The Education You Deserve

An open letter to my students at a “no excuses” charter school in Boston

By Barrett Smith
Last month I resigned from my position as a tutor and teaching assistant at a “No-Excuses” Charter School in Boston. What follows is an open letter to my students.

First, I need to get something off my chest. I came to your middle school for some selfish reasons. I wanted to tutor you not only to help you but also to help myself. I came to Boston temporarily and as an outsider, looking for a year of training in skills that I could take with me to my future home, and to benefit my future students.

That’s not to say that I don’t care about you. Working with you was the best part of my job, and I learned from each of you every day.

I came to your middle school hoping to give you the best possible education, but what I saw at your “No Excuses” charter startled me and still troubles me deeply. I was trained on how to discipline you, but not on the best way to help you understand material. I was lectured on how to turn your learning into data points, but was never told who you are and where you came from. Your school forced me to do things that I don’t believe are in your best interest.

But instead of focusing on what your middle school was doing wrong, I want to focus on what you deserve: the best education available.

The education you deserve
You deserve an education that fosters dignity and self-respect. None of you are bad kids, no matter how many demerits, lunch detentions, send-outs or Friday detentions you have been given. Your self-worth should not be determined by your demerit count.

You deserve an education that helps you find your voice, not one that consistently silences you.

You deserve an education that provides a social outlet. Education is also about socialization, and you should have the time and space to make mistakes and to learn and grow from your experiences. A school that almost completely eliminates social time can’t  teach those lessons. You shouldn’t go a full year without knowing the name of someone in your homeroom.

You deserve an education that treats you like a human being. You may be young but you are fully capable of understanding and choosing, and I see how you resent being constantly commanded and ordered about. The end goal of an education that’s truly liberatory should be to make you curious lifelong learners with a thirst for knowledge, then give you the tools to try to quench that thirst.

You deserve an education that teaches you to solve problems with your peers, tutors and teachers. Your removal from a class or school until you are considered docile enough to return doesn’t give you the space or tools to learn how to resolve conflict effectively. Copying and recopying the lunch detention protocol doesn’t address why you ended up in lunch detention. Sitting upright, staring at a wall for two hours in Friday detention is punitive but not constructive.

You deserve an education that does more than teach you to be good at taking tests. You are not a number or a data point. You should have art classes, music classes, academic electives and foreign languages. Your education should be holistic and respond to the needs of your communities. At a school with nearly seventy staff members for a student body of two hundred and fifty, there is more than enough human power and resources to provide a dynamic, responsive and powerful education.

You deserve an education that expands your mind instead of controlling your body. You shouldn’t need to ask my permission to blow your nose; I trust you.

You deserve an education that meets your individualized needs. You deserve to have your Individualized Education Plan (IEP) followed, not just because it’s the law, but because it’s critical to your education.

You deserve an education that arms you to name, confront and challenge the racism and classism you face daily.

You deserve an education that empowers you to create a more beautiful, equitable and just world. Because you have that power within yourselves now. 

Mr. Smith

Barrett Smith is a former tutor at a no-excuses charter school in Boston. Send tips and comments to tips@edushyster.com.

20 Comments

  1. You are completely discounting all of the love that goes on between the teachers and tutors and students daily. You are a hateful person that is bringing down an institution that a lot of people love and care about deeply. You have a right to leave this institution, but you should be ashamed of the way that you are spreading your hate.

    1. One could say this about people trying to bring down public schools.

  2. Sounds like love to me.

  3. Dear Mr. Smith,

    I hope that leaving the Match Corps early gives you a chance to finally grow up. Once your an adult, you’ll discover that:
    1) Your writing will improve. When writing a persuasive essay, you should include facts and specific examples. Your middle school students probably could have told you that. An example of a fact, would be that 85% of Match graduates go on to a 4 year college. Perhaps in your free time, you could spend time at schools in North Philly or SE DC and get back to us on how many of those students can achieve their dreams.
    2) You’ll learn how the real world actually works. Stuff like: if you show up on time and prepared and ready to learn or do your job, things will go a lot smoother. Sure in school you may end up staring at the wall for 2 hours, but in the adult world, if you’re late and unprepared you’ll end up as the fry guy at McDonald’s for 45 years. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the wall for a few hours any day.
    3) As an adult, you’ll find that when you do things for unselfish reasons people notice and they appreciate your actions. The Match Corps Tutors I know, have built tremendous relationships with their students. They celebrate birthdays together, work with them in after-school clubs, and text them to say Happy Thanksgiving.

    When you’re finished growing up, I’m sure your students will appreciate another reply…an apology for this posting would be an excellent start.

