Camden Schools Remade in the Image of “No Excuses” Charters

Cross-posted from the Local Knowledge Blog. Promoted by Rosi.



There has been a lot of attention, and rightfully so, to the opening and approval of new “No Excuses” charters in Camden. These schools have questionable pedagogical practices, and a putrid record of educating black males. But, as of the latest numbers of new “No Excuses” school attendees were only in the low 500s. Plenty of students remain in traditional public schools, and those schools are being forcibly remade in the image of charters. They are adopting “No Excuses”-style discipline, pedagogical methods, and even using assessment tests from Uncommon’s North Star Academy in Newark.

When Camden principals were sent to Relay GSE, an organization founded by Norman Adkins (who is the Founder of Uncommon Schools) and David Levin (co-founder Kipp), it was rightfully blasted by South Jersey teacher and blogger Ani McHugh for its incestuousness and for perpetuating the idea that these organizations have found a “secret sauce,” when most of their test score gains comes from attrition and serving different student populations. But little attention has been paid to the subtle, and not-so-subtle, ways that Relay and pressure from the Camden School District have been remaking Camden’s public schools in the image of its preferred charters.

As a result of Relay training and direction from the district, schools around Camden are adopting methods from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (another Uncommon Schools product, for those keeping track). The methods have come under fire as teaching minority students to be “socialized to be passive, mob followers” and for defining “a successful teacher as someone who keeps children quiet, teaches children how to answer each question on a test composed of arbitrary questions, and then produces high scores on this test.” The use of these methods are so ubiquitous that some principals insist it is a district-wide initiative to their teachers.

Walk through the traditional public schools in Camden and you’ll see the hand signals and other techniques taught in Teach like a Champion. You’ll see things like this:

This “culture” needs to be started early, and students that do not submit are ultimately forced out of schools (or encouraged to leave). The issues are different at Camden High, where students struggle not with hand signals, but with “no cell phone” policies and consequent searches. Because of this policy and the lack of lockers at Camden High, students’ cell phones are confiscate. Worse yet, because the school’s metal detectors don’t work, students are subject to TSA-style full-body searches on their way into school. This became a kerfuffle at a recent Board of Education meeting when one student expressed serious reservations about searches by security guards that invade the personal space of female students, caused, in part, by students sneaking cell phones into school in their brasserie.

The teachers, administrators and others I’ve spoken to have mixed feelings about these reforms. Some feel that the lack of cell phones and increased discipline is helpful. Others have misgivings about the way students are treated and are resentful of being forced to use Teach Like a Champion techniques. But discipline is the allure of these approaches to classroom management; they make teaching easier for inexperienced teachers to control their classroom at the expense of teaching “submission” and “obedience” to minority students.

Discipline is not the only area in which Camden schools are being remade in the image of “No Excuses” charter schools. Camden public schools are now using assessment tests from Uncommon’s North Star Academy. Some schools literally call these “North Star Assessments” and already, teachers are complaining that they do not line up with the model curriculum that teachers were provided. Other teachers report similar assessments from Mastery and Kipp. Their is a preference for “No Excuses”-style test prep, and administrators feel pressure to use these assessments despite their inappropriateness and lack of alignment.

With the firing of 206 teachers last spring, the school year opening with over 90 vacancies in the traditional system, the training of principals by “No Excuses” ideologues, and now the use of charter techniques in the classroom, the Camden School District leadership has shown it is less interested in “choice” than in furthering a specific form of schooling. And schools are getting the message. Just this week, several magnet schools applied applied to become charters. Even worse, the entire 8th grade class at Forest Hill was suspended (though the issue was later resolved during a meeting with the community) (though the issue was later resolved during a meeting with the community). Expect more of these incidents as traditional schools are pressured to adopt a “No Excuses” attitude.

Why does it matter if traditional schools are pressured to remake themselves in the image of “No Excuses” charters? It is not just that there is a false rhetoric around Camden schools that emphasizes variety and choice, even while the District is pushing a uniform pedagogical and disciplinary approach on schools. The bigger issue is that the “No Excuses” method has  catastrophic effects on minority boys. The system harshly enforces discipline and focuses on test-prep pedagogy and is already failing the very minority and vulnerable populations that are so important in Camden. In this case, imitation isn’t flattery, it’s failure.

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