“In Real Life, You Have to Speak Up”: Civic Implications of Behavior Management in a No-Excuses Charter School
Eliot Graham

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



The State University of New Jersey

Primary Discipline

Educational equity for low-income children of color is often conceptualized exclusively through the lens of the “achievement gap.” In contrast, I argue that educational equity requires that marginalized young people be prepared not only to achieve academically, but to act civically. Only civic action, not individual achievement, can address the structural inequalities that continue to shape life in low-income, urban communities of color. The purpose of this one-year ethnographic study is to examine the implications of “no-excuses” behavior management practices for students’ civic development. Focusing intensely on a group of sixth-graders, I trace how their experiences in school shape their relationship to institutional authority, and the implications of this relationship for their development of engaged, critical civic identities. Intense involvement in the life of the school, and especially with a single group of students, allowed me to form a holistic view of those students and thus to perceive the complexities, contradictions, and implications of their interactions with school authority structures. My preliminary findings suggest that many students experienced school as a place in which one of the most valued behaviors was following the rules, even when they felt the rules were nonsensical or unfair. Students also seemed to be learning that association with others and speaking up for what you believe in—critically important civic behaviors—are actions that come with substantial risks. Meanwhile, the school’s somewhat contradictory stance toward student voice, which encouraged involvement in some arenas while emphasizing conformity in others, raises the question of whether the press for standardization in no-excuses schools and networks makes cultivating students’ abilities to be engaged civic agents significantly more difficult.
About Eliot Graham
Eliot Graham is a doctoral candidate in education at Rutgers University. His desire to pursue a doctorate grew out of his experiences as a middle and high school teacher, especially his experiences working with low-income students of color. He is broadly concerned with issues of educational equity, particularly along the lines of race and class, and his current work in that area focuses on issues of authority in the classroom. His research utilizes ethnographic methods to center the voices and perspectives of students and parents. While passionate about his research, Eliot also still considers himself a teacher, and has taught classes in the teacher education programs at both Rutgers and Harvard. In his future career, he hopes to balance university level teaching with research projects that allow him to work alongside students, parents and teachers in marginalized communities.

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