Book Review

Scripting the Moves

Golann, J. W. 2021. Scripting the Moves: Culture and Control in a” No-Excuses” Charter School. Princeton University Press

Reviewed by Peter Francis Harvey (University of Pennsylvania)

Scripting the Moves: Culture and Control in a “No-Excuses” Charter School book cover
Source: Princeton University Press

During Monty Python’s classic comedy movie, The Life of Brian, the titular character wakes one morning to find an enormous, adoring crowd camped outside his window. Believing him to be the messiah, they call in unison for instructions. Anguished, Brian pleads with the crowd to think for themselves. “You’re all individuals,” he insists. “YES, WE’RE ALL INDIVIDUALS,” chant back the crowd.

Reflecting on Scripting the Moves, I was struck by how well Golann captures the similar tragic irony of “no-excuses” charter schools. Employing a vast array of rules and regulations for the most minor behavioral deviations – with students officially sanctioned on average once every three days and teachers themselves reprimanded for giving out too few sanctions – these schools still insist that students should this of themselves as leaders, while only ever being allowed to follow.

Of course, the popularity of no-excuses schools is no accident. As Golann relates, money from businesses and philanthropists has poured in, attracted by the schools’ apparent improvements to test scores and the highly problematic assumption that what disadvantaged students of color really need is more discipline. But, as Golann clearly lays out, no-excuses charter schools deliver attractive short-term test gains, but do not produce the social mobility they desire. That is, they have been found to improve high school test scores and rates of college enrollment but have no visible impact on rates of college completion. Furthermore, clouds hang over their short-term gains given the repressive disciplinary methods employed and the possibility that their results have more to do with selection effects than educational efficacy. Thus, Golann compellingly situates the study within the current American educational landscape.

The book is built on 18 months of keen observations at the appropriately named “Dream Academy,” where students are instructed to envision bright futures, while their focus is continually dragged back to the constantly surveilled present. Golann mostly observed one 5th and one 8th grade class, following them to different lessons, though she also observed teacher meetings and trainings, parents’ engagement with school activities, and students from Dream Academy’s high school preparing for higher education by taking classes at the local community college. These observations are well rendered, giving the reader a feeling of “being there.” In addition, Golann conducted 132 interviews with students, teachers, and parents. Dream Academy is a middle school catering to approximately 250 5th-8th grade students. Over 80% of these students received free or reduced-price school lunches and two-thirds of the students were Black while the remaining one-third were Latinx. In contrast, the teachers were mostly young, middle-class, and White, with limited teaching experience.

The key argument of the book is that no-excuses charter schools take a misguided approach to creating social mobility. They explicitly teach students cultural “scripts” that mimic certain aspects of middle-class dispositions and cultural capital. These scripts are strictly enforced. But, using an array of existing literature on middle-class and elite educational and socialization experiences, Golann contrasts these rigid scripts with the flexible range of cultural “tools” with which class-privileged students are equipped. Thus, scripts and tools become metaphors for how no-excuses students and middle-class students, respectively, learn to engage with the world.

After setting up the book in chapter one, Golann vividly walks us through different aspects of the school experience and system. Chapter 2 details the rigid scripts demanded of Dream Academy students, all under the belief that doing so will help instill middle-class cultural attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors. The scripts apply not only to academic and behavioral features, but also to particular forms of embodiment and appearance. Eye-rolling and teeth sucking are specifically sanctioned along with many other physical enactments, both precise and vague, while students are obliged to “sit up straight with your hands folded in front of you.” Students also have to “earn” their classroom seat and their blue school shirt, with those deemed unworthy publicly marked by having to sit on the floor and remain in white. Sanctioned or “benched” students must wear yellow all day and are isolated. In a parallel to the unpredictability endured by workers on zero-hours contracts, students given detention must also serve it that day after school. Given that Golann highlights how many of these students have family responsibilities like caring for younger siblings, such punishments undoubtedly made life more difficult for students. Collateral impacts such as this could, perhaps, have received slightly more discussion, but Golann admirably conveys the sheer extent and inflexibility of the no-excuses approach. Alarmingly, this approach is explicitly informed by deficit-minded academic work, including that by psychologist Angela Duckworth and educator Ruby Payne. In a memorable passage, Golann relates how the teachers were taught, using Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, that the “driving forces” of those in poverty are survival, relationships, and entertainment, while those of the middle-class are work and achievement. 

Chapters 3 and 4 show these rigid scripts in action, with students describing the frustrating limitations on their right to voice their opinions, query instructions, work in groups, or generally be heard. For the school authorities, student freedoms are seen as just too risky. But for the students, such oppressive containment and lack of trust understandably leads them to resent and distrust the school and its teachers. This was magnified by the typical race and class differences between students and teachers. The self-doubt, rule-following, and antagonism towards teachers learned at Dream Academy is effectively contrasted with the ease and entitlement cultivated in middle-class environments, which reaps particular dividends in college. 

