No Excuses

Matthew Bennett's picture

In November, it was reported that children at St George the Martyr Primary School, in Holborn, are being made to keep their hands clasped behind their backs while walking around the school.  The posture is known as the ‘university walk’.  According to the school’s executive head, Angela Abrahams, the aim is to ‘raise the aspirations of pupils and to maximize learning time’.  The walk ‘inspires children to be the best they can be and to “go shine in the world”’.

      This story throws some light on the changes taking place in English state education, as the push towards full-scale privatization of schools continues.  These changes are often misread, in line with DfE spin, as a return to a more traditional and ‘rigorous’ form of schooling.  But the educational model that requires primary school children to ‘shine’ by walking in single file, with their hands behind their backs, is actually rather new.  It originated in the USA about twenty years ago, and it was largely the invention of two young teachers in Texas, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin.  They were the founders, in 1994, of the KIPP chain of charter schools (KIPP:  the Knowledge is Power Program).  Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed;  some ‘charter management organizations’ are for-profit, others are non-profit.  Like English academy chains, they are a product of the market-based reform of public education which began in the 1990s.

      Charter chains like KIPP and its various imitators – Mastery Prep, Young Scholars, Success Academy – are also a product of the accountability systems that drive marketization.  KIPP, it could be said, has a symbiotic relationship with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.  The Act mandated annual testing in reading and maths from the third to the eighth grade, with a target of 100% ‘proficiency’ by 2014.  Schools which failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress towards the target were threatened with closure or ‘charterization’.  This was the environment in which the KIPP chain developed, generously funded by philanthropists like Don and Doris Fisher, the founders of Gap clothes (for Don Fisher, ‘education is a business’, and a school ‘not much different from a Gap store’).  KIPP schools were typically set up in inner city areas, serving ‘urban minority’ children.  The aim was to demonstrate, by dramatically boosting students’ test scores, that severe economic and social deprivation was no excuse for educational underperformance.  Urban minority children could match the test results of their more privileged peers – or, to use the charter chains’ own rhetoric, they could be made ‘college ready’ by a ‘rigorous’ academic education – even in districts where school budgets were being cut.  The test scores of the young ‘KIPPsters’ were proof that privatization was the miracle cure for decades of failure by public schools. 

      The KIPP model – sometimes called ‘no excuses’ schooling – is entirely geared towards meeting the demands of Bush’s test-based accountability system.  Its key features are:  a drastic narrowing of the curriculum, to allow an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy;  a reliance on direct instruction – what teachers call ‘drill and practise’ – rather than interaction between students;  highly standardised or scripted lessons;  and a significantly longer school day and year.  Integral to the KIPP model is a system of behaviour management involving a very high degree of control.  As Joan Goodman, an American educationalist, has noted, teaching of this kind – essentially prolonged and very intensive test prep – requires passive, compliant students:  ‘You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told’.

      One source of the KIPP model is the system of ‘assertive discipline’ developed by Lee and Marlene Canter in the 1970s.  The Canters’ system rests on classical behaviourist principles of positive and negative reinforcement, and is sometimes summarised as ‘100% compliance 100% of the time’.  It has been made over for the 21st century by Doug Lemov, the Harvard MBA who co-founded Uncommon Schools, another charter management organization closely modelled on KIPP.  Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion is a kind of operating manual – a catalogue of ‘routines’, ‘procedures’, and ‘systems’ – for the young teachers who staff charter schools (its subtitle is 62 Techniques That Put Students On The Path To College).  These schools love mnemonics – displayed in every classroom, chanted by students – and one of Lemov’s mnemonics is SLANT:  Sit up, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod your head, Track the speaker.  As Lemov says, once students have memorised this, they can be told to ‘Show me SLANT’, or ‘Check your SLANT’.  Mnemonics used by other charter chains include SMARTS (Stand and sit straight, Make good choices, Always 100% on task, Respect, Track the speaker, Shine) and HALL (Hallway heads and eyes forward, Arms with finger on lips, Legs straight, Lips sealed).

