“No Excuses” Only Works When It Applies to the Adults in the School, Too; A Black Parent’s Perspective

The problem with many “no excuses” schools is that that motto is often imposed on children but not adults.  The adults make all kinds of excuses about the kids who don’t want to learn, whose parents won’t support the school, or whatever justification they have for pushing out kids who don’t fit the mold.  I am over generalizing about the schools but stick with me.

I also know that many Black families appreciate the strict discipline and structure, and many students do too.

You can see some of these positive reactions in this video of Black families really addressing the issue.

Sometimes “no excuses” is a powerful two way promise, rather than a means to shovel blame on children and families.  But sometimes it is not.  Let’s dig in a bit here and see what the key variable is that makes the difference.

A Dangerous World and Protection by Any Means Necessary

As Black parents, we know that our children grow up in a very dangerous world, where small missteps can have immense consequences.  Our kids often have to be better to have an equal shot.  Black parents also more often enforce what we might call strict discipline at home.   In fact, “A 2015 Pew Research survey found that black parents are more than twice as likely as white and Latino parents to use corporal punishment on a regular basis, and they are far less likely to never spank their children.”

And if you work in schools, you have probably seen this, parents that struck their children in school after some disciplinary issue (sorry I gots to hotline you), or that threatened to beat their child once they got home (thanks but we don’t really need your help that way), or even those that we might not tell about certain infractions or issues at school because we knew they would beat the child (let’s handle this issue in house).

Black folks are used to a harshness in society and we can be harsh within families as a protective measure, I think, because parents know how high the stakes are and really need children to succeed, and not transgress in the outside world.  A spanking or even a switch is nothing compared to that societal lash.  Strict discipline is seen as helping.

We also rely on schools more than most.  And we are risk averse, we often don’t want some experimental approach, we want the “real schools” that many of us grew up in, and in a lot of cases those schools were very strict.

Barefoot Becky the Teacher and the Black Parents

Years ago I worked with a school in a predominantly Black neighborhood, that was implementing a non- traditional, very loose program, that was roughly based on the ideas of Reggio Emelia (and I am not saying this a good example of the program itself).  Very loose school structures, kids kind of milling around doing more of their own thing, and Becky the teacher was “teaching” sitting barefoot on the floor, looking like she was ready for a Grateful Dead show.

Yeah the families were not feeling that, maybe this weird way of learning will work, but we can’t take the chance—yeah that school closed.

And I obviously am speaking in generalities, but we tend to accept and want more structured and stricter environments for our kids.  At times parents have given us permission to corporally punish their child (uh no thanks).  So it’s not surprising to me to hear many parents praise the strict structure and support they got from “no excuses” schools.

A Bad Joke and Sad Result

Q: What do you call a kid with a social anxiety disorder in a school where cold calling (not waiting for students to raise their hands to answer but just calling on kids) is an expected part of teaching?

A: Absent then a dropout

Not funny.

To me the rigidity of the rules in some of these schools too often does not account for the differences in students.

I still remember “Johnny, ” one of my early exercises in stupidity as an educator.  He just would not stay seated, always bobbing around the classroom, kind of bouncing on his toes.  I constantly watched him, waiting for him to get up so I could get him to sit down.  He wasn’t disagreeable, but it was a constant tug of war.  It didn’t bother the other kids, they seemed used to it.  It just bothered me.

Then I met mom, I had a kind of dicky sarcastic comment about how “active” he was, and she said “yeah he has been like that since the head injury.”

And I realized what a dick I had been, for no good reason—the rules were to stay seated—no excuses—stupid.  A head injury is a good excuse, and there are a lot of good excuses actually.

Towards a Better No Excuses

My “no excuses” rant is a bit of a straw man.  In the best of circumstances, that no excuses motto is a reciprocal promise.  As a school there is no excuse for us not to figure out how to serve you, and as a student once we remove these barriers and genuinely understand and support you, there is no excuse for you not giving your best.

And I know there are schools that do it this way.  That are highly structured, yet not in a rigid and unresponsive way.  And I also know that for many students that have chaotic lives outside of schools, they crave and thrive and feel safe in a predictable school structure, and may really need that.  So these things are not incompatible and can actually thrive in combination, but it takes work.

And more than that, it takes love.  When we are coming from a place of love with our students, of genuine empathy and caring, we wouldn’t, to the best of our ability, allow excuses from ourselves or from them.  But I also see no excuses as a crutch for our own failures by shoveling the blame onto students and families.

Here’s to a more loving “no-excuses” and one that I think will serve all Black families.

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