Few education initiatives have generated as much praise as well as philanthropic funding as the “no-excuses” charter school movement. Yet criticism of the movement has recently been growing, from both inside and out, so much so that KIPP (short for Knowledge Is Power Program), the movement’s standard-bearer, dropped its motto—“Work Hard. Be Nice.”—one year ago in acknowledgement of the conflict between the organization’s rigid code of conduct and its goal of fostering student independence.

No book captures the tension between these competing forces as well as Joanne W. Golann’s Scripting the Moves: Culture and Control in a “No-Excuses” Charter School (Princeton University Press, 2021). In this NCSPE excerpt, Golann lays the foundation for her analysis, a sociological case study based on 18 months of observations at a “no-excuses” charter middle school beginning in March 2012. In keeping with much case study research, Golann, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, does not identify the school or its location, other than to note it is not part of a large network of charter schools and is situated in a medium-sized former industrial city in the northeast. Golann gives the school a pseudonym: Dream Academy.

As Golann recounts, the “no-excuses” movement began with the founding of one KIPP middle school serving low-income minority students in Houston in 1994. Another KIPP middle school serving low-income minority students in the Bronx opened in 1995. With students at both schools posting top scores on state reading and math exams, KIPP won acclaim. “For its first eight years, KIPP Academy Houston was recognized as a Texas Exemplary School,” Golann notes, “and KIPP Academy New York was rated the highest performing middle school in the Bronx for eight consecutive years.”

A segment on 60 Minutes in 1999 made that acclaim national and brought to the fore the school’s “no-excuses” pedagogical strategy: a much longer school day (running from 7:25 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), strict behavioral expectations, and unyielding commitments by parents and teachers alike to student success, all in the name of guaranteeing that every student makes it to and through college.

Embodying KIPP’s unrelenting focus on deportment has been its ubiquitous prescriptive acronym, SLANT, standing for Sit up straight at one’s desk; Listen attentively to teachers and peers alike; Ask and answer questions; Nod in acknowledgment of instructions; and Track the speaker with one’s eyes.

In the wake of the segment on 60 Minutes, more positive coverage followed. In addition to a subsequent segment on 60 Minutes, laudatory articles appeared by David Grann in The New Republic, Bob Herbert and Thomas Friedman in The New York Times, Stanley Crouch in The New York Daily News, Leonard Pitts in The Miami Herald, and Jay Mathews in The Washington Post. Mathews built on those articles in his book about KIPP called Work Hard. Be Nice (Algonquin, 2009). The husband-and-wife team of historian Stephan Thernstrom and political scientist Abigail Thernstrom earlier praised KIPP for its resolve and methods in their book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Malcolm Gladwell devoted a chapter of his book Outliers (Little Brown, 2008) to KIPP’s impressive academic outcomes and linked them to the extended hours required of both students and teachers. Paul Tough likewise commended KIPP for its dedication to character education in his book How Children Succeed (Houghton Mifflin, 2012).

In conjunction with this positive coverage, the philanthropic spigot opened up. Doris and Donald Fisher, founders and owners of The Gap, gave $15 million to KIPP in 2000 to start replicating and afterward continued to give the organization about $5 million a year to that same end. Other foundations, including those steered by the Waltons and Gates, have since contributed many millions more. And in 2010, the U.S. Department of Education gave KIPP an Investing in Innovation grant of $50 million to further replicate.

By 2020, Golann reports, KIPP served 110,000 students in 255 schools across the country. Of these students, 88 percent came from low-income families; 95 percent were Black or Latino. Thirteen similar “no-excuses” networks evolved in KIPP’s shadow. By 2020, these networks, from Achievement First and Aspire to Success Academy and YES Prep, together enrolled another 200,000 students in 433 schools across the country. The demographics of Dream Academy, in particular, reflected those of KIPP: over 80 percent came from low-income families; about 67 percent were Black; about 33 percent were Latino.

To Golann, the problem with these “no-excuses” schools is not scalability, though scaling up these networks is indeed difficult. These schools depend on a finite number of young teachers who can work such long hours. They also depend on a finite amount of philanthropic funding to cover the cost of after-school music programs, supplementary tutoring, field trips, and college visits. More fundamentally, these schools depend on students and families that can handle the steep behavioral and academic expectations.

