In Beyond the viral video: Inside educators’ emotional debate about ‘no excuses’ discipline, Elizabeth Green asserts about the controversy around a viral Success Academy video: “It’s complicated, more so than you might think,” adding:
Coming to any personal conclusion requires understanding a deep and very active debate about discipline, race, and the conditions that brought Charlotte Dial, the teacher in the video, to the moment that was caught on camera. Chief among those conditions: an educational philosophy known as “no excuses” that advocates for strict discipline as a critical foundation for learning.
What follows is a long and detailed examination of “no excuses” approaches to education reform, but Green’s analysis is also yet another example of how mainstream “both sides” journalism continues to ignore a critical third way.
Before examining Green’s challenge to “no excuses,” let me offer some context.
Because of high-profile incidences connected with NFL players, public debates about domestic violence toward women and corporal punishment have played out in the mainstream media.
While both topics are important, here I want to stress how mainstream media covered the two topics.
Domestic violence toward women was universally condemned without creating panels or “both sides” debates—although some in the U.S. and throughout the world still hold to men using physical force against women, often citing religious texts to justify their behaviors.
However, corporal punishment received the “both sides treatment”; those advocating for corporal punishment were treated as credible and allowed to argue, again often on religious grounds, for spanking children.
What is key about these differences is that the medical profession is solid in its rejecting corporal punishment. In short, advocating for corporal punishment is not in any way a credible stance—yet the mainstream press treated it as such.
The media took an informed stance against domestic violence, but deferred to “both sides” journalism for corporal punishment. We need far more of the former, and far less of the latter.
I have participated in a similar situation with mainstream media coverage of education policy concerning grade retention. Even though the research is strongly against grade retention, the media tends to lead with advocates of grade retention, directly and indirectly making that stance credible, and then giving a slight nod to “critics” of grade retention—marginalizing the only warranted position.
So let me return here to Green’s very well developed and ambitious work on “no excuses.” And let me emphasize once again—without any snark here—that Green’s work is high-quality mainstream journalism, and she is a very good journalist with good intentions—but that is the problem.
First, what constitutes “complicated” in mainstream journalism?
Green reduces the controversy over discipline and “no excuses” practices to two sides (which really isn’t even complicated as it is the standard approach to nearly all topics in journalism [see corporal punishment]), and then builds to three reasons to abandon and three reasons not to abandon “no excuses.”
This template and her premise about “complicated” highlight why mainstream journalism is doomed to reinforcing social inequity because of the practices that are embraced for the pursuit of objectivity and balance.
The great irony is that the “both sides” approach is a veneer of objectivity, but isn’t objective or informed at all.
Green follows a similar pattern I have examined about NPR’s coverage of “grit”: start with a perspective that is not credible, but by opening with it, making it the default “right” position; and then framing the more credible position as the “critics.”
Even as a confrontation of many of the problems with “no excuses,” Green maintains “no excuses” approaches can be reformed, and then by grounding her polar three reasons to abandon/not to abandon in “no excuses,” she effectively builds to an endorsement of “no excuses.”
This “both sides” tactic of very professional journalism always fails a third critical way; in this case, what is ignored is that both traditional public schools (TPS) and “no excuses” charter schools (NECS) mistreat and shortchange high-poverty children of color—TPS have done this historically and NECS have simply intensified the very worst of those TPS failures.
In short, “no excuses” practices are essentially inexcusable, and cannot be reformed. But that doesn’t mean tossing up our hands and simply ignoring the failures of traditional public schools.
“No excuses” practices and narratives must be entirely rejected for the following reasons:
- The slogan itself is nasty and misleading since it implies anyone who highlights the impact of poverty on school/teacher quality and measurable student achievement is making an “excuse.” While those people may exist, the vast majority of education activists concerned with poverty are calling for alleviating the impact of poverty on the lives of children so that education reform can work.
- “No excuses” focuses all the “blame” for learning on the child—directly stating that children must simply set aside their lives when they walk in the doors of schools and suck it up. This is a calloused and ugly thing to say to a child—and something that most adults themselves do not do. Many who advocate for “grit” in children are living in privilege and casting their privilege as “grit.” “No excuses” speaks to and reinforces the rugged individualism ideology in the U.S. that refuses to acknowledge or address systemic inequity (an ideology voiced by the privileged and one that benefits mostly those in privilege).
- “No excuses” practices all are grounded in deficit views of children and education: The children from poverty or so-called minority races and the teachers/schools dealing with those children are deficient and must be “fixed.” However, a strong body of research suggests that individual behavior is often a reflection of the context; people living in scarcity behave differently than people living in slack. Affluent children have high test scores as a result of their lives in slack; impoverished children have low test scores as a result of their lives in scarcity. The problem is how to insure all children the slack they deserve—not how to harden children doomed to scarcity. TPS and NECS are both complicit in failing that directive.
- “No excuses” feeds and builds on racism and classism—the exact racism and classism that have plagued traditional public schools and the U.S. for decades. Segregated schools, tracked class assignments, inequitable teacher assignments, inequitable and harsh discipline policies, and a misguided emphasis on high-stakes testing (itself race/class/gender biased)—these are the failures of both traditional public schools and “no excuses” charter schools.
The critical third way is about admitting social inequity in the U.S.—inequity grounded in racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, etc.—and admitting as well that our institutions mostly reflect that inequity, including out public schools and the so-called reform approaches such as “no excuses” charters.
“No excuses” practices cannot be reformed because they are essentially exaggerated versions of the greatest failures of the public school system they are designed to reform.
The critical third way is about social and educational equity, seeking schools that serve the most vulnerable students first with the opportunities that affluent children have (small classes, experienced teachers, challenging curriculum, supportive discipline, safe and well funded facilities).
The critical third way is about admitting we have broken systems, not broken children.