The Crisis at Uncommon

Ultimately, Uncommon Schools, an American charter school network for whom Doug Lemov was a director, which was always one of the main exponents of the zero-tolerance way of managing behaviour was forced into something of a climb-down, the size of which you might not anticipate from President, Julia Jackson’s, acknowledgement in an open letter that there might be something of an issue in the network. 

Jackson, post the killing of George Floyd, wrote of the intentions in setting up the charter school network and that they were to battle racism, to work for social justice. She then made positive affirmations of the power of love within educational institutions and an acknowledgement that students need to feel safe to learn properly and well.[1] She acknowledged being in receipt of certain feedback and that she had been humbled by as that feedback did not match up to the original intentions of the network. 

In a section titled ‘Listening Leads to Change’, Jackson outlined that as a central part of the network’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plan was “listening” and that she wanted to hear from voices who could identify what the network had done well and what they might do better on as they needed to reflect, not only on their successes but also on their mistakes, and to identify where change was needed.

You might imagine from this that some genuinely serious but manageable error had occurred at Uncommon Schools. Sadly, you would probably imagine wrong. But let us wade into this slowly as soon it will envelope everything you think about education, whether you identify as a traditionalist or an alleged progressive or you, like most of us, take your influences from where they ring true regardless of their ideological origins.

In an article in a local newspaper, the Queen’s Daily Eagle, a teacher, Erika Smith. Erika told of her experiences as a new teacher at Uncommon Schools and what she learned at one of the schools as an unqualified teacher during the three week (!) teacher training programme known as “institute”: “At institute, the paramount focus was on controlling children’s bodies … It felt off.”[2] Smith reported that she found her first weeks at the school disturbing: “shoving children’s chairs,adjusting their bodies, getting in their faces to yell at them”.[3] She reported that “the teachers were nearly all white and the students nearly all Black or Latino”.[4] She continued, “teachers would physically go around and hold children in the position they’re supposed to be sitting in. We were instructed to talk to them like police. These were kindergarteners … It was like a horror movie, and it just kept getting more concerning.”[5]

This doesn’t sound much like the cosy, harmless high expectations that certain contributors to the education debate in the United Kingdom have painted of charter schools and their United Kingdom offspring.

The article references an Instagram account, ‘The Uncommon Truth’ (there is another called ‘Black at Uncommon’). What had happened was that a few days before there’d been some controversy at another charter network, Success Academy, where a young teacher had emailed the CEO, Eva Moskowitz, asking why there had been no response to the very recent killing of George Floyd. The CEO had responded and claimed that she had been very busy on operational matters, but the young teacher, Fabiola St Hilaire, was unhappy with the email exchange and posted it on social media prompting a wider debate about institutional racism. The CEO’s dismissal of the concerns of a black teacher prompted an Instagram discussion regarding the network and particularly its behaviours around race. These issues included the banning of some ethnically specific practices with hair and white staff publicly berating black parents in front of their children.

The network downplayed the protests as coming from a very small number of ‘former’ teachers and parents, regardless of the fact that the originator of the issue was a current employee, but Moskowitz came out strongly in support of Black Lives Matter. Many of the complaints centred on Success’s ‘no excuses’ policy, which Alex Zimmerman, in Chalkbeat, New York, described as having the following characteristics: “In class, students [were] often required to sit with their hands clasped, consistently track teachers with their eyes, and [were] regularly corrected for any deviation from the rules.”[6] [7] Zimmerman quotes a teacher, Erika Johnson, who left Success after five years of service: “The number of young Black males you’re suspending is part of the problem – you’re suspending them for non-compliance, for having tantrums. That’s a cry for help.”[8]

We begin to get a picture of an organisation that perhaps needed some lessons in empathy. A petition was raised calling for a change to the culture and the introduction of anti-racism training. Moskovitz, proud of the network’s results, which outranked some of those in more affluent areas, consistently supported the continuation of the behaviour policy as a fundamental part of that success.

A hastily contrived advertisement was designed in response to the controversy. The somewhat stereotypical, though perhaps well-intentioned, aim was to paint a picture of the kind of schools that black students ordinarily attended and to juxtapose this with the same for the average white student. However, the word “good” was attached to the white classroom and the word “bad” was attached to the black classroom. At best, this might be regarded as unthinking institutional behaviour during a controversy about allegedly racist policies.

Moskovitz sent an apologetic letter to staff. A town hall meeting was also held with staff, pointing out the anti-racist intentions of the organisation: that it sought to give black alumni the ability to obtain positions of power and to combat an issue she acknowledged existed, that of institutional racism.[9]

A spark had been lit. Clearly, the issue of institutional racism in American charter schools was on the minds of quite a lot of people.

