Harvard Educational Review
  1. Scripting the Moves

    Culture and Control in a “No-Excuses” Charter School

    Joanne W. Golann

    Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021. 248 pp. $27.95 (cloth).

    In June 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and shortly after the murder of George Floyd, an unexpected announcement emerged in the education world. KIPP, a charter school organization of more than 250 elementary, middle, and high schools across the US, and one of the most prominent founders of the “no-excuses” educational model, announced they would be dropping their slogan “Work Hard. Be Nice.” Stating that “working hard and being nice is not going to dismantle systemic racism,” the KIPP Foundation’s (2020) announcement arrived during a swell of protests, activism, and corporate statements against police violence and racial injustice.

    But it didn’t end there. On the heels of KIPP’s statement, Achievement First, another influential no-excuses school organization, announced the end of several practices typical to these schools, including a “[hyper]-focus on students’ body positioning . . . [and] extended periods of silence during social times,” and a commitment to “apologizing and making amends” for prior racist actions. Next came a statement from Uncommon Schools (2020) echoing the prior two. Soon, almost every major no-excuses organization was moving in a similar direction to drop the school culture they had created, embodied, and defended to critics for nearly two decades (Noble Network, 2021; YES Prep, 2020).

    On the tailwinds of these announcements, Joanne W. Golann’s Scripting the Moves: Culture and Control in a “No-Excuses” Charter School landed on our shelves. The culmination of Golann’s eighteen months of ethnographic research in a no-excuses school from 2012 to 2014, Scripting the Moves delivers a rich, thought-provoking, and at times painful analysis of an educational ideology lauded by educators, policy makers, and philanthropists over the last twenty years. Golann deftly weaves the perspectives of the Dream Academy community—a pseudonym for the middle school in the northeastern United States where she observed and conducted interviews with students and teachers—into a compelling narrative that demonstrates how the no-excuses movement, critiqued by many over the years for its use of punitive and controlling discipline tactics with predominantly Black and Latinx student populations, ultimately perpetuated educational injustice.

    A key strength of Scripting the Moves lies in its dual accessibility and sophistication; this work would be equally at home in the hands of sociologists, policy makers, and no-excuses educators, regardless of whether they have followed long-standing debates about the schools. This is, in part, because Golann dedicates ample attention to providing a rich description and history of the no-excuses model, which she defines as “a common set of practices, such as an extended school day and school year, frequent student testing . . . intensive teacher coaching . . . and a college-going culture . . . [that are] distinctive [for their] highly-structured disciplinary system” (p. 5). She then proceeds to identify the titular “scripts” and “moves” that no-excuses schools traditionally use for student behavior. These include rules against students talking in the hallways, putting their heads on desks, looking any direction in the classroom other than at the teacher, wearing jewelry, and stepping out of straight lines, as well as policies dictating how students should engage with their teacher during instruction, how they should ask questions, and how they can communicate with peers during lunchtime.

    Golann then introduces her main argument, rooted in the intersection of education and the sociological concept of cultural capital. Building on the work of numerous scholars who have explored cultural capital, Golann posits that our understanding of the theory should include an awareness of “tools of interaction,” or the “habits, skills, and styles” that “allow certain groups to effectively navigate complex institutions and shifting expectations” (p. 10). Through illustrating the everyday, micro-level interactions between students and teachers at Dream Academy, Golann develops another central argument: in their relentless pursuit to prepare students (the majority of whom are low-income, BIPOC, and/or first-generation Americans) for college, no-excuses schools like Dream Academy fail to truly cultivate the tools of interaction that students will require for long-term success in college and beyond. Furthermore, in transmitting these narrow behavioral scripts, these educators “maintain racial and classed structures of domination” over students and fail to combat the fundamental institutionalized racism that creates educational inequality (pp. 14, 40-41).

    The book’s six chapters fall into two categories: those that examine the student experience with these narrow behavioral scripts and those that examine how teachers adopted, grappled with, and navigated the implementation of these scripts. This structure of interwoven student voices and teacher reactions brings into sharp focus the ways students experienced feelings of struggle, disrespect, and racism in their classrooms. In chapters 2, 3, and 4 we learn from students who felt their school’s rules limited their freedom, agency, and leadership. In response, we hear from teachers who saw “freedom as risky for the students they served” and viewed self-control as a key virtue necessary for students’ future success. (pp. 70-71).