Chapter 5 explores the organizational origins of no-excuses charter schools. Motivated by market logics and interests, Golann describes how charter schools have increasingly shifted from a primary focus on flexibility to a pursuit of “what works.” Coupled with the growth of large networks of branded charter schools and institutional isomorphism, more have adopted the no-excuses approach. While some of these networks and individual schools have belatedly recognized the problems with their rigidity – demonstrated in part by college graduation rates no higher than traditional public schools – they are struggling to modify their unyielding approach.

Chapter 6, the last substantive chapter, focuses on teachers detailing how they, too, were obliged to follow a rigid system. Golann details four types of teachers, ranging from those suited to, and happy with, the no-excuses approach, through to those who rejected the demand to “sweat the small stuff.” Again, the market logic of these charter schools shines through, with Dream Academy’s focus on rules an attempt to make the system “teacher-proof.” Unsurprisingly, many teachers did not enjoy this robotic approach, with only 44% of the teachers continuing from the previous year. Indeed, the deliberate recruitment of young, undertrained, and naively ideological teachers from outside communities speaks to the overall no-excuses ethos as being more popular with investors and “thought leaders” in distant boardrooms, than with teachers, parents, and students.

If I have a criticism of Scripting the Moves, it is the sidestep of theoretical debates about the differences between habitus and cultural capital. Golann refers collectively to the array of attitudes, knowledge, skills, and behaviors utilized by the middle-classes as “cultural capital.” This cultural capital is cast as a “tool” for flexibly engaging the world. In footnotes, Golann acknowledges that some readers might dispute her broad use of cultural capital, but that using the one term and allying it with Swidler’s toolkit metaphor aids clarity. She is not wrong, as the book is impressively clear. But for me, the distinction between habitus and cultural capital is pertinent to the book for two reasons. 

First, as cognitive sociologists like Omar Lizardo have argued, we tend to learn features of the habitus (e.g., skills, dispositions, associations) through implicit lessons and experiences, and we typically learn features of cultural capital (e.g., values, attitudes, ideologies) through explicit methods. No-excuses schools try to teach aspects of both habitus and cultural capital through especially explicit methods, hammering messages home. So there is a mismatch between methods and aims. As we see in the book, referring to students by college year (e.g., “class of 2024”), did little to transmit to students a dispositional sense of ease about college attendance. Dispositions cannot be so hurriedly and explicitly force-fed.

Second, though Swidler’s toolkit approach to culture is well-known and intuitive, I worry that casting all middle-class cultural behavior as employing tools can make it seem too deliberate. Much of how we engage the world is largely automatic, built on dispositions, not active, discursive thought. So framing the middle-classes as deploying tools as opposed to scripts may inadvertently give them too much credit, as if they made “good choices” rather than followed socialized routines built from structural disparities. Taking on these debates might have strengthened the book’s theoretical contribution.

But these thoughts should not detract from the many strengths of the book. Scripting the Moves is an extremely well-written, readable, accessible, yet powerful monograph, suitable for use in undergraduate and graduate level classes. It captures the harshness of the no-excuses model and its broader contribution to social reproduction and inequality. I highly recommend it.

How Green Became Good

Angelo, H. 2021. How Green Became Good: Urbanized Nature and the Making of Cities and Citizens. University of Chicago Press

Reviewed by Andrew McCumber (Boston University)

How Green Became Good: Urbanized Nature and the Making of Cities and Citizens book cover
Source: The University of Chicago Press

For most people, the very concept of the city affirms these urban locations as the polar opposite of nature. The extent to which a place is “urban” as opposed to “rural,” “pastoral,” or some similar counterpart is the extent to which human society has bent the physical landscape to its will, replacing a portion of the natural world with asphalt, rebar, concrete, and glass. This commonsense dualism is key to the equally ubiquitous narrative of urban nature. The rapid growth of cities, the story goes, introduced people to new, uniquely urban social ills like noisiness, pollution, and disease. Thus, urban nature, in the form of tree-lined streets, pastoral oases like New York’s Central Park, and more, were efforts to address these problems of city life and to bring the lost benefits of nature into the urban center. In short, these “greening” efforts are interpreted as making urban locales more hospitable by using nature to make them less urban.

