For the Record: Should We Trust Advocates of “No Excuses”?

The short answer is, No.

When “The Softer Side of ‘No Excuses'” was published at Education Next, I posted a comment* and then emailed one of the authors, Robert (Bob) Maranto, an endowed chair in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

My initial email stated directly that one implication in the article is blatantly untrue and essentially nasty:

Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart.

I adamantly renounce this implication, and genuinely do not know a single critic of “no excuses” policies who believes this.

While it took a few emails to push home my point, Bob and I appeared to reach some common ground—we share some background characteristics and he was polite and willing to discuss my concern.

In fact, Bob directly by email agreed I have reason to be upset, and even offered to post an apology on the article (although I specifically asked for a retraction and do not need an apology).

To date, despite a few follow-up emails promising the apology, nothing has been posted.

And thus I feel it is fair to post this “for the record” and to ask, Should we trust advocates of “no excuses”?

If they are willing to make outrageous slurs directly refuted by evidence to the contrary in order to sway readers to their claims, then, again, I say, No.

* I strongly recommend reading the comment posted by Catherine M. Ionata.

This Is the Problem

On Twitter, I posted the following:

2 guaranteed reforms reformers refuse to do: 1) give children books 2) give poor children’s parents money.

Both of these are supported by solid research—the need for access to books and choice reading by decades of research in literacy and the second point is powerfully supported by a recent study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school [emphasis added] or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.

Yet, here is a response I received:

I’m afraid some poor children’s parents do not spend money wisely.

And the person’s Twitter profile begins with “I love Jesus!”

This is the problem.

The default assumption in the U.S. about people in poverty is paralyzed by stereotypes and blind to the inverse of this person’s fear: In a world in which childhood poverty in the U.S. exceeds 20% and the new majority in public schools is students living in poverty, when the filthy rich buy gold-plated teeth, is that spending money wisely?

Mullainathan and Shafir, in Scarcity, caution against drawing conclusions from observable behaviors by people living in poverty:

Given that we hold highly negative stereotypes about the poor, essentially defined by a failure (they are poor!), it is natural to attribute personal failure to them….Accidents of birth—such as what continent you are born on—have a large effect on your chance of being poor….The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place. Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed. (pp. 154, 155, 161)

To be clear, the overwhelming evidence detailed by Mullainathan and Shafir shows that the same people behave differently in situations of abundance and situations of scarcity.

People in abundance have enough slack to behave in ways that are productive while people in scarcity do not have that luxury.

Remove the scarcity, add slack, and people can and will behave differently.

But as long as we can love Jesus and hate poor people (or at least remain skeptical, if not cynical, about them), we will never address the systemic conditions that produce the evidence that we use unfairly against people in poverty.

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

In a blog titled “To my critics” as a follow up to his critique of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Errors, Grant Wiggins seeks to clarify his central arguments:

My point was merely to ask those who speak only of forces outside of our immediate control as educators to attend to what is not only in our control but can make a big difference….

Teachers and schools make a difference, a significant one. And we are better off improving teaching, learning, and schooling than anything else as educators because that’s what is in our control. Am I denying or tolerating poverty? Of course not. I decry the increased poverty and wealth inequality in this country. I vote democratic and give to liberal causes such as MoveOn and SPLC. I agree with Diane that there are nasty people and groups trying to subvert public education for their own ideologies and gain.

In this blog post, Wiggins returns to citing and praising the work of New Zealand scholar John Hattie. Wiggins has endorsed Hattie’s work in earlier blogs, such as:

I have been a fan of John Hattie’s work ever since I encountered Visible Learning. Hattie has done the most exhaustive meta-analysis in education. Thanks to him, we can gauge not only the relative effectiveness of almost every educational intervention under the sun but we can compare these interventions on an absolute scale of effect size.

I came to this debate and the connection between Wiggins and Hattie during a Twitter exchange with Wiggins. And as Twitter discussions go, I think we started off contentious, but eventually reached a genuine exchange; however, I could not fully or adequately explore what needs to be explored on Twitter so I began to research Hattie, and I want to place this recent exchange with Wiggins in a much larger context, one that includes the apparently growing interest in Hattie’s work.

My short and opening point is this: If in-school factors, notably teacher quality, are in fact the most pressing issues in education reform, and if in-school factors are the only things within our control, and if we are committed to accountability based on standards and high-stake testing as the only reform paradigm, then Wiggins (and maybe Hattie) would be credible.

