‘No Excuses’ Only Works When It Applies to the Adu...

‘No Excuses’ Only Works When It Applies to the Adults in the School, Too

By Dirk Tillotson

Many schools with strict discipline practice what they call a “no excuses” philosophy.

The problem with many “no excuses” schools is that the motto is often imposed on children but not adults. The adults make all kinds of excuses about the kids who don’t want to learn, whose parents won’t support the school, or whatever justification they have for pushing out kids who don’t fit the mold.

OK, I’m over-generalizing about the schools, but stick with me.

As a Black parent, I know many Black families appreciate the strict discipline and structure, and many students do, too. You can see some of these positive reactions in this video of Black parents, teachers and students really addressing the issue.

Sometimes “no excuses” is a powerful two-way promise, rather than a means to shovel blame on children and families. But sometimes it is not.


As Black parents, we know that our children grow up in a very dangerous world, where small missteps can have immense consequences. Our kids often have to be better just to have an equal shot.

Black parents also more often enforce strict discipline at home. A survey a few years ago showed that Black parents were far more likely to spank their kids than Latino and White families.

And if you work in schools, you have probably seen this, parents that struck their children in school after some disciplinary issue (“sorry I gots to hotline you.”), or that threatened to beat their child once they got home (“thanks but we don’t really need your help that way.”), or even those that we might not tell about certain infractions or issues at school because we knew they would beat the child (“let’s handle this issue in house”).

Black folks are used to a harshness in society and we can be harsh within families as a protective measure. I think parents know how high the stakes are and really need their children to succeed and not transgress in the outside world. A spanking or even a switch is nothing compared to that societal lash. Strict discipline is seen as helping.

We also rely on schools more than most, so when it comes to the school model, we are risk-averse. We often don’t want some experimental approach, we want the “real schools” that many of us grew up in. And in a lot of cases those schools were very strict.


Years ago I worked with a school in a predominantly Black neighborhood that was implementing a non-traditional, very loose program, roughly based on the ideas of Reggio Emilia (note, I am not saying this a good example of it).

Very loose school structures, kids kind of milling around doing their own thing and Becky the teacher sitting barefoot on the floor, looking like she was ready for a Grateful Dead show.

Yeah, the families were not feeling that, maybe this weird way of learning will work, but we can’t take the chance. (And, yeah that school closed.)

In my experience, Black families tend to accept and want more structured and stricter environments for our kids. At times I’ve seen parents give schools the permission to corporally punish their child (uh, no thanks). So it’s not surprising to me to hear many parents praise the strict structure and support they got from “no excuses” schools.


Here’s a sad joke: What do you call a kid with a social anxiety disorder in a school where cold calling (not waiting for students to raise their hands to answer but just calling on kids) is an expected part of teaching?

A dropout.

Not funny.

To me the rigidity of the rules in some of these schools too often does not account for the differences between students.

I still remember a student who was one of my early exercises in stupidity as an educator. He just would not stay seated, always bobbing around the classroom, kind of bouncing on his toes. Hawkeyed, I had him constantly under surveillance, just waiting for him to get up so I could get him to sit down. He wasn’t disagreeable, but it was a constant tug of war. He didn’t even bother the other kids, they seemed used to it. It just bothered me.

Then I met his mom, I made some kind of judgmental comment about how “active” he was, and she said, “Yeah, he has been like that since the head injury.”

And I realized what a jerk I had been, for no good reason, just because the rules were to stay seated, “no excuses.” Stupid. A head injury is a damn good “excuse.” Turns out, there are a lot of good excuses out there.


I admit, my “no excuses” rant is a bit of a straw man. In the best of circumstances, the “no excuses” motto is a reciprocal promise: As a school there is no excuse for us not to figure out how to serve you, and as a student—once we remove these barriers and genuinely understand and support you—there is no excuse for you not to give your best.

And I know there are schools that do it this way. Highly structured, yet not in a rigid and unresponsive way.

I also know that many students with chaotic lives outside of school crave and thrive and feel safe in a predictable school structure, and may really need that. So these things are not incompatible and can actually succeed in combination, but it takes work.

More than that, it takes love.

When we are coming from a place of love with our students, of genuine empathy and caring, we don’t allow excuses—from ourselves or from them.

And that’s a kind of “no excuses” that I and a lot of other Black families would like to see more of.

Dirk Tillotson runs a nonprofit called Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting community charters in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he blogs at Great School Voices.


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