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Pater Knows Best

The quest for success in inner-city schools.

Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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Sweating the Small Stuff

Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism

by David Whitman

Fordham Institute, 386 pp., $16.95

Towards the beginning of this important and provocative book, journalist David Whitman notes that "the premier civil rights issue of the day is arguably the [educational] achievement gap" that separates white and minority youths. For example, the average black 12th grader has the reading and writing skills of a typical white eighth grader; the average Hispanic 12th grader has the math skills of a typical white eighth grader. Clearly minorities will not approach economic equality with whites until minority youths have approached educational equality with white youths.

The bulk of Whitman's book consists of case studies of six inner-city secondary schools that are succeeding--sometimes spectacularly--in raising the achievement levels of minority students. Three of the schools (the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland; Amistad Academy in New Haven; and the KIPP [Knowledge is Power Program] Academy in the Bronx) are charter middle schools. One is a parochial high school: the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. One is the nation's only urban public boarding school (grades seven through 12) for low-income students: the SEED School (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development) in Washington, D.C. And one is a traditional neighborhood public school (grades seven through 12): the University Park Campus School (UPCS) in Worcester.

Because UPCS--unlike the other five schools--is a traditional neighborhood school, its achievements are particularly impressive. UPCS opened its doors in 1997 with an entering class of 35 seventh graders, of whom almost half read at or below third-grade level. Three years later, not only did every one of those students pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System 10th grade tests--described by Whitman as "demanding"--in English and math, but more than 80 percent of them demonstrated that they had proficient or advanced skills in both English and math. By 2003 UPCS was the only public school in Massachusetts in which every 10th grader had passed the state tests in both English and math for two years running.

Furthermore, the school achieved these results despite the fact that it has an open admissions policy; that is to say, it accepts all comers and therefore cannot be accused of achieving its results through "creaming" (accepting promising students and rejecting others).

Nor does UPCS achieve its results through attrition, with weaker students dropping out or transferring. Only one student dropped out of the school in its first 10 years of existence.

What accounts for the success achieved by UPCS and the five other schools discussed here? In addition to being small (the largest of these schools enrolls only 530 students--less than half the size of a typical urban public school), they are all paternalistic, in the sense that they tell the students how they should live. Not only do the schools teach rigorous courses that prepare students for college, but they also unapologetically attempt to mold character. They inculcate "middle-class virtues like diligence, politeness, cleanliness, and thrift because they believe .  .  . that students who are diligent and polite are more likely to succeed later in life." The schools' collective premise is that "programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement."

The focus on self-discipline is particularly evident in the schools' efforts to curb disorder. In the view of the schools' founders, it is disorder, "not violence or poverty per se, [that] is the fatal undoing of urban schools in poor neighborhoods." For that reason the schools "devote inordinate attention to making sure that shirts are tucked in, bathrooms are kept clean, students speak politely, gang insignia are banned, trash is picked up, and youngsters are trained to follow teachers with their eyes during the course of class." The attention paid to details like these is captured in an Amistad Academy slogan--"We sweat the small stuff"--from which Whitman derives his title.

These schools exemplify a broader trend in American social policy, which has become increasingly paternalistic in recent years. Think, for example, of welfare reform, in which aid is extended to the poor--who formerly received aid as an entitlement--only if they meet a behavioral requirement by working. Case workers supervise welfare recipients to ensure that they meet this requirement.

As Whitman rightly notes, paternalistic policies have been and remain controversial; such policies contain "an element of moral arrogance, an assertion of superior competence. Paternalistic policies interfere with the freedom of individuals, and this interference is justified by the argument that the individuals will be better off as a result."

In addition, they are controversial because "they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families." Nevertheless, with respect to welfare reform, education, or any other area of policy, Whitman rightly observes that the question should not be whether a policy is paternalistic; instead, we should ask whether "the paternalism in view [is] permissible or impermissible, good or bad."

In this context it is noteworthy that "most of the principals of the schools chronicled [by Whitman are] uneasy with having their schools described as paternalistic." One can surely understand their discomfort with the word, which could seem to imply that, in effect, the schools are bringing civilization to the heathen, substituting good "white" values for the bad "minority" ones with which the students came in.

For the record, as Whitman points out, the premise of today's paternalistic social policies is that, by and large, the poor themselves espouse "middle-class values." The problem, which the policies seek to remedy, is that by and large the poor also "lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to" these values. The problematic paternalism of the past was exemplified by late 19th-century boarding schools for Indians in which "teachers and principals constantly informed students that their ancestors were savages." The idea was that "we know what's best for you, and we'll make you do it." By contrast, the new paternalism--defended by Whitman--holds that "you know what's best for you, and we'll make you do it."