The article in Chalkbeat was published on 23 June. By 29 June, the ‘Uncommon Truth’ Instagram account had been set up. Its mission was to provide a forum in which ex-teachers and alumni might share “experiences of mismanagement, racism, prejudice, and cultural bias at Uncommon Schools.”[10]

And we’ll take a pause here, and I’ll ask you to draw breath for a moment as there is a sense you and I, dear reader, together for this brief, pulsing moment in time, are teetering on a precipice, a moment in the history of the profession that we all love so deeply. Enjoy the sweet scent of it for just a moment ... because soon you are to be subject to a full immersion, an utter dousing, a complete drenching into the depths of a very dark and rancid pool.

I defy anyone to read the accounts of the children and teachers at these schools and not become emotional, not be reminded of what a racist hellhole the USA can sometimes be, not become deeply and profoundly angry that this was allowed to happen, that we, in the United Kingdom, listened to and took seriously the views of educators who encouraged it, who supported it. I defy anyone to read these comments and not be regretful that they have taken root in our own system, that they have been encouraged and promoted in our own country by voices associated with an authoritarian government that they think that this – this gross misrule, this treating of black children as if they were less than human, this subjugation, this oppression – was ever allowed to happen.

Here are the voices of what Uncommon Schools might previously have labelled “detractors”; here are some of the stories that, till now, have not crossed the Atlantic to yet another positive puff piece in the right-wing or educational press about charter schools or about ‘Teach Like a Champion’. If you do not shed a tear at some of these, then you are not properly human. If they do not cause you to petition for wholesale systemic change, then ponder, was this what you wanted? 

Students’ Experiences at Uncommon Schools[11]

“I’ve been going to an Uncommon school since the first grade and I’m now a junior … In my elementary days, kids were often dragged or yolked up if they didn’t behave the certain way that we were supposed to … This seriously messed up my mental health.”

“I remember some teachers at Uncommon Prep (specifically those who are non-Black) habitually calling us lazy… if we weren’t matching up to their standards of being 100% all the time. Did it ever occur to them that we might be tired from waking up at 6am every morning to commute to school? Maybe we have siblings to drop off and pick up each day on top of school responsibilities? Or that maybe we are exhausted from the 5 hours’ worth of homework they assign each night? We aren’t robots … what we are is tired and burnt out. I would also urge white and non-Black teachers to consider the implications of calling Black children lazy all the time as it reinforces a racist stereotype.”

“I’ve been attending Uncommon since the 5th grade. Now that I’m a senior, I can attest that Uncommon has been babying us since I can remember. They still think that they have the audacity to baby us when we’re about to be adults. They could start treating us like we’re freshmen in college instead of treating us like we’re five-year-olds.”

“Something that really hurt me during my time in Uncommon was hearing teachers make the most disgusting comments about the neighbourhood that our schools are located in, which is often the same neighbourhood that students live in. One time, a fight happened in school and as a result security began to patrol the hallways more. A teacher told us in class that doing all of that was a wasted effort because of the neighbourhood we are in anyways and that they can’t protect us. I don’t know where these teachers get off thinking that saying something like that is acceptable. If all you do is pass judgement on where we live, then maybe you should not teach here … plain and simple. Y’all always wanna talk about utilising ‘precious class time’ correctly but then use that same time to make your racist remarks.”[12]

Uncommon has taught me that work is more valuable than my health. I would come to school and cry because I was so overworked. Now I’m in college and I don’t know how to take care of myself. It’s not like any of the work we did prepared us for college classes. It was just to pass the AP exams or get better data points.”

“In *** *** Charter School (***) all throughout 5th–8th grade, I had been through many incidents where boys would touch my body, two even pulled me from behind just to feel me, and the teachers who saw just those two incidents (Ms. *** and Ms. ***) just looked for a few seconds and didn’t say a word about it. I remember being in so much shock that I didn’t even know what to do or control the emotions that were on my face. I’m a student at *** now, and there are still many, MANY incidents of sexual harassment that go unnoticed or are encountered with little of no consequence.”

“In my senior year I started feeling so sick. Like I could barely walk straight because I was so light-headed but I pushed through because we had college applications to submit. There was one day I just couldn’t take it anymore and I went to the bathroom and vomited there up for an entire hour and I couldn’t get help because the nurse was never there. And even though I had no energy I dragged myself to class because I had a calc test. The next day I got called to the Dean’s office and they told me they were suspending me for skipping class. I explained … what happened and they said there was no way I could be telling the truth and pretty much called me lazy and a liar. Then they called my father and told him not only did I skip class but that I was being disrespectful, mind I was so sick I could barely talk. During my suspension I was hospitalised and found out I had severe anaemia.”

