Excuse the Racism?: How Current No-Excuses Charter School Models Perpetuate Structural Racism

By Amirpasha Zandieh

On a school visit to a charter school in Newark, I watched as students came out of their classrooms and lined up in the hallway in what had to be the most orchestrated and organized movement of 5th graders I had ever seen. Every student was silent, standing inside of a white taped line on the floor in a near-perfect straight line. This was also true for the four other classrooms—more than one hundred 5th-grade children in one hallway, all in straight lines and completely silent. With a loud and clear voice, one teacher directed all the students to move at precisely the right time. I heard one student laugh, and immediately two teachers went over to assign a “consequence” to him. The student pouted. He shuffled his feet and clenched his little fists. His reaction moved his body outside the white line. Stepping outside of the line merited another “consequence.” At this point, the student began crying and mumbling. He was visibly frustrated but unable to express his emotions. Two teachers escorted him out into the stairwell. 

I did not see him return right away, so I followed up about him. The teachers told me he had made several bad choices today and that he needed to have a few minutes to calm himself down in the dean’s office. When I asked about these bad choices, they told me he arrived late to school (consequence number one), he did not wear a belt (consequence number two), he laughed during the line assignment (consequence number three), and he had acted disrespectfully (consequence number four). This seemed like a bad day any student could experience, but, unlike the average student, this bad day meant that he was now required to sit silently in the Dean’s office for the rest of the day and serve both silent lunch detention and after-school detention the following day. I became emotional and exhausted just thinking about this student’s experience, and I honestly do not know if as an adult I would have handled such strange rules as well as he did. 

This number of consequences is no surprise to people familiar with No-Excuses Charter Schools (NECS). In fact, many of these schools punish a large percentage of their student population daily—as much as 20% before the murder of George Floyd when serious examination of these systems began in earnest. Although I’ve enjoyed every minute I spent with my students, families, and colleagues, as a former dean and administrator of a NECS, I had many questions about the system. Some that I struggled to answer during my time working in schools were: How is it that a child gets punished for being late to school, but there is no mention of a transportation system that was not built for students to travel from one side of the city to another? Why is it that we advocate for data-driven decision-making, but do not ask ourselves, to what extent do silent detentions modify students’ behavior, and how many silent detentions are enough? How can we possibly claim to be antiracist organizations while forcing students of color to do well over 30,000 hours of forced silent punishments each year? 

It is hard to answer these questions because they are embedded within a racist society, and I believe the NECS movement’s biggest mistake was not adequately accounting for America’s original sin. NECS leaders set a social-justice oriented goal to improve economic prosperity for Black and brown students by increasing their educational attainment, which should have led to financial gains (i.e., higher wages), an admirable and yet misguided goal. To achieve academic excellence, NECSs introduced strict codes of conduct, which helped improve high-stakes test scores. While the aim of NECS models is well-intentioned, the leaders of the movement, most of whom were White, did not account for structural racism; instead, their solution is siloed from the rest of society. To the surprise of very few people of color, and validation from economists, increases in high-stakes test scores did not translate to economic success for Black and brown students who attended NECSs. In fact, not only did NECSs not achieve their primary goal of economic prosperity for their students, but heartbreakingly, their attempts at doing so came at the expense of students’ freedoms. Instead of nurturing students’ voices so they could grow up to speak out against the structural racism that is undermining their skills and values, NECSs focused on student compliance to improve high-stakes test scores. Additionally, this teaches students to internalize the idea that success comes through compliance. This is a rather perplexing approach for a social-justice focused movement, given that conformity and compliance do not help anyone restructure a society that nearly all educational leaders agree is unjust. In this way, NECSs have become arbiters of structural racism, recreating and reenforcing racist structures currently at play in society.

The current NECS model assumes that the “excuses” limiting the potential of students of color are their own poor academic and behavioral habits. These habits range from how a student sits in the classroom (SLANT) to whether or not a parent is able to bring their child to school on time every day. These policies translate to a notion that our students’ behaviors are the sole excuses that should be eliminated, not the societal forces that constantly impact their behaviors and undermine their actions. Take, for example, the case where a student is consistently late to school in the mornings. While immediately ready to punish students for their tardiness, the school often offers very little to nothing to deal with an underfunded transportation system created with racist intent and not built for students to travel across town. Here, an “excuse” means taking responsibility for a larger failure by society to address critical infrastructure and transportation needs, without encouraging students to use their voice to fight racism.

Normally, punishment in a school is focused on curbing behavior that is widely agreed to be harmful, such as fighting, bullying, and cutting class. The NECS model takes this a step further by punishing “excuses” that the school deems as a student’s attempt to avoid learning. They believe that by eliminating these “excuses” schools can improve students’ academic performance as measured by high-stakes testing. They assume that students who are able to set aside their “excuses” will enjoy increased chances of attending and graduating college. And in the long-term, schools that implement the NECS argue this increased level of educational attainment will help students enjoy all the good things that come with economic opportunities (i.e., increased wages, improved physical and mental health). This expanded definition of punishable “excuses” is the biggest reason why over 90% of students receive at least one punishment each year and about 10% receive well over 100 punishments, with a few even receiving over 250 punishments each year, based on data I collected as an adminstrator. 

