No Excuses Schools: Bad Theory Created by Amateurs

4 Sep

By Thomas Ultican 9/4/2021

Vanderbilt Professor Joanne Golann recently published Scripting the Moves. It is a book which expands on her research into no-excuses charter schools. Beginning in March of 2012, Golann spent 18-months doing an ethnographic study of a representative school employing the no-excuses approach. She discovered many unintended consequences.

In 2019, the leader of the Ascend Charters, Steven Wilson, wrote,

“And even when No Excuses was best realized at Ascend, its ceaseless structure was doing little to prepare our students to function autonomously in college and beyond.”

“Princeton sociologist Joanne Golann, in a groundbreaking ethnography of one high-achieving No Excuses school, identifies the “paradox” of the school’s success: ‘Even in a school promoting social mobility, teachers still reinforce class-based skills and behaviors. Because of these schools’ emphasis on order as a prerequisite to raising test scores,’ she argues, teachers end up stressing behaviors that would undermine middle-class students’ success.”

“Golann ends by asking: ‘Can urban schools encourage assertiveness, initiative, and ease while also ensuring order and achievement? Is there an alternative to a no-excuses disciplinary model that still raises students’ tests scores?”’

It is not just Ascend. In an August 2021 post at Princeton Press, Professor Golann reported,

“In March, Noble, the largest charter network in Chicago, apologized to its alumni for its ‘assimilationist, patriarchal, white supremacist and anti-black’ discipline practices. Last June, Achievement First promised not to ‘be hyper-focused on students’ body positioning,’ and ended its requirement for students to sit with their hands folded at their desks. KIPP, the nation’s largest charter school network, retired its founding motto, ‘Work hard. Be nice,’ explaining that it ‘ignores the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.’ (KIPP began plans to change the motto in 2019.)*

“The Wall Street Journal described KIPP’s statement as ‘woke nonsense.’”

Bad Practices at No-Excuses Charters Came from Amateur Founders and Funders

Perhaps the best known no-excuses charter schools are the KIPP schools. Two Yale graduates David Levin and Michael Feinberg founded KIPP in 1994. They were both members of Wendy Kopp’s third cadre of Teach for America (TFA) teachers who had five weeks of training; no education classes and no teaching experience. After the founding, Feinberg stayed in Texas to run KIPP Houston. Levin moved back to New York and founded KIPP Academy in the South Bronx.

To put it succinctly, two guys with recently minted bachelor degrees and a 5-week summer seminar founded the first no-excuses charter school.

 Professor Golann explained how they gravitated to the model,

“After a difficult first year struggling with classroom management, Levin and Feinberg were beginning to improve. They attributed their success to intensively studying and imitating the methods of effective teachers in their schools. Their most influential mentor was Harriett Ball, a charismatic and celebrated forty-six-year-old African American teacher who stood over six feet tall and who worked down the hallway from Levin. From Ball, Levin learned that what worked, in addition to songs and chants, was ‘instant and overwhelming response to any violation of the rules.’” (Scripted page 120)

The story of KIPP’s growth is intertwined with another no-excuses school founder, Stacy Boyd. She was working for Chris Whistle’s Edison Project when a Boston dentist selected her to be the founding principal of the Academy of the Pacific Rim (APR). Boyd hired her friend Doug Lemov to teach at the school that she ran while also finishing her MBA. When Boyd married Scott Hamilton and moved to San Francisco, Lemov took over at APR.

Scott and Stacy met while working at the Edison Project. They were moving to San Francisco because Hamilton was now working for two of the richest people in the country, GAP founders, Don and Doris Fisher.

It was 1999 and “sixty minutes” did a puff piece on KIPP. All of the sudden the possibility of going national arose. Feinberg’s first call was to his friend Stacy Boyd who knew something about developing large organizations. Stacy’s husband Scott sold the Fishers on creating business fellowships for KIPP school founders who would take the brand nationwide.  

The San Francisco billionaires who are obviously astute business people started pouring money into an education system being developed by people with limited knowledge and experience. They would have never turned over leadership at the GAP to people with little background and limited experience. Somehow, many of America’s financial elites believe that they understand education well enough to know how to improve it, and don’t recognize that they are amateurs.

Besides no-excuses charter schools, billionaire education amateurs have spent lavishly to finance TFA. At the beginning of the millennium TFA was struggling, but then the money started flowing. In her book Chronicle of Echoes, Mercedes Schneider recounted, 

“Despite the financial and organizational issues and bad press, Kopp managed to scrape by and carry TFA with her into the new millennium. TFA faced insolvency a number of times – until corporations and foundations began funneling money into the struggling organization. In 2001, TFA’s net assets totaled over $35 million. By 2005, TFA’s net assets totaled over $105 million. Finally, by 2010, TFA’s net assets had increased almost tenfold from 2001 to $350 million. And in 2011, the Walton Family Foundation gave TFA $49.5 million ‘to help double the size of Teach for America’s national teaching corps over the next three years.” (Chronicle page 47)

TFA teachers are unqualified to lead a classroom. However, Professor Golann notes, “It is not that Dream Academy did not have the option of hiring more seasoned teachers; they deliberately chose not to do so, which may be surprising given that teachers significantly improve in effectiveness during their first years of teaching.” (Scripted page 139) Teachers with experience and training were not as likely to embrace their no-excuses scheme. (Dream Academy is the pseudonym Golann chose for the school in which she was embedded.)

Stacy Boyd’s friend, Doug Lemov, started gathering no-excuses techniques and wrote them into a book called Teach Like a Champion. Today, this compendium of methods serves as a handbook for no-excuses schools. One of the main objectives of the handbook is efficiency. It brings the early 1900s Taylorism into the classroom.

