“No Excuses High,” Trapped by Its Own Success?

Highly regimented charter schools deliver the test results, but their methods may be ill-suited to the independent realities of college life.

Illustration of a "No Excuses High" high school

The debate about the pros and cons of “No Excuses” schools—charter schools that offer rigid curriculums and strict behavioral rules to promote academic success—is polarized. Supporters cite quantitative research comparing admissions lottery winners and losers to argue that No Excuses schools have been saviors for high poverty students and students of color, promoting upward social mobility. Critics, on the other hand, describe them as retrograde, using punitive discipline and behaviorist pedagogy that would never be permitted for more affluent students, thus creating a different set of rules that reeks of racism.

There is a third perspective, however. Through an extensive in-depth case study of one leading No Excuses high school, we found that the forces that have brought about the schools’ current successes are the same ones holding them back from more ambitious outcomes. More specifically, as students graduate from these hypercontrolled environments and move on to the more open-ended environments of college, they are frequently unprepared to meet the new challenges.

The school that we studied was well aware of this problem and had made some changes to try to address it. But we found that the school has so far been stymied in its ability to make more significant changes because doing so would require undoing and unlearning much of what has made it successful to date. The No Excuses community has shown increasing interest in adopting newer education approaches—“greenfield” schooling, restorative justice, project-based learning—and this interest has only grown amid the national reckoning on race that has followed the death of George Floyd in police custody. KIPP, for example, is the nation’s largest and best-known charter operator, synonymous with the No Excuses approach. On July 1, it retired its longstanding slogan, “Work hard. Be nice,” noting that it “places value on being compliant and submissive . . . and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.” We conducted our research well before these latest developments, but we found that blending these new ideas with older ones may prove difficult, since they are based on different underlying values, structures, and even epistemologies.

A Best-Case Scenario?

“No Excuses High” is an urban charter high school in the Northeast. It is one of four schools that we examined in depth as part of a broader study of 30 highly varied high schools across the United States. We chose to focus on this particular school after consulting with the leaders of charter management organizations in the No Excuses world; it had a reputation for intellectual rigor and behavioral control. Thus, it should be seen as a best-case scenario for what can be accomplished within the No Excuses model.

Seventy-eight percent of the students at the school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 92 percent are African American, and 15 percent are Latino. The school is heavily invested in the “gradual release of responsibility” model of instruction, and classes are tightly micromanaged. It is a relatively small school, with fewer than 400 students. The school has been exceptionally successful by conventional metrics. More than 50 percent of No Excuses High test-takers have passed Advanced Placement tests in biology, calculus, computer science, English, U.S. history or world history. A hundred percent of its graduating seniors are accepted to college, and 90 percent enroll in a four-year college.

At the same time, No Excuses High appears to have significant trouble retaining its students. Like other similar schools, it does not publish and would not provide us with figures about its retention rates, and attrition data for No Excuses charter schools are surprisingly difficult to obtain. However, one senior estimated that she started with 50 students in her 5th-grade class at an associated middle school, and only about half were still enrolled in 12th grade. Lending credence to this story is the fact that class sizes for seniors are frequently much smaller than classes for 9th graders.

Conversations with students suggest that the most common reason students leave is that they can’t or won’t put up with the heavy workload and regimen of strict behavioral control; these students seek traditional high schools where it is much easier to progress from one grade to the next. We also do not have any way of judging how many students left voluntarily as opposed to being “pushed” or “counseled” out by the school administration.

Whatever the reasons for these attrition rates, there are different ways of interpreting them. Critics would argue that if a school has a 50 percent retention rate, it’s hard to call it a success. Proponents would say that No Excuses High is a school of choice, and that if it works well for half or more of its kids, then those students are likely getting a better education than they would have received otherwise. They might argue that even if only half of high poverty 5th graders graduate from the school and go to college, that success rate is likely higher than it would be for a similar sample of 5th graders who didn’t have the opportunity to attend. Either way, it’s clear that No Excuses High benefits from the fact that students who have chosen to attend the school believe in its vision and values.

