public school in West Harlem for two years (Teach For America), and mid-year I went to visit a friend's school (a progressive charter.) I realized quickly how brainwashed I had become.

I kept expressing silent, spluttering outrage in my head: "Look at how crooked those lines of kids are! No uniforms?! But, but, but--they're TALKING IN LINE!"

I had to step back and ask myself, "What is the advantage to a ruler-straight, silent line? It's quieter. It's straighter. But it's a lot less fun, and the kids who were talking as they straggled into their classrooms were probably learning more than they would from remaining silent.

The classrooms I observed at the school were engaging, and the kids were respectful.

I'm troubled by the behavioristic aspect of schools with the approach you describe, be they charter or public. I look forward to following your reflections, and I'm both happy for and admiring of you for staying in the profession but finding a school that's a better fit for your beliefs about kids and education.

Sarah Goodis-Orenstein commented on February 10, 2014 at 8:58pm:

Thank you for sharing, Justin

Thank you for sharing, Justin!

I had to laugh when I read your self-babble about students not being in line, in uniform, etc. - I can most definitely relate! 

One of the things that has been refreshing about my transition to this new school is that I have a chance to reevaluate what are the behavioral issues care about? I never really was too concerned about students walking in straight lines, but I don't like when students talk over one another. I am grateful to have this opportunity to reset my own teaching values. 

Susan Graham commented on February 13, 2014 at 5:49pm:

Preparatory for What?

I've noticed that Prepratory occurs in the name of many charter schools. Preparatory as in college prep, but then I read:

Constant supervision. Demerits. Uniforms.Straight lines. Silent lunch. No eye talking (!?!). This sounds more like preparation for concentration camp or prison than college.

Efficiency. Consistency. Conformity. Competition. These sound like the goals for factory workers in an industrialized setting rather than the nimble fluid teams that characterize cutting edge businesses.

Work Hard. Be Nice. Good attributes for service industry workers.

Work Smart. Speak Up. Maybe more appropriate for future college students.

Work Outside the Box. Push Back. Probably characterize decisionmakers and change agents.

I might be very wrong, but it seems that the policymakers and stakeholders who support highly regimented charter education  for other people's children are not likely to choose it for their own children. I wonder why?

 

Crimson Wife commented on February 20, 2014 at 10:36am:

A Different Take

I'm an upper-middle class white mom- and I would LOVE to send my kids to a tuition-free school like this (assuming it offered rigorous academics). What you describe reminds me of a secular version of an old-fashioned Catholic school. You act like structure and firm discipline are bad things, but when they are paired with warmth and caring on the part of the authority figures, they really aren't. Research has shown that the best outcomes are from authoritative parents, not permissive ones. Kids need clear rules as well as affection.

My husband spent 5 years as an Army officer when we were first married, and I saw first-hand the positive transformation of many young men from screw-ups to leaders under this kind of structured and highly disciplined environment. The officers and senior enlisted were tough on the new recruits, but caring at the same time.

My area unfortunately doesn't have any charter schools, "no excuses" or otherwise. The public schools aren't horrible but they're not very good either. The Catholic schools are not much different from the public schools, except for charging $7k per year per child for elementary and $15k per year per child for high school. So I homeschool in order to get the kind of rigorous academics and high expectations that I want for my kids.

laniza commented on February 22, 2014 at 12:49am:

ELA

Thank you, Ariel and Sarah, for this first-hand account of what it's like inside a "no excuses" charter school.  My first year of teaching was in a charter school that was a shadow of its former glory (it has since been shut down by the state due to rampant mismanagement).  While that school was no where near as rigid as your former place of employ, Sarah, ironically the way that the Dean of Students controlled the students was through fear / shaming tactics. 

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