Sit down. Now sit up. Take off your backpack, take off your jacket, take off your hoodie. Tuck in your shirt. Get out your notebook.
During my first months in the classroom, the only thing that kept me from quitting my job was the desire not to be a quitter. I was 22 and had been put in charge of teaching four sections of 10th- and 11th-grade English at a public charter school in southeast Washington, D.C. I had a college degree in English but little training or experience with teaching. I had almost no experience at all working with “urban populations,” the school’s phrase for the poor and working-class Black families that it served.
In essence, I was the archetype of a young white teacher working in the inner city: underprepared and clueless.
Take your head off the desk and get started. Make sure to write in full sentences. Make sure to write in Standard English. When the timer goes off, I’m going to call on you first. Stop looking out the window.
The summer training that the school provided was mainly focused on classroom management. “Your job is to teach,” the vice principal told us. “If a student isn’t letting you do your job, put them out.” This, he went on, was the way to approach most classroom situations. If a student came late to class without a note, put them out. If a student was distracting their peers, put them out. Under no circumstances were we to try to make friends with our students or try to get them to like us. This would make us look weak — and students don’t let you teach them anything if they think you’re weak.
Didn’t I tell you to stop talking? That’s your second warning. No, it doesn’t matter if your friend asked you a question. No, it doesn’t matter that you think the article is boring. Stop making excuses.
In Hollywood, clueless young teachers in my position make a few initial mistakes. Then, in a victory for well-intentioned white people everywhere, they win the hearts and minds of their students through force of passion and commitment.
This isn’t a Hollywood story.
If you had asked me at 22 why I had decided to become a teacher, I would have said something about wanting my students to be ignited by the power of language. I was a voracious reader; I wanted them to become voracious readers. I was a dedicated writer; I wanted them to become dedicated writers.
I don’t see those aspirations for my students’ literacy as a problem. In fact, when I work with my current students — teachers-in-training, many of them just 22 — I spend a great deal of energy helping them learn to create literacy-rich classrooms.
What I do see as a problem is the fact that I had chosen to work with “urban populations” but had little experience talking about race. My parents — highly educated left-leaning upper-middle-class white suburbanites — rarely talked about race. My friends — the children of highly educated left-leaning upper-middle-class white suburbanites — rarely talked about race. As an English major at Harvard, I took no courses in critical race theory or ethnic studies.
I had a textbook case of what author Robin DiAngelo has called white fragility: the combination of defensiveness, guilt, and silence that many white people exhibit when faced with questions about race and racism. Even the simplest of descriptions I might have used to paint a picture of my classroom — my students were Black and I was white — lay beyond my comfort zone. I “solved” this issue by deciding that I wouldn’t talk with my students about my identity at all. I told myself that it would be unprofessional to talk about things like my politics or my personal life — or my race.
Another problem was my timing. I began my teaching career in 2005, just as the No Child Left Behind Act had begun to gain traction. Initially, I was given little guidance about what to teach, but within two years I was required to turn in lesson plans with standards-based objectives and links to interim assessments marked at the top of each page. Within three years, the school had become so data-obsessed that we spent entire days planning interventions for the “bubble kids” whose scores placed them just below the proficiency threshold on state tests. Among other things, this transition reflected the growing influence of No Excuses charter schools, which were making national headlines for their strict discipline and “gap-closing” tactics. One of KIPP’s D.C. campuses was just down the street.
My school was becoming like many of the No Excuses schools in another key way: thanks to a campus move, it became a majority Black school. I watched our administration respond by becoming increasingly authoritarian. Metal detectors were installed by the front door. A uniform policy replaced the dress code. Extra members were added to the discipline staff so that someone would be available to patrol the hallways at all times.
The school had gotten into the business of trying to control Black bodies and Black minds.
For a fragile and under-trained young teacher, this was a perfect storm. I had few lenses through which to make sense of the school’s new stance, and as a result, I swallowed it whole. I accepted on faith that I needed to be tough and that being tough didn’t leave much room for acknowledging my students’ humanity.
The do-now is on the board; do it now. There are four minutes left on the timer.