Ultimately, however, Wiggins and Hattie represent even more doing the wrong things the right ways.

While I share the frustration expressed by Jersey Jazzman about the implied and direct claims Wiggins makes about teachers—in our Twitter exchange Wiggins was comfortable stating that many or most teachers use poverty as an excuse because he “hears it all the time”—and I also have grown tired of education reform punditry that seems imbalanced toward teacher bashing and marginalizing further the teaching profession, I want to focus on the limitations of in-school only reform and measuring teacher quality, and then highlight that the teacher quality debate fails for the same reason the push for Common Core fails (the real-world implementation has always failed, and it will fail this time also).

Now, let me go back to my first encounter with Wiggins, which was his co-authored Understanding by Design. As part of the process for my adding gifted and talented to my teaching credentials, I took a seminar that used Understanding.

Like many educators, I found the backward design model compelling at first. The best aspects of Wiggins and McTighe’s work, I think, are their criticisms of traditional practices:

  • Traditional approaches to teaching focused on objectives and teachers often were careless about matching their assessments to those objectives. In short, Wiggins and McTighe made a valid case that teaching was too often disjointed among objectives, classroom practices, and assessment.
  • The best point about traditional practices offered by Wiggins and McTighe was confronting that testing in many classes was essentially a “gotcha” experience for students. Students were left, they argued, either partially or completely blind to what was being asked of them.

I shared then and do now hold serious concerns about traditional pedagogy and assessment. In fact, I have been my entire career a strong advocate for systemic educational reform. I think we have failed and continue to fail the promise of universal public education as a foundational institution among a free people.

And there is the problem.

Wiggins and McTighe’s solutions—backward design, sharing detailed rubrics with students, etc.—are certainly the right way to do teacher-centered, standards-driven education based on measurable outcomes.

But teacher-centered, standards-driven education based on measurable outcomes is the wrong paradigm for democratic and liberatory education; thus, embracing understanding by design is simply doing the wrong things the right ways.

When schools have failed and when they do fail, they are teacher- and content-centered. The entire accountability era has intensified the very worst of education, and while the best way to do accountability education based on standards and testing is something like what Wiggins and McTighe offer, this commitment fails to step back even further and recognize what Ravitch and Wiggins’s critics are acknowledging: U.S. society and schools are plagued with inequity, and in order to overcome the negative consequences of inequity (one of which is low achievement by some students), social and school reform must address directly that inequity.

To put it in simple and direct terms: A powerful and identifiable problem in schools is inequitable access to certified and experienced teachers; instead of focusing on measuring, ranking, and rewarding teachers based on test scores (all shown in research to cause more harm than good), we should first address that students with the most need (high-poverty students, English language learners, special needs students, minority students) have equitable access to experienced and certified teachers as affluent and white students do.

Wiggins has positioned himself on some tenuous ground with claims that many or most teachers use poverty as an excuse, that outlier data somehow show what should be normal, and that Hattie’s research is justification for his positions. But the larger problem here is that Wiggins and the entire education reform movement over the past thirty years are trapped in a flawed solution model for a discounted set of problems.

Next, even if we conceded that we want to do the wrong things the right ways, Wiggins and Hattie represent the exact problem with Common Core: Once these grand ideas are implemented—and that implementation is guaranteed to be a failure—the good intentions do not matter.

For example understanding by design has become an industry for ASCD:

Thousands of educators across the country use the Understanding by Design framework, created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, to get a handle on standards, align programs to assessments, and guide teachers in implementing a standards-based curriculum that leads to student understanding and achievement.

Harvey Daniels’s experience with the commodification of literature circles and best practice is a representative cautionary tale about the negative consequences of reducing pedagogy and educational research to programs, consultation workshops, and how-to guides. Daniels, speaking at a state English teachers’ convention, explained that the terms “literature circles” and “best practices” can be found splattered across books and on web sites to such an extent that the original intent of both has been lost.

And here is the crux of the problem with Hattie as well as Wiggins endorsing Hattie.

Wiggins and Hattie share the charge that in-school reform is the only thing in the control of teachers, but they also share central roles of influence —direct and indirect—in the education reform bureaucracy and industry.

Hattie’s influence in New Zealand, in fact, prompted this:

The political and media stir caused by professor John Hattie’s research on student achievement has prompted a group of academics to look closely at his work.

The authors were particularly concerned that politicians might use Hattie’s work to justify ill-informed policy decisions.