    Sincerely,
    Jon

    1. Is this how you bully students who question or disagree with you? Typical response from a no excuses tyrant. Now SLANT, chant and finger snap. Stickers for you!

      1. Wow! Match tutors even wish their students happy Thanksgiving via text? That is persuasion at its finest Jon. And also very grown up. I want to be as grown up as you are. Does that mean I only get two choices? Fry guy or wall starer?

    2. Jon, I suggest you learn basics of punctuation, grammar and spelling before offering unsolicited advice to others about how to improve their writing. Once you’ve mastered those basics, you may perhaps move on to more advanced skills, like learning to cite facts or examples that are actually relevant. Match graduates’ college attendance rates, for example, have nothing to do with the flaws in that school’s system, nor do the personal or disciplinary problems of students in North Philly or SE DC. Middle schoolers, moreover, are not miniature adults but have yet to reach the developmental stages, including impulse control, required for employees, even at a low-wage fast food job.
      I’m sure that any number of middle school students could have told you all these things – if, that is, you weren’t too busy making specious arguments and patting yourself on the back for sending text messages, just like the ‘kewl’ kids. ;)

  4. “1) Your writing will improve. When writing a persuasive essay, you should include facts and specific examples. Your middle school students probably could have told you that. An example of a fact, would be that 85% of Match graduates go on to a 4 year college. Perhaps in your free time, you could spend time at schools in North Philly or SE DC and get back to us on how many of those students can achieve their dreams.”

    That’s an interesting statistic… 85% of Match graduates go on to a 4 year college.

    I have a question. What percentage of Match students that enter the school in 9th grade reach 12th grade?

    Let’s check the numbers.

    http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/state_report/enrollmentbygrade.aspx?year=2013&mode=district&Continue.x=6&Continue.y=7

    Hrmmp.

    78 9th graders to 45 12th graders…

    I’ll leave it to readers to do the math.

    1. “When writing a persuasive essay, you should include facts and specific examples.”

      Did you mean include facts, but exclude other important related facts?

      Graduation rates and college attendance rates are absolutely useless without attrition rates. Geoffrey Canada claimed similar stats about his charter school…after he kicked out every single 9th grader in his first class of students.

      How many of the 9th graders who entered Match stayed until graduation? Can you provide the attrition statistics for Match in a similar year by year format as to your graduation and college attendance statistics? Without the whole story, your “facts and examples” smell suspiciously like a red herring.

      1. Just because there are currently 78 9th graders and 45 12th graders, doesn’t mean 58% of incoming freshmen will graduate. It means the school is starting to accept more students.

    2. former match corp tutor December 6, 2013 at 7:03 pm

      a couple other questions: what percentage of match students graduate in 4 years from those 4-year colleges? what percentage of match students graduate from those (or any other) 4-year colleges at all?

      1. About 54%, according to documentation. So that’s 23 of the original 79 freshmen, give or take. According to local traditional PS documentation, about 8% of low-income students of color finish 4-year colleges (or 6 of those 45 graduates, for comparison.)

  5. I mean, suddenly your last post makes a lot of sense:

    “I need to get something off my chest. I came to your middle school for some selfish reasons. I wanted to tutor you not only to help you but also to help myself.”

    I have a sense that the tutors who see the position for what it is — a year of service and volunteer work — wouldn’t share this sentiment. They didn’t take the job to get into med school or to have a line on their resume or, god knows, for the money. They took it because they sincerely wanted to help students. Not boost test scores, not avoid students’ special needs, but help real live human being students be the best that they can be.

    Students at Match consistently say that one of the best parts about the school is the tutors. The relationships between tutors and tutees have at their core a huge amount of love. Any tutor I know would take a bullet for their kids, even on the worst days. And in their more reflective moments, I think many of the students would feel the same way.

    I know that you think you are trying to make a nuanced, informed, progressive critique of the Match model. Unfortunately, you lost your credibility to do that when you decided to go on a one-man crusade premised on a incredibly misguided understanding of the position you signed up for. You lost your credibility when you strapped on a set of blinders that, bizarrely, imagined some eternally unbridgeable gap between you and your students (“I was never told who you are…”) cloaked up in the guise of “empathizing” with them. You want to know who they are? Have lunch with your kids. (Oh wait… you can’t because that would exceed the now-mandated forty-hour-per-week limit to your work time.) Go cheer at their basketball game. Ask them a simple question — god knows they love talking about themselves. They’re not as different from you as you suggest. And I don’t think you see the condescension in your tone, but these aren’t Children You Need To Save, they’re just … kids.

