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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:

  1. Pennsylvania has among the least equitable state school finance systems in the country,and Philly bears the brunt of that system.
  2. 2. Pennsylvania’s school finance system is actually designed in ways that divert needed funding away from higher need districts like Philadelphia.
  3. 3. And Pennsylvania’s school finance system has created numerous perverse incentives regarding charter school funding, also to Philly’s disadvantage. (see here also)

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!

  • Dr. Barbara Wollman, Ed. D. says:

    It is not in Conservative interests to have good schools. An educated public cannot be manipulated. Remember: it was illegal in many places to teach a slave to read. (Relating to this is Republican opposition to keeping low interest rates on student loans. Keep as many as possible out of higher education.)

    July 11, 2013 at 12:39 pm
  • Penelope says:

    You have said it clearly. Now, what can I, a retired teacher, do, I say do or what action can I take to help others understand…perhaps our large “older” population who are still energetic and perhaps looking for ways to help the greater good aside from giving $$$$…that this “cruelty” to all people, students and teachers must stop. How do I convene a group of “older” citizens to speak and listen in order to discuss what do do. Do we march, do we wrote endless reasoned letters. what can we do. With positive faith in the humanity of ourself. Penelope Boyatt

    July 11, 2013 at 3:00 pm
  • Debbie Moore-Hargrove says:

    Knowledge is power, and education is important for students to rise up and progress to move into the field of what they want for their future careers and without teachers that care and can help them move up is not fair to them or the students, it takes one to know one and if the government is only concerned for themselves and their paycheck and not about others who need support and help they need to fail not America. In God we trust, then it is time for God to remove the bad and invest in our future our children and the supporters our teachers. What is done in the dark will surely come to the light!!!

    July 11, 2013 at 3:47 pm
    • sherm parker says:

      as a long time educator and superintendent–we know what works-class size and well trained teachers works–must be able to make learning meaningful fitting the individual low class size-effective techniques including appropriate technology techniques works–tests should be used for student diagnosis -judging individual progress only–must be appropriate tests not just testing facts but reasoning

      July 11, 2013 at 4:55 pm
    • Challey says:

      In Florida, 1968, 35,000 teachers walked out as a protest against funding deficits. The situation did not approach the radical state of education funding in Pennsylvania. Educators and other education related professionals will not tolerate this situation .

      July 11, 2013 at 6:16 pm
    • Dr. OH says:

      I believe a clear distinction must be articulated sothat the general phrase that there is a “crisis in the system of public education. Period.” To me that statement, rfegardless of nuanced interpretations misses a vital dimension of the American political-economic system. More or less, this system can be briefly characterized by two outstanding, negative realities: tremendous levels of economic inequalities, and the existence and persistence of damaging business cycles — periods of recessions and depressions followed by periods of expansion and growth. Regardless of what phase the pollitical-econmic system is currently experiencing, damaging inequalities — both of income and a variety of forms of wealth — persist. Yes, the government’s pathetic definition of poor households may creep down a few percentage points, and yes the wealthiest say 10% of the population actually have “stolen” a significant chunk over the last 30 years, severe inequalities persist.

      July 12, 2013 at 8:33 pm
  • Ruth Vacin says:

    It’s about time someone realized that you can’t get blood from a turnip. More and more good teachers are just giving up because THEY know that testing isn’t the answer. THEY know a sound mind in a sound body needs all facets of education. Education is teaching the three R’s first, not “teaching to the test”. THEY know that all areas of a child’s life must be taken into account in order for the child to learn. It seems as if the current trend goes backward– keep them dumb, they’re easier to control. Wrong, it means there will be more $400 million’s spent on jails to house them. THEY, the teachers, principals, administrators and support staff, know this. The rest of you need to wake up and take heed

    July 11, 2013 at 4:09 pm
  • camb88 says:

    This is all part of the ALEC-driven corporate reform and privatization for profits agenda that citizens need to educate themselves about before public schooling in America becomes a thing of the past. For the past many years American presidents and National Secretaries of Ed have been fully complicit in this manipulative scheme because they like the money that ALEC spreads around to those who play ball. Teachers unions have not been strong enough in their words and actions in combatting this spreading cancer on our schools. The agenda is to de-stabilize and profit from the huge federal education budget by diverting limited funding away from public schools, thereby bringing about the self-fulfilling prophecy of “our schools are failing”, which was not even true to begin with. This is a highly concerted effort by the 1% to further push down the rest of us so we’ll fall into line with their grand plan (greed, profit) for America and indeed, the world. Follow the money, talk to your neighbors, get the word out.

