News Room

Beyond the viral video: Inside educators’ emotional debate about ‘no excuses’ discipline

Mar. 8, 2015 – Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat.orgChalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green examines the case for and against ‘no excuses’ discipline, drawing on reporting from her book ‘Building a Better Teacher’Many people have asked me what I make of the video, recently published by the New York Times, of a New York City charter school teacher scolding a first-grader and then ripping her paper in half. After all, I wrote a book about teaching, including several long chapters on school discipline.

My honest answer: It’s complicated, more so than you might think. Coming to any personal conclusion requires understanding a deep and very active debate about discipline, race, and the conditions that brought Charlotte Dial, the teacher in the video, to the moment that was caught on camera. Chief among those conditions: an educational philosophy known as “no excuses” that advocates for strict discipline as a critical foundation for learning.


A final set of concerns has to do with racial bias. Do no-excuses schools protect students from teachers’ bias, or might they leave room for teachers to act out of fear or prejudice?

Deborah Gordon Klehr, who has represented students at no-excuses schools in disciplinary hearings through her work leading the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania, points out that no-excuses discipline codes sometimes advise teachers to issue consequences for vague actions — like, for example, a student’s display of “disrespect.” (See, for example, this recent manual from KIPP’s schools in Washington, DC.) Whether a shirt is tucked is indisputable. But what counts as disrespect can be open to wide interpretation, and in turn, susceptible to racial bias. Left to their own discretion, teachers disproportionately punish African American students for alleged “disrespect,” Klehr says.

Indeed, after studying public records of disciplinary “tickets” given to students in Texas for a six-year period, a law clinic found that African American students faced disproportionate expulsion rates. The disparity was the most extreme for the most subjective and nonviolent offenses, such as what Texas education officials termed “serious and persistent” misbehavior, according to findings published in 2011.

When we first started reporting our most recent discipline package at Chalkbeat, several educators implored us not to draw attention to gaps in practice that, in their view, were small compared to the failures of other schools to serve poor students of color. Others, however, took a different approach, encouraging us to bring this story to light so that they could encourage more honest reflection and change.

Obviously, we sided with the latter group. The more this conversation happens not just behind closed classroom doors, but in public, the more quickly schools can change. After all, students aren’t the only ones who need to make mistakes, sometimes even public mistakes, in order to learn.