A nuanced look at the “No excuses” slogan


Dear Mr. Bill Gates,

I recently read an online dialogue between Education Week’s Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation. In it, Irvin Scott of the Foundation states, “Simply, I believe all children can learn. I believe low-income children of color can learn when they have great teachers who believe in them, and treat them with the same passion, enthusiasm and intellectual rigor that they would treat their own children.” This got me thinking about the “No Excuses … All Students Will Learn” slogan, which has always bothered me, and I think I now know why.

I absolutely agree that all children can learn, however I wish to add nuance to these statements by pointing out that kids learn at different rates and they demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. The multiple intelligences theory was one of the first concepts taught to us in teacher training. Not only is the one-size-fits-all, Common Core-fortified testing program educationally unsound, but it does little – if anything – to accommodate and honor these varying learning styles.

Is Irwin Scott using standardized test scores alone to measure student learning? One of the most dynamic, hard-working teachers at my Title I public school in Brooklyn, NY teaches challenging and thought-provoking material to a small group of students in a 3rd grade self-contained special ed class. Her kids are learning an enormous amount both academically and socially/emotionally. She gardens with them, takes them to Chinatown, runs laps around the school with them and teaches them high-level, content-related vocabulary through New York Times articles, among many other enriching activities.

However, her three ELLs (English-language learners) will not test proficient on this year’s NYSESLAT and will remain in ESL indefinitely, at-risk of becoming long-term ELLs, a status that reflects poorly on a school. This is due to a learning disability, not an English-language deficiency. Also, few students in her class – if any- will receive a score of 3 (so-called grade level performance) on the Common Core state tests that were administered in New York in April. Looking at test scores alone, will these students be viewed as not having learned this year? Will their test scores reflect poorly on this singular teacher? She is the kind of instructor I aspire to be. What’s also remarkable about her is that she doesn’t allow the demands of the state tests, specifically the pressures to engage in mind numbing test prep, to rattle her or to affect her high quality of teaching. Test prep, a result of high-stakes testing, actually lowers the quality of instruction.

The state does make testing accommodations for students with disabilities and for English-language learners (extended time, questions read, for example), however the length and content of the tests remain the same. Furthermore, ELLs (English-language learners) are required to take the English-language arts exam after just 12 months in the system. If the “official” learning of these students is judged solely by test scores, imagine the impact this can have on the students’ feelings of self- worth. On the one hand their minds are expanding in the classroom (test prep aside), but coming from the other direction is a crushing force telling them that their learning is deficient.

In officially measuring learning, will the judgement of individual schools and teachers in the US ever be trusted and respected enough to instead consider other, more meaningful assessments? Ironically, it has been drilled into us – by the same people who force oppressive standardized testing programs upon us – to differentiate instruction in order to meet the needs of all students. So who is really being measured by these tests?

Next up: how “No excuses” doesn’t allow room for the consideration of poverty and the level of parent involvement as major factors influencing student performance. Teachers aren’t making excuses. We are being realistic.

Katie Lapham
On Facebook/TeachersLetters2Gates

P.S. Sorry for the messy link. I am not ready for a career in computer science.

Dialogue between Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation: http://mobile.edweek.org/c.jsp?DISPATCHED=true&cid=25983841&item=http%3A%2F%2Fblogs.edweek.org%2Fteachers%2Fliving-in dialogue%2F2012%2F09%2Fa_teacher_in_dialogue_with_the.html

9 thoughts on “A nuanced look at the “No excuses” slogan

  1. I’d like to think that I was the kind of teacher that kids remembered, not because I gave good grades, but because I challenged my students to earn them. Notice I didn’t say that “kids liked” me. I didn’t become a teacher to be liked. I became a teacher to teach children, not just a subject. When I taught in Las Vegas, Nevada at VoTech High School, my “success” rate was 96 percent. Amazing to me, even then but not because I was the teacher everyone liked but I was the teacher most students respected because, they told me, I taught them more than a subject; I taught them about life. I was proud to have taught students who, though reluctantly at times, wanted to learn and the more I pushed–I told them I was good at nagging so they’d better get used to it–the more they took the bait. When I moved back to Illinois and began teaching in Chicago, I was asked by friends in Las Vegas, what it was like teaching in the big city. “Appalachia,” I said, with all due respect to that area of the country. Students there were too busy being angry and blaming anyone for their less than stellar grades. My “success” rate was about 65 percent in Chicago. I was not liked there, but I also wasn’t respected until that magical day when a student told me she got why I pushed so much. She said, “It shows you care about us. It took me two classes with you to realize that.” I got the opportunity to teach AP Literature and Composition and the students that were enrolled in that class complained, and grumbled, and sighed in exasperation but at the beginning of the next school year, about the end of the first quarter, many of those students came in to visit for report card pickup to tell me that college was easier for them than for other students because I helped them get ready for college. I have dozens of stories about my students but this is not about me patting myself on the back. I left teaching because I was tired of having to teach to the test, tired of being coerced into changing students’ grades from zero to 50 because it was better for their self-esteem and after all, it was still failing. I knew that what my administration was doing was not only suspect but morally wrong. I tried to fight the system and my principal berated me, took away my AP classes, took away my mentoring position and tried to break me. All of that took a terrible toll on me and I knew my teaching was suffering. I left teaching because I couldn’t fight alone and those who worked with me who wanted to fight were younger teachers and afraid to lose their positions. Can’t really blame them. My leaving hurt me in a variety of ways but I feel the thing it did most was hurt the students I could’ve taught had I been left to be a real teacher, not an automaton of test prep. There are no excuses for subjecting children and teachers to the abysmal, drone-like behavior of testing, testing, testing ad nauseam. The kids know. The parents know. The teachers know. Why don’t the people who are subjecting all of them to this demoralizing, insidious behavior? I just don’t get that.

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