Hattie’s work [1] is poised to support in NZ and the U.S. increasing class size and implementing merit pay, for example—both of which are not supported by large bodies of research.

Wiggins and Hattie are trapped, then, in the measurable and the visible—paralyzed by a world in which we focus on control.

As Neil Gaiman has stated, however, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

Ultimately, Wiggins and Hattie are offering the right ways to do the wrong things, again. Just as Common Core and new high-stakes testing are digging a failed accountability hole that much deeper.

We can do better.

Part of better, then, is yet more moratoriums.

We need moratoriums on educational research, educational consultation, and educational materials—as well as an end to our fetish with testing and measurement.

If these moratoriums seem extreme, let me point out a couple things:

  1. In 1947, Lou LaBrant wrote: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”
  2. The exact same fact exists today: Every major element of the education reform movement is either not supported by research or is directly refuted by research.

We currently have ample evidence about the problems in education (and society) and we have ample evidence of how to address those problems.

Spending millions and even billions of dollars on more measures of teacher quality and student achievement is an inexcusable waste of time and money.

Inexcusable.

Poverty as one of the most profound aspects of scarcity cripples human capacities. As Mullainathan and Shafir detail, scarcity drains anyone’s bandwidth (mental capacty): “Scarcity captures the mind”:

Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little. It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds….

Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth…

One cannot take a vacation from poverty. Simply deciding not to be poor—even for a bit—is never an option….

Our data suggest causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction: that poverty—the scarcity mindset—causes failure. (pp. 7, 13, 148, 155)

To place this research on scarcity/poverty in the context of in-school only reform:

Children cannot take a vacation from poverty during the school day. Simply deciding poverty is beyond our control during the school day is a myopic option for failure.

Claiming poverty lies beyond our control is simply false. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has evidence that ending money scarcity will eliminate poverty and by doing so academic improvement follows:

The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school [emphasis added] or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.

If we want better teachers and higher student achievement, let’s, then, stop wasting money on the unsupported array of in-school only, teacher-centered, standards-and-testing driven reforms, and directly address poverty in children’s lives and inequity in their schools.

Continuing down the path Wiggins and Hattie advocate, we remain mired in doing the wrong things the right ways. Let’s take a better path.

[1] See the following reviews and critiques of Hattie’s work:

On Children and Kindness: A Principled Rejection of “No Excuses”

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

—Thomas Jefferson

The Furman University spring commencement in 2008 was mostly overshadowed by two events—the speech presented by President George W. Bush and the protest and controversy surrounding that speech in the weeks leading up to and during the speech.

A concurrent controversy to Bush’s commencement address centered on the large number of faculty at the center of the protest, a protest named “We Object.” South Carolina is a traditional and deeply conservative state, and Furman tends to have a distinct contrast between the relatively conservative student body and the moderate/leaning left faculty. The Bush protest of 2008 exaggerated that divide—notably in the reaction of the Conservative Students for a Better Tomorrow (CSTB) organization and an Op-Ed in The Greenville News by two Furman professors opposing the protesting faculty.

The conservative faculty view expressed in the Op-Ed is important because it characterized the protesting faculty as post-modern, the implication being that protesting faculty held liberal/left views that were grounded in relativism (a common use of “post-modern” in public discourse). In other words, the implication was that protesting faculty were motivated by an absence of principle, or at least only relative principle.

The irony here is that the protesting faculty (among whom I was one, despite my having not yet achieved tenure) tended to reject both the post-modern label and post-modernism; in fact, our protests were deeply principled.

Having been born and raised in SC and having now lived my entire life and taught for over thirty years in my home state, I am an anomaly in both my broad ideology (I lean Marxist—although it is more complicated than that) and my principles (I am deeply principled in ways that contrast with the dogma and tradition of my treasured South).

My focal point during the Bush debate and protest (my name was frequently in news accounts and in rebuttals from CSTB) was an exaggerated but representative example of the tension that my ideology and principles create in my daily work at Furman, particularly in the classroom.

For example, I often teach an introductory education course, and one topic we address in that course very much parallels the more publicized conflicts surrounding Bush’s appearance at the 2008 graduation—corporal punishment.

When the topic comes up, students tend to support corporal punishment, reflecting the general embracing of the practice throughout the South. Many students are quick to qualify their support for corporal punishment with the “spare the rod, spoil the child” justification of their Christian faith.

