How Have “No Excuses Schools” Appeared and Changed Over Time in the US?

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“No excuses” strategies have long been a method of teaching in many schools in America. The phrase “no excuses schools” refers to predominantly charter schools that concentrate on raising test scores of children of low-income and minority parents in a strict, orderly, and intentionally regimented setting. High academic standards are set for students because these schools promote a college-going culture. Not only is high academic achievement expected of students but also they have to attend school for longer hours and adhere to strict rules. Students who are lower performers have to take extra hours during the weekend because there is no excuse to lag behind. The concept behind this model reflects the idea that “every student, no matter what his or her background, is capable of high academic achievement and success in life” (Thernstrom). There are many schools in the US that are referred to as “no excuses schools,” therefore, the following questions could be addressed: why did “no excuses schools” appear? How and when did the phrase “no excuses schools” arise in the US? Has negative and/or positive connotations of the term changed over time?

The reason why “no excuses schools” developed in the United States in the 1990s can be traced back to the accountability movement and A Nation at Risk report. Despite the fact that “no excuses schools” existed since the 1990s, the phrase “no excuses schools” only appeared in 2000. In the 1990s and the 2000s, “no excuses schools” had rather positive connotations, whereas today it is more associated with unhappy children and ineffectiveness.

“No excuses schools” developed in the United States in the 1990s due to the accountability movement, and A Nation at Risk report. After the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision that made segregation illegal in schools in the US, another issue was addressed: major gaps between the academic performance of white students and minority students existed. This led to the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965, which claimed that schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods would get the necessary resources to provide an adequate education to the students. In order to monitor whether these objectives were met, school district became accountable for meeting academic standards. Ever since this era, school accountability has increased and made the achievement gap more apparent, and reached its peak in 1983 when one of the most significant and influential documents was issued by the government: A Nation at Risk report.

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform played a significant role in the development of “no excuses schools” (Goldstein 118). A Nation at Risk was a report, which was produced by President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, marking a significant turning point in the American educational system because it confirmed that American public schools were failing. It stated that the average SAT scores dropped over 50 points in the oral section and 40 points in math between 1963-1980. Not only did the report highlight the underachievement of American students but it also harshly criticized American teachers (Nation at Risk). Therefore, “no excuses schools” became necessary to address this problem and try to reduce the achievement gap. There were a significant number of charter schools in the United States that adopted the “no excuses” strategies. Some of the most prominent and successful “no excuses schools” besides KIPP Academy are Promise Academy, YES Prep, Uncommon School, Achievement First, and Aspire charter schools (Angrist 15).

“No excuses schools” existed way before the term “no excuses schools” was developed, and only after Samuel Casey Carter labeled them as “no excuses schools” in 2000 when they started to be perceived as “no excuses schools.” Dana Goldstein, journalist and the author of the New York Times bestseller The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession, claims that “no excuses schools” arose at the same time as Teach for America in 1989 and “no excuses” teaching became popular and gained prominence in the mid-1990s. Despite the criticism that is directed to “no excuses schools,” these strategies are still fairly dominant according to Goldstein (141). However, the phrase “no excuses schools” first appeared in 2000. Despite the fact that educational reformers started to use the phrase “no excuses” in connection with closing the achievement gap between low-income students and middle-class students, the phrase “no excuses schools” was first used by Carter in his book No Excuses: 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools. Based on searching for the phrase “no excuses schools” in Ebsco, JSTOR, Google Scholar, and ProQuest News, I found that articles, essays, and reports were written by scholars, educators, journalists since 1989 stating that no matter the circumstances, all American students’ scores have to be improved: no excuses (Wasserman 30, “No Excuses for Failure,” “No Excuses”). However, only after Carter listed some schools referring to them as “no excuses schools” when this phrase became popularized. The first time the phrase appeared in a newspaper was in 2001 when Richard Rothstein wrote a review about Carter’s book in The New York Times .according to ProQuest News.


In No Excuses: 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools, Carter gave credit to schools where educators insisted on academic excellence and they did not accept failure. Students attending these schools scored better than the national average in math and reading despite the fact that they were children of predominantly low-income minority parents (Carter 3).  Many charter schools that embody the ideas of “no excuses” strategies are now called as “no excuses schools.” The phrase had very positive connotation at this time.

There are many scholars, journalists and researchers who claimed that “no excuses schools” are effective, even more effective than schools that do not use the “no excuses” model. In 2003, Thernstrom and Thernstrom wrote about “no excuses schools” as “excellent schools” (Thernstrom 272) that score well on statewide tests (Thernstrom and Thernstrom 43) in No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. In 2015, a meta-analysis about “no excuses schools” showed that these schools have positive and significant impacts on student academic achievement. Cheng et al. found that both the oversubscribed “no excuses schools” and charter schools produce better results on math and ELA tests compared to the national average. In addition, the results showed that “the estimated grand effect size for the sample of No Excuse charter schools are consistently higher than those estimated for the more general sample of random assignment charter school studies (Cheng et al. 21).” Based on their meta-analysis, Cheng et. al found that “no excuses schools” increased student achievement by “0.25 and 0.16 deviations in math and literacy, respectively, net of the typical annual growth that students experience.” Furthermore, Promise Academy in the Harlem Children’s Zone showed that their students gain 0.229 standard deviations in math per year and 0.047 standard deviations in reading that meant that the school closed the achievement gap in math in four years and halved it in reading (Fryer 2).

