A no excuses policy for all schools, continued

As promised, I’m posting Carolyn Sharette’s response to a reader’s concern that regular public schools don’t have the option of adopting a “no excuses” policy for students who refuse to do their work, or even to show up to pretend to do their work.

Carolyn is the Executive Director of the American Preparatory Academy, a Utah charter school with campuses in Draper and West Valley City.

I feel it is important to point out that public schools truly could change their policies to implement “no excuses” as a school standard.

As long as they provide a school, any school, for students  to attend they have satisfied the federal and state requirements for FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education). Determining what is “appropriate” has been the work of court cases throughout the decades and in my opinion, has shown that districts have the power to establish no excuses policies and enforce them.

Why do Districts choose to allow students to remain in school who don’t meet attendance requirements or academic requirements? Does it serve students? Clearly, no. Does it handicap teachers? Clearly, yes. Does it degrade the experience for all students? Resoundingly, YES. So why is it allowed to persist as policy?

Do students benefit from a “no excuses” approach? Yes. Do adolescents benefit from opportunities to “try again” or “do over” with meaningful consequences? Again, yes. Being torn from friends and forced to attend a different school for a term can be very effective for students in Jr. High and High School. So why don’t teachers and parents join together and require districts to pass “no excuses” policies? Perhaps because most parents and teachers are misinformed and believe it is impossible. Perhaps even the district leaders believe it is impossible. But it is not impossible and should be vigorously pursued by parents, teachers and even students.

Fortunately, charter schools are providing this opportunity for students and act as a model for what could be done in all public schools. As a charter school leader, I feel we are doing students a great service, even when they don’t meet our expectations and return to their public school. The student has an opportunity to meet a standard, and if they don’t, they live the consequences and have a very valuable learning experience.

You may be surprised to learn that we don’t “kick them out”. We do not have the authority to do so. We do apply many, many remedies, such as parent conferences for missing work (students must call home EACH and EVERY time they are unprepared for class), detentions, and ‘parent interventions’ where parents are required to come to school and sit near their student and assist them in becoming an able learner. Some parents give up and pull their student out so they don’t have to comply. Some get tired of the phone calls. Some don’t know how to “make” their student comply and aren’t interested in learning how to impose meaningful consequences at home. Some students convince their parents they really don’t want to have to do all that is required and the parents pull the student out. Some student fail courses and realize high school graduation from our school will be very difficult and choose an easier route.

In any case, it is GREAT for students to have to pay a REAL price for failure. It is in these chances for a “do-over” that students learn. And parents appreciate the support when they are dealing with a difficult adolescent. This change, establishing performance standards at public schools and enforcing them, would revolutionize public education.

In another comment, Ms. Sharette expanded on these points.

There is no federal or state law that I am aware of that requires public schools to allow students who refuse to participate in the programs or maintain standards of conduct to remain in them. District policies have been crafted to allow students to stay in schools even after they have demonstrated they are not going to attend class, do homework, or maintain behavior standards. The requirements of FAPE (a Free and Appropriate Public Education) have not, to my knowledge, been interpreted to mean that districts must allow students to remain at a particular school.

Districts could raise the standards for their schools quickly by making it a privilege to attend the best schools – a privilege maintained through effort, participation and attendance. If a student misses the mark, he or she can attend a different school in the district, which would likely have a different focus and less positive outcomes (because more time needs to be spent on remediating the students who have failed prior classes, or focusing on truancy etc). Parents could also lose their free transportation if the school the student qualifies for is not their boundary school. Being required to drive their student to school would increase the parents’ participation. While this may be unpopular, I don’t believe it is a violation of FAPE and would increase parent and student participation in schools.

We would be doing these families a big favor if there were some real consequences for failure to participate in school. It should be applied each quarter (not just at year’s end) so students have LOTS of opportunities for “do-overs” which, I believe, is the key for many students during adolescence. If they fail a quarter, or don’t meet attendance requirements, they transfer to a different school. They could earn their original placement back, but it would be difficult. As a parent I would have appreciated this, and I believe many parents would appreciate the support of the schools in not allowing their students to fail or misbehave without real, meaningful consequences.

