A ‘No Excuse’ Approach to Education Everyone Can Support

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Campaign for America's Future

A ‘No Excuse’ Approach to Education Everyone Can Support

“No excuse” has been a mantra from people who present themselves as advocates for “reforming” America’s public schools. And the term is a “pillar” of more than one popular charter school franchise.

The term originated from the belief that “the schoolteacher’s age-old excuse” was that factors outside the classroom – such as “not enough money, indifferent parents, kids arriving at school not ready to learn, and bureaucracy” – were reasons for poor test scores and school dropouts, rather than, focusing on the real, unaddressed cause of low achievement: teacher “malperformance.”

Over the last 20 years, “no excuse” has become the law of the land as state after state – incentivized by Obama administration policies such as Race to the Top – is now rolling out evaluation systems that make teachers the ones who are most accountable for rises and falls in student test scores.

Classroom teachers have raised the alarm, in increasingly louder voices, that blaming “ineffective” teachers and “failing schools” for systemic dysfunction in public education is not only unfair, it’s downright “dangerous.”

For sure, “no excuse” policies have led to numerous instances of talented teachers being unfairly fired.

Teachers have pointed out repeatedly that sourcing learning failures to multiple factors is not making “excuses.” They assert that making classroom teachers the primary targets for “accountability” is overly simplistic and ultimately detrimental to students because it causes teachers to engage in more test prep and to narrow the curriculum to what is most likely to appear on the tests.

“No excuse!” reply the “reformers.”

And back and forth it has gone. Until now.

Last week, the term “no excuse” was forever rebranded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. His use of the term, in the most honest way possible, was made necessary when faced with the blatant truth of what the nation is doing to its system of public education. And now we have a use for “no excuse” that everyone who cares about education can support.

A Fiasco In Philadelphia

Duncan wielded the term “no excuse” when confronted with the fiasco occurring in the public school system of Philadelphia.

In the past two months, Philadelphia public schools have sustained a fiscal one-two knock-out punch.

First a catastrophic “doomsday budget” was enacted by a state appointed commission that oversees the schools rather than a locally elected school board. The budget cuts essential school personnel such as counselors and safety officers; eliminates art, music and physical education programs; and provides unacceptably low funds for books, paper, and other supplies.

“The plan would institute unlimited class sizes and reserve the right for the district to contract out union jobs,” explained Andrew Elrod in Dissent. “Other clauses absolve the district of the responsibility for providing water fountains and educators’ desks.”

Layoff notices were promptly sent to over 3,800 district personnel, including hundreds of classroom teachers.

The second blow, as Daniel Denvir reported in Philadelphia’s City Paper, came from Pennsylvania’s conservative Republican governor Tom Corbett, who pushed through the state legislature an Orwellian named “rescue plan” that shorted Philadelphia schools even further, coerced city government to wring even more money from its low-income tax base, and permanently restructured the tax burden so even more financial responsibility would fall on the cash-strapped city.

The alarming nature of these funding cuts prompted education historian Diane Ravitch and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, to write a letter to Duncan requesting his intervention. The letter, posted at Ravitch’s much-trafficked blogsite, warned about what the cuts would do to the schools: “Everything that helps inspire and engage students will be gone.” They beseeched Duncan to “publicly intervene” because “the children of Philadelphia need your help. Do not let them down.”

A few days later, Duncan responded to this outreach. As reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer, In his released statement, Duncan declared, “There’s no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century.” (emphasis added)

In a separate interview at The Huffington Post, Duncan expanded his criticism. “I’m concerned about a lack of commitment, a lack of investment. … massive cuts and a loss to basic curricular offerings. … When you see all counselors, social workers, assistant principals, drama, art, music – everything being eliminated, what’s left? What’s left is not something that folks can feel proud of or good about.”

But “No excuse?” Really?

Hasn’t budget austerity routinely been the reason for closing schools and firing teachers? Weren’t educators supposed to make resource-deprived schools “work” despite what irresponsible legislators do to school budgets? Because, you know, it’s “all about the kids?”

Or perhaps, the situation in Philadelphia has revealed to Duncan, and others, just how badly America’s public schools are hurting and who really is to blame for the pain?

Philadelphia Story Long Time In Making

As Elrod reported in the Dissent piece, “Austerity is nothing new in Philadelphia, nor is the district’s insistence that teachers take the fall for budget deficits.”