I often explain to my students that I was spanked as a child in the 1960s, but that I had not spanked my daughter (who often announced to her friends that I didn’t spank, including a story of the one time I did when she ran away from us in the mall as a small child). I then add that a considerable body of research [1]  has shown that corporal punishment has overwhelming negative consequences and only one so-called positive outcome (immediate compliance).

My principled stance against corporal punishment creates noticeable tension with students’ dogmatic faith in corporal punishment. This same dynamic occurs when I confront the public and political support for grade retention, which I regularly refute—again based on a substantial body of evidence (which parallels in many ways the research on corporal punishment in that both practices have some quick and apparently positive outcomes but many long-term negative consequences).

As the Jefferson quote implores, in my positions on corporal punishment and grade retention, I stand like a rock.

And this helps explain my principled stance rejecting “no excuses” ideologies and practices as well as deficit views of children, race, and class.

Some Issues Beyond Debate

Three ideologies are powerful and foundational in both traditional educational practices and recent education reform agendas over the past thirty years—paternalism, “no excuses” ideology, and deficit perspectives (of children and impoverished people).

Traditional schooling is typified by behaviorism: in the grading, in the classroom management. Punishing and rewarding are types of paternalism and are justified by the belief that children are lacking something that some authority must provide.

Ironically, education reform committed to accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing is really no reform at all since many of the reform policies are simply exaggerated versions of traditional practices—both of which are grounded in paternalism, “no excuses” ideology, and deficit perspectives.

“No excuses” practices (represented by KIPP charter schools, but certainly not exclusive to that chain or charter schools since the ideology permeates almost all schooling to some degree) match social norms in the U.S., and in fact, aren’t very controversial. Yet, since “no excuses” policies are part of the dominant reform agenda, advocates feel compelled to justify those policies and practices.

To be honest, critics of “no excuses” ideology are in the minority and tend to be powerless. Nonetheless, Alexandra Boyd, Robert Maranto and Caleb Rose have published an article in Education Next designed to refute “no excuses” critics and to justify KIPP charters narrowly and “no excuses” ideology more broadly.

While I will not elaborate here on this, advocates of deficit-based strategies aimed at children in poverty and popularized by Ruby Payne tend to make parallel arguments as those endorsing “no excuses” schools and practices.

Corporal punishment, grade retention, paternalism, “no excuses” ideologies, and deficit perspectives of children, class, and race—all of these ideologies and concurrent practices conform to social norms of the U.S. (politicians and the public support them overwhelmingly) and tend to be discredited by large and robust research bases. All of these ideologies and practices also produce the appearance of effectiveness in the short term but create many long-term negative outcomes.

Paternalism, “no excuses” ideologies, and deficit perspectives reflect and perpetuate racism, classism, and sexism—even though many of the people who are and would be negatively impacted by these beliefs are often actively participating in and supporting institutions, policies, and practices driven by all three.

History has revealed numerous examples of people in reduced circumstances behaving in ways that were counter to their and other people’s freedom and equity. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale remains to me one of the best literary cautionary tales of that disturbing and complicated reality; Atwood dramatizes the historical reality of women contributing to the oppression of women. As a powerful work of scholarship, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow details well that a culture of mass incarceration (an era paralleling the accountability era in education) has reduced the lives of many minorities living in poverty to the point that they appear to support practices that, in fact, as Alexander describes, constitute the new Jim Crow—as I have explained while connecting mass incarceration with education reform:

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons’” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

And all of this, I suppose, may have been more than many people wanted to read for me to reach my big point, which is this:

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against “no excuses” practices.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against deficit perspectives.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against paternalism.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against corporal punishment.

There is no evidence that will convince me to reverse my stance against grade retention.

Period.

Especially when it concerns children, the ends can never justify the means so I couldn’t care less about test scores at KIPP schools.

Can we debate these? Sure, but if you want to debate me in order to change my mind, you would be wasting your time.

I am approaching 53, and I remain a work in progress. There is much I do not know, and there remains much that I am deeply conflicted about. But there is one thing that I know deep into my bones—children are wonderful and precious.

Children are wonderful and precious and there isn’t a damned thing you can show me or argue that can justify anything that is unkind to a child.

Not one damn thing.

For the adults who disagree with me and believe I am wrong or fool-headed, I love you too. But if you force me to choose, you lose.