We conducted a traditional case study of the school, including observations, interviews, and a review of physical artifacts such as lesson plans and curricular materials. In total, we spent more than 130 hours at No Excuses High, observing 30 classes and many meetings among teachers or between teachers and administrators. We interviewed 50 members of the No Excuses High community, including teachers, administrators, students, and alumni. Consistent with the norms of ethnographic academic research, we agreed to change their names to protect their privacy and maintain the anonymity of the school.

A System Engineer’s View of Schooling

Everything at No Excuses High flows from the vision of its founder and principal. We’ll call him Peter Dewitt. Dewitt has a “systems engineer view of schooling. He has an almost visceral distaste for disorder of any kind,” as one teacher says. “It really sets the tone when Peter picks up even the smallest piece of trash around the building.” Dewitt’s views were shaped by an early experience at a well-known progressive high school that he found disorganized, inefficient, and particularly bad at serving the schools’ most marginalized students. He also was aware of his own limitations as a leader: he saw himself as ruling less by charismatic authority and more by creating systems and routines that would ensure high quality schooling. Dewitt’s “greatest fear is randomness,” a teacher says: If you don’t plan and organize what happens with every teacher in every corner of the building, he believes, you get inequity in what teachers produce and what students experience.

No Excuses High’s classrooms focus on four elements: intense behavioral control that is used to maximize time on task; careful scaffolding, in which complex topics are broken into components and students are deliberately guided through them; frequent checks for understanding, used to see whether students are learning the prescribed content or skills; and backward mapping from SAT II and Advanced Placement tests to ensure that the content meets the expectations for college study. In contrast to traditional classrooms, in which teachers offer lengthy lectures and students take notes, what we saw at No Excuses High was lots and lots of student practice—students working individually or in pairs to demonstrate their understanding of particular facts, skills, or ideas. Many of the governing metaphors come from sports and the arts, where guided practice is the approach to learning, with detailed feedback on the smallest errors of form or technique. Student effort is carefully controlled: they place homework into baskets at the beginning of the day to prevent them from working on it during classes, and their activity in classes is monitored through an extensive use of countdown timers to ensure that they remain on task.

To ensure standard practice across classrooms, there are similar levels of control and guidance over teaching. Department chairs develop the curriculum centrally, and teachers are expected to follow it with absolute fidelity. As Dewitt says, “We pay people in the summer to begin curriculum development. Once a curriculum is finished, it’s PDF-ed. It’s done—we are happy with it.” There also are templates for how lessons should be taught, with frequent video recording to support improvement. Teachers send their weekly lesson plans to department chairs every Sunday by 2 p.m., receive feedback on Sunday by 8 p.m., have at least one lesson observed by the department chair each week, and then have a meeting with the department chair to debrief the lesson and plan the following week. This means that teachers receive up to 30 rounds of feedback each year. The first- and second-year teachers who are part of this process almost uniformly describe it as very valuable. One young teacher says that while some people see teaching as “this thing that happens by osmosis, we feel that you don’t have time to waste and you can get better fast. Teaching isn’t magic—at least not most of it. The way we do that is by codifying good teaching.”

These systems are encased in a fierce culture that demands supreme effort and clear compliance from both students and teachers. Student compliance is achieved through intensive micromanagement of time and work, as well as clear expectations for behavior. Drawing on broken-windows theory, this approach extends to every moment of students’ time and is rooted in a deeply felt commitment to order. The teachers similarly describe a culture in which they know that their jobs are on the line if they don’t produce results on interim assessments or if they cross their department chairs. The principal is “your boss and not your friend,” one teacher says. The system’s cohesion is partially responsible for the school’s results and, for better or worse, the backbone of that system is the uncompromising force with which everyone needs to move in one direction.

An ethnographic study like ours can’t conclusively determine whether such an approach “works.” What we can say, based on classroom observations, is that this approach produced exactly the strengths one might expect. We consistently saw academic interactions that reflected facility with key facts and concepts and were consistent with the students’ impressive scores on SAT IIs and AP tests. Compared to many of the other schools we visited, including some suburban schools, students had factual knowledge that enabled them to take on academic tasks requiring application and analysis.

