Julia Fisher taught English at the Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven, Connecticut. She is now earning a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. In this article, which appeared in the Washington Post, she describes life in a “no excuses” charter school.
When I taught at a charter school, I once gave out 37 demerits in a 50-minute period. This was the sort of achievement that earned a new teacher praise in faculty-wide emails at Achievement First Amistad High School, in New Haven, Conn.
Amistad is a No Excuses school, in the mold of high-profile charter networks such as KIPP and Success Academy. The programs are founded on the notion that there can be “no excuses” for the achievement gap between poor minorities and their more affluent, white counterparts. To bridge that gap, they set high expectations and strict behavioral codes. School days are long. Not a moment is to be wasted. Classes even rehearse passing out papers quickly so they can save every second for drilling academic content. Instruction is streamlined with methods that data says lead to strong performances on standardized tests, which lead to college acceptances.
Students at Amsted rebelled last May, protesting the lack of teachers of color.
Amistad’s students were mostly protesting the fact that their school doesn’t have more minority teachers: Achievement First says 17 percent of its faculty members at its five New Haven schools are black or Latino, which is roughly what I saw at Amistad. But the problem goes far beyond the racial composition of the faculty. More important, the students would benefit from teachers who treated them as equals in dignity and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
The Achievement First network, like many No Excuses schools, hammers its students from their first days with the notion that each of them will graduate from college. To do so, they must work hard. At school, students encounter careful uniform checks and communal chanting of motivational slogans. And because students will face professional standards in college and the workplace, No Excuses schools insist that they start young. Posture and eye contact are important, even for 16-year-olds. Class is not to proceed without total compliance.
She describes how she broke protocols by asking students to arrange their chairs in a circle for a class discussion. She encouraged students to think and to ask questions. When administrators got wind of what she had done, they were furious at her and began monitoring her classes closely to be sure that she didn’t allow questions.
Classes were designed to follow No Excuses dogma, in a way that precluded real engagement. Discussion was considered a waste of time because it didn’t produce measurable results. Teachers were forbidden from speaking for more than 5 percent of a class period. That meant most of the time was devoted to worksheets.
Classrooms at Amistad were often unruly. My students’ favorite disruption strategy was to make bird noises — a clever move, because it’s impossible to tell who is making the noises, so no one ends up punished. One of my student advisees said to me, “I’ve been in charter schools for 10 years, and the only way to have fun is to get in trouble.” Amistad officials knew they had a morale problem. Still, an administrator once stopped me in the hall to say (on her own initiative, not following policy) that she had seen me laughing in front of my students, which was wholly inappropriate behavior….
When I left Amistad, I went to teach at a progressive prep school in D.C., where the arts thrived and students shaped the spirit of their school. Once, I looked around the room at my students and noticed that, at that moment, every one of them — engrossed in discussion, looking through their books to develop ideas, taking notes, sitting comfortably — was doing something that would have earned a demerit at Amistad. Sure, the two schools’ populations differed significantly in racial composition and affluence, but the way a school treats its students shouldn’t be based on race or class.
That’s the basic premise of No Excuses: Race and class shouldn’t determine educational success. But because administrators so misunderstand what matters about education, their students are punished for the same behavior that, at a school with a hefty price tag, merits celebration. Amistad, like its No Excuses brethren, holds that no academic work can be done until and unless the classroom reaches perfect behavioral compliance. Yet no one demands such compliance of more-privileged kids. And so No Excuses schools re-create the racial gap they aim to eliminate.
Why are “no excuses” charter schools almost exclusively for children of color? Why do privileged white kids get joyful lessons, instead of joyless repression? Would you want your own child to attend a school like Amistad? I would not.