Yet at least in the context of paternalistic schools, as opposed, say, to paternalistic welfare programs, the discomfort with the word "paternalism" seems odd. We are, after all, talking about children (at any rate, adolescents) rather than adults. In the words of education blogger Matthew Tabor, "Some of us--yes, even some younger than 100--think of education as teaching kids how to live. It's really that simple." It may be wrong to be parental--a preferable term to "paternal," since it avoids the implication that it is only father rather than mother who knows best--to adults, but it is hard to see how, as a matter of principle, it can be wrong to be parental to kids.

Whitman notes that these schools are "highly prescriptive institutions that often serve in loco parentis." Thus the paternalistic schools neither demand nor expect much involvement from the actual parents of their students. Their leaders "anticipate that inner-city parents will not be involved to the same degree as they would at, say, a high-performing suburban school." Instead, the schools assume that "minority parents want to do the right thing but often don't have the time or resources to keep their children from being dragged down by an unhealthy street culture." The schools therefore take "on a piece of the parent's role, .  .  . reinforc[ing] middle-class mores by nurturing a work ethic and culture of achievement." The major expectation is that parents will "steer their children through the door .  .  . and then ensur[e] that their children get to school on time and do their homework."

The schools' apparent success in acting in loco parentis raises an important point, which perhaps Whitman could have discussed more extensively. The schools could seem to refute, or at least to question a major premise of, a work that has influenced conservative (and not only conservative) educational thought for generations: the 1966 Coleman Report, one of whose major findings was that schools are generally unable to overcome discrepancies between the family backgrounds of different students. Students who--thanks to their families--come to school well prepared to learn do better than students who come to school poorly prepared, and schools can do little about this.

(To be sure, Coleman also found that a second important determinant of a student's academic success is his sense of being able to control his destiny. Arguably, it is precisely this belief--that a student's actions can significantly control his fate--that is conveyed by the moral instruction of the paternalistic schools.)

In any event, through his portrait of these schools Whitman marshals considerable evidence refuting the belief--to be found in some portions of the Coleman Report, and in Charles Murray's recent book about education--that "demography [is] destiny." Although Whitman's book is more practical than theoretical, it might usefully have considered the implications of the paternalistic schools for Coleman's and Murray's respective understandings of the limits of formal education.

As Whitman notes, all six of these schools are attempting to replicate themselves. Nevertheless, at the moment, only a small percentage of American inner-city schools can be considered paternalistic. Nor is Whitman very optimistic that the percentage can be greatly increased in the foreseeable future. He writes:

The three legs of the education establishment tripod--teacher unions, education schools, and the district bureaucracy--are all unlikely to embrace key elements that make paternalistic schools work. Requiring teachers to work longer days and years [as the paternalistic schools do] would violate union contracts. So would allowing principals to handpick teachers (who may or may not be certified), evaluate and pay instructors based on their effectiveness, and fire those who are not successful in the classroom. Frequent testing, teacher-directed instruction, and flunking students who fail to meet academic standards are all unpopular at schools of education [where the ideas of progressive education continue to hold sway]. District bureaucrats, meanwhile, are loath to grant individual schools the freedom to do things differently.

Still, even if paternalistic schools are unlikely to be replicated widely, one can reasonably suppose that--because of the schools' attempts at self-replication, as well as their remarkable achievements--their numbers will increase in the next few years. The schools' success points to the weakness of progressive education and the strength of traditional moral education. As Whitman notes, a reigning dogma of progressive education holds that "adolescents .  .  . should be granted as much freedom as possible to evolve naturally. Instead, it appears that many poor adolescents benefit from being told exactly what to learn and how to conduct themselves in middle-class society."

Although there is clearly something conservative about the schools' emphasis on inculcating traditional middle-class virtues, and their disdain for progressive education, the schools do not represent anything like an unalloyed triumph of conservatism over liberalism. For one thing, their founders "tend to be young, white, political liberals" and the schools themselves "promote not only traditional virtues but also social activism." (Specifically, four of the schools encourage "community involvement in progressive causes.") In addition, as Whitman notes, the success of the schools could seem to point not only to the irrelevance of a staple liberal policy recommendation--"pushing greater resources into urban schools"--but also to the irrelevance of a staple conservative policy: "providing low-income families with vouchers to attend private and religious schools."

That said, conservatives have joined, and emphatically should join, liberals like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in praising paternalistic schools. Because of the obstacles that Whitman acknowledges, paternalistic schools may turn out not to be the wave of the future--at least to the extent that we could wish. Nevertheless, Whitman convincingly argues that they ought to be.

Joel Schwartz is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.