A Word of Caution on ‘No-Excuse’ Charter Schools

Despite success of no excuse charter schools, school choice still the best model to help all students succeed.
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The pandemic has drastically altered student behavior — and not for the better. In some schools, classroom incidents have increased by as much as 73%, and teachers and administrators have found their roles shifting from educators to a daycare and police force, with no end in sight. When kids are smashing musical instruments and committing arson instead of learning math or reading, something’s got to give.

There are better ways to get students to focus on learning. One such approach is one that’s working pretty well so far: the “no-excuse” charter model. 

No-excuse charter schools have only one goal in mind. They want their students, usually minorities, to go to college. To that end, no disciplinary infraction goes unpunished. One school even makes students sit on the floor, with a chair being a privilege rather than an expectation. Every attempt is made to maximize instructional time, and learning is an intense and rigid process. It’s a “tough love” approach meant to promote diligence and accountability. 

Recent data suggests that it’s successful in that regard. A 2021 study found that in Boston, students entering no-excuse charter schools before 2010 saw notable improvements to their math and reading scores. Importantly, the study also noted that the rigidity of the no-excuses model makes it easier to replicate, meaning that academic improvements could be a nationwide phenomenon. A similar study in Chicago found that no-excuse charter students were 10% more likely to enroll in college than their traditional public school counterparts.

However, parental expectations don’t always meet reality. Parents should carefully consider exactly what type of education they want their child to receive before sending them to a no-excuse charter school, as a no-excuse education can have effects that some families would find undesirable. 

While no-excuse charter schools prepare their students for college-level academics, they don’t prepare their students for college life. A 2020 study investigating what was considered to be a gold-standard no-excuses charter school found that its students were completely devoid of intellectual curiosity. Furthermore, those students often faced an immense adjustment process once they were removed from a no-excuses learning environment. 

In other words, no-excuse charter schools harm student ability in key areas needed to succeed in college — like self-motivation, self-discipline, and flexibility. Few colleges are going to tell students exactly how to learn, and fewer still will punish students for slouching in their chair or using their phone in the lecture hall. Such a self-driven, laid-back atmosphere is confusing, challenging, and new for students coming out of no-excuse charter schools. Of course, a parent could supplement their child’s education by guiding them toward these skills, but that doesn’t always happen. Unfortunately, not every parent will have the time, energy, or personality to nurture their children in a way that ensures their success. 

As such, families should evaluate exactly what kind of moral and emotional guidance they can supply their children with before sending them to no-excuse charter schools. No disciplinary regimen can replace parental support and engagement. 

Families aren’t the only ones to suffer. Whole communities are impacted, too. Look no further than what happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As the city began to put the pieces back together, the municipal government sought to transform the city’s long-suffering public school system. In pursuit of that goal, city leaders converted the school system into an all-charter model, which included no-excuse charter schools. 

On the surface, that’s no problem at all. Indeed, New Orleans’ student performance has increased since converting to an all charter model, though to what degree this is because of charter schools is debated. However, these improvements have not come without a social cost. While Frederick Douglass High School had been one of New Orleans’ worst prior to the hurricane, the surrounding community was incredibly loyal to it. Following its replacement by a no-excuse charter school, the community’s input, traditions, history, and values were disregarded. In fact, Douglass students were not welcome to attend the new charter school at all. 

Though this change was couched in the language of school choice, it was, in fact, the opposite of school choice. It replaced a flawed model with an outright exclusionary one. And the ones who suffered were the members of a community who had supported a struggling school for decades. 

It is essential that we don’t portray no-excuse charter schools as a silver bullet that will solve all of our educational woes. They’re not. No educational model is right for all children, and families should have a variety of choices so they may select the model that suits their needs the most. No-excuse charter schools do a lot of good, but not every child or community will benefit from them. Charter advocates, of all people, should know that.

Garion Frankel
Garion Frankel is a graduate student at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service with a concentration in education policy and management. He is a Young Voices contributor, and Chalkboard Review’s breaking news reporter.