This page provides an overview of No-Excuses Charter Schools-- what they are, where they came from, how they're structured, and why you should care. It also examines, in some detail, the debate over how to interpret the data on the effectiveness of these schools. This page does not delve into the much more complex and profound debate over the actual pedagogical methods of these schools. I have been approaching that discussion bit by bit, through my posts, but it is too big to tackle here. (Click here for a list of posts on No-Excusesism.)
Overview and Origins
The no-excuses charter movement is an affiliation so new and so informally defined that it doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. As far as I know, there is no official list of no-excuses charter schools and no official list of attributes that define them. There is, however, a new model of schooling being practiced by a rapidly growing number of urban charter schools, and that approach is distinctive enough and consistent enough from school to school that it deserves a name and it deserves to be seen for what it is: a new movement in educational philosophy. Networks and schools within the movement like to call themselves "high performing charters," but I prefer a term that's more descriptive and less judgmental—thus, the No-Excuses Movement (let's give it capitals.)
A tentative history. To my knowledge, the No-Excuses Movement began with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a network of charters that opened its first two schools in 1995. Those schools were extremely successful in raising students' test-scores, and the network grew quickly—today, there are 99 KIPP schools in 20 different states, with a combined enrollment of over 26,000 students. At the same time, forward-thinking educators outside the movement began opening independent charters modeled on the KIPP schools, by the late '90s. The movement now includes several charter networks—The Uncommon Schools, which opened its first school in 1997, and Democracy Prep Public Schools, which opened its first school in 2006, are two examples—as well as numerous stand-alone charters; and it is growing all the time.
No-Excuses charters have received a lot of glowing endorsements by politicians and a lot of vitriolic attacks by advocates of progressive education—who object to their rigid pedagogical methods—and by opponents of charter schools—who often see them as the most threatening and insidious form of a phenomenon capable, they fear, of dismantling public education in America. Like most public discussions in this lovely country, the debate has become highly polarized, to the detriment of everyone’s understanding and of progress in education. As an independent researcher interested in educational models, I find the discovery—for that’s what it is—of this new way of education fascinating; it contains plenty of flaws and plenty of beautiful insights, and I try to examine it as coolly as I can, because there’s plenty to learn from it. My first year teaching at a No-Excuses school, a friend of mine who teaches at St. Ann’s, a progressive private school in Brooklyn, came to observe a day of classes. It’s incredible, he told me afterwards, that that place and St. Ann’s are both called "schools," what’s going on inside them is so utterly different.
What Makes a No-Excuses School a No-Excuses School?
As I said above, there is no official list of defining features for No-Excuses charters, but most of them share a number of distinctive characteristics. Here is a very pared-down list:
- High behavioral and academic expectations for all students—these expectations are applied without exception for extenuating circumstance, hence the designation No-Excuses. No-Excuses schools provide plenty of extra support—both emotional and academic—to any student who needs it, but they strive never to lower expectations. That means that no matter how troubling a student's home-life may be, no matter what difficulties she may have to overcome in her neighborhood or her family, she is still expected to work hard and follow the school's code of behavior (see the next item on this list); no student will receive special treatment, be exempted from punishment, or granted a passing grade when she has not mastered class material. To lower expectations, argue those in the movement, would be to give up on a student, to say to her, "We don't expect you to learn what other students learn; we don't expect you to behave in school, to pay attention, to respect your teachers. Your circumstances make you incapable of being a good student."
This attitude arises from an idealistic and, in fact, very radical assumption that lies at the heart of the No-Excuses movement: that every student, no matter what his or her background, is capable of high academic achievement and success in life.
- A strict behavioral and disciplinary code that leaves little room for ambiguity or inconsistency—rules and punishments are laid out in Talmudic detail, usually in a document that is required—and tested—reading for all students and faculty at the beginning of the year. In many schools, for example, lateness, even by a couple of minutes, and uniform violation (a missing belt, bright nail-polish, etc.) lead to automatic detentions; cursing in class or telling a teacher to shut up often spell automatic suspension.
