105: A Look Inside "No Excuses" Charter Schools w/ Dr. Joanne Golann


19 min read

Podcast available here.

Chris McNutt:

Hello, and welcome to episode 105 of our podcast at Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNuttand I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Before we get started, I want to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by our supporter, three of whom are Abraham Angel, Sally Orme, and Tim Fawkes. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Chris McNutt:

Today, we are joined by Dr. Joanne Golann. Dr. Golann is an assistant professor of public policy and education and an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and focuses on how culture shapes educational policy and practice. Her recently released book, Scripting the Moves: Culture and Control in a "No-Excuses" Charter School, follows Joanne over 18 months as she observes a high performing charter school, documenting the various regimented structures, student and parent perspectives, what the teachers do and more, which we're talking about in this interview.

Chris McNutt:

So Joanne, it's nice to see you. I'm glad that you're here. And the first question I have is really, why? Why do this for such a long period of time? And if you could, provide a little bit of context about the school.

Joanne Golann:

Sure. I did observations for about a year and a half in a no-excuses charter school that I call Dream Academy. And for a little context of what no-excuses charter schools are, charter schools are public schools of choice. You may have one in your community and students apply to them. So instead of going to their zoned neighborhood school, they may choose a charter school as an alternative. Charter schools started in about the '90s and they now serve maybe 6% or 7% of all public school students. They sometimes have a theme.

Joanne Golann:

They do have more flexibility than traditional public schools in terms of what they can do, what their school day looks like, what their curriculum looks like. So no-excuses charter schools are a subset of these, and they've kind of garnered a lot of policy attention because they've been pretty successful in raising standardized test scores for the low-income Black and Latinx students they predominantly serve.

Joanne Golann:

So you may have heard of schools like Kip, Achievement First, Success Academies, Uncommon Schools. These are all classified under what we call the no-excuses label. And why did I spend so long in one of these schools? Well, I was a graduate student at the time, and I had to write a dissertation on something and I happened to hear about these schools. And I actually happen to hear about a particular practice that they had, called SLANT.

Joanne Golann:

SLANT is an acronym and it stands for sit up, lean forward, ask questions, nod for understanding, and track the speaker. It's a way of kind of teaching kids how to show attention in what you might think of as a kind of white, middle class way. So when I talk, I nod a lot, but no one ever explicitly taught me, "This is how you need to show attention." Well, I was sort of intrigued by this explicit attempt to teach what we in sociology call cultural capital. So I went into the project with this theoretical kind of idea in mind and learned a lot by immersing myself in this school.

Chris McNutt:

And the experiences that you share are, I mean, there are fascinating, just to be like a fly on the wall in a system that is so... It's odd to be controlled as much as you are in an academy like this. Could you describe, just briefly, what does a school day look like for a student that goes through this process?

Joanne Golann:

Yeah, so the school days are longer. The school I was at, I think it was 7:30 to 4:00 and it has a very rigid set of behavioral expectations. So if students do not arrive by 7:30 and there's no bus transportation, they receive a same-day detention. There was a particular tiled square, a line of tiled square in the school, that students had to walk on and they had to walk in straight single file lines, hands by their sides. They couldn't touch the walls. They couldn't talk to each other. The hallways were silent.

Joanne Golann:

There was an elaborate set of rules, kind of rewards and consequences system, which lots of schools use, but in these schools, it's much more elaborate. So you might get an infraction for putting a head on a desk or having a side conversation in a classroom or not having a shirt tucked in or rolling your eyes at a teacher. Over the course of the school year, there were 15,000 infractions assigned to about 250 students at the school, which amounted to about one infraction assigned every three days. So it was just a very, like you said, tightly controlled system, both for students and, I would argue, for teachers as well.

Chris McNutt:

Before we jump into the specifics there, because I really want to dive into those discipline statistics because it's shocking to me, just to contextualize the purpose of the book, because you talk about how it's not necessarily just to demean this one individual school, but to make those connections to the broad work that's being done across a variety of different schools, like you talk about broken windows policing being similar to what they call the sweat-the-small-stuff policy. As a teacher reading this work, what do you hope that folks are taking away?

Joanne Golann:

Yeah. I appreciate your noting that in the book, because that is what I'm trying to do. I think there are these broader narratives and practices that we can find in all sorts of schools, not just these charter schools. Maybe we see them to the extreme, in some cases, in this school. But I was just talking with a friend yesterday who was complaining about the bonus bucks that her first-grader gets in school for behavior and gets these dollars given and taken away.

