Striving for Excellence, Without the Excuses

I’m concerned about the growing backlash against what are referred to as “no-excuses” schools. Too often, critics depict overly-rigid approaches to discipline that pave the road from school to prison.

I agree that too much rigidity can be problematic and can harm efforts to build community in a school. But I am also nervous that the pendulum will, as often happens in education, swing too far to the other extreme.

‘No Excuses’ Worked for Me

I have a slightly different opinion of both the origin and role of no-excuses policies in schools. As a student who attended a school that had a no-excuses policy, I benefitted from it tremendously, and so did my classmates.

We were taught to be self-disciplined, inspired by the Black Panthers and a long list of Freedom Fighters on whose shoulders we stood (Malcolm, Martin, Fannie, Huey, Sojourner, Ella—the list goes on). At a very early age, we knew these civil rights legends we dreamt of emulating didn’t make a ton of excuses.

Our teachers knew that the Black children in front of them needed to work twice as hard in order to gain any ground. They knew that the system was stacked against us, and for us to compete and avoid the traps laid for Black youth, we needed to be disciplined in our approach and methods. We were taught how to control ourselves—that our very freedom depended on it.

And it paid off. The bar was so high that the vast majority of students upon leaving my alma mater in sixth grade would skip a grade or two when they entered a traditional public school. A lot of us were in college by the time we were 16.

The Right Kind of Rigidity

Our teachers’ approaches stood in stark contrast to those some schools practice today that push out students who don’t conform. Rigidity without love or respect is detrimental to our communities.

It is unfortunately common for today’s no-excuses schools—and these aren’t just charter schools, these include traditional public schools too—to impose a system of discipline that exerts control over kids.

With five kids in my own home, I long gave up any notions of trying to control them, but I don’t waver on expecting and reinforcing the concepts of self-control and self-discipline.

Similarly, Black families should not have to choose between chaotic or callous schools for their children. At the Philadelphia school where I serve as principal, our families expect us to have a no-excuses policy. I’ll ask them directly how they feel when they hear educators—often White educators—tell their children there are no excuses in striving for excellence. They tell me that if excellence is what the entire school community is striving for, then they have no issue.

What these families don’t want is an intense focus on disciplining students without also motivating their children to be self-disciplined. They expect us to help our students be successful despite any trauma they may have experienced or learning challenges they must overcome. They appreciate that we use restorative justice practices and consider cultural context.

At our school we are far from perfect, yet we remain committed to finding the balance that a “strict warm” approach calls for. All schools should strive towards the middle ground.

Is This a Charter Thing?

While many high-profile charter networks have made no-excuses policies the bedrock of their school models, charter schools didn’t create the no-excuses approach.

In fact, many high-performing traditional public schools—particularly magnets and selective enrollments—enforce a no-excuses policy by screening the students who enter their school. It’s built right into the admissions process. If you lack discipline and self-control, you are highly unlikely to be accepted into their school communities.

For these schools, rigidity is in the DNA. Did you get a C on your report card in third grade? Have one too many absences? Sorry, they can’t take you—no excuses.

On the other extreme, many people—including many educators and politicians who influence our public schools—shake their heads and say students can’t meet the high standards demanded by a no-excuses culture. Because they have suffered trauma and oppression, we can’t raise the bar for these children. They enact what George W. Bush (of all people) referred to as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Low expectations are just as damning to our communities as rigidity without love and respect.

These people suffer from the belief gap, the sickening core belief that certain students (especially Black, Latino and poor children) cannot learn at the same levels as White or affluent children.

But I say that the no-excuses mindset shouldn’t just apply to students. It should apply to me, the principal. It should apply to our teachers and staff. And it should apply to all of us who support and believe in the power of education and public schools to change lives.

There are no excuses for thinking our students—all students—cannot achieve at high levels. Because our students and their families expect us to deliver—without making excuses.

*The original post can be found on Education Post

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.


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