If you've worked in or around the field of education anytime in the last decade, odds are you've seen or heard this mantra somewhere:
Originally born out of the high-achieving charter school movement, this mantra has quickly spread throughout the education world into traditional public schools and even private schools. On its face, it seems like a wonderful mantra for educators to follow. After all, every child should have a chance to live a successful life. We should message to students that they can overcome any obstacle if they work hard enough, and we as educators should work to overcome every obstacle in our students’ way.
The problem with the NO EXCUSES philosophy of education, however, is the same problem that has plagued the No Child Left Behind law, which recently celebrated its tenth birthday: sometimes "excuses" are actually the reasons students aren’t succeeding...and ignoring those reasons gets us nowhere.
For those of you who’ve already forgotten about NCLB, it included the following goals: all children would be proficient in reading and writing and graduate from high school by the 2013-2014 school year. Spoiler alert! That school year is long done and closed, and we weren’t even close.
So why weren’t we close to meeting the lofty goals of NCLB? Did we make too many excuses for ourselves and our students? Or is it just that there are many solid reasons for why 100% of students are not proficient on state standardized tests and graduating high school?
Here are a few possible reasons worth mentioning.
-The 30 million word gap. This is, essentially, the research study suggesting that children born into low-income households have heard 30 million fewer words than children born into middle and upper-class homes…by the age of 3. As you can likely imagine, this gap has a long-term impact on all aspects of a student’s literacy instruction.
-The so-called “third-grade slump.” This is the research that suggests a student who is not reading on grade level by third grade is unlikely to ever read with full proficiency.
-English Language Learners whose schools lack the programming needed for them to successfully receive instruction
-Students with learning disabilities which prevent them from meeting full proficiency on standardized state tests
This is where the NO EXCUSES policy in education gets dangerous. Like NCLB, it names a goal of surpassing obstacles rather than seeking out the reason those obstacles are being created—and fixing them. NCLB set out insurmountable and pragmatically impossible goals for elementary, middle, and high schools, but it never tackled some of the biggest root causes of the obstacles those schools are up against. What if the more of the time and energy that went into chastising schools under NCLB had gone into making early childhood education programs accessible to all children in this country? What kind of educational landscape would we now, ten years later, be looking at? Would the 30 million word gap no longer exist?
I’m not advocating that we rid schools of the “No Excuses” concept entirely. The fact is that millions of students who sit in front of us need a high-quality education now, regardless of anything else. What I am advocating for is something more akin to what my co-worker sometimes calls the “Some Excuses” policy. I myself like to call it “No Excuses. Just Some Reasons.”
Under this new policy, schools in America would be held to high expectations for student success--and at the same time we could finally have a dialogue about what creates those obstacles. Rather than being told that discussing these obstacles is making excuses for our students, we could find logical and meaningful ways to eradicate these obstacles wherever and whenever possible.
At the end of the day, telling our students we don’t care about the reasons they are failing is a misguided approach to education. Those reasons do matter, and we’ll only continue to do a disservice to students in the American education system if we don’t work to acknowledge them.
No excuses. Just some reasons.