Is No Excuses or Personalized Learning the Low Hanging Fruit of School Improvement?

On average, I visit a school every other week or so. For the most part, these schools are equal to or better performing than the median urban district school.

During these visits, one question I usually mull over is this: if I was leading the school, what would I focus on to drive the next phase of improvement?

Often times, what the school leader is focusing on and what I would focus on are at odds.

I don’t have extremely high confidence in my analysis, so consider the below speculative.


Here are the things I most often here school leaders saying they need to improve on: personalization, student ownership, and critical thinking. Tactically speaking, this often leads them to experiment with new models of instruction and technology.

All good things.

But I’m often thinking that the school really needs to get better at: instructional delivery, higher ratios of student intellectual engagement, and more effective use of small group instruction.

Most school leaders seem to believe that they have the basics down and need to go from good to great.

I tend to think that most schools are mediocre at the basics of things such as cold calling, wait time, efficient time on task, and tutoring – and the other hall marks of the no excuses model.


So here’s some questions on my mind:

  1. Should the median charter school be focusing on getting better at the basics of the no excuses model or experimenting with deeper innovation?
  2. If it’s true that the median charter school is still mediocre at the no excuses basics, what should we take from this? That high fidelity to the no excuses basics is operationally hard to scale for either intellectual, emotional, or human capital reasons? That many leaders don’t think the no excuses basics work?
  3. Is there a progression of improvement (i.e., you need to get the basics right before you work on deeper innovation) – or does shifting to more innovative models allow you to bypass the no excuses basics and still get academic gains?


My hunch is this: only the top tier charter organizations and the very best entrepreneurs should be working deeply on the margin of innovation.

Most charter schools should be working on the margin of better adoption of the tenets of the no excuses model.

Once new models are hammered out and refined – and get better results than the no excuses model – then the median charter school should begin adopting these new models.

But not before that.

In sum, I think better fidelity to the no excuses model is the low-hanging fruit of school improvement.

Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe I’m very wrong?

3 thoughts on “Is No Excuses or Personalized Learning the Low Hanging Fruit of School Improvement?

  1. Leona

    Neerav, while I broadly agree with the thesis of this post, I worry about an approach that sees innovation as the prerogative of only the “top tier” charters and “very best” entrepreneurs. The best ideas can come from anywhere (you see this in sectors other than education and even within education, the “top tier” charters of today were once scrappy outsiders) and often the well-established fail to see or act on opportunities that require them to change their fundamental approach. E.g., a school that has built its entire model and culture in the foundation of the no excuses model is unlikely to innovate except at the margin. That said, an overall emphasis on innovation for the sake of innovation and at the expense of execution is not healthy for any organization or for the sector as a whole. By recognizing outstanding execution as much as innovation, we create incentives along both dimensions.

  2. Beth Rabbitt (@BethRabbitt)

    I think you may need to push people to get clearer on what they mean by “personalization” before you make a call, because the terminology is used without any precision and rather faddishly right now. I think the real low hanging fruit might be the use of tech to enable more effective implementation of the three issues you cite– “instructional delivery, higher ratios of student intellectual engagement, and more effective use of small group instruction”– within so called no excuses (again a vague catch all) environments. It’s possible school leaders are trying to figure out how to use “personalization” as a lever for these things, through blended modalities. Assuming the right technology choices can be made, the right training can be provided, innovative approaches that have been tried and tested elsewhere can be replicated within an improvement context. Food for thought. (We’re trying really hard at TLA to make this clearer– for us, blended learning is a lever for three things: effective use of data, personalization (differentiation to need as well as choice– within bounds), and progression with mastery.)

  3. Mike


    High fidelity to the no excuses basics is also hard to SUSTAIN (separate from scaling). The gravitational pull is more downward than upward.


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