“Suspended for four months.”

“They care so much about grades but fail to realise students don’t really have a passion for learning without feeling mentally stable.”

“In 8th grade I was told I was no longer invited to the end of year trip to ***. At the time I had a teacher named Ms. *** who seemed to always pick on my every chance she got. She didn’t like me because I was fearless and opinionated and didn’t allow anyone to scare me into compliance … One day my black dean at the time who worked at *** pulled me aside and warned me that “there is a teacher that is really really advocating to not invite you to the end of year trip. All of the teachers believe you should go, however your paycheck average says you act up in class and don’t show that you’re mature enough or even earned the right to go on the trip.”

“During my 8th grade year at ***, a teacher would often tell us, ‘whenever we give you guys any freedom, you run with it.’[13] I couldn’t help but think about a quote from Frederick Douglas’s memoir, ‘If you give a n***** an inch he will take an ell.’ They never stopped to consider that maybe if we did have more freedoms, we wouldn’t lose our minds over as something as simple as 8 minutes to talk during home room. Nothing about this system is normal for people of our age. We have everything taken away from us and even then they threaten to take the bare minimum. It has ruined my social well-being.

“I once got a detention because I told my friend to help me with something important in the commons. Mr. Teacher gave me that detention and when I asked if it was even necessary, he told me ‘there’s nothing I can do.’ But your [sic] the teacher punishing me for asking for help from another student. Make it make sense.[14] They love punishing us.”

“During my 6th year at *** I struggled a lot because of my life at home and my math teacher told me that if I were to fail 6th grade then I would fail at life because the people that ‘look like me; aren’t successful in life’ since they’re supposedly poor and don’t take life seriously.”

“Being in *** from k-12, I was able to see rules instilled into the school that were questioned only a few years ago. One of them being the fact that students could not talk during breakfast and lunch time. Part of the elementary school, we had a teacher named Ms *** who was the closest we had to a Dean. Each day she would yell at us saying we were too loud (we’re kindergartens so how loud could we possibly be). She would give us three warnings at lunchtime before she would make lunch silent. One day at lunchtime she got fed up with us using up our three strikes and she made the rule that we could never talk at breakfast and lunch again.”

“I attended *** and in 9th grade, I remember it was the first day at this High School. Nobody really had a uniform because we had to order it from Lands End but nobody’s uniform came in time. They had this line where you had to wait in so they can give you a shirt so that you can wear [it] for the first day then return at the end of the day. I didn’t have a belt so I asked ithey had any I could borrow and immediately they told me to go to the deans office … Mr *** had me follow him to his office and then asked me ‘can one of your parents come and bring you a belt’, I said no ‘because both of my parents are at work’, he told me it was fine and that I would have to sit in his office all day since I wasn’t prepared for school. I was furious because they care more about you being in correct uniform than me learning on my FIRST DAY IN HIGH SCHOOL. I couldn’t believe that was happening to me, the day was over and I went home and cried because I didn’t understand the work given to me because I wasn’t in class.”

“*** *** once told me in middle school that I was a waste of air. As a middle school student I was constantly belittled by him and other teachers within the *** *** *** school system. I’d pass tests, but due to my stressful home environment never did homework. This led to multiple retentions, being publicly used as an example child, and depression that drove me to a suicide attempt in the 6th or 7th grade.”

“While attending *** and still enrolled a star member/ops team member named Miss *** threw my tray of lunch into the garbage while I was trying to get extra bites in at lunch. Our lunch periods are only 30 minutes long and then you can minus 12 minutes you are waiting to even get on the lunch line because they dismiss you for lunch table by table. She threw my tray in the garbage even though I told her I was almost done while she was throwing it in the garbage. I managed to save my uneaten apple. When she [had] seen that I [had] saved it, she yelled at me to dump it into the garbage and said if I refused to do so she would send me to the dean’s office for failure to follow directions to follow directions. What kind of person prohibits a human being from eating?”

“Like most survivors of this awful place, I could probably write a short book about all the insane experiences that occurred during my time at Uncommon.”

