Tag Archives: No Excuses Reform

“The Poor Are Too Free”?: Unlocking the Middle-Class Code

Walking outside the Commander’s compound in the “heart of Gilead,” Offred (June) is reminded of her past now swept away by the rise of Gilead, the theocracy at the center of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale:

Luke and I used to walk together, sometimes, along these streets. We used to talk about buying a house like one of these, an old big house, fixing it up. We would have a garden, swings for the children. We would have children. Although we knew it wasn’t too likely we could ever afford it, it was something to talk about, a game for Sundays. Such freedom now seems almost weightless.

This idealized middle-class fantasy ignores that behind the weightless freedom often lurked the life-long burden of debt—the thirty-year mortgages, the monthly bills, the billowing cost of college-for-all. A motif of freedom weaves its way through Atwood’s “dystopia from the female point of view – the world according to Julia, as it were,” a work with George Orwell just below the surface.

To fulfill her role as a handmaid (fertile women designated to conceive with the Commanders), Offred (June) has been re-educated at the Rachel and Leah Center by the Aunts, women controlling women. The Aunts as the teachers for Gilead help the handmaids understand freedom:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much freedom.

As Atwood explains,

Gilead has utopian idealism flowing through its veins, coupled with a high-minded principle, its ever-present shadow, sublegal opportunism, and the propensity of the powerful to indulge in behind-the-scenes sensual delights forbidden to everyone else. But such locked-door escapades must remain hidden, for the regime floats as its raison d’être the notion that it is improving the conditions of life, both physical and moral; and like all such regimes, it depends on its true believers.

In the “no excuses” charter school movement, David Whitman is a true believer, a voice for the “new” paternalism that shares a haunting parallel with the paternalism of Atwood’s dystopia:

By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance….Paternalistic programs survive only because they typically enforce values that “clients already believe,” Mead notes. But many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.

Another true believer, cited by Whitman in his Sweating the Small Stuff, is Lawrence Mead, who claims in The New Paternalism: Supervisory Approaches to Poverty: “The problem of poverty or underachievement is not that the poor lack freedom. The real problem is that the poor are too free.”

Now let’s add all this up, as Diane Ravitch has helped us do the math: President Barack Obama + Secretary of Education Arne Duncan + speechwriter David Whitman + “the poor are too free” Lawrence Mead = “no excuses” education policy.

People trapped in poverty, Mead et al. argue, are suffering from too much freedom; therefore, they must be given freedom from (like the handmaids). Our “new” paternalistic schools, then, are gifts of the middle-class code bestowed upon children living in poverty, disproportionately children who also are African American and Latino/a.

So just what are these impoverished children being given freedom from?

Natalie Hopkins has one suggestion:

It’s a great question—one that gets to the heart of the tensions over “urban” school reform. What will our schools look like once they “succeed”? Will black girls stop playing hand games? Will black boys lose the urge to tap West African rhythms on their desks? Will children graduate bearing no trace of the poverty, riches, triumph, failure, and culture that form the complex kaleidoscope of blackness in this country?…But the problem is when you consider education policy for the past six decades, there hasn’t been a war at all. From desegregation to today’s “school choice” [such as charter schools], every single scheme has been designed to kill off the Negro soul—or at least provide an escape hatch from it.

Another question is, What are the consequences of these new urban schools policies?

Examining the rise of “no excuses” charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, Sarah Carr cites one teacher: “‘The first week of school is all about compliance,’ said Kaycee Eckhardt, one of the founding teachers.”

But Carr notes that Andre Perry (institute for Quality and Equity in Education, Loyola University) “is troubled by the idea that children—and poor children of color most especially—need to be controlled. ‘There’s an insidious mistrust of children reflected in having them walk on lines or making them stay silent.'”

Yet, “no excuses” charter schools driven by a “new” paternalism that embraces a deficit view of children, people in poverty, and people of color remain committed to freedom from, despite the potential long-term outcomes:

Sci Academy and other [“no excuses”] charter schools like it run a risk in creating such structured, disciplined environments where students receive motivation from external rewards and punishments. The approach can backfire in the long run if students do not know how to function once all the structure and incentives disappear and if they do not learn how to think for themselves….Despite the guiding ambition to send all their students through college, Sci’s learning environment is the opposite of collegiate in many respects.