Joanne Golann:

So yeah, what I'm really hoping teachers and administrators get from the book is a way to reflect on their own practices and their own assumptions. I definitely understand that teachers and administrators have a very difficult job and are constantly putting out fires, in some cases, making decisions on the fly. So it's actually not to criticize them in what they're doing, but to say, "Hey, if you step back and think, when you're saying this student just has no structure at home or his parents never show up, do you realize that's actually connected to sort of a broader narrative about poor kids, right? And a narrative that might have racist implications."

Joanne Golann:

Or, "If you think about your school's disciplinary practices, have you ever thought of the ways in which they're tied to racialized social control and what's been happening in the Black Lives Matter movement?" And I've tried to sort of make sociology written in a way that's accessible so that someone, like a teacher, can sort of make connections and say, "Oh, huh, I never thought about it that way. Maybe that'll make me rethink something I do or say."

Chris McNutt:

It's interesting to kind of tease apart the intention versus the practice. If we were to take this at face value and not be cynical about it, the idea behind this is equity minded. I was reading something, SLANT, Doug Lamov, Teach Like a Champion. And Teach Like a Champion 3.0 is coming out pretty soon and they're talking about how it's going to shift to more equity-driven language. And I think they're rebranding SLANT to something else so it doesn't sound as harsh, but it's still ostensibly the same thing. In your read of this, is the work that's being done actually accomplishing the thing that it's set out to do?

Joanne Golann:

Yeah, is it promoting equity? I think that's a tough question. Because I guess it depends what lens you put on it, right? I think a lot of people think about equity in terms of individual outcomes. I think that's how schools think about it a lot. Are we getting this particular kid? Are we giving them more opportunities than they would've had, had they not been in our school? As a sociologist, we think more about systems and society. So are these schools actually making a positive impact on society, on public education? Are they helping students develop a critical consciousness that's going to lead them to feel empowered and make social change in their communities and in the world?

Joanne Golann:

So there are different metrics. You can say they're very successful on a standardized test skill, but what about career outcomes? What about health outcomes? What about did they feel respected and affirmed or, to your own podcast, do they feel human, treated like human beings at school? All of those things, I think, are related to thinking about equity. So I would say it depends what viewpoint you're taking.

Chris McNutt:

It's very intriguing because it has almost like a utopian element to it, where it's all, at what cost? And it seems like we've created this heavily regimented dystopia in our attempt to improve schools. I wanted to list off some of these discipline statistics because this was the page... I was reading through the stories and I was like, this is bad, this is bad, this seems a little bit too controlled for me. And then you listed the actual stats and I'm like, "My God. This is insane."

Chris McNutt:

In this one school, over the course of 188 days, there were 15,423 infractions for 250 students. Only six students did not receive one of those infractions and three fourths of the infractions resulted in detention, which is something like about 12,000 detentions. And all of this work is meant to "prepare students for a better future." And that concept, it seems like everyone slowly, teachers and students, maybe started to internalize. And a lot of that's related to that pull-you-up-by-your-bootstraps. It's very meritocracy style language, which, looking into those things, you begin to realize that they're not true, that there's no such thing as a meritocracy.

Chris McNutt:

There are systems in place that hold certain people back and not others. It doesn't acknowledge those systemic structures. And it seems like, as a result, those schools, then, are ignoring, that are minimizing those structural problems and focused entirely on the individual. And, while I was reading this entire book, I couldn't help but note that the same folks that tend to support these inner-city charter schools are the same folks who, at a much wider angle, are looking at things like Critical Race Theory, counteracting the concept of systemic racism. Very individually Americana focused of this old like John Wayne type figure who can accomplish anything with the right mindset. But do you see connections between the modern culture war in schools and what these charter schools are doing?

Joanne Golann:

I'll touch on a couple of things you said, before I jump in there, because I think they're also relevant. This idea of the ends justifying the means, right? So yes, if anyone were to take a clear look at the rigid discipline and the consequences, they would say, like you said, "This is crazy." But how is it, then, that you have intelligent, hardworking, caring teachers and principals justifying implementing systems like these?

Joanne Golann:

And I think there is a mindset that like, "Hey, think about the counterfactual. We've been in schools where there's no learning, where there are fights going on every day. And so here's a system where, at least, it works. We can get students in their seat. We have some evidence that our students are learning." I think you can't, though, justify the means by the end. I think you need to think about, are there limits to the means? What are really acceptable means? What do we think is appropriate for schools to do? Can they do anything in the name of equity and boosting standardized test scores?