- More time on academics—an extended school-day and school-year, less recess time, Saturday and after-school tutoring, integration of math and literacy into all subjects, even art, theater, phys ed, etc.
- A college preparatory curriculum for all students
- A strong focus on building and teaching school culture and community values—No-Excuses schools invest a lot of time and energy in teaching kids how to behave in a classroom and how to be respectful to teachers and peers; they work hard to build school pride and instill in their students a belief in the school's core values, and in the importance and possiblity of their own college education.
- Policies to hire and motivate great teachers—higher salaries, bonuses tied to performance, rigorous teacher assessment based on student achievement and observations, large amounts of time devoted to teacher-training.
There's a huge amount that could be said about the structure of a No Excuses charter—it's distinctive, elaborate, and consistent from school to school—but it's already fairly well documented by those within the movement, and I don't want to spend too much time on it at this juncture. For those who are curious, I'm including a slightly expanded list of common characteristics in Appendix A, below. I will touch on various details of No Excuses school-structure as they come up in my posts.
Effectiveness of the Movement
(I originally posted a different version of this discussion; that version contained a major oversight, and I have therefore replaced it with the revised version below. If you read this page when it was first posted, you will find that this and the following section are significantly modified.)
The reason we’re talking about No-Excuses Charter schools, and the reason they're proliferating so quickly, is that they appear to be highly successful—as measured, of course, by student scores on state exams. Schools within the movement measure their effectiveness, not merely by their students’ absolute test-scores, but by their students’ yearly progress—and they make that data very public. Here, for example, is a highlight from the KIPP website:
“The average KIPP student who stays with KIPP for four years starts fifth grade at the 41st percentile in mathematics and the 31st percentile in reading. After four years at KIPP, these same students are performing at the 80th percentile in math and the 58th percentile in reading, based on national norm-referenced tests.”Other No-Excuses charters boast similar gains in student achievement, and several third-party reports have confirmed the value of a KIPP education.
Like most charters, No Excuses schools have lottery admissions, so they're not skimming the best students off the top in any obvious way; and because they measure themselves by their students’ progress more than by absolute test-scores, differences in student demographics or innate talent might seem irrelevant, anyway. Nonetheless, there is a broad debate raging in education circles over how to interpret the data on No-Excuses schools, centering on differences in the student population between charter schools and public schools. That discussion gets pretty involved, and though the critics of charters have some good arguments, I think this is ultiamtely a very limited critique of No-Excuse schools, so I’m going to cover it in a separate section, below.
Of more concern, I believe, is the use of test-scores as measures of charter-school effectiveness. A lot of the tests being used are lousy tests, and No-Excuses charters are often subject to the same distortion of curriculum from high-stakes testing that we see in regular public schools (see my 8/16 post, Teaching for the Test.) Critics have argued that No-Excuses schools do much more rote test-prep than DOE schools, but I have no data on that issue.
As the movement matures, though, better measures of school effectiveness, like high-school graduation rates, college attendance rates, and college graduation rates, are becoming available, but only for the earliest No-Excuses schools. In another decade, we’ll be able to examine average adult earnings and crime rates, which are really excellent measures of a school’s long-term impact. If I had to bet, I'd bet that we will see a significant positive impact from No-Excuses education, in these data—assuming we’re keeping track of the data that we’ll need to make a reliable comparison(see footnote 6, third paragraph.)
Data-Based Critiques of the No-Excuses Movement
There are two ways in which a No-Excuses charter school ends up with a student population that is demographically different from the district public school down the block. The first has to do with incoming students, the second with departing ones.
Yes, charter admissions are lottery-based, but you have to enter the lottery. Only those kids whose parents have the wherewithal to put them in the charter lottery have a chance of getting into a No-Excuses school. That’s a big selection factor, actually. True, students at No-Excuses charters are mostly non-white, and most qualify for free or reduced-price lunches (that’s bureaucracy-speak for “they’re poor”)—but they probably have some major advantages over their peers at regular public schools. Parental involvement means better nutrition, a more consistent sleep schedule, more time spent on homework and studying, and more cooperation between faculty and parents to solve discipline problems and help struggling students; it also probably makes students more trusting of and invested in the school.