And here we find the ugly truth behind the claim that “no excuses” paternalism seeks to offer impoverished children of color the key to middle-class values: The people these students are being trained to be—as Hopkins unmasks—is not some middle-class ideal such as the one recalled by Offred (June), but the ideal that privileged people want for “other people’s children”—controlled, passive, silent, obedient, freedom from—so that privileged children can maintain their freedom to.

As in Gilead, the privileged orchestrate a world in which they have freedom to built on the rest having freedom from. And this deficit view by a paternalistic state extends beyond schools, as Deborah Meier condemns in her quote of the day:

“We are coming to find you and monitor every step you take. And we are going to learn about every bad friend you have. And you’re going to get alienated from those friends because we are going to be all over you.” Joanne Jaffe, of the New York City Police Department, on a program meant to steer juveniles away from crime.

Joanne Jaffe may have heart of gold, but she, and the NYC Police Department, couldn’t be further off the mark. This quotation and the story it goes with sent shivers up my spine. The idea that the kids will follow our advice if we treat them unfairly, interfere with their perfectly legal rights, harass them a bit more is so far from reality that it truly is scary.

Meier seeks a different barometer for the standards we allow for “other people’s children,” however:

That’s why medicine rests on “do no harm”—and so does raising children. So I often rest my arguments on “would I do it to myself” and “would I do it to my own offspring?” And if so, why not?

In “A Report from Occupied Territory” (The Nation, July 11, 1966), James Baldwin confronted an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: “‘Bad niggers,’ in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed.” [Think of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.]

As an example, Baldwin adds:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years [emphasis added]. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them.

Baldwin’s central message appears relevant to the hallways of “no excuses” schools as well as the streets of urban America:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

This surrender of self, of culture, of race can be found in the normalizing effect of zero tolerance policies that turn the school-to-prison pipeline into schools-as-prison as well as the conversion of urban public schools into “no excuses” charter schools. “DuBois might have called our flight from blackness and fixation with standardized tests ‘measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in an amused contempt and pity,'” explains Hopkins, adding:

In order to move beyond the black/white, negative/positive binary that dominated DuBois’ 20th century, we need to generate some new definitions. What does it mean to be educated? What is history? What is “culture”and how can our public institutions value it? We need new definitions for success – hopefully ones that don’t deodorize the funk.

The middle-class code of “no excuses” school reform, it seems, is more about someone else’s freedom from to preserve the freedom to remain privileged.

While privileged children sit in gifted classrooms and private academies that celebrate creativity and respecting a child’s innate zest for learning, a separate and unequal school system is being built on a “new” paternalism platform that hides issues of race and class behind code words like “middle class.”

As Baldwin envisioned almost fifty years ago, if “no excuses” ideologies win, “the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society,” but it will be one designed for them and not by them.

Assembled Pieces Reveal Disturbing Reform Picture

Every time I write about Michelle Rhee, as I noted in a recent post, I feel like I should reenact the shower and wire-brush scene in Silkwood to purge myself of participating in the ceaseless media attention disproportionately afforded Rhee while the voices, daily efforts, and expertise of K-12 practitioners are not just ignored, but marginalized and even demonized.

So it is with a shared reservation (see Jose Vilson’s excellent post) that I once again wade into the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) debate—not to rehash my unequivocal opposition to the CCSS movement, but to offer a brief look at the picture revealed once all the pieces of the corporate/ “no excuses” reform movement puzzle are assembled. First, then, let me identify the primary pieces of that puzzle:


National high-stakes tests built on CCSS

Reformed teacher evaluation driven by VAM-based teacher ranking

Teach for America

Charter schools

These various pieces are an effective strategy with a common thread because separately each reform element creates a focal point of debate; for an educator or researcher to challenge any one of these policies is a seemingly endless task since the reform agenda is being set by those with political and financial power. Refuting the need for new standards, much less the flaws with implementing those new standards, immediately positions educators as reactionary and allows the self-appointed reformers to characterize those challenges as being for the status quo and against reform and accountability.

