Joanne W. Golann’s new book is all about schools that insist their teachers follow the guidance of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion instead of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but whose principals and teachers have convinced themselves they are liberating students from oppression.
Lured by the promise that their middle school will put them on the path to college, many of the students in Scripting the Moves: Culture & Control in a “No-Excuses” Charter School quickly become angry and disgruntled as teachers assign them demerits for failing to sit at attention or whispering or speaking as they walk in straight lines marked by squares on the hallway floors. At Dream Academy, teachers are driven obsessively to “sweat the small stuff.” School leaders warn teachers that the whole system might collapse if anyone loses control.
Golann explains that, Dream Academy, the pseudonymous name of the school where she conducted her ethnographic study, typifies to one degree or another no-excuses charter schools managed by many of the huge charter management organizations, beginning with KIPP, but also including Achievement First, Aspire, Democracy Prep, Green Dot, IDEA, Mastery, Match, Noble Network, Promise Academies, Rocketship, Success Academies, Uncommon Schools, and YES Prep.
Anyone with the most rudimentary, university-based, public school teacher certification training—including philosophy of education, educational psychology and learning theory—will likely find it shocking to read what Golann describes observing in her year-and-a-half ethnographic study. Yet Dream Academy exemplifies the kind of schooling so many families are choosing—based on a promise that college admission will follow.
SLANT, the basic behavioral script launched in the KIPP schools, has been copied across no-excuses charter schools including Dream Academy: S (sit up straight), L (listen), A (ask questions), N (nod for understanding ), and T (track the speaker). Dream Academy has added more than three dozen other possible infractions (divided into three categories according to their seriousness) for which students earn a range of penalties: “Over the course of the school year, teachers at Dream Academy assigned a total of 15,423 infractions to the school’s approximately 250 students. Students on average received 60 infractions over 188 days or approximately 1 infraction every 3 days. Six students, with an average GPA of 3.9, managed to slip by without a single infraction over the school year; on the other extreme, one fifth-grade Black boy, with a 1.36 GPA accumulated 295 infractions. Teachers had little choice but to enforce the school’s rigid behavioral scripts because they too were evaluated on their adherence to them.” (p. 32)
Golann, the ethnographer, shapes her analysis from the point of view of the sociologist: “(W)e can interpret the rigid behavioral scripts employed by no-excuses schools as in line with a long history of managing poor youth of color through social control, surveillance, and punishments. The poor have long been viewed as intractable, in need of guidance and reform.” (p. 14) “If ‘no excuses’ is supposed to be about the school making no excuses for student failure, it ends up being about the school accepting no excuses from students for deviating from the school’s rigid behavioral script… Instead of putting the onus on schools and teachers to provide the extra supports to help all students achieve, the no-excuses philosophy was reinterpreted in the context of the school’s behavioral script to mean, as reflected in… (a) teacher’s words, ‘holding students responsible for their character and their actions and their education.’ This perspective attributes the failures of urban schools to low-income Black and Latino children who are seen as lacking the right attitudes and values (like hard work, diligence, personal responsibility) to be successful and sees success as holding these children to tighter expectations.” (p. 40)
Although Dream Academy’s staff believe they are imparting social capital and so-called “middle class values” to their students, Golann’s research demonstrates that the no-excuses school inculcates in children a very different understanding of their social place and their rights than the sense of entitlement possessed by more privileged children: “As students learned to adhere to the school’s demanding scripts in order to gain privileges, they developed what I call a sense of earning… A sense of earning, however, contrasts with a sense of entitlement, which sociologist Annette Lareau has identified as a middle-class mindset. Middle-class families foster in their children a sense of entitlement whereby their children feel deserving of other people’s time and resources. Children with a sense of entitlement believe that others are partially responsible for their success. Through their self-advocacy, entitled students gain advantages for themselves, from extra attention in preschool to classwork assistance in elementary school to a grade bump in college… Schools also cater to middle-class White families, positioning them as ‘consumers’ whose needs ought to be attended to rather than ‘beneficiaries’ who should be grateful for the privilege of attending the school… Scholars have criticized the ‘myth of meritocracy’ for fostering a ‘context-neutral mindset’ that ignores or minimizes the structural obstacles that make it difficult for certain racial and socioeconomic groups to climb the social ladder. For affluent White students, believing that they have earned their way through hard work legitimates social privilege. For low-income students of color, conversely, believing in a meritocratic system puts students in the precarious position of deriving their self-worth from their achievements.” (pp. 46-47)
Golann explores Dream Academy’s failure to work with students to develop critical thinking and the kinds of study and interactive skills they will need if they do go on to college: “Dream Academy was successful in getting its middle school students to think about college and in getting its high school graduates to apply to, and be admitted to, college. But… Dream Academy’s rigid behavioral scripts did not encourage students to develop the types of cultural capital that higher-income students use to gain advantages in college. Cultural capital, which I have defined as tools of interaction, comprises the attitudes, skills, and styles that allow individuals to navigate complex institutions and shifting expectations. These tools include skills like how to express an opinion, be flexible, display leadership, advocate a position, and make independent decisions.” (p. 58)
Finally Dream Academy teachers’ obsession with minute behavioral infractions undermines trust and generates anger and antagonism: “No-excuses schools ‘sweat the small stuff.’ Under a sweating-the-small-stuff approach, authority is exercised over ‘a multitude of items of conduct—dress, deportment, manners—that constantly occur and constantly come up for judgment.’… (A)s teachers took on the role of disciplinarians, they became enmeshed in a racist system that perpetuated stereotypes of Black and Brown bodies as needing to be controlled rather than one that humanized students as individuals to be understood, cared for, and respected. It is unlikely that belittling and shouting at students, for example, would be acceptable at an affluent White school, yet these practices are common at no-excuses schools, which serve almost exclusively Black and Latino students.” (pp. 86-99)
Golann concludes: “Instead of developing a sense of ease with figures of authority, most of whom are White, these young Black and Latino kids developed a sense of antagonism, learning to be distant, suspicious, and resentful. A sense of antagonism impacts learning and classroom management, but also shapes how students learn to interact with authority more broadly… Sociologist Pedro Noguera writes, “When children are presumed to be wild, uncontrollable, and potentially dangerous, it is not surprising that antagonistic relations with the adults who are assigned to control them develop.” (p. 101)
In a later section of the book, Golann profiles the teachers who find themselves working in schools like Dream Academy. Many of them are young, many inexperienced, many from Teach for America. And, despite that Dream Academy claims the school’s scripted discipline makes it “teacher-proof,” many teachers last only for a year or two. In the year before Golann conducted her study, the school was able to retain only 44 percent of its teachers.
In contrast to the education philosophy at Dream Academy, Paulo Freire, the father of liberation pedagogy, understands education as a mutual partnership between student and teacher: “Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” The efforts of “the humanist, revolutionary educator” “must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization… (Teachers) must be partners of the students in their relations with them.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pp. 53-56)