On this blog, I have repeatedly expressed unease at the terms ‘no-excuses’ and ‘zero-tolerance’ when applied to schools. I have never visited a school that describes itself in this way, but I doubt whether the phrase is completely accurate. I am also uneasy about much of the criticism these schools attract because it seems to be a complaint against any kind of strong behaviour policy at all. And I am in favour of strong behaviour policies.
I was therefore interested to read a new critique, based on research funded by the Australian government. The article cautions us against adopting what the author, Dr. Linda Graham, sees as a British model of ‘no excuses’ schools. Graham draws on statements made by Jonathan Porter, a UK ‘no excuses’ advocate. Porter’s statements suggest that such policies enable all teachers to teach, not just the particularly charismatic or experienced ones.
I share Porter’s reasoning when I advocate strong behaviour policies. Students should respect their school as an institution and therefore they should respect any teacher who represents that institution, unless and until that teacher does something to forfeit this respect. There should be no need for a long and tortuous process whereby every individual teacher has to work to earn this respect. Not only is this wasteful of teaching time, it is inequitable. Teachers can be the victims of racism, sexism and homophobia, and experience suggests that tall, middle-aged teachers who have been at a school for a number of years and who hold positions of authority, find it easier to earn respect than small teachers, new teachers, young teachers, teachers with strong accents, casual relief teachers and so on.
Graham challenges this position, arguing that the factor which impacts most upon classroom behaviour is the quality of teaching. If students are forced into compliance, they cannot communicate that the quality of teaching is poor and so ‘no excuses’ offers cover for ineffective or lazy teachers.
I am dubious about this contention because I don’t accept some of the paper’s premises and I don’t agree that it is supported by the research evidence presented.
Firstly, I am deeply sceptical of the idea that poor behaviour is a form of communication. If that were the case, why would humans spend so much time and energy trying to hide their poor behaviour? Poor behaviour derives from personal and situational factors that are complex, and it often seems motivated by the desire to please friends or to avoid challenging or boring tasks or tasks that threaten the ego. Sometimes, it seems to be about asserting a position in the peer hierarchy. None of these motivations are necessarily about sending a signal to a teacher or other authority figure.
Secondly, the author seems to be worried that ‘no excuses’ is the project of a shadowy group of figures who I don’t recognise:
“The most recent strain of the crisis rhetoric appears to be driven largely by teachers identifying as ‘neo traditional’, particularly in England where these teachers are well-connected by social media. The neo traditional teacher favours teacher-centred instruction, deplores inclusion and differentiation, and promotes strict whole-school ‘no excuses’ discipline policies modelled on an extreme interpretation of behaviourism.”
I know a lot of people who favour teacher-centred instruction and it is true that the advocates of ‘no excuses’ tend to fall into this camp. However, I don’t think they identify as ‘neo traditional’ because this oxymoronic term is mostly used pejoratively. Neither do they ‘deplore’ inclusion or differentiation; a strangely emotive term to use in an academic paper, particularly when you realise that this paper was published in the International Journal of Inclusive Education and you consider the likely views of this journal’s readers.
I am aware of some well reasoned critique of common approaches to inclusion and differentiation – I’ve written some myself – but this is far more nuanced than Graham allows. Does Graham wish to force us into a binary; that we must either accept inclusion and differentiation entirely on her terms or we must ‘deplore’ them?
From there, the paper becomes quite strange. In an attempt to show that ineffective teachers are the major cause of student misbehaviour, we are presented with a series of anecdotes about two teachers who have been observed as part of a research project. Mr Smith is a really bad teacher who manhandles the students and is constantly berating them, often unfairly. Miss Jones, on the other hand, is really good. She sets clear rules and routines, such as getting the children to sit with their hands on their heads, and reinforces these with rewards. She is also really nice and says, ‘bless you,’ when a child sneezes. (I’m just imagining what the reaction would be on Twitter if a ‘no excuses’ school ‘forced’ children to put their hands on their heads, but that’s another matter…)
These observations left me feeling uncomfortable. I am pretty sure that if I were one of these teachers and I read this paper then I would recognise myself from the details given. The way these passages are written, and the way the teachers are described, reminded me that Graham is an academic who has never been a teacher herself. Mr Smith is not described at all sympathetically.
Moreover, I find it odd that Graham builds her case based on anecdotes about just two teachers and I doubt whether such evidence can prove anything much. As it stands, it actually offers some support for the kind of behaviourist approach espoused by ‘no excuses’ advocates. The obvious point to raise is that these two teachers are not working in a ‘no excuses’ school. Perhaps Mr Smith would be a more effective teacher in an environment where rules, routines and consequences were determined at a whole-school level – rather than one where these decisions were his to make – and where he received some training in how to apply these procedures. We don’t know, but he clearly needs help and support. I’m not sure that he needs researchers earnestly documenting his every failure.
Perhaps aware that her own evidence offers support for rules, routines and consequences, and therefore behaviourism, Graham attempts to use a lesson observation rating scale – CLASS – to show that the teachers differ in other aspects of their abilities and not just classroom management. I am unconvinced by this, given the validity and reliability issues faced by classroom observation instruments of this kind.
And so, there we are.
It’s hard to know what to make of it all. Graham clearly wants to put the boot in to ‘no excuses’. The trouble is that rather than brandishing a boot, she appears to be waving an old sock with the words, “there might be something in ‘no excuses’ after all,” stitched into it.