For example, teachers in my home state of South Carolina who have spoken against VAM-style teacher evaluation reform have been publicly labeled by the state superintendent of education, Mick Zais, as trying to avoid being held accountable for their work.

The picture these reform pieces show is not a patchwork of evidence-based and innovative strategies for improving public education, but a carefully unified process of infusing even more deeply the power of high-stakes standardized testing into the fabric of public schools. Look beneath any of the elements listed above and find the allure of new and better tests, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010) celebrated himself:

Today is a great day! I have looked forward to this day for a long time–and so have America’s teachers, parents, students, and school leaders. Today is the day that marks the beginning of the development of a new and much-improved generation of assessments for America’s schoolchildren. Today marks the start of Assessments 2.0. And today marks one more milestone, testifying to the transformational change now taking hold in our nation’s schools under the courageous leadership and vision of state and district officials.

Duncan’s entusiasm doesn’t stop there:

This new generation of mathematics and English language arts assessments will cover all students in grades three through eight and be used at least once in high school in every state that chooses to use them. In addition, the PARCC consortium will develop optional performance tasks to inform teachers about the development of literacy and mathematics knowledge and skills in kindergarten through second grade.

I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education. For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers–and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction. Yet that fundamental shift–re-orienting K-12 education to extend beyond high school graduation to college and career-readiness–will not be the only first here.

For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for– tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.

And what provides the basis upon which Duncan makes these claims?:

Yet existing assessments are only part of the problem. An assessment system and curriculum can only be as good as the academic standards to which the assessments and curriculum are pegged. We want teachers to teach to standards–if the standards are rigorous, globally competitive, and consistent across states. Unfortunately, in the last decade, numerous states dummied down their academic standards and assessments. In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close.

The Common Core standards developed by the states, coupled with the new generation of assessments, will help put an end to the insidious practice of establishing 50 different goalposts for educational success. In the years ahead, a child in Mississippi will be measured against the same standard of success as a child in Massachusetts.

Even if we account for the sort of soaring rhetoric associated with political discourse, Duncan clearly envisions policy that must include a staggering and unprecedented commitment to testing that rises to the level of parody. But for all stakeholders in public education, the results of all the policies linked to standardized testing must include a brave new world of testing that boggles the mind in terms of the amount of time and funding required to design, field test, implement, and manage pre- and post-tests aligned with CCSS for every single course and teacher year after year after year.

As Yong Zhao has detailed carefully in an exchange with Marc Tucker, commitments to education reform policy linked to CCSS and the high-stakes tests built on these new standards are not anything new, are not justified by any clearly identified problems or needs, and are not consistent with the larger democratic goals of universal public education:

[L]et me restate my main point: it is impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.

Classroom teachers, educational researchers, and educational historians have offered and continue to offer a clear and valid voice that Duncan’s claims and the resulting policies are deeply flawed, but as Brian Jones asks, “If all of this testing is so bad for teaching and learning, why is it spreading?” According to Jones, the answer detailed in the full picture is clear:

As the tests spread and the consequences associated with them rise, absurdities abound….

The shift toward using student data to evaluate teachers is part of a larger trend of restructuring public education to align it with the rest of the economy. As one of the last heavily unionized groups of workers in the country, teachers stand in the way of privatization. And to the extent that they are self-governed, self-motivated and enjoy professional autonomy, teachers are a ‘bad’ example for other workers.

Even though it may not make for great teaching or genuine learning, high-stakes standardized testing is spreading because it is the perfect tool for controlling and disciplining teachers–and for training the next generation to internalize the priorities of the system.

The attempt to quantify and track every aspect of an employee’s ‘performance’ is not new.

Standardized testing—the inevitable consequence of commitments to CCSS, reformed teacher evaluation, and each piece of the corporate reform puzzle—combines the veneer of objectivity with the power of perpetual control over schools, teachers, and students, what Foucault characterized as “…entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification” (p. 200):

The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible….

[T]he art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor precisely at repression….It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected, or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the ‘nature’ of individuals….The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution compares, differentiates, hierachizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes….

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of normalizing judgment. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish….