Despite the fact that “no excuses schools” had been perceived well and successful since their foundations due to their improved test scores, there has been a growing amount of literature that criticizes these schools.  Goldstein claimed that “there has been little convincing evidence done on those “no excuses” teaching strategies: incentive systems (pizza for good behavior and high test scores)…Yet this type of teaching has exploded in prominence since the mid-1990s” (141). In an article “At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics,” Kate Taylor pointed out that Success Academy Charter Schools had “a system driven by relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.” By highlighting that “no excuses schools” are demanding, Taylor criticized the system that it might not be beneficial for all children who are enrolled in those schools. For example, at Success Academy Charter Schools, students’ academic achievement is not a private matter but one that is displayed on colored charts and those who are failing are in the red zone—a reminder every day that you are a failure (Taylor). Furthermore, these students who are behind and do not perform as well as they should are made to feel “misery.” Moreover, some students wet themselves during practice tests because teachers did not give them permission to go to the bathrooms. In addition, Taylor quoted a student attending one of the Success Academy Charter Schools saying “What I don’t like is I have to go to school on Saturdays, so I feel like I don’t get rest, and I get a lot of stress in my neck because I got to go like this all the time” [hunching forward as if he was taking a test] (Taylor).

success sdemy kids
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Despite the fact that Taylor’s depiction of these “no excuses schools” are somewhat neutral, it can be argued that there are many elements in the “no excuses” model that are questionable in terms of its psychological effects on students. Furthermore, in “The Paradox of Success at a No-Excuses School,” Joanne Golann claimed that “as students learn to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority, they are not encouraged to develop the proactive skills needed to navigate the more flexible expectations of college and the workplace…No-excuses schools thus promote academic achievement while reinforcing inequality in cultural skills. These findings suggest that what works for academic achievement may not coincide with what works for students’ success in later life stages” (115). By questioning the skills these students acquire, Golann points out that “no excuses schools” only focus on how to close the achievement gap while students are in schools but they do not consider long-term consequences and job opportunities (116). From these sources, it can be seen that critics of “no excuses schools” look beyond test scores, and question the effectiveness of “no excuses” strategies and their consequences for students later in their lives.

In conclusion, “no excuses schools” arose in the 1990s in the US primarily because the accountability movement and A Nation at Risk showing that public schools were failing and there was a significant achievement gap between middle-class white students and students of low-income and minority parents. They aimed at closing that gap by applying “no excuses” strategies, which became highly popular in the US because these “no excuses schools” generated better test scores. Many people advocated “no excuse schools” due to their improved scores, however, from the 2000s, more and more criticism had been addressed questioning the long-term effects of the “no excuses” model. It is not just simply a critique of the strict teaching methods and environment that are implemented in such schools but also a critique of standardized testing and the way how money is distributed among public schools. Further questions can be proposed: why are there still advocates of “no excuses schools” despite the fact that most of the literature on these schools criticize the “no excuses” model and there is no evidence for long-term success?



Angrist, Joshua D., Pathak, Parag A., Walters, Christopher R. “Explaining Charter School Effectiveness.” American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. 5:4 (2013): 1-127. Web March 31 2016.<>.

Carter, Samuel Casey. No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High- Performing, High-Poverty Schools. Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation. 2000. Print.

Cheng, Albert, Collin, Hitt, Kisida, Brian. “No Excuses Charter Schools: A Meta-Analysis of the Experimental Evidence on Student Achievement.” Education Research Alliance for New Orleans. (2015): 1-27.

Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (New York: Anchor, 2015). ISBN 978-0-345-80362-7.

Fryer, Roland G. Jr. “Creating “No Excuses” (Traditional) Public Schools: Preliminary Evidence from an Experiment in Houston.” National Bureau of Economic Research. 2011. Web April 25 2016.

Golann, Joanne W. “The Paradox of Success at a No-Excuses School.” Sociology of Education. 88:2 (2015): 103-119. Web March 31 2016.

KIPP Foundation.  2009.  Five Pillars. KIPP Foundation. Web March 31 2016.

Lack, Brian. “No Excuses: A Critique of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) within Charter Schools in the USA.” Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies. 7:2 (2015): 127-153.

McKenzie, William, Kress, Sandy. “The Big Idea of School Accountability.” The Bush Institute at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. 2015. Web. April 20 2016.<>.

“No Excuses.” Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition ed.: 1. Jun 01 1999. ProQuest. Web. 18 Apr. 2016 .

“No Excuses for Failure.” The Christian Science Monitor. Nov 04 1988. ProQuest. Web. 18 Apr. 2016 .

Paul Tough, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America (Boston: Mariner Books, 2009). ISBN 978-0-547-24796-0.

Taylor, Kate. “At Success Academy Charter Schools, High Scores and Polarizing Tactics.” The New York Times. April 6, 2015. Web 10 April 2016.

