|Original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit.|
That explanation isn’t all wrong, but it’s only part of the picture. To begin with, the behaviors that No-Excuses schools work so hard to habituate in their students do not exactly resemble the behaviors of students in wealthy private schools, who are more likely to be lounging at their desks than sitting bolt upright with their hands folded. Questioning or debating a teacher’s decision, a major no-no of the No-Excuses model, is quite common in many affluent schools, nor is it discouraged: the right to argue with authority, in Romantic education, is inalienable. The peculiarly strict disciplinary style of the No-Excuses school does not teach bourgeois behaviors; it teaches a very different set of behaviors, and the reasons it does that are psychologically complex.
Over the past couple of decades sociological researchers have, in the grand tradition of the social sciences, rigorously documented what anyone who rides the subway figured out on his own ages ago: that affluent parents take a much looser approach to discipline and a much more flexible attitude towards rules than do poor and working-class parents. (This New York Times Magazine article gives a nice overview of the research, but you have to scroll about a third of the way down to find the relevant bit.) It can be no coincidence that the schools that have proved most effective at educating inner-city children take a more rigid approach to authority.
Anyone who has ever taught students from a background very different from his own knows that most children respond better to authority that resembles the authority of the home culture. An absolutely indomitable classroom manager who I used to work with once told me that, if a student turns really defiant, she will sometimes switch into the home language: French for West African kids, Spanish for Hispanic ones; she’ll even do black English for African-American kids, PC qualms notwithstanding. This tactic can be startlingly effective, she explained; a child who, a moment before, was hunkering down for a battle of wills, will turn suddenly compliant.
Those of us who grew up in schools that partook of their home culture can only guess at the discomfort felt by students who attend a school where most of the teachers neither look nor talk nor act like their moms and dads; where the rules of conduct and the subliminal messages by which those rules are communicated are foreign and unfamiliar. No wonder, then, that educators seeking to create safe, calm, focused learning environments for inner-city children have gravitated towards the No-Excuses model. That kind of forceful, explicit authority may actually be more comfortable and familiar to these students.
Sixteen years ago, African American educator and writer Lisa Delpit argued that the educational needs of children of color, in terms of both content and discipline, differed radically from those of white, middle-class children. Delpit’s analysis encompassed both the considerations of parenting cultures just mentioned and the arguments about bourgeois values made by the blogger whom I quoted at the beginning of this post—though she deals with the latter issue in much deeper and less normative terms. Delpit is brilliant (that’s why I named this blog after her), and her arguments were compelling and influential, but what room do they leave for integrated schooling?
The issues at stake are too big for this blog; they touch on the most frightening peculiarities of American culture. I believe that children of different backgrounds can and should learn together in integrated schools; that it is our fear of the compromises and complexities of such an arrangement that have prevented it from coming into being for half a century; that a little discipline will not deaden our children’s souls and a little playful, collaborative learning will not squander precious, irretrievable time nor open the floodgates of chaos and mischief. I believe, too, that to give up on integrated schooling is to give up on America; it is to say that the many races and cultures living together in our cities cannot cohere into a single nation, sharing common beliefs, common knowledge, and common schools. We have failed, wildly and undeniably, to overcome the racial schisms that divide us—but we may yet succeed.
But this isn’t a blog about my beliefs, and I don’t want to end my post with a sermon. So many of the people that are building the most segregated new schools in this country are those most whole-heartedly dedicated to racial equality and social justice; and I, with my ten fingers and my big ideas, don’t presume to tell anyone how it ought to be done. I just want people to think hard on it.
 ^ See Jonathan Kozul's Shame of the Nation
 ^ Delpit, Lisa, Other People’s Children, New York : New Press, 1995
 ^ According to Delpit, the culture of the dominant class within the society—its modes of speech and dress, its body language, its cannon of shared knowledge—becomes a set of cues by which members of the dominant culture subconsciously signal their class status and read other people’s. She calls this the culture of power and, though she does not see it as intrinsically better or more valuable than any other culture, she believes that a mastery of its forms and behaviors—an ability to code switch—is an essential tool for navigating the society. Delpit argues that children of color ought to be trained to consciously code switch, when the situation calls for it. Indeed, many No-Excuses schools explain this principle to students, when introducing rules about how to speak and act in school: it’s not correct English, it’s standard English.