Montessori vs. “No Excuses” discipline
This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue of MontessoriPublic — Print Edition.
Could self-discipline be what some families really want?
This article first appeared in Education Week as The Harsh Discipline of No-Excuses Charter Schools: Is It Worth the Promise? on June 9, 2019. Reprinted with permission from the authors.
The school was calling again. This time, it was for humming. Esmeralda, a middle-class Latina mother whose daughter attended a high-performing charter school in a northeastern city was incredulous as she recounted the conversation. (As education researchers, we use pseudonyms to preserve parent and school anonymity). “I said, ‘did she curse?’ ‘No.’ I said, ‘Did she disrespect another student?’ No. I said, ‘Did she disrespect you?’ ‘No. She was humming.’”
Another time, the school called when her daughter laughed during a fire drill. The punishment was a day spent wearing a yellow shirt and no talking with her peers. These frequent phone calls made Esmeralda feel disciplined too. “I’ll swallow my pride,” she told us, balancing her discomfort with her daughter’s impressive reading gains. Esmeralda’s experience echoed many parents we interviewed in our recent study who questioned whether a system of harsh discipline was worth the promise of academic achievement.
In recent years, research has shown that school discipline falls harder on the shoulder of Black and Latino students. The Obama administration drew attention to the higher suspension rates and the negative impact of zero tolerance policies. In 2014, they released guidelines aimed at curbing suspensions, an advisory that has now been rescinded by the Trump Administration.
But suspensions are the most extreme example of the many ways that Black and Latino children often experience controlling and punitive school environments, even in schools upheld as urban education success stories.
In the past decade, the “no excuses” charter model has proliferated around the country through prominent charter networks including KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Success Academies, YES Prep and Achievement First. The “no excuses” model is loosely defined, and more recently, a number of charter leaders no longer embrace the term. Whatever it’s called, the model combines a college prep curriculum with strict discipline and a longer school day. These schools have been celebrated for their high test scores for black and Latino students and now form the most prevalent charter option in a number of American cities.
No-excuses students are typically required to wear uniforms, sit straight, hands folded on the table their eyes continuously on the teacher. At breaks, they walk silently through the halls in single-file lines. Violators are punished with demerits, detentions and suspensions.
When some have challenged this model as unethical and racist, supporters point to parent demand. Eva Moskowitz, CEO of Success Academies, which runs 48 no-excuses charter schools in New York City with long waiting lists, argues that parents, largely black and Latino and low-income, “believe in stricter discipline,” and are “voting with their feet” by enrolling their children in these schools.
As researchers who have taught in and studied these schools, we found that parents’ attitudes were not as simple as Ms. Moskowitz suggests. The 25 black and Latino parents we interviewed in a no-excuses school valued discipline, but viewed it as more than rule following. They wanted demanding academic expectations alongside a caring and structured environment that would help their children develop the self-discipline to make good choices. Recognizing the peer pressures their children faced, these parents did not want their children to become “robots” or “little mindless minion[s], just going by what somebody says.” Their concerns echo other studies that question whether the no excuses model adequately prepares students to be successful in college.
There are school models that offer parents a better balance of academics and a nurturing school environment. In our same study, we also interviewed 28 Black and Latino parents whose children were enrolled at two public Montessori magnet schools. Although many Montessori schools are private, there are over 500 public Montessori schools around the country, half located in cities, and these schools enroll a majority of students of color. Like the parents at the no-excuses charter, parents at the public Montessori schools valued high academic expectations. But they liked that their children were not being punished and their children had the freedom to choose their work in the classroom and collaborate with their peers on projects small and large.
Montessori schools aren’t perfect: a recent study showed black students in a public Montessori school were still disciplined at higher rates than their white peers, even though overall discipline rates were lower than other area public schools. Others have called for more Montessori teachers of color and training in culturally responsive practices to support the diverse population of students. But parents in our study felt that Montessori school offered a better balance of academics and a nurturing school environment.
Charter schools were originally designed to reflect the desires of families and local communities. To give parents the choices they want and deserve, school districts and charter authorizers should encourage more schools to foreground student independence and downplay punishment like Montessori and other progressive models. They also need to hold charter schools more accountable at the approval and renewal stage by measuring of school culture including student satisfaction, teacher turnover, and school suspension rates, and by closely examining the nature of school disciplinary practices.
It’s encouraging that a number of no-excuses schools are responding to criticism by incorporating social and emotional learning, making schools trauma informed, and using restorative justice circles to reduce suspensions. But this culture change is not easy, and the model is not changing fast enough. Recently, students have protested the disciplinary system at Success Academy high school in New York. A disciplinary scandal at one Achievement First high school could lead to leadership change of the entire network.
The parents who spoke with us questioned the assumption that different families need or even want different kinds of schools. As one black middle-class mother at one of the Montessori schools asked us, “Why is it that a certain population have to have so much structure in order to be successful compared to another population?” Parents from all backgrounds want strong academics and respect for their children, where no one has to swallow their pride. Why can’t their children have it?
Jolene Golenn and Mira Debs
Joanne Golann is an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University and the author of numerous articles about no-excuses schools.
Mira Debs is executive director of Yale’s Education Studies program and the author of Diverse Families, Desirable Schools: Public Montessori in the Era of School Choice. She is a former teacher at a no-excuses school.