Culture

Beyond No Excuses, the promise of student agency

By Steven Wilson May 16, 2016

It’s hard to break with something for which you have long advocated. But several years ago that’s what we knew we had to do.

When we launched Ascend, we proudly proclaimed ourselves a No Excuses network.

No Excuses remains the most important advance in urban schooling of our times. No reform has done more to increase achievement among children from underserved communities.

But along with others in the charter sector we have discovered the model’s failings. Rates of student suspensions and referrals are often disturbingly high. Some students adapt well to the model’s rigid discipline but many others do not and become increasingly disaffected. Only a smattering of teachers manage to embody the model’s elusive ideal of strictness and warmth. And even when No Excuses is best realized, its ceaseless structure does little to prepare students to function autonomously in college and beyond.

At Ascend, we believe a true liberal education—which fosters and prizes critical thinking and independence of thought—cannot be joined to a culture of rigid rule-following and silent meals. It is a flagrant contradiction. Students cannot learn that their voice has power when for much of the day the school stipulates their silence.

Princeton sociologist Joanne Golann, in a groundbreaking ethnography of one high-achieving No Excuses school, identifies the “paradox” of the school’s success: “Even in a school promoting social mobility, teachers still reinforce class-based skills and behaviors. Because of these schools’ emphasis on order as a prerequisite to raising test scores,” she argues, teachers end up stressing behaviors that, in a middle class school, would undermine children’s success.

As a consequence, she contends, No Excuses schools unwittingly develop what she calls “worker-learners”—children who “monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority.” In middle class schools, students are by contrast taught “creativity, independence, and assertiveness to prepare them for the requirements of managerial positions.”

She ends by asking: “Can urban schools encourage assertiveness, initiative, and ease while also ensuring order and achievement? Is there an alternative to a no-excuses disciplinary model that still raises students’ tests scores?”

Yes, we believe, emphatically yes. At Ascend, we are building one such model.

To succeed in college, oft-cited “grit” is not enough. We must foster agency—our students’ confidence that they are in control of their own lives and can act of their own free choices, their conviction that they can assert their voice and power in the world.

In our lower schools, the Responsive Classroom model builds joyful classroom communities that nurture students’ sense of belonging and foster children’s social and emotional competencies. Positive language replaces warnings and threats, and students learn empathy, collaborative problem-solving, and self-control. In middle school, students’ desire for increasing autonomy and choice is met; students feel connected, heard, and empowered. In high school, restorative practices teach students to resolve conflicts on their own, understand the impact of their actions, and acknowledge responsibility to the school community. By the time our students reach college, they will trust in their ideas and self-manage with full autonomy—and take their place at the seminar table with confidence.

Since we adopted the Ascend cultural model, suspension rates across the network have fallen steeply. At our new high school, this year enrolling ninth grade, just two students have been suspended to date this year. Throughout the network, achievement levels are up, and teacher attrition down.

Veteran No Excuses teachers, highly successful academically but disillusioned with their schools’ behavioral practices, are choosing in growing numbers to come to Ascend.

Our model is young, but the early results are promising.

By offering a rich liberal arts education in a supportive environment, Ascend teachers animate children’s natural sense of curiosity and prepare students to think on their own, thrive on their own, and engage the world as informed, responsible citizens.

I would love to hear your questions or comments: email me at steven.wilson@ascendlearning.org.