One of the reasons why this egregious trend has not been scrutinized as critically as it should is because of a subtle linguistic change that allows this all to go unquestioned. By replacing the term “punishment” with “consequence,” the school avoids the societal red line of over-punishing a child. The use of the word “consequences” also makes it harder for students and families to disagree when they may not approve of the behavior-consequence pairing. At its root, the word “consequence” makes it seem that the child’s behavior has led to a natural result that is bad for the child, creating the perception that the NECS model is value-neutral and accepted universally. With the unpleasantness of punishment hidden behind the passive supportive language of “consequences,” most students, parents, staff, and even administrators are able to overlook the fact that students are receiving hundreds of penalties. 

To ensure that every “excuse” receives it’s appropriate “consequence” the NECS model shifted the power to punish from very few administrators to almost all staff members having the ability to assign punishments (particularly minor punishments like detention). This dedication to control became known as “sweating the small stuff.” The no-excuse charter movement repurposed its punishment tactics as a means of control to establish school culture. In practice, this meant that every aspect of a student’s behavior could be subject to punishment. And for example, if a staff member did not address a child laughing during lunchtime (students in most NECS elementary schools often eat lunch in silence), the teacher was accused of undermining the system and not caring about that child’s success. This approach to enforcement of the code of conduct essentially transformed many teachers and staff into overworked security guards, whose job was to find and address “excuses.”

The irony is that not allowing “excuses” does not even seem to generate the promised economic outcomes. One former NECS student speaking at an event said, “I’ve been told I should just work hard and be nice. That it’ll pay off in the end. I’ve worked hard and I’ve been nice but the nice guys finish last.” The student’s sentiment is confirmed by educational economists who have observed that students of high-performing charter schools (the kind that implement the NECS model) see small and statistically insignificant increases in wages, despite being admitted at higher rates to colleges and universities. Nevertheless, the NECS model focuses solely on student performance (mainly the core subjects of math and ELA), rather than broader academic knowledge and soft skills that help students learn about their culture and community and encourages them to use their voice to fight racism.

In a well-functioning NECS control is injected, articulated, and sustained into every space and moment of a school day. This approach establishes the school’s authority over the child’s mind, body, and soul and guarantees consistency in implementation. However, the urban education movement has been left to deal with the many short and long-term consequences of the NECS movement. Of the many reasons why this model is problematic, one in particular stands out to me given my identity and my role as an administrator in regular contact with parents. The NECS model inherently (implicit for some and explicit for others) believes that the families they serve need their help to improve their children’s lives. If I learned anything in my years working in schools, it is that all the heroes with a chance to save our failing education system are already right here in the city of Newark. It was the principal at my school, a man from the community and a former NECS parent himself; it was a mother managing her child’s education and dealing with structural racism as a parent and professional while getting an earful from 20-something-year-old White boys. It was the grandmothers who have sacrificed so much already and are willing to sacrifice even more. It was the many parents sharing their wisdom with me. The heroes were sitting right in front of us all along, but we often chose to look the other way. 

The NECS model needs reexamination that starts by questioning the assumptions that underlie the model, something that many advocates for the model have been resistant to do. It also requires that parents and community stakeholders do this questioning. There are parents who send their children to these schools precisely because they welcome this type of education in the hopes that it will secure a better and brighter future for their children. However, many do not know about the detrimental impact this model has on their children’s well-being. It is unfathomable to me that so many students are constantly punished, but there is no real accountability system monitoring the impact of these punishments on students and school culture. For example, schools using this model should work closely with researchers to provide student data to measure the economic performance of their graduates (not just their test scores), and then adjust their policies in response to the findings. 

In my own journey as an educator, I became increasingly disappointed at the prevailing ideologies that were not grounded in sound educational philosophy. Although I had the opportunity to work with some of the kindest and most competent people, I often lost hope in both the district and charter systems. But the same journey allowed me to make connections that filled me with love and appreciation for my students, families, and colleagues, and ultimately become hopeful that empowering our students and partnering with our communities can, in fact, fix this long-broken system. I believe if we teach students their own history, instill confidence in their voice, and encourage them to trust their own thoughts and believe in their own abilities, in a not-so-distant future, they will reimagine and rebuild their own schools. 

Amirpasha Zandieh is currently an educational researcher. He has previously served as a teacher, dean, and administrator. Influenced by the likes of John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and bell hooks, throughout his career, he has focused on understanding students’ experiences and creating avenues that support students to express their thoughts and encourage them to act. For the past eight years, Amirpasha spent most nights writing reflections about his experiences in the district and charter schools where he worked. Too often, he found that these schools valued students’ performance (academic and behavioral) above their freedom of mind and expression. And although he believes that many educational policies, particularly the discipline practices of NECS, are ineffective and harsh, he believes students and parents should tell the details of those stories. 

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