Charter schools do a lot outreach to get as many parents as possible to enter their kids in the lottery—but there is reason to think that No-Excuses schools would have trouble absorbing those kids whose parents don’t put them in the lottery. Parental involvement, cooperation, and communication is important to the No-Excuses model, and the long school-hours, heavy homework loads, afterschool tutoring, and frequent weekend classes and field-trips demand a big commitment from families. Even parents who voluntarily put their kids in the lottery often have trouble swallowing the rigid disciplinary code and huge time-demands of a No-Excuses school. If we removed the selection bias—for example, by automatically entering all eligible students in the lottery, with or without parental approval—No-Excuses schools might find their job considerably more difficult.
Attrition Selection Bias
If most charters have little control over who enters the lottery, they certainly do have control over whom they expel. It’s extremely difficult for a DOE school to expel a student—it requires a mile-long paper trail and a pattern of egregious behavior. A charter school has much more leeway to expel—I’ll look into the precise details of this, but I think it’s pretty much up to the school to kick out whomever they choose. Also, the rigorous demands of No-Excuses schools may cause weaker students to switch out more frequently than stronger students. Now, these effects appear more pronounced at some No-Excuses schools than they do at others.
Harlem Village Academy (HVA), a very successful No-Excuses charter in East Harlem, provides an extreme example. HVA has incoming 5th-grade cohorts of sixty-odd students; within a year, those cohorts have usually been cut down by about 30%; by 8th grade, a cohort of HVA students numbers about half its original size. I don’t have any information as to how many of those who leave are expelled, but I suspect it’s a lot of them—in other words, HVA is selecting out the best students. Now, that doesn’t mean HVA’s not doing some amazing work—there is little doubt that going to HVA improves educational outcomes for those students who don’t get expelled—but it does mean that HVA isn’t a school for everybody.
Some schools work much harder to serve all students. Democracy Prep Charter School (DPCS), for example, expels perhaps 5% of a cohort per year; and Democracy Prep Public Schools superintendent Seth Andrew has been known to put a moratorium on expulsions, when too many occur in the same year. 5% is still a high expulsion rate, by the standards of non-No-Excuses schools, but it constitutes a much smaller selection bias, and we can probably expect the rate to decrease in higher grades. (DPCS is growing a grade per year, and its oldest cohort began 10th grade earlier month.)
No-Excuses schools damage their credibility, though, when they try to sweep these issues under the rug. HVA, for example, announces, on the main page of their network website, that “Harlem Village Academies recently made history as our students were the first class of eighth graders ever in Harlem to achieve 100% passing on the state math test.” That’s no lie, but it sure as heck is misleading—after all, only about 50% of the 5th grade cohort that entered their school three years earlier actually stayed at HVA to take that 8th grade math test. In fact, if only half their students are getting 100% on the state math test, that’s still great results—I’ve observed an 8th grade math class at HVA, and the work they’re doing is very high level; you’d probably be hard-pressed to find any schools in NYC where half the kids get 100% on the state math test.
(Why, then, does HVA feel compelled to provide misleading data on their school? I don’t want to delve too deeply into that question at this juncture, but I think it points to one of the negative side-effects of introducing competition into education. HVA is by no means a for-profit organization, but they are an independent organization, out to prove their worth within NYC’s rapidly-diversifying public-school community. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, education is a product whose quality is difficult to assess, and as such it is susceptible to various undesirable behaviors under market conditions.)
A Good Education for Those Who Can Cut It
That No-Excuses schools greatly improve educational outcomes for those students who get in and stay in, I think, is difficult to dispute. Even if No-Excuses charters select out the best kids, those kids are still progressing much faster and scoring much higher in the No-Excuses schools than they were in the district schools. Any attempt to use expulsion rates and selection-bias in lottery entrances to argue otherwise appears untenable in the face of the longitudinal data on individual student improvement at charter schools.