“I have been at *** since k-12. In first grade I will never forget the time Ms ***, currently a principal of *** elementary school, would abuse one of the students. Back at *** Street where the kindergarten was first founded classrooms were small and separated by yellow curtain-like dividers. Whenever this student would get in trouble Ms *** would drag the student through the divider and throw him in front of my class so we could laugh at and bully the student. Ms *** would yell in the boy’s face saying “you don’t deserve the *** *** uniform” as if she paid for it. She began to strip him down literally.”

“It is strange that at *** the higher ups who are supposed to be helping us as students learn better are often the most distant. Often times they would visit our schools and observe us, take notes and watch us like zoo animals. What is so strange is that for the most part no-one in the student body has had any interactions with these ‘higher ups’ not even so much as a ‘good morning’.”

“I was friends with a girl in the 9th and 10th grade in *** and she was bisexual. One day she was having issues with her girlfriend at the time and it got so bad where she just wanted to go home and cry. At lunch, we sat together, and a staff member asked her what’s wrong. She told the staff member about her issues, asked to have her dad called, and made it a point that she wasn’t out to him yet. The staff member returns and says she ‘accidentally’ forgot that my friend wasn’t out to her father and had outed her.”

Teachers’ Experiences at Uncommon Schools

“My principal and her team harassed me and my students for ‘non-compliance’ to behaviour standards straight from slavery. I only stayed for those kids because I knew when I left them the leadership team would dog them more. It was as bad as it sounds. Adults dragging kids down hallways, drill sergeant style. Children crying ‘Stop it, please’.”

“During our first day of summer, PD, our principal was leading us through a role play, implementing TLAC techniques. During the role play, she slammed her hand on the table and ripped a sheet paper out of a teacher’s hand, modelling what she expected for us to do with kindergarten students. She went onto teach and model how we must force students’ hands together to sit in a perfect star and move their elbows to an exact angle on the table. She ruled her staff in fear and expected her teachers to do the same with kindergarten students.”

I am traumatised from my experiences of working at *** *** *** Elementary. They trained me into thinking it was okay for students not to have talk time for lunch or breakfast.[15] They were never allowed to be social. And when there was talk time, it would always be the leaders walking around gearing the conversations, giving them something to talk about instead of allowing the students to just be free. My heart is still broken.”

Uncommon has broken staff member after staff member for not being a ‘culture fit’ and daring to question their practices. They even have it scripted into their diversity and inclusion PDs – how to deal with their detractors. Anyone who questions their approach is to be silenced – there is no room for meaningful discussion around their harmful practices. It is either assimilate or else.”[16]

I got yelled at for singing a song with them on the way back from the bathroom one day.”

For the first 6 weeks, kids had to be silent during lunch. After 6 weeks, kids could talk IF they earned talking privileges. In what world is lunch, one of the few times kids are allowed to be social, doing something meant to be social, eating lunch, become a privilege to talk? Why did kids have to earn ‘the right to speak’? If kids spoke on the walk from class to lunch, they either got detention or silent table … Teachers who let ‘kids slide and speak’ were immediately pulled to one side and forced to give a consequence or force kids to go to the silent table. It was racist, disgusting and unacceptable.”

“Comply or else.”[17]

“[The principal] had Uncommon leaders come and spend 3 days during summer PD teaching us more about the Uncommon way. They came back several times during the year to intimidate/observe and tell us and our students everything that was wrong. The charged so much money for these ‘sessions’ and ‘resources’.

“Unethical, immoral and vile.”

“I got called into meetings over my social media posts when I was employed by them … I posted me going out on a school night with the caption ‘irresponsible teacher’, and the 8th grade math teacher at the time reported it to the principal. That was the first instance when my social media was questioned. It happened again during our secret Santa gift exchange when I posted about how I dislike my gift and posted it on my story. Mind you it was secret Santa so I had no idea who gave it to me. I’m convinced Uncommon has people on private accounts to stalk their employees social media. That’s how scarred I am.

“So, basically, this year at *** we’ve had a whole lot of stuff run down. One of the major moments was when we had a racist police officer come into our school …”

We have all seen ***** ******* yell in kids’ faces, grab them, humiliate them and make them cry.

Disciplined for a physical disability.

“We were told to teach by ‘copying the masters” over and over again … who were the masters? Usually a 20-something white or token black teacher who would be promoted to the network level after a few years of policing black children.”

“I could find so many [more] Black teachers in one day than Uncommon has attempted to do in all the years it has been in existence.”

“I could not work somewhere that proclaimed to care about making a difference for kids in the city I loved while the reality was we as a staff were instructed to basically break their spirits and turn them into robots that followed every order with precision.”