The Costs of Control

No Excuses High may be an example of an effective school in many ways, but all of its choices come with tradeoffs and costs. These problems are not unintended consequences but emerge directly from the principles that have created the school’s strengths.

Floors and Ceilings

At No Excuses High, students are socialized into a highly compliant rather than agentic approach to learning. Teachers worry that there are significant costs to the hypercontrolled atmosphere, that it sacrifices opportunities for students to engage in higher-order thinking and metacognitive skills. As one teacher says, “We do control instruction so carefully that sometimes I worry that it doesn’t provide enough opportunity for students to explore. I think our students sometimes don’t have an intellectual curiosity—which to me can lead to higher-order thinking—or don’t have the opportunity for intellectual curiosity. And that’s definitely a challenge.” Another teacher describes this challenge as creating “floors” and “ceilings,” saying that the school was good at establishing a consistent floor for all students, but that its level of prescription created ceilings that students don’t reach beyond. “They’re learning great study habits,” she says, “but I also feel that there’s only so far those tests can push you. The strongest students are not going to learn a lot of history by studying really hard for the AP U.S. history test. There’s a natural limit set by the test and by the college boards, [and] I think that diminishes the importance of natural curiosity that is not driven by grades [but by] the desire to do more and push yourself and explore.”

There was a parallel set of tradeoffs for teachers, who also describe the system as good at establishing consistent floors but limited when it comes to encouraging them to push boundaries. “By creating so much structure . . . in a very real sense it limits maybe what you can do in a class,” one teacher says. “Your lesson plans follow such a formula every day, I think that undermines creativity. I’m not trying to diminish the power of [the instructional model], but at the end of the day, it is a formula.” Again, this highly structured approach to teachers’ work is well-suited to first- and second-year teachers, but it is less effective for more experienced teachers, many of whom chafe at the level of oversight.

“A False Dichotomy Between Rigor and Joy”

A number of teachers question whether the attitude of the school needs to be so grim. When we ask teachers about their best days in the classroom, their aspirations are similar to many other teachers’. “There’s just a feeling, a kind of a buzz or sense of investment in engagement, and it is really hard to quantify that and describe it, because it’s kind of an aura that fills the room,” one teacher says. “I feel like my best day is when everyone is not just focused, because I think our kids are always focused, but invested in what they’re learning. That there is something that is motivating them beyond just ‘they have to do this,’ that they are experiencing a level of intellectual engagement.” The absence of this quality in everyday learning—the worry that students are learning more about how to follow No Excuses High’s directions than to take any joy in their learning—is troubling to many of the teachers. One longtime teacher describes the dilemma: “I look at project-based learning schools, and they seem like a ton of fun! I think one of the problems in education is that we’ve created this false dichotomy between rigor and joy. I wonder if [some believe that] closing the achievement gap means that you have to sacrifice exploration, discovery, or joy, and I don’t buy that.”

A related issue is the absence of strong personal relationships and the cost of that absence for students, though it’s a problem the school is working to fix. “I think that No Excuses High is trying to get to a place where students feel more like humans than robots,” a teacher says. “In three to five years, that needs to continue to progress. They’re trying to do that through the advisory system, but relationships are very professional at the school, in a way that I think alienates some students from feeling truly part of the community that we are trying to build here.”

Again, a similar issue was present for teachers. Everyone at No Excuses High works extremely hard: teachers consistently describe working 60, 80, or even 90 hours a week, including coming in for long days on Saturdays, staying up very late or getting up very early. Teachers describe the work-life balance as “horrible” or nonexistent. In such an environment, teachers crave appreciation for their efforts, but they say that the culture is so focused on problems and improvement that there is little time to celebrate the positive. One teacher says that No Excuses High is very much a “glass half empty” place: “We’re always looking at what’s wrong and not frequently enough, interestingly, being proud of what’s right. I mean, we talk about numbers, we talk about our performance in comparison to other schools with a lot of pride. And we speak in generalities about how amazing our teachers are, but it doesn’t get to the personal level enough.”