In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of their being constantly seen…that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. And the examination is the technique by which power…holds them in a mechanism of objectification. (pp. 177, 170, 197, 199)

Now, in the context of whether or not the U.S. is committed to universal public education as a central element of a commitment to democracy and individual liberty, and then whether or not education reform is seeking that foundational goal, time has come to set aside the puzzle-piece-by-puzzle-piece dismantling of the corporate reform agenda and confront directly the central flaw with the picture itself, as Jones acknowledges:

The solution to this dilemma is not to develop better tests, but to tear down the whole enterprise of high-stakes standardized assessment and replace it with authentic assessments that are organic to the process of real teaching and learning.

In sum, the attempt to quantify learning and teaching in a standardized manner is extremely expensive; takes up weeks and, in some places, months of time in school; narrows the curriculum; undermines the intrinsic joy of learning; and leads to a culture of corruption and cheating. As a measure of student learning, standardized tests are an extremely limited instrument. As a measure of teacher effectiveness, they are even more flawed.

Measuring, labeling, ranking, and then sorting students, teachers, and schools is an anti-democratic process, a dehumanizing process, and a mechanism for control. At the center of this process being antithetical to both our democracy and our faith in education is the fundamental flaw of high-stakes standardized testing.

Do many of the puzzle pieces of the corporate reform puzzle misuse standardized tests and the data drawn from those tests? Yes.

But we must not fall prey to the simplistic claim that the problem is how tests are used and not the tests themselves.

The ugly full picture of corporate reform shows that the problem is testing. Period.

Beware Reports Claiming “No Excuses”

As compelling as “miracle” schools and “no excuses” ideologies remain in political and public discourse, careful and evidence-based examinations of both repeatedly show that the rhetoric is a mask for corporate-style reform agendas that ignore and perpetuate inequity—instead of confronting inequity.

See this review from NEPC [see press release at Great Lakes Center for Education Research & Practice]:

Reviewed By
Mark Paige
University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth
January 2013

Summary of Review

This Public Agenda report profiles nine high-poverty schools in Ohio that the authors believe have exhibited “sustained success.” It first lists 11 commonly accepted attributes they assert are demonstrated across the profiled schools. The report then offer s six general recommendations for other schools to achieve and sustain success, although the connection between the attributes and the recommendations is unclear. How these “key attributes” and subsequent recommendations were derived from the interviews is not specified. The school selection criteria suggests sample bias. Six of the nine schools were from a state “schools of promise” list and three were not. Four of the schools’ poverty levels were near the state average, belying the high-poverty claim in the report’s title. The report’s biggest deficiency is that, while it is presented as addressing equity needs, and the interviewees pointed out that poverty related factors must be addressed, the recommendations fail to propose remedies or explicitly address these factors. This omission puts the report precariously close to the discredited “no excuses” genre. The common sense nature of the recommendations will likely be found acceptable to many readers, but the proposals are not sufficiently grounded in either the study’s own data or in the larger body of research. In sum, these shortcomings marginalize the work’s usefulness in advancing school reform and educational equity.

Note “The Delusional Contradictions of ‘No Excuses’ Reform and Poverty,” P. L. Thomas, EduSanity

October 10, 2012

EduSanity is pleased to share a piece from our first invited guest writer, Dr. P.L. Thomas from Furman University. Thomas’ writing has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, and pretty much everywhere else. He will lecture at the University of Arkansas on October 18th and brings an important message about poverty and education and how specifically, the concepts are intertwined.


There’s a haunting lyrics in The National’s “Daughters of the Soho Riots” (Alligator): “How can anybody know/How they got to be this way.”

The question speaks, although not intentionally or directly, to the arrogance at the core of the “No Excuses” education reform claim as it addresses poverty. Like the failed two-party political system in the U.S., the education reform agenda is mired in delusion and negligence—delusion from the “No Excuses” Reformers (NER) and negligence by the progressive status quo of public education. The critical and radical Social Context Reform (SCR) voice remains primarily marginalized and silenced.

Social Context Reform, in fact, is captured succinctly by Martin Luther King Jr. in hisFinal Words of Advice: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

And this represents as well the foundational source of the delusion perpetuated by NER who hold the political power (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), the wealth (Bill Gates), and the media spotlight (Michelle Rhee) that overwhelm SCR. Let’s, then, consider NER delusions.

