No More “No Excuses:” An Open Letter to Building Excellent Schools

Dear BES and other “No Excuses” school networks:

From your recruitment emails I understand that you are tired of teachers, leaders, and politicians making excuses for why “poor” kids can’t learn.  I understand you are fed up with low expectations for our students of color.  I know you believe our culturally and linguistically diverse students are capable learners who deserve the best. I know your commitment to “No Excuses” and an “excellent education” is your way of trying to ensure achievement equity and a “life of promise and opportunity” for students marginalized in our society. You also say that the no excuses actions of your schools (like strict homework and attendance policies), “are the highest form of respect for and commitment to the promise and capacity of our students.” I am writing to say that I respectfully disagree. Simply put, high-stakes assimilation does not equal a transformative and liberating education.  And since you send me messages through email, media, and written in chalk on the sidewalks where I teach,  I hope you take the time to read my response:

After reading your emails, I wonder…what is the “gold standard” education of which you speak? (You also call it a “world class” education and a “sterling” education.) Is it an education where children of color and poverty learn White, affluent men’s history, language, literature, and standards without critique? Is it where students learn that racism and classism aren’t real or valid enough to learn about and dissect in schools? Is it where students learn that if they (and their families) comply and do what they are told (i.e. attendance and homework policies), they will be “successful?” Is it an education that teaches them to sit down and be quiet rather than to stand up and scream (with knowledge and skills) against inequity?

Furthermore, what is this “life of promise and opportunity” that you are guaranteeing students if they hold attendance and homework (and data??) sacred? This society is a “fixed game;” it is undoubtedly racist and classist and sexist (and there is data to support this claim). Teaching students how to “win” a rigged game does not equate to a life of promise and opportunity. A Black man with a college degree still must learn that when stopped by a police officer in his car, he must throw his keys out the window and put his hands on the steering wheel–NO EXCUSES. Does a young White man have to learn that?

Now please do not misunderstand me or place me at the other end of the continuum. I do not hold low expectations of students of color and/or those living in poverty. I also do not make excuses for why they cannot learn. But I do educate children about the reality of racism and classism so that they do not put ALL of their energy and personal and familial resources into “catching up” and winning a rigged game. Yes, they need to learn and be held to high standards….But WHAT they learn, HOW they learn, and WHY they learn MATTERS! I will not educate students to merely succeed in an unjust society. I will not work day and night to teach kids the knowledge and skills of the racist, classist, and sexist dominant culture so that they can perpetuate the status quo. I will not use compliance driven methods to ensure the mastery of standards. I will not force kids (that, yes, are already legitimately “behind”) to learn in rows and lines and for “extended days” without arts, play, fun, freedom, power, and choice (even if that is most effective in the short-term for raising test scores) because it is not humanizing; it is not developmentally appropriate; it is not just! And I will not do these things because I know the results: even if my students achieve and their data shows that they are “equal” with their White, affluent counterparts, I know that they are not deemed equal in this society, AND THAT MATTERS. Test score equity is not equity. Furthermore, if I have only taught them to comply and if I have only taught them to achieve what the dominant culture says is important, then even when they have increased power and opportunities, they will not use them to change the rigged game because they will not see the inequity or know how to redress it. Students must be taught “equity literacy” from ECE up.

So what? What do I propose instead? I propose an “excellent school” that encourages students to be BLACK and EDUCATED. To be LATINO and EDUCATED. To be FEMALE and EDUCATED. To maintain ties to their communities AND be educated. I propose an education that teaches students to not only succeed in the dominant culture, but to critique inequity and redress it. We need schools that are truly asset-based. Schools where students and families are enabled to orient staff and administrators to the community and their strengths rather than a one-way orientation where schools “orient staff, families, and students to attendance requirements.” We cannot perpetuate the idea that an “excellent education” is neutral (i.e. NOT socio-cultural and political).

I think the highest form of respect for and commitment to our students is to show them that we understand the realities of this world and that we will partner with them to fight those inequities. Yes we need to educate students and we need to hold high standards…but, frankly, what you deem to be an excellent education would not be what I would want for MY children. There are “No Excuses” for not seeing that the content and methods of your vision of an “excellent school” may be unintentionally reinforcing and legitimizing the racist, classist, and sexist systems and institutions in the U.S.

Your emails say you are looking for a smart, gritty, fearless, relentless, educator who will work day and night. Well, I am smart; I am gritty; I am fearless (kind-of); I am an undaunted soul…but those qualities make me want to work for a school that truly partners with kids and families to learn and to fight the real, underlying problems in this society. Those qualities do not inspire me to make kids work tirelessly, day after day, to try and “win” a rigged game. I have a different definition of honorable work.

Thank you for your time.

Best regards,
Amber K. Kim, Ph.D.

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” –Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s

*For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com