Sweating the small stuff

Tomorrow, the Fordham Institute releases David Whitman's powerful new book, Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism. It tells the story of six remarkable inner-city secondary schools that have eliminated the achievement gap--or at least come close. They are living proof that poor, minority kids can learn as much as middle class white kids--and that great schools can make an enormous difference in their lives, thus giving the lie to defeatists, determinists, and apologists who insist that this isn't really possible in today's America. They are, in fact, a stunning rebuke to the likes of Richard Rothstein and Charles Murray.

But they are also proof that it isn't easy.

By the time youngsters reach high school in the United States, the achievement gap is immense. The average black twelfth grader has the reading and writing skills of a typical white eighth grader. Graduation rates are low and college-going rates lower. At the schools profiled by the Whitman volume, however, poor minority students surpass not only the average white student but even those in high-performing suburban schools.

How do they accomplish this remarkable feat? Some of it is familiar. In each of these schools, for example, Whitman found inspiring principals, high academic standards, and long days and years. But that's not the whole of it, nor the compelling--and controversial--part of this absorbing tale. For he also found in these schools a special ingredient that flavors everything about them: a healthy, forceful modern version of paternalism.

Like firm parents, teachers in these gap-busting schools are engaged in explicit character training aimed at creating a culture of kindness, decency, integrity, and hard work. As Whitman reports, all of them "sweat the small stuff."

The schools are preoccupied with fighting disorder; they fix the proverbial broken windows quickly to deter further unruliness. Students are shown exactly how they are expected to behave--how to sit in a chair without slumping, how to track the teacher with their eyes, how to walk silently down the hall, how to greet visitors with a firm handshake, and how to keep track of daily assignments. Their behavior is closely monitored at all times, and the schools mete out real rewards for excellence and real punishments for rule-breaking.

This close supervision might sound like a teenager's worst nightmare, but it is an atmosphere in which students thrive and that many come to appreciate. The orderly environment makes learning easier. Youngsters feel valued and respected by their teachers; many report that their school is a second home. They learn new habits and develop new attitudes that pay off in small and large ways.

To Whitman's eye, the clear standards and close supervision of students at these schools are manifestations of paternalism of a benevolent sort--which he takes pains to distinguish from older, uglier kinds.

The founders of the schools portrayed in this book 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. The schools, say their leaders, don't substitute their moral judgments for those of their clients; they simply take advantage of every possible opportunity to inculcate and habituate children to values that are endorsed, if not always acted upon, by their own families.  

But it's undeniable that these schools aim to change the lifestyles of those who attend them. They teach inner-city teenagers to aspire to college and to reject the culture of the street, and they do this by offering explicit instruction in how to behave, what to aim for, and how to get there. If the term "paternalistic" didn't make people queasy, they would immediately recognize that schools and teachers, along with parents, are supposed to civilize, incentivize, and nurture children These schools do more of that and do it more intensively. If this makes them paternalistic, most education reformers will have no objection to the practice even if they're nervous about the terminology.

It is perhaps no surprise that the schools in this book are mostly outside the reach of the long arm of the education establishment. Only one is a district-operated neighborhood school (and it's an extraordinary exception within its district); four are public charter schools, and one is a Catholic school. Whatever their governance, all are break-the-mold schools; their founders all rejected conventional ways of doing things, beginning with progressive theories about child development, constructivist pedagogy, and teachers trained by schools of education.

Schools like these may, in fact, only be able to succeed when their leaders are unconstrained by bureaucratic rules and union contracts. That's why most efforts to create paternalistic schools are taking place under the umbrella of charter schooling. Advocates say there are about 200 achievement-gap-closing charter schools nationwide today.

How many more could there be? Whitman shows what it would take to dramatically expand the supply of these schools so that they serve many thousands more students (including courage, perseverance, amazing people, sleepless lives, and some extra money from forward-thinking philanthropists or the public fisc). These things may not be easy to come by at scale but, for those who are inspired to pursue this path, Whitman shows what they can do to break down barriers to radically expanding the number of paternalistic schools. Those range from caps on the number of charter schools to potential shortages of principals and teachers with the passion and talent to close the achievement gap.

But he's not wildly optimistic. Given the intransigence of unions and bureaucrats, he concludes, a more likely outcome is that we'll continue to see reforms pursued in piecemeal fashion within school districts, with principals granted somewhat greater autonomy here, extended days and years offered there, and a demanding college prep curriculum gradually installed in more inner-city secondary schools. These are good things to do, but they don't add up to a formula for thousands of high-performance schools such as those profiled in the pages of Sweating the Small Stuff.

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