It Is Time for Something More Meaningful Than No "Excuses"

Last Updated: December 21, 2010

This article appeared in the December 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

We’ve noticed a troubling development in school politics: the no-excuses-for-students proclamation. We’re not advocating excuse-making. In fact, it is the excuse-making behind “no excuses” that’s so troubling.

The problem is not that administrators and teachers tell their students that they will brook no excuses for failure. The trouble is that in the current political climate, many politicians and media opinion makers seem to demand “no excuses”  — almost exclusively — of administrators and teachers who work in schools where many students face significant, usually multiple, educational challenges. The glib “no excuses” demands makes it almost impossible for those adults to describe publicly the realities in their students’ lives that hinder educational attainment. Or to demand the justice that would give those students a fair shake.

In this way, “no excuses” becomes little more than an excuse in itself, an excuse for politicians and much of the media to ignore the inequities and obstacles that most poor children and adolescents confront in our current era. Those obstacles are big and real and include things like poor health care, inadequate housing or food, lack of access to interesting books, art supplies, travel, decent toys, and living-wage jobs for their parents. They are obstacles that slow down academic progress.

Supporting Students with Multiple Challenges

To be sure, most adults who support and guide students who face multiple obstacles to success do, in fact, hold no-excuses attitudes. Life is not fair and people who care about kids in tough circumstances know that they will have to find their way despite the obstacles.

The most dedicated of those adults also work outside the school for their students. They do things like try to secure medical care for sick students, hold fund-raisers to fix the leaky school roof or buy books or lab equipment; they build the playground and comb yard sales for classroom supplies. They work hard to give families real voice in shaping what school is and to honor the kids and the places and cultures they come from. In short, they do things that help give their students some of the resources and opportunities luckier students and families take as givens.

It is a certainty that most teachers who make such efforts are motivated by their students, not by political mantras. Teachers who cannot or will not go these many extra miles are not likely to find much in "no excuses" or any other slogan to help them deal with the challenges facing their students. 

“No excuses” is a necessary and admirable personal stance for adults who work with kids everywhere, especially in schools where the roof leaks, there’s no science equipment, and the newest library books are anything but new.

But "no excuses" is a pathetic failure as a stand-in for real public policy that would address root causes of the very real educational challenges many kids face.

Read more from the December 2010 Rural Policy Matters.