This last constraint is indisputable. In this regard, Golann cites the failure of Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD). “In 2010, Tennessee created the ASD to take over and contract with charter management organizations (CMOs) to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools,” Golann explains later in her book. “By 2014-15, eighteen of the twenty-three ASD schools were managed by CMOs, many operating from a ‘no-excuses’ framework. After five years of turnaround efforts, the ASD schools failed to show any significant gains in students’ academic outcomes.” The key difference between conventional “no-excuses” charter schools and those in the ASD, writes Golann, is that the former involve an application process as well as specific commitments from parents and students alike to follow a contract while the latter simply enrolled all students from the designated neighborhood.

As I document in Education and the Commercial Mindset (Harvard University Press, 2016), a similar story unfolded over the same time period in Houston, where the economist Roland Fryer applied the KIPP curriculum to nine district high schools and eleven middle schools in an undertaking called Apollo 20. Without the application process as well as student and parent contracts defining KIPP, Apollo 20, like Tennessee’s ASD, lacked the buy-in critical to the everyday operation of “no-excuses” schools.

Yet rather than scalability, the real problem with “no-excuses” charter schools for Golann is their very effectiveness. To Golann, the “no-excuses” pedagogical philosophy is ultimately counterproductive. In “scripting the moves,” as she titles her book, “no-excuses” charter schools mechanize the learning process and in doing so deny students the opportunity to think for themselves and thereby develop the agency they will need to succeed in college and beyond. 

“Students at Dream Academy,” as Golann explains in this excerpt, “were given exhaustive scripts for how to dress, how to complete a homework assignment, and how to clap in an assembly. They were given scripts for how to walk down the hallways and how to sit at their desks. They were given scripts for how to interact with teachers—no eye-rolling, no teeth sucking, no refusing a teacher’s directions, and no talking back, even if wrongly accused. The rigid scripts students were taught to follow, however, left little room for them to develop what I call tools for interaction, or the attitudes, skills, and styles that allow certain groups to effectively navigate complex institutions and shifting expectations.”

For evidence that this recipe does not work as intended, Golann cites several studies tracking KIPP students, including one published by Mathematica in 2019 finding that “students from thirteen KIPP middle schools ... were no more likely to persist in a four-year college after the first two years than comparable students who did not attend these schools.”

For evidence that this recipe has lost its appeal to many students, parents, and teachers, Golann closes the book with an account of what leaders of the Achievement First charter network conceded was a “reckoning.” After a White principal was caught on a security camera in January 2019 shoving an uncooperative Black student at the network’s Amistad High School in New Haven, Connecticut, staff members protested in a letter that this was not an isolated incident but rather “representative of the systematic racial inequities that are observable throughout the network.” The principal was forced to resign. And the leaders of the network vowed to reassess their practices and declared, “We’ve led from fear and lack of trust.... Our values should be rooted in love and the belief that every single AF kid deserves to have an exceptional student experience where they are known, loved, challenged, and excited to be at school.”

In July 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, KIPP likewise retired its motto—“Work Hard. Be Nice.”—and committed itself to a different vision. Richard Barth, KIPP’s CEO, wrote in a letter to the KIPP community that the motto “ignores the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.” In March 2021, Chicago’s Noble Charter Network joined KIPP in renouncing its “no-excuses” philosophy.

Golann views the concessions made by the leaders of Achievement First and similar networks as promising. The reckoning has been a long time in coming, she argues, but far more is needed.

In sync with many other critics of “no-excuses” schools, Golann writes: “Schools and other education programs might benefit from worrying less about getting students to conform to ‘middle-class’ behavioral norms and more on providing comprehensive supports to students so that students are physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to learn. Schools that build partnerships with local community organizations to offer wraparound services to students, like health and dental care, breakfast, mentoring, and counseling, are moving in this direction.”

Such a comprehensive strategy costs a lot of money, of course. The political will must come first, as equity advocates have long contended.

At once thorough, clear, and trenchant, Scripting the Moves is a riveting analysis of how “no-excuses” charter schools work and don’t. This excerpt should entice readers to read the whole book.

Samuel E. Abrams
Director, NCSPE
July 26, 2021

Coming soon: Daniel Sparks, “School Board Privatization: A Case Study of New York City Charter Schools,” NCSPE Working Paper No. 245; and Audrey Watters, Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning (MIT Press, 2021), Book Excerpt No. 3.