Offered here is Part 4 of my book, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through "No Excuses" Teaching. This chapter sketches the history of "No Excuses."
Whence No Excuses?
What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative . . . –John Dewey (1938/2007)
In a 1993 commentary that attacked Jonathan Kozol and Gerald Bracey for questioning the veracity of the dramatic warnings of A Nation at Risk ten years after its publication, conservative education policymaker, Denis Doyle (1993) was one of the first policymakers to use the term, “No Excuses,” in an educational context:
If they [public schools] begin to benchmark seriously, they will compare themselves to the best of the best, not just in public elementary and secondary schools, but also in high-performance organizations. The power of benchmarking is that it does internally what competition is supposed to do externally: it holds organizations to high standards of performance, measurement, and reporting. It accepts no excuses. It is continuous. There is no finish line (p. 631).
The term, “No Excuses,” was used two years later by policymaker, Anne Lewis (1995), who admonished folks like Denis Doyle for a narrow focus on accountability outcomes at the expense of adequate resource allocation. Lewis offered a reminder to budget cutters and efficiency seekers that there was no escape from the ultimate responsibility to educate all children, without excuse or failure. Specifically, Lewis took to task the newly-empowered conservative budget hawks in Washington for their efforts to slash federal funding for welfare and education programs. She warned in pointed terms that as “the culpable may get off the hook temporarily, the responsibility of education to prepare young people for the legitimate economy cannot be passed off. No matter what panaceas are offered by the budget cutters, the bottom line for kids is the classroom. And the work they do there must be demanding, with no failures and no excuses” (p. 660).
Over the next five years, however, the conservative targets of Lewis’s castigation successfully turned the phrase, “No Excuses,” back to Doyle’s original intent, so that it came to represent a cudgel used against those victimized by the kinds of budget cutting that Lewis had railed against. By 2000, neoliberals and neoconservatives had launched a “No Excuses Campaign” (Carter, 2000) sponsored by the Heritage and Bradley Foundations, which placed the blame for low academic achievement on schools, educators, and children.
The No Excuses Campaign was launched with the publication of Samuel Carter’s No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools, which includes the following declaration of intent before readers get to the table of contents page:
The No Excuses campaign is a national effort organized by The Heritage Foundation to mobilize public pressure on behalf of better education for the poor. The No Excuses campaign brings together liberals, centrists, and conservatives who are committed to high academic achievement among children of all races, ethnic groups, and family incomes.
Participants in the No Excuses campaign may hold differing views about vouchers, the federal role in education, and other policy issues. But we agree that there is no excuse for the academic failure of most public schools serving poor children. All children can learn. Hundreds of public, private, and religious schools serving low-income children have proved it. Help us to shine a spotlight on their success and join us in demanding that failing schools meet their standard (p. iv).
In 2003, the No Excuses campaign got a turbo-boost with the publication by Simon and Schuster of No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, authored by policy elites, Abigail and Stefan Thernstrom (2003). Although Stefan Thernstrom’s previous academic research at Harvard had documented the immovable roadblocks for the working classes in America to achieve upward social mobility during prior centuries, the Thernstroms presented a case in their No Excuses to the contrary. They claimed that “the breakdown of racial barriers in America had opened up limitless horizons for African Americans in the 21st Century to achieve what the white working classes had been unable to do previously” (p. 112).
And while the Thernstrom’s No Excuses shared Carter’s belief that educators’ laziness, indifference, and low expectations played significantly in maintaining low academic achievement among African-Americans, the Thernstroms placed the majority of blame for their plight on “cultural patterns” of African Americans, themselves. The Thernstroms claimed that “African-American children appear quicker to take offense and more prone to conflict” (p. 137).
The Thernstroms (2003) argued that academic achievement and success in life depend upon deliverance from the bad habits and traits derived from flawed cultural patterns among non-Asian minorities, for which society has too long offered excuses. The Thernstroms announced that these excuses, which range from racial inequality to socioeconomic disadvantage, would not be acceptable any longer to the tough love advocates of the No Excuses campaign. The solemn and difficult crusade to educate black urban children, specifically, is laid out plainly by the Thernstroms:
The process of connecting black students to the world of academic achievement isn’t easy in the best of educational settings—and such settings are today few and far between. But that only means that in order to “counter and transform” African-American “cultural patterns,” . . . fundamental change in American education will be necessary—change much more radical than that contemplated by the most visionary of today’s public school officials. Recognizing the problem is the first step down that long and difficult road (p. 147).