In 2005, the No Excuses charter school movement was, like me, quite young. The movement’s progenitor, KIPP Houston, had opened 11 years earlier as an experiment in proving that the combination of behavioral control with pedagogical precision was a recipe for closing the achievement gap between suburban white students and their urban Black and brown counterparts. It was in the years following the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, however, that the major No Excuses networks — Achievement First and Uncommon Schools, among others — began to attract sustained national attention. Being a “gap closing” school meant a lot more once the entire K-12 sector had become obsessed with disaggregating standardized test scores.
The signature feature of many No Excuses schools is their relentlessness. “Sweating the small stuff,” a mantra which echoes the policy of broken windows policing popularized in the early 1990s, means relentlessly penalizing students who commit minor infractions: resting a head on a desk, chewing gum, talking during the silent march from class to class. “There are no shortcuts,” another popular No Excuses moniker, means relentlessly making sure that all students — and all teachers — put in the effort required for rapid academic growth.
The logic of the No Excuses model is clear. In order for poor students to achieve social mobility, they need to attend and graduate from four-year colleges. In order to be accepted into these colleges, they need to have recognizable credentials such as high test scores. In order to earn these credentials, they need to master a fixed body of knowledge and skills. In order to master this body of knowledge and skills despite starting off “behind,” they have to spend all available time working intensely on just the right tasks — which means that they need teachers who can make every minute count. There is often little room for joy. There is rarely room for questioning authority.
Overlaid across all of this is a highly racialized set of power dynamics. Nearly all students attending No Excuses schools are Black and Latinx and come from families where few, if any, members hold more than a high school diploma. By contrast, many No Excuses leaders and teachers are white, come from middle-class backgrounds, and hold degrees from selective universities. In this light, the message that No Excuses schools often send to students is that middle-class college-educated white adults know best.
This, and the way that this plays out as white people micromanaging people of color in the name of uplifting them, has prompted critics to call No Excuses schools everything from paternalistic to neo-colonial to just plain racist. In addition, skeptics often argue that No Excuses schools “cream” students from highly motivated families and also “push out” those who can’t, or won’t, comply with what is asked of them.
The most successful No Excuses schools get results for the students who make it through. Their students score extremely well on standardized tests, outperforming their suburban counterparts not only on state assessments but in some cases also on Advanced Placement tests. Their graduates matriculate into four-year-colleges at extremely high rates. College graduation rates are less impressive — sometimes less than 40% — but are generally much higher than rates for students with similar backgrounds. For all of these reasons, No Excuses schools have become one of the most influential urban school-reform models of the 21st century.
Over the course of my first several years in the classroom I got better at being a No Excuses-style teacher — much better on some counts. This translated into rising test scores, which ingratiated me with my school’s administrators. In my third year, I was promoted to department chair. A year later I became an instructional coach, teaching a half-load and using the rest of my time to support newer teachers.
I felt competent and on occasion successful. Deep down, though, something was wrong. I felt it when I doled out detentions. I felt it when I sent tardy students out of the classroom the moment they walked in. I felt it when my students wrote memoirs and, despite the ubiquitous presence of violence and loss and racism in their drafts, the response that I felt safe offering to them was: “This is a powerful story. Let’s talk about how to tighten the narrative structure here.”
It wasn’t just my inner monologue that became unsettled that year. In the faculty room, the favorite topic of conversation was the school’s administration, which was increasingly hostile toward teachers. Some of my colleagues quit. Others talked of unionizing. A few talked about the school’s students using the same language they used to describe its leaders: manipulative, entitled, lazy.
I stopped spending time in the faculty room.
In the tiniest of ways I started to shift my practice. I stopped giving out detentions for all but the most extreme behaviors. I stopped telling kids to get their heads off the desk and instead, if they let their heads droop, started asking them what was going on.
One morning, my student Kayla came into first period 20 minutes late after a two-day absence. She obviously had been crying. She didn’t have a note. Without warning, it flashed through my mind just how mortified I would be if the first thing that happened to me was being sent away. I paused, unsure of myself. Then I did something I had never done before.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I said to Kayla. “Why don’t you get settled and start working on the do-now, then when you’re done you can go check in with the front desk.”
