Transcription of the episode: “No excuses” charter schools: Teaching to the script

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

[00:00:16] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Joann Golann. Dr. Golann is assistant professor of public policy and education and assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. Her research explores how schools and families transmit cultural skills, behaviors, and habits to children. Her recent book “Scripting the Moves: Culture and Control in a No Excuses Charter School” is based on the 18 months she spent observing a no excuses charter middle school. Welcome, Joanne. 

[00:00:50] Joanne G: Thank you so much, Amy.

[00:00:51] Jon M: What are no excuses charter schools? 

[00:00:55] Joanne G: So “no excuses” is a term that’s used to refer to a group of urban charter schools that share a very similar model. You may have heard of schools like KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Success Academy, Yes Prep, Democracy Prep. These are all generally considered no excuses schools. They came up in the 1990s and 2000s.. They received millions of dollars in funding from major foundations, government support, and they share similar practices like an extended school day iand school year, after school tutoring, intensive teacher coaching, and a very strict disciplinary system.

[00:01:36] Amy H-L: So, what do these no excuses charter schools do well and what do they do poorly or not at all? 

[00:01:44] Joanne G: That’s a good question. They’ve been recognized for raising the standardized test scores of the predominantly low income students of color that they serve. They also, I think, do well in terms of school safety. So most of the schools don’t have school resource officers ,that is, police in schools. They don’t have metal detectors at the door, even though most of them are in neighborhoods that could be considered distressed. Many of them are in distressed neighborhoods and communities. So these schools tend to be orderly, not have serious school safety concerns. Those are some of the things they’re doing well.

I should say they’re also popular among many parents, low-income parents, parents of color. Many of these schools are oversubscribed. That means you’re admitted via lottery. And so there are more students trying to get into these schools than there are spaces available.

 In terms of what they’re not doing well, a lot of my work has focused on their disciplinary practices. So these are very rigid practices. They’ve been called sweating the small stuff practices. So students are monitored very closely and they can be punished for very minor behaviors, like putting a head on a desk or speaking in the hallway. So not doing well in terms of giving students greater autonomy, greater choice. And not doing well, often in terms of lots of suspensions for minor behaviors, maybe even pushing out students or attracting only certain kinds of students who can fare well in this type of environment. 

[00:03:15] Jon M: What are scripts and why do these schools rely on them?

[00:03:21] Joanne G: Yeah, my book is called “Scripting the Moves,” and I use this term of scripts to describe very detailed and standardized codes of behavior. So instead of saying, “sit down,” we say, you know, “put your bottom on a seat, put two feet on the floor.” But we’re very prescriptive about the behaviors we want to see.

And these schools use scripts, both for student behavior and also, you know, to a certain extent, to teacher behavior. They’re very assertive about what, what kind of things they want to see students and teachers doing. You can think of it as maybe no room for error or, you know, heavy compliance.

And I talk about the limits of scripts for developing more flexible tools that are transferable. So if you’re given a script for, for example, how to teach a class, these are the specific ways you should monitor student behavior. It can be difficult when there’s some student resistance or when students aren’t listening to what you’re saying, or when the scripts fail. Do you have the tools then to manage a classroom?

[00:04:19] Jon M: Are the scripts also applied to the academics? Are the teachers given a script of what they’re supposed to be doing? 

[00:04:27] Joanne G: Yeah, they are, to some extent. This may vary by the school, but in the school I was in, there was a very set formula for how instruction needed to look. And I’m not going to remember it exactly, but it basically means it starts with the “do now.” So when students enter the classroom, they get right to work. They sit down and they work on kind of a five minute review exercise. From there, you might review the “do now.” You know, direct teaching of any lesson, there’s kind of guided practice and there’s silent, independent work, and that it ends with an exit ticket that tests your knowledge.

In the school I was at, lessons plans were reviewed every week. Teachers had to submit their full lesson plans and then their supervisors actually went through and made corrections. There were actually scripts for what you would say and what you would say, like as a backup plan. So if this question didn’t work, what would be the other question you would use? So in fact, lessons were also very scripted and teachers who wanted to go beyond the script, for example, spend 40 minutes on a project instead of, you know, these five minute chunks, actually got pushback from the school, because that would be too disorderly. 

[00:05:35] Amy H-L: What impact does all the scripting have on students?

