Ain't No Excuse: how we discipline is who we are

An article published in yesterday’s New York Times announced that the principal who had purportedly created a “got-to-go” list of kids to be “counseled out” of a Success Academy charter school in Brooklyn was taking a leave of absence.

But there is no closure, much less moral triumph in this episode—certainly not for the many independent charter schools in NYC that go to great lengths to work with and keep all their students in school and who are continually associated in the public eye with the practices of no-excuses charter schools.

Instead, it brought back the recent memory of a hideously twisted Daily News editorial about this teachable moment. The headline, Democrats vs. charters: Progressives are turning on an education movement that offers options and hope to many Black and Latino families, says so much about the hyper-politicization of issues in the charter sector. The editorial trivialized the got-to-go incident, saying the principal had “gone off the reservation” (now there’s an offensive metaphor for you) rather than looking at it as symptomatic of a more systemic problem.

First things first: the principal had not “gone off the reservation.” He was simply putting policy into practice and committing the gaffe of not creating plausible deniability. Someone was whispering Who can rid us of these troublesome children? into his ears but forgot to tell him how to cover his tracks. A pawn in the game, as Dylan would say.

Regardless of my own prejudices concerning to the no-excuses model of education, I hold a charter’s autonomy in high esteem and would defend a charter school’s right to impose its peculiar discipline policies as long as the school is transparent in their practices, and as long as those practices are legal. I’d also add, however, that as corporal punishment still exists in 19 states and as there are, in our very own state, practices that would make even B.F. Skinner roll in his grave, the time may well be ripe for legislation to prohibit harsh and humiliating discipline.

But here’s the rub: there are over 100 independent charter schools in NYC and, at this point, C3S staff has visited about half of them. And we have yet to experience one school that does not have a humane, child-centered approach to discipline.

We all understand the advantages to having an orderly place of learning, but in school after school we’re seeing child-centered approaches to discipline that work and that ultimately give kids a better understanding of themselves and their peers. Children and adolescents act out. That’s who they are. They may have issues at home, undiagnosed learning or emotional problems or they may be slow in maturing or suffering from abuse. C3S believes that a whole-child approach can allow children to move past these issues. Suppressing their symptoms does not.

But, perhaps what’s most galling about the no-excuses approach is the subconscious message that’s being sent to the communities: this is how your children need to learn. Yes, we have seen and heard ecstatic praise for this kind of teaching from folks who know what they are talking about. Look here and here. And I have personally been on enough school visits with charter authorizers to understand their fondness for “time-on-task.” But would these folks send their own children to a no-excuses school? And if not, why has this evolved into the de-rigueur model of charter schooling that serves predominantly Black and Hispanic children? There is something inherently wrong with this.

Let’s be honest, even with our criticism. Many of these no-excuse model schools attain excellent test scores that cannot entirely be explained away on the basis of “counseling out” tough kids and not backfilling empty seats. We should also admit that parents who send their kids to these schools are happy that they have that choice. There is obvious value in what is going on in these schools and we should not pretend otherwise. True to our tagline, C3S supports all public education—even the models we don’t love.

But it is a disservice to the ideas behind the creation of the NYS Charter Act to advance Skinnerian behavior modification as a default model for charter schools. It’s a disservice to give precedence to these schools over their independent peers when issuing charters or looking at overall achievement. Many independent charter schools use alternative measures in dealing with children with behavioral and academic challenges, not just to further their educational excellence, but to improve their lives. This should be celebrated, not ignored.

Independent charter schools have shown a breathtaking bounty of student centered, humane ways of working through behavioral issues with students and family. Time after time we have seen our school leaders reach out to the most challenged children with firmness and love, not just a line in the sand.

This is what we stand for. This is who we are. And this is why folks from all backgrounds and economic classes want to enroll their children in our schools.

Rocking the test scores is great. But there’s no excuse for any school, district or charter, not to put compassion above all else.

Steve Zimmerman, Co-director of C3S


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