So the fact that public schools are “required” to take all students is true, but HOW they determine they will serve students is completely up to them. At this point, they choose to ignore the failure to participate and bad behaviors and force teachers to try to deal with it, which greatly and negatively impacts the experience of all students.

If it is not a level playing field for public schools, it is due to the districts’ lack of expertise in organizing their schools and implementing policies that effectively train students with real consequences. This is completely under the districts’ control. Therefore I believe it is not a valid argument against holding public schools accountable. Just because they CHOOSE to disadvantage themselves through ineffective policies that set up a system that doesn’t work very well, does not excuse them from being accountable. If the playing field isn’t level, it is under their control to make it so.

This makes a lot of sense to me. If we want to “level the playing field” for all public schools, including charter schools, wouldn’t we better accomplish this (and better serve our kids) by adopting a no-excuses policy across the board?

What do you think?





  1. David Damjanovich

    With all of the different opinions being expressed about charter schools, My opinion is that the bottom line is what the children are learning. The proof is how well the kids learn and maintain the education they are receiving.I am the product of the public school system ,and from my experience, i moved on to the next grade whether i was ready or not. Charter schools do a much better job at assuring our children are receiving and maintaining the information presented to them.Whatever your opinion is in regards to Charter vs. Public schooling , my child is receiving an incredible education as a Charter school student and THAT IS my bottom line.

  2. Dave Leavitt

    I have had 3 (my youngest 3) of my 7 children attend American Prep and I found the commitment to standards and “no excuses” has been not only refreshing as a parent, but also liberating for students. The kids rise to the level of the school’s (and parent’s) expectations, because they raise their own expectations of what he/she must do to succeed. This breeds self-esteem and growing self-confidence; a new “normal” of standards for success and achievement. And frankly, it just takes some courage and out-of-the-box thinking to try and apply proven approaches, including the ‘no excuses’ philosophy. It’s a mystery how similar tried and true concepts in the greater business world too often are dismissed out-of-hand as not appropriate for schools/students. Thank-you American Prep for not accepting excuses, for establishing standards of accountability, and creating a culture of raising the bar consistently enough that now my children raise their own bar while now attending a traditional public High School. The model works!

  3. Lisa Bennett

    According to the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,”Differences in impact by community type do not appear to be explained by student demographics.
    Although urban charter schools do especially well with minority and low-income students, these schools also produce significant gains on most outcomes for
    Whites as well….An analysis that interacts charter attendance with students’ baseline scores shows that urban charter schools boost achievement
    most for students who start out with the lowest scores. Interactions with the baseline score of peers offer little evidence of positive peer effects; in fact, among middle schools, the charters that boost achievement most enroll the weakest students.”

    Charter schools, in general, demonstrate the greatest success among the weakest, most vulnerable populations. During American Prep’s first year of operation at its first Title I school, The School for New Americans, the average K-6 grade student improved pre/post-assessment Dibels Reading scores an average of 32.1%. This was the school’s first year with students who had been in traditional public schools. This was clearly not the result of discouraged students withdrawing and leaving only the most academically motivated students behind.

    It is my opinion that “no excuses” needs to apply not only to students, but to any school (be it a traditional public or Charter school), that does not produce acceptable academic results. In effect, “raising the bar” allows more students, not less, to pass through to academic success.

  4. Fiery Darts

    I appreciate Ms. Sharette’s points and applaud her for creating an environment of accountability.

    However, I’d like to point out that charter schools differ from public schools in some very significant ways that make it much easier for them to successfully implement a “no excuses” policy.

    First, and most importantly, the students at charter school have, by virtue of the effort required to enroll and frequently to travel to them, parents who are engaged in their learning. These are parents who will come to class and sit with a troubled student, and who will work through problems.

    Second, it’s much easier to leave a charter school and return to a neighborhood school than it is to leave a local school and start commuting to another school. For example, I was an ambitious, motivated student, but at one point I chose to not take an AP class that I could have really benefitted from because it would have required me to travel about 3 miles to another high school (it wasn’t offered at my school).

