David Whitman’s new book, Sweating the Small Stuff, looks at Amistad Academy, KIPP, SEED, and other successful inner city schools that have done the best work at closing the achievement gap. The book is winning early praise from the education cognoscenti. But there’s a problem:
“I hate his subtitle, ‘Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism.’ And I like his decision to refer to this group as ‘the paternalistic schools’ even less,” writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. USA Today’s Richard Whitmire, guestblogging at Eduwonk agrees, saying simply Whitman’s subtitle “needs work.” Whitney Tilson, a big charter school supporter, praises the book in his latest ed reform email blast, but adds, “I don’t like the word ‘paternalism.’ What the schools are doing is instilling not only knowledge, but the absolutely critical soft skills that are necessary to succeed in life, such as ‘kindness, decency, integrity, and hard work.’”
Checker Finn of the Fordham Foundation, which brought out Whitman’s book, notes that the schools themselves “don’t much like the label of ‘paternalism’ and reject any suggestion that their schools condescend to students or their parents, which some feel is implied by the paternalism label…But it’s undeniable that these schools aim to change the lifestyles of those who attend them.”
David Whitman explains his title this way:
By paternalistic I mean that each of the six schools is a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance. Unlike the often forbidding paternalistic institutions of the past, these schools are prescriptive yet warm; teachers and principals, who sometimes serve in loco parentis, are both authoritative and caring figures. Teachers laugh with and cajole students, in addition to frequently directing them to stay on task.
It’s the rare person who works with or observes struggling inner city schools who doesn’t cite family disruption and a low-level of parenting skills as part of the problem. As a teacher, I often thought my job was not just to teach my students but to help raise them. Matthew Tabor gets it right when he notes that “very, very few education leaders, from individual community leaders to those on the national scene, are comfortable and honest enough to tell it like it is. We need to say what we are, what we aren’t, and get on with things.” Fordham’s Mike Petrilli writes that as uncomfortable as it might be to discuss in public, “what these schools are doing is providing a middle-class, achievement-oriented culture to children who come out of a culture of poverty. And for that, the schools should be applauded (and emulated). It might not be politically correct to use these terms, but they are accurate. And that should count for something.”
Whitman deserves praise for calling ‘em like he sees ‘em. From what I know of the schools he profiles, his analysis–and use of the term paternalism–is spot on. Jay Mathews worries that when a defender of these schools uses a freighted word like “paternalistic” those who don’t like the the schools methods will use the word like a cudgel. Methinks he worries too much. Nothing marginalizes criticism like success. As long as these schools deliver on their promise of a solid education, you could call them “Pact with Lucifer” schools and they’d still be oversubscribed. We ought to have reached a point where our patience with failing inner city children has shamed us into applauding and emulating success, whether or not we like the methods by which it’s achieved or take exception to how they are described.
A school’s culture matters a great deal. In neighborhoods where children often lack strong adult guidance and authority–or are surrounded by adults who undermine it–it matters more than anything. Whitman has done a valuable service by focusing our attention on it. I’m looking forward to reading his book.