What Does “No Excuses” Really Mean? Lessons From a Transformed School

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What Does “No Excuses” Really Mean? Lessons From a Transformed School

Are “no excuses” the new “grit”? Last year in this space we shared a deep dive into the evolving meanings and educational efficacy of “grit” as popularized in the studies and writings of Angela Duckworth and others. Yesterday I bumped into similarly disorienting experiences with the term “no excuses”. I visited ground zero of the growing No Excuses University school program, and a few hours later read a Valerie Strauss Washington Post article on “no excuses” charter schools. The two pictures could not have been less consonant.  Read on, engage, and weigh in!

photo 1In the 1990’s Los Penasquitos Elementary School was the lowest performing school in the now 35,000 student Poway Unified School District.  It is a public neighborhood school serving a demographic of largely middle and lower middle class families: 35% free and reduced lunch, 65% students of color, across the street from large apartment complexes that occur as an island in this largely suburban landscape of single family homes. Then principal  Jeff King decided to look at other schools with similar demographics but much higher student performance.  The result was No Excuses University, a program of instruction, assessment, and learning that has now been adopted by more than 200 schools around the country.

Prior to my time yesterday with principal Deanne McLaughlin, I thought the NEU approach was similar to a KIPP program: more time in class with a laser, perhaps even all-consuming, focus on fundamental skills, and highly rigid routines to be followed by all students and teachers.  I perceived the NEU approach to be at the opposite pole of the newest pilot in Poway Unified, Design 39 Campus, where the vision overtly speaks to student ownership of learning, and fluid uses of time, space, and subject to build student and adult comfort with change and ambiguity.  Deanne set me straight.

“Los Pen” has a single-sentence mission: “We are committed to creating a school that knows no limits to the academic success of each student”. I heard and saw several critical elements that allow the school, now in the top half of Poway schools in terms of student performance, to meet that mission:

  • Teachers and staff who will do almost anything to achieve the mission.
  • Teachers do not have “their” students; all students “belong” to all teachers.
  • Willingness to repeatedly and frequently reflect on current practices, fine tune, and even “tear up” the playbook as needed.
  • Radical, finely-tuned assessment of the performance of each student, and use of the resulting data to differentiate learning experiences for each child.
  • Engaging the entire internal and external school community in what it means to be a student and what it means to be a supportive school community.

photo 3Importantly, there is an entire section of the NEU playbook on social and emotional well-being and student ownership and responsibility for learning that directly focuses on building skills to allow students to function effectively with uncertainty and ambiguity.  In a kindergarden class, for example, just three weeks into the school year, I saw young children self-organizing into reading corners and learning games on the floor while their teacher spent time with a pull-out group. Students flow in multi-age cohorts based on specific learning needs and levels.  Schedules morph to the needs of student activities.

While the vision and mission statements of Los Pen are very different than those of schools like Design 39 Campus and many others I have visited that may articulate a seemingly more “progressive” vision, the key elements of cultural ethos seem dramatically similar: instructional pathways are adapted to the needs of each child, and not the other way around.  What I saw at Los Pen is in stark contrast to what Joan Goodman, a professor in the Graduate School of Education University of Pennsylvania found at charter schools that taut a “no excuses” approach as reported in her interview with Jennifer Berkshire in the Strauss article:

Goodman: These schools start with the belief that there’s no reason for the large academic gaps that exist between poor minority students and more privileged children. They argue that if we just used better methods, demanded more, had higher expectations, enforced these higher expectations through very rigorous and uniform teaching methods and a very uniform and scripted curriculum geared to being successful on high-stakes tests, we can minimize or even eradicate these large gaps, high rates of drop outs and the academic failures of these children. To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

I found the opposite at Los Pen/NEU where they are building on the individual and differentiated strengths of students, promoting flexibility of thought and implementation.  Yet both Los Pen and many of the charters cited by Goodman and others use the term “no excuses”.

photo 2There is another dimension to Los Penasquitos that should be of interest to ALL schools, public or private, low or high performing: radical community engagement.  As the NEU founders recognized more than a decade ago, students and families from underserved neighborhoods may not start from a shared understanding of what it means to be an effective student and what it takes in terms of family and community support.  Over time, Los Pen has built a remarkable system of community engagement. They hold frequent parenting classes; have well-organized teams to support families in need; and have strong partnerships with local businesses to bring in food, clothing, and extra services when needed. The flagship, in my mind, are their monthly community meetings that include the manager of the feeder apartment complexes, police, church leaders, parents, local business leaders, and the school district office. “School” is not imagined as “campus” but rather as the inclusive life experience of a child in a much larger community.  While it is easy to see why this paradigm may be more immediately critical for underserved communities, what set of students/teachers would NOT benefit from this concept of “school”?

And then there is the “university” part of No Excuses University. Many classrooms on campus have been adopted by an American college or university. Pendants and flags fly outside classrooms in the hallways. Students wear college swag. Starting at the earliest grades, vocabulary lists include words like “graduation” and “dormitory”. These kids don’t know where they are going to college, but they know they will, and they know that what they are doing each day is contributing to a path to get them there.

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