Elevating the “No Excuses” Debate

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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!

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