I also started to question the story that the school told about itself. A rumor had spread that many of our graduates had never actually matriculated into college, despite the fact most applied and got in. Unable to quell my curiosity, I looked up some of my former students on Facebook. A few appeared to be on track to graduate college, but many more were working in low-wage industries: retail, beauty, childcare.
I began to get a lot of headaches.
Finally, on a stifling June afternoon four years after first setting foot at the school, I walked through the metal detectors and out the front entrance for the last time. As I licked my wounds and worked on graduate school application essays, I tried to be honest. “I want to go to graduate school because I have more questions than answers,” I wrote. “I know what schools and classrooms shouldn’t look like. I want to know more about what they can be at their best.”
Twelve months later, in the heat of the New England summer, I met Jal Mehta. He was a tenure-track sociologist studying education policy; I was a first-year doctoral student. Although we were at different points in our careers, we quickly discovered that we had a lot in common. In particular, we shared a conviction that something about the No Child Left Behind era had gone very wrong. Over a series of long conversations, we were able to pinpoint exactly what was bothering us: the focus on raising the “floor” of academic achievement had sharply limited conversations about the “ceiling” of what schooling could be.
We decided to start a research project together. Our plan was to study a range of successful American public high schools in order to understand what it might take to support students — especially marginalized students — not only in mastering the basics but also in becoming critical, creative, self-directed learners.
We thought the project would take a year or two. In the end, the fieldwork took six years and writing our book took an additional two. We visited 30 schools around the country: small schools and large schools, urban schools and suburban schools, charter schools and district schools and private schools. In aggregate, we spent 750 hours observing classrooms and interviewed more than 300 students, teachers, administrators, and parents.
In 2012, two years into the project, I spent several weeks conducting research at one of the most successful No Excuses high schools in the country. I’ll call it No Excuses High. (My agreement with the school requires that I keep its identity anonymous.) The question that drove my work was, at least on its face, quite simple: Could the No Excuses model produce powerful learning for its students?
As it turned out, it could. Kind of.
On almost every count, No Excuses High was more able to achieve its goals than the school where I began my career. There, we had tried but often failed to ensure compliance. Here, discipline was so seamless that it was invisible. There were no untucked shirts, no heads on desks, no back-talk.
The most striking thing of all was what students were doing during class. The curriculum was not surprising: “Julius Caesar” and balancing chemical equations and analyzing the causes of World War I. What was distinctive was that the kids knew so much. They could debunk Lamarckian inheritance theory without blinking twice. They could analyze the relationship between the Great Depression and World War II from multiple perspectives. They could speak algebra.
The learning that was happening in the school’s classrooms, I realized, was highly reminiscent of my experiences in the honors track of an award-winning, affluent, predominantly white suburban public high school. No wonder these students were performing at levels similar to their more privileged counterparts.
There was something else familiar about No Excuses High — something that I felt and recognized in my body but couldn’t at first find words to describe.
A guardedness which masqueraded as professionalism.
A sense that nobody felt fully seen.
Whiteness, unwilling to acknowledge itself.
My co-researcher and I asked teachers about the racial dynamics playing out at the school. Most shied away. Some, however, got closer than others.
A young white history teacher had just attended the school’s graduation. He described being struck by the spontaneous cheers offered up by the parents in the crowd. “It’s a reminder that the kids are leaving a certain atmosphere and are coming here and they are expected to act in a completely different way,” he said. The moment, he added, had also jarred him into recognizing just how little he knew about his students.
Students echoed this sense of limitation. They appreciated that the school was helping them — sometimes forcing them — to prepare for college. They viewed the school’s role, however, as purely transactional. “No one actually likes it here,” one senior told me. Her tone was matter-of-fact. She couldn’t tell us exactly how many of her peers had left the school since entering in ninth grade, but it was, in her estimation, “a lot.”
One English teacher stood out. Like most of his colleagues, Mr. Tobbs was white, highly educated, and commuted to No Excuses High from elsewhere. Unlike most of his colleagues, however, Mr. Tobbs had begun to pinpoint what was wrong.