Since 1981, conservative-minded budget sharks have gone after school funding, personnel, and teacher salaries in Philadelphia, especially after the state-created School Reform Commission took over in 2001 and effectively neutered the union and allowed the unilateral imposition of contracts. “Since then, perdurable budget deficits have eroded school district resources in a process accelerated by the recession,” Elrod stated.

In fact, as Ravitch and Weingarten noted in their letter to Duncan, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed “a budget that fails to adequately fund schools while at the same time dedicating $400 million for a new prison and pushing through a set of tax breaks for corporations. This is on top of $1 billion in education cuts over the past two years.”

The assault on the funding of Philadelphia’s public schools is not only longstanding – it’s intentional and engineered from outside the city.

Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker explains at his blog School Finance 101:

Through the state’s dysfunctional and inequitable approach to providing financial support for local public districts, Pennsylvania has for some time (but for a brief period of temporary reforms) actually been trying to put an end to Philly schools. And it appears that they may be achieving their goals. To summarize:

hrough the state’s dysfunctional and inequitable approach to providing financial support for local public districts, Pennsylvania has for some time (but for a brief period of temporary reforms) actually been trying to put an end to Philly schools. And it appears that they may be achieving their goals. To summarize:

There is indeed, to quote Duncan, “no excuse” for a public school system to be blatantly targeted for bankruptcy.

It’s Not Just Philadelphia

The situation with public education in Philadelphia follows a pattern that is becoming all too common across America.

As a financially burdensome model of school reform has been rolling out across the nation, draconian budget cuts have made it increasingly impossible for schools to adapt to the new terrain of high-stakes testing and the increased scrutiny of teachers.

As Bruce Baker notes in the same blogpost cited above, there are other places, principally Chicago, where schools needing funding the most are enduring deep cuts. Baker wrote, “Chicago and Philly are consistently among the most screwed major urban districts – operating in states with the least equitable state school finance systems.”

Even in smaller municipalities, such as Baton Rouge, La., and Memphis, Tenn., the same dynamic is taking place, as state leaders carve out affluent white communities from racially mixed districts and leave the district – now made even more minority, even more low-income – with schools that get lower standardized test scores and fewer resources to help struggling students.

Competitive Pressures Don’t Help

As public schools are increasingly under the gun to meet strict mandates, seeing their budgets axed and services cut to the bone, charter schools and other types of privately operated education providers are being ramped up as competitive entities.

In such a competitive system, there will be increasing gaps between children and families who can manage the system and those who can’t. And there is no excuse for that disparity.

A more positive way forward would be to take the guidance offered earlier this year by an independent commission chartered by Congress to advise the U.S. Department of Education.

The Commission’s report, “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy For Education Equity And Excellence,” declared, “The federal government must take more seriously its profoundly important responsibility” to address inequality in the nation’s K-12 public schools.

And the report authors called on the federal government to take corrective action against “local finance and governance systems [that] continue to allow for, and in many ways encourage, inequitable and inadequate funding systems.”

It would be helpful if Duncan would heed this advice and explain what kinds of corrective actions his administration is prepared to take. In the meantime, telling state and local officials “no excuse” is at least a good start.

A “No Excuse” We Can Believe In

The idea that elected state and local officials and top public school administrators should not be the ones most accountable for what’s happening in America’s system of education – and that primarily classroom teachers, the most underpaid people in the system, should – seems crazy on its face. But that nevertheless has been the case.

As a Texas school superintendent, John Kuhn, wrote at the site of edu-blogger Anthony Cody,”no excuse” school reformers contend, “Accountability is only for the teachers.” Reformers never join into any “visible or sustained pressure to address school funding, no pressure to address the inequity of resources or the unequal opportunity to learn.”

Duncan’s more honest use of “no excuse” changes that.

In his statement to the Pennsylvania officials overseeing the Philadelphia mess, Duncan urged, “We must invest in public education, not abandon it.”

So yes, “No excuse.”

When valued neighborhood schools are shuttered with no more justification than a press release, there’s no excuse.

When public school administrators are forced to cut learning opportunities that keep students safe, healthy, engaged, and supported. No excuse.

When teachers and parents have to speak out to prevent larger and larger class sizes…

When students walk out of school because their favorite subjects and teachers are cut…

When whole communities have to turn out into the streets to protest the plundering of the common good…

No excuse. No excuse. No excuse!

Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is an associate fellow at Campaign for America's Future and editor of the recently launched Education Opportunity Network, a project of the Institute for America’s Future, in partnership with the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

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