Several third-party studies further bolster that claim (though most of the studies I’ve seen focus on the KIPP network; I know of no third-party studies pertaining to No-Excuses schools in general.) Most notably, a study is currently underway at Mathematica, Policy and Research, Inc. of a representative sample of 22 KIPP schools across the country. The study is statistically rigorous and attempts to take into account both of the critiques discussed above. It uses unassailable methods to factor out the effect of student selection through expulsion; its methods for controlling out lottery selection-bias are pretty defensible, but they’re not impregnable.
(Mathematica also tries to account for a third source of data distortion not discussed above, namely grade-retention. KIPP schools generally refuse to promote a kid to the next grade unless she has mastered the material of the grade she’s in; thus they hold kids back at significantly higher rates than ordinary schools, and this means that the weaker students in a given cohort will not take the 8th grade exam with their cohort, as they would have done had they gone to a DOE school. It’s actually very difficult to control for this statistically; Mathematica takes an approach which assumes that retention has, on average, zero impact on student achievement. That’s a compromise between those who argue that retention discourages a student and reduces her educational outcomes and those who argue that giving a weak student more time to master material ultimately improves her education.)
That Mathematica study published its first report this past year; according to the executive summary:
“For the vast majority of KIPP schools studied, impacts on students’ state assessment scores in mathematics and reading are positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial. Estimated impacts are frequently large enough to substantially reduce race- and income-based achievement gaps within three years of entering KIPP.”
What About Those Who Can’t?
Opponents of the movement who recognize the robustness of those data use the differences in student populations to launch a different kind of critique. No-Excuses schools, they argue, will eventually draw all the best kids out of the public schools, creating a tiered system in which the most disadvantaged kids are left to languish by themselves in the worst schools. They argue that we should focus instead on reforming the public schools, in order to create a single system where all kids are educated equally.
I’m skeptical of this argument, because it seems to apply the value of equality unequally, considering the entrenched system of elite private and suburban public schools available to the middle and upper classes. To remove differentiation within the inner-city is to create, not equality for all, but equality at the bottom for the most underprivileged—it is to deny the poor-but-motivated the same advantages that we offer to every strata of society above them. In short, I dismiss the objection, because it is destructive of its own ends—i.e. equality. With charters, at least, inequality arises because some people cannot or will not help themselves; if we remove charters, on the other hand, we create an inequality that is insurmountable to those who seek to help themselves.
Still, if we’re going to embrace the charter movement as a solution to our education woes, we’d better start thinking about what we’re going to do for those kids whose parents won’t bother putting them in the charter-school lotteries. Of course, there’s nothing to stop us from using the No-Excuses model to reform regular public schools, but as the above arguments indicate, it’s not clear that the model will be so successful without supportive parents. Quite possibly, the solution here is not to be found in the schools, but in programs to educate and rehabilitate parents.
- A first hand observation of the first day of school at a No-Excuses kindergarten: part 1; part 2.
- People tend to conflate charter schools with No-Excuses schools. This post explains the difference: link
- This post on empathy training contains a discussion of the approach to values education used at many No-Excuses schools and touches on more fundamental questions about how to teach behaviors and beliefs: link
 I heard a story once from a state assemblyman involved in negotiations with a No-Excuses charter network that shall not be named. The network in question has, as one of its stated aims, a commitment to serving the most disadvantaged and learning-disabled students, but the assemblyman remained skeptical of the role played by selection-factors in the success of the schools in the charter network. He offered the superintendent of the network a deal in which all eligible students would automatically be entered in the lottery for the new school that the network wanted to open in the assemblyman’s state—the superintendent refused.
 I’ve actually observed HVA and seen this first hand, but some specific numbers can be found in this article from New York City Public School Parents, a blog that is highly critical of charter schools.
 This estimate is based on my own observations.