      The rules cover the smallest details of students’ behaviour, and the slightest infraction of the rules – for example, failing to maintain eye contact with the teacher at all times – meets with immediate punishment (this is what one defender of the model calls ‘sweating the small stuff’).  Sanctions include detentions, a deduction from the student’s account of ‘KIPP dollars’, or – in some schools – a period wearing a special ‘miscreant’s shirt’.  In a video clip that accompanies Lemov’s book, a student is told at one point:  ‘Laughing is ten dollars’.  Some charter schools push the principle to insane extremes.  A list of complaints made by parents against a ‘no excuses’ charter in Texas, Nashville Prep, includes the following:  ‘One student received a demerit for saying, “bless you” when a classmate sneezed.  He also received detention (1) for saying “excuse me” while stepping over another child’s backpack and (2) for picking up a pencil for a classmate’.

      The ‘no excuses’ model is now penetrating English state schools.  One point of entry is the ARK academy chain, whose brand of ‘high quality inner city education’ is copied wholesale from KIPP.  As Paul Marshall, the hedge fund boss who chairs the ARK Schools board (as well as the non-executive board at the DfE), told the Evening Standard in 2011:  ‘We model ourselves on the American KIPP schools that have 80 per cent on free school meals and send 80 per cent to university’.  The jewel in the ARK crown is King Solomon Academy in Westminster, the ‘best non-selective school in England’.  The academy was founded in 2007 by Ron Beller and Jennifer Moses, American financiers with a philanthropic interest in education (Beller played a key role in the ‘system-wide restructuring’ of New York’s public schools under Joel Klein in the early 2000s).  The headteacher of the King Solomon Academy is Max Haimendorf.  A  Teach First trainee who taught for three years before moving into management consultancy, he was appointed head of King Solomon at the age of 29.  Under his guidance, the school has developed a culture that is ‘partly modelled on the successful KIPP program’.

       King Solomon is in one of London’s most deprived wards;  58% of students are eligible for free school meals.  Given the difficulties faced by these students, the school’s GCSE results are indeed extraordinary:  96% achieved A* – C in five GCSEs.  The results must be partly due to the school’s careful reproduction of the ‘no excuses’ model:  an extended school day (originally 7.55am until 5.00pm, now slightly shorter), an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy (what ARK calls ‘depth before breadth’), highly standardised teaching in which drilling has a central role, and micromanagement of students’ behaviour.  As Nick Gibb noted approvingly in a recent speech, the culture of King Solomon is ‘explicitly modelled on the strict “no excuses” approach of American charter schools’ – an approach which Gibb himself calls ‘tough love’.  When Anthony Seldon visited the school in 2011, he was also impressed by the ethos:

one is struck by the silence in corridors: even those lining up for assembly do so in silence. Assemblies themselves have a relentless focus on the modelling of good behaviour, high aspiration, and the imparting of a common corporate culture, even down to the synchronised hand-clapping. … Even small student misdemeanours are to be picked up on, and students are instructed very firmly to stand up silently at the beginning of the class…

Another visitor notes that silence prevails in the classrooms as well as in the corridors:  ‘teachers direct lessons and pupils spend a lot of time working individually in silence’.  The staff handbook for 2010—2011 gives a sense of the school’s culture.  A section entitled ‘academy rituals and routines’ states that ‘the following routine should be used when moving pupils from the carpet to their desks’:

1:  stand on carpet

2: walk silently to stand behind their chair

3:  sit

      On the basis of this successful implementation of the KIPP model, the school launched Project 24, which aims to ‘increase pupil attainment by making the learning process more personalised through computer-based learning’.  This is what US charter school operators like Rocketship Education or Carpe Diem call blended learning:  the combination of conventional teaching with hours of online or computer-based instruction (KIPP is also experimenting with blended learning, especially in its Los Angeles schools).  In 2014, ARK announced plans to open the Pioneer Academy, ‘a new all-through blended learning school with an emphasis on technology’.  ARK told the TES that this new educational model offered ‘an opportunity for revised teacher roles’, and would allow the school’s management to ‘improve cost efficiency through both staffing and school design efficiencies’.

      Interestingly, blended learning is also the basis of Ron Beller’s and Jennifer Moses’ latest educational venture.  Following the collapse of Beller’s ‘multi-strategy hedge fund’, Peloton Partners, in 2008, the couple moved from London to San Francisco.  There they founded Caliber Schools, ‘a new charter school organisation that will leverage technology in the classroom’ (they also set up Ed-Mentor LLC, a venture capital firm specialising in education technology).  Beller is still chair of governors at the King Solomon Academy.  The school’s miraculous GCSE results, achieved at least partly through the ‘no excuses’ model, may be opening the way to further changes in the culture of English state schools – what the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley call ‘disruptive innovation’.