The absence of this kind of appreciation and community has real costs when it comes to retaining staff. “We had a goodbye party yesterday for teachers who are leaving, and it was kind of like a funeral,” a teacher says. “I think everyone feels at a funeral, ‘Man, why don’t we ever show appreciation to people when they’re alive and say the best things about them when they’re dead?’ And we said the nicest things about teachers who are leaving, and I can guarantee that if we had said that stuff to them all along, three-quarters of them wouldn’t be leaving. So why are we saying it when they’re on their way out? You could have kept them here. We’d have less turnover and a better school.”

Similarly, when we ask students about attrition of their classmates, their almost universal response was that they just couldn’t take it anymore. “No one really likes No Excuses High,” one says; you just endure it because it gets you where you want to go. Many teachers and students wonder if yet again No Excuses High is posing a false choice: might there be a way to create a culture that is a bit more joyful and appreciative but still rigorous and demanding?

A Racial Gap Between the School and the Community

A similar theme emerges in discussions with faculty about the lack of connection between the largely white staff and the predominantly African American community. Most faculty members live outside of the highly depressed urban area where the school is located, and they frequently feel cut off from the community where they teach and where their students are being raised. “I was reminded of that at graduation last night,” one young history teacher says. “You see parents who are acting in a way that’s drastically different from how students and teachers here act, and it’s just a reminder that kids are leaving a certain atmosphere and coming here and they act in a completely different way. [When I taught in] North Carolina, you could see the connection between home and school, which I think is very good for learning—it promotes a healthy and productive learning environment. But [here] I definitely don’t feel like I could speak to a student’s real character besides in an academic way.”

A longtime teacher, who is white, forcefully argues that the school should become more embedded in the community: “We need the kind of relationship you have with an old friend. The school needs that with the city, and right now it doesn’t for two reasons: one, it’s relatively young still; two, there’s no connection between the staff and the city. And I say this for me, too. There’s this, like, iron curtain sometimes between us and parents, for the best reasons I know. But I don’t think people should be working [only] at No Excuses High. They should be working in [the city and not just the school], and until that happens, I think this school hasn’t achieved its potential.”

Spurs for Change

No Excuses High is aware of these critiques and has begun to address them, mostly due to outside catalysts. First and most important, there is the experience of its graduates in college. Like alumni from other similar schools, No Excuses High graduates indicate that they were academically prepared for college, but many have struggled when it comes to navigating the open-ended environment on college campuses.

At the high school, the governing principle has been “guided practice,” says Peter Dewitt. “It’s, ‘Here’s what we want you to do, let’s do it together. Now you do it, and I’m going to monitor you.’ And we would do that over and over and over again, because it was very effective at teaching discrete skills and content. But it wasn’t representative of what our alumni were telling us that they were encountering in college,” he says. “In addition to all the race stuff and leaving [the inner city] and feeling unprepared and entering a society that doesn’t look like theirs and overt racism—on top of it, they came from a very controlling high school that gave them no choices and didn’t prepare them to make choices, didn’t even let them not do their homework to face that consequence. It didn’t prepare them for college lectures, didn’t prepare them for shitty college instruction, which is . . . the vast majority of what’s going on in colleges.”

Two other forces have spurred the school’s efforts to make substantive changes. One is that the debate over school reform has shifted in the direction of “21st century skills” or “deeper learning.” Achievement First, a charter management organization with a similar No Excuses focus, has partnered with the industrial design firm IDEO to design a “greenfield school” that it hopes will redefine its vision of schooling for the future. New Schools Venture Fund, which long emphasized replicating No Excuses charters, has shifted its focus to new school designs. The other factor spurring change is the racial awakening created by recent incidents of police violence on unarmed black men. The subsequent Black Lives Matter movement has begun to infuse the language and thinking of No Excuses High.