Joanne Golann:

So I think that's really important to consider. You also said there's no such thing as a meritocracy. I appreciate that because I think it is connected with CRT in that way. I think that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality is very much embedded in American culture and education is deeply tied to that American dream. So lots of parents, lots of immigrant parents, lots of probably low-income parents, lots of parents in general will say schooling is your ticket to upward mobility. Schooling is your ticket to success.

Joanne Golann:

And there's something to be said for that, as well, but I think what CRT is pushing is to ask us to carefully and critically think about who's include in that American dream and who's excluded, both historically and currently. And I think part of the pushback against CRT is, "Well, if we say racism is endemic, then people are going to feel like there's nothing they can do." But I think, thinking about structural problems doesn't take away agency of students or teachers. It doesn't make you powerless.

Joanne Golann:

In fact, I would argue the opposite. If I were a principal and I recognized that there are racial inequities and discipline in my school, that empowers me to really make significant changes to my school's disciplinary practices that can change the trajectory of my students. Maybe I'm not aware of that, that there are so many implications, but there are. There's so much work on the school to prison pipeline and how these disciplinary practices in school can send students on sort of the wrong pathway.

Joanne Golann:

And I think students themselves, too, if they recognize the structural problems in society, they can start to brainstorm ways to sort of dismantle those. So I see the worry, like, "Oh, this is not American. This is sort of going to make people feel hopeless, helpless," but I guess I see it differently.

Chris McNutt:

Hey, there, I hope you're enjoying the podcast so far. I want to take a brief moment and promote something that may interest our listeners, which is our upcoming Conference to Restore Humanity. Our inaugural virtual conference is from July 25th to July 28th, featuring amazing keynotes, including founding theorist of Critical Pedagogy, Dr. Henry Giroux, and organizer and co-author of Black Lives Matter at School, Dr. Denisha Jones. Further, we have fantastic and intriguing learning tracks on anti-carceral pedagogy, designing for neuro divergence, disrupting discriminatory linguistics and promoting childism in the classroom.

Chris McNutt:

And our virtual conference is designed to be a virtual conference. As in, we use flip keynotes, which focuses on conversation rather than staring at a Zoom screen. And our courses are interactive, asynchronous explorations. Learn more on our website at humanrestorationproject.org/conference. Tickets are discounted right now at $150 for all four days, with discounts available for underrepresented communities. No, back to the podcast. Do you think that, for students who are going through this schooling experience from a very young age, folks that have enrolled in this charter school in this three, four, 10-plus years of their life, that they internalize that message? Do you think it takes away power, in a sense?

Joanne Golann:

I think so, to an extent. I give people a lot of agency, so I think it's not like you've been socialized into a system, and students have room to resist and they do all the time. I saw that all the time in this school. But I think it certainly doesn't encourage students to think, I think, in a structural way about change. I remember having a conversation with someone about why haven't students organized more in these schools? And I was like, that's interesting. And it really has happened more so in light of social movements in society. So with Black Lives Matter and Me Too. Seeing that activism in the community has motivated some students within these schools to take action and to start forming these kind of Instagram groups and whatnot. But why not before?

Joanne Golann:

And I think that is part of it. If what you're told is, "Hey, following these rules, following these policies, these are going to get you to college." If you keep hearing that, then you kind of maybe resign yourself to, "Okay, I don't like being here, but if I do this, it's going to help me be successful and so I'll just keep going with it."

Chris McNutt:

Yeah. Yeah. They are teaching a mindset of perseverance, in a sense. Kind of an odd approach to it. You always have to be a go-getter and, if you're staying behind, life is basically passing you by. Which is a strong mindset to have, but it just seems so odd when juxtaposed next to... If anyone hasn't seen The Uncommon School's YouTube videos, like the training videos, where they show an example of a "Good class." And when you see what these students are subjected to, it's really weird.

Chris McNutt:

You'll see a group of usually about 25, almost entirely Black or Latinx students with one white teacher. And they are led almost military style. Second grade, they are all moving in a regimented, like everybody stands you, completely silently walks out of the room. "Look at how great this transition is." It's so odd to me that those two different ideas are juxtaposed. You have this idea of extreme control next to a go-getter society. Yeah. I don't know.

Joanne Golann:

No, that is interesting, and I actually show... Teach Like a Champion comes with a set of video clips, as well. I think maybe some from Uncommon Schools of those teachers. And I also show a couple of those clips to my own undergraduate students and they are also quite taken aback by the level of conformity and compliance emphasized there. But yeah, I think this school also, I've read this and overheard this in other schools, too, not just the one I was at, they'll say things like, "There are three other students who want your spot, so if you can't handle this, you can go somewhere else." They'll kind of say that. "It's your choice."

