When I was little I’d have sleepovers with my friends from school. My mom would drop me off at their sprawling two-story houses in chic, gated subdivisions and drive me back to my modest, small home the next day. Though our living conditions differed, I never, for a minute, considered us to be unequal. We were peers, doing the same math assignments, collaborating on science projects, stumbling through after-school dance classes together—we were all good kids. Some just lived in bigger houses.
I now recognize that the casual contact I had with people well outside my family’s income bracket is incredibly rare in many public schools, which remain effectively segregated decades after the landmark Brown v. Board case.
Recently, there has been a trend toward “No-Excuses” pedagogy in an attempt to better educate low-income students. This trend is—either consciously or implicitly—predicated on the notion that low-income students inherently need a different style of teaching to succeed. This notion is echoed in works such as journalist David Whitman’s Sweating the Small Stuff, which argues that No-Excuses is successful for inner-city students because it inculcates them with discipline through strict paternalism. To wit, he argues, “these schools tell students that they need an ‘attitude adjustment.’”
Schools that practice this pedagogy almost exclusively enroll low-income students of color, and feature extremely strict, heavy-handed disciplinary measures, wherein students are punished for not tucking their shirts in or wearing the wrong color of socks. All of this is done to, supposedly, “teach inner-city teenagers to embrace middle-class values, to aspire to college, to behave properly, and to reject the culture of the street … by offering explicit instruction in how to behave.”
While some of these schools do show academic results, the hyper-disciplinary, zero-tolerance procedures they use against low-income students are both entirely unfounded and harmful. Furthermore, the assumption underlying this pedagogy—that low-income students can only succeed if they are over-disciplined—creates a stigma that makes socioeconomic integration in schools even harder to achieve.
How No-Excuses Disciplinary Practices Harm Students
The emphasis that No-Excuses pedagogy places on obedience and punishing mundane infractions is as unnecessary for the education of low-income students as it is for any other student. However, beyond being unnecessary, this zero-tolerance approach to discipline also squanders the independent thought and leadership skills that are highly valued in the contemporary workforce. Contrary to the aims of No-Excuses proponents to instill low-income youth with helpful behaviors like self-control, the skills and behaviors reinforced by No-Excuses disciplinary practices emphasize deferring to authority rather than taking initiative, and holding back opinions entirely rather than voicing them to contribute to nuanced discourse.
Subordinance, it seems, is not so useful in the long-run.
This is entirely contrary to the creativity and leadership that is prized in many workplaces. By teaching their low-income students to value obedience over initiative while wealthier students attend schools that emphasize exploration and critical-thinking, schools that operate with No-Excuses disciplinary policies may be creating the very outcome gaps they seek to close. Indeed, one study found that while some charter schools that practice this No-Excuses approach increased test scores and four-year college enrollment, they did not cause discernible increases in income years down the line. Subordinance, it seems, is not so useful in the long-run.
To be fair, this is not a wholesale critique of the No-Excuses model of education. In fact, some aspects of these schools respond to the specific needs of low-income students, for example, having extended hours to better align with the packed work schedules of parents. And such campuses have shown improved test scores and when compared to their segregated and underfunded public school counterparts (albeit with mixed results). However, the fact remains that the disciplinary practices espoused by this approach to education are counterproductive to the labor market outcomes of the very low-income students that it seeks to help.
A Better Approach
The truth is, low-income students do not need extreme disciplinary measures to achieve academic success. Socioeconomically integrated public schools—schools that enroll students with a wide range of household incomes, including those eligible for free and reduced lunch—also produce academic improvements and reduce relative dropout rates similarly to schools with No-Excuses pedagogy do, without necessarily needing to penalize low-income students for not walking in a straight line or slouching in their desks.
While many socioeconomically integrated schools have a way to go to address the disproportionate amounts of discipline that low-income students—particularly low-income students of color—receive, these integrated campuses can bolster critical thinking skills, leadership ability, and productivity in collaborative work environments. Whereas schools with heavy-handed approaches to discipline reinforce subordinance, socioeconomically and racially diverse schools produce students with higher capacities for critical thinking, problem solving, and leadership—the very qualitative traits that most modern workplaces seek out in employees.
However, these valuable cognitive benefits of integration may be difficult to achieve if the No-Excuses ideology reinforces—intentionally or unintentionally—the false notion that low-income students can only succeed when subjected to militant discipline. Given that many policies that attempt to desegregate school districts rely on the willingness of wealthier parents to enroll their children in diverse schools, any stigma that keeps wealthy families from enrolling their children in schools that have low-income students threatens to slow the progress of socioeconomic integration.
Any stigma that keeps wealthy families from enrolling their children in schools that have low-income students threatens to slow the progress of socioeconomic integration.
No-Excuses pedagogy perpetuates that very stigma, by suggesting low-income students need to be made subordinate and obedient in a manner that the rest of the children in America do not. At best, this form of discipline is well-intentioned but gravely counterproductive. At worst, it’s a frustrating testament to how even intellectuals can look at all of the cards, at an institutional and personal level, stacked against low-income youth and still somehow conclude that achievement gaps exist because low-income kids need a special primer on pulling their pants up—not because of the need for a larger institutional reform that moves the students out of concentrated poverty and into integrated environments.
Attending a school where students of various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds worked alongside each other was encouraging in a way that I could not begin to describe as a child and still struggle to fully enumerate now. Being treated as equal was galvanizing. I was encouraged to voice my thoughts instead of suppressing them for the sake of order—something that can only happen in an environment where one is valued. Instead of acting as if militant discipline is the only way that low-income students will see academic success, we ought to reconsider how such a philosophy makes integration of public schools—and the unique long-run intellectual benefits it provides for all children—that much harder to achieve.