On Selecting Baltimore City Schools New CEO, A "No Excuses Approach"?

In the recent article in the Baltimore Sun announcing the arrival of Dr. Santelesis, she is clearly passionate about high expectations for children in Baltimore, and she clearly holds a belief in the genius of our children. The problem is that her message and her previous history are linked to standard setting as an answer to improving achievement. The question we have is whether her message and leadership as the new CEO will lean more towards the "no excuses" end of the high expectation spectrum or to a more genuine understanding of how to engage students and address the needs of Baltimore City's public school community.

So far, Santelesis's rhetoric praises the "no excuses" high expectations approach to student outcomes which supports a standard setting approach to education–an approach that is deeply controversial and has seen push back from Baltimore City students and organizers. 

There are elements of the no excuses argument that make sense. The basic argument that children do better when more is expected of them has a strong basis in science. When scientists talk about the causal relationship between higher expectations and outcomes, they are referring to the phenomena associated with a teacher’s beliefs about how well a child or a group of children can be expected to perform. The research consists of controlled studies in which students’ enjoyment of and engagement in school, and therefore performance, has been shown to increase when researchers trick teachers into believing that a certain set of children has the potential to excel. Teachers tend to treat children in whom they believe with: more kindness, a greater degree of flexibility, more eye contact, more encouragement and recognition when they do well, and more constructive feedback when they make mistakes.

The education reform movement has extrapolated from this research that we need higher standards. Teachers need to act as if all the children in front of them in the classroom can meet these higher standards, despite what the teacher may have heard, come to believe, or surmised from the actions of the children, and despite any biases carried by the teacher.

The problem with this leap from controlled research studies to the setting of systemic standards, and from there to the real life classrooms is that the actual causal relationship is lost. This is specially true in underfunded, historically racist institutions such as public schools in America, and particularly when the teacher is from a completely different socioeconomic and/or racial background. The actual causal relationship in the studies between expectations and outcomes is the affective part of the teacher's expectation-setting behavior.

The studies do not show that higher standards lead to higher achievement. They show that treating children with more acceptance, more kindness, more understanding, and more constructive feedback, while also expecting them to do better, is what leads to higher achievement. This holding of expectations (in the form of adhering to a good curriculum) while also making allowances and being kind and being able to relate well to children is much more difficult to achieve on a system-wide basis than raising the standards and demanding more of teachers.

It may be that Dr. Santelesis actually understands all this. But it is very important how she sells her message. In the current era of education reform, the tendency to sell and buy the "no excuses" mantra has led to a disaster for public schools.

image courtesy of Baltimore Sun