      But King Solomon is not the only school using the KIPP model.  The motto of the Michaela Community School in Wembley, a free school founded in 2014 by Katharine Birbalsingh, is ‘Knowledge is Power’.   As Nick Gibb has observed, ‘desks are always in rows … and pupils memorize subject content for weekly tests’.  The account of a teacher who recently joined the staff shows how far the ‘no excuses’ model has displaced more traditional methods in some academies and free schools:

all teachers say ‘3-2-1 and SLANT.’ No child does anything until you say: ‘go’. Each lesson begins with children handing out books; this takes ten seconds and you count it down. Every second of every lesson is used; routines are meticulous to ensure this happens and everyone uses the routines. … Demerits are given for infringements that at any of my past schools would have gone unnoticed: turning around slightly, leaning over instead of sitting straight, or not ‘tracking’ the page or me.  Demerits are given publicly and quickly: ‘Hayder, that’s a demerit for not tracking. We listen so we can learn.’

American researchers and campaigners have drawn attention to the weaknesses of the KIPP model:  the increasingly unimpressive test scores at some of their schools, the high rate of attrition amongst students, and the low graduation rate of those who do actually make it to college.  But, as a recent story in the New York Times suggests – the story stems from a video clip taken secretly at a Success Academy charter school – there is also a growing awareness in the US of a more basic weakness of the model.  That is, the potential for abuse and cruelty in school environments based on a demand for ‘100% compliance’ and relentlessly focused on improving test and exam results.

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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 28/02/2016 - 09:33

Matthew - I was sickened by the accounts from the USA about how children were being treated in many 'no excuses' charter schools.  It amounts to child abuse.

Although there's no suggestion that such practices are widespread in English schools, my eyes rolled at the minute instructions in the ARK handbook telling children how to move from carpet to seat.  But criticising the 'no excuses' model often leads to a charge that one doesn't value discipline.  Discipline is important, yes.  Learning can't happen without it.  But to say teachers must adhere to a particular routine about how to get children to sit down is risible. 

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 28/02/2016 - 09:45

I note that the 2011 Evening Standard article says ARK turned a Westminster school from 'failing' to Outstanding.  This is wrong on two counts.  First, ARK has no other secondary academy in Westminster apart from King Solomon which was a new school.  Second, I guess the report was referring to Burlington Danes Academy.  The predecessor school was put in special measures in 2004 but was judged Satisfactory in 2006 before ARK took over.  But the academy's website implies it was solely responsible for the school's climb from Inadequate.  

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 28/02/2016 - 11:39

Fortunately the methods don't work unless the national exam system is corrupted to support the behaviourist abuse used by the schools. These methods do not produce deep learning. Matthew Syed's book, 'Black Box Thinking' describes a school (I forget where and who the head is - no longer have Matthew's book to hand) where compliant girls taught the KIPP/ARK way are given problems they have never met before. Behaviourist training is only any good for scenarios when the subjects (appropriate word) have met/been trained on,  all the scenarios they will meet in the test.

These girls could not cope with the cognitive dissonance that arose from 'not having a clue where to start' and not being willing to embrace failure of their tentative efforts to seek solutions. See my article on mistakes.

Fortunately these are exactly the kind of challenges set by PISA. They have to be as PISA sets out to test deep understanding, not recsall of the curriculum of particular national education systems.

This is why we should celebrate and support PISA. It is our friend in opposing the imposition of these abuses practices onto our children.

They would be unnacceptably abusive even if they did work. BUT THEY DON'T execept for producing compliant robots as decribed by Orwell. 

Matthew Bennett's picture
Mon, 29/02/2016 - 19:46

In a speech soon after the election, Nick Gibb acknowledged one weakness of the KIPP model: ‘while these students from disadvantaged backgrounds were entering colleges in greater numbers than ever before, it soon became clear that they were much more likely to drop out than their more advantaged peers’. He believes that the answer is a more systematic inculcation of what the psychologist Angela Duckworth – a protégé of Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology – calls ‘achievement character’: ‘KIPP schools now focus on developing grit, resilience and self-confidence in their pupils’.

Chris Barson's picture
Thu, 06/02/2020 - 10:43

I only just found this article when doing a bit of research into SLANT. Brilliant. Thank you.

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