Excuses Excuses

no excusesBy Bill Henk – WhaaaaaT?  You have GOT to be kidding me!

Between the title and this opening, readers will probably think I’m finally losing it.  But let me explain.

You see, I actually made that exclamation TWICE on the same morning.  It spewed forth in response to two email messages I received.  Both were related to an important meeting occurring that afternoon.  Weeks of planning had gone into that meeting; lots of time and energy had been expended setting the stage for it to be successful.  And the cause was noble.

Yet, two colleagues (neither from Marquette, by the way) blithely declined at the eleventh hour.  What they offered as reasons were actually excuses thinly disguised.  Lest you think I’m being judgmental, I can say with the utmost confidence that any rational human being who heard the excuses would find them absurd.  Trust me, we’re talking LAME here, bordering on laughable.  What hurts is that neither colleague realized just how transparent they were being.  They just didn’t want to be there.  Fair enough, but have the integrity to just say so.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this post into an outright rant about unprofessional behavior although believe me I could.  Plus, I’ll spare you the tirade, because it might be somewhat hypocritical.  I’m sure that some of the reasons I’ve given for missing meetings over the years weren’t regarded as compelling by the organizers.  Anyway, all of what I’ve said up until now is just a prelude to how I  got started thinking about reasons versus excuses and how that translates to a conundrum in urban schools.

Reasons or Excuses?

no-excusesInstead of raving, I’m going to take this post in a different direction with a decidedly educational bent.  But it still going to hinge on the difference between a reason and an excuse.

In particular, I want to focus on the popular educational slogan “NO EXCUSES.”  The intention of the phrase is presumably admirable.  Schools need to educate all children, no matter what, rather than defending themselves with an array of reasons why kids are underperforming.

Many of those who subscribe to this slogan dismiss educators’ explanations for low achievement and dropout rates in particular, such as limited fiscal resources, indifferent parents,  young kids unprepared for school, student apathy, and institutional bureaucracies.  In this view, academic failure equates essentially to poor teaching.

In response, educators have argued that attributing learning failures to multiple factors does not amount to making excuses, and that making teachers almost exclusively accountable is overly simplistic and unfair.  Worse yet, many claim that it forces them, as a means of professional survival, to narrow the curriculum to only what is most likely to occur on tests.

What’s the Difference?

Rather than take sides, I’ll offer some statements and questions as food for thought.  Readers can decide for themselves.

thinkerFirst, almost everywhere poverty exists, so does academic under achievement.  Is that a reason or an excuse for the failure of children and urban schools?

Second, some schools in urban areas have dazzled as beacons of hope.  So what’s the reason or excuse for the rest of them not measuring up?

Then again, no urban area has truly been able to make school success systemic.  Stellar urban schools tend to be exceptions rather than the rule.  Most exist in isolation or are part of a small cluster, and no model has proven to be scalable.  As a result, despite our best efforts, the achievement needle hasn’t really moved all that far almost anywhere.  Is that a reason or an excuse for not having an inferno of dazzling urban schools?

I guess it comes down to how we define reasons and excuses.  The connotations of the words suggest that a reason is defensible whereas an excuse is not.  Does the former carry evidence and the latter hearsay? Where does the balance between those two commodities reside?  Put differently, at what point along that continuum does a shift to legitimacy occur?

Are reasons and excuses absolute or are some better than others?  Is an excuse just a really poor reason?  Is a reason just a really well-formulated excuse?   Are creative excuses better than common, honest ones?  If not, why not?

Do reasons and excuses exist only in the mind of the beholder?  When we contrast reasons with excuses, aren’t we really talking about the difference between  taking ownership and assigning blame?    Where does the responsibility for student’s learning leave off for the teacher and begin with the school and its leadership?

As provocative as these questions might be, I don’t think they get us very far.   In the end, the debate about reasons versus excuses related to academic failure comes down to two questions for me:

  1. If kids aren’t learning, does it matter all that much whether we’re talking reasons or excuses?
  2. Does it matter who’s at fault since the responsibility belongs to all of us?

Here’s my guess…

it doesn't matter

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