[00:05:42] Joanne G: Yeah, I think it has various impacts. So for one, students were very stressed in this school. I found students by and large did not like the school. They thought it was a good school in terms of it being safe, in terms of learning things academically, but that experience of being in this school was difficult for these students because they were so heavily monitored. And constantly monitored you know, it makes you kind of think about what you have to do at, at all times, right. You can’t just sit in a classroom when a teacher is narrating your behavior either in a positive way or a negative way. So a negative way might be giving you an infraction for not sitting properly. A positive way might be, “Hey, look at Kayla. You know, she’s such a good example. Look at how she’s sitting in SLANT.” But either way, those things can add stress to you. 

[00:06:34] Jon M: That term, you just used, SLANT. Can you tell people what that means? 

[00:06:38] Joanne G: Oh yeah. Sorry. This is an acronym used by many of these schools. It may have been started by the KIPP schools, but it’s stands for Sit up, lean forward, ask questions, nod for understanding, and track the speaker and it’s, I can’t show you, cause we’re on the radio, what it looks like, but often it’s your hands intertwined together, sitting straight and your eyes are on the teacher. It’s a way these schools like to see students showing attention.

[00:07:05] Amy H-L: How do teachers feel about all this?

[00:07:08] Joanne G: I found the teachers had mixed reactions, I think, depending on their own backgrounds and even depending on their own styles and what they were comfortable with or what kind of personality they had. So I characterize teachers into these four types, which I call conformers or naturals, adapters, imitators, and rejectors.

So the conformers were these teachers who actually felt very comfortable with the school disciplinary practices. They would say, “This is what I do in my normal life anyway. I don’t speak to children any differently.” They were very at ease with the authoritative nature of the school or the authoritarian nature of the school. And I think in some ways, because they were comfortable with authority and able to command authority, they had to rely less on this constant monitoring of student behaviors. Students behaved better in their classes. Then we had these imitators who really were, you know, by the book. They tried to follow all the rules, the numerous rules the school gave for student behavior. They were seen as too strict, too by the books, out to get us, the disciplinarians. Those teachers didn’t do as well. And there were adapters, teachers who tried to, they kind of bought into the idea of the school as a whole. They saw, “Hey, these schools are doing well, but these practices aren’t exactly working for me,” so they tried to modify them in ways. So they would do like a silly SLANT or something, or they would come up with funny chants to teach the disciplinary practices. And then we have this group of teachers that I call the rejectors, and these teachers are either fundamentally opposed to the school disciplinary practices or they just can’t seem to do them, right. They don’t find them to be effective. And a lot of these teachers. I would say, come from more progressive teacher education programs, they have a more broader understanding of the skills they want to see developed in students. They don’t want to be in a school where they’re always yelling at students. And a lot of these teachers leave after a year at the school, or even before, some after just a couple of months.

[00:09:08] Jon M: Is there a high turnover rate among teachers? 

There is a high turnover rate. In the school I was at, 50% of the teachers had left the year prior to my being in the school for my field work. And no excuses charters in general, I think have certainly substantial turnover rates.

[00:09:24] Amy H-L: Wow. These school seem very focused on students going to college. How did they do academically after they graduate? 

[00:09:36] Joanne G: These schools are all college preparatory schools and yes, I would say most of them have a mission to get kids into and through college. And they have fairly good college enrollment rates, studies have found, but more difficulties in terms of college persistence, so actually getting students through college. The KIPP schools are kind of the oldest of these no excuses schools. And they found that about 35% of their students were graduating within six years. So that was much lower than the 80% they were aiming for. And there have been, I should say these schools are still a bit young for kind of rigorous research to be tracing the outcomes of these students. But one of the largest studies at these schools is Mathematica. They’re a policy research firm and they’ve been finding positive impacts of, of these schools on students’ standardized test scores, but the latest of their studies is looking at college persistence through two years and they actually find no difference between students who attended these schools. Actually, it’s students who were accepted into the lottery compared to those who were not accepted into the lottery, but also applied. So you have students, you know, it kind of takes into consideration selection effects. And they’re finding no difference in persistence after two years. So these early results are not too promising in terms of college success. 

[00:10:52] Jon M: Is there a sense of being able to separate out, in any of these studies or anecdotally, the difference between how students do academically in college and social emotionally, once they’re not in as strict an encironment? 

