“Excuses are the tools of the weak and incompetent. I am neither weak nor incompetent! Therefore, I will not use excuses.” I listened to that chant in the room next door to mine every single morning. It seems like a positive message of empowerment, and sometimes, for some kids, it was. But there were definitely drawbacks to working at a “no excuses” charter school.
“No excuses” schools exist all over the country, often as part of charter school networks like KIPP. They’re generally concentrated in urban areas, serve mostly low-income students and families of color, and usually boast high test scores. There’s a lot of emphasis on the belief that all students can succeed and that, as my administrators told me, “We sweat the small stuff so we don’t have to sweat the big stuff.” In everyday practice, this meant spending a lot of time shepherding kids into straight, silent lines and reminding them to face forward.
“No excuses” schools are generally schools of choice, meaning parents choose these schools for the opportunities, safety, and quality of education they provide.
And some of the hype is completely accurate. These schools have high achievement stats, focus on college preparation, and provide a safe and orderly place to students who might not otherwise have one. At my school, a third of our student body went on to private high schools after eighth grade graduation. Every year in May, my social media is full of pictures of former students at their college graduations. I’ve seen kids go from dependent, apathetic learners to confident and motivated young people because of the emphasis on personal accountability. They felt empowered by the message that they were the ones ultimately responsible for their success. For other students, the outcomes weren’t so positive.
The problem is that, in the end, people are not always personally responsible for their success or failure.
When we tell kids that their futures are in their hands alone, we ignore structural issues that stand in their way. After all, if it’s all a meritocracy, anybody should be able to go to Harvard if they want it badly enough, right? No excuses! A child is sleeping in class because she’s working nights with her mom and only gets four hours of sleep? No excuses! If she’s motivated enough, she’ll get her head off her desk, pay attention in class, and do two hours of homework every night in addition to earning money to help her family survive.
When we claim that the only element at play in a student’s relative success is their motivation, we erase huge parts of their identity and experience. Disabilities, neurodivergence, poverty, cultural differences in learning style or interactions—all of these are deemed irrelevant. Worse, we send the implicit message that if students come from an economically disadvantaged background, their parents were somehow deficient in “grit,” intelligence, or drive. If your dad’s an Uber driver, it doesn’t matter that he was an engineer in Eritrea. No excuses for existing below the poverty line.
What “no excuses” schools fail to recognize is the difference between excuses and reasons.
If I’m late to work because I stopped to buy a coffee, that’s an excuse. I should have left earlier or survived without the extra hit of caffeine so I could be on time. If, however, my son’s school bus breaks down and I unexpectedly have to drive him to school, I’m not making excuses for being late. That’s a reason. It’s not something I could have avoided through more preparation or better planning; it’s an inconvenience that was outside my control. Schools often fail to differentiate between excuses and valid reasons a student is struggling.
Don’t get me wrong: I hear a million stupid excuses in the course of a day. Often they’re on par with “my dog ate my homework.” Sometimes they’re more legitimate—I was out late last night because of church—but are things kids could have planned for ahead of time. I spend a lot of time saying, “But you knew about this project/test/assignment three weeks ago!” Kids do have to learn to plan ahead and to take responsibility for their own work. But there is a difference between making excuses and explaining reasons, and we need to acknowledge that as teachers.
If a kid is out of uniform because they had to leave their apartment following a robbery at gunpoint, that’s a reason, not an excuse. A kid who can’t do their homework because they’re babysitting younger siblings has a reason, not an excuse. And kids who come to school hungry have an excellent reason for not being focused and ready to learn every minute of the day. Maybe you’re thinking, “Sure, but those are extreme situations. Most kids don’t have challenges like that!” But remember, “no excuses” schools cater to kids living in poverty—these problems are more common than you might think.
What we need is a “some excuses” policy.
Everybody needs grace and understanding. And everybody has emergencies and unforeseen circumstances. Every time I heard a colleague tell a student, “Your boss won’t care why you’re late to work,” it made me cringe. Is that really what we want for our kids? To grow up and work at a widget factory where the boss really won’t care about their sick child or their car accident on the way to work or their flooded apartment? Would we stay at a job that cared only about our productivity and not about our well-being? (Okay, maybe it’s safer not to answer that question.)
Accountability is important. So is recognizing systemic injustice when it makes it impossible—yes, impossible—for our students to succeed. Teaching students, especially the vulnerable kids who end up at “no excuses” schools, when to take responsibility and when to ask for help is crucial not just for their success, but for their survival. And only when we recognize the reasons our students struggle, rather than calling them excuses, can we begin to provide the support they need.