Posts Tagged “No-excuses schools

The Diverse Schools Dilemma

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Michael Petrilli’s second son wasn’t even born when he was deep into researching where to send his boys to school.  But you know how the zealotry of parenthood can change a man.  He tells his personal story, peppered with much research, in a short, engaging new book The Diverse Schools Dilemma – A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools. 

Such as education punditry has stars, Petrilli is one.  Now a VP at the Fordham Institute, he worked in the Bush-era Department of Education.  His opinion pieces regularly appear in outlets from the New York Times to NBC nightly news.  He’s young, smart and articulate.  He knows education.

When his first child was born, Petrilli and his wife were living in the fun, diverse neighborhood of Takoma Park in Washington D.C..  Ideally, the couple wanted to educate their kids in a diverse setting.  But their neighborhood schools had lackluster scores and mediocre reputations.

Speaking recently to a gathering in Rhode Island, he explained his fatherly dilemma:  Could his kids have both a great academic education while learning alongside children from richly-different cultures and classes?  It wasn’t obvious.

First understand what “diverse” really means.  Petrilli visited several racially-diverse private schools to weigh their plusses and problems.  Sidwell Friends is one such, where the Obama girls contribute to that school’s 40 percent students of color.  Such schools offer skin-tone diversity, but certainly aren’t educating kids from the ‘hood.

So the book’s dilemma narrows to socio-economic diversity, mixing middle and low-income kids.  Family income, especially poverty, does correlate with race, but less and less over recent decades. The real issue is kids’ class background.

In an interview for Petrilli’s book, Naomi Calvo, who wrote her Harvard Ph.D. dissertation on Seattle’s controlled-choice program, was blunt:  “The types of reforms that are considered best practice for disadvantaged kids are exactly what middle-class parents hate.  I don’t know how you’re going to have a meeting of the minds on that.”

Petrilli adds, “Partly this is about structure — affluent parents want the school day to end early enough so there’s time for enrichment activities and sports practice, while poor kids need more learning time.”

To the local gathering, Petrilli said, “I come from a line of education reformers who support ‘no-excuses’ schools, with direct instruction, the sorts of places that are benignly paternalistic and highly structured.  Many middle-class parents hate these structured schools.  But there’s strong evidence that the progressive model works for middle-class kids, but has been generally disastrous for poor kids.”

Hmmm, separate school strategies for kids from the upper and lower classes.

Petrilli cites research done by Annette Lareau who studied the parenting practices and everyday routines of 12 families from a range of income levels.  She expected each family’s style would be somewhat unique.  In fact, the researchers found only two very distinct styles, divided along class and not racial lines.

The middle-class families super-schedule their kids.  And they talk with them — between dance and archery classes — enriching the kids’ vocabulary, verbal skills, and their ability to summarize, clarify and manage information.

But working class and poor families do not much encourage debate or negotiation.  Petrilli writes, “…the adults are more authoritarian — and use more physical punishment.”  These parents also “believed in letting their kids be kids — to have plenty of unstructured time to play, to spend long summer days or weekends without supervision, and to make fun on their own.  (Which, interestingly enough, is the polar opposite of the structure they want from their schools.)”

While a sweeping generalization, affluent kids are ready to rock academically, building on the cognitive skills and expectations already hot-housed at home.  Low-income parents appreciate rigid discipline at schools, and care far less about creativity and self-expression.

Liberal middle-class parents may think they want diverse schools, but they don’t want their kids neglected, nor distracted by the behavior of children who haven’t had structure at home.

And while the poor, ill-educated parents of Dr. James Comer and others are exceptions to these generalizations, lower-class parents prefer a relaxed home and tight discipline at the schools.

Many teachers would argue that parents want the schools to discipline their kids for them.

In the end Petrilli moves his family to an affluent suburb where his kids can continue their deliciously creative Waldorf education.  I totally get it.  No one sacrifices their kids on the altar of abstract ideals.  I don’t judge him or anyone making the best decision they can in the interests of their children.

And I give Petrilli credit for nailing the “dilemma” in the nation’s schools.  I have known it firsthand.  My own kids attended urban public schools, for better or worse.  Though it was sometimes a painful struggle, I’m not sorry I did it.

So I refuse to concede to segregation.  We don’t yet have scalable solutions.  But it seems unAmerican to accept different school strategies for upper and lower classes.  To be fair, Petrilli isn’t nuts about the idea either, as his book makes clear.