“During PD, we were told again and again that urban education was in a crisis. And this was easy to believe – not just because they made us repeat the words over and over again – but because it’s true. But the implication was that this is the only way to solve it. It isn’t.”

“I remember having school-wide PD on how to take dollars from students ‘reacting’ to a correction. The worst thing a student could do is ‘react’ in any way to losing dollars. We celebrated as a school getting to a point where any reaction led to an instant reflection.”

“***** *******, *** ******* and ******* ******* created the culture of child abuse.”

They needed saving from me – and from Uncommon.”

Students were treated like prisoners … The school’s policies at the time were so rooted in broken windows policing and it was really hard to believe that this was a school for Black and Brown children.”

Teachers were made to go around and pull on the arms of kids to ensure that they were in the correct posture … the posture of fear … When we tried to press leadership on these inhumane expectations, we were told that ‘if you give these kids an inch, they will take a mile.’ Kids were treated like cattle and were spoken to in very inhumane ways. I was told NOT to smile or laugh with my students until November or December, I was turning into a monster. I was forced to make my students cry for small ‘child like’ misbehaviors.

“Black staff members that support students have to do so secretly – lest the[y] be labelled as a poor fit for the culture and pushed out. One staff member was pushed out as a detractor for being too unapologetically black… her job was given to the fired principal of the middle school – a white woman who was being pushed out after multiple reports of her being racist.”

“In the few months I worked there I was subjected to ridiculous work hours and workload. But what broke my spirit there was the way the students were treated – everything had to be in silence, breakfast, lunch, instruction. I knew nothing about the personalities of my students because we were not allowed to infuse joy into teaching.”


“What’s been done cannot be undone.”[18]

The above is just a sample. 

According to a former kindergarten teacher at Uncommon’s Leadership Prep Canarsie Elementary Academy, “their bodies are policed and their lives are devalued. Building relationships is number one and that’s what it takes if you want to be effective in the classroom … Students aren’t animals, they’re not objects, they’re not statistics. But that’s what they are to the network.”[19] Etienne de La Boetie warns that “every time we address in the singular a social plurality, we are favouring tyranny.”[20] It seems that the view of a body of diverse students as being one thing, as not an array of individuals, but as formless lump caused a version of tyranny at some American charter schools. Significant harm was evidently done.

You can opine that in a large organisation, a network of schools, there will always be people claiming mistreatment and that sometimes those claims will be false. But the defining thing is that those claims would not seem so completely abnormal; there would not be so many of them; they would not generally seem to be evidence that would support an allegation of a systemic issue of abuse. Equally, they would not be so self-evidently cruel, so wilfully uncompassionate, nor in Britain, we would hope against all hope, would they be so self-evidently and sickeningly racist! 

There are some questions that people at the heart of the British education system need to ask themselves. Is the above what we want for our own children? Is this pedagogy, which has at the very least contributed to countless allegations of abuse in which children were completely subdued, objectively degraded, subjected to “workaday humiliation”,[21] and in which their dignity and rights to self-expression were stolen from them, really the model a certain section of our country’s newer schools is most inspired by? Do we want to raise children in schools in which the version of ‘normality’ imposed is malignant, where the whole texture of students’ lives is altered, and they are forced into submission because submission is the only possible response to institutional abuse and there is no way out?

‘What works’ has side effects. The children in these schools were left in what Primo Levi describes as “a desolate state of infancy, bereft of teachers and love,”[22] their humanity trivialised. You could argue there was no freedom of expression at all. They had no other option but to resign from their individuality. This is Havel’s “brutal and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity.”[23] Can any of us really justify another blind shrug of insouciance? Is the above, in any way, the behaviour of adults who deserve to grow the delicate hearts and minds and ‘souls’ of children? Where human beings coexist, there’s always the possibility of violence, there is always the danger of might being held right, but is violence towards children ever justifiable? Violence breeds violence. Is abuse the inevitable result of a pedagogic view that regards grades as everything and the children as nothing? There are, and must be, longer term outcomes here. 

There is a very fine line between influencing young people and manipulating them, and apparently this line was crossed to the extent that children as young as five or six were physically manipulated, were publicly stripped of their clothing in order to humiliate them, were dragged down halls screaming, were not allowed to talk to each other at lunch; where older children were ‘outed’ to their parents by people who should have been acting in loco parentis, were led to making suicide attempts, were not protected, were left in hospital with serious medical conditions after staff had ignored those conditions, were called “a waste of air”, were subjected to insane workloads, were routinely punished for the tiniest slip-up, were not allowed to sing, and where some, as a result of their schooling, are not able to look after themselves.