Mr. Tobbs felt that the depth of the learning in his classroom was limited by the “iron curtain” which separated students’ full selves from the much narrower selves that the school required them to be. He felt that there must be a way to draw the two together in service of richer, deeper, less pre-packaged learning experiences. One of the steps he had taken as he began to explore this new vein was to start to talk explicitly about race with his students. “There was a big change in my presence as a teacher when I acknowledged to myself and to my students that I’m white and they’re Black,” he said.
There was much more that he wanted to try. He wanted to experiment with giving students more independence and choice. He wanted to make more space for students to talk about their experiences of racism and their evolving racial identities. He wanted to break down the boundaries between home and school.
I wondered how much longer Mr. Tobbs would last in the No Excuses world.
All of the schools that Jal and I visited taught us important lessons, but there was one school in particular which struck me as a profoundly humanizing place to teach and learn. I’ll call it Dewey High.
Dewey High is the flagship campus of a network of racially and socioeconomically diverse K-12 charter schools in an urban area on the west coast. More than half of all students qualify for free or reduced lunch and around 80% identify as people of color. Like No Excuses High, Dewey High’s results are consistently impressive in terms of test scores and college-going. Like No Excuses High, the school has become known as a leader among its peers.
In all other respects, however, Dewey High is the antithesis of the No Excuses model. There are no uniforms. There are no demerits or detentions or silent lunches. Rather than teaching canonical content derived from standardized assessments, teachers collaborate to design and teach interdisciplinary projects.
It wasn’t just the ethos of the school that felt different — it was the nature of the academic work that students were doing. For example, one of the courses that I followed closely was “The Paranoid Style” project, a 12-week unit taught during a 10th-grade English and social studies block. First, the students studied fear-based rhetoric, reading The Communist Manifesto and learning about McCarthyism during the Cold War. They then formed small groups and began working on the project’s “performance task,” documentary films that would make use of fear-based rhetoric to make arguments about issues of current public concern.
For several days in a row, I spent time with one pair of students. Isabel, who identified as Mexican-American, was a soft-spoken young woman with a warm smile. She spoke fluent English but said that her family spoke only Spanish at home. Her partner Davon, who identified as Black, was tall, outspoken, and always wore a pair of calf-high combat boots. He had recently come out as gay.
It quickly became clear that Isabel and Davon had a great deal of control over their process. Their collaboration reflected the intimacy of close friends: periods of comfortable silence were punctuated by serious dialogue as well as by squabbles and play. It also became clear that the topic Isabel and Davon had chosen to investigate — condom distribution in high schools — was deeply connected to their lives beyond school. Isabel had several friends who were teen mothers; Davon had a cousin who was HIV-positive. For both students, fear was exactly the right emotion with which to frame their film.
The teacher, for his part, was an energetic but understated presence. He spent most of his time sitting with groups, listening to their conversations and asking probing questions. Although he was white and many of his students were not, they seemed profoundly comfortable with each other; there were few traces of the strained power relations that so often characterize high school classrooms. Over the course of any given day, class conversations covered a variety of things related to the films: students’ families and communities, their beliefs and the source of their beliefs, their emotions, their racial identities.
Not all of the projects that I observed at Dewey High were as strong as this one. The most powerful projects, however, all shared a similar set of characteristics. Students had real choices over what they learned and how they learned it. There was time to play with ideas, to fail and try again, and to explore things in depth. There were opportunities for apprenticeship and sustained collaboration. Students were not merely building knowledge and skills, but also creating things that had real value. Throughout all of this, students had ongoing opportunities to connect what they were learning with what they knew and who they wanted to become.
It was Dewey High that helped me finally understand what had been wrong with my own teaching. Racism, fragility, and fear — my own and the school’s — had combined with the test-score-obsessed logic of No Child Left Behind to prevent me from seeing my students as capable and curious humans. I had doubted their capacities. I had negated their identities. I had helped them to become stronger readers and writers, but I hadn’t dared to believe that they could do work of real consequence.
