A Reckoning for the Inexcusable?: “No Excuses” and the Collapse of Misguided Educational Reform

Valerie Strauss has offered questions at The Answer Sheet: Some ‘no-excuses’ charter schools say they are changing. Are they? Can they?—including an answer by Mira Debs, Joanne Golann, and Chris Torres.

As a long-time critic of “no excuses” (and the target of harsh backlash for that criticism), I want here to note briefly that this apparent reckoning for “no excuses” practices in the education of mostly black, brown, and poor students is yet another piece of the developing puzzle that will create a clear picture of the predicted failures of educational reform begun under Ronald Reagan and then expanded under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Pet elements of that educational reform movement have come and gone (value-added methods for evaluating teachers [VAM], Common Core), but the foundational approaches (accountability grounded in standards and high-stakes testing) seem deeply entrenched and confirmation of the cliche about insanity (doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results).

Just glancing at my public work, I have over 70 posts criticizing “no excuses” as a deficit perspective, as racist and classist, and as a distraction from addressing the larger causes for low achievement by vulnerable populations of students.

A good portion of that scholarship and advocacy led to an edited volume that both critiques “no excuses” and offers an alternative (that was often ignored or rejected with false claims about the ideology behind social context reform): Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity, edited by Paul Thomas, Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr.

The distinction between the flawed “no excuses” approaches and our alternative focusing on equity and opportunity both outside and inside schools is identified in the Introduction (see also my Chapter 8):

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of [their] making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which . . . effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b, emphasis in the original)

While I am once again frustrated with this current concession to the many credible concerns my colleagues and I raised several years ago, I am also skeptical about reforming “no excuses.” The questions raised on The Answer Sheet failed to include “Should they?”

And to that, I would answer, “No.”

The charter movement broadly is flawed, and the “no excuses” subset of that movement is irreparable because it is driven by a corrosive ideology based in a deficit perspective of children, poverty, and teaching and learning.

Just as the accountability movement, VAM, and charter schools have never achieved the promises advocates have made, they have consumed a tremendous amount of resources (funding and time) that would have been better used in the service of equity and opportunity.

Reforming the reform is more distraction, and wasted time and funding.

As I have detailed time and again, if we genuinely want high-quality and effective formal education for all students, and if we genuinely believe universal education is a powerful lever in promoting and maintaining a democracy and a free people, we must set aside the indirect approaches (the totality of the education reform movement) and begin to address directly [1] both out-of-school factors and in-school factors that perpetuate and maintain inequity.

I am also skeptical because I have witnessed in just the last few days on social media that advocates for in-school only and “no excuses” reform continue to double-down on their false claims of “miracle” schools and lash out (still) at critics of “no excuses” with ugly and false characterizations of our beliefs and our goals.

So as I concluded in my debunking of “miracle” schools, I remain committed to this:

[D]ishonest claims of “miracles” have continued to reap tremendous political, person, and financial gains for some. The accountability era has failed. The focus on “miracle” schools has been a distraction from the rising inequity in the lives and education of children in the U.S. This is a distraction we measure in the loss of children’s lives, the opportunities and contributions denied to our society, and a great loss to democracy. These are losses we can no longer afford to tolerate.

The ultimate reckoning for the inexcusable, then, must include setting aside the distractions and facing so that we can address directly the inequities that plague our students and their families both in their communities and the schools that serve them.


[1] The failure of indirect methods and the need for direct methods is drawn from an often ignored argument from Martin Luther King Jr. concerning eradicating poverty in the U.S.:

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect [emphasis added]. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly [emphasis added] by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.

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