    July 11, 2013 at 4:15 pm
  • Sandy Neumann says:

    This is another frightening revelation which indicates a piece by piece dismantling of our public institutions. Thanks to all who shed light on these situations and hopefully rally our citizens to see what is happening and take action for the common good. It is great to see that Arne Duncan stood up in response to the call of Diane Ratvitch and others. It gives me hope.

    July 11, 2013 at 4:28 pm
  • peppertree12 says:

    I agree with this article in that the Federal Government needs to hold the State and the Local Education Agency accountable for the funding they receive. In Trenton NJ, an urban school district, parents and the community have been requesting for the Federal Department of Education to come and audit the Title I Funding, Carl Perkins and IDEA funding given to the School Districts for years. Needless to say, they have not audited the Trenton School district in over 18 years and it is students receiving those funds who continue to suffer and are unable to pass the test because the Federal Dollars are not properly spent on these students. Rather the District uses the funds to lure parents into the district to show proof of parental involvement well after the “spending plan” has been completed by District staff.

    July 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm
  • Donald Cowick says:

    I believe that the entire school system (conforming to dictates) has devolved into a bureaucratic mess. This cannot be good for our children who need to be taught to be imaginative and creative with good critical thinking skills for the future of our country. We have become a society of opposites and conflicted about every issue. A cultural change needs to trend toward a more open educational system which promotes critical thinking and imaginative solutions. This will only occur when positive messages result in positive outcomes. No matter what I ever experienced at home, responding to a positive upbeat teacher was easy and the pleasure of learning in those classrooms has lasted a lifetime. It is time to get away from school systems and create education centers of learning.

    July 11, 2013 at 5:35 pm
  • nola2chi says:

    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.”

    Interesting that Mr.Duncan is not quoted saying anything about Chicago schools.

    July 11, 2013 at 6:14 pm
  • Marian Cruz says:

    I want Mr. Duncan and anyone else that pontificates re education to teach a class of 36 elementary students, many 2nd language learners, schools with no libraries, no computer labs, many poor students that don’t have access to good food, health care and adequate housing and then I’ll take what they have to say as legitimate.

    July 11, 2013 at 6:47 pm
  • Amanda Porter says:

    Harming the helpless (students, prisoners, hospital patients, et al) is inevitable under our economic system, capitalism, based on greed and exploitation. We desperately need equality in our politics to be a nation genuinely “of, by and FOR the people!” (as exemplified in “Equality” the sequel to Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel “Looking Backward”).

    July 11, 2013 at 6:53 pm
  • Rob Williams says:

    Thank God that someone sees the concerns of public school advocates. Now, who will make the changes and when will the manifestation begin?

    July 11, 2013 at 7:33 pm
  • Theodora Crawford says:

    It has long been obvious that there is an intentional effort to undermine public education in the US. Universal education was once a revered cornerstone of our nation’s success and a goal for our future. When did it start to crumble? Now, those who can buy what they want do so with impunity. Teachers are scapegoated, even vilified, for this determined effort to destroy public schools by any means necessary. Students are scapegoated because they don’t thrive; parents are scapegoated because they are so stressed they are unable to tutor their kids, much less feed them or often house them properly. Communities are lied to so their tax dollars are spent by those advocating commercial “fixes” such as on-line elementary education to cut costs.

    What will this overt effort to destroy our future workforce and society lead to? It’s all part of the selfish effort to “get mine at the expense of everyone else”. And when the outrage bursts, the NSA et al is being prepared to destroy dissent. Prisons yes, Schools no. A dystopian future indeed.

    July 11, 2013 at 9:10 pm
  • Standley Claussen says:

    Historians know what is happening in our failing democracy. Public school teachers have been
    converted from admirable heroes working into the night at lamentable wages to squalling
    welfare princes and queens feeding at the public trough. The business leaders and bankers who used the Republican hierarchy to paint this picture have been joined by the Democratic
    leaders that public educators helped to get elected to office. Like the Roman Emperors herded
    Greek educators to Italy to teach their children as slaves, the CEOs and money managers of our emerging dictatorship are turning teachers into hired hands who work by their book.

    July 11, 2013 at 9:38 pm
  • SSG says:

    I’m a firm believer in the public schools, and everything in the article about the funding systems is bang on. I live in California, and the result of the Prop 13 tax revolt, 30 years ago, has been that our schools have been slowly starved of funds, and have deteriorated. The irony of that is that most people who supported Prop 13 were trying to control _residential_ property taxes only…and then the politicking began.

    Another thought, however. Our kids, and our schools, have been disconnected from our communities in many ways. This may also be a factor in the discouragement and dropout rates; school does not seem to have much connection to “real life”. Perhaps it would be useful to see what can be done to re-engage school and community; moving the kids out (via field trips, for example,) and moving the community in (perhaps with community speakers or exhibitions.)

