Reflections on “No Excuses” Charter Schools

Are no-excuses charter schools setting kids up to struggle later by pushing academic skills too hard, too soon? 

By Emily Kaplan

On Thursday, an important essay was posted in Jennifer Berkshire’s brilliant blog EduShyster.
This post, All I Really Need to Know I Should’ve Learned in Kindergarten, was written by Boston-area elementary teacher, Emily Kaplan.  
The post has already been featured on ECE PolicyWorks, and here at Defending the Early Years we hope that the piece will continue to gain traction and attention.  We believe in ampliphying teachers’ voices, which have been drowned out and often discounted in our national conversation about education policy and reform.
In her essay, Kaplan documents her experiences and observations teaching at a “No excuses” charter school, as compared to other teaching experiences she has had.
She poses many questions, including the following:
  • Why do children who learn to read earlier than their peers do so poorly in ways that matter later on?
  • Why do children for whom every aspect of their education, from kindergarten onward, is tailored toward graduating from college so often struggle to graduate from college?
  • What if the struggles of graduates of “no excuses” schools reveal deficits that are not academic, but rather socioemotional?
  • What would happen if, instead of spending nine hours a day engaged in academic tasks determined by a teacher, children were to spend a large portion of their day developing “soft skills” that would enable them to overcome the hurdles they will encounter when they’re older?
  • What if, like their suburban counterparts, they spent large portions of their day in rigorous, developmentally appropriate activities: learning to make friends, make art, and make believe, exploring and creating their interests and their identities?
  • What if a necessary component of improving the long-term prospects of small children from disadvantaged backgrounds is not accelerating through childhood, but purposefully lingering in it?
The case for developmentally appropriate activities
To some, this approach might seem counterintuitive: the earlier you board the train, say, the further you’ll go, and sooner.
(Indeed, this type of reasoning seems to drive the leaders of the no-excuses school reform movement, who are seldom experts on childhood development.)
This type of “sooner, faster, further” thinking goes astray when applied to education, however, because child development is both non-linear and marked by largely immutable landmarks.
(Just as the age at which developmentally normal babies learn to walk occurs within a span, countless studies have shown that the long-term academic abilities of a child who learns to read at six are no weaker than one who learns at four.)
Pushing children to attain academic skills they will attain regardless— while depriving them of other, more developmentally appropriate activities that would enable them to succeed independently when they are older— is short-sighted at best.
Implementing a more developmentally appropriate curriculum for young children might result in lower test scores in the short term, but I suspect that its long-term effects— both in terms of test scores and more relevant measures of success— would compensate.
(This solution, however, is admittedly incomplete; I suspect that in order to set children living in poverty on a true “path to success,” communities require resources and support that no school on its own is capable of providing.)
Kaplan’s piece also opens the door for important conversations about race, poverty and education.
This is a terrific article that I will share widely. Thanks, Emily, for seeing through the smokescreen of rote learning and chants for success which have just about nothing to do with real learning in the early years. Thanks too for great descriptions of developmentally sound education–the place where kids gain the deep capacities for real success: thinking deeply, solving problems, imagining and creating, inventing, getting along with others, gaining confidence socially and as learners. And thanks to Dienne for naming exactly a problem we white early childhood educators have. We need stronger alliances, more diverse voices and more trust across groups if we are going to give all young kids the best education possible. And Emily, thanks for naming poverty as an obstacle to that goal. We can’t solve it all in the schools.  —Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, DEY’s Senior Advisor and Board President.
Click here to read Emily Kaplan’s full essay on the EduShyster blog, and don’t forget to also check out the comments!
You can also read more from Emily here.
About Guest Contributor

Emily Kaplan is an elementary school teacher who has taught in suburban, charter, public, and private schools in greater Boston and rural Guatemala. Her writing, which focuses on children, education, and social equity, has been featured by The Washington Post, Esquire, Edushyster, Curmudgucation, and ECE PolicyWorks. Prior to becoming a teacher, Emily conducted sociological research at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

photo of emily kaplan