• Is the U.S. a meritocracy? For the NER, the answer is yes, but the evidence reveals otherwise. In society and in schools, people and children tend to remain in the disadvantage or advantage of their births. The U.S. is distinctly not a country that rewards merit, but the NER speak with and to this myth in order, ironically, to maintain the status quo of privilege and austerity in the country and its schools.

• Is poverty destiny? A rallying slogan for NER is “poverty is not destiny,” but again this saying ignores that poverty is destiny, just as affluence is destiny. Further, NER have directly claimed that a child’s ZIP code does not determine that child’s opportunity to learn—despite the overwhelming evidence children are trapped by the accident of where they are born. The home, community, and school any child happens to experience due to factors that child has not determined are powerfully linked to the opportunities and outcomes of that child’s learning.

• Should we aspire to the template of the rugged individual? The Ayn Rand cartoon version of rugged individualism is compelling for Americans, trapped in a belief culture, and NER manipulate that delusional faith in the rugged individual to perpetuate the harsh and judgmental tenets of “no excuses” school practices—such as extended school days, extensive homework, test-based accountability for students and teachers, zero tolerance discipline policies, and contract-based admissions to selective charter schools. Though compelling, no one actually succeeds without some (or a great deal) communal support, some accident of privilege, or the disregarded and trivialized advantages offered by the commons (see Malcolm Gladwell’s unmasking of the rugged individualism myth in Outliers).

• Is anyone defending the public school status quo? Strawman arguments are common among NER with the status quo slur being central to that tactic. Progressives are clearly a part of the status quo, but the arguments coming from the SCR movement are voices that have long called for significant and even radical education reform. While the NER policies entrench inequity by directly mentioning poverty, the SCR calls for reform seek to change society and schools for democracy, equity, and agency.

• Is anyone using poverty as an excuse? By implication and even directly, NER perpetuate this strawman argument to reinforce the status quo charge; yet, I have yet to witness any SCR teacher or scholar who moves from offering the fact of poverty overwhelmingly impacting student outcomes to seeing that reality as fatalistic, and thus an excuse for slovenly teaching or inequitable schools. More common, I have found, is that teachers maintain their genuine commitment to teaching despite the tremendous evidence that they rarely make a measurable impact on their students (since numbers mean far less to most educators than to NER).

• Are teacher quality and union influence the primary roadblocks to education overcoming the weight of poverty in student learning? NER narratives are embedded in many layers of the media—from uncritical journalism to partisan political discourse to popular media such as Waiting for “Superman” and Don’t Back Down. Two elements of that narrative have been the myth of the bad teacher and the corruption of unions and tenure. The teacher quality strawman is a mask for the real teacher quality issue facing schools: Affluent children receive the best and most experienced teachers while impoverished children, children of color, ELL students, and special needs students disproportionately are assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced teachers (increasingly Teach for America recruits). The union/tenure charade is also a mask that hides the more powerful correlation with student outcomes—poverty. Unionized states have higher test scores than right-to-work states, but that data hide the deeper connections to poverty entrenched in those non-union states. As long as NER can keep the public and political leaders gazing at “bad” teachers, lazy tenured teachers, and corrupt unions, poverty and inequity remain untouched and the privileged status quo intact.

• Have choice broadly and charter schools narrowly revealed effective alternatives for addressing poverty and inequity? Market forces respond to capital, and thus are ill-suited to address inequity; market forces, in fact, appear to fail despite the NER faith in parental choiceCharter schools also have produced few differences when compared to public schools (or even private schools), but are re-segregating education.

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she presents an allegory of privilege, a narrative that exposes how privilege exists upon the back of oppression:

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” (Le Guin, 1975, p. 282)

NER in education maintains the delusion that privilege can somehow be separated from inequity. SCR, however, seeks to pull aside the myth in order to pursue the dream of King in which we continue to seek equity in society and schools in the U.S.—by genuine social reform then wedded to educational reform.


suggested citation:

Thomas, P.L. (2012, October 9). The delusional contradictions of “no excuses” reform and poverty. EduSanity. Retrieved from http://www.edusanity.com/2012/10/10/the-delusional-contradictions-of-no-excuses-reform-and-poverty/ ‎