Cultural characteristics, according to the new No Excuses creed, are racial characteristics, and they can be separated out from economic or class characteristics that shape behaviors. The Thernstroms (2003) argued that race is defined by culture, which, by some unexplained formula, exert twice the influence on academic achievement than do family income, accumulated wealth, and skin color. The Thernstroms announced that two-thirds of the achievement gap between black and white children is attributable to culture, whereas one-third may be determined by poverty, parental education, and the environment (p. 147).
Richard Rothstein (2004) has challenged the No Excuses argument by pointing out that social class, rather than flawed culture, functions as the primary contributor to school achievement differences. According to Rothstein, family income, accumulated wealth, skin color, and culture define social class. In his critique of the Thernstroms’ framing of the achievement discussion by separating out influences into percentages, Rothstein claimed “the debate about whether the low achievement of black students is rooted in culture or economics is largely fruitless because socioeconomic status and culture cannot be separated” (p. 51).
Rothstein argued that the neat separation of influences that the Thernstroms (2003) devised, with culture constituting the weightier chunk on the achievement scale, missed the larger point that cultures cannot escape the systemic influence of poverty or economic privilege in the formation and activity of culture. Aside from the dubious moral stance of altering other cultures to suit the values of those who are providing the cultural improvement plans, any attempt, Rothstein claimed, to alter cultural values without taking into account family income, wealth/poverty, and ethnicity will always remain blind to the essential elements of culture.
The interventions that the Thernstroms label “cultural” may yield results if enough control, force, and leverage are exerted at the most vulnerable points. This requires the imposition of unwavering demands, unalterable routines, and the use of punitive pedagogies aimed at altering, over time, children’s neurological pathways and, thus, their culture and character.
Skeptics of No Excuses Labeled as Bigots with Low Expectations
The Thernstroms’ book came at a time when skepticism and resistance to the No Excuses ideology triggered harsh rhetoric from the highest levels of government. George W. Bush (2000) declared his candidacy for President on June 12, 1999, and in his announcement, he reminded the Cedar Rapids, Iowa audience of his belief disorder in school, drug abuse, and out-of-wedlock children represented an ominous cultural drift that required society to re-draw moral lines of engagement for combatting cultural mutations:
Some people think it’s inappropriate to draw a moral line. Not me. For our children to have the lives we want for them, they must learn to say yes to responsibility, yes to family, yes to honesty and work. I have seen our culture change once in my lifetime, so I know it can change again.
. . . . We can write laws to give schools and principals more authority to discipline children and protect the peace of classrooms. We must encourage states to reform their juvenile justice laws. We must say to our children, "We love you, but discipline and love go hand in hand, and there will be bad consequences for bad behavior."
In September 1999, Bush spoke to the Latin Business Association in Texas and offered this preview of the direction that his Presidency would take, when elected. It was the first of many opportunities for labeling any belief regarding socioeconomic status and achievement as an excuse that bordered on racism, or at least the “bigotry of low expectations:”
In coming weeks, I plan to talk about safety in our schools, the character of our children, education standards we should set and the accountability we should expect. But I want to start where educational failure has had its highest price. I want to begin with disadvantaged children in struggling schools, and the Federal role in helping them. . . . No child in America should be segregated by low expectations, imprisoned by illiteracy, abandoned to frustration and darkness of self-doubt. . . . Now some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less -- the soft bigotry of low expectations. . . . (New York Times, 1999, para 2-4).
Bush’s first “bigotry of low expectations” speech and his subsequent policies represented a clear shift in education policy talk and implementation. Despite the escalating re-separation of whites and minority children in schools, a trend that had begun afresh in 1988 (Orfield & Yun, 1999; Orfield, 2001), Bush signaled that segregation or resegregation had, in effect, become a literacy issue.
According the Bush Administration, adults with low expectation who make excuses for children and their parents were responsible for children “imprisoned by illiteracy,” rather than segregation. Under Bush and No Child Left Behind, the crusade for ending segregation of children based on race or class as a condition for achieving equal educational opportunity would take a back seat to the goal of equalizing test expectations.
