How should public schools and classroom teachers address a student population increasingly traumatized by the effects of chronic poverty?
A majority of children attending the nation’s public schools now come from low-income families, according to a study released a year ago by The Southern Education Foundation. And there are more homeless students in American schools than ever before.
We’ve long recognized the impact of poverty on the future wellbeing of children. Students who come to school hungry have more difficulties focusing on schoolwork. Students who grow up without books in the home, or without computers or Internet access at home are at a severe disadvantage in school. Students who don’t have stable home lives or lack clothing or medical care are more apt to have behavioral problems.
What are schools to do? This question is urgent at a time when budget cuts have decimated student health services traditionally provided by social workers, counselors, nurses, and other support staff.
Recently, a popular answer to that question, at least in policy and media circles, has been to promote the idea that the impact of childhood poverty and trauma is an "excuse" for academic problems. Teachers who practice in “no excuses” schools are encouraged not to accommodate children's problems that are created by adversity, but to lay down strict rules and rigid expectations that challenge children to overcome—even ignore—their personal backgrounds and circumstances.
Educators who follow a progressive "child-centered" model for teaching are repulsed by the standardization practiced in a no-excuses school. The notion that a child's circumstances should be of no concern to her teacher goes against the grain of educators who believe education programs should attend to the whole child and not compartmentalize academics apart from students' cultural identities and physical and social-emotional wellbeing.
Despite these concerns, no-excuses schools are the overwhelming trend in big city school districts struggling with poverty. But that trend is generating a backlash from more compassionate and progressive-minded educators and community members, and their case may soon have the rule of law behind it.
The "Suck It Up" Approach To School
What are no-excuses schools?
In a recent article for the Scholars Strategy Network, New Jersey education professor Alfred Chris Torres describes the no excuse regime. In these schools, "strict behavioral expectations mandate how students dress, enter a classroom, walk in the hall, or sit in class, and teachers are expected to enforce these expectations using explicit rewards and punishments, such as merits/demerits or adjustments in 'paychecks' that allow students to purchase items from a school store."
In an interview with public school activist and Progressive Education Fellow Jennifer Berkshire, on her EduShyster blogsite, Joan Goodman, an academic director for University of Pennsylvania Teach for America program, explains:
"These schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. . . .There is almost no opportunity for play, for relaxation, very little time for extracurricular activities. The day is jammed with academics, especially math and reading because that’s what gets tested…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 and thinking and speaking and discussing and sharing and having initiative. That’s not their view of learning."
Think of it as the "suck it up" approach to school.
No excuse schools have notoriously high rates of student suspensions and expulsions and high rates of student attrition. Students who have a hard time complying with the rigid rules are suspended so often they leave, or are sometimes"counseled" into believing that leaving would be in their best interest.
Charter schools—most notably large charter chains such as KIPP, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First, Success Academy, Aspire, and others—have become the most prominent adherents to the "no excuse" model.
A charter chain in New York City called Success Academy, for instance, recently made national headlines for having a school that had a "Got to Go" list for students who were not compliant enough with the school's discipline regime. The Success schools also have extraordinarily high rates of suspensions, even for kindergartners, according to a report by PBS.
No excuse charter schools have now become widespread in large, urban communities with student populations that are majority non-white and low income. As a recent report from a consulting group that works with the charter industry found, large charter school chains have expanded at roughly twice the pace of the charter industry overall, increasing their student enrollments by 25% a year. These schools are now the most rapidly growing form of schools in America and, in a number of big cities, now rival traditional school districts as the major provider of public education.
Three of the nation’s five largest cities enroll more than 20% of their students in charter schools, most of which are affiliated with local, regional, or national chains practicing the no excuse model.
As the prevalence of no excuse charter schools has grown, however, so have the objections of students, parents, and teachers to the one-size-fits-all demands of these schools.
A lawsuit filed in California last year mounts a new challenge to the “suck it up” approach..
Straight Outta Compton
Last spring a federal class-action lawsuit accused L.A.’s Compton Unified School District of failing to adequately address the issue of childhood trauma.
Reporters warned of the potential impact the suit could have on taxpayer supported schools everywhere. The LA School Report stated that because the suit was filed in a federal court and involved a violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, "the real purpose of the case is to win a ruling that could impact federal law and potentially all schools in the country."
