Riding the 'Turnaround' Merry-Go-Round in the Continuing Assault on Philadelphia Public Schools: Part III

by Ken Derstine

April 13, 2016


On April 7, 2016, at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally in Philadelphia, Bill Clinton got into an argument with demonstrators from Black Lives Matter over his legacy. He later said he “almost want[s] to apologize” for his remarks in defending his support of “welfare reform” and Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act of 1994. It is these policies that led to a drastic increase in homelessness and explosion of the prison population in the U.S. in the 1990’s and after.

No matter how contrite Bill Clinton may be for the purposes of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, however, nothing he said at the rally was true. The fundamental premise of Bill Clinton’s neoliberal policies was that the working class needed “welfare reform” even as the industrial base of the U.S. economy was eroding because of globalization. This right-wing position was based on free market myth that the workers as individuals are responsible for their deteriorating conditions. At the same time, his deregulation of the corporate and financial sectors led to historically unprecedented accumulation of wealth by the top 1% of the American population and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008. This was only averted by the $700 billion bailout of banks and various financial institutions with taxpayer money. No such relief has ever been contemplated for the workers and the unemployed.

The neoliberal agenda for privatization that became corporate education reform began as part of Clinton’s neoliberal reforms. The Clintons’ relationships with billionaires Eli Broad, the Walton Foundation (Walmart) and the Gates Foundation were to play a fundamental role in its development. The 'no excuses' philosophy would become a fundamental premise of charter schools in the subsequent administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The No Excuses education philosophy

The 'no excuses' philosophy of school management was first implemented in 1994 in the original KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools in Houston. Created by Mike Feinberg and David Levin (who is also a co-founder of Relay Graduate School of Education), the philosophy basically says that students from low-income families should be taught to overcome the problems brought on by poverty through a rigid pedagogy that accepts no excuses for failure. Any consideration of social factors in student achievement is considered “low expectations”.

In his recently released book, Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys through “No Excuses” Teaching, Jim Horn, Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says of the 'no excuses' model:

The “no excuses” school model that KIPP charter schools popularized owes significantly to an assumption made two decades ago by paternalistic school reformers (Finn, 1997), who argued that schools and teachers could “reduce inequality in educational achievement if disadvantaged students were held to the same high standards as everybody else” (Cohen, 1996, p. 101).  This belief remains widespread today, and it has contributed to at least four bad outcomes for children, teachers, and public schools:  1) it leads us away from altering the corrosive socioeconomic realities that affect children’s lives outside school, while pushing our attention toward fixing children and their teachers’ belief systems, 2) it requires educators and children to subscribe to an ideology that demands toxic levels of anxiety and stress to attain some modicum of success, even temporarily, 3) it has led to widespread failure to live up to expectations that prove more fanciful than real, which creates self-loathing or self-blame for failing to achieve what students and teachers, alike, are told is achievable, 4) it has contributed to a totalizing compliance regimen for students and teachers that is more penal than pedagogical.

The heart of Horn’s book comes from twenty-five interviews with former KIPP teachers about their experience at KIPP. He summarizes what these teachers say in the interviews in his book (page 141, 142):

The KIPP Foundation and corporate supporters of the KIPP Model rationalize or ignore the disturbing stories that have come from KIPP’s teachers, parents and students. Too many remain entirely unaware of the darkness beneath the bright smiles that greet visitors at KIPP. Feinberg’s and Levin’s public pronouncements continue to ignore the fact that former KIPP teachers describe their work at KIPP as “extremely discouraging,” terrifying,” “draining,” “like sprinting a marathon for two years,” oppressive,”  “h-e-l-l,” “a very high stress place,” a “pressure cooker,” a “concentration camp,” a “tornado,” a “soul-crushing” place, the “most horrible experience of my life”, the “worst years of teaching ever,” “something you wouldn’t want to wish on your worst enemy,” a constant surveillance” workplace where teachers felt like they were “being used up” without any opportunity to “replenish” or maintain “family ties.”

Among the major stressors these teachers cited was a demerit system which required constant surveillance of student behavior for minor infractions such as taking their eyes off the teacher; enforced silence from students at all times and places including classrooms, lunchrooms, hallways, and school buses; teachers screaming at students which is encouraged by administration; and students having to sit on the floor until they “earn” their desks. The oppressive atmosphere in KIPP schools has led some students to refer to it as the Kids in Prison Program. Philadelphia parent and early childhood educator Jamila Carter is worried that to keep their children safe, the black community may be accepting schools that silence their children’s voices.