Joanne Golann:

Or things like, "We are the best school in this city," and show their statistics, their test scores, compared to other schools. So there is this push of "We're better." Yeah, I do see it. They might not say it that explicitly, but it is sort of telling students, "We're doing things differently. We're better. So you need to follow what we're doing here and show good and get through." Because they are explicit about sort of teaching character as well. A lot of these schools kind of embrace positive character and the idea of, we're going to show grit, we're going to show self control.

Chris McNutt:

I think that kind of builds into, too, understanding how this relates to the family. So parents, family members, extended family members who, at many times throughout the book, they're upset with how the school is managing their kids. Like, they'll get a phone call and be like, "How dare you? That's racist. You shouldn't be doing this." But, at the exact same time, they tended to, mostly, accept those circumstances. They kept their kids in this school because, at the end of the day, they're seeing this as their ticket, their ticket to get into college or have a good career.

Chris McNutt:

How do we balance that? Because there's an argument to be made that you're taking away family agency by arguing against this, because the alternative is not so great either, and criticizing this and perhaps even dismantling those schools, doesn't leave a solid structure. Does criticizing the practices and documenting the school, have that counterintuitive effect of being this is not what the parents actually want, they want this?

Joanne Golann:

Yeah. I think that's a very interesting tension that you raise. And I would say supporters of charter schools often will say that. Like, "Well, this is what these parents want so it's their choice to put their students into these schools." And I would say yes, it is their choice, but in my own research, as well as other research, it finds that low-income families really have fewer choices when it comes to school choice, than middle-class parents who tend to be more empowered and have more resources and time and networks to find the school they really want.

Joanne Golann:

In the case of low-income parents, there's often constraints like transportation. A lot of these schools don't offer transportation. So it's got to be a school you can get to. Or have other issues like that. They're thinking about childcare needs and what school fits those needs. So I found, when I was interviewing or just talking to parents at the school lottery day, I was surprised to find they knew very little about this school. And they were actually asking me, like, "Oh yeah, tell us, what are the practices like?"

Joanne Golann:

They'd heard it was a good school. They'd heard it was a strict school, and they liked that. But they didn't know what really strict meant. And you're right, when they started hearing from their students, or seeing... I mean, from their children, or seeing their children's own anxiety from being in the school, or hearing that their students were disrespected, that's something I felt parents really got in arms with. If they felt a teacher, a white teacher, had disrespected their Black child, they would get very upset.

Joanne Golann:

And, in my taking a critical lens of the school, does that reduce the choices these families have? Well, my hope is, of course, that these schools will modify their practices. So I don't think my book is going to shut down any school. It's not going to have, unfortunately, that much of an impact, but if it can help someone in an Uncommon Success, whether that be a teacher, whether that be an administrator, rethink their practices or policies to be more affirming of students, to be more humanizing, to really consider the racial implications, the class implications of their practices, then I think I would've done my job. And I think parents would also appreciate that. They want what all parents want, schools where their students are learning, schools that are safe, schools where their kids are cared for and respected. That is what I'm hoping the book moves someone towards, or some schools towards.

Chris McNutt:

There's a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg component here, because it seems like, for many of the families, their argument for why they were willing to accept these disciplinary structures is because the workplaces, especially for working-class families, tend to also be incredibly regimented and dehumanizing, and it's difficult to navigate those waters because that's also a problem.

Chris McNutt:

So do you prepare students for the fact that life is going to suck? Or do you try to teach them a critical angle to that, while simultaneously recognizing, you have to make money? So pairing those two things together, to me, seems so incredibly difficult. As you're reflecting on this experience of being in this school for so long, do you see a solution where the public school, just like the typical public school, where do they fit into the equation?

Joanne Golann:

I don't know. Part of it is you always come back to resources, but I visited a private school, but it was a private school for low-income students, endowed by someone who was very wealthy, and walking in there and visiting there, it felt like a private school. It felt like a school my kids would go to, progressive, open, lots of attention and care. Not at all like the school I'd been observing. And I should say there was also, of course, care in the school I was at. I don't want to say that. Certainly teachers and administrators were caring of students, but it was a very different kind of environment.

Joanne Golann:

And that made me think, they come to this what-works model because it's like the last resort, things that weren't working in many of these traditional public schools where you have just a lack of control. And they said, "Okay, this is the only thing, given what we have, novice teachers, given the conditions, this is what we can make work." So I think, there are some studies about school funding. Does it matter? Does it not matter? But in reality, I think it's these schools need so much more funding than a typical school, because they're just so many more things that come with that environment.