Do you still want to argue ‘Teach Like a Champion’ is an innocent text? I hang my head in shame that I did not write this a long time ago. What I and other democratic educators suffered from was that we, as democrats, have always been prone to at times of rising totalitarianism: voluntarily ignoring the signs, being too reasonable, seeking to find the good in the other side’s argument, considering compromise with the uncompromising. We sought to understand, to meet halfway. You cannot change the rules of war at the end of that war, especially when you have been soundly defeated by the sheer size and vehemence of a well-funded, ignorant army, but there is cowardice involved in not having taken them on full frontal, in being so passive.

Tom Bennett writes “boundaries without love is [sic] tyranny.”[24] I entirely agree with this. He also writes that children need teachers who will take responsibility for their “safety, their dignity and their flourishing.”[25] I agree with this too. He explains that one of his early doors scripts when he was a teacher was that he will not allow “anyone feeling unsafe or abused or threatened.”[26] I feel this is important. Equally, Tom’s point, “you can motivate by threat and cruelty, but all this is likely to guarantee is rebellion the moment your back is turned” is apposite here.[27]

Abuse is eventually called out a long time after the abuse or abuses have occurred and, as Paul Bailey notes in his introduction to ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, quoting the Belgian resistance fighter Jean Amery who had been brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured.”[28] Certain injuries do not heal; they extend through time. Careful now: careful. You are dealing with fragile humans, and the unimaginable can (re)occur all too easily. People can be broken. Humans have a profound aversion to being subject to overly punitive control by external forces. When overly controlled, we suffocate, but those who are psychologically well enough to deserve the profound gift of working with children do not try to do this to them. Above all things, be gentle. Above all, remain human.

The profession must ask itself a deeply serious question. We have seen what happened. We have seen how it happened. We have to ask ourselves, how do we avoid it happening again?.

From this point on, I am no longer able to use the term ‘traditionalist’. It is too glib, too faux innocent, too deliberately unconscious of its own capacity for abuse. Let us call it what it is: totalitarianism. Let us acknowledge that it shares most of the identifying features of a cult. Let us note the use of the cosh. Let us call it a cosh.

Sadism exists. It needs no encouragement. Create systems or taxonomies in which there are gaping moral and philosophical blind spots that unconsciously encourage it, and it will flourish into the sickest of flowers.

The next time you contemplate speaking for totalitarian approaches on some social media platform as you think it may be in some way beneficial to you, ask yourself, are you serious? Are you a serious person? Have you done your research? Or have you just had a shared mass experience at a ‘cult-like’ mass meeting, rally or ideological ritual in which claims are made to the ownership of the sacred science at which you’ve lauded the very thing you are deficient in?[29] Because the institutionalised racist abuse of children, seeing children of a certain hue as being somehow biologically inferior, is what my generation of teachers and above spent their whole professional lives fighting against. And here it is, back again, as if by magic, as if no progress had ever been made, a reoccurring cancer. Do you really think things are better now than they were during a past that you were not present for?

As it is in the Academy, so, eventually, is it in the academy; as it is in the right-wing publishing house, so it then becomes on the shop floor; as it is in the Oxbridge debating chamber, so it will be in your local school belonging to a MAT that is close to government. People may love voices such as Douglas Murray’s because they speak so articulately, so nicely, so very sweetly and there just seems to be ‘so much logic’ in their arguments. But, regardless of the speaker’s erudition and rhetorical flourish, there is a real human impact of these ideas and ideologies on real human children, the type that Douglas Murray will never, ever meet, and it is more morally dark than you can possibly have imagined. Arendt writes of the thinkers and the doers that “there is an abyss between the men of brilliant and facile conceptions and men of brutal deeds and active bestiality.”[30] It seems arrogant to disagree with such a learned voice, but while the abyss may be deep and while it may contain darkness itself, there is a bridge over it. There will always be small men to do the bidding of those with access to the reins of power who think their totalitarian thoughts.

An obsession with order has always had its adherents, but what has happened throughout history is that the obsession goes so far as to become a fetish, becomes the sole and only focus, perverts itself into something hateful. An obsession with order as a sole concern when dealing with children has always turned into something ugly. It puts institution and children into the swirling relationship of abuser and abused, in which, as Levi writes, “both are in the same trap, but it is the oppressor, and he alone, who has prepared it and activated it and, if he suffers for this, it is right that he should suffer.”[31]

Uncommon Schools operate 54 separate institutions that serve over 20,000 students in the Northeast of America. In New York City alone, there are 24 Uncommon Schools.