 To control out the effect of expulsion, Mathematica simply counts any student who attends KIPP for any period of time as part of the treatment group—in other words, the average impact of a KIPP education, as calculated by Mathematica, includes the impact on kids who leave the school before they graduate, either through expulsion or voluntary attrition.
To control out the effect of lottery selection-bias, they use a couple standard statistical tricks. (They took a matched comparison set of non-KIPP students whose backgrounds and pre-5th grade test-scores closely match those of KIPP students and then used a regression model to control for any remaining differences between the matched comparison set and the actual students.)
There’s a much simpler and 100% unassailable way to control for selection-bias in the lottery, and that is to use students who entered the lottery but did not get into the school as your comparison group—this generates an actual randomized experimental control group. This is something I’ve brought up previously on this blog. Admittedly, I’ve done nothing resembling a thorough literature review of statistical studies of charter school outcomes, but I haven’t seen a single study that uses the lottery to create a randomized control group. I hope somebody, somewhere, is collecting that kind of data.
The entire report is available online, if you’re curious.
 It's interesting to look at this debate in terms of its philosophical affiliations. The commitment to a single, equal system for all students partakes of a progressive vision of social justice that has largely fallen out of fashion—a vision based in socialist, unionist politics of the first half of the last century. The new generation of social reformers takes a less idealistic, more pragmatic approach, wherein equality is abandoned in the name of efficacy. In this new paradigm, quantitative data and economic arguments dominate debate, and the goal is always to do the most good with available funds.
I bring this up partly because it's interesting to trace these philosophical alignments, but partly to try to rid us of them. Such alignments only serve to blind us, to keep us dogmatically attached to certain positions as opposed to others. In my endless (and of course futile) struggle to keep this blog ideology-free, I must admit all these ideologies, so that we can step past them.
Appendix A: a long but surely incomplete list of common characteristics of No-Excuses charter schools. (back to main text)
- An extended school day—usually from around 7:30am until around 5pm
- weekend classes and extensive tutoring for struggling students
- a college-preparatory curriculum for every student, without exception
- high academic expectations for all students
- data-driven instruction—data analysis of student performance is constant and ongoing at these schools, and that data is used in lesson planning and tutoring assignments. Instructional methods and curricula are based on those shown to be most effective in the past.
- high teacher salaries
- high expectations and rigorous assessment for teachers and administration
- teacher bonuses tied to performance—teacher performance is typically measured in a number of ways, but test scores usually play a significant role.
- a strict school uniform
- a rigid disciplinary code, involving a strict system of consequences for rule-breaking: lateness and uniform violation are usually automatic detentions; cursing in a class is an in-school suspension; etc.
- elaborate rewards for high-performing and hard-working students—these include camping trips, skiing trips, ice-cream and pizza parties, special events with students' favorite teachers, and even multi-day visits to foreign countries.
- explicit teaching and building of culture
- lengthy pre-start-of-year planning periods—these are often referred to as "professional development" for teachers, but in fact they serve several purposes. They typically constitute a full-time commitment for the entire faculty for the whole month of August, and they include curricular planning, culture building, teacher-training, and so on.
- A one- to two-week induction period for new students, at the start of each school year—the purpose of this is to get kids invested in the school's culture and values and secondarily to familiarize new students with the school's discipline system.
- Acronyms and specialized vocabulary—acronyms help kids remember community values and expectations, and allow teachers to quickly refer to those values and expectations. They differ from school to school, but they serve similar purposes. For example, some acronyms remind kids of proper classroom behavior. STAR, which is used at Democracy Prepschools, stands for "Sit up, Track the teacher, Ask questions, Raise hands," whereas SLANT, which is used at many other schools, stands for "Sit up, Lean forward, Ask questions, Nod yes and no, Track the teacher." Other acronyms remind kids of community values. DREAM (Democracy Prep) stands for "Discipline, Respect, Enthusiasm, Accountability, Maturity" whereas CREST (Ocean Hill Collegiate) stands for "Curiosity, Respect, Empathy, Scholarship, Teamwork."