Revisiting “No Excuses” Schools in the Murphy Administration

Two of my favorite education writers — Brother Rann and Jersey Jazzman — have been diving back into the research on “No Excuses” schools. Their pieces examine two critical issues in that research: whether “No Excuses” approaches should be embraced by traditional public schools, and whether “No Excuses” schools narrow the curriculum. These are critical discussions, and I wanted to put them into the wider context of New Jersey education policy, and the choices in front of a Murphy administration.

In particular, New Jersey’s take on education reform has both similarities and key differences from the Betsy DeVos-style ed reform embraced at the national level. DeVos values choice above all else, an ideology that has led to an embrace of the entire charter school sector (which performs no better than traditional public schools) and of virtual charter schools (which perform decidedly worse).

While New Jersey has emphasized opening new charter schools, the Christie administration focused more specifically on “No Excuses” schools. A post at Dewey-to-Delpit attempts to elucidate the key principles of these schools, including a longer school day, focus on strict standards for both academic and discipline, and reforms around teachers that pay for performance. The best evidence I’ve seen is that these schools produce moderately better test scores, and that there are real concerns about attrition, suspensions, and whether these models scale.

As the Murphy administration sifts through these priorities, they’ll be dealing with something more complex than the DeVos ideology that simply prioritizes markets and choice despite the evidence. They’ll have to make decisions on a more nuanced slice of schools that makes marginal gains with other competing downsides. The question, like so many others, will become one of principles — does the administration believe in these test score gains? Are they important, and what is their cost in terms of other priorities like racial justice?

Brother Rann dives into a piece of that debate, doing analysis on the effect of suspensions that are tied to the “No Excuses” model:

According to the regression analysis, there is a relationship between charter school suspension rates and charter school student language arts literacy proficiency. The relationship is one of significance at the .05 level. However, the relationship is not positive, but negative. The lower the rate of charter school suspensions, the higher the proficiency level of charter school students in language arts literacy; regardless of all control variables mentioned previously. The same is true for the percentage of students of economic disadvantage. The lower the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in a charter school the higher the percentage of charter students scoring proficient on the in language arts literacy.

Jersey Jazzman bites off a different piece of the debate, arguing that “No Excuses” gains may come at the cost of narrowing curriculum:

[T]he general pattern in Newark is that the charter schools historically have tended to deploy fewer teachers per pupil in non-tested subjects compared to NPS.

And when you think about it… how could they? Even the largest charter chains — TEAM/KIPP and Uncommon/North Star — have small enrollments compared to the size of NPS. Scale issues can make it hard for a charter school to offer all the programming a large school district can. And the mom-and-pop charters just don’t have the numbers of kids to justify keeping a full-time music teacher AND an art teacher AND a PE teacher AND foreign language teachers on staff.

But more than that: as Koretz points out in his book, the leaders of the big charter chains all admit they place great value on test outcomes — hell, they’ve written entire books about it. Doesn’t it stand to reason that they’d sacrifice non-tested subject instruction if that meant better test scores? Given their own words, isn’t this kind of staff deployment exactly what we’d expect to find?

These pieces start to lay out the complex landscape of the education debate. “No Excuses” schools are a package of reforms, and it’s extremely difficult to tease out where the gains are coming from or what they mean. Are gains a result of differences in student population? Are they a result of narrowing of the curriculum and corresponding increases of times in tested subjects? Do suspensions lower scores (or cause challenging students to drop out, which could increase scores over the long-term)?

The challenge in front of the Murphy administration is to start to parse these different elements, and chart out a course for the state.

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