I was wrong about Mr. Tobbs.
It turns out that No Excuses schools are not only relentless when it comes to making sure that students behave and learn; they are also relentless when it comes to self-improvement. As a result, when my co-researcher and I returned to No Excuses High in the spring of 2016, it was in some respects a quite different place than the one we had seen four years earlier.
As Mr. Tobbs and his colleagues explained, there were several reasons why the school had decided to explore new practices. First, data suggested that No Excuses High was having more success getting their students to college then in getting them through college. Graduates were prepared for the academic rigor of their coursework, but they struggled with the abrupt transition from the micromanagement of their high school to the open-endedness of college. In addition, the winds of change were blowing in terms of conversations about school reform. Whereas the first decade of the 21st century had been dominated by an emphasis on basic skills as measured by standardized tests, the second decade saw an expanded focus on skills such as collaboration, creative problem-solving, and social-emotional learning — none of which had figured into the initial design of No Excuses schools.
Finally, there was the national discourse about race and racism which had amplified in the period following the inception of the Black Lives Matter movement. For Mr. Tobbs and others, this meant taking a hard look back at one the unwritten tenets of the No Excuses movement: the practice of micromanaging Black bodies and Black minds in the name of social mobility.
Change, however, is incredibly hard — especially when it means undoing things tied to one’s reputation and success. And so what we saw, when we returned to No Excuses High, was the institutional equivalent of accelerating with the brakes on.
On the one hand, the school was making a real effort to incorporate opportunities for voice, choice, inquiry, and apprenticeship. Mr. Tobbs had restructured his senior English course to allow for extended periods of project-based inquiry. For all other students, two hours a week were now devoted to working on open-ended “passion projects”: making short films, studying and writing spoken word poetry, organizing an LGBTQ awareness day. The school also was planning to add electives in African-American literature and Latin American history.
These changes weren’t inconsequential. Students appreciated having more opportunities to learn things which they saw as being authentically connected to their identities. “It was an adult feeling,” one senior told us when we asked her to describe her experience completing a project in Mr. Tobb’s class. “It was like we were the teachers.”
On the other hand, the shifts that No Excuses High had made can be seen mainly as tinkering around the edges. With the exception of Mr. Tobbs’s second-semester senior English class, core academic courses still were fiercely micromanaged and unapologetically focused on Advanced Placement exams. Students still were sentenced to “silent lunch” at the smallest provocation. Conversations about racism and privilege still did not seem to be taking place out in the open.
So: was No Excuses High able to evolve toward deeper learning?
The answer, once again, was “kind of.” No Excuses High had expanded its periphery in ways which allowed for richer learning. But the school was, at least as yet, unwilling to reimagine the core components of its model. And if there’s one thing that I had learned about powerful teaching after spending six years in 30 different schools around the country, it’s that there’s only so far you can get when you’re unwilling to reimagine the core.
Last year, four months after defending my dissertation and 12 years after beginning my teaching career, I returned to the classroom.
It was an experiment in bullshit detection. I needed to test whether what I thought I knew about powerful learning would hold water when I tried to put it into practice. And so, when I learned that an English teacher at a nearby high school in southeast San Diego would be on maternity leave for the first portion of the school year, I offered my services as a sub.
Here is one thing I knew this time around: Students will never learn deeply if you don’t invite them to bring their full selves to the table. And they will never bring their full selves to the table if you don’t bring your full self to the table as well.
Here is something else I knew: bringing our full selves to the table required talking about race. The prospect of doing so still made me feel uncomfortable and incompetent. How should I start? What if a student took something I said the wrong way? After having spent several years talking with friends and colleagues about whiteness and white fragility, however, I knew that shying away from discomfort meant perpetuating insidious silence. Better to try and flounder than not to try at all.
The unit that I designed was called “Operation Empathy.” The idea was to explore the concept of empathy from a variety of lenses. As the culminating product, students would work in small groups to create and perform theater sketches constructed out of interviews they had done in their communities.