As a result, calling attention to segregated schools and economic disadvantage became just another excuse for not closing the literacy gaps among black, brown, and white children in reading and math. Challenging inequality among test scores, then, was advertised and accepted by many as the next civil rights crusade. Unfortunately, it was a goal made impossible to reach by the act of disregarding the importance of socioeconomic influences.
With Bush’s election and the quick passage of the No Child Left Behind Act following the national disaster on September 11, 2001, the struggle for educational equality that began with Brown in the 1950s fell victim once more to a new generation of testing accountability expectations. As a result, the demand for equality in measurable test results replaced older urgencies aimed at achieving social and racial equality, school desegregation, and equitable resource allocation.
It did not take long for education policy elites to accept the No Excuses mission as the centerpiece for a new educational crusade that would become the purported civil rights issue of a generation. Educational equality for the poor became concretized in a stringent, total compliance pedagogy that looked very different from the types of schooling enjoyed by middle class children not labeled as culturally deficient.
No one seemed concerned that the unearned disadvantages of race and culture suddenly required interventions that would appear more penal than educational within the urban pockets of poverty where they came to be applied with strict corporate efficiency. Those committed to this new middle class version of imposed civil rights found no irony in the fact that the new equality would be achieved through oppressive educational interventions that brought huge financial benefit corporate reform school operators.
Not only would these new No Excuses schools be untethered from public oversight and protections of children and workers, but new tax structures would incentivize lavish financial support for the creation and spread of intensely-segregated and publicly funded charter schools. The new charter schools would be staffed by teachers recruited and trained to believe that increasing test results and altering child behavior and character provided the raisons d'être for their new vocation, temporary though it be.
The No Excuses campaign, then, became a central interlocking element in the emerging educational ideology that included 1) a culture alteration program to instill middle-class “free market” values, 2) testing accountability based on fanciful expectations, 3) paternalistic and authoritarian educational interventions demanding total compliance and unending sacrifice, and 4) market-based educational solutions funded by public monies and venture philanthropists.
The new ideology represented a modern day Children’s Crusade, whereby hard work, delayed gratification, behavioral docility, and soldierly commitment to KIPP Model goals would lead to the human liberation that 150 years of civil rights struggle could not. For policy elites long unwilling to risk political disfavor for suggesting disruptive structural alterations to social arrangements that favored the resegregation of schools, Bush’s recasting of segregation as a literacy issue that resulted from low expectations offered an affordable and even lucrative moral uplift
Bush policies provided an opportunity to impose psychological and character remediation to those whose academic and cultural shortcomings would, otherwise, exclude them from economic opportunity. For those embracing the Bush reform agenda and the No Excuses mantra, the imposition of the most stringent behavior-and-character-altering interventions became equated with cultural and character improvement to enhance equal educational opportunity for the poor.
Schools that promised to close the test score gaps between rich and poor without the need for disruptive sociological interventions or economic restructuring came to be viewed as the proper vehicle to carry forward the civil rights struggle. The equalizing of high achievement expectations during the Bush Era made possible, at least rhetorically, what hard facts had otherwise disallowed. For in declaring that no children would be left behind, issues of segregation and economic inequality were simply added to the list of unacceptable excuses that could be berated like trouble-making students.
In doing so, civil rights and social justice advocates that could be intimidated were silenced, and any remaining argument against the official Washington delusion of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading was labeled as an expression of bigotry. Closing the test score gaps suddenly became the civil rights issue of era, even though the continuing blindness to economic inequality and segregation made it as likely to fail as former efforts focused only on what could be changed within the school walls.
The power and appeal of the new ideology for those with the least to lose and the most to gain was made clear by President Barack Obama’s continued animated embrace of No Excuses in his keynote speech (Sweet, 2009) at the 100th NAACP Convention in 2009:
We’ve got to say to our children, yes, if you’re African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades — (applause) — that’s not a reason to cut class — (applause) — that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. (Applause.) No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands — you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. (Applause.) No excuses (para 40).
President Obama’s new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, (Change.gov, 2008) formally declared in 2008 the shared conviction that education “is the civil rights issue of our generation.” The depth of policy elites’ rhetorical linkage of civil rights with No Excuses schooling was most apparent, perhaps, in Duncan’s reaction to the Hollywood documentary, Waiting for Superman, which had been financed by venture philanthropists and fashioned to inspire public support for No Excuses charter schools as the urban education solution (PR Newswire, 2010). Following the gala opening of the film in Washington, DC, Duncan described the film as “a Rosa Parks moment” (Fernandez, 2010). That statement, alone, made it clear that corporate education reform had moved to the front of the bus.