[00:11:08] Joanne G: Yeah, the research studies haven’t done it, but you know, KIPP did a study of its own alumni and that’s where they got those percentages. And they actually, their answer was that it was these kinds of social and behavioral skills, these character traits, that determine the difference between those who persisted and those who didn’t. So [inaudible], they didn’t think it was the academic side, actually. So after doing that, they put greater emphasis on teaching character in their schools. In my own work, I observed some students who took dual enrollment courses while they were in high school. So these are courses where they take college courses for both college credit and high school credit. And in those courses, I did see students who struggled because the expectations were so different than what they had experienced in their high schools. So they had so much structure in their, in their high school or in their middle school, and then they got to college and there seemed to be no consequences for their actions. So they would be given a homework assignment, but the teacher never collected it. And then they weren’t motivated. They weren’t kind of self motivated to do it on their own without those consequences. I also talked to a couple students after their first year of college and, and similar things kind of like, you know, if I didn’t turn in these assignments along the way, there was no consequences. At the end of the school year, though, the professor made us do a portfolio, so then I had to do all these assignments I hadn’t done. And I, you know, I got a C on the portfolio and didn’t feel good about that.

[00:12:31] Jon M: Going back to the beginning of the process of becoming students, how did the selection processes affect who is admitted as students?

[00:12:40] Joanne G: Sure. So for charter schools, the selection processes vary by state law. Charter schools fall under the purview of state law, but in many states they’re required to use a lottery process, like I mentioned, so anyone who wants to apply can apply and then they’re randomly selected. However, this doesn’t give you a random student body because, you know, students and families have to apply to the school, so they first have to have heard about the school. In most cases, they have to be able to have their students get to the school on time. So most of these charters don’t provide transportation. And they have to abide by these rigid expectations. So at the school I was in, if your student wasn’t there by 7:30 on the dot, your student got an after-school detention for one hour. So that already, you know, culls the families that are going to be willing to put their children in a school like this. The school I was at didn’t have too many subsequent hurdles, but a study of Success Academy by Robert Pondiscio, he found that Success Academy puts in a lot of steps, between the lottery and the first day of school. So just things like parent meetings. So by the time you actually get to the first day of school, I think one study found that 50% of those students,of the initial students who had been admitted via lottery actually ended up enrolling.

[00:14:04] Amy H-L: What is the student attrition rate in these schools? I used to live in Phoenix and there was a group of schools called BASIS, and as I recall, the attrition rate was extremely high. 

[00:14:17] Joanne G: I should have that number, but I actually don’t. I don’t know it off the top of my head. I know studies have found that Black boys are the students most likely to leave these schools. I also know there’s attrition between middle school and high school. So you can think about parents giving their students more choice in kind of what school they want to go to, so you see attrition there as well. 

[00:14:40] Jon M: What are some of the reasons for the high attrition rate? 

[00:14:44] Joanne G: Yeah, I think it’s just the, I think it’s just the school environment. I mean, I think it’s a tough school environment to be in. I mean, the teachers will say these kids have so much grit, not just on the outside, but actually on the inside, just to get through this school day by day. For many students, they said that was their greatest obstacle, which I think is very telling, given that many of these students have obstacles outside of school. So to think about the day in and day out of school as being so difficult. There was one student, a very good student, whose parents actually kept her home from school for two weeks because she was so stressed by the constant behavioral monitoring. So I don’t think it’s just an easy place to be.

[00:15:23] Jon M: How have efforts to apply the same strategies in schools without the selection of students worked?

[00:15:31] Joanne G: That’s a good question as well. And I think it’s a really important one that is oftentimes missing from the policy conversation. So the policy conversation, to me seems to be like, these schools work, right.