    As a former tutor in Match, I was in no way a full chugger of the No-Excuses Kool-Aid. I’m still not. But my year at Match showed me what I’m honestly stunned you could not notice in your time at the school: the impersonal and strict system is surrounded by a dedicated, passionate crew of tutors, teachers, and administrators who truly DO care about their students. There is an incredible amount of love at this place, and every person at the school. I don’t know why you have no interest in recognizing that, but believe me when I say that you are blowing off the hard work of a lot of people. That’s especially painful to hear coming from someone who didn’t — and doesn’t — seem interested in doing that hard work.

    1. former match corps tutor December 6, 2013 at 7:15 pm

      i wouldn’t go so far as to say this is an “incredibly misguided understanding” of the role of a match corps tutor. i would actually say that it was a pretty typical understanding for many of the tutors i worked alongside. they could afford it. it would look good on their med or law school resume. and even better, it made them feel like they were saving the poor brown city kids at the school. (despite the fact that many of them were regularly demonstrating heinously racist perspectives.)

      they can love the kids as much as they want, but the question is, do they respect the kids’ humanity? do they see them as full people? do they believe they’re capable of success and deserving of whole-child education? better yet: would they send their own children to a school that gives demerits to kids for slouching or having their heads on the desks EVEN IF they’re focused on their math work and getting it right while their heads are on the desks?
      this critique doesn’t necessitate “blowing off” anyone’s hard work. what it does is draw attention to the heinous and systemic inequities in our education system and beyond. poor kids are subjected to no excuses practices and given little space for exploration, while wealthy kids have so much CHOICE and FREEDOM placed before them.

      1. former match corps tutor December 6, 2013 at 7:58 pm

        further: when i was there, there were tutors who gave the kids money, typed their papers for them, etc. is that loving behavior? maybe. is it appropriate? absolutely not.

  6. I’m confused by this inexplicable Don Quixote act–a one-man charge at the corporate bogey man in a non-profit school. While the school does good work and also has much room for growth, your legacy there seems to be to have deprived kids of tens of thousands of hours of tutoring and support this year.

    Perhaps you sense this; I can’t see why else you would return to the stage having already made your ostensible point. In my experience, the “open letter” is the form ulterior motives. Yours might be to try to justify the real-world ramifications of your actions, which I assume you didn’t anticipate when you took up the cause.

    1. Barrett quitting did not deprive the kids of “tens of thousands of hours of tutoring support.” Match choosing to pay their workers illegally, refusing to correct their mistakes and creating a terrible working environment did.

  7. Mr. Smith,

    You start this ‘open letter ‘ by stating that you care about your students. And yet this second (and equally misguided) attempt to denigrate Match’s systems reeks of the self-serving, narrow-minded viewpoint of someone who has not really stopped to think about what his students TRULY need. You talk about arts and music and a lack of standardized tests and paint a picture of some utopian school vision in which kids get access to a world-class education. Yes, I agree, that would be wonderful and lovely. I wish that the kids that I tutored – my kids, as I still call them – had that same access. But this is the real world. Schools like the ones that you are describing cost thousands and thousands of dollars a year. Match serves students whose families want more for their children but cannot afford to send them to Andover and so they take the next best option. I, too, had qualms with aspects of Match’s policies and systems when I worked there. I, too, wished my kids could have music and art and all of the things that I was blessed to be given in my private school education. But I also knew enough to realize that the education that my kids got at Match was preparing them to have a seat at the table. At the end of the day, that was what they truly needed.
    Having taught in two other charter networks (which, like Match, are dedicated to serving low-income populations) since I left Match, I can say without reservation that the education that students receive at Match is by far the best, most rigorous, most caring education that I have seen. Every student that I know from my time at Match is better prepared to be a citizen of the world (not better prepared to be a test-taker, or better prepared to be a SLANTer) because of their time at that school. I cannot say the same for my experiences elsewhere.
    I don’t want to make assumptions about your background. However, your inability to see the gifts that Match gives its students is a testament to your inability to understand your students. I’m guessing that you want for them what you saw work for your own education. Did you ever stop to think that what you had is not necessarily what is best for these kids? Did you ever take a second to think about what their options are otherwise? Match isn’t perfect, by any means. But it is trying to better the lives of its students because every adult in those buildings cares about every kid who walks through those doors. Let’s be real here – you aren’t writing these blog posts to help your students in any way. If you wanted to make their education better, there are many more constructive and positive ways to do it. You are writing these to draw attention to yourself.
    You mention that you took the job at Match to help your future students. I truly hope that you are not planning to continue to work in schools – teaching requires far more selflessness than the self-aggrandizing nature of this blog post suggests you possess.

  8. Guy Brandenburg December 9, 2013 at 2:13 am

    I wish the writer had more specifics on what he disliked about the program; it seemed too general to me.

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