Higher Expectations and Downward Mobility
KIPP and the other No Excuses charter schools argue that if teachers and children work enough, and if parents are supportive of those efforts, then the KIPP Model can clearly demonstrate that economic disadvantage, race, or geography present no barriers to academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. In 2010, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, declared that “poverty is not destiny,” and if policymakers “get the students the support they need, get them the best principals, get them the great teachers, I promise you those students would do extraordinarily well. I have seen it all my life” (PBS News Hour, 2010).
Across the Atlantic in 2012, Britain’s education secretary, Michael Gove, shared the same conclusion that “deprivation is [not] destiny,” and that with “the right teachers and the right values,” the economically deprived can outperform public expectations (GOV.UK, 2012). Even if doing “extraordinarily well” or outperforming public expectations is limited to mean higher performance on standardized tests, that conclusion must come with qualifiers, caveats, or skepticism, as we will show later in this book.
If “to do extraordinarily well” mean upward social mobility or economic sustainability, empirical research shows us that the most rigorous, rigid, or behaviorally “militant” schools offer little help or hope for the disadvantaged and economically segregated to get ahead economically or . In a series of reports by the Brookings Institution and Pew Charitable Trust (Isaacs, 2007a; Isaacs, 2007b; Isaacs & Sawhill, 2008; Pew, 2012; Pew, 2013a, 2013b), the simplistic nature of education policymakers’ claims regarding student achievement scores and socioeconomic mobility become ever clearer.
Using four decades of data from black and white families in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), Pew and Brookings researchers (Isaacs, 2007b; Isaacs & Sawhill, 2008) found disturbing trends when examining questions related to 1), how children fare economically when compared to their parents, and 2) how race, class, and gender affect mobility. As summed up in the The Washington Post,
Nearly half of African Americans born to middle-income parents in the late 1960s plunged into poverty or near-poverty as adults, according to a new study -- a perplexing finding that analysts say highlights the fragile nature of middle-class life for many African Americans.
Overall, family incomes have risen for both blacks and whites over the past three decades. But in a society where the privileges of class and income most often perpetuate themselves from generation to generation, black Americans have had more difficulty than whites in transmitting those benefits to their children.
Forty-five percent of black children whose parents were solidly middle class in 1968 -- a stratum with a median income of $55,600 in inflation-adjusted dollars -- grew up to be among the lowest fifth of the nation's earners, with a median family income of $23,100. Only 16 percent of whites experienced similar downward mobility. At the same time, 48 percent of black children whose parents were in an economic bracket with a median family income of $41,700 sank into the lowest income group (Fletcher, 2007).
In an analysis of research that included the data from the Isaacs (2007) report above, researchers (Sawhill & Morton, 2007) examined the implications of these findings for the American dream of upward mobility based on the long-held belief in hard work, skill, and knowledge. The researchers found the American Dream remains a viable concept in terms of “absolute mobility,” which is measured by how economic growth, or the overall standard of living, changes from one generation to the next.
The current generation, as of 2007, remained above the last in terms of living standard. However, the American meritocracy becomes more mythical and less reality based when viewed through the lens of “relative mobility,” as defined by how individuals or groups change “relative to others, moving up or down in the ranks as one would expect in a true meritocracy” (p. 8).
Despite their high expectations, Secretary Duncan or Secretary Gove might have been surprised to learn that Great Britain and the United States, respectively, have the lowest upward mobility among other Western nations that include France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. According to OECD figures (Desilver, 2013), the U.S. ranked second highest among Western nations in after-taxes income inequality. Interestingly, none of these other countrieshave put so much pressure on schools to provide solutions to inequality and lack of economic opportunity.
The belief, however, that hard work, ambition, and access to education are the primary determinants in a person’s economic well-being is widely shared among the American public, and it is one that underpins many of the assumptions guiding the No Excuses KIPP Model. In 2013, Pew researchers (Sharkey & Graham, 2013) found, for instance, that 80 percent of Americans viewed
. . . factors such as hard work, ambition, and access to education as key drivers of upward mobility, while less than half viewed growing up in a good neighborhood as an important factor. On the contrary, respondents strongly agreed that a young person with drive, ambition, and creativity growing up in a poor neighborhood is more likely to get ahead economically than someone growing up in a more affluent neighborhood who lacks those attributes (p. 1).
