Charter Schools Discipline Racism

Jan Resseger Reviews an Important New Book About “No-Excuses” Schools

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In this post, Jan Resseger reviews Joanne W. Golann’s Scripting the Moves: Culture & Control in a No-Excuses Charter School. What she describes is a culture of behaviorism and strict control.

Resseger writes:

Joanne W. Golann’s new book is all about schools that insist their teachers follow the guidance of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion instead of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but whose principals and teachers have convinced themselves they are liberating students from oppression.

Lured by the promise that their middle school will put them on the path to college, many of the students in Scripting the Moves: Culture & Control in a “No-Excuses” Charter School quickly become angry and disgruntled as teachers assign them demerits for failing to sit at attention or whispering or speaking as they walk in straight lines marked by squares on the hallway floors. At Dream Academy, teachers are driven obsessively to “sweat the small stuff.” School leaders warn teachers that the whole system might collapse if anyone loses control.

Golann explains that, Dream Academy, the pseudonymous name of the school where she conducted her ethnographic study, typifies to one degree or another no-excuses charter schools managed by many of the huge charter management organizations, beginning with KIPP, but also including Achievement First, Aspire, Democracy Prep, Green Dot, IDEA, Mastery, Match, Noble Network, Promise Academies, Rocketship, Success Academies, Uncommon Schools, and YES Prep.

Anyone with the most rudimentary, university-based, public school teacher certification training—including philosophy of education, educational psychology and learning theory—will likely find it shocking to read what Golann describes observing in her year-and-a-half ethnographic study. Yet Dream Academy exemplifies the kind of schooling so many families are choosing—based on a promise that college admission will follow…

Golann explores Dream Academy’s failure to work with students to develop critical thinking and the kinds of study and interactive skills they will need if they do go on to college: “Dream Academy was successful in getting its middle school students to think about college and in getting its high school graduates to apply to, and be admitted to, college. But… Dream Academy’s rigid behavioral scripts did not encourage students to develop the types of cultural capital that higher-income students use to gain advantages in college. Cultural capital, which I have defined as tools of interaction, comprises the attitudes, skills, and styles that allow individuals to navigate complex institutions and shifting expectations. These tools include skills like how to express an opinion, be flexible, display leadership, advocate a position, and make independent decisions.” (p. 58)

Finally Dream Academy teachers’ obsession with minute behavioral infractions undermines trust and generates anger and antagonism: “No-excuses schools ‘sweat the small stuff.’ Under a sweating-the-small-stuff approach, authority is exercised over ‘a multitude of items of conduct—dress, deportment, manners—that constantly occur and constantly come up for judgment.’… (A)s teachers took on the role of disciplinarians, they became enmeshed in a racist system that perpetuated stereotypes of Black and Brown bodies as needing to be controlled rather than one that humanized students as individuals to be understood, cared for, and respected. It is unlikely that belittling and shouting at students, for example, would be acceptable at an affluent White school, yet these practices are common at no-excuses schools, which serve almost exclusively Black and Latino students.” (pp. 86-99)

The term “sweating the small stuff” is the title of a book written by David Whitman and published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in 2008. It praises several no-excuses charter schools for their strict discipline and paternalistic control of students. The next year, Whitman became Arne Duncan’s chief speech writer.

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