"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, April 18, 2013

New Orleans Shows the Limitations of "No Excuses" Schools

The debate over "No Excuses" schools has focused on their attrition rate and their potential for being scaled up. Schools such as New Orleans Sci Academy have produced great college acceptance rates for students who are dedicated enough to meet their goal of "100% of cultural expectations 100% of the time." It is too soon to tell, however, whether their culture prepares their graduates for life beyond the classroom.

An important subtheme of Sarah Carr's Hope Against Hope, a narrative of a year in three New Orleans schools, includes a preliminary exploration of whether the "No Excuses" rigor will help their charter graduates flourish in higher education. She raises questions as to whether structured school environments, where motivation is encouraged through external rewards and punishment, will produce long term benefits.

Carr describes Sci Academy and KIPP Renaissance high schools. Both embody the "No Excuses" commitment to "sweat the small stuff." It is based on the "broken windows" theory that small signs of disorder can undermine an institution's culture. So, consequences must be predictable and consistent.

To their credit, the leaders of both schools understand that their procedures could backfire when college professors do not employ the same system of demerits and prompts. A key to KIPP is instilling a value system of "self-advocacy." So, strangely, it focuses completely on a comprehensive system of external loci of control of students, while focusing completely on the opposite goal - preparing students to exercise an internal locus of control.

Similarly, Sci Academy seeks to wean upperclassmen from some of its structure by freeing them from the requirement of walking down the halls in straight lines. While there is no tolerance in assessing demerits for cursing or uniform violations, Sci teachers will allow a student to learn by failing rather than strictly assign demerits for sleeping in class. (I would have thought that their priorities would be reversed.)

Sci Academy makes college the overriding goal. And, as one teacher asserted, minor behavioral infractions are "broken windows" and "a broken window means a broken path to college." Students were addressed as "scholars," and freshmen were divided into groups known as "Harvard" and "Chicago."

At the end of the year, six of the most promising students took a field trip to Harvard, Columbia, and other great universities. Even their true-believing teacher was troubled by the students' lukewarm response to the elite institutions of higher learning. Some students saw college as a "paycheck enhancer," and all saw it as a means to an end. The teacher recognized Sci Academy's share of the blame for the attitude that students "endured Sci's rules so you could someday be a college graduate. That was where the story stopped."

Although the jury is still out on whether the high acceptance rates of Sci Academy and other charters will translate into high percentages of college graduates, Carr's narrative gives some hints as to the answer, as well as the question of whether it makes sense to try to scale up KIPP.

The first premonition that KIPP's model is flawed is found in one of New Orleans' other success stories. Carr profiles a student who excelled at KIPP Believe Middle School. When Geraldlynn moved up to KIPP Renaissance High School, however, she was more likely to act out. She even found herself exiled to KIPP's "Bench" where offenders are isolated.

While Geraldlynn loved the middle school structure, she had mixed feelings about the high school. Perhaps the problem was the school's failure to recognize that "this is high school," and the students are older. Or, perhaps, the problem was that KIPP Renaissance needed to tighten up even more. (After all, Geraldynne did not flourish at KIPP Believe until after two of her disruptive peers had been held back or expelled.) Carr reports, however, that many of its "troublemakers" were graduates of the KIPP middle school.

Interestingly, the KIPP high school principal questioned the "old-school" KIPP middle school model full of "paychecks," and positive and negative reinforcement. He explained, "We're not training kids to run mazes in a laboratory, and that's all carrots and sticks do."

Carr also offers a tantalizing glimpse at more normative methods of preparing students for life beyond their schools' structures. Geraldlynn had loved KIPP Believe's field trips to the opera, to climb rocks, and to Selma, Alabama, New York City, and Washington D.C. She had also blossomed after her favorite teacher took her and her friends to lunch and they visited their teacher's house to bake cookies. Also, high points at KIPP Renaissance were field trips to Florida A&M and Dilliard University. Both are "HBCUs" or Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

And, that leads to another subtheme in Carr's subtle narrative. As she chronicles public education reform, Carr briefs readers on a parallel reform of higher education. "Reformers," like Governor Bobby Jindal attacked the State University of New Orleans, a HBCU, in the same way that they had assaulted the city's public schools. S.U.N.O. had a terrible graduation rate, and it left many students with crippling debt. As Carr explains, that the historically black college "lived up to both the best and the worst of its reputation."

Carr uses the S.U.N.O. digression to reinforce her main theme. There was a lot wrong with schools in New Orleans. There also is a lot of strength in the black culture of New Orleans, but, mostly white reformers ignored that asset. Whether the issue was rebuilding public schools or fixing unresponsive colleges, reformers sought to replace the culture that students brought to school with the school culture that the reformers' respected. It is thus hard to see Sci and KIPP as not engaging in cultural imperialism.

Reform has increased New Orleans' test scores. "No Excuses" advocates recognize that those metrics will mean nothing, however, if the life outcomes of students are not also raised. These sincere crusaders have imposed technocratic solutions. When, inevitably, those systems need to be adjusted in order to prepare students for the unpredictability of life outside of schools, reformers will continue to make technocratic adjustments. While Hope Against Hope cannot prove that the "No Excuses" part of their model is inherently flawed, it implies that it may be destined to join previous technological fixes to human problems on the ash heap of history.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:31 AM

    So interesting. Thank you for this. You make a great point about how ineffectively charter schools are teaching their students to be self-motivated. A student who only learns in the bootcamp like atmosphere of a no excuses charter school will not develop the tools he or she needs to thrive in less regulated (i.e. liberal arts college) classrooms. And it seems strange to me that charter schools rely on test scores to measure success when these very test scores are rendered obselete at elite universities, where students often hail from private schools that are exempt from statewide testing.

    And whatever happened to nurturing creativity? As Tio Stark says, internal motivation is one of the biggest keys to true learning. But internal motivation relies on the autonomy to pursue one's interests and passions -- the ultra strict approach to education that charter schools take prohibit a student's capacity to learn for the sake of learning. Rather, the hyper emphasis on tests and the carrot and stick paradigm of rewards and demerits ensures that student learning ends as soon as class is let out. Without encouraging internal motivation, students will never pursue their curiosity to take ownership of their own learning.

    Zora Neale Hurston famously said that research is formalized curiosity. Given that research is one of the biggest measures of academic success on elite college campuses, we must think critically about how we are preparing charter school students for college. Without encouraging creativity and self-motivation, we may ultimately be preparing charter school students for failure.