Scripting the Moves, by sociologist Joanne Wang Golann ’04, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt, is an inside look at so-called “no-excuses” charter schools. Some education reformers view these schools as an elixir for improving the schooling outcomes for children of color from working-class families.
Golann became interested in sociology near the end of college. “Like most seniors,” she recalls, “I was thinking about what to do next. I was an English major, but I knew I wasn’t going to study Virginia Woolf for the next decade.”
She asked herself, “What is it that I like to do?” She realized she has an ear for people’s stories: “I can remember how they say them, what they say.” She reached out to David Tebaldi, an oral historian who was a visiting professor at Amherst, and he introduced her to the field of ethnomethodology, which is a subset of sociology focused on conversation. In the Amherst sociology department, she talked with Professor Jan Dizard, who offered a list of ethnographies to read. “That,” Golann says, “was my entrée into the field.”
Golann and I knew each other at Amherst. We were both English majors and members of the Amherst Christian Fellowship. Now we both study the root causes of educational inequality in K–12 U.S. public schools. I was pleased to interview her this fall about the 18 months she spent inside a no-excuses school. Our conversation is edited and condensed.
The context is school choice more broadly. The school choice movement started in the United States in the 1950s with economist Milton Friedman, who was interested in applying business principles to education. He conceived of a marketplace where you would have schools competing with each other for students. He believed this competitive force, by itself, would improve schools. Charter schools are one school choice type. They emerged in the 1990s. They are publicly funded and independently managed schools that have the freedom to be more innovative. National studies find that charters perform no better than traditional public schools on standardized tests. But there is a subset of urban charter schools that have performed much better. These “no-excuses” schools serve predominantly low-income Black and Latinx students. The term itself means these schools are going to make no excuses for student failure, irrespective of student background. They’re not going to say, “These students came to us three grades behind, so we can’t get them to college.”
I was interested in questions of cultural capital. I had heard of a practice, called SLANT, that some no-excuses schools use. You may have seen a parody of SLANT. It stands for “Sit up, Lean forward, Ask questions, Nod for understanding and Track the speaker.” It makes very explicit how to show attention in what you might think of as a white, middle-class way. I went into the schools to study how they were teaching this cultural know-how. I spent about 18 months inside a no-excuses middle school I call Dream Academy, which is a pseudonym. It’s a middle school of about 250 kids, two-thirds Black, one-third Latinx. I was there every day, four to five hours a day, hanging out. This is in the tradition of ethnographic research: You observe and participate, to try to understand a culture and its people. I sat in classrooms and teacher meetings, went to lunch with students, went on field trips, trying to blend in.
The answer to the teacher’s question is not “fifth grade”; she wants them to know that they’re the college class of 2024. She wants them to start thinking of themselves as college students. I chose that opening as a way to frame the school’s practices through the lens of college preparation, because that’s how the school sees it. I did not want to start with the disciplinary practices, which are shocking to a lot of people—rightly so. I wanted to first say why they are doing this, why they think it’s important. They saw these practices as helping students get to college. In a no-excuses school, teachers are constantly talking about college. The hallways have college banners; the classrooms are named after colleges. There was a Princeton, a Carnegie Mellon. Unfortunately, there was no Amherst.
There was no Williams either. I think there was a Middlebury.
Yes. The idea is to resocialize the children into new goals and behaviors. They do this by scripting the moves, as the book is titled. Here are some examples: Students had to arrive at school at 7:30 a.m. There was no transportation provided, so parents had to be able to drive or walk their students to school. If you did not arrive at 7:30, your student got a same-day detention. My children would have gotten lots of detentions, because we are late to school a lot. Then, students had to file through the hallways in silent, straight, forward-facing lines. There was no recess. There were no lockers. Even gym began with silent reading. As you can tell, the school was very structured.
Yes. They follow what’s called a “sweating the small stuff” approach. This is the idea that you pick on minor misbehaviors so major misbehaviors don’t occur. It’s similar to what Giuliani did in New York City in the 1990s. I can read you some examples from the book. These are Category 1 infractions: violation of cafeteria rules, violation of food/beverage policy, not tracking the speaker, saying “shut up,” difficulty unpacking, violation of hallway rules, unprepared for class, difficulty packing, making unnecessary noise, head down on desk, out of seat without permission.... It goes on for an entire page. The school recorded over 15,000 infractions during the school year, which averages to one every three days per student. If you get an infraction, you lose points. You might get a detention or even a suspension, or you may not qualify for certain privileges. You even have to earn your seat: On the first day of school, the students started on the floor.
