Pater Knows Best
The quest for success in inner-city schools.
Feb 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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.