Are “No-Excuses” Charter Management Organizations the Descendants of Wackford Squeers?

Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby portrays child abuse at Dotheboys Hall, a remote Yorkshire boarding school of the mid-nineteenth century.  Tucked away in the country, such schools were out of sight.  Dickens’ expose of strict authoritarianism, enforced by Wackford Squeers and his wife who starved and beat the children, effectively damaged the reputation of such places, and many were immediately closed.  Nobody today accuses the so-called “no excuses” charter schools of starving or beating children, but like Squeers, several charter chains these days create a school culture based on authoritarianism, strict obedience, and submissiveness.  Such a philosophy of education would be unacceptable to the vast majority of Americans these days.  What does it say about attitudes toward poverty and families of color that there seems to be wide acceptance of such a strategy in urban schools designed for poor black children?

Last Friday in her Washington Post column Valerie Strauss printed a fascinating interview by blogger Jennifer Berkshire with Joan Goodman, a University of Pennsylvania professor of education who has investigated the operation of so-called “no excuses” Charter Management Organizations (CMOs).  These are the charter chains like Kipp, Mastery, and Young Scholars which operate through rigid rules of behavior and enforce obedience with rewards and punishments.  Joan Goodman is the advisor for students from Penn who are entering Teach for America (TFA). While many of the “no excuses” schools have been resistant to external evaluation by researchers, Goodman has, while conducting observations of her students, been able to examine carefully the norms in the schools where many of her students are serving in TFA.

Berkshire’s interview follows up on a longer article published by Goodman in the March, 2013, Educational Researcher.  In that piece Goodman describes the behavioral expectations in the “no-excuses” charter schools: “A conspicuous feature of the regulated environment is an insistence on continuous compliance to pervasive rules that shadow children throughout the day.  The rules, covering even small details of children’s comportment, both in and out of class, move beyond traditional forms of discipline, making these CMOs a rather new model on the educational horizon.  The effort to create totalizing environments using a variety of systemic behavioral engineering techniques represents a significant departure even from traditional schools avowing behavioral methodologies, where the use of reinforcement has been largely limited to achieving specific targeted behaviors…”

In the interview published by Valerie Strauss last Friday, Goodman describes “very elaborate behavioral regimes that they (the schools) insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten.  Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values.  They want kids to submit.  You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told…  The view of time and strict discipline are related, by the way, in order to get these kids to attend over very long hours—they have extended days and extended weeks—you have to be tough with the kids, really severe.  They want these kids to understand that when authority speaks you have to follow because that’s basic to learning. So they don’t have the notion of learning that more progressive educators have, that learning is a very active enterprise and that children have to be very participatory….  These schools believe that behaviors that you might not think are directly related to academic learning can have a domino effect if left unaddressed.  Getting up from your chair to go to the bathroom without explicit permission, for example, or not having your hands folded on your desk, or not looking at the teacher every minute, or not having your feet firmly planted on each side of the center of the desk are problematic behaviors.”

In her Educational Researcher piece, Goodman provides detailed descriptions of discipline in such schools, including this picture of rewards and punishments at a KIPP middle school: “Students at Young Scholars Middle School, for example, receive a weekly paycheck of $50.00.  Deductions are made for violations of core values, or ‘PATH’ (professional, including being on time, following all procedures and directions; attentive, including good listening, eye contact, and posture; thoughtful and hard working, including having high goals, perseverance, and demanding excellence), as well as for violating the behavioral codes, or SMARTS (Stand and Sit Straight, Make good choices, Always 100% on task and engaged, Respect, Track the speaker, Shine)… One week with a balance below $30.00 results in an after-school detention; 3 weeks of low balance results in an in-school or out-of-school suspension; and 6 weeks, a suspension plus reinstatement meeting.  For good behavior, students at KIPP earn KIPP dollars that may be redeemed for school favors (trips, items from the store).  The balances are always known to the child, with deductions for infractions and additions for meritorious behavior made at any time by a teacher or staff member.”  Parents are shown the balances and must sign the report sent home once a week.

While beating and starving are avoided these days, in her interview with Berkshire, Goodman reports that shaming is common: “Students have to go to a certain chair and sit there for a certain length of time, all at the teacher’s discretion, and sometimes they have to go repeatedly to this isolated chair with their back to the class.  They may be deprived of recess if that’s granted.  They have to go to detention and stay after school.  They have to write things 100 times.  In some of the schools, there’s a good bit of shaming: they have to wear different colored shirts, they can’t talk, they have to sit on a lower bench than other children.  And it’s deliberate shaming of the kids.  No one is allowed to talk to them.  And what offense have they done to merit this kind of punishment?  They haven’t done their homework or they’ve come in late, perhaps repeatedly. They haven’t done anything violent.  There has been no adjudication.  The teachers or the school norms say this is appropriate.  So what are the limits of what a teacher can do to a child?”

Near the end of her interview with Berkshire, Goodman affirms the need for order and developing good habits, but she worries about whether anyone is considering the rights of the child along with the lifetime impact of this kind of school culture: “One thing about these atmospheres is that they’re very uniform.  Everybody is on board…. The atmosphere is totalizing.  And the children tend to model themselves after this authority…. they identify with the rules of the regime and their identity becomes ‘a kid in this school who conforms to these rules.’…  As the social psychologists have shown, in totalizing environments, that’s often the result.  They call it ‘identification with the oppressor.’ Here oppressor should be changed to authority.”

2 thoughts on “Are “No-Excuses” Charter Management Organizations the Descendants of Wackford Squeers?

  1. Thanks for illuminating this “no excuses” approach and characterizing it for what it actually is–child psycho/social abuse. For children who submit to this, how are they being shaped to be as adults–conforming, not questioning authority, doing as they’re told. This is chilling. The comparison to Dickens is quite apt. I’ve often had Dickens in mind when learning more and more about the dehumanizing assault on public schools, students, teachers, and communities that is being perpetrated by corporate interests who claim to have the children’s best interests at heart. Trouble is, they have no heart. a quote from Jonathan Kozol: “Instead of seeing these children for the blessings that they are, we are measuring them only by the standard of whether they will be future deficits or assets for our nation’s competitive needs.”

  2. Pingback: Charter Schools: Too Often Punitive, Impersonal, Corrupt, Unregulated | janresseger

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