“No Excuses” charter schools: Heed your critics
When charter schools first emerged twenty years ago, they represented a revolution, ushering in a new era that put educational choice, innovation, and autonomy front and center in the effort to improve our schools. While charters have always been very diverse in characteristics and outcomes, it wasn’t long before a particular kind of gap-closing, “No Excuses” charter grabbed the lion’s share of public attention. But in this rush to crown and invest in a few “winners,” have we turned our backs on the push for innovation that was meant to be at the core of the charter experiment?
The debate over education reform has become so polarized that people are painted neatly into boxes and told that they are either "in" or they are "out."
Photo by Jan Tik.
Of course, the top charter-management organizations (CMOs) got this level of attention the old fashioned way: They earned it. The best CMOs—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First—have done amazing work. The teachers put in long hours and do whatever it takes to give students the kinds of opportunities they’ve had.
But, while charters have made important strides, it’s become increasingly obvious that they’ve also hit a wall in their quest to put their students on the path to college. The best among them have been able to get more and more students to hit proficiency targets, but there are no charter schools—to my knowledge—that have figured out how, at scale, to prepare all students for the rigors of college and careers. Yet, as statewide assessment and accountability systems align to the Common Core over the next few years, charters are going to be held accountable not for catching kids up, but for adequately preparing them for what comes next.
The challenge is that charters may have reached a point where, in order to break through the wall they’ve hit and take their performance to the next level, they need to enlist the help of a greater number of outsiders. They need to earnestly listen to more critics (friendly and unfriendly) who can do for charters what charters did for traditional districts over the past two decades—highlight what’s not working and propose new, often very different solutions to common problems.
Yet, when you are on top, you have every incentive to listen only to those who have bought into your success. Why give air time to those who might want to see you fail? As a result, some of the biggest CMOs—intentionally or unintentionally—have surrounded themselves with likeminded educators who are more likely to tinker around the margins of their beliefs and models than to suggest the kinds of bold changes they need to take their games to the next level. These organizations—or groups—have their own conferences, journals, professional development, teacher-preparation programs, research institutes, lobbyists, and all the other trappings of a well-resourced industry. They can now succeed as organizations whether or not they succeed in their missions.
Enter Carol Burris.
Burris is a public school principal, author, and, by all accounts, a vocal critic of education reform in general and of the instructional and curricular practices of No Excuses charter schools in particular. She seems an unlikely person to turn for advice on how No Excuses charters can improve their craft, but that may be exactly what makes her right for the job.
Earlier this year, in a post on The Answer Sheet, Burris published a damning critique of a “model” lesson-plan video that was posted on the Relay Graduate School of Education website. It was a post that far too many charter supporters probably ignored or tuned out, assuming it was no more than the idle ranting a charter foe looking to undermine the work of these hard-working, gap-closing leaders.
The truth, however, is that her critique was exactly right. The lesson, which was pitched as a model of “rigorous classroom discussion,” included low-level questions and inadequate wait time, and was generally rushed and superficial. (After Burris’s post, Relay changed the name of the video, acknowledging that it was not a rigorous discussion, but leaving it up as a model of a “culture of support.” They would have done better to really listen to Burris’s critique and to take it down entirely.)
Her most recent book (coauthored by Delia T. Garrity), Opening the Common Core: How to Bring ALL Students to College and Career Readiness, is equally thoughtful and worth reading. While I certainly don’t agree with all of it (I am generally skeptical of constructivist pedagogy, and I might push on the details and direction of some of the model lessons, for instance), Burris’s thoughts on accelerated instruction and planning for “critical thinking” are spot on. I was surprised at how closely her work resembles the goals of the major CMOs. For starters, at its core, the book promotes the idea that exposing all students to a rigorous, content-rich curriculum is the backbone to any effective reform strategy. And while Burris and Garrity acknowledge the importance of helping students master critical thinking and other skills, they recognize that skills mastery can only be accomplished in the context of learning rich content.
More than that, the authors’ description of “accelerated instruction” is thoughtful—and more closely resembles what schools like KIPP are trying to achieve than most would think. It is grounded in three key principles:
- Maximal use of instructional time;
- spiraling curriculum to reduce redundancies;
- and exposing all students to the kind of content-rich, rigorous curriculum that has traditionally been reserved for “gifted and talented” students.
I’m sure charter leaders reading these goals would find themselves nodding in agreement more often than not. After all, maximizing every moment is precisely what charter teachers are trying to do with their relentless focus on systems, routines, expectations setting, and so on. While Burris and Garrity may take a different tack, they share the same goal. Their thoughts on how to use assessment (formally and informally) to spiral curriculum, eliminate redundancies, and accelerate learning are strong, and their push to eliminate ability grouping and tracking as ways to put all students on the path to college is thought provoking. Given how intentionally Burris and her fellow educators are trying to achieve the same goals as many No Excuses charters, the fact that they approach the problem from a very different perspective could undoubtedly contribute to the conversation among charter leaders about how to better help students “climb the mountain to college.”
Of course, Burris and Garrity’s book is not the kind of “how to” guide that educators can take and implement tomorrow. But it offers some thoughtful guidance about how a school could rethink how curriculum, assessment, instruction, planning, and support intersect to help all students meet the rigors of the CCSS.
Unfortunately, the debate over school change and education reform has become so polarized that people are painted neatly into boxes and told that they are either “in” or they are “out.” And because Burris is ideologically aligned with some of the harshest and most vocal critics of ed reform, her book is unlikely to be read by those of us who believe in the power of (thoughtfully developed) accountability and choice. But for those eager to figure out how to help all students meet the content and rigor demands of the Common Core, Burris’s latest book makes it clear that we may be painting the lines in exactly the wrong places, and closing ourselves off to precisely the kind of pushback that could help us all do better.
A version of this editorial appeared on the Common Core Watch blog.