I get asked all the time about the good things happening in charter/renaissance schools in Camden, and why that doesn’t change my analysis of them as deeply problematic institutions. Malcolm X said it best, “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress.” In other words, many of the marginal improvements I see from these schools are important, but they don’t address fundamental problems with the way such institutions operate. On a host of issues, these schools are seeing progress on important issues such as serving a neighborhood population and addressing cultural competency, but if these things were truly integral to the model of these schools they would need to fundamentally change their pedagogy, their approach to discipline, and their approach to hiring/firing teachers. In other words, they would have to stop being “No Excuses” schools. Instead, these schools (and the school district advocating them) are using a classic “ends justify the means” approach. They commit injustices to the very community they are trying to serve, then they assert that such injustices are necessary because they want to help create justice (in this case, increase test scores). I question the ability of both the new schools and the school district to increase justice for children of a community, while simultaneously treated that community unjustly.

Let’s start with Democracy Freedom Prep Elementary. There are things to like here — such as the focus on civics (much better than the laser focus on math/reading that plagues some schools that comes as a result of a test-prep culture). I’m all for freedom. But does the classroom reflect that focus on freedom? Here are two videos that the school’s new twitter feed put together: 

Oh yes. We’re back to chanting. Because nothing screams freedom like every child being required to chant school propaganda in unison. Now, this may seem harmless, but it’s part of a wider style of teaching that advocates complete and rigid control of teachers over students. I’ve documented how “No Excuses” schools focus on concepts like insisting students sit absolutely still and “track” the teacher with their eyes, in fact, the last time I wrote about it, Mastery took down the teaching training video I linked to because they were embarrassed.

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But here we are again. Go back to the first video. Note how the students are forced to clasp their hands and sit at attention. It’s not how I’d want my (hypothetical) child to be treated, and it’s not exactly an advertisement for freedom. 

So, even if we can ignore the fact that “Democracy Prep Elementary” came here through a non-democratic (i.e. state) approval process, even if we look away from the fact that such a process keeps them separate and apart from accountability to Camden residents because they are not a part of the public school district, and even if we ignore the fact that they either were not plugged in enough or simply did not care enough to support petitions for an elected school board, even if we ignore all these things, we see that freedom in the classroom means controlling behavior and teaching chants. 

There is a flip side to such a focus on discipline in the classroom, and it is punishments. Again, here, there has been progress in Camden. The education reform movement has been forced to deal with the ugly reality of astronomical suspension rates, particularly in New Orleans, the hotbed of education reform ideas. Here’s a particularly disturbing paragraph from a Hechinger Report on school discipline

In New Orleans, too, alarming numbers have begun to prompt challenges to and reassessments of charters’ no-excuses regimens. In 2012–13, their first academic year, Carver Collegiate and its sister school in Ben Marcovitz’s trio, Carver Prep, led local high schools in suspension rates—this in a city where suspending more than a fifth of a school’s students each year is not uncommon. At Carver Collegiate the figure was 69 percent, and at Carver Prep it was 61 percent; the national average for high schools was 11 percent. School officials said 80 percent of suspensions lasted for just a single day. Yet several students complained that they were sometimes sent home “off the books,” with nobody documenting the dismissal and minimal or no inquiry into the circumstances that led to the misbehavior. Disputing their accounts, Marcovitz emphasizes that Collegiate Academies strives to be as accurate as possible with its data. At KIPP Renaissance, the discipline so eagerly welcomed soon proved ineffectual, and many parents’ support eroded. Several years after he founded New Orleans College Prep, Ben Kleban became disturbed by a suspension rate that exceeded 50 percent as his first students made their way into Cohen College Prep High School.

The problem is the same in Boston, where the Boston Globe makes an even more explicit link to the “No Excuses” charters we’re seeing proliferate in Camden: 

About 5 percent of the state’s schools accounted for half of the disciplinary actions in the 2012-2013 school year.

Many charter schools stress a “no-excuse” approach to strict discipline, which they uphold as one of several strategies for high academic achievement. Many of the charter schools with high suspension rates also have among the highest MCAS scores in the state.

So it’s great news to see the Camden Public School District take action on limiting long suspensions. Big kudos here to local advocate (and former Board of Education representative) Sean Brown for being on this issue for a long time. Please take the time to read his thoughts

This is great news. But it’s worth noting that it does not apply to the new Renaissance Schools or any charter schools in Camden. Given that strict discipline is an integral part of “No Excuses” model, and there is evidence that the schools we’re bringing to Camden have been among the worst offenders in other cities. For example, ChalkBeat reports

Chalkbeat’s analysis of out-of-school suspension numbers found that Uncommon Schools’ network-wide suspension rate in 2011-12 was 22 percent, making it one of five charter networks that suspended more than 20 percent of their students that year. The others were New Visions (25 percent), Ascend Learning (24 percent), Achievement First (22 percent), and Democracy Prep (21 percent).

Any familiar names? Again, some of these schools are aware of the problems and examining them. An Uncommon spokesman in that article said,“We believe that we are making steps in the right direction towards a reduction in suspensions.” In Camden, Mastery’s Molina Elementary is keeping students in school, but separating out those with behavior problems into an Annex. Mastery has also moved towards incorporating trauma awareness into their schools. This is all progress, but only because of the ideological point in which these schools started. “No Excuses” schools are predicated upon strict discipline and harsh punishments, these are the schools most in need of the school district’s reforms. And more importantly, if the school district was truly concerned about the disproportionate suspension of urban and minority children, these schools would never have been invited here to Camden. 

And this gets to the fundamental question. The choice that “No Excuses” schools, and that the Camden School District and wider political forces here in the city has made is this: it believes that schools which use disproportionate discipline upon poor and minority students are ok so long as their test scores improve. One injustice, that of mistreating students, is allowable being it serves a broader justice, that of increasing their scores. So even though many involved in this system of schools will profess privately that they are uncomfortable with the strict discipline enforced upon minority children, they are willing to use it if it increases scores at those schools. 

There are plenty of reasons to think it does not. But I want to point to my bigger issue with this strategy. It assumes that outsiders can create justice by mistreating a community. On issues of cultural competency and school discipline, we’re seeing progress in Camden. But that progress comes from a self-inflicted starting point. If progressive discipline was a priority from the start, these are not the schools that should have been chosen. If progressive discipline was a priority in schools, they would not be using a “No Excuses” ideology. It’s like Malcolm X says, “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress.”

Tomorrow, we’ll look at cultural competency, and how the improvements in this area are undermined by a determination to fire experienced, minority teachers and replace them with a younger, whiter teaching force.

Comments

  • As the Chairperson of the BOE’s Policy Chairperson I was very fortunate to have a great group of individuals serving on that committee, including the assistance of legal counsel. We revamped the policy manual not only updating but also in reformulating the structure so that it was easier to use and understand. We spent a great deal of time ensuring that all policies/regulations related to student discipline were proactive and fair. At no time was there a policy that would sanction a child being sent home for failure to wear his/her uniform. Even the current regulation does not sanction this action, though other sanctions are available. The philosophy that responses to student violations of policy/regulations are to be “tiered with consideration given to the [child’s age], seriousness and the number of previous occurrences of acts or incidents” is still in effect. Current district regulations for Policy 5600, “STUDENT DISCIPLINE/CODE OF CONDUCT,” includes 28 pages detailing the progressive consequences for repeated violations. The difficulty has always been ensuring that school level officials follow the policy, both in spirit and letter.

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