Elevating the “No Excuses” Debate


Some aspects of public education are in a battle: standardized testing, teacher evaluation, school choice, common core, class size, and more. Every solution is up for a great debate on Twitter, in the editorial section of newspapers, and blogs from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, C.A. and everywhere in between. Yet, as these battles take place, I’m worried that the best solutions are not making it to the table. Both sides are publicly seen as arrogant and unwilling to compromise, and this is hurting our kids.

The latest debate at the forefront is “no excuses” as a method to change school culture. Opponents of this school culture model claim that the no excuses approach ignores poverty’s stranglehold on schools. Supporters of this model argue that students need to be taught to stop making excuses for their level of academic achievement by working hard, being nice and going to college. Somewhere in the middle is where the answer lies. Yet, again the public conversation is creating another polarizing argument that halts progress.

Here’s my take:
Opponents of No Excuses: Yes, poverty is the root cause of the problems ailing our nation’s most struggling schools and communities. Yes, districts must provide schools with the basic wraparound services to provide an excellent education for our children. Nevertheless, I’m afraid what’s missing from your public stance is the acknowledgement that school culture must change in many of our schools.

No excuses is not an approach to combat poverty. It is an attempt to create a positive school culture. If you do not agree with this approach to creating a positive school culture, you must then give solutions about how to create one. By simply saying, “No excuses ignores poverty,” you lose a great opportunity to push the school culture debate further.

We can push the school culture debate further by discussing the following:
1. What is the vision of your school?
2. Does your current school culture support your vision of creating a college-going culture?
3. If not, how do we create a college culture in our schools that are not graduating students who go on to college in high numbers?
4. What mindsets do children need to succeed?
5. What does this look like on a whole- school level? Classroom level?
6. As a staff, what will we do to drastically improve our school culture so that are students expect to go to college?
7. What is holding your school back from creating a positive learning environment? Does your school have a whole-school behavior and incentive system? How are you improving attendance? How are you decreasing suspensions?
8. If your school does have an amazing school culture, share it, tweet it, blog about it. What are you doing to share your school’s best practices?

Supporters of No Excuses
Yes, schools must take daring moves to create learning environments that raise expectations and push students to believe college is their route to success in places where going to college is not the norm. Yes, school districts and school leaders have the power to create schools as safe havens that equip our students with the tools they need to beat the odds in their dilapidated neighborhoods. Yes, many schools do a poor job of creating positive learning environments for children.

Nevertheless, what’s missing in your argument is the reality that it’s not just college banners donning the hallways, college chants echoing from classrooms, or demerit systems that create school culture. Wraparound services, low student to teacher ratios, positive working environments that provide teacher leadership and professional development are also important pieces that work in synchronization to provide our students with the best conditions to achieve at high levels.

We need to push the school culture debate further by answering the following:
1. What is your definition of the “no excuses” approach?
2. How did you come up with this approach as the most effective way to change a school’s culture?
3. What does this model look like at the school level? Classroom level?
4. What are the misconceptions of this approach?
5. What are the areas of improvement for the “no excuse” model?
6. How do you create buy-in of this model from staff, students and families?
7. What happens when children challenge this model?
8. What are your student attendance and suspension rates? Have you seen increased attendance and deceased suspensions with this model? If not, what are you doing to improve? If so, what best practices can you share?

Let’s all agree to take this debate to the next level. The real work is the action happening in classrooms and schools. We all agree that for far too long we’ve allowed the children living in our nation’s most impoverished neighborhoods to attend schools that have not produced enough students attending college. Although, poverty continues to plague our neighborhoods, and we may not be able to control all the outside factors, we can definitely control what our schools look and feel like once a child enters the doors. Let’s discuss concrete solutions that schools can implement in their classrooms to create a school culture where students expect to attend college. Then put them into action. I’m ready to work!

11 thoughts on “Elevating the “No Excuses” Debate

  1. kidlutions says:


    What an excellent piece! Your passion rings through! As a Child and Adolescent Therapist providing services in two school systems AND as an Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant providing services to multiple early childhood programs, there are a few insights that seem so abundantly clear to me, which seem to be overlooked on many levels.

    The public schools need to ENGAGE PARENTS from birth…long before their child will set foot in the educational arena. What takes place from birth to five will have a HUGE impact on how that child performs across his/her lifespan when it comes to eduction, behavior and mental well-being.

    We are only beginning to tap into these crucial years, and I think to have any meaningful change in the public schools, the schools would be wise (if not visionary) to begin to care for these students before they can walk or talk.

    It’s simple. And challenging. And NOT impossible!

    Thanks for letting me weigh in!

    Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD

    • Darla Bunting says:

      Hi Wendy! Thanks for weighing in! I agree that so much needs to be done in the early years. One area that I see overlooked is teen pregnancy. Many of my peers were pregnant in high school and some as early as late middle school. I’m not sure what resources were available to them as teen moms, but for the most part they leaned on their families for guidance. I know some nonprofits exist to work with this age group. It would be great to see more community organizations that devote their time to these young mothers. It’s difficult being a teenager. We know it’s extremely challenging to be a teenage mother.

  2. Anthony Cody says:

    I appreciate you trying to work in this middle ground, to find what can be useful from the different sides of the gulf that often divides “no excuses reformers” from those of us Paul Thomas calls “social context reformers.” As one of the latter, I have a few concerns about your approach.

    First of all, we have to separate out the levels of reform. I think you are onto something when you define the school as the place where the action is. And I agree with you that creating a positive learning environment, with solid supports for every child, ought to be central to our work as educators. Why can’t we just agree to that and get to work and stop all the bickering?

