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Many good reasons why ‘no excuses’ charter schools are not a solution

Submitted by on Wednesday, 25 March 2009 5 Comments

Here’s a sucker bet:

Within the next year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan will go to Boston to trumpet its charter schools as one of his “islands of excellence” where children can blossom and principals can take charge, unfettered by all those pesky rules and annoying teacher unions.

Most of Beantown’s charters operate under the “no excuses” philosophy that emphasizes rigorous academics and tough behavioral standards. Hard to argue with that and, besides, “no excuses” would be a great buzz phrase to replace the disgraced “no child left behind.”

On the surface, his case will be convincing.

The MATCH Charter Public School, for example, recently was recognized as one of the top in the nation, with 99 percent of its graduates moving on to a college or university. For three years running, all of its 10th graders have passed state English and Math tests. All graduates must pass at least two Advanced Placement and university classes to receive diplomas.

MATCH is no exception in a city where charter schools outperformed public schools as a whole, according to a January report from The Boston Foundation. That hasn’t been the case with Boston’s “pilot schools” that also were freed from rules and unions but remain under the auspices of local districts, the report continued.

The Boston charters don’t appear to benefit overwhelmingly from “good” demographics, though they do have slightly fewer special education and free- and reduced-lunch students than the city as a whole, according the foundation report. They serve a higher percentage of Hispanics than do Boston Public Schools, but more African-Americans.

But then the myth starts to deteriorate.

Students at both charter and pilot schools had higher math and English standardized test scores before high school than their public school peers registered, indicating that charter students were ahead going in.

The study’s authors said it’s impossible to determine, beyond demographics that don’t tell a complete story, the nuances of students’ family situations. Are the charters skimming students from families more committed to their children’s educations? The numbers alone can’t answer that.

Then you have to consider that the Boston charters are drawing a different type of teacher than the rest of the country does.

A recent report by Steven F. Wilson for the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy says that teachers at the Boston charters were more likely to have graduated from highly competitive colleges than those in the rest of the country. He concedes that there simply aren’t enough of those types of teachers – what he refers to as “human” capital – to take “no excuses” nationwide.

He suggests a Peace Corp-type program that would send graduates into classrooms for a couple of years before they move on to “the more lucrative professions for which they are typically destined.”

Teach For America, the current incarnation of that approach, already is seeing the problem with such a system. New teachers are thrown into classrooms without realistic ideas of conditions. By the time they figure it out, they’re off to their “lucrative professions.”

For those who do stick around, “no excuses” gives them the privilege of working like a dog during a school day that runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. In one Boston school, they’re expected to be reachable by phone if students need help with their two hours of homework every evening, Wilson wrote.

Even Wilson admits that’s a heroic effort that’s not sustainable, though he says higher starting pay for teachers would help. Officials can do that by increasing classroom size because “there is no empirical evidence” that students benefit from smaller classes.

While it’s unclear how empirical that evidence should be, it is clear from study after study that smaller classes do improve students achievement. Do “no excuses” schools show greater improvement? Like so many things in the public versus charter debate, there’s no clear answer.

Yes, we can learn from successful charters. MATCH, with two hours of daily mandatory tutoring for all students, probably gets it closer to right than the classic “no excuses” model that virtually guarantees teacher burnout.

But to point to “no excuses” – or any other charter school philosophy – as the answer without closely examining how and if it really works will serve only to create more “islands of excellence” for a few that leave too many of the rest of the students flailing about in the open seas.

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  • Leslie K. said:

    I know that friends of mine who have taught within the parameters set up by these schools are doing what they believe they are supposed to do as teachers, rather than just swatting flies and taking up space.

  • Mike G said:

    Good post.

    I’m an administrator at MATCH School. I’d like to add an observation.

    I think we, like many No Excuses schools, do attract unusually gifted teachers. But I think it’s a case of “enlarging the talent pool.”

    Many of the people we attract simply do not want to be lifetime teachers. This is true of many talented folks from many sectors: they do not want any one career.