    Bear in mind, I like the idea of a “no excuses” policy. I think that it’s worth trying, even in struggling public schools. Children are often capable of being far more than we expect them to be, and I think there is a good chance that most of them, including many that would surprise all of us, would rise to the challenge. I just think that it is a logical error to infer that a policy working at a charter or private school would also work at a public school.

  5. Heath Madsen

    I am a high school geography and history teacher and am in complete agreement about the “no excuses.” I have seen students turn themselves around and make great strides in their education because of having high expectations and not budging from those expectations. Do the students try to toe the line? Yes. Do they see if I will budge? Yes. When I stand firm, it is amazing to see how many step up and perform. At times we don’t give the students enough credit and at other times we are just trying to find the easy way out and lower the bar rather than hold it high. If we lower the bar, we are placing crutches on our students that will weaken their ability to walk on their own.

  6. Grant Stoddard

    As a first-year teacher, I have really seen the benefits of having kids do something over and over again until they reach mastery. While I am by no means an expert on how education ought to be organized, I think Carolyn makes a valid point about students learning important lessons through failure. I would personally hate to see any of the kids I have come to love this year not be able to function years down the road when they first experience a real disappointment in life. Making them experience real consequences at an early age could help us educate them on how to respond to disappointments appropriately and prepare them for the future. I would just hope that schools would look at it that way instead of labeling these transfer students as failures and grumbling because they have to take on some other school’s rejects.

  7. Economics of education

    Fiery darts,
    The first step in using charter schools to better public education is to stop the misconception that charter schools are not public schools. Charter schools are public schools. Also, parents are usually more involved in their child’s education at a charter school which we know is the number 1 reason for a student’s success. At American Prep, the refugees are recruited and bussed to school everyday. There is no reason for their parents to be more involved. But because of American Prep’s program, they have developed ways to reach out to parents. The no excuse policy is s good example and one that, if implemented at traditional public schools, would produce the same result – an increase in parental awareness and involvement.

  8. Economics of Education

    The first step in using charter schools to better public education is to stop the misconception that charter schools are not public schools. Charter schools are public schools. Also, parents are usually more involved in their child’s education at a charter school which we know is the number 1 reason for a student’s success. At American Prep, the refugees are recruited and bussed to school everyday. There is no reason for their parents to be more involved. But because of American Prep’s program, they have developed ways to reach out to parents. The no excuse policy is a good example and one that, if implemented at traditional public schools, would produce the same result – an increase in parental awareness and involvement.

    If the problem is parental involvement, we need to experiment on how to get parents more involved. That is exactly what charter schools like American Prep are doing.

  9. Heather Brand

    Providing free, public education is a very important part of creating a successful society. However, are we really doing students a favor when we allow them to continue attending school without passing even very low standards? When students go through all their public school years without doing homework or attending regularly, why do we continue to promote them and then graduate them? We have just taught these students that such minimal effort is acceptable. I personally think that accepting such low standards is far worse than not providing education at all. Just as Americans have the right to the pursuit of happiness, we also have the right to the pursuit of education. One can’t just be given happiness or education. Both must be pursued.