In response to the Queen’s Daily Eagle article, a spokesperson for Uncommon Schools, Barbara Martinez, replied, after having read the posts, that Uncommon were “concerned” to read the posts, that they were taking them seriously and that they were committed to providing staff with diversity training and to looking at ways to change procedures.[32]

Uncommon has diversified its staffing over the last five years with people of colour, when last reported in 2020, comprising 59 percent of staff. Credit where credit is due if, indeed, credit is due.

And credit is due for the action they’ve taken to change the pedagogic and curricular approach. In an open letter from the CEO and president, in which they bravely acknowledged that “We have heard the negative experiences that some current and former students and staff shared on social media, which is far from what we stand for or what we expect,”[33] they outlined the following wholesale changes:

“Students will not be asked to fold hands on the desk, and we will eliminate use of the student protocols for listening in class known as STAR and SLANT.

During hallway transitions, elementary schools will eliminate use of the student hallway passage protocol known as HALLS, and middle school students will be able to talk and move more freely.

Students will have more social time during lunch, and we will ensure all elementary school students have daily recess.”[34]

They acknowledge that one of the things they will do is remove the “undue focus on things like eye contact and seat posture”.[35] They further acknowledge that the behaviour system was too draconian and that the following changes take place:

“Eliminating detention for minor infractions.

Improving collaboration between Social Workers and Deans of Students to better meet the needs of the whole child.

Further systematizing the use of alternative steps before suspension.”

They acknowledge that they need to focus on “socio-emotional well-being”[36] and that the training of their teachers needed to be amended so that it would include training teachers in Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, and in “de-escalation skills and in ways to identify and manage their own emotions in conflict situations.”[37] The curriculum has been amended so that it includes a more diverse array of texts and more coverage of black history.

Uncommon have had the intelligence and good grace to accept that they were in error and have instituted the sweeping changes necessary to move towards de-totalitarianism, towards becoming more healthy educational institutions. Uncommon have cancelled SLANT and STAR. They have cancelled silent corridors. They have cancelled not being able to speak to each other at lunch. They have cancelled zero tolerance. They have cancelled deculturalization. Credit where credit is due. 

But there are still people who maintain, despite all the evidence, a resolute belief in the zero tolerance, broken windows approach. All the evidence says that this does not work at all. All the evidence says it has profoundly negative consequences. All the evidence says these practices have no place whatsoever in the education of children. Fascinating, isn’t it, how those who claim to believe in evidence only do so when it backs up their own biases? Evidence-led? What a pitiful, ugly joke that turned out to be.

An article by Nick Morrison in Forbes magazine on the subject from April 2020 states that

“No excuses declines to treat the student as an individual, seeing them merely as a member of a herd that must be kept in line, rather than someone with their own beliefs and motivations that should be taken into account when deciding if certain behaviour merits punishment. And it fails to acknowledge that children are different, and what might be easy for one child might be difficult for another.”[38]

He argues that “no excuses” destroys the agency of the teacher, and it’s not hard to see that it devalues professional judgement and even the notion of teacher professionalism itself. The conclusion to the article is profound: “In all likelihood, at some time in the near future we will look back on the no excuses culture and wonder how we thought it was ok to treat children this way, and why we didn’t speak up earlier.”[39]

I think we can reasonably conclude from all the above that the tendency to depersonalise students in the name of increasing test scores can have dark consequences and that “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” approaches to discipline have categorically led to abuses. To say that it is a discredited model that has no place in institutions that seek to nurture children is to state what should have been obvious the moment such language started appearing in the debate. But the question remains: it couldn’t happen here, could it? There are many schools in Britain that will admit to having taken inspiration from the American charter school movement. One wonders how far this influence has gone.


[1] Julia A. Jackson, Letter to the Uncommon Community, 2 July 2020

[2] David Brand, It Was Like a Horror Movie – Staff and Students Criticise Charter Network’s Rigid Education Model, Queen’s Daily Eagle 1 July 2020.

[3] David Brand, It Was Like a Horror Movie – Staff and Students Criticise Charter Network’s Rigid Education Model, Queen’s Daily Eagle 1 July 2020.

[4] David Brand, It Was Like a Horror Movie – Staff and Students Criticise Charter Network’s Rigid Education Model, Queen’s Daily Eagle 1 July 2020.

[5] David Brand, It Was Like a Horror Movie – Staff and Students Criticise Charter Network’s Rigid Education Model, Queen’s Daily Eagle 1 July 2020.

