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The Moral Dilemma of Teaching Submissive Habits to Poor Kids

By October 25, 2012April 14th, 2022No Comments

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 [email protected] or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.