So maybe we know charter schools on average produce no higher test scores than traditional public schools, but folks point to these schools and saying, “Hey, well these no excuses, charter schools, we have rigorous research evidence that these schools are boosting test scores for low-income students.” But I think missing from this conversation is this idea of selection. They say, “Hey, well this is lottery. There isn’t selection.” But actually, like I said, there is a lot of selection and we see there was a study, a very telling study, of the Achievement school district in Tennessee. So these were the lowest performing schools in Tennessee, and they were taken over by the state to do these turnaround efforts. So they brought in these charter networks to run these schools. And actually they, found that for many years, there have been no improvement in standardized test scores in these schools. Josh Glazer and his team have done a lot of qualitative work there, and found that a lot of the reason is because of student selection. So in this case, they were turnaround schools, so they just took all the students from the neighborhood school. So it wasn’t this choice application, family selection process. So these charters had to address issues that they hadn’t had to address before, things like student mobility, things like a high percentage of students with special needs. And then actually a lot of resistance from families. So part of what some of these schools will say is, “Well, parents, you chose to be in this school. We sat down in your home at the beginning of the year and we went through our whole behavioral contract and you signed it and you agreed to it . So if you don’t like it, it’s not for you.” Well, they couldn’t do the same thing here, right. Because these families hadn’t selected into the school. So they faced a lot of resistance from families from the community, which had this history of paternalistic and racist policies, and thus were very skeptical or they were just on guard for that, outsiders coming into their communities and trying to change and improve their schools. So, yeah, I think that’s a very, very important case to think about, right, that this model really isn’t generalizable to your urban student population. 

[00:17:43] Amy H-L: Do the organizations that operate these schools see them as niche, or do they see them as a solution for the education system as a whole?

[00:17:53] Joanne G: I can’t speak for all of them, but I would say a lot of them see them as a large scale solution for closing the achievement gap and certainly supporters of these schools, so different foundations support them for these reasons. I think, you know, a lot of these networks, that’s how they’ve expanded. So actually foundations were interested in seeing these as a large scale solution. This is back to the ideas about the educational marketplace. This goes all the way back to Milton Friedman and the 1950s. But the whole idea is that charters can be up and school choice can be a large-scale solution, right, you have an effective model. They should generate competition with traditional public schools, force those public schools to improve or close. So they really see them as a mechanism for more systemic change in education system.

[00:18:48] Jon M: What impact do these schools have on the public schools in their areas? 

[00:18:54] Joanne G: Yeah. There’s not as much research as you would like on the impact, even of charters more generally, on traditional public schools. And that research has mixed, but certainly from what I’ve heard from, you know, traditional school leaders, you are taking away many students from their schools and schools aren’t able to, it’s not like a one-to-one, so you lose that funding, but you have a lot of fixed costs that you can’t just adjust when you lose your per pupil funding. So for those who don’t know about charter schools, charter schools are public schools and the money will follow the student. So if a student decides to shift from a traditional public school to a charter school, the funds for that student follow that student. So traditional schools, already, many of them already under-resourced, or are losing lots of funds and can’t necessarily adjust that quickly. And sometimes it happens very late, late in the process and and they don’t even know kind of what their funding will look like for the next school year.

[00:19:52] Jon M: It would seem that they’re also losing some of the families that are most highly organized and disciplined, if they’re able to go through the application process and then, you know, continue on with the school, so that might have some impact on who actually is in the school, including the fact that the students with special needs might be a much higher percentage of the students in the public school, in the, in the district school. 

[00:20:21] Joanne G: Yes, I think that’s, that’s exactly right. A lot of these studies are finding that it is the more stable working class families that are going to these, these high performing charter schools. So then you don’t have that social capital in public schools.

[00:20:38] Amy H-L: Am I correct in assuming that the students are learning virtue ethics, that the emphasis is on hard and fast rules?

[00:20:48] Joanne G: Yes. So if you think about the types of citizenship skills one could develop in school, the one that they are developing is how to be compliant, how to follow rules, how to be obedient, not other kinds of skills, like how to advocate for oneself, how to work as a team, how to push back against authority, how to develop a critical consciousness or even a collective sense of identity, community engagement. Again, these are broad strokes. I know Democracy Prep is one no excuses network that does focus on developing citizenship skills.

But I would say most of these networks, you know, KIPP’s logo until very recently was “Work hard. Be nice.” And I think that well characterizes the sense of the skills these schools at least have been trying to develop in the past.

[00:21:42] Jon M: I think a lot of them advertise themselves as contributing to equity in education. What do you see as the underlying approach to equity in these schools? 