[6]Alex Zimmerman, A Black Teacher Questioned Eva Moskowitz’s Response to George Floyd’s Death, Now Success Academy is Facing Bigger Questions About Race, Chalkbeat New York 16 June 2020

[7] Can we work out where this was all sourced from?

[8] Alex Zimmerman, A Black Teacher Questioned Eva Moskowitz’s Response to George Floyd’s Death, Now Success Academy is Facing Bigger Questions About Race, Chalkbeat New York 16 June 2020

[9] Some irony here, no?




[12] Tom Bennett mentions this in ‘Running the Room’: “building the culture definitely doesn’t mean telling them that their home cultures are wrong, that their parents are wrong”, p101.

[13] Your eyes do not deceive you here. You are seeing what you are seeing. Take a moment to consider this statement. This teacher appeared to believe that he was teaching another species: something worryingly like his own species that should not be like his own. He was living “in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable”: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (Penguin Popular Classics: London, 1902) p9.

[14] Here, we are reminded of victims who, to save any version of their sanity, engage in a deliberate act of not even trying to understand what is happening to them. Trying to understand is futile. Trying to understand forms a permanent itch that cannot ever be scratched as you cannot understand what is beyond understanding. “Make it make sense.” “It is not the physical pain that hurts the most ... it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all”: Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Rider: London, 2004) p36. 


[15] Elementary is the American name for primary schools. These were children as young as five or six being banned from talking to each other during mealtimes.

[16] Paul Garvey (@PaulGarvey4) calls these schools and their English equivalents ‘Borg Schools’. The Borg were an alien ‘race’ in Star Trek who travelled the universe searching for other space travellers in the intentions of assimilating other races into the Borg. Those other races were, when assimilated, stripped of their identity and made into Borg. It is an apposite reference.

[17]And here we see the Borg again.

[18] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1.

[19] Jarod Groome, quoted in Brand, David, It Was Like a Horror Movie – Staff and Students Criticise Charter Network’s Rigid Education Model, Queen’s Daily Eagle 1 July 2020.

[20] Michela Murgia, How to be a Fascist: A Manual (Pushkin Press: London, 2018) p22.

[21] Kundera, Milan, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Faber & Faber: London 1985) p25.

[22] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (Abacus: London 1989) p151.

[23] Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless: Crimes Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe (M. E. Sharpe: Armonk, 1985) p1.

[24] Tom Bennett, Running the Room: The Teachers’ Guide to Behaviour (John Catt, Woodbridge 2020) p47.

[25] Bennett, Tom, The Running the Room Companion: Issues in Classroom Management and Strategies to Deal with them. (John Catt: Woodbridge, 2021). p17

[26] Bennett, Tom, The Running the Room Companion: Issues in Classroom Management and Strategies to Deal with them. (John Catt: Woodbridge, 2021) p69.

[27] Tom Bennett, Running the Room: The Teachers’ Guide to Behaviour (John Catt, Woodbridge 2020) p65.

[28] Jean Amery quoted in Paul Bailey’s introduction to Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (Abacus: London 1989) pxiv.

[29] Mass meetings were held to be the most important and effective means of totalitarian movements disseminating the metaphorical poison of their propaganda as members would come out of these with a kind of religious fervour having found strength in being part of a crowd.

[30] Hannah Arendt, Imperialism, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Penguin Random House UK: London 1966) p239.

[31] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (Abacus: London 1989) p17.

[32] David Brand, It Was Like a Horror Movie – Staff and Students Criticise Charter Network’s Rigid Education Model, Queen’s Daily Eagle 1 July 2020.

[33] Brett Peiser & Julia A. Jackson, Open Letter, Our DEI Commitments for 2020-2021 and Beyond. 14 August 2020.

[34] Brett Peiser & Julia A. Jackson, Open Letter, Our DEI Commitments for 2020-2021 and Beyond. 14 August 2020.

[35] Brett Peiser & Julia A. Jackson, Open Letter, Our DEI Commitments for 2020-2021 and Beyond. 14 August 2020.

[36]Brett Peiser & Julia A. Jackson, Open Letter, Our DEI Commitments for 2020-2021 and Beyond. 14 August 2020.

[37]Brett Peiser & Julia A. Jackson, Open Letter, Our DEI Commitments for 2020-2021 and Beyond. 14 August 2020.

[38]Nick Morrison, Uncommon U-Turn Should Help Consign No Excuses School stop History Forbes Magazine  

[39]Nick Morrison, Uncommon U-Turn Should Help Consign No Excuses School stop History, Forbes Magazine

Added Sun, 7 Jul 2024 12:02

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