There are Better Answers than the “No Excuses” Model

March 23rd 2016, Written by Nathan Robertson

Almost two months ago, The New York Times released a video of a first grade teacher at Success Academy in New York City berating her students. The teacher, frustrated, tore up a student’s homework and told her to go to the calm down chair. “There is nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.”

Nothing personal, but it sounds like the teacher needs to go to the calm down chair more than the student.

The teacher in question was suspended from the school for a little less than two weeks before being reinstated. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of the Success Academy, defended her.

That is part of our culture — not having kids getting away with just not trying.
— Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academy

Parents are outraged at the video – but not for the reasons you would think. At a press conference the school held, parents were actually angry against The New York Times.

I read the story in the morning, and I thought it was not only unfair — it was insulting.
— Youssef Senhaji, a father of three Success Academy students
I don’t understand why The New York Times thinks it has to educate me as a parent about the school that I choose to send my children to. I’m not some poor, uninformed parent or someone who is not aware of what’s available in New York City schools. I chose Success. I made that choice because it’s the best choice for my daughters.
— Natasha Shannon, a mother of three Success Academy students

The video has sparked a larger conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of strict discipline in schools. One of the leading voices in the argument acknowledging the gray zone in the issue is Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green.

It’s complicated, more so than you might think. Coming to any personal conclusion requires understanding a deep and very active debate about discipline, race, and the conditions that brought Charlotte Dial, the teacher in the video, to the moment that was caught on camera.
— Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat CEO

One of the chief conditions is an education philosophy called “No Excuses.” “No Excuses” advocates for strict discipline as a critical foundation for learning. It pushes students by giving no room for them to not give it their all. However, it can be argued that this makes the learning environment become hostile. Success Academy was in the news less than a year ago because students were wetting their pants during standardized tests. They didn’t want to lose time going to the actual restroom.

Do you want that in your school?

I understand that it is easy to criticize a school from the comfort of an online blog post. I won’t be so blind as to suggest students do not sometimes need to be addressed differently in certain behavioral situations. I also won’t be so dogmatic as to claim that this video discounts all positive impact this 34-school New York City charter network is having. Discipline, when facilitated in a healthy way, begets respect, temperance and character.

But here is a question I would pose to you: what if there is another way to instill these positive characteristics in students without an authoritarian approach? How can discipline dovetail with a healthy learning environment?


Replacing Punitive with Restorative

Schools are environments that deliver not only learning in the core subjects, but in all areas of life. It’s where we grow the next generation of citizens. So let’s capitalize on that – how can schools do discipline in a way that is conducive to the growth of our children and also teaches them how to later carry out discipline in society when they are grown?

Some of the schools we work with have a restorative justice program. Restorative justice focuses on the needs of the victim, the offender, and the community involved. It focuses on learning to prevent the issue from reoccurring. For example: instead of suspending a student for saying something racist against Latinos, mandate that they go to two Hispanic events in the community and use what they learned to write an apology letter.

We are inspired by their approach – and we want to take it a step further. In the personalized learning system we are launching in the coming months, we want to give schools the option to explore how they want to improve their discipline and character development. It’s our hope that some schools will go a step farther and launch student committees that are in charge of creating restorative justice opportunities for their peers that help them grow as individuals and as a community.

It will be a challenge to make this shift. Not every Indigo school will want to make it – or they may have even greater needs that must be addressed first. But these are the types of questions we are constantly asking ourselves at Indigo: What are better ways for schools to get to their objectives? What are better ways for schools to get to even better objectives?

We are trying to find solutions so that we don’t live in a world where teachers feel like they need to yell at their students in the first place. There are answers – and we will find them.