The first thing that I had my students do was to talk about who they were. I had them move around the room and cluster themselves based on their culture, their language, their academic strengths, their race. Then I had them make “empathy maps” in which they visually represented how their identities shaped their inclinations and abilities to empathize with certain types of people.
I learned more about my students from those maps than I had in four years of teaching at my previous school. Several girls, for example, explained that they identified as “whitewashed Mexicans” — light-skinned Chicana women who can speak Spanish but who generally pass as white. Several other students talked about the complicated experience of being Iranian-American in a predominantly Mexican-American school.
I made a map too. Near the center, I put the identities that are most salient to me at this point in my life: “educator,” “scholar,” “mother,” “white woman.”
As part of the project, students did academic work — a lot of it. Students participated in book clubs and analyzed films and waded through academic articles and debated ideas in Socratic discussions. They learned how to correct comma splices. They practiced different forms of note-taking.
Once students had determined the topics for their theater sketches, they started spending time outside of the classroom. One group visited a local police station and interviewed officers about the strained relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. Others met with faith groups in local mosques. One particularly dogged student interviewed a border patrol agent at 2 a.m. because that was when his shift ended.
One thing that I was surprised to realize was that I was relying on a lot of the “teacher moves” I had learned in my prior school. I knew how to give concise directions. I knew how to say something like I meant it. I knew how to be clear and precise about what I was trying to teach, and how to make sure that students were actually growing in their skills and knowledge.
Another thing that surprised me is that teaching didn’t feel much easier than it had before. I felt more clear about where I was heading and why, but my aspirations had grown in parallel with my practice. It was as if the deeper we got, the more I could see the depths that still lay below.
Something that did not surprise me is that I still did clumsy, dehumanizing, racist things. I asked less of my language learners than I should have. I routinely failed to call on one of my students with special needs, despite his eagerness to participate. Once, I made a groundless — and, as I found out later, extremely hurtful — assumption that one of my Latinx students was a teen mother. I’m sure there were dozens of instances of harm that I never even registered. I had come a long way, but there was still a long way to go.
In the final hours before the exhibition of my students’ work, I was full of angst. I kept thinking of all the things that we should have given more attention. As the lights rose on the first group’s performance, however, I relaxed. The work being performed was uneven, but it genuinely reflected who my students were and what they could do. They had chosen topics which mattered to them. They had read things and written things and gotten out in their communities. They had spent hours arranging and rearranging interview excerpts in order to create a narrative arc. They had revised in response to feedback. They had created the artwork for the playbill. Without bidding, they had invited their parents and friends and advisors to watch them perform.
Although I spent most of the evening standing in a darkened corner near the back of the room, I felt seen during that exhibition. I’d like to believe that my students felt the same way.
This story ends in the middle of a class, in middle of a semester, in the middle of my first year in a new role: director of a new teacher preparation program.
The class meets every Thursday for three hours. In it, teachers-in-training talk about racism — their own and that which permeates our society and our schools. I teach the course with two enormously talented colleagues, both women of color. We plan and facilitate the course together because we enjoy each others’ company, but also because we seek to disrupt two problematic beliefs: the belief that woke white saviors can “enlighten” their racist peers, and the belief that people of color bear sole responsibility for helping others come to terms with patterns of racial oppression.
We also seek to disrupt the idea that the journey toward racial consciousness is one with a fixed endpoint. As so, during class, we participate in all of the activities alongside our students. We talk about our families, our cultures, our racial identities. We interrogate our biases. We watch films and listen to podcasts and participate in book clubs. We have hard conversations about how our identities shape our beliefs, about how institutional racism benefits or harms us, and about how difficult it is to create humanizing classrooms in society so replete with “isms.” This isn’t learning that ends, we want our students to understand; it just gets deeper.
Teaching the course, and running the program, is a form of atonement for me. The kind of atonement which is rooted in guilt but which reaches toward hope.
Some days it goes well. Some days it doesn’t and I go home and rehash it all, trying to figure out what went wrong. But that’s how teaching goes: the period ends, your students disperse, and you get ready to do it over again.
Sarah Fine (@sarahmfine) lives and works in San Diego, California. Her new book, co-authored with Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Jal Mehta, is “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.”