At first, Chris Torres was excited to teach in an urban charter school in New York. In contrast with his previous school, there was evidence of academic rigor, and an impressive amount of resources.
But, he soon noticed nearly half the teachers left every year.
He wondered: How can schools create sustainable, high-quality education for students within this environment?
Torres began his research by asking charter school teachers how they perceived their work, and why they were leaving. His studies found several factors, lack of autonomy(1) and unsustainable workload(2) among them.
One factor stood out even more.
“Overwhelmingly, I found the disciplinary climate played a role,” Torres said.
Many of the NYC charter schools he studied used the “no-excuses” approach, which often relied on strict discipline to allow teachers to focus as much time as possible on instruction. These schools primarily serve low-income students of color, and place a heavy emphasis on math and reading success.
Torres collaborated with colleague Joanne Golann to question whether the no-excuses discipline was necessary for students’ academic success.(3)
They found disciplinary methods—such as students not being allowed to slouch or talk during transitions—could certainly help teachers achieve control of their classroom?
However, reviewing the research on no-excuses schools, they found schools could be academically successful without using strict methods.
“This order could be established using alternative disciplinary methods better supported by theory and research,” they argued.
“We can increase student achievement while at the same time being attentive to social and emotional needs,” explained Torres, who joined the MSU faculty in 2016. “We shouldn’t pursue student achievement at the potential cost of dignity and well-being.”
So when Torres and Golann saw reports calling for no-excuses schools and their practices to be “widely replicated”—they wrote a 2018 review for the National Education Policy Center(4) arguing the recommendation ignored the costs, evidence and controversy over their discipline.
Instead, Torres says, schools should look toward schools that are academically successful, and accomplishing this through more positive and culturally responsive methods. When strict discipline is over-emphasized, there can be many adverse consequences.
“What does this focus do to teacher and student relationships? How does it impact the school climate?” Torres asked. “We know that disciplinary systems should focus more on the positive, and less on the punitive. So why do students in no-excuses schools get treated differently?”
Albeit slowly, models such as restorative justice or positive behavioral intervention systems (PBIS)—are starting to make their way to no-excuses schools.
Charter schools in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Denver and elsewhere are adopting these approaches, which minimize the use of punishment to correct behavior and promote individualized plans for students who need the most behavioral support.
“Some charters are seeing and understanding a lot of the criticism, and realizing the disciplinary approach they thought was essential actually needs a lot of work,” Torres said.
The latest research from Chris Torres related to high teacher turnover at charter schools, now in a working paper, examines the process from the beginning: hiring. He is exploring how teachers perceive their fit before, and after, starting at a no-excuses charter school.
- Torres, A.C. (2014). “Are We Architects or Construction Workers? Re-examining Teacher Autonomy and Turnover in Charter Schools.” Education Policy Analysis Archives, 22(124). http://dx.doi.org/10.14507/epaa.v22.1614
- Chris Torres, A. (2016). Is This Work Sustainable? Teacher Turnover and Perceptions of Workload in Charter Management Organizations. Urban Education, 51(8), 891-914. http://doi.org/10.1177/0042085914549367
- Joanne W. Golann & A. Chris Torres (2018): Do No-excuses Disciplinary Practices Promote Success?, Journal of Urban Affairs, http://doi.org/10.1080/07352166.2018.1427506
- Torres, A.C., & Golann, J.W. (2018). Review of “Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap” (The Future of Children, associated with the Brookings Institution and Princeton University, February 2018). Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved March 7, 2019 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/thinktank/review-no-excuses