These efforts have created some changes. Two hours a week are now devoted to “project time,” in which all students are required to carry out projects of their own choosing. These have included making short films, studying and writing poetry, organizing an LGBTQ awareness day, and designing houses using cardboard-box dioramas. One teacher, after taking a sabbatical, was given the freedom to let his seniors develop lengthy research projects and presentations on topics of their choosing, such as social media addiction and the histories of hip-hop and R&B. In addition, the school is partnering with Project Lead the Way, a university-based nonprofit that offers a hands-on engineering program. Since it began, about a third of the school’s students are choosing engineering as an elective. Following the lead of the Bergen Academies, No Excuses High is partnering with a local university to enable some seniors to spend one afternoon a week working in college labs.

The school also has identified some of its extracurricular activities as promising platforms for deep learning. The debate team, led by an experienced and highly skilled coach, encourages students to learn technique while advocating for things they are passionate about. The literary magazine, led by a beloved English teacher, encourages creative thinking while also enabling students to learn about different genres of writing. The school is adding electives in African American literature and Latin American history, and the pre-enrollment numbers suggest these classes will be highly popular with students who are eager for classes outside of the traditional canon.

At the same time, while these shifts are not inconsequential, they are bounded in their scope. Most of the steps that No Excuses High has taken to incorporate a different approach to learning have been around rather than inside their core disciplinary classes, in the periphery rather than the core. The school has not made significant changes in core disciplinary classes; students still spend most of their time doing lessons organized by the guided-practice template, with lots of carefully timed chunks aimed at building proficiency in disciplinary content. And this is where the emphasis continues to lie. Teachers have told us that compared to the disciplinary classes, there are few incentives to do well on the projects and little feedback and professional development.

Book cover of In Search Of Deeper LearningThe Unlearning Challenge

More significant change has been challenging because the school is caught between competing sets of priorities. The older set, around which its structures are organized, is embedded in the school’s culture, identity, and epistemology, and it’s critical to its external legitimacy. The newer set would require changing or undoing structures, rethinking the school’s core identity and commitments, and risking the external markers upon which much of its credibility rests.

The heart of the school’s success rests on two elements: first, student effort compelled through the use of timers, detention, homework bins, and other mechanisms; second, carefully designed lesson plans and extensive feedback to new teachers that ensure department chairs and other instructional leaders are overseeing each day’s instruction. Recently, the school has been put in charge of developing lesson plans for the other high schools in its larger charter network. Given this reality, there is little appetite for redoing years’ worth of curriculum and lesson planning. There are considerable sunk costs in what the school has built to date, and making changes would require building all of this anew. For instance, the school is unlikely to consider International Baccalaureate as a possibility, says Dewitt: “We have a lot to lose by not exploiting what we know works. Rolling the dice on IB is too big a risk right now when we don’t know conclusively that it’s better than what Advanced Placement is, at least for our students.”

A second barrier to change is the importance of existing external markers that demonstrate the school’s quality—performance on Advanced Placement tests, SAT IIs, and state tests. “I need the students to be taken seriously by outside observers, by outside evaluators like admissions committees,” Dewitt says. “Unless we’re riding on our reputation, which is not anything with admissions counselors who are one or two years out of college, who have never heard of us, all they see is we’re from [a high-poverty city]. We’ve got to have credentials, we’ve got to have bona fide stuff we can point to, that is not just that they become excellent thinkers and we know it.” Moving away from an emphasis on test results risks much of what the school has achieved in college placement and in the school’s reputation with admissions committees, funders, and the education world. Because there is not a similar set of external mechanisms to demonstrate quality in project-based learning or other forms of inquiry-directed instruction, the school surmises that it wouldn’t have hard criteria from which it could reverse-plan, or a way of demonstrating the quality of its students’ work.

In addition to these structural barriers and external incentives, a fundamental obstacle to change is that giving students more agency would threaten core aspects of the school’s key values and commitments. We talked to a number of faculty members and administrators who are ambivalent about giving students more control over their learning. They also are ambivalent about whether giving students an opportunity to fail would be a sign of trust or a renunciation of their duties. “One of the things we definitely grapple with is . . . that gradual release of responsibilities and ownership for students. To me, that’s probably the last step if you’re talking about college-readiness, right? There’s not going to be anyone hovering over you to make sure you get your research paper done,” says one longtime history teacher. There are no more timers to keep kids on track. “You want them to be college-ready, they need to have room to fail. But at the same time, you can’t allow them to fail, because you’re not doing the work of closing the achievement gap if you do that. So, where’s the happy medium there? And a lot of the work we’ve done with college-readiness skills and the lesson plans and all of that has been geared toward addressing that concern, but I don’t know if we’re 100% there yet. Probably not. There’s still some work to be done there, I think, in figuring out exactly how we can help them on that level of ownership. I don’t know if ownership is the right word, but preparation for college in that way, a room to fail.”