    July 11, 2013 at 10:52 pm
  • wgersen says:

    Here was my thinking last week when I read Arne Duncan’s lame offer of “technical assistance” instead of money:

    July 12, 2013 at 2:00 am
  • paulpnasuti says:

    After fourteen years of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top federal policies directing Institutional Education’s effort to improve the product of its combined effort, the resultant data shows no significant progress. Instead, the short-termed thinking process that drives a growth centered, business oriented ken refuses to accept adult responsibility for its creation. Surely, soon mature leadership will begin to look outside of the box of its own perseverative, habituated thinking where a fresh perspective sits quietly awaiting discovery.

    There one may notice the need for a 21st Century pedagogy shift that begins to develop a consistent, balanced valuation for both long termed and short termed thinking in its example to the children it guides toward a sustainable future, in the form of an Earth based education model.

    The intelligence from which man’s has evolved, that that is measureable, quantitative and defineable has a varient of at least equal value that Education has ignored in our ancestors, ourselves and our young. Yet we owe every child the opportunity to grow intellectually whole. The ongoing fight for the limited resources we permit for the single most important issue for a majority of humankind, giving our children a step up in life, whether to spend for the basics or for enrichment, is a red herring. Think forward. Our moment is now.

    July 12, 2013 at 5:39 am
  • Christian Rewoldt (@crewoldt) says:

    This was engineered in conservative stink-tanks thirty years ago. We are quickly evolving into a system that is inequitable, just the way they like it.

    July 12, 2013 at 4:28 pm
  • Diane Graszik says:

    Sorry…I will look into this more…I have not been a fan of Arnie Duncan and have not yet agreed with his policies of helping corporations take over the education budget.

    July 12, 2013 at 5:56 pm
  • Dr. OH says:

    I believe a clear distinction must be articulated sothat the general phrase that there is a “crisis in the system of public education. Period.” To me that statement, rfegardless of nuanced interpretations misses a vital dimension of the American political-economic system. More or less, this system can be briefly characterized by two outstanding, negative realities: tremendous levels of economic inequalities, and the existence and persistence of damaging business cycles — periods of recessions and depressions followed by periods of expansion and growth. Regardless of what phase the pollitical-econmic system is currently experiencing, damaging inequalities — both of income and a variety of forms of wealth — persist. Yes, the government’s pathetic definition of poor households may creep down a few percentage points, and yes the wealthiest say 10% of the population actually have “stolen” a significant chunk over the last 30 years, severe inequalities persist.

    July 12, 2013 at 9:10 pm
  • Shana C. Baker says:

    Not mentioned in this article are the profoundly disturbing cuts to school libraries across the country. The idea that a trained librarian is not needed because all research can be done on Wikipedia and all books read on tablets is ridiculous. There is more to librarianship than shelving books! We are Information Literacy Specialists. We teach students how to find the sources they need and how to pull pertinent information from those sources. We are also guides to find the next piece of literature for students. More and more studies are showing that schools that lack a well trained librarian have students who do not perform as well (either on tests or later in college) than schools that do. I know of over two dozen schools who have eliminated their librarian, or even eliminated the library altogether in my school district. This is a disaster in the making!

    July 12, 2013 at 10:26 pm
  • Amanda Fisher says:

    The direction the schools are heading, through mainly Republican leaders, is one in which the future is for the rich and affluent. They are trying in every way possible to make this country a land of stupid, poor sheep that so that they can retain all the wealth and have plenty of people working for them. An educated citizenry is necessary for a Democracy and we are well down the road from Democracy in this Country. I see it as a fight for the future of The United States of America as well as for the people. We must wake up to what is happening and we cannot allow these zealots to steal our children’s future. I hope we wake up in time…

    July 16, 2013 at 5:51 am
  • Anita Sunseri says:

    I absolutely love the article. It’s time that schools, especially those serving high-needs students, get the financial support these institutions deserve.

    Anita Sunseri, Ed.D.

    July 20, 2013 at 3:47 pm
  • Jerry Walker says:

    Please read : “The Anatomy of A Wilding Mob” @ (type in title in upper right hand search box).

    This timely and important article covers this subject in intricate detail and particularly as it relates to Philadelphia.

    July 20, 2013 at 4:38 pm
  • zugaadi says:

    This is a good news…
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    July 26, 2013 at 10:15 am
  • Sheila Young says:

    Charter Schools will be the death of Public Education! Get rid of them now!

    August 19, 2013 at 12:37 am

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