Robert Pondiscio works at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which authorizes charter schools in Ohio. He left a career in journalism to teach, then worked for E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation, and is soon to publish a book explaining the success of Eva Moskowitz’s controversial Success Academy charter chain. In this article called “No Apologies for No-Excuses Charter Schools,” Pondiscio explains his view that such schools are highly successful and should be celebrated.

He notes with dismay that even spokespersons for the charter industry are backing away from the no-excuses model.

He writes:

The phrase “no excuses” was coined 20 years ago to describe an optimistic movement and mindset that insisted there must be no excuses for adult failure. This coincided with the charter movement’s highest level of moral authority and public prestige, but that was no coincidence. When it first gained traction as a brand, a school model, and a rallying cry, “no excuses” signaled the non-negotiable belief that the root cause of educational failure and black-white achievement gaps was not poverty, not parents, not children, and above all not race. It was the belief that failing schools were the source of the problem and that great schools could be the solution—provided, of course, that everyone associated with them refused to tolerate or excuse failure.

Schools that embraced the “no excuses” mantra and mindset shared standard features such as longer instructional days, data-driven instruction, school uniforms, insistence on proper classroom behavior, an embrace of testing and accountability, and an unshakable commitment to get all students to and through college—features that remain in place in many charters (and other successful schools) today…

The sight of black and brown children required to “track the speaker” in class, or passing through hallways in straight lines, routinely brings complaints from both progressive educators and political progressives that high-performing schools teach only compliance and perpetuate the “school to prison pipeline”—a critique that deserves the strongest rebuke. Students in high-performing charters are not on their way to prison. They’re on their way to college. If all you see is teachers imposing their will on children, compliance for compliance sake, rather than a determined effort to create the school culture and classroom conditions—attention, focus, and affirmation—that make learning possible, you’ve missed the point entirely. 

The reluctance to defend the no excuses culture validates the common criticism that these schools are harsh and militaristic. Yet caring support for students is essential to the success of no excuses schools.  “One thing I consistently found was that no-excuses discipline failed if it was not combined with the sure knowledge on a student’s part that teachers cared deeply about them and their education,” said David Whitman, who wrote a seminal book in 2008 on no excuses schools, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. “There had to be a caring connection between teacher and student for strict discipline to work, or what I described as a kind of benign paternalism,” he told me. SEL enthusiasts take note: tough love is not an oxymoron. 

Wonks may love research and data, but narrative wins hearts and minds. The general impulse—that a safe, well-run, and orderly school is a precondition to academic excellence—has not changed in a generation and remains very popular with parents who continue to swell urban charter waitlists. The mindset that it is (or ought to be) morally unacceptable to allow low-income kids and children of color to be failed by adults and the institutions we build for their ostensible benefit, is no less valid or resonant today than it was two decades ago. What “no excuses” got right—and it’s still right—is that learning cannot occur in chaos. High expectations are essential and non-negotiable. “No excuses” meant exactly that: If kids are failing, we are failing. These are ideals that don’t need an apology.

They need a revival. 

Questions: are no-excuses charters a rebirth, as David Whitman put it, of paternalism? Are they a form of colonialism? How do the young white TFA teachers learn to administer discipline that they themselves never experienced? Do black and brown students require a different kind of discipline than white students? If every black and brown child went to a school run by Eva Moskowitz would that solve the huge economic gaps between the races? What happens to the majority of students (“scholars”) who don’t make it through the 12th year of no-excuses schooling?