I was in a DP co-located school in Harlem a few years ago when the chapter leader invited me to address the staff during a union meeting. The staff was mostly black, Latino and older. A walk through the halls during passing showed the DP racist spin in action The blond pony tails of the young teachers were bobbing along. And the big signs on their doors with the names of their fancy colleges were prominent.
Why are white people so eager to advocate for the sort of schools to which they would never send their own children?
Reader: more and more white people agree that strict, “no excuses” style charter schools provide an ideal learning environment for poor minority kids. As proof of this surging enthusiasm I give you exhibit A: a glowing report about Harlem’s Democracy Prep charter school featured in the current issue of the New Yorker, one of America’s whitest magazines. (Full disclosure: I am white and also a New Yorker subscriber). Which brings us to today’s fiercely urgent question: why are white people so eager to advocate for the sort of schools to which they would never send their own children?
Through the Gauntlet
The New Yorker piece, by writer Ian Frazier, is subtitled ‘Up Life’s Ladder’—but ’gauntlet’ might be a more accurate metaphor. Frazier is dazzled by the spectacle of the 44 members of Democracy Prep’s first graduating class, on stage at the Apollo Theater in their school-bus-yellow robes, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on hand to fete them. But more than three quarters of Democracy Prep’s students—23% each year—never made it onto the stage. If Frazier is aware of the school’s attrition rate, among the highest in New York City, he doesn’t mention it. Nor does Frazier have anything to say about the school’s strict “no excuses” disciplinary policy. Instead, he seems excited by the fact that students at the school are required to take Korean, the only foreign language offered. Best of all, Frazier likes the fact that 100% of the remaining graduates are headed to a four-year college.
Whatever it Takes
I’m guessing that it’s not the fault of the New Yorker’s legendarily “no excuses” fact-checking department that these less inspiring (not to mention less democratic) details about Democracy Prep didn’t make it into the magazine. Instead, the writer is merely reflecting a growing consensus among elites that a certain kind of schooling is necessary to propel poor minority students along the steep uphill climb to college. This formula for success, the “special sauce,” is long and hard and requires the sort of militaristic discipline that I doubt any writer for the New Yorker would tolerate for his or her children for a day, let alone the four years, eight years, even 12-year-long slog that is supposed to end in a mythical place called “college.”
- Doing time
The school day at Democracy Prep starts at 7:45AM and lasts until 4:15PM, but students routinely stay until six for tutoring. A nine, ten or 11 hour school day would no doubt strike middle class parents as excessive (what about Skyler’s soccer practice, or Emma’s beekeeping camp?) but even within this endless school day there is no time to lose. Democracy Prep, like many urban “no excuses” schools, uses a countdown during transitions from one class or activity to the next so that students don’t waste a second of learning time.
- Living the DREAM
Democracy Prep relies upon a monetary-based system of rewards that is common in the “no excuses” world. Students earn and lose DREAM Dollars (the acronym stands for the school’s values: Discipline, Respect, Enthusiasm, Accountability and Maturity) based on behavior and academic performance. In addition to providing an important regulator of behavior, the DREAM dollars also prep the students for their ultimate destination beyond even college: work.
- Broken windows
A “no excuses” school embodies a philosophy that might best be understood as the educational equivalent of the broken windows theory. Small disruptions are seen as leading to the kind of unruliness and disorder that stands in between poor minority kids and college-bound success. Hence the straight, silent lines in which students transition from one class to another might be seen as leading straight to college.
Suburban parents are likely unfamiliar with SLANT, the KIPP-informed mantra that shapes “no excuses” teaching. The behavior management technique instructs students to sit up, listen, ask questions, nod and track the teacher. Younger students, who tend to be naturally disruptive, may also be instructed to fold their hands or “make a bubble,” pursing their lips and filling their cheeks with air so as to keep them from talking.
- Time and Punishment
The elaborate architecture of rewards and punishments that undergird the “no excuses” approach must have consequences, of course. Suspensions at these schools tend to be extremely high, even though suspending students has long been linked to worsening academic outcomes and higher drop out rates. The recent revelations about the high number of kindergartners suspended by the charter school chain “Achievement First” in Connecticut may have caused some initial discomfort among suburban advocates of these schools (little Haley, suspended???). But amid the rising certitude that we must do “whatever it takes” to propel poor minority students to college, that discomfort was soon forgotten.