  10. Liz Eagan

    What exactly would a” no excuse” policy do for the large public schools? It would bring focus into what the term education truly means. It might mean tightening the standards for all kiddos and their parents. All too often, “school” has come to mean “babysitting” to all too many parents who are overwhelmed between jobs and children. And this is where looking at other countries’ policies becomes interesting. I am truly engaged in the outcome of education versus factory work. If children in China ”refuse” to go to school at about age 10, they are allowed to work for 12-14 hours a day – possibly the same amount of time as a student may spend in going to school and doing homework….an interesting alternative and surely Americans could use the Chinese model as an template for success. Perhaps after a few years at working in a factory as their job instead of going to school as their job, students may be allowed to choose to go back to school? No excuses there. Think what the classrooms for all teachers would be like with only students who want to be there – I can hear many educators sighing in bliss. Why, we could even twist the words factory employment to vocational education and satisfy every letter of the law, right?
    In Africa, the children start in the gold mines at about six years old and their day is about 12-14 hours long. In Mexico, they start in the fields working at about 9 or 10 years of age. In Australia, at 15 years of age, children join the labor force unless they are dedicated in their studies and then those only are allowed to stay in school. Again, just offering examples that may seem absurd to Americans but might be food for fodder for the kiddos just not wanting to go to school.
    Granite District recently published an article concerning their secondary school and the calling home to parents when children are truant and the parent meetings and that effectiveness and I believe they indicated it was around 80% effective….when they have the time and resources to do it.
    Let’s go to the root of the problem, and ask why it is that children do not want to attend, do not want to learn. Over and over again, the discussion circles back to social promotion. Because you are a certain age, you are in a certain grade. That would be like saying because you are 80, you are incapable of functioning as a sentient adult and must be placed in an assistive living center…(heaven help the assisted living center who would get my mom who at 84 is managing 3 apartment homes in Illinois). Ludicrous, right? So let us do away with grades and replace them with achievement levels and when you master a level, you move up; when you do not master a level, you get the extra repetitions and the extra help to “try again” and “get it”. Perhaps the kiddos not attending are the kiddos who need the extra chance to try again but are moved forward into grades where they are completely lost and feel failure.
    Then there is the alternative: just hand every child a certificate of completion when they feel they are through and they are then employable – again working out fine in China, Mexico and Africa just to name a few! What possibly, really, can be done? Child refuses to attend school, parent does not know how to make them, state comes in under the guise of “child protection” and places them in a “foster” home, child runs away from there or suffers from reactive attachment disorder and is emotionally destroyed by the good will of the state. Mind boggling to say the least.
    Do kiddos come with manuals when they are born? Total Transformation and Love and Logic really do help as do parenting classes that are effective – don’t know what to do – ask. Place your child not by age but by achievement so that they may feel success regardless of age – I am still playing 8 year olds at chess and it is fun and I sometime s even win!
    So the bottom line is, when the districts begin to implement the “no excuse” policy, parent need to be prepared for their children who do not want to attend to receive a certificate of completion and they will be done at school and be employable…..maybe even at seven so get ready for schools to no longer be babysitters while you work. Engage now, learn the tough love and love and logic techniques and the consequences that will ensure your child’s success. Do not be afraid to say, since my child is not at mastery, let’s keep him here until he master this and is successful. Be ready to add a whole new level to public education as the “no excuses” policy will be put into place…it is a matter of time.

  11. Fred 44

    I am sure that Carolyn does a great job at her school, and I am sure that many parents and students are having great and positive experiences at many charter schools throughout our state. I think however that the “no excuses” discussion as it relates to traditional public schools has failed to deal with the realities that traditional public schools are facing.

    I was hoping to see some concrete information that would show us how traditional schools could adopt this “no excuses’ policy and create real consequences for students and parents who are not functioning within the traditional school system. I couldn’t agree with Liz more about the need to move away from social promotion. I also agree that for many kids who are not currently functioning within the system the best thing might be to move them out of the system into the workforce with an open door to return at some point. I would love this type of system, and combining it with an end to social promotion would make a huge difference in our traditional public education system.

    As much as I agree with what Liz has proposed, I have yet to see anyone talk about how within the current structure of the law this could be done. Carolyn mentions “Perhaps because most parents and teachers are misinformed and believe it is impossible. Perhaps even the district leaders believe it is impossible. But it is not impossible and should be vigorously pursued by parents, teachers and even students.” Carolyn, with all due respect, if I am misinformed, please inform me. I read and reread your column and I cannot find a single place where you quote any case law that would indicate to me that a “no excuse” policy could be implemented. You also talked about FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education), and then you said “determining what is “appropriate” has been the work of court cases throughout the decades and in my opinion, has shown that districts have the power to establish no excuses policies and enforce them.” I understand that this is your belief, but what case law is that belief based on? It is easy to say that something can and should happen, but it is much more difficult to provide a mechanism for it to happen.

