There is No Excuse to Condoning the Harsh Treatment of No-Excuses Charter School Students

Imagine your child coming home from school because they wet their pants. Not because they didn’t ask to go to the bathroom in time, but because their teacher would not let them. This is one of the consequences resulting from the strict behavioral code enforced at a no-excuses charter school Success Academy, in New York City. No-excuses charter schools are designed to close the achievement gap between poor minority students and privileged students through rigid behavioral codes. The core principle of these institutions is that there should be “no excuse” as to why minority students do not succeed the same academically as more privileged students.

New York is home to Success Academy and KIPP, which both produce significantly high graduation rates and college acceptances. However, the methods used in order to achieve this kind of success is controversial. Behaviorism is implemented in all aspects of the student’s school life ranging from the way they position their body in class to having half silent lunches. All students must behave in a universal way and face consequences such as suspension if they do not.

In no-excuses charter schools, creativity is replaced with compliance. Social interaction is limited, disruptive, and punishable as a look away from the board can result in a demerit. Perhaps one of the most ironic facts about no excuses-charter schools is while their goal is to overcome racism and succeed in having minority students at the same academic level as more privileged students, the core behavioral values actually perpetuate a cycle of a white superior racial hierarchy with black and Hispanic students unquestionably complying to their white teachers.

The academic success rates of no-excuses charter school’s students in New York City do not justify the psychological, emotional, and racial effects that no excuses charter-schools have on their children and the outside world.

At no-excuses charter schools, every aspect of a student’s daily life is controlled. Nails must be polished a certain color. Highlighted hair is prohibited. At Success Academy, backs must be straight, hands clasped, and feet on the floor or legs-crossed.  Teachers punish students for straying from rules or even unintentionally answering incorrectly. A troubling video taken at Success Academy in Cobble Hill shows a teacher ripping up a first grader’s paper because she got a math question wrong. She is then sent to the “calm down” chair and is yelled at in front of the entire class. In addition, teachers easily give out demerits or violations. Slouching from a sore back equals a demerit. Straying your eyes from the board to the class equals another demerit. From what they write on paper to how they act in class is determined by a strict behavioral code that determines their academic success.

Video displaying teacher yelling at students from CBS Evening News.

Social interaction and cultural identity are important in a child’s developmental growth. However, no-excuses charter schools’ racialized disciplinary practices deems black students’ culture as inappropriate in school settings. Personal accounts from former deans at no-excuses charter schools share their problematic daily routines of monitoring young black girl’s nail polish or disciplining black men for styling their hair naturally because the uncombed afro style is not permitted. Although this does not have to do with actual teaching and learning, the administration at these schools are focused on black students entering the classroom look “appropriate” for learning. Other components of African American culture are also repressed such as language that is commonly used by family and friends. In addition, students at KIPP can be punished if a teacher deems their actions as “disrespectful.” However, there are certain racial biases that play a role in teachers’ interpretations of what merits disrespect. Deborah Klehr, who defends students at no-excuses schools in disciplinary hearings explains that in her experience, “left to their own discretion, teachers disproportionately punish African American students for alleged disrespect.” Although no-excuses charter schools impose punitive measures on all their students, black students often face more extreme consequences.

One of the main ideologies of no excuses charter schools is that race should not determine a student’s academic success. However, the system itself perpetuates a racial hierarchy with white people still being on top. Minority students are taught that the way to achieve academic success is through compliance often enforced by their white teachers. This is highly problematic. In contrast, white students heavily populate nonpublic schools in New York City. In many of these more privileged institutions such as liberal art schools that focus on creativity and self-expression, white students are often celebrated for the same behavior that black and Hispanic students are punished for in no-excuses charter schools.White students do not follow a behavioral code in these institutions because no one ever believes they need to comply to succeed. Linking compliance with achievement puts students at risk in the future of sustaining the same pattern of compliance in their daily lives and once they enter the work world. Setting up a mentality that minority students have to comply to succeed while white students are celebrated for their creativity and individuality does not close one racial achievement gap, however, creates another.

No-excuses charter schools also affect minority students by feeding the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Suspension is easily given and as the pipeline suggests, the more a student is out of school the more likely that they drop out. In consequence, studies have found that dropping out leads to higher likelihoods of ending up in prison. Since minority students are the ones most getting suspended, once again, no-excuses charter schools are adding to the problem of higher black incarceration rates. In trying to close one achievement gap, their strict punishments lead to another where black and Hispanic students have the highest suspension rates. Taking a look at a bigger disparity at the national level, higher incarceration rates as well.

This op-ed is not meant to disregard the achievements of no excuses-charter school students. However, it is a call to change the methods of rigid behavioral conducts. Some no-excuses charter schools in New York have started to ease up on their codes and are still getting positive results. At Ascend elementary school in Brooklyn instead of sending home a student who did not wear the right pair of socks, the main office has a box of distributional socks. They understand that not every child has a washing machine at home. Other schools have begun to take down public color boards that show the rankings of students by their behavior. Instead of a zero- tolerance policy, these more reformed schools are being more understanding.

The pursuit to close the achievement gap between minorities and privileged students must be closed without limiting the creativity and social interactions of students and perpetuating a racial hierarchy. As one of the most racially diverse cities in the country, New York must do better in protecting minority students. We must do better.

By: Tianna