‘No Excuses’ in Philadelphia Charters

On August 10, 2011, Mastery Charters CEO Scott Gordon and KIPP Philadelphia CEO Marc Mannella were interviewed by host Marty Moss-Coane on the Philadelphia public radio show Radio Times. Both acknowledged that there were a lot of “commonalities” between KIPP and Mastery (listen to the audio clip in the next paragraph). Asked about the disparity in funding between charters and public schools, Mannella claimed (at the end of the audio clip) that the state and city funding goes toward the students’ education while the philanthropic funding “goes for growth”, that is, to build more charter schools. 

Gordon and Mannella also agreed that an advantage that charters have over public schools is that they have “great teachers”.  They were clear, however, that this does not mean “certified” teachers. Mannella said that KIPP schools did meet the state requirement of 75% certified teachers on staff, but Gordon dodged the question and said: “I think it [certification] is bunk. The certification effect is quite small…The degree of Master or Doctorate or so forth, not that those aren’t valuable things, but they are not the things that are driving achievement in our classrooms.”  [Audio excerpt of this part of the interview.]  Again and again, both Gordon and Mannella expressed their belief that “great teachers” are the key to students’ academic success, and that by “great teachers” they mean ones with “resilience” (or grit?) [Audio excerpt where Gordon and Mannela explain “teacher resilience”.]  Having teachers trained in pedagogy, child development, curriculum development and classroom management—that is, to be certified—is not a priority for their schools.  If this is their attitude toward the value of the education of their teachers, then what do they see as the value of education for their students?

In an interview with a Mastery teacher by this reporter, she said Mastery does not engage in the extreme practices found at many KIPP schools, such as enforced silence, screaming at students, and students sitting on the floor until they earn their seat. She added, however, there is high teacher burnout because of constant surveillance and the constant monitoring of students with a merit/demerit system that creates a prison like atmosphere. These observations are anecdotal and cannot be verified by research because charters schools do not allow outside researchers to study their schools. (See the Washington Post article linked below.) Teachers are on an individual annual contract that can be terminated at any time.  Former KIPP teachers in Horn’s book report that being non-union, “at-will” employees who can be fired at any time is also a major stress factor at KIPP schools. It is undeniable that up until now Mastery’s school philosophy has been based on the 'no excuses' philosophy of all corporate education reform charters. The central focus on test scores and college readiness leads to an oppressive learning environment.

On September 19, 2015, the Washington Post published an interview with Joan Goodman a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of Penn’s Teach for America program. [Note:  Horn’s book (p. 153) states that 30 to 40% of KIPP teachers are present or former TFA corps members. After two years at KIPP, many go into administrative positions at charter management companies or into top-level administration in public schools that are being “turned around” from public to charter schools.] Goodman expresses concerns about what she sees in 'no excuses' charters in Philadelphia:

One thing about these atmospheres is that they’re very uniform. Everybody is on board—you don’t have variability from teacher to teacher or class to class. The atmosphere is totalizing. And the children tend to model themselves after this authority. It has that effect on kids, that they identify with the rules of the regime and their identity becomes “a kid in this school who conforms to these rules.” Now some of the students, of course, don’t conform to the rules, and I think that if you get the kids later in life it’s much harder. But if you get them early, you develop their sense of self that accords with those of the authority. The adults know everything, they know nothing. Here’s what’s good, here’s what’s right. You’ll be successful and happy if you take on these characteristics. Without these rules you’ll be bad or impulsive and you’ll destroy your future. You may not be having fun but you’re doing what’s important. We know best. And the kids come to believe that. As the social psychologists have shown, in totalizing environments, that’s often the result. They call it “identification with the oppressor.” Here oppressor should be changed to authority. There is very, very strong authority in these schools. The teachers are novice teachers, so they get molded too. I don’t think you could take highly experienced teachers—20 years of running a classroom—and put them into these schools and have the same kind of experience. It’s a really interesting study to see how both the teachers and the kids get acculturated.