"The lawsuit," wrote Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, "speaks to a central problem with many federal and state school reform efforts: a focus on holding students, teachers, and schools 'accountable' through standardized test scores and less (if any at all) on the mental and physical conditions in which many students come to school every day." A reporter for The Atlantic noted:
"The case marks the first time that a federal law will be used to determine whether 'complex trauma' can be considered a disability, in which case schools would be obligated to offer mental-health services. Currently, these services aren’t always in place."
What went mostly unnoticed in these reports, however, is the lawsuit's potential impact on the charter school industry in particular.
Compton's History With Charters
Compton is a particularly rough place for children to grow up, with a poverty rate twice the national average and a murder rate five times the national average. "Violence, poverty, and discrimination are so pervasive that in any Compton classroom, the only reasonable expectation is that a significant number of students are likely suffering from complex trauma," Strauss reports, citing the website Trauma and Learning.
Compton also stands out for its role in the evolution of the charter school industry.
As an article in the Los Angles Times documented, Compton was the first place where a charter advocacy group called Parent Revolution used a new state law, known as the parent trigger, to conduct a petition drive to transfer the administration of a Compton public school, McKinley Elementary, to a private charter school operator. Parent Revolution is an astroturf group formed by the Green Dot charter (a no excuse school chain) and financed by large grants from private foundations that have funded charter schools across the country.
A charter operator worked with those involved in the petition drive, according to Education Week. That operator was Celerity Educational Group, a privately run charter chain in Southern California that practices a no excuse approach.
"The petition campaign was plagued by charges and countercharges of deceit, harassment, and lies and created bitter campus divisions," the Los Angeles Times reported. Half of the parent signatures could not be verified. After the local board refused the transfer, the whole affair ended up in court, where the petition was ruled invalid and the charter conversion was denied.
Despite that setback to the charter school industry, its effort to convert a public school to a charter in Compton bore fruit in the same year when members of the parent trigger campaign circumnavigated the local board and successfully opened a new charter in Compton, run by Celerity.
Instead Of No Excuse
As no excuse charter chains spread across Southern California and the rest of the country, their expansions are running into resistance from students and teachers such as those involved in the Compton lawsuit.
An article from In These Times explains that the students and teachers are suing the Compton district because its "failure to provide adequate training and resources for coping with trauma is denying students equal access to education. Instead of supporting its traumatized students, they say, Compton is setting them up for failure with a 'punish first, ask questions later' approach to discipline."
According to the ITT reporter Ethan Corey, the plaintiffs are seeking to compel Compton to implement the same formula that helped schools in Brockton, Massachusetts, which modified disciplinary practices for students who have experienced complex trauma, and brought in a “trauma-informed education” approach, including restorative justice-based discipline.
Using restorative discipline practices, rather than rigid rules and consequences, is a growing trend nationwide according to a recent report in Education Week. Instead of imposing strict obedience, this approach seeks to empower students by "giving them a voice and allowing them to participate in decision making in school, asking them to take responsibility for their actions as they try to repair the harm done and help others; and teaching them how to express their feelings and have empathy for others."
An Inevitable Conflict
Although not stated in the descriptions of the Compton suit, but certainly implied, the plaintiffs' grievances would apply to charter schools as well. Charter schools cannot legally discriminate against students with disabilities; although they are frequently accused of doing so.
Should the students and teachers prevail, what would stop further actions from challenging no excuse charters?
No doubt, any conclusion of this case will take months, if not years, to come out. And the effects of court rulings always become subject to interpretations and further litigation. But more conflict between no excuse charter schools and the push for restorative justice and other whole child methods of dealing with students traumatized by poverty seems inevitable.
Finally, any evidence that no excuse charters produce higher scores on standardized tests must be weighed in the context of these schools practicing a no excuse approach that includes longer schools days, narrowed curriculum, selective student enrollment, and higher student attrition.
What happens to the kids who drop out or are pushed out? What happens over time to those who are subjected to relentless pressure and burnout? And do improved scores in one year mean improved outcomes later on?
Even more important, should the Compton case be for naught, there's little doubt the issue it is intended to address—using compassionate and positive approaches, rather than a rigid no excuse approach, to deal with the complex trauma of poverty—is only going to gain more visibility and spark further conflict.
As the lead attorney for the Compton case explained to LA School Report, “The No. 1 public health problem in the United States today is the effect of childhood trauma on students’ opportunity to learn.”
No excuse charter schools believe they have a solution for that problem. A growing backlash from students and teachers says it’s the wrong answer.