I observed very early on that these kids don’t need to learn how to sit still. When they’re with a teacher whom they respect, there are no behavioral problems.
Some of the early sociological thinkers argued that working-class schools teach working-class skills—like conformity, punctuality and deference to authority—in order to prepare kids for working-class jobs, where the manager wants those workers to show those skills, whereas middle-class schools emphasize creativity, independence and leadership, to prepare middle-class students to be managers. But race, I think, is a huge part of the story. There are numerous studies that show that Black boys in particular receive the harshest, most frequent school discipline. They’re perceived as threatening, as in need of more control. Certainly, I think the level of control that is considered acceptable or appropriate is seen through a racialized lens. I don’t think it would be acceptable if these students were majority-white.
The list of Category 1 infractions goes on for an entire page. The school recorded more than 15,000 infractions during the school year, which averages to one every three days per student.
A surprising finding for me was seeing the degree to which teachers’ work and teachers’ complaints reflected those of students. Like the students, teachers’ work was highly scripted, because they had to enforce very particular disciplinary scripts. Their instructional work was also monitored. They had elaborate teacher evaluation rubrics. Their lesson plans had to be written in a certain way and were checked by supervisors every weekend. There were teachers who tried to push back. The principal and instructional leaders would tell them, “You don’t have experience, we know this works, and you need to do this.”
The teachers were primarily white, primarily young, most just out of college, but there were a couple teachers of color. Teachers of color tended to be more effective and more able to accomplish what some researchers have called a “warm strict style,” or a “no-nonsense nurturing style,” where they’re strict but they’re still able to build relationships with students.
The principal was white. One of the school leaders was a Black woman, and the founder of the school was a Black man. But by and large, in no-excuses schools, you do see a mostly white teaching and leadership staff.
I think they must not have been aware. She was very idealistic. She had come into this school not to be a disciplinarian, and had ended up doing discipline most of the day. There was a dissonance between what she was doing and what she wanted to do and was hoping to do at that school.
I’m not sure. She did end up leaving the school at the end of the year. I think she left education altogether. She is a little bit older, had gone back to school to do a teacher’s prep program and had student-taught at an urban public school, where she’d had a positive experience. She contrasts herself with Teach For America types—students who go in to teach for two years but then they want to go into business. She really wanted to be a teacher, but had such a disenchanting experience that she thought, “This is not for me.”
The KIPP network—one of the largest networks of no-excuses schools—has been tracking its graduates. They found that about a third of their students graduate from college within six years. That’s far below the 80 percent they are hoping for. Another large study found that rates of persistence after two years of college were no different between KIPP students and comparable students who attended traditional schools. Those results are not entirely promising. I also read a study showing that high standardized test scores in no-excuses middle schools do not translate into college success.
Some are changing. I think the primary motivation is pushback on the disciplinary practices. Schools are getting rid of the point system or trying restorative justice practices.
Speaking up in class, learning to be at ease in office hours, working as a team: I call these “tools of interaction.” I found that the school’s scripts did not give students opportunities to develop these tools. I spoke with a couple of Dream Academy students who had completed their first year of college. They talked about the struggles with adjusting. They said that in college, there were no consequences if you don’t turn in your homework. One woman said she ended up with a C in English because she had to submit a portfolio at the end of the year. There were assignments all along the way, but she hadn’t done any of them, because they weren’t collected. When it came to the end of the semester, she had to quickly do all those assignments and was disappointed by her final grade.
I have heard from teachers and parents who find that the book helped them understand their own experiences in these schools. One school network said they refer to my work when they talk about changing their disciplinary practices, to give students more agency. I’ve sent my book to a bunch of charter leaders. I am eager to engage in conversation and try to be helpful to people on the ground. I know they are working so hard.
I think we can rightly criticize a lot of what’s happened in many no-excuses schools, but I do think the teachers and leaders work very, very hard and do want to improve opportunity for these students. I hope that they will be open to criticism and willing to change.
I don’t show up much in the book, although my initial interest came from personal experience. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I have always been interested in the subtle ways that culture shapes comfort levels. Can you teach cultural capital? I ended up arguing that these schools are not teaching what we would call middle-class cultural capital at all; they’re really just teaching conformity.
Travis J. Bristol ’03 is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. His research explores the role of educational policies in shaping teacher workplace experiences and retention. He chairs the board of directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
Illustrations by Lucy Jones