In the post “Teach Like its 1885.” published on Jenifer Berkshire’s blog, Layla Treuhaft-Ali wrote, “Placed in their proper racial context, the Teach Like A Champion techniques can read like a modern-day version of the *Hampton Idea,* where children of color are taught not to challenge authority under the supervision of a wealthy, white elite.” In addition to its racist implementation, the no-excuses model certainly elicits images of 19th century school discipline.

No-excuses Model a Disaster in Public Schools

The Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) was launched in 2011 by the Commissioner of Education, Kevin Huffman, a TFA alum and for a short time Michelle Rhee’s husband. He brought in fellow TFA alum Chris Barbic – the founder of the no-excuses charter school YES Prep – to run ASD. Golann observed,

“Unlike typical no-excuses charters, in which families must apply and agree to certain commitments, these charters had to accept all students from the zoned neighborhood, which resulted in low levels of commitment from families to the school’s disciplinary practices, along with a student population that the school was unprepared to serve (e.g., students with special needs, students with high levels of residential mobility).  (Scripted page 173)

By 2016, the lofty goal of raising the bottom scoring 5% of the state’s schools into the top 25% was a complete flop. Even with concentrated test prep, most of the schools were still in the bottom 5%.

Some Conclusions

Two important points:

  1. On page 64 of her book, Golann references University of California San Diego Professor Hugh ‘Bud’ Mehan. From the two graduate school classes I had with Bud, I learned something about what good ethnographic studies looked like and it is clear that Golann’s scholarship is excellent. The book is well written and takes the reader inside the study. Anyone interested in education policy would profit from reading it.
  2. Without the unbelievably large amounts of money being spent by billionaire amateurs to drive education policy, there would be no TFA or no-excuses charter schools.

I will end with one last quote from Professor Joanne Golann’s Scripting the Moves:

‘“Ultimately no-excuses charters schools are a failed solution to a much larger social problem,’ education scholar Maury Nation has argued. ‘How does a society address systemic marginalization and related economic inequalities? How do schools mitigate the effects of a system of White supremacy within which schools themselves are embedded?’ Without attending to these problems, we will not solve the problems of educational inequality. ‘As with so many school reforms,’ Nation argues, ‘no-excuses discipline is an attempt to address the complexities of these problems, with a cheap, simplistic, mass-producible, ‘market-based’ solution.’” (Scripting page 174)

11 Responses to “No Excuses Schools: Bad Theory Created by Amateurs”

  1. peachymeyer September 5, 2021 at 6:16 pm #

    “…doing little to prepare our students to function autonomously.”
    Isn’t that the point? If it is maximum profit through control over large segments of the population and the suppression of eduction and success for all students, it is not a “failed solution.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • tultican September 5, 2021 at 7:32 pm #

      That is probably the point for some people but I believe viewing themselves as white saviors of brown and black children is the main motivator. It is a racist imbued education theory based on very bad theory put forward by youthful amateur teachers from TFA who were white.


      • peachymeyer September 5, 2021 at 9:37 pm #

        Quite true. And those two attitudes go together.


  2. peachymeyer September 5, 2021 at 6:17 pm #

    Thanks again for hitting the nail squarely on the head.


  3. ciedie aech September 5, 2021 at 7:03 pm #

    ‘Ultimately no-excuses charters schools are a failed solution to a much larger social problem,’ education scholar Maury Nation has argued. ‘How does a society address systemic marginalization and related economic inequalities? How do schools mitigate the effects of a system of White supremacy within which schools themselves are embedded?’ A quote which should break everyone’s heart….

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Brooke September 11, 2021 at 3:32 am #

    I worked in one of these schools from 2005-2009, and I agree. In my experience the teachers and leadership truly mean well, and work very hard; reading and math scores improve, often dramatically. But in a global sense it is not effective education.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Solution Focused October 11, 2022 at 4:57 am #

    I work at a wonderful “no excuses” high school in a poor, mostly black part of town in Florida. This is has been a godsend to this community. We have all the clubs and activities that black kids love. Our choral dept is #1 in the State (black children, on average develop faster, go through puberty sooner than their white counterparts – therefore a more mature, quality sound is achieved in the choral classroom – good to know!) These kids are poor, enter the school rowdy, negative aggressive and defiant. Contracts and agreements are signed, expectations are laid down and we get to work at learning. These kids CRAVE this kind of system. School is a place of consistent order and comrodary, a safe place where they know teachers care and won’t take no crap. Half the faculty is black. Starting salary is $82,000. Lesson: stop messing with the schools. We know what works. Order and discipline MUST happen first before any learning can happen. Sounds like other “no excuse” school are forgetting what an unruly school or classroom really is like – it’s death. Death for the teacher and for every student in that class. We have a normal school day and we don’t make students “fold hands” or act like a cult. We give them plenty of moments for independent thinking and freedom to express themselves. But it all happens under order and discipline. A student who talks back/cusses a teacher is immediately removed from the school for a year with the ability to return the following year. Fighting, serious, insubordination, refusal to do the work or excessive absenteeism (basically all of the things that are KILLING public schools) will result in permanent removal from the school. It’s a model that works for this population in our state and i will never ever teach anywhwere else.


    • Brooke October 11, 2022 at 3:38 pm #

      I appreciate this perspective, and in many ways this sounds like a more reasonable and perhaps more effective approach. But I have to ask, where do the kids who are removed from your school for cussing, absenteeism, etc GO? To the public schools? Seems wrong to blame them for a problem your school is likely be contributing to.

      Liked by 1 person


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