In her new book, How Green Became Good, Hillary Angelo challenges us to rethink this narrative and, in the process, rethink the relationship between cities and nature altogether. Angelo offers a historical analysis of greening practices in Germany’s industrial Ruhr region, a case study which presents a challenge to the typical narrative of urban nature as a reaction to the social problems endemic to industrial cities. For one, the Ruhr is a sprawling region that never lacked for open space. Nonetheless, urban greening proceeded there in the absence of the high population density that produces the social problems it is typically assumed to alleviate. For Angelo, this anomaly demands that we posit new explanations for the ubiquity of greening practices and their relationship to urbanization. She theorizes greening as a core aspect of urbanization itself, an “aspirational” practice that proceeds as part of a “social imaginary,” or a “cultural understanding of the moral order of a social world.” This term, which builds on the work of Cornelius Castoriadis and Benedict Anderson among others, emphasizes that greening is not just an expression of existing values or aesthetic preferences, but rather a concerted attempt to generate new social realities. In short, greening does not make urban areas less urban; it is fundamental to making them identifiably urban in the first place.

Angelo divides the book into three parts, each two chapters apiece, which cover more than a century of the Ruhr’s history more or less chronologically. The first part, Green Becomes Good, details the rhetorical and material uses of nature by nineteenth century industrial barons and other elites in the region as the Ruhr first began to urbanize. Chapters One and Two focus on the problem of housing workers in the industrializing Ruhr of the late 1800s, the solutions to which represent a transition between different roles of nature in the social imaginary. Initially, the predominant mode of housing were village-style dwellings referred to as “colonies,” which appealed to pastoral or agrarian visions of natural abundance. Whereas the colonies offered nature as a direct, subsistence good available to residents, they gave way to a new planning model referred to as the “garden city,” which was conceived in dense urban areas elsewhere as a means of alleviating city dwellers’ want for clean air and open space. Although these issues did not plague the Ruhr, with its low population density and ample space, Angelo writes that the garden city served a different, equally important role in the Ruhr: it made it “spatially and socially legible as a city.” 

In Part 2, Contested Social Ideals, Angelo examines how greening can be a mechanism harnessed for competing social visions. This pair of chapters uses primary source materials and social science literature to contrast two efforts to actualize the political worldviews of planners and social theorists. First, the attempt to create a “functionally divided” city in the Ruhr included a series of recreation parks called Revierparks, which were intended to create, spatially, Jurgen Habermas’s notion of the bourgeois public sphere. Meanwhile, a movement lead by two of Habermas’s students, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, sought to rehabilitate the colonies of old to create a New Left, proletarian vision of nature. In contrast to the Revierparks’ “functional division,” the rediscovery of the colonies promised conviviality and social interaction in so-called “green rooms.” While their political motivations differed, both projects turned to greening as a mechanism for instantiating an imaginative vision of a possible world.

Finally, Part 3, The Social Life of Urbanized Nature, turns to the experience of greening itself. First, Chapter Five focuses on this experience from “greening protagonists,” or the directors of greening projects who curate the interaction with nature as a “universally beneficial” resource. Angelo notes the contradictory manner in which these planners meticulously manage peoples’ engagement with urbanized nature but in a way that elides that effort to create an “unmediated” nature experience. Chapter Six shifts to the target audiences of these “producers” of nature. Drawing on interview research, Angelo demonstrates how residents critique the projects’ shortcomings, yet retain a reverence for the core notion of a universally beneficial nature; they may reject a housing development, for instance, yet embrace the artificial lake it was built around.

A major impact of the book promises to be its practical implications for city planning and the phenomenon of greening itself moving forward. In the conclusion, Angelo lists two lessons we might take away from her study. First, she implores us to “green better,” by which she means to recognize urbanized nature as a resource whose distribution, like any other resource, is characterized by social, cultural, and physical inequalities and to work to alleviate those gaps. Relatedly, she suggests we “green less,” or resist turning to urban greening as a kneejerk fix for every social and ecological problem. After all, recognizing greening as a cultural endeavor, a project of a social imaginary, as the book presents it, may help us let go of tantalizing but dangerous ideas such as the notion that planting a tree is a universal act of environmental good, relevant climatic conditions be damned.

In all, How Green Became Good is a remarkable empirical feat. Angelo identifies an important and useful case study in the Ruhr that implores us to rethink persistent narratives about urbanization, cities, and nature. The book seamlessly combines a wide variety of historical materials with interviews and fieldwork to advance its theoretical argument. Moreover, this empirical elegance is matched by its effective engagement with a broad range of academic disciplines and topical areas of research, spanning sociology, cultural geography, history, urban planning, and more. For sociology in particular, the book promises to deepen the crucial connections between environmental sociology and cultural sociology. Environmental sociologists can see in How Green Became Good a prime example of how cultural meaning is an important analytical lens through which to view the biophysical landscape’s role in the social world. Likewise, the book affirms the environment as a core area of concern for those of us interested in culture. Future authors working at this intersection will look to Angelo’s book as an exemplar for this kind of scholarly work.