    Chapter 4 tells the striking stories of students in various states of struggle or distress and the sharp, harmful responses of their teachers. We meet a Black eighth-grader, Alexis, who set her head on her desk in response to a disagreement with another student and suddenly found her teacher poking and pulling at her while yelling her name. This is just one example of teachers’ misguided attempts to “sweat the small stuff,” believing it would prepare their students for college (p. 105). Golann shows that these were not only poor strategies for college preparation but also tactics that led students to feel their teachers “ignored” them or viewed them as “bad” or “criminal” (pp. 101107). Sometimes, we catch glimpses of change, like Dream Academy’s efforts to encourage student voice by instructing students to raise three fingers in a “W” sign if they wished to speak with a teacher, or educators’ attempts to implement restorative justice pedagogy. However, time and time again Golann shows how these efforts were difficult or incompatible with the culture of strict monitoring and control the school held at its core. As she shares these stories from her fieldwork, she connects them to her framework of scripts and tools, positing that these school structures prevent students from developing a “sense of ease” and the tools needed to effectively and equitably interact with authority figures (p. 101). She convincingly argues that these strict structures can reinforce and maintain structures of control and domination over Black and Latinx students and teach students that any failures they might face are the result of their own work ethic, rather than the “profound structural constraints” that shape access to opportunity in America (pp. 56, 172).

    Chapters 5 and 6 examine the school primarily from the adult point of view. Throughout these chapters, we follow teachers as they consider the benefits, trade-offs, and modifications of the model. One teacher, Ms. Williams, recounted how she was confronted by a fellow teacher for allowing a student to bring a bottle of water to school on a hot day; another described the school’s scripts for behavior and instruction as “beyond exhausting” (pp. 118, 140). Chapter 6 closes the tale of Dream Academy by proposing a typology for categorizing how no-excuses teachers may conform with, imitate (but struggle with), adapt, or reject the behavioral scripts they are expected to enforce. Throughout, Golann highlights how “a heavily scripted approach . . . cannot take advantage of the expertise provided by experienced teachers, nor can it adapt to potential innovations” and cautions us again to carefully heed their “consequences for the low-income students of color often at the receiving end of these scripts” (p. 160).

    If one can imagine any dispute over the book, it might stem not from its incisive analysis or methodological rigor but from the timing of its release at an infection point. Even prior to their announcements in summer 2020, many no-excuses schools were introducing new models of instruction and school culture (among them pilots of restorative justice, project-based learning, and recruitment efforts aimed at hiring a more racially diverse teacher population). Despite Golann’s discussion of some of these changes, it’s possible that proponents of these schools—the majority of which still exist in some form—may argue that this no-excuses world no longer exists, that the author is describing a bygone era of these schools. If so, they would be overlooking the immense contribution of the work. While it’s true that the fieldwork for this book occurred in 2012–2014, prior to many of these shifts, Scripting the Moves documents one of the most-talked-about education reforms of the twenty-first century and, in doing so, provides a blunt reminder to not continue or repeat these harms in the future.

    I doubt I am alone in wondering what Golann herself believes about these 2020 announcements, news that was likely breaking just as the fnal pages of Scripting the Moves went to print. Still, the fnal pages of the book provide curious readers with some clues. In her conclusion, she highlights a “reckoning” that occurred within the Achievement First network in 2019: after a video surfaced that showed a white principal shoving a Black high school student, the network committed to several shifts toward racial equity, student empowerment, and increased accountability for leadership (pp. 168–169). She is careful to remind us, however, that we should not rush “to assume that school culture and discipline is an old story and that reckoning is easy or speedy” (p. 169). Indeed, time has yet to show if efforts like these will succeed in fully ending the punitive control and discipline within these schools. The question remains whether it is possible for a system so rooted in control, compliance, and success on standardized tests to fully reinvent itself.

    Ultimately, Scripting the Moves provides not just the useful lens of “scripts” and “tools” through which to understand the drawbacks of the no-excuses model but a theoretical framework for critically examining our collective mindsets and beliefs about what low-income, BIPOC children need to succeed in a world plagued by racism and economic inequality. This prompt for critical reflection is another realm in which Golann shines. Scripting the Moves highlights her ability to acknowledge the harm of the no-excuses model while calling for accountability and change. This is not a volume written to endlessly condemn those who espoused these schools; rather, it highlights the intractable links between race, social control, and education and begs us to contend with the harmful “narrative, practices, and structures that seep throughout schools and society” (p. 172). Golann’s work leads us to confront ourselves, to turn inward and have our own reckoning. For readers willing to do so, Scripting the Moves offers invaluable insights into how a belief in the no-excuses movement obscured our path toward educational equity and shaped a generation of reformers’ views of justice.

    Abigail Orrick


    Achievement First. (2020, August 18). Achievement First’s commitments to lead for racial equity. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.achievementfirst.org/our-lead-for-racial-equity-commitments/

    KIPP Foundation. (2020, July 1). Retiring “Work hard. Be nice.” as KIPP’s national slogan [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.kipp.org/retiring-work-hard-be-nice/. (2021, March 8).

    Anti-racism at Noble: Our commitment [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://nobleschools.org/profiles/anti-racism-commitment/

    Uncommon Schools. (2020, July 2). A letter to the Uncommon community [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://uncommonschools.org/letter-to-our-community/

    YES Prep. (2020, June 18). Anti-racism at YES Prep: List of commitments to our Black community and board resolution [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.yesprep.org/news/blog/featured/~board/blog/post/anti-racism-at-yes-prep-list-of-commitments-to-our-black-community-and-board-resolution


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