Emily Kaplan taught second-grade in a “no-excuses” charter school, and now teaches in a public school. EduShyster offered her space on her blog to explain a very serious concern about the future of children who are pushed too hard and too early to master academic skills.


Every day in the charter school began with the recitation of a creed. Every child was required to “track” the teacher (with their eyes) and to dress precisely as the rule book decreed. Behavioral expectations were ironclad.


Kaplan writes:


This school is obsessed with success. Its students chant about it daily; its walls are plastered with banner-sized recipes in bold fonts and bright colors. And its proponents claim that, because it has the highest test scores in the state, it has achieved it.


These test scores don’t tell the whole story, of course, but they are also not meaningless. The school’s youngest students— children of color from
predominantly low-income families— can do a lot. These five-, six-, and seven-year-olds who start each day by pumping their fists into the air while chanting about success are articulate in person and on the page; they are perspicacious readers and creative, rational mathematicians. The nine hours a day they spend in classrooms named after four-year colleges— where every lesson is aligned to a standard and cut-out caterpillars with their names on them publicly climb the Reading Level Mountain—enable them to attain academic milestones earlier than their peers in more traditional school environments, where children spend six-hour school days engaged in less direct instruction and more play-based, child-driven exploration.*


If the early attainment of academic skills—coupled with constant, explicit messaging about the necessity of pursuing long-term goals—were a primary determinant of long-term success, it stands to reason that the young children at this “no-excuses” school would continue, unobstructed and ahead of the curve, on their “path to success.” But they don’t.


Once children at this school reach adolescence, they struggle. Their high school entrance exam percentiles are far lower than those of their state standardized tests, and they are not admitted in large numbers to the most selective high schools. At the high schools they do attend, they struggle: in their first semester, 81% of last year’s ninth graders earned below a 3.0 grade point average. Existing evidence indicates that these students— who have spent their entire educational careers, from kindergarten onward, in classrooms named after four-year colleges, striving toward big long-term goals like Excellence and Success— aren’t graduating from college in large numbers. They aren’t Excelling, and the extent to which they are even Succeeding is debatable.


So why is this? Why do children who learn to read earlier than their peers do so poorly in ways that matter later on? Why do children for whom every aspect of their education, from kindergarten onward, is tailored toward graduating from college so often struggle to graduate from college?


Reflecting on my experiences teaching both at this school and at more traditional public schools, I find myself wondering if the methodology that enables young children to achieve so much so early actually hinders their long-term prospects. What if the struggles of graduates of “no excuses” schools reveal deficits that are not academic, but rather socioemotional? What would happen if, instead of spending nine hours a day engaged in academic tasks determined by a teacher, children were to spend a large portion of their day developing “soft skills” that would enable them to overcome the hurdles they will encounter when they’re older? What if, like their suburban counterparts, they spent large portions of their day in rigorous, developmentally appropriate activities: learning to make friends, make art, and make believe, exploring and creating their interests and their identities?


That is, what if a necessary component of improving the long-term prospects of small children from disadvantaged backgrounds is not accelerating through childhood, but purposefully lingering in it?…


Pushing children to attain academic skills they will attain regardless— while depriving them of other, more developmentally appropriate activities that would enable them to succeed independently when they are older— is short-sighted at best. Implementing a more developmentally appropriate curriculum for young children might result in lower test scores in the short term, but I suspect that its long-term effects— both in terms of test scores and more relevant measures of success— would compensate. (This solution, however, is admittedly incomplete; I suspect that in order to set children living in poverty on a true “path to success,” communities require resources and support that no school on its own is capable of providing.)


We really have very little information about the long-term effects of pushing children to behave like little soldiers and requiring them to master academic skills instead of playing and socializing.


I recall a conversation with the president of a liberal arts college a few years ago who told me that it had accepted a number of charter school graduates from one of the best charter chains. Few of them could read complex texts or interpret material that required critical thinking. That’s an anecdote, not research. But it raises questions about the value of militaristic education and whether it helps children or improves education.