We’ve already had pep rallies for our new “No Excuses” schools here in Camden. But do we really understand the philosophy behind these schools? This week, national scrutiny has been brought to the aggressive, controlling techniques used in “No Excuses” schools. These techniques are being critiqued as rote learning and even child abuse. This is an overview of that discussion, why it matters for Camden, and what it has to do with Uncommon and Mastery Schools, our soon-to-be neighbors.
This Dewey to Delpit blog post explains the rationale for bringing in “No Excuses” schools, a rationale being used almost word-for-word here in Camden. As evidence increasingly shows that charter schools do not (in general) outperform traditional schools, the argument shifts away from charters, and towards a subset of schools that (arguably) produce better results (read: test scores). These “No Excuses” schools focus on school discipline, classroom culture, and pedagogy that emphasizes rote-learning.
You have to see it in action to really understand it.
That is what has exploded the national scene; first-person critiques from teachers, and videos of these classroom techniques. Critiques of these methods (often highlighted as Whole Brain Learning or techniques from the book Teach Like a Champion) have been floating around for ages, but a particularly stunning teacher confession brought them to the forefront of the national education debate. Here’s an excerpt:
Students were expected to stand up and “mirror” instructions using a Whole Brain Teaching technique at the beginning of lessons. They used “mirror talk” – repeating verbatim what the teacher just said. After “mirroring” some snippet of knowledge, for example “9 x 3 = 27” or “adverbs modify verbs,” they had to return to the carpet and have a mini-lesson related to that fact, using “Turn and Talk,” when students repeat the information to another student sitting near them, and “Teach/Okay,” when students repeat in unison verbatim what the teacher just said using the same tone of voice and gestures. Every word, every gesture is supposed to be done exactly so, no variations. In a class using Whole Brain Teaching, every few minutes you hear the teacher say, “Class, class” and the class responding, “Yes, yes” then the teacher says, “Hands and eyes,” and the class responds, “Hands and eyes,” silently putting their folded hands on their desks and looking at the teacher, tracking the teacher with their eyes wherever the teacher moves around the room. If any student is not sitting properly, silent, hands folded, the teacher says, “I need you to sit like a scholar.” Then the teacher says, “Mirror, mirror words,” and the teacher runs her hand across her mouth like zipping it shut. When the teacher says, for example, “How do we use math,” and pauses, the students repeat, “How do we use math,” and the teacher then says, “Every day,” and the students repeat, “Every day.” Then the teacher claps three times and says, “Teach,” and the students clap three times and say, “Okay.” This directive to “teach,” preceded by a formulaic pattern of clapping that the students mimic, followed by the students saying the word “okay” is a basic Whole Brain Teaching technique. Students then repeat what the teacher said using the “buzzing bee” level of talking which is allowed in the classroom for this activity. Each student addresses a partner using the same words, the same intonation. There is no intelligence involved on the part of the students, no critical thinking skills engaged, no independent thinking, no creativity. In this example, what follows is the students taking turns saying, “How do we use math every day?” first one student in a pair, then the second one in the pair, the students facing each other for this part of the lesson. Then the teacher says, “Hands and eyes,” and the students are quiet again, facing the front of the room, with hands folded.
The administration of this particular charter school strongly encouraged every teacher to use these methods and, in my case, I was observed and criticized so frequently that I had no choice but to incorporate Whole Brain Teaching in my day-to-day lessons. There were observers in my classroom most of the day every day.
Here’s a video of these Whole Brain techniques, from the instructor, Chris Bizzle:
I’m not sure Mastery or Uncommon Schools use Whole Brian Teaching specifically, but much of the pedagogy behind their approaches is drawn from this philosophy base.
Watch, for example, this teaching instructional video from the author of Teach Like a Champion, which uses Uncommon Schools teachers and features examples of chanting, intimidating students by invading their personal space, and other control techniques:
Or this description of their use of “props” and chants in an Uncommon School:
Sure, the same learning could be done without the math chant — which also has the students clap and bang their hands on their desks in a synchronized movement — and without the “props,” but this system seems to work for the True North Preparatory Charter School which opened its doors in late August in downtown Troy.
Or note how in this Mastery video (which is actually an instructional video for teachers applying to Mastery), a teacher has written, as a “goal” above the whiteboard: “100% Uniform Compliance, 100% Ready to Rock.” [0:18]
One hundred percent uniform compliance. That is the identifying feature of “No Excuses” schools.
I started by talking about how these control techniques are central to the ideology of “No Excuses” schools. This is why they were chosen. It drives their test scores.
There’s more in-depth policy analysis to be done here (particularly discussing other competing philosophies that argue test-driven rote-learning isn’t a good idea, or that freedom and creativity are critical to everything from humanity to college-readiness) but let me just say this:
It’s hard for me to watch these videos and believe that militaristic, controlling techniques are in the best interest of students. This isn’t the type of education I loved as a student, it flies against everything I believe when teaching my college classes, and I would not send any child of mine to a school that emphasizes strict conformity over creativity.
But there is a group of entrepreneurs who believe the best way to teach minority, urban students is by controlling them, having them mimic instructors, and insisting on 100 percent compliance. And we have invited those leaders to teach in our city.