Wise Words From a Decent Man

Former dean questions costs of ‘no excuses’ charter schools on students of color

By Valerie Strauss

“No excuses” charter schools have become a prominent feature of modern school reform. What exactly are they? This is how Joan Goodman, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the school’s Teach For America program, defined them in this post:

These schools start with the belief that there’s no reason for the large academic gaps that exist between poor minority students and more privileged children. They argue that if we just used better methods, demanded more, had higher expectations, enforced these higher expectations through very rigorous and uniform teaching methods and a very uniform and scripted curriculum geared to being successful on high-stakes tests, we can minimize or even eradicate these large gaps, high rates of drop outs and the academic failures of these children. To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

Here is an open letter from Ramon Griffin, the former dean of students at a New Orleans “no excuses” charter school, who urges teachers and staff at such schools to question the model’s social and emotional costs on young people. Griffin was also a charter school teacher and a juvenile probation and detention officer. He is currently working on his doctorate in educational administration at Michigan State University. Contact him at, or visit his website.

This appeared on the Edushyster website of Jennifer Berkshire, freelance journalist and public education advocate who worked for six years editing a newspaper for the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts. She gave me permission to run this post. Here is Ramon Griffin’s open letter to teachers and staff of no-excuses charter schools:

Dear You:

You were selected to teach at your school because of your intelligence, spunk, tenacity, vigor and, most of all, your passion for public education. You are a risk-taker. You have a can-do attitude with swag to match. You believe that every child has the capacity to achieve academically and are committing your life to ensuring that you affect change in every student you encounter. Your dedication to ensuring that traditionally marginalized students receive a first-class education is commendable. But do you know how much power you hold? Do you truly understandthe “no excuses” school culture that you are part of? Do you know the psychological and emotional costs that the “no excuses” model has on students of color? Furthermore, do you care to know?

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “Colonizing the Black Natives: Reflections from a former New Orleans Charter School Dean of Students.” I started the piece by asking if some charters’ practices were new forms of colonial hegemony. It is vital to add that while I was employed at the school, this thought never crossed my mind. My writings were taken by some charter management administrators and staff as an “attack” instead of an opportunity critically engage and refine, deconstruct and reconstruct practices that are doing more harm than good. This time around, I’m hoping to encourage teachers and staff at “no excuses” charter schools to acknowledge what is transpiring in their schools so that we can begin to push back against these practices and transform our schools.

I’ll start by offering a few examples of my own. When I chased young black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they had added a different color streak to their hair, or when I followed young men to make sure that their hair wasn’t styled naturally, I could have been critically engaging my administrative peers on why these practices were the law at our school—and how exactly they contributed to getting students into and through college.

When my school punished young people for not having items school leaders knew their families couldn’t afford, I could have been pushing back against policies that effectively punished students for being poor.

When we pulled students out of their classrooms for countless hours for minor infractions even as we drilled them constantly on the importance of instruction time, we could have been taking our own advice.

Or when we suspended students from school for numerous days, we could have been providing alternatives that disciplined them but kept them in school.

I recently spoke on a panel in Nashville about the psychological and emotional costs that “no excuses” school cultures have on students of color. Afterwards, I was approached by a young white male who told me that he couldn’t understand why parents of color complained about “no excuses” school cultures when they’d chosen to enroll their children in the schools. But the idea that parents should not complain because they purposely enrolled their children in these schools is flawed.

Parents, whether they’re in Nashville or New Orleans, desire that their children attend schools that will provide them a rigorous and first-class education. They’re sold a school culture “package” that claims to bring out the best in every student, challenging them to be creative, take risks and think critically. Yet too often, once the package is unwrapped and a culture of compliance is unveiled, students and families feel that they have been sold a dream.

Is it realistic to expect parents to inherently grasp the psychological and emotional costs of the “no excuses” model when many of the teachers and school disciplinarians who enforce these policies don’t have a deep understanding of their effects either? In my experience, staff members are trained to follow the rules regarding discipline and school culture without questioning school leaders about why rules and practices exist in the first place. The idea of critically engaging administrators at these schools seems to intimidate staff, who fear potential backlash for speaking out against culture and disciplinary practices they don’t agree with. They don’t know how to push back critically and meaningfully without being disciplined or even losing their jobs.

Whatever the reason, the lack of inquiry by and pushback from highly educated professionals regarding the questionable socialization practices and disciplinary policies of “no excuses” schools is striking. Even more astonishing is that the same things young people of color are punished for in these schools, their teachers were probably raised and encouraged to value. As students themselves, they were probably given the opportunity to be critical, to take risks, to disagree, to not conform, to ask for clarity, to push back, to show emotion and to be relentless about finding their own truth.

Many of these educators are no doubt raising their own children to do similar things. But as teachers and staff at
“no excuses” charter schools, they are trained to instill the opposite values in youth of color, even punishing students for being critical or showing emotion. Why? I ask this question, not as a researcher or as a doctoral student, but as a colleague who has navigated the same terrain that you are currently treading. I understand—trust me. I am truly concerned that we are not asking the right questions. Why has “no excuses” been celebrated, packaged and sold to people of color as the prescription for educational and career excellence? Why is it “no excuses” for some and not for all?

Ask yourself if you would allow your own children to be treated the way that some of your students are being treated. If the answer is “no,” then there is no excuse for complying with rules and policies you’d never tolerate where your own children or loved ones are concerned. Your students are young people, not robots. They are human children and sometimes their circumstances do warrant exceptions to the rules. Sometimes their excuses are legitimate.

For example, a student who shows up out of uniform because he doesn’t have a washer/dryer at home has a legitimate excuse.

A kid whose family has been transient and is currently homeless has a legitimate excuse to not be in proper uniform. The school should be aware of the situation and at least attempt to provide clothing for the young person.

A kid who has three younger siblings he has to care for, clean up, help with homework, protect and teach because they live with their elderly grandmother who was thrust into legal guardianship because his mother was abusive and they never met their father has a legitimate excuse.

A kid who has witnessed his mother being shot by his father has a legitimate excuse to not want to walk on a line, talk to anybody or participate in class.

A kid who hasn’t eaten a nutritious meal in weeks, but makes it to school every day has a legitimate excuse to feel tired, to not want to participate in an activity or to look at an adult in the eye while shaking their hand. But what happens at most “no excuses” schools is that students get detention or worse because there are no excuses.

Is this what John Dewey meant when he described school as “the social center” of the community and as a site for building a democratic society? Are “no excuses” schools preparing citizens, training workers or preparing individuals to compete for social positions? If the answers to these questions aren’t clear, it may be time to seriously re-evaluate the goals of your school.

Lastly, I believe that it is time for a thorough examination of the psychological and emotional impact of “no excuses” policies and school cultures. It is time for everyone involved to start asking some critical questions. Stop being fearful. Let your voices be heard.

Ask questions, push back, critically engage, and transform your school and your workplace.


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