No-excuse Charter Schools have Transformed Education for Low-income Urban Students


It’s March, and that means Spring has sprung! To kick off the beginning of the end of frigid mornings and ski traffic, I have for you all a study published by the Princeton University and Brooking Institution journal, Future of Children, titled Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap that offers a comprehensive analysis of multiple independent charter schools studies.

The primary finding in this amalgamation of research is that charter schools with a no-excuse philosophy that cater to an urban, low-income student populous produce the largest and most constant academic gains when comparing charter schools and traditional public schools. The author, Sarah Cohodes, believes that we can study the “transformative effect” of no-excuse charter schools and espouse the policies that have produced their success in other academic models.

Cohodes’ piece references studies from various institutions; these studies feature an array of techniques when comparing charter school and non-charter school students, but primarily utilize the natural randomness of schools with lottery admissions and the counterpart, or “synthesized twin” as CREDO calls it, method in which students from charter and public schools with similar backgrounds and academic statistics are matched.

Despite the method of observation, across these studies charter schools that have adopted a no-excuse philosophy have consistently produced the most significant academic gains, particularly for low-income students in urban areas. To explain the success of no-excuse charter schools, Cohodes refers to a study from New York City which may be particularly illuminating. In this study, the characteristics of each school that were thought to influence academic success were broken into two groups: practice inputs and resource inputs. Practice inputs accounted for features such as intensive tutoring and a culture of high expectations, while resource inputs accounted for features such as per-pupil spending and student-teacher ratio. It was found that the practice inputs–which are common aspects of no-excuse charter schools–best explained, or were most highly correlated with, the success of each school.

Denver’s charter schools appeared in the study as an example of not only the success of no-excuse, but all charter schools. According to Cohodes, Denver’s charter schools have among the highest impact on students in the nation. Attending a charter school in Denver for just two years is enough to eclipse the black-white achievement gap, which is particularly interesting considering the ease of access to charter school applications and the randomness of charter school assignment in Colorado.

The success of no-excuse charter schools should not be disparaged by attempts to associate these schools with militant academic practices where students are slapped across the knuckles for not receiving a high enough standardized test score. To criticize no-excuse charter schools as such is to discredit the work the students attending them have put in. These schools have higher expectations for their students and longer school days and school years, but this simply means that the students attending are challenged to a greater degree and willing to put more work into their academics. A much more suitable analogy would be a young adult in a committed sports or preforming arts program; these programs are often more work, but teach determination and often produce more successful alumni.

No-excuse charter schools are undeniably doing something right. They have managed to significantly increase test scores and college graduation rates while simultaneously reducing pregnancy and incarceration rates. Having someone challenge you means they believe in your ability and wish to see you maximize your potential–for the students willing to accept the work which accompanies such challenge, a no-nonsense philosophy may be the right educational model.