Few things fill me with confidence in my principles like the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut and I see the same world, have the same regrets about that would, but also share the same idealistic hope. In the beginning of his Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut blends confessional memoir with his fiction as he explains how the novel came to have the full title Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.

While visiting a fellow veteran of WWII and his friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Vonnegut is confronted by O’Hare’s wife Mary, who is angry about Vonnegut’s considering writing a novel about his experience at the firebombing of Dresden:

“You were just babies then!” [Mary] said.

“What?” I said.

“You were just babies in the war—like the ones upstairs!”

I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood. (p. 14)

And from this Vonnegut promised Mary not to glorify war and to add the extended title.

There is something sacred about childhood, about innocence. Something sacred that deserves and should inspire all humans toward kindness.

I see little evidence we are inspired, but I remain committed to the possibility of the kindness school—and even a kind society populated by kind people.

Nothing there to debate.

For Further Reading

anyone lived in a pretty how town, e. e. cummings

[1] See Is Corporal Punishment an Effective Means of Discipline? (APA); and Spanking and Child Development Across the First Decade of Life.

When a “Visit” Trumps Expertise and Experience: A New Deal

I have already addressed the distortions and outright misinformation in a new piece on Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools. But a few issues raised in this claim of a “softer” side to “no excuses” practices need to be addressed more fully.

I have discovered that “no excuses” advocates now routinely push any critic about whether or not the critic has visited a KIPP school; note this paragraph early in the Education Next piece:

Also not surprisingly, KIPP and other No Excuses schools have no shortage of critics. Furman University education professor P. L. Thomas, who admitted in a recent speech at the University of Arkansas to never having been in a No Excuses charter school, complains in a widely referenced 2012 Daily Kos post that in such schools, “Students are required to use complete sentences at all times, and call female teachers ‘Miss’—with the threat of disciplinary action taken if students fail to comply.” Regarding KIPP in particular, Cambridge College professor and blogger Jim Horn, who admits to having never been inside a KIPP school, nonetheless has referred to KIPP as a “New Age eugenics intervention at best,” destroying students’ cultures, and a “concentration camp” at worst.

Horn and I are immediately marginalized because of the claims that we have never visited a KIPP school (for the record, I responded to a question about whether I have visited an Arkansas KIPP school, which I have not).

The push on the need to visit KIPP schools has raised two issues for me.

First, there are now abundant publications offering detailed evidence from many different people who have visited KIPP schools: Sarah Carr’s excellent Hope Agains Hope, Gary Rubinstein’s series on his visits, and Russ Walsh’s blog post, just to note a few.

Visiting a KIPP or “no excuses” school, it seems, doesn’t really change anything for those of us who hold foundational stances that reject the central ideology of “no excuses” practices. I reject authoritarianism regardless of the type of school in which it is practiced, and I abhor deficit perspectives, again regardless of the school type.

Whether I visit a school or rely on my analysis of other people’s details or data from “no excuses” schools, I am quite capable of drawing valid and evidence-based conclusions. And, frankly, I don’t have to ever set a foot in an actual school.

My best proof of this is the Education Next piece itself. While the authors believe they are discrediting the concerns of “no excuses” critics, the piece reinforces my central reasons for rejecting the policies, including the disturbing picture of three students participating in “Stereotypical Geek Day.” The picture itself feels exploitive and the activity, ridiculous.

That “no excuses” start out strict and ease off doesn’t excuse the abusive nature of the practices. And the larger concerns I have are not addressed at all: that minority and high-poverty students are disproportionately served and segregated from privileged and white students, that students wear uniforms, that “no excuses” schools tend to be selective and create a great deal of attrition, that KIPP schools are prone to hire Teach for America recruits (inexperienced and uncertified teachers for minority and impoverished students).

I remain opposed to all charter schools, not just “no excuses” charter schools, as well, and I reject any form of school choice.

Nothing in the Education Next article addresses that “other people’s children” are being served and treated in ways that affluent children are not; and that is my biggest complaint.

All children should have access to the sorts of schools and policies that affluent children enjoy. Period.

Second, however, is the more urgent issue I see with the insistence that “no excuses” critics visit “no excuses” schools: “no excuses” advocates and education reformers are overwhelmingly people who have never taught in public schools.

Is the new reformer message that visiting a school trumps having actually taught in a school?

If so, I propose a compromise:

No one can criticize a “no excuses” school unless she/he has visited the school and no one can lead education reform unless she/he has taught in public school.

“No excuses” advocates and reformers, deal?