    Instead, we welcome talented people who basically say “I’ll give the kids everything I have for perhaps 5 years. Then I’m gone. It’s not burnout. It’s that I simply don’t want to teach 9th grade algebra my whole life. Is that of interest to your school?”

    No Excuses schools say yes (in a million different ways). Traditional schools say “Whatever.”

    We lost 2 teachers last year. They went in your direction – one to Stanford MBA, one to Berkeley Law. I’m don’t think they were burned out. I bet they work just as many hours, if not more, in their next jobs.

    But if we want to attract more of these folks, we need compensation like what DC Superintendent Michelle Rhee proposes: 60k to 70k base, and up to 60k in bonus based on student gains from September to June.

  • Debra said:

    Interesting comments, Mike. I could live with five years in the classroom. The two years Mr. Wilson suggested barely seems long enough to learn the job – and no matter how well college prepares a student academically, there’s still a real-world learning curve in any profession, except for the most profoundly talented.

    So how do school systems get to the base pay level Rhee is proposing, because it looks like her plan relies partly on private funding, at least in the early years. Is it eliminating class-size reductions popular in many states, as Wilson says, the answer? How does this level of base pay become sustainable on a national level when the current national average is around $47,000?

    As for the bonuses, I’m already on record as not being a fan of test-driven merit pay. I’m just not convinced that a September to June emphasis on bubble tests proves that students are learning. And how are such student gains sustainable in the long run. It seems that once a district reaches the point where all students scoring in the top category on standardized tests, there’s no where else to go. Granted, reaching that level would be more than a few years down the road. And I suppose the answer would be increasing the standards to NAEP levels.

    I do love your tutoring program, though, and I’d love to see Secretary Duncan jump all over that one. I know many parents who would love to be able to help their children but simply don’t know how. I think even two years with a tutoring would benefit not only students, but moms and dads as well in the long run.

  • Yana said:

    You know, I agree with the No Excuses model of education for two reasons. One reason is that I am horrified by the lack of expectation that I am seeing in the public schools as a new educator. I don’t know for how long public schools have had such low expectations for their students (whether it is in quality of work completed, amount of work completed, attention paid during class, or even the fact that public school teachers think homework is bad for children – at least the ones I have met), but I know they are wrong to have such low expectations. I attended a parochial school back in the 70s. The neighborhood was blue collar and the parish wasn’t wealthy. I wasn’t Catholic. My parents sent me there because it was academically far superior to the local public school.

    This school had a No Excuses policy in everything. The education was classical. The teachers were demanding and, often, harsh (when you didn’t follow the rules or live up to school expectations). Every last child at that school learned there. Of course, learning disabled students eventually needed more than this parochial school could provide – but that was because this school operated on next to nothing. The teachers were paid horribly. Everything at the school was old. It was in St. Louis where the public schools all were air conditioned – the heat was atrocious – but we suffered on without air conditioning because the school couldn’t afford it. Our desks were from the 1940s. Our textbooks were from the late 1950s.

    Our test scores were amazing. We learned the old-fashioned way. Teachers taught us basic skills and built on those skills systematically. Sometimes we learned some facts by rote – but not before we understood the logic behind those facts.

    Now that I have seen inside public school education, it saddens me that all children aren’t give the same opportunity to learn as children at the school I went to were. That school demanded a lot. We even did a lot of homework in grade school. Project Follow Through proved that these methods work. The public schools ignored the facts, preferring fanciful, romantic ideas of education.

    It is so sad. Our children are ignorant because of it.

  • Debra said:

    I don’t disagree that the No Excuses model is successful. What I don’t understand, though, is how it translates to real-world conditions, outside the hothouses with foundation funding and areas with support from major universities. Where does the money come from for the higher salaries? How do we pay for the tutoring? What happens when No Excuses schools have to educate everyone, just like the average public school does. I wish someone could explain all that.

    FYI, I don’t know where you are now, but I doubt that in our district any teacher thinks homework is bad for students. They pile it on here, starting in kindergarten.