What does it look like to give kids room to fail? “I don’t know exactly,” he says. “Because in some ways it’s counter to exactly what we’re about, our mission, right? But at the same time, it’s almost essential if they’re going to be ready to step onto a college campus and be empowered, feel confident, and know what to do when they do get there.”

A similar view is voiced by the teacher who had articulated the point about floors and ceilings: “At the end of the day, they’re really not going to fail here, because even if we loosen those surface-level structures, we are not going to let them fail. In college, they very well could fail. I think it’s important to let them semi-fail in a place that’s not going to let them completely fail before they completely fail in a less supportive environment.”

Both teachers’ comments capture the dilemma that No Excuses High faces as it considers moving toward more open-ended learning. On one level, the school is aware that students need to take more responsibility for their own learning if they are going to succeed in college. At the same time, with more autonomy comes the risk that students will fail to learn the key skills and content they need to close the achievement gap. Hence, in critical ways, moving in the direction of more student-directed learning potentially threatens core aspects of the school’s raison d’etre.

The Challenge to Evolve

No Excuses High is a classic case of an organization that is caught between its founding tenets and its stated desire to meet new goals and expectations. The school was founded with a particular mission—closing achievement gaps on state and other standardized tests—and it has organized its work to achieve that goal. By virtue of this design, the school has been able to accomplish certain things that have eluded most American schools. In particular, it has achieved the scores it has sought on state tests and other external exams and has sent 90 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges. The No Excuses model represents a significant organizational departure from the prevailing pattern of American schools that has featured loose coupling, little organizational imprint on the technical core, and a culture of teacher privacy and individualism that has defeated other schoolwide efforts at reform.

At the same time, these very choices and structural arrangements have impeded the school’s efforts to meet new challenges. In particular, as the school has realized that many of its students are struggling with the less constrained environment of college, it has sought to open up some of its structures and give students more agency with respect to their learning. But the school is limited in its ability to respond to these challenges in core classes, because doing so would require undoing and unlearning much of what had brought the school to this point. The same structures that have enabled it to achieve its results on external exams, bringing the organization legitimacy, funding, and acclaim, are the ones that are getting in the way of giving students the kind of agency and open-ended learning that they need to succeed in college.

This is a qualitative look at just one school, but to the degree that it is representative of the No Excuses landscape, it has a variety of implications. For example, it might help explain some of the patterns that we see in the quantitative literature. A variety of lottery-based studies have shown that No Excuses schools, on average, boost scores on state math and reading tests as well as college enrollment. That’s not always true for charter schools as a whole. At the same time, the limited internal data from No Excuses schools show that students struggle with college persistence, with one notable 2011 KIPP study showing that 36 percent of students who had graduated from their high schools had completed college in six years. This study provides a plausible hypothesis for why these schools have fared well in college enrollment but poorer in college persistence.

It also suggests that as the school reform conversation turns from the heavy focus on test scores in the No Child Left Behind era to a wider range of goals—21st century skills, deeper learning, social-emotional learning, and restorative justice—No Excuses schools will have some significant unlearning challenges as they seek to incorporate these new goals into their older models. Some networks have responded by creating entirely new schools, such as the Greenfield Schools for Achievement First and the Croft Schools for the Up Education network. Given the power that history exerts on shaping the nature of schools, creating new schools may be a more promising route for innovation than trying to layer new imperatives onto existing schools.

Jal Mehta is the author, with Sarah Fine, of In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School, which will be released in paperback in August 2020 by Harvard University Press, and from which this article draws.

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