In an article in this week’s New York Times Magazine, author Paul Tough notifies supporters of market-based reform that they cannot simply dismiss the "no excuses" maxim when it is convenient. He cites two recent examples of charter schools (the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, CO, and the Urban Prep Academy in Chicago) that were criticized for their low overall performance. Both schools have been defended publicly by "pro-reform" types (the former by Jonathan Alter; the latter by the school’s founder, Tim King), arguing that comparisons of school performance must be valid – that is, the schools’ test scores must be compared with those of similar neighborhood schools.
For example, Tim King notes that, while his school does have a very low proficiency rate – 17 percent – his students are mostly poor African-Americans, whose scores should be compared with those of peers in nearby schools. Paul Tough’s rejoinder is to proclaim that statements like these represent the "very same excuses for failure that the education reform movement was founded to oppose." His basic argument is that a 17 percent pass rate is not good enough, regardless of where a school is located or how disadvantaged are its students, and that pointing to the low performance of comparable schools is really just shedding the "no excuses" mantra when it serves one’s purposes.
Without a doubt, the sentiment behind this argument is noble, not only because it calls out hypocrisy, but because it epitomizes the mantra that "all children can achieve." In this extreme form, however, it also carries a problematic implication: Virtually every piece of high-quality education research, so often cited by market-based reformers to advance the cause, is also built around such "excuses."