Thernstrom, A., Thernstrom, S. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap In Learning. New Work: Simon and Schuster. 2003. Print.

United States. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C.: The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983. Print.

Wasserman, Joanne. “‘No Excuses’ Policy a Winning Formula.” New York Daily News: 30. June 11 1999. ProQuest. Web. 18 April 2016.

“Waiting for Superman”

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Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting For Superman” examines the underlying problems in the American educational system through following 5 students who are at the age of going to another school. By having education reformers expressing their views, the movie highlights how dysfunctional the public educational system is in the United States.

One of the most emotional scenes in “Waiting for Superman” is when the students who are followed do not get into the schools that would “save them.” Based on research, most public schools fail and students do not perform better since the 1970s (Guggenheim 25:30). However, there are a few charter schools—public schools that are publicly founded but independently run– that show remarkable academic improvement in terms of test scores. The only choice these students have is to get into one of these schools. However, only a limited number of student can enroll to these schools, and who gets in is decided by random lottery. Therefore, some students will have a better chance of education by sheer luck while others are “left behind.”


One of the students who is from a low-income Hispanic family wants to get into a charter school because she wants to be a doctor when she grows up. However, her chances are very low if she does not get into that school. The scene in which the school draws the number is very emotionally filled because the viewer can see the tension and worry on the parents and students’ faces. There is even a count down on the right corner to show how many spots are open. At the end, this girl did not get the spot. She did not win the lottery (Guggenheim 1:34:39).

not accepted_uggenheim

Guggenheim portrays charter schools as the only and better solution to schooling for low-income students. “Waiting for Superman” claims that not only do charter schools perform as well as the national average but often they outperform other schools because their students’ scores on reading and math are higher. However, Kahlenberg and Potter argue in Smarter Charter that charter schools do not often outperform traditional public schools but in fact students enrolled in charter schools perform about the same as students in traditional public schools (68). They claim that “perhaps the central lesson of research on the performance of charter schools is that just being a charter school is not a guarantee of success any more than being a district school. Student outcomes at individual charter schools—and at individual district schools—vary widely, and results depend on how specific schools are run” (Kahlenberg and Potter, 86). The evidence they provide for their reasoning can be found in national studies that have a broad but mixed scope which often do not control for self-selection bias, studies of individual cities—that are usually not generalizable, and studies of individual charter management organizations—that have a potential but their results are misinterpreted or exaggerated (Kahlenberg and Potter, 69).


Guggenheim, Davis. Waiting for “Superman.” 2010. Film.

Kahlenberg, Richard D., Potter, Halley. A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education. Teachers Collee Press. 2014. Print.

Homeschoolers Making a Presence– CT Home Educator’s Day at the Capitol

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Home Educator’s Day was held on the 23rd of March, 2016 at the Connecticut State Capitol where families who are homeschooling their children gathered to show and share their experiences and successes, and express their appreciation toward their legislators for their work.


In Connecticut, this was the third time Home Educator’s Day was organized. However, Home Educator’s Days are held all over the country with thousands of families attending workshops, presentations, and meetings.

Home educators with their children and people considering homeschooling had the chance to become better informed about homeschooling, to get current information about political issues, to get to know some of the legislators via short scheduled meetings, and even to take a tour in the Capitol.

Families from TEACH-CT, CHN (Connecticut Homeschool Network), CT-CHEER (Connecticut Cooperative of Home Educators East of the River) and NHELD (National Home Education Legal Defense) came to meet their state representatives, and got engaged in the daily activities.

Vice President of TEACH-CT and the organizer of the event Donna Parson emphasized the importance of the presence of people on Home Educator’s Day. She stated “we want to have a presence…There is a stigma about homeschooling…Some of them [legislators] have an idea what they [homeschoolers] are like but never really met them…if we are here, they can meet them here, and you can talk to them, and see that they are normal…You never know how this will affect them [the legislators].

She also added that many homeschoolers who come and make an appointment with the legislators realize that legislators are also people, and they are interested in their concerns. “Homeschoolers are constituents as well,” said Vice President TEACH CT Donna Parson. State Senator Joe Markley claimed at the beginning of the event that “Hopefully people can see some legislators. They should know that they are approachable. Don’t feel intimidated by anyone.”


Each state has their own laws concerning homeschooling, and home education is legal in Connecticut. Parents have the right to provide instruction to their children, according to Connecticut General Statute 10-184. Parents do not have to file any paperwork if they want to provide home education for their children. However, if their children are enrolled in any public school but the parents decide to take them out of the school, they have to write a letter of withdrawal. In addition, there is no obligation on the part of the parents to make their children complete standardized tests, however, it is their responsibility to provide the necessary education to their children via either teaching them or asking friends, relatives to instruct their children, or hiring tutors.


To express their gratitude, homeschoolers gave out free cookies to the legislators. Vice President TEACH-CT Donna Parson said “we were perceived as the cookie people…now we want to be the homeschoolers cookie people.” She added “We want to make the legislators know who we are.” All in all, the point of the day was to raise awareness of homeschooling and change the stigma that is associated with it, and maintain the homeschoolers freedom.



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