The “no excuses” mantra in education started with an irrefutable premise: Nobody should use poverty as an excuse to tolerate dysfunctional pubic schools. For some (but not all) people, it eventually became an accusation as well, hurled at those who brought up the fact – often in a perfectly reasonable manner – that there is a strong, demonstrated relationship between income and achievement. But in its most virulent form, “no excuses” fosters the colonization of additional problems for which schools and teachers can be “held accountable."
Former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her fiancée, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, were hosted by the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service for a discussion on education that aired on C-Span a few weeks ago. The moderator asked the panelists for their views on the dismal conditions in many cities, and how that relates to efforts to improve neighborhood schools.
Rhee recounted a story from the final year of her chancellorship, in which she visited a school unannounced, arriving early in the morning. Many of the classrooms were mostly empty. When she inquired, she was told that attendance was low because it was Friday and raining. Rhee said that she was horrified, but continued to tour the school. She finally found a classroom that was full, and asked one of the students about the class. The student told Rhee that this was her favorite teacher.
Later on, as she was leaving the school, she happened to see that same student walking out with two of his friends. Rhee asked him where they were going, and the student replied, “That was our first period class and it’s a great teacher, so we came to that. But our second period teacher sucks, so we’re gonna roll."
Having told this story, Rhee remarked to the Clinton School audience:
Not what the American public thinks of when they think of a truant…You don’t expect that the children are making the conscious decision to wake up early in the morning to show for the first period class because they’re going to get something great from that teacher, and then leaving after that…It gives you an indication that things are not always what they seem.The point – not stated directly but implied – is that teachers are to some significant extent responsible for truancy. Unfortunately, Rhee is not alone in this view. Her successor, Kaya Henderson, made a similar remark a few months ago.
Look, I recognize the nobility of public officials taking responsibility for the welfare of their constituents, and there’s no question that better schools might encourage more kids to attend. But there has to be a limit. The implication that absenteeism is a calculated student choice based on teacher quality, and that a substantial number of students would not be truant if only they had good teachers to keep them interested is borderline silly. It is also counter to the body of research on the subject (which is, in fairness, still in its infancy).
Truancy studies, many of which rely on students to report their own reasons for skipping school, suggest that school-based factors do matter in predicting truancy, including an unsafe environment, inadequate attendance policies/enforcement, and even poor relationships with adults (including teachers).
Non-school factors also appear highly influential. For example, the D.C. Council’s own report on truancy cites pregnancy and family resources among the primary drivers of chronic student absences, while the "Truancy Literature Review," prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009, highlights the effect of factors such as drug abuse, violence and family disorganization. Insufficiently entertaining teachers are, at most, a peripheral factor.
Come on, folks. We need to have a water’s edge here. Context matters.
Teachers – and school systems in general – have a substantial influence, but kids need to be in school to reap the benefits. That’s not an “excuse” – it’s a law of physics.
- Matt Di Carlo