Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Integrated Education and No-Excuses Charter Schools

Desegregation, the great education reform cause of the mid-20th century, never really happened, and not many people even talk about it nowadays, so I was pleasantly surprised last week when Dana Goldstein, a blogger for the Washington Post cited my page on No-Excuses education in an article about race and class integration in charter schools. The writer’s concern was the increasing popularity of the No-Excuses model, whose lengthened school days and rigid behavioral codes she worried would prove distasteful to middle-class and affluent parents, leaving only poor, inner-city kids to populate these rapidly proliferating schools. That is the tip of a very craggy iceberg: dissimilarities in how we educate children from different backgrounds have widened over the past two decades, and unlike in previous eras, the dissimilarities are stated and intentional.[1]

Original artwork by Tavet Rubel, created for Dewey to Delpit.
Matt Yglesias, writing for thinkprogress.org, responded to Ms. Goldstein's article with a version of the standard argument behind many of these dissimilarities: “…kids seem to benefit from picking up certain bourgeois modes of behavior.… Poor kids in a high-poverty school can… receive explicit instruction in bourgeois conduct. That’s the essence of the ‘No Excuses’ model, but it doesn’t make sense in a bourgeois context” (emphasis original.) That explanation resembles the one given by many No-Excuses schools for their strict behavioral codes: Middle-class students, the argument goes, learn school behaviors at home, and arrive in kindergarten already knowing how to sit still, listen to instructions, wait their turn, etc. Students from impoverished homes need to be explicitly taught these behaviors once they get to school.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.

[1] ^ See Jonathan Kozul's Shame of the Nation

[2] ^ Delpit, Lisa, Other People’s Children, New York : New Press, 1995

[3] ^ 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.


  1. But, if most people are working class, therefore aren't most white people are working class? So, how can you lump white = middle class together like this? I went to a working class white school were they were quick to corporal punishment. True, the really poor, predominantly Black school would beat you within an inch of your life, it was insanely violent. Okay, I'm old, but, I still wonder if this doesn't hold true today?

  2. Hi, Cybergrace. Thanks for your comments. Typically, poor, inner-city students are non-white. I don't know much about rural and small-town education; my experience is limited to urban schooling, so my categories relate to the conditions in cities-- hence the conflation of white and middle-class. I really don't know what pedagogical methods are used in American schools serving poor, white populations; it's an interesting question.

  3. I share cybergrace's concern about the conflation of non-white and poor above, and think there's a broader point here about the language used in this discussion and the assumptions embedded in it. Are you pointing to differences engendered by socioeconomic class, or by cultural variation? Any attempt to target pedagogy in an informed way, including the fascinating method applied by your colleague, needs to tread very carefully here. Your caveat about the potential un-PCness of her "talking black" brings this issue into sharp relief.

    In many American cities, of course, the fastest growing population is latino. If the key difference-maker here is culture, not poverty level, lessons learned in mostly black classrooms will not necessarily be applicable.

  4. KT,

    Thanks for me pushing on this issue; clearly, it's a sticky one.

    The issue at hand is parenting culture; how that interacts with class and ethnicity is complicated. Clearly, I’m talking in huge generalities: the specifics of parenting cultures no doubt differ greatly from one ethnicity to another, from Hatian to Dominican, from Jewish to WASP.

    So why base an argument in a simplistic distinction between permissive and authoritarian parenting cultures, as delineated by a dangerously vague confluence of class and ethnicity? To begin with, in my experience working the inner city, with both African American and Hispanic students, and in those of other teachers with whom I’ve spoken, that distinction seemed real and relevant. My observations may have been biased, un-generalizable, or simply incomplete; but in addition to the sociological research from the Times article I cited in my post and the observations made by Ms. Delpit, there is causal reason to expect the permissive/authoritarian distinction to span ethnicities.

    It’s important to remember that the permissive, Romantic child-rearing culture favored by affluent American parents, which is mirrored by the schools they choose for their children, development during past two hundred years or so, and only took its contemporary form in the past fifty. That culture has been influencing American public education since the 1920s, and was dominant in our schools during the 60s and 70s, so it has now come to seem normal, but in fact, it’s a peculiarity. Families not imbibing the mores of the American upper-middle-class are likely to apply older parenting techniques, none of which will be as permissive or as Romantic.

    Readers of this blog tend to assume that my failure to lambast a particular viewpoint implies that I embrace it. In fact, I’m very conflicted about the approach to authority taken by No-Excuses schools. My aim is not to attack or defend the model but to help shed light on how and why it operates the way it does and what it can teach us about education in America. Thus what matters to me is whether correlations between parenting culture and class or ethnicity (whatever the real sources of that correlation) are likely to contribute to school segregation. The underlying questions about culture, class, and ethnicity may be thorny, but we need not fully unravel them to recognize that they present a challenge to effective integrated schooling in this country.

  5. What's with the no mechanical pencils? Are mechanical pencils a marker of poverty? With my students (many ESL and low SES) no pencil at all is the problem. I would be delighted to see any writing instrument.

  6. Well, the mechanical pencils rule is probably not as universal as the others, but I've seen it at more than one school. When Tavet and I were coming up with ideas for the cartoon, we wanted a fifth rule to put in the diagram, and that's what jumped to mind.

    Apparently, the clicking, the extracting and reinserting of the lead, and the concomitant imaginary syringes and so on are deemed sufficient distractions, in some schools, to warrant the moratorium on mechanical pencils. Personally, I find the getting up to sharpen broken points similarly disruptive, but the people who made these rules are more experienced and have better classroom-management instincts than I.

    A more interesting question is whether this constitutes symptom treatment. Like so many apparently simple questions, this one about mechanical pencils opens up very deep issues, deep enough that I can't really go into them here. Suffice it to say that symptom treatment is an important part of how No-Excuses schools operate; that is, they are philosophically oriented towards dealing with displayed behaviors rather than focusing exclusively on root causes. That's not how global, radical, and Romantic thinkers tend to approach things, but there are situations in which it's very expedient. (See this post, for more on this.)

    In response to your comments about your low-income students not having pencils at all, that's a whole separate problem, which No-Excuses schools certainly deal with; but, just as there are students who show up without pencils, there are students who show up with mechanical ones and with pens (which are often banned as well, for more obvious reasons; I more or less outlawed pens in my 11th grade, private-school precalc class, this past Spring, because they made for messier work and thus messier thinking.)

  7. The first two-thirds of the article is an argument for school segregation by race; the last one-third claims integration is paramount to avoid the end of America. Why is integration so important to the survival of the country? Lets hear how diversity helps nations - I'm all ears. What is really happening is the sacrifice of our children for the utopian delusion of your Star Trek world (multicultural utopia for those unfamiliar; quite good TV propaganda); just as the Little Rock Nine were sacrificed. I was sacrificed for this delusion as well; I attended integrated schools and experienced the blatant anti-white racism so common amongst blacks. I will not sacrifice my children and nor will any reasonable white parent - those days are over, truth always triumphs in the end. There is a new school trend in Canada - Black Only Schools - interesting no? Wake up to reality; the only people who want integration are the kings and queens who do the sacrificing; sacrifice your own kids (but you don't do you?).