For a full analysis of Charter School Discipline in Philadelphia charters, see this recently published research at the Social Science Research Network from Susan DeJarnatt – Temple University, Kerrin Wolf – Stockton University, and Mary Kate Kalinich – Temple University. In their conclusion, the researchers state,

The codes of conduct employed by charter schools in Philadelphia demonstrate that they employ a wide array of approach to school discipline. This reflects the desire for variety and experimentation in educational approaches that underlies some of the push for charter schools. Yet, as discussed above, commonalities among many of the codes raise serious concerns. Most prominently, many of the codes suggest most charter schools turn too quickly to exclusionary school discipline as a response to student misbehavior. Moreover, the codes are often vague and provide charter school administrators with wide discretion when deciding whether an act of misbehavior should lead to suspension or expulsion. Likewise, the rigid expectations placed upon students raise concerns that some charter schools are setting students up to fail, or perhaps regulating them to such an extent that they fail to develop any sense of personal agency.

Origins of the No Excuses Schooling Philosophy

At its most extreme, 'no excuses' incorporates the methods of  “learned helplessness” and “learned optimism” developed by the former head of the American Psychological Association Martin Seligman. Co-founder of KIPP, David Levin, along with promoters of “grit” for children from low-income families, Angela Duckworth and Paul Tough, are “central figures in the grit/resilience/character movement which is affecting schools, public, private and charter, across America.

The Christian Science Monitor/Hechinger Report’s profile of Mastery CEO Scott Gordon, (his picture is the cover of the print edition) Education’s Mr. Fix-It (see Part II of this series for details and the article's origins) gives much prominence to his claiming that Mastery is moving away from the 'no excuses' charter school model that has been its major selling point. He says they now take into account a student’s social circumstances in their instruction. What the article doesn’t go into is the continuing practice as reported by Philadelphia public school teachers, of students that do not “fit” the Mastery model being sent back to public schools, particularly right before standardized tests are given.

In this change in 'no excuses' he joins Angela Duckworth who now claims schools should not be graded on “grit”.  (Or maybe Duckworth is just trying to boost sales of her new book “The Power of Passion and Perseverance”?) Duckworth has had an association with Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania since 2002 whose purpose is the “dissemination of Positive Psychology, resilience and grit.”

Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges wrote about Seligman's 'positive psychology' being offered in 100 colleges courses in his July 27, 2009 column Happiness Consultants Won't Stop a Depression and in his 2009 book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Why this change in the attitude towards 'no excuses'? 'No excuses' has been the heart of corporate charter reform along with eliminating labor regulations with their staff. Could this be related to the increasingly bad press 'no excuses' has been receiving? Scott Gordan has admitted in the Christian Science Monitor article Mastery charters have not brought the social change they expected. (Read the comments in this article.)

Or could the change in attitude to 'no excuses' be related to Martin Seligman becoming a controversial figure since it has come to light that his “learned helplessness” was studied by the CIA in its torture program.  In 2010, the Positive Psychology Center received a $31 million no bid, sole-source Army contract to develop its Master Resilience Trainers program. Also see: The Dark Side of “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness:

Also problematic, the CSF [Comprehensive Soldier Fitness] program is adapted primarily from the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) where interventions were focused on dramatically different, nonmilitary populations. Even with these groups, a 2009 meta-analysis of 17 controlled studies reveals that the PRP program has been only modestly and inconsistently effective. PRP produced small reductions in mild self-reported depressive symptoms, but it did so only in children already identified as at high risk for depression and not for those from the general population. Nor did PRP interventions reduce symptoms more than comparison prevention programs based on other principles, raising questions as to whether PRP's effects are related to the "resilience" theory undergirding the program. Further, like many experimental programs, PRP had better outcomes when administered by highly trained research staff than when given by staff recruited from the community. This raises doubts as to how effectively the CSF program will be administered by non-commissioned officers who are required to serve as "Master Resilience Trainers."

Martin Seligman says he doesn’t know why the CIA called on him as a consultant in the CIA torture program and has tried to justify the Positive Psychology Center’s military ties. This is a very controversial subject in the American Psychological Association. Most recently this has been brought to light  by Jane Mayer, author of the book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

While the proponents of 'no excuses' schooling deny any connection with the increasingly authoritarian state developing in the U.S., the practices they engage in to advance corporate education reform raise troubling questions about how they are preparing their students for the future.

As Martin Luther King concluded in his college essay The Purpose of Education:

We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.

If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, "brethren!" Be careful, teachers!


Part IV of this series will take a closer look at planned ‘turnarounds’ in the Philadelphia School District and result of the Battle for Wister.

