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.