    I will tell you why. A little over a decade ago, “no excuses reformers” brought us No Child Left Behind, which placed every school in the nation on a timetable requiring 100% of our students to be proficient by 2014. Then as this became unworkable, these same reformers shifted the emphasis down to the individual teacher, tying evaluations and even pay to test score growth. Poor test scores continue to be used to justify closure of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of charters.

    I think most teachers would be delighted to shift their focus onto doing everything in their power to make their schools vibrant, positive, creative places. I am afraid it is the policies put in place by “no excuses reformers” that have made this all but impossible in high poverty schools.

    • Darla Bunting says:

      Anthony, thanks for your comment! I agree with you that we cannot ignore poverty. I say that all over my blog. It’s a common theme throughout my blog posts. Nevertheless, what I see driving “reform” right now is corp reformers and their “solutions”. I think those who understand poverty’s impact on our schools have to be more strategic in pushing our solutions.

      Simply saying poverty cripples our schools isn’t enough because poverty is a complex issue that won’t be changed overnight (yes, I know our schools won’t be changed overnight either). I do believe there are many levers schools can control to a certain extent & we have to be strategic in pushing them to the forefront.

      Sometimes I feel as though our argument gets lost because we focus so much on poverty & not creatively pushing ideas within our control. So no, I’m absolutely not saying to ignore poverty. I’m saying that we need to be more strategic in our approach to get results. The solutions we implement at the school level will give us more leeway to say, “This works and we need to scale it.”

  3. Dr. Price-Mitchell (@DrPriceMitchell) says:

    Like Anthony, I commend your middle-of-the-road approach. I wish more people could step forward and say, “Yes, I can learn from the other side. And our combined learning will benefit kids.” At this moment in our education system’s history, the top-down policies are getting in the way of people at the grassroots who do the hard work of affecting change for kids.

    If all of the issues and questions you mention are important, (and I believe they are), then they should be reflected in our educational policies. Unfortunately, the system has been hijacked by reformers whose self-interest is placed higher than children’s interests. These are policies that ignore years of developmental and sociological research. So it is not surprising that two sides have emerged.

    I agree that the battles are hurting our kids. But I also believe that people such as yourself, school administrators, teachers, and parents are the stakeholders who must have these conversations. Through the questions you ask, and many others, people at the grassroots will change the system, not the policy-makers. (At least, this is my hope! And most days I feel optimistic about it!)

    • Darla Bunting says:

      Hi Dr. Price-Mitchell, I follow you on Twitter and always enjoy what you post. You have a heart for children! A key takeaway that I want people to understand from this post is how do we get other models out there? We can’t just simply use poverty alone as a counterargument. It’s absolutely, the root cause, but unfortunately, schools alone aren’t the silver bullet to eradicating poverty. Nevertheless, while we as citizens are working to eradicate poverty outside of school, there are levers in school that we can continue to improve. I know that “No excuses” isn’t the only school culture model out there. We need to share those other models in order to take the debate to the next level.

  4. plthomasedd says:

    This “middle of the road” blog misrepresents those of us who reject “no excuses” ideology. “No excuse” advocates DO claim poverty doesn’t matter, and their “poverty isn’t destiny” is factually misleading since poverty IS destiny.

    Further, the “no excuses” ideology in practice reduces academic expectations for children of color and children in poverty by endorsing teacher-centered education that is primarily test-prep.

    Most disturbing about “no excuses,” however, is their racist/classist authoritarian/”zero tolerance” discipline practices, which is the primary reason to reject “no excuses.”

    We ARE calling for a culture change in schools, but not the way “no excuses” seek to create schools for “other people’s children.”

    • Darla Bunting says:

      Hi PLThomas, Thanks for commenting! I want to press you further. It’s extremely important that you get your voice out there in not only saying why you don’t agree with “No excuses” as a model, but also to give suggestions and/or examples of great models of school culture that you support. When I wrote this post, it was to urge people to not only put their opinions out there, but to also share their solutions. That is key for us to elevate the debate.

  5. Anthony Cody says:

    Like Paul, I also offer alternatives when taking on these issues. In fact, this summer I engaged in an extended dialogue with representatives of the Gates Foundation. I did my best to offer not only a critique of the “no excuses” approach they have taken, but also to offer clear alternatives.

    In particular, I offered a post entitled “Can Schools Defeat Poverty by Ignoring It?” in which I laid out the reasons we MUST address poverty at a systemic level if we are serious about achieving any sort of equitable outcomes. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2012/08/can_schools_defeat.html

    That does not mean that we, as educators now working in the schools simply throw up our hands and passively WAIT for poverty to be fixed. Of course in our work we make our best efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty. But we cannot go along with those who pretend, with lofty slogans like “poverty is not destiny,” that schools alone can overcome these effects.

    I would ask you to take a look at this exchange, and the whole series of exchanges I had with the Gates Foundation, and see where you land. Here is an overview to the series, with links to each post in the exchange: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2012/09/a_teacher_in_dialogue_with_the.html

    • Darla Bunting says:

      Anthony, I completely agree with you. Nevertheless, schools and teachers need school culture models that they can work to implement in their schools now. Many schools are missing that school culture piece. How do we help schools adopt a college-going culture? What does this look like? Right now, I see lots of schools adopting the “No excuses” approach because they feel the pressure from NCLB and RTTT. As people are working at the top to get the conversation to change, how do we give them solutions they can implement in their schools for the day-to-day work? It’s great to have people, like you, pushing the dialogue further by bringing poverty into the conversation. Social justice is an irreplaceable piece of this puzzle. I just want to be sure that we’re also providing schools with options they can implement so they don’t feel like they have to adopt “no excuses.” I know there are teachers and schools doing just that. How do we get the great school culture models at their schools to the national stage?

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