Joanne Golann:

So I feel, to support students, you just need so many more student support staff, counselors, wraparound services, smaller classroom sizes. I mean, that's when you can start imagining something that will work, that's not maybe so rigid. But it takes a lot to get there. So, in the meantime, what do you do? I don't know if I have the answer for that.

Chris McNutt:

Based off the experiences that you had at the school, what was kind of an assumption going in you had about either students or teachers, administrators, from the research you did and what you read about the school, what was an assumption that you had that kind of surprised you that it wasn't true?

Joanne Golann:

The big assumption, going into the project, was where I started, was with this idea of teaching cultural capital, that what this school was trying to do was to teach cultural capital. They were trying to teach middle-class norms to these kids, and that was helping them to be successful. Like, how to tuck in your shirt, like how to show attention, be respectable. What I found, it was partly that that was more justification for it helped them make sense of these really rigid practices that they took on, not to teach any of these skills, but they took on me because they needed to establish order. And, basically, the school said, "Oh, here's a model, here's an orderly school. Let's copy it." And that's what they did. They just copied the practices of another school.

Joanne Golann:

So, really, it became a justification, and an interesting justification, because one that they would use to say, "This is why we're doing what we're doing. What we're really doing here is teaching these skills they're going to need, say, in the workplace," but it's kind of a contradiction. And that's what a lot of the work of the book is about, because the school is a college preparatory school and it's really thinking about setting these kids on a different trajectory. So not to work at McDonald's where yes, you need to clock in on time, you don't have room to express yourselves.

Joanne Golann:

So, in their mindset, we are sort of preparing students for that avenue, yet we're using these really rigid practices that actually don't develop any of these kinds of skills that middle-class kids learn. Like how to be assertive, how to be creative, how to take initiative. So it becomes this sort of weird contrast. And it took me a while to sort that out. I kept asking, "Are they teaching cultural class or are they not?" Do they think they are? What is cultural capital? So that was one of the big things I kind of wrestled with in the book.

Chris McNutt:

Yeah. There are extreme contradictions of control because, I believe you note this in the book, I mean, if you're going to go to college, that's the exact opposite of what a college environment is like. It's not controlled. And I think there's an argument to be made. I would argue that the vast majority of very rich people do not send their kids to schools that look like that. In fact, they send them to those progressive $50,000 a year schools where kids just play all day and read books and there is no control, and kids break rules at those schools and do things that might get you in a lot of trouble if you were at a school with not as much funding that had stricter disciplinary policies, et cetera.

Chris McNutt:

There's so many different things, as you're reading through this book, that you wonder to yourself, how it reflects society at large and the assumptions that we have about the working class and assumptions we have about even things like race and gender and how that plays out to a T in how the school's policies are enacted.

Chris McNutt:

The entire time I was reading the book, I felt like it wasn't real. Like, it's hard for me to imagine that is actually a real thing that's going through. But I think you're right. By analyzing that at a typical school, it makes you critically reflect on things like three-strike discipline policies, telling kids they don't belong there, policing language or how loud people are. There's so many different discussion topics that...

Joanne Golann:

Yeah, for sure. And I feel there has been an influence of books, like Teach Like a Champion. It's a bestseller, millions of copies sold, that began in the charter world. I mean, that book was written by No-Excuses School's founders, but now are everywhere in traditional public schools. So those methods are spreading. And I think one can sort of step back and think about them, to what extent do these stigmatize students or make relationships between student and teachers more antagonistic than they need to be, or a host of other questions.

Chris McNutt:

Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Project's podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.

Related Articles

101: Imagining Education Outside Capitalism w/ Dr. Nick Stock

Podcast available here. 0:00:18.3 Chris McNutt: Hello and welcome to Episode 101 of our podcast at Human

36 min read

109: On Constructionism, Makerspaces, & Music Ed w/ Burton Hable

Podcast available here. 0:00:13.2 Burton Hable: Man, wouldn't it be cool if your first year experience in

32 min read

110: "College Ready" AP w/ Akil Bello

Podcast available here. 0:00:01.1 Akil Bello: So, if we assume AP is better than other things, then

28 min read

107: Child Liberation Theology w/ R.L. Stollar

Podcast available here. 0:00:16.5 Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to episode 107 of our podcast at Human

21 min read

108: The State of Libraries w/ Dustin Hensley

Podcast available here. 0:00:16.2 Chris McNutt: Hello and welcome to episode 108 of our podcast at Human

25 min read

111: Building the Modern Progressive Education Movement w/ David Buck

Podcast available here. 0:00:01.6 Chris McNutt: Hello and welcome to Episode 111 of our podcast at Human

37 min read

GO TOP

🎉 You've successfully subscribed to Human Restoration Project!
OK