[00:21:54] Joanne G: It’s an individual approach to equity. So it’s the idea that we will get individual students higher test scores, but of course, to, to college and through college. So we will promote equity by helping these students, you know, gain more opportunity than they had before. I think that’s a different notion than notion about the public good. For example, there’s an equity notion about what’s best for society and, you know, what do we need to do to get there as a collective versus an individual? And this also goes back to critiques of school choice.

The idea is that in an educational marketplace, you have winners and losers, right. So only some students are really going to benefit from this idea of opportunity and choice. The other way to see it is that, okay, you know, here’s our society and what are the structures that we need to change and shift to have equitable opportunities for everybody. 

[00:22:54] Jon M: So it’s very much families and students as consumers rather than as citizens defined broadly. What role do parents play in these schools?

[00:23:08] Joanne G: Not a big role. David Whitman wrote kind of a positive book on these no excuses schools. His book was called “Sweating the Small Stuff.” I think the subtitle was “With Inner City Schools and the New Paternalism.” So he described these schools as paternalistic, and that’s the idea that they actually take over the role of parents in teaching kids norms and values. So the idea is that these low-income families aren’t teaching their kids middle-class values, like how to work hard, you know, how to get to school on time, how to be organized. And thus the schools are successful. This is from his perspective and the perspective of some others. The schools are taking over this role and they’re teaching these skills and behaviors and that’s actually a big reason for why they’re successful. So given that model, parent involvement is not at a premium. You know, you want your parents to get your students there to school on time. You want your parents to support the school disciplinary practices. You want them to come to the parent teacher conferences,. But beyond that, you don’t want their input, per se, in decision-making.

[00:24:17] Amy H-L: What are the school’s relationships with the communities they serve?

[00:24:22] Joanne G: Yeah, I think that’s similar. If you think about the idea of paternalism, right. It’s interesting. Paul Tough wrote a book called “Whatever It Takes,” about the Harlem Children’s Zone and about Geoffrey Canada, its founder, and Geoffrey Canada gives this analogy I like. I’ll see if I can remember it and get it right. So he says there’s two approaches to solving poverty or to addressing poverty. One he calls the “incubator approach.” So that means you take a kid out of their environment. You take a select group of children out of their environment. You incubate them from it and you help them be become successful. And he sees that as kind of this no excuses approach, right. We’re going to remove you from your communities. We’re going to teach you these different kinds of norms and behaviors. We’re going to get you to college and then you’ll be successful and you can make change. The other approach, the “lift all boats” approach, so actually trying to lift the whole community up instead of taking the select group of students out of the community. And that’s really what he tried with the Harlem Children’s Zone, right. So we invest in the community. We provide all these supports to families and to kids. We do wraparound supports. So it’s not just about academics. It’s about giving you your dental visits and whatever mental support systems you need. But of course what’s interesting about Paul Tough’s book is that he started with this Harlem Children’s Zone approach. But then at the end of the day, he, he went with these Promise Academy no excuses charter schools in his community. So he actually took to both sides in some ways. 

[00:25:57] Jon M: So some of these schools, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement have recognized the downsides of no excuses culture and they’ve pushed to change. From your sense, do you think they can?

[00:26:15] Joanne G: Yeah. It’s a question I’ve been thinking a bit about, and I don’t think change is easy. I am happy to see these schools being reflective over their practices, apologizing to their alumni for racist practices, committing to change. I think they are earnest in making those statements, but I do think the work is very difficult because these structures are so much a part of how these schools function. Like we said in the beginning, these scripts are not just about student behavior, but they extend to academics. They extend to teachers’ work. These schools rely on novice teachers to function. And in some ways, scripts can be beneficial for novice teachers, but if you want to move to a more flexible system, a less rigid system, you are going to need teachers who are more experienced, maybe teachers from that community.

So I think that these things are require much, much deeper shifts in an organization. And I think it takes a long time and it takes a lot of expertise to do it. That’s not to say that these schools can’t change and aren’t changing, right. And I think even changes along the edges are better than not making those changes. So I think, I think it’s a good direction to be going. But again…

[00:27:32] Amy H-L: Thank you so much, Dr. Joanne Golann of Vanderbilt university. 

[00:27:37] Joanne G: Thank you so much, Jon and Amy.

[00:27:40] Jon M: And thank you, listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps other people to find the show, check out our website,, for more episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. And we work with consultants to offer customized social emotional learning programs, focused on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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