But his heart is only torn.  Mine breaks.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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The Moral Dilemma of Teaching Submissive Habits to Poor Kids

Published by — “No-excuses” schools get great test results, but at what cost?

I’m standing in the play area of a “no-excuses” school with its Director and his energetic young Principal.  The kids have been sprung momentarily from their super-structured environment and are shrieking and bouncing around like other kids would.  I’m relieved they can still revert to their little animal selves.

I’m torn.  The predominantly urban students at this school are knocking the test scores out of the park.  But my tour of the cheerfully-decorated halls showed lots of quiet, though wriggling, kids lined up in the hallways with military precision.  The last five minutes of their lunch must be silent.  The teaching involves a lot of snapped fingers and “Eyes front!”  The adults are perfectly nice.  But the command-and-control atmosphere gives me the creeps.

By all means, let many flowers bloom among schools.  If some parents appreciate the rigid discipline, sobeit.  But to me it seems like teaching low-income children a submissiveness verging on servility.  I didn’t see a lot of kid creativity or messy, experimental critical thinking.

Examples of “no-excuses” schools include the networks of Success Academies and Achievement First charter schools, among others.  Their common goal is to prove that student poverty is no excuse for poor academic performance.  They do whatever it takes to get the scores.

Virtually all of them are modeled after the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).  Their 125 schools dotted around the nation regularly out-score middle-class schools, often big time.

As a group, the “no-excuses” schools differ from regular public schools in two ways.  First, they hold their students to impressively high academic expectations (a good thing).  To do so, though, they have 8 or 9-hour days — with predictably high teacher turnover.  Secondly, their discipline is highly authoritarian.  You make a bad choice; you’re punished.  Simple.  No questions, reasons or excuses.

The late, great Martin Haberman thought and wrote a lot about using authoritarian methods with poor kids.  In his “Pedagogy of Poverty” he says, “The clear-cut need to ‘make’ students learn is so obviously vital to the common good and to the students themselves, that surely (it is believed) there must be a way to force students to work hard enough to vindicate the methodology.”

Back out on the playground, the Director and Principal could tell I hadn’t been sold on their approach.  Of course, their test scores are so good that in this day and age it doesn’t matter a whit whether I’d been impressed or not.  Still, the Director, whom I admire as a smart, sincerely well-intentioned guy, asks about my hesitations.

I worry, I say, that in exchange for test scores, you’re teaching low-income kids to be docile and compliant.

“Oh my God,” explodes the exasperated young Principal, “the behavior is just noise.  If you can’t control the behavior, you can’t teach them anything.  You have to get rid of the noise.”  She looks sharply at her boss for confirmation.

The thoughtful Director took a moment.  He smiled his support to the Principal, but admitted he also worried about the price of compliance.  He mused that as the kids get older and into high school and college, they’ll need to know how to perform well on their own.  People driven by fear of getting in trouble don’t become innovators, intellectual explorers or calculated risk-takers.

The Principal left in a frustrated huff.  Her job is to deliver those glowing test results.  And she’s dead on the money.  Feral behavior is noise.  You can’t teach anyone when kids are disruptive.  It ruins learning and begs to be civilized.

But is authoritarianism truly civilized?  Should we double down on teaching compliance to the very kids with the fewest options, the least opportunity to make choices for themselves, and scarce guidance about the consequences of their actions?

Haberman asks, “Who is responsible for seeing that these students derive meaning and apply what they have learned from this fragmented, highly specialized, overly-directive schooling?  …  Graduates who possess basic skills but are partially informed, unable to think, and incapable of making moral choices are downright dangerous.  Before we canmake workers, we must first make people.  But people are not made — they are conserved and grown.”

Conserving and growing a child’s willing, understanding cooperation takes time and often tons of patience, especially with urban kids who’ve had little structure at home.  If a child bullies or steals or just slacks off, merely punishing her won’t get to the bottom of the problem. It won’t teach her the social or emotional skills that will help her master her urges or make the sorts of choices that will pay off over the course of her life.

In the 1990s, the KIPP test scores were so good, the organization vowed that 75 percent of their graduates would finish college.  A recent report shows that they’ve done remarkably well, all considering, but fallen woefully short of their ambitious goal.  So they’re re-thinking their methods.

I hope they look into their command-and-control discipline techniques.  Authoritarianism creates followers, not leaders.  It would be great if they would model more empathetic techniques for their many imitators.

We’d all love a lot less brutish behavior from under-civilized kids.  But while suppressing such behavior is convenient for the adults, muscling poor kids into compliance is morally questionable.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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