Also see:

Angela Duckworth's Eugenics - the University of Pennsylvania and the MacArthur Foundation -SpeEdChange - March 25, 2014

Myth Making in Public Education
East Fall Local – April 10, 2016
Wister teacher Robin Lowry updates The Battle For Wister 

Wister fiasco is why the SRC has got to go
Philadelphia Daily News – April 11, 2016

Charitable Plutocracy: Bill Gates, Washington State, and the Nuisance of Democracy
Nonprofit Quaterly - April 11, 2016
Very important article about who is behind the charter school industry. 

Pa. charter school law ‘worst in US’, state auditor general says
Philadelphia Newsworks – April 12, 2016

Confronting the “Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”
the becoming radical – April 12, 2016 

Commentary: Time to fix state’s broken charter school finance law
Philadelphia Daily News – April 13, 2016
Philadelphia state Senator Vincent Hughes explains what is wrong with Pennsylvania’s charter school law.

District recommends non-renewal of four Renaissance charters
Philadelphia Public School Notebook - April 14, 2016 

More on Memphis School Cuts and the Broad and Gates Foundations
Nancy Bailey's Education Webiste - April 14, 2016 

Meritocracy myths allow neoliberal Democrats to profer education as an inequlity palliative
Schools Matter - April 15, 2016 

Hillary Wants to Experiement With the Lives of Poor Children
Sequester "poor" children in boarding schools....again? 
Lucid Witness - April 17, 2016

KIPP [Philadelphia] Hands Agassi's Real Estate Company Million Dollar Profit on Building
Schools Matter - April 18, 2016

Agassi's fund cashes in on N. Phila. [KIPP] charter-school venture
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 17, 2016

Relay Leadership School: No Pedagogy, No Humanity, No Democracy
Bust•Ed Pencils - April 20, 2016

'Learned Helplessness' & Torture: An Exchange
The New York Review of Books - April 21, 2016
Martin Seligman  Responds to "The Psychologists Take Power", NYR - February 25, 2015; and author Tamsin Shaw replies.

Hillary Proposes Boarding Schools for the Poor: KIPP is On It
Schools Matter - April 21, 2016

Holding Back to Get Ahead

Edushyster - April 28, 2016
Researcher Joanne Golann says that no-excuses charters are teaching low-income students to defer to authority and hold back their opinions—the opposite of what they’ll need to succeed in college and life. 

Exposed by CMD: KIPP's Efforts to Keep the Public in the Dark while Seeking Millions in Taxpayer Subsidies | PR Watch - April 28, 2016

KIPP Insists Feds Hide Attrition Numbers: ED complies
Schools Matter - May 1, 2016

Angela Duckworth Ducking KIPP and Relay Connections
Schools Matter - May 18, 2016 

Grit-meister Angela Duckworth headlines Jeb Bush's reactionary ExcelinEd summit
Schools Matter - October 6, 2016 

How U.S. Torture Left Legacy of Damaged Minds 
The New York Times - October 9, 2016

Moral Necessity and the NAACP Charter Moratorium, Part 1
Schools Matter - October 14, 2015 

State rules: no ethics violation for SRC's Simms
Philadelphia Inquirer - November 10, 2016

Has Mastery lost its mojo? (The quest to fix Philly's biggest charter network)
Newsworks -November 14, 2016

Mastery Charter Schools agrees to pay $2000 to settle city ethics complaint
Philadelphia Inquirer - November 18, 2016


Also see:

Riding the ‘turnaround’ merry-go-round in the continuing assault on Philadelphia public schools ­– Part I
The Battle for Wister; The SRC’s Projected Five-year Plan

Riding the ‘turnaround’ merry-go-round in the continuing assault on Philadelphia public schools ­– Part II
Mastery Charter Schools; The Unequal Funding of Public vs. Charter Schools

Riding the 'Turnaround' Merry-Go-Round in the Continuing Assault on Philadelphia Public Schools - Part IV
Crossing the Rubicon; The Latest Spin of the Turnaround Merry-Go-Round in Philadelphia Schools; SRC Commissioner Green Makes His Move; The Broad Foundation and Boston Consulting Group's Privatization Plan is on Schedule; The Privatization Rollout in the Last Two Years


This article is also posted on Schools Matter.
Click the Labels tag to read related articles. 

Also see:

Do charter schools with extreme disciplinary measures cluster in Black communities?
CityLab - September 15, 2016

A conference at the University of Pennsylvania to promote 'no excuses' schools in low-income communities.
Unerstanding KIPP Model Charter Schools, Part 15: Neural Remapping of Children
Schools Matter -  December 16, 2016