Pew research (Sharkey, 2009; Pew, 2013b) shows, too, that zip code is a central element in shaping social and economic outcomes of residents, with neighborhood poverty increasing the likelihood of moving down the income ladder. The following data clearly suggest that povertyreduction efforts, neighborhood investment projects, fair housing policies, and ending segregation may prove to be more education reform strategies to raise test scores and to breed attitudes of hope than devising total compliance schools with psychological treatment regimen and character remediation programs:
· For children whose family income is in the top three quintiles, spending childhood in a high-poverty neighborhood versus a low-poverty neighborhood (say, experiencing a poverty rate of 25 percent compared to a rate of 5 percent) raises the chances of downward mobility by 52 percent;
· Over the course of childhood, two out of three black children (66 percent) born from 1985 through 2000 were raised in neighborhoods with at least a 20 percent poverty rate, compared to just 6 percent of white children;
· Four in five black children who started in the top three quintiles experienced downward mobility, compared with just two in five white children. Three in five white children who started in the bottom two quintiles experienced upward mobility, versus just one in four black children;
· Neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white downward mobility gap than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined;
· Black children who lived in neighborhoods that saw a decline in poverty of 10 percentage points in the 1980s had annual adult incomes almost $7,000 greater than those who grew up in neighborhoods where the poverty rate was stable (Sharkey, 2009, pp. 2-3).
In 2012, another Pew study (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2012) added more evidence of low relative mobility among those born at the top and bottom of the income ladder: “Sixty-six percent of those raised in the bottom of the wealth ladder remain on the bottom two rungs, and 66 percent of the those raised in the top of the wealth ladder remain on the top two rungs”(p. 2). Even more troubling, for poor and middle class black families, upward relative mobility is even less likely:
Half of blacks (50 percent) raised in the bottom of the family wealth ladder remain stuck in the bottom as adults, compared with only a third (33 percent) of whites. More than two-thirds of blacks (68 percent) raised in the middle fall to the bottom two rungs of the ladder as adults compared with just under a third of whites (30 percent) (p. 3).
More recent Pew research (2013b) focused on the linkage between economic segregation in U. S. cities and economic mobility. Almost fifty years after James Coleman (1966) found that school segregation has a negative impact on school achievement, Pew researchers found that economic achievement is similarly affected by segregation. In more integrated urban communities, the descendants of poor families living in highly-segregated communities can expect to take four generations to reach the area’s mean income, while poor families in more integrated communities can expect to take three generations to reach median income levels (p. 12):
. . . the most economically segregated U.S. metro areas—those where the very rich and the very poor live far from each other—are also the least economically mobile, and vice versa. Moreover, neighborhood economic segregation has risen across U.S. metro areas for more than 30 years, suggesting that climbing the economic ladder is more challenging in some places than in others (p. 12).
With this kind of data available to policymakers and to corporate foundations that remain fixated on funding for total compliance charter schools, it is difficult to calmly accept philanthrocapitalists’ stubborn insistence that even the poorest children can become prosperous adults by becoming more disciplined and dedicated test takers in school. Given the slim odds that school interventions alone, even good ones, can accomplish such formidable results, the “no excuses’ ideology takes on an aspect of dangerous fantasy when set alongside the empirical evidence: “Only 4 percent of those raised in the bottom quintile make it all the way to the top as adults, confirming that the “rags-to-riches” story is more often found in Hollywood than in reality. Similarly, just 8 percent of those raised in the top quintile fall all the way to the bottom” (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2013a, p. 12).
Admitting reality would be a first step toward social, economic, and educational changes that are consistent with our human rights and constitutional guarantees. depending more fixes for deeply rooted social and economic problems, not only does a grittier Horatio Alger myth become further perpetuated by those who have never known lack of privilege, but the more expensive and structural changesandget shoved to the bottom of policy priority list (Rose, 2014) for another generation.
Is it worth asking, then: can entrepreneurial imagination and disruptive practices be to address systemic problems in urban communities to replace public schools with corporate Will venture philanthropists find reasons to the entrenched and inequitable systems of urban housing, economic deprivation, child neglect, food deserts, and crumbling public services that continue to feed the poverty monster now consuming large ? Or will philanthrocapitalists continue
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