    As a traditional public school teacher I cannot tell you how frustrated I am with our failure to hold students and parents accountable, yet at the same time it is very frustrating to hear people say that you can do this or you can do that, but then are unable to tell you how it can happen within the current educational law. For example I would argue that Brown vs. Board of Education would be an example of case law that would prevent a school district from creating the type of alternative school that Carolyn suggested. Brown vs Board of Education says that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” I realize that this case law was created in a racial inequality situation, but it has been used for special ed and other special populations. I think this case law along with many others cases since then would prevent an alternative school where students were assigned to attend rather than go there voluntarily. Currently at least in our district an administrator can recommend an alternative placement for students, but that placement must be agreed to by the parent or legal guardian of that student unless it is a school safety issue. Utah has an open enrollment law which basically allows a student to attend the school of choice unless that school is at the maximum capacity. With that law how would a school administrator assign a student to an alternative school without breaking the law?

    Again I don’t mean to be difficult but I have seen ideas, but no solutions. For a something to be a solution there must be a way to implement that solution that can withstand the legal challenge that is sure to follow. I may be wrong, but I believe that in most cases traditional schools are doing the best they can to provide a quality education to every student in a situation where they have very limited control over much of what they are expected to do.

  12. Debra Lloyd

    When expectations are set, clearly communicated and held firm, students understand what is expected of them. The moment we lower the expectation we have set, the student understands we are implying they can’t do it. We are the adults in their world, their parents, their teachers, their principals. We are their “experts” they look to for guidance. If we are telling them they can’t do it, why would they believe anything different?

    If a student has not mastered the concepts in one level, he doesn’t have the necessary skills to master the next level. If he doesn’t have the skills to succeed at the next level, moving him on to the next level sets him up to fail future levels. Why would parents, teachers, or principals set students up to fail?

    If we tell a student they can’t do it and set him up to fail, we have failed as parents, as teachers, as principals.

    How can we solve the cycle of failure? Support the education of students by setting solid expectations, teaching them to achieve the expectations, and retaining them when they have demonstrated they need more repetitions to master the grade level.

  13. Carolyn Sharette

    If you feel my idea has potential and might be beneficial to education, why not take it to your district leaders? They have the power to implement it, or can give you the answers regarding why they cannot or would not. I think you may find it enlightening to hear their answers. And then you could share them with us.

    Are you aware that districts have participation requirements for their school permits? If a student wishes to attend a high school out of their boundary school, they have to get a permit, and if they don’t fulfill the requirements which usually are participation requirements like attendance, classroom behavior and passing grades they lose the privilege of attending their choice school. This is not a violation of Brown or any other laws or rules.

    Maybe your conversation with district leaders could discuss those things and find out if they would be willing to implement some no excuses policies. Who knows where it may lead?

  14. Fred 44

    Carolyn I took your advice and had a discussion with one of our Assistant Superintendents, and I must say it was very enlightening. I discussed the out of boundary requests and was told that our district loves those students who come in from outside of the district boundaries, because they come for very specific purposes (academics, athletics or other activities) and these students are seldom pose any trouble for our schools and are usually contributors to the schools they attend. The few that cannot function have their permits revoked and are sent back to their home schools (much like charter or private schools function). The students that move within our own district are a whole different story. Many function well but those who don’t are either allowed to continue to attend the school of their choice are in rare instances sent back to their home school. One thing that the Assistant Superintendent pointed out is that we are responsible for every student who resides within the boundaries of our school district, and we must with very few exceptions provide an education to each of those students regardless. He explained to me that approximately 20-25% of the students who leave our district for charter schools each year return before the year is over. He talked about the challenge students who are home schooled for weeks, months, or years and are placed back into our schools at all different times throughout the year. He made mention that each of those students will be tested at the end of the year regardless of the number of days of enrollment, their actual attendance or effort in class. I asked him how many of our students leave our school during the school year to attend charter schools. He said he assumed a few, but was unaware of any. I asked him what he thought of a no excuses policy. He said he was in favor of it, and he said that we try to hold students accountable within what we have been told is the law. He admitted that some Principals and some schools do a better job of that than do others. I asked if he thought Charter Schools and traditional schools were on the same playing field when it came to creating accountability for students. He said absolutely not. He said although charter schools cannot individually select students, he said that they can create policies that if students do not comply with they can be dismissed from the charter school and the charter school is done with them. He said that short of severe safe school violations traditional school districts cannot dismiss students.

    I think that everyone would like more accountability in our traditional schools, I know I would. However I think that when having a discussion about different educational institutions it is important to be honest. To continue to imply that traditional public schools and charter schools have the same ability to create student accountability is just not being honest. Could traditional schools do a better job, absolutely, my Assistant Superintendent was in agreement with that and he said our district was working to that end. But he also pointed out that Charters do not have a responsibility for any students. They can eliminate those who don’t comply and they are done with them. That makes a huge difference if we are talking about creating accountability.

  15. Carolyn Sharette

    I congratulate you on taking this to the next level!

    However, I am afraid you have just confirmed everything I have said on this topic.

    The LEA (local education agency) IS responsible to educate all the students that live in their boundaries. HOW they choose to do so is entirely up to their policies.

    Any district could institute no excuses policies that would remove students who fail to participate at required levels. Your message confirms that – districts can revoke permits and can remove students from schools for safe schools violations. So students are removed from district schools. It is true that the district must still provide a school for that student.

    I remain confident that it is legal for districts to establish bare bones schools, with all the required elements of FAPE, and send students to them who refuse to meet participation requirements at their chosen school.

    Did you ask your administrator if that would be impossible? I would be very interested in the answer.

    As a charter school which has had students leave, I can tell you it is not because we have dismissed them mid-year, which we are told is illegal. With the exception of a safe-school violation expulsion, I cannot recall ever “dismissing” a student. However, when the students see that it will require hard work and parents realize they will not be off the hook, some do leave and go back to their district school.

    It made me sad to read that students on permit in your district, if they fail to meet the permit requirements, are seldom sent back to their boundary school. This is exactly what trains our children to believe there are no real consequences to their actions.

    I dream of a day when adults get together, look at the problems, and stop at nothing to implement solutions that will help our students to be accountable. I don’t think it would be that hard! We can accomplish this with a little cooperation and willingness to open our minds and stop at nothing until we have achieved our objective. Let’s encourage districts to take a no excuses approach and create programs to support it.

    Then, let’s add the elimination of social promotion. It is AMAZING what students will do when they really know they will not be promoted. And I am amazed at the number of strong parents who will support us in retaining students who fail due to non-participation. Generally, we have found parents are desperate for the school to help them impose meaningful, tough consequences when they are dealing with a challenging child.

  16. Fred 44


    Funny you should say I have proved your point, because that is exactly how I feel about your last post. I have asked over and over for some legal precedence some case law not just an opinion that the “no excuses” policy could be instituted. I must say that I am totally shocked that a person who works in the education field would propose that a school district could legally create a bare bones no frills school that was completely different than other schools, and force students out of other schools into that school. The judge would laugh you right out of court when that lawsuit was filed.

    I also must chuckle at your concern about the words I use to describe students who leave charter schools. Again lets be real students leave charter schools every year in fairly significant numbers and return to neighborhood schools. Whether we use the words kicked out, dismissed or whatever, it doesn’t matter, these students immediately cease to become the responsibility of the charter school and are immediately the responsibility of the local school district.

    It is disingenuous to even imply that school districts and charter schools are on the same footing when it comes to this discussion. As an educational professional I would like to have an intelligent discussion about education system and what we can do to make it better for all students and all types of schools, but to imply that we are all playing the game under the same rules again is disingenuous. I am not saying that traditional public schools don’t have some advantages because they do, but come on Carolyn I to imply that a school district could institute a school with a school that was not basically equal to its other schools and then force students to attend that school without a lawsuit is laughable. We need to have serious discussions and talk about real solutions that are possible in the world we live in.

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