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Bruno: "No Excuses" Is Another Meaningless Education Phrase

I appreciate Mike Petrilli's take on the "charter expulsion flap," in which Washington, DC charter schools were found to be expelling challenging students at far higher rates than their district counterparts.

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In fact, he responds about as well as a staunch charter school advocate can: he concedes much of John's argument about charter schools serving unrepresentative populations, but points out that many of these "no excuses" schools are nevertheless doing good work with the students that they enroll in part because of their disciplinary standards. 

It's especially fair to say that these "toughest-to-serve" kids are probably not being very well served by their district schools, either. 

I am fully prepared to accept that line of defense for charter schools. My only further demand is this: can we retire the phrase "no excuses"? 

While the overall charter expulsion rates at these schools are troubling, many of these expulsions may very well be justified either as what is best for the student expelled or as what is best for the peers he or she leaves behind. Those sorts of reasons, however, are tantamount to the kinds of "excuses" we have long been told that district schools make but these charter schools do not.

If the term "no excuses" can be employed to describe charter schools that openly and explicitly identify some students as too difficult for them to educate, it is safe to say that it has become yet another meaningless education phrase. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

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Of course it may well be best for the remaining students if the disruptive and needy ones are expelled -- that goes without saying. And that's before you take into account the many ways charter schools select for compliant, motivated students from supportive families to begin with.

But the point is that it makes the playing field completely unlevel, and yet charter schools reap admiration and vast amounts of public funding while public schools are disdained and neglected.

If a public school does expel a kid, that kid is still the responsibility of the district one way or another. If a public school manages to transfer a problem kid to another school, the educators in those schools are colleagues -- making dumping a bit dicey.

If a charter school expels a problem kid, the charter never has to give the kid another thought, ever.

As someone who has long been involved in these discussions, I've been in many debates over the years with charter advocates who vociferously deny that charters keep out or kick out challenging, needy, disruptive, problematic kids. Now they're just changing their story to say it's a good thing to do. Do they really just get to change their story, unchallenged?

Part of the dynamic is that the proportion of needy kids (or even non-needy kids) who are disruptive has climbed steeply over the years. When I taught in the '70's, all of my students were needy but very few were disruptive. Even IEP kids were not disruptive beyond the norm (although IEP's did not exist then). It has been clear to me for a long time that charter schools can't claim to be "no excuses" unless they take over existing district schools, taking in the same kids with no application process, and find alternative placements for troubled kids instead of just counseling them out.

@EB - I've definitely heard others describe rising numbers of disruptive students. At the same time, I'm inherently suspicious of "kids-these-days"-type arguments. It's hard for me to judge, only having taught for a few years and in settings very different from my own K-12 student experience.

Paul, this is not just a "kids these days" meme. I wish I knew why parents in the '50's and '60's somehow were able to send their kids to school with skills and attitudes that made classrooms peaceful, and many parents today find it impossible. It's not just the parents though; it must be a combination of cultural, home-based, and school factors. It is more common to find really egregious behavior coming from low-income kids, but the fact is that as compared to my student days, these kids have more food, better shelter, and better access to health care. What they don't have is safe, predicatable environments. And even the level of disruption in middle class schools is hard to fathom.

Fair enough. I've got no sense of how to compare today to the 50s and 60s. It might be worth noting, though, that there's some evidence for behavioral improvement over the last 30 years:

http://scholasticadministrator.typepad.com/thisweekineducation/2012/02/bruno-the-kids-are-probably-still-alright.html

and especially:

http://nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/crimeindicators2010/tables/table_12_1.asp

I realize that doesn't contradict your claim, but I think it's an interesting data point.

Great (and encouraging) info. And I can see with my own eyes that the violence of the mid to late '90's is much less in our schools now. So if we could jsut get a grip on the classroom-level disruption. It's still unacceptable that well over 30% of teachers find it hard to teach because of that. It measns that more than 30% of students are not getting a full education.

Where there is no order, there is no learning! This fact applies at charter, public or private schools. Unruly students need a special place, and it is not in the regular classroom where the teacher of record is responsible for the testing results.
I think that we need to create schools for unruly students. Then those students will see what it like to be around people who are like them. Once the behavior changes over a period of time (semester) then the student may be allowed to go back to regular school, on a trial basis.

@BDowell - Unfortunately, I think it is not often the case that students removed from a school for disruptive behaviors are successfully reintegrated into regular schools later.

And this is why school climate (classroom climate) is seen as a Hobson's Choice. We know that a calmer atmostphere is necessary for learning, but we fear that removing disuptive students might lessen their chances for graduation. They may not have learned much even if they stay in the regular classroom, but at least they will not have been singled out as
needing to be removed. Paul is right that students sent to an alternative school don't return to the main schools in droves (although many do graduate). I think most teachers and school folk are more concerned that the curriculum in alternative schools is more limited than in standard schools. Because they are usually small, the ancillary services may not be as deep.

Too, it's easier to feel sympathy for a disruptive student who has her or his entire educcational experience visibly altered if s/he is removed from the regular educational environment than to get all worked up about a group of students who will learn 20% less or 30% less per year because of classroom interruptions. Year after year. And that is what we are talking about. I do sympathize with parents who choose charters for this reason,

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.