Americans can expect to see a new era of education policy that embraces charter school expansion like never before, but it comes at a cost — the cultural identity of the students these schools say they serve.
Although charter schools differ in their approach to school culture, many popular charter school networks, such as Success Academy, the Knowledge Is Power Program, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and STRIVE Prep, embrace a strict “no excuses” approach to learning, where respect of authority is important and students always wear school uniforms.
Many of these charter school models have populations of mostly low-income students of color. These responsibilities — to be quiet, walk in an orderly line, and adhere to very strict rules, are often called school norms, and critics have pointed out that some of these norms reinforce the idea that in order for students of color to be successful, they must be “compliant.”
Christopher Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, said that although public schools are also capable of communicating these ideas to students of color, the danger of these types of charter schools is that is a core part of the school mission. Rightly or wrongly, parents often believe that charter schools will always prepare their children better for assessments and college life.
“These other places are doing that same practice a lot more intently, and it’s doing a lot more damage to those young people. But it’s being framed as though this is a better option,” Emdin said. “There is a false attachment between being complicit and docile to being academically rigorous.”
STRIVE Prep schools in Denver, Colorado models the “no excuses” strategy. Although Colorado test scores are improving, there is still a wide gap in scores, with students from low-income families doing considerably worse than students who aren’t from low-income families. At one of the STRIVE schools, STRIVE Excel, 31 percent of students test proficient or better in math and 40 percent test proficient or better in writing for the Transitional Colorado Assessment Program in the 2013-2014 school year. Students are learning at a faster rate than average in math but are learning English more slowly.
But one STRIVE Prep Excel staff member said it’s important to look beyond academics. The staff member — who wished to remain anonymous due to concerns about their job — said they noticed a culture that asked students to adhere to norms rooted in racism and sexism and that stressed the monitoring of behavioral issues to an unnecessary and even harmful degree. This staff person provided documents showing STRIVE Excel’s approach to student discipline, school climate, and school culture.
Students are encouraged to blend in to avoid discrimination
One of the documents shared with ThinkProgress explained the purpose of the student advisory board and community circles, which address behavior issues. In this document, under the subtitle “Equity,” the administration explains that for students to challenge norms, they first have to adhere to them. The document reads:
At STRIVE Prep Excel, we understand that many of our rules, expectations, and community norms are derived from dominant culture and thus rooted in racism, classism, and sexism. We see the need for students to both understand the origin of our rules, expectations, and community norms, as well as the need to code switch. This will allow them to both access power while also arming them with the knowledge to strategically challenge behavior norms as being culturally biased.
In his book on the role of white teachers in classrooms of color, Emdin wrote a chapter on introducing the idea of code-switching into the classroom. Emdin shared examples of teachers who introduced ideas about how different groups of people use different kinds of language in different situations without denigrating the culture students are coming from. In one exercise, students switch between approaches to describing something and why someone might switch from one approach to another, but they’re never encouraged to leave behind the culture they’re from. Emdin also takes issue with the idea that students need to practice the norms of the dominant culture to challenge power.
“If you have to demonize who you are for years on end to be successful in school, after a while you start to see a lack of value in who you are. At that point it’s very challenging to question anything because at that point who you are authentically are is worthless,” Emdin said. “You’re already so locked into a system that does violence to who you are that you’re not going to question the system.”
STRIVE Prep did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding its approach to norms and code switching as of press time. The person who wrote the document on code-switching no longer works there, the source inside the school said.
School climate rejects any hint of defiance
It’s pretty commonplace for students to be taken out of class for swearing at a teacher or insulting a classmate. But many of the referrals out of class listed in a STRIVE Prep document throughout the past couple months simply gave “defiance” as a reason for being removed from class, without any further explanation.
STRIVE maintains very high standards for teachers to enforce a compliance culture where students speak quietly or not at all. If less than 90 percent of students enter class in an orderly fashion or less than 80 percent of teachers “address the smallest actions that are not meeting expectations,” the school’s evaluation of instructional expectations says the teacher’s approach is in need of improvement. When a student does something incorrectly, the class is supposed to repeat the correct action to the student, according to the document.
“Culture walkthroughs,” where the Dean of Culture and Dean of Students steps into a classroom to assess whether norms are being followed, is a common practice, a source at the school told ThinkProgress. If a student leaves his or her water bottle on the desk instead of the floor, for example, it is checked off as negative.
Among the community norms laid out in documents, it is explained that students can advocate for themselves, but only at the right time and place. If students want to challenge community norms, they have to collect 50 student signatures, make an argument to the student advisory board, and await a decision in two weeks.
This approach to community norms can have unintended consequences. In a school where 84 percent of students are participating in the free and reduced lunch requirements, it’s clear that many students are facing food insecurity. Since students don’t always finish their lunch in the time allotted, and they aren’t supposed to bring lunch with them, students have to throw out uneaten food. In the past, students have tried to eat food in class anyway, which violated the snack policy. Instead of being told to put food away, students were told to throw it out, the source inside the school told ThinkProgress. The school now lets students eat certain foods in class, but administrators haven’t communicated the policy very well to students or parents, and frequently changes these rules, said the source.
Students with disabilities struggle with ‘no excuses’ culture
This strict adherence to rules also negatively affects special education students. A 2014 Center on Reinventing Education report looked at special education in charter schools, and STRIVE and Uncommon Schools in New York specifically. The report found that although few parents of students with disabilities left the school due to the strict rules, “Nearly every parent we spoke with in Denver and New York City said they were attracted to the school’s discipline and expectations but felt the stress of repeated phone calls and teacher meetings when their child struggled inside these structures.”
The report also found that the STRIVE charter network overall and general education teachers in particular needed more training to understand the best range of responses to students with disabilities. Teachers at STRIVE struggled to modify practices for students when classroom structures triggered students who have trouble managing their behavior, according to the report.
“The model for urban youth of color is not the model for white students in socioeconomically advanced neighborhoods at all.”
This problem is far bigger than STRIVE charter schools, however, according to a study published by the UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies earlier this year. Black students and students with disabilities are being suspended at higher rates at charter schools, with 2.5 percent more black students and 12 percent more students with disabilities being suspended than their non-black and non-disabled peers. Success Academy has been under press scrutiny for its discipline practices for years, and it is currently under two investigations by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for its treatment of students with disabilities through school discipline. In January, parents filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights for the charter school network’s treatment of their disabled children.
“Although beyond the scope of this report, the possibility certainly exists that some charter schools are artificially boosting their test scores or graduation rates by using harsh discipline to discourage lower-achieving youth from continuing to attend,” the UCLA report read.
Although champions of charter schools with these approaches say this “No excuses” approach will provide students with the best education, Christopher Emdin, author of the book on how white teachers can provide a higher quality of education for students of color, said we need to remember that white affluent children are usually receiving a very different education.
“The model for urban youth of color is not the model for white students in socioeconomically advanced neighborhoods at all,” Emdin said. “What we find is that the schooling there is hyper-focused on choice, so in those cases, the students are taught to question, they’re taught to be creative, and they’re taught to be innovative.”
“Middle class values” often involve advocacy-based parental intervention, which teaches children to question the status quo and advocate for themselves, Kathryn McDermott and Kysa Nygreen write in a 2013 Peabody Journal of Education paper on character education.
Emdin said he’s particularly worried about the expansion of charter schools with “no excuses” style practices now that Betsy DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who rails against public schools, has been tapped for education secretary.
“It becomes so much more important for us to push against these norms and these spaces, and say [the schools] are truly advocating for young people of color in particular